Thursday, December 27, 2012

Free ebooks … a successful marketing tool?

It’s called marketing – and no, I don’t have one of my novels available for a free download on Amazon. There’s a lively discussion on Facebook started by a New York Times best-selling author. The romance author, who has been able to make a living writing novels for 20 years, wrote: As a writer, “I am SO offended by other writers giving away what they write I could scream.”

She continued, “It makes no sense to work day and night to make a product as good as you can make it, and then put it on the market knowing it's going to be buried by all the free books people are giving away."  as good as you can make it, and then put it on the market knowing it's going to be buried by all the free books people are giving away.”asasas good as you can make it, and then put it on the market knowing it's going to be buried by all the free books people are giving away.”as good as you can make it, and then put it on the market knowing it's going to be buried by all the free books people are giving away.”as good as you can make it, and then put it on the market KNOWING it's going to be buried by all the free books people are giving away.”

Her opinion generated plenty of comments – 106 all told. When she read the comments by readers and fellow writers, some contending giveaways are a good marketing tool, the popular author made a second posting. “I knew posting that earlier status would cause a stink. I am well aware of all the people doing free books and why they're doing free books and why they think it's a good idea and it still doesn't change one damn thing about what I think.” This time she received 70 comments.

I’m not an indie writer. I might try it if I get a large fan base. That way I’ll see a larger slice of the profit pie. My publisher tried a giveaway twice on holidays. They’re not doing it anymore. I wish the publisher had more resources to devote to marketing, but like so many ebook publishers nowadays, they don’t. They stress that authors have to pitch in and help market their novels.

What I see here on Facebook are indie authors making postings every time they have a freebie day or get a five-star review. There so seems to be a lot of freebies and five-star reviews. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of five-star reviews on Amazon. I have the inkling that many of them come from friends and fellow writers who want to help out the author. Another author who is a Facebook friend, Nadine Hays, was the lucky recipient of a review in the USA Today newspaper; that’s the best kind of favorable marketing and no doubt translated into many sales for her.

To me, a review in a national publication or even the local daily newspaper can be very effective in snagging more sales. Getting a local newspaper and radio/television station to mention a book signing at the public library or bookstore also can result in your novel settling into the eager hands of a potential future fan. Then word-of-mouth can take over – as reading addicts usually have friends who are read addicts as well.

I do blog, but I stay away from “how-to-write” posts. They’re way too dry and frankly there are way too many writer blogs telling fellow writers how to develop tension, characters and mood. Who wants to be one of the sand particles on the beach?

When I do post a blog or write something on my Facebook author page, I will try to link to it from one of the Facebook pages like “Books Gone Viral” and “Book Blogs and Tours.” Still, I’m not sure how effective they are. I sense that many of the writers posting on these pages don’t actually click on fellow writers’ links and read their blogs. They’re too busy marketing themselves. Now a mention or link by a popular blogger – and they’re out there – can be a godsend for a first-time author trying to make a splash in the ocean of published novels.

Lindsay Buroker is a successful blogger and indie author. Even before she became a self-published author – and a good one – she blogged about ways to make money online and garnered a readership. She now uses her blogs to market her fantasy novels and has been kind enough to link to other blogs of her author friends including me. Lindsay and I use to critique each other’s chapters on the Online Workshop of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror. Unlike many indie authors whose books are cluttered with grammatical errors, her novels are clean, well written and fun reads. Her website -- -- includes paintings of her characters done by fans.

There are thousands and thousands and thousands of Ebooks on websites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, ITunes and Smashwords. An author needs to find a way to outshine the others. Let’s use the timeless metaphor of the lit candle. Being an author nowadays is like being in a Christmas Eve church service holding an unlit candle. You need to make sure you sit in the first pew in the seat closest to the middle aisle. That way your candle will be the first one lit and will shine the only candlelight in the sanctuary. While you outshine the others, you need to make a few sales and win some fans.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Remembering horror and forgiveness...

Just six days ago Terri Roberts spoke at a Pennsylvania church about forgiveness and Christian love.

Terri is the mother of Charles Carl Roberts who back in October 2006 took 10 Amish girls between the ages of six and 13 hostage at the Nic...
Amish families showed Terri Roberts the power of forgiveness.
kel Mines Amish School and killed five of them before killing himself.

As she spoke in the church, she recalled hearing sirens on that fall day and saw helicopters racing across the sky. In response, she said a prayer, “Lord, please be with those people who need you.”

Soon, the phone rang at the office where she worked. It was her husband telling her she needed to come home immediately. In her car driving home she heard on the radio about a shooting at an Amish school.

When she got home, her husband and a state trooper met her.
“It’s Charlie. It was Charlie,” her husband told her, his eyes reflecting his soul’s pain.

How does a mother cope with the news that her son had shot 10 little girls and killed five of them?

“No, no, no, no,” she said. “This cannot be the man we know.”

Shattered, Terri had little desire to keep living. The deeply religious woman turned to her faith. She asked God “to take the pierces and put them back together, to bring new things” into her life.

Terri didn’t think she could ever face her Amish friends again. Instead, they came to her.

On the day of the shooting, an Amish neighbor stood behind her husband and rubbed his shoulders, consoling. She says that action symbolized Amish faith and the breadth of their forgiveness.

When Terri and her husband buried their son, the first parents to greet them at the graveside were the mother and father of two daughters killed by their eldest son.

When Terri finished speaking at the church, the congregation’s pastor said, “The Amish reaction to the shooting was amazing because it was instant. Their forgiveness transcends.”

My mom’s side of the family comes from Wayne County, Ohio and were Mennonites and shared Anabaptist roots with the Amish back in Switzerland. I deeply respect the Amish/Mennonite faith, even their pacifist ways. They have gone to jail rather than take up the gun and fight in our wars.

The Amish response to their killings can be a shining light in the darkness of despair for the families of those who lost their lives Friday in the Newtown elementary school massacre.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas memories settle comfortably in our hearts

Mom passed away 11 days before her 74th birthday and less than five weeks before her favorite holiday, Christmas.

2003 proved to be a difficult year. We watched mom lose the ability to use her muscles as ALS inexorably took her away from us. In her last months of her life, she communicated by nodding for "yes" and shaking her head for "no." Emptying the urine bag, changing the bedsore bandage, telling her we were sorry as we turned her on her side awhile she screamed ... those were our daily tasks in the fall of 2003.
It ended at midnight on November 14 when she turned her head as if looking at someone in the room and the next breath I waited to hear never happened. I rose from her reading chair, kissed her forehead, and said I loved her and would soon join her in Heaven.

I went into the living room and told my sister Jody and her husband Larry that mom had passed. In turn, Jody woke two of the girls, Quinn, finishing up college at Ohio University, and Vanessa, a high school senior, and everyone gathered in mom's bedroom. Tears flowed.

Mom always loved Christmastime.
So began the holiday season nine years ago.

Some who read this may think that Christmas has become a sad holiday for me, but that's far from the case.

I spent the rest of November and much of December in Beverly with my sister and her family. In the week before Christmas Jody, Quinn and Vanessa were at a Marietta shopping center when my sister showed her girls small wrapped presents.

"They're from your grandmother," Jody said. "Their gifts she chose from her Avon catalog."

Everyone cried.

The gifts were pretty remarkable when you think of the implications. With death near mom hadn't withdrawn from this mortal world, but had wanted her grandchildren to get presents from her just as they had since they were toddlers. She said Merry Christmas from Heaven.

Her gifts seemingly from Heaven saved Christmas for me.

Such love creates wonderful Christmastime memories.

My memories of Christmases past would not exist without her efforts to make sure my sister and I always woke up on Christmas Day with nice presents under the tree -- even in tight financial times.

In my toddler days, dad and her took me to downtown Akron to see the wonderful animated window displays in O'Neil's, Polsky's and other department stores.

Later, when we lived in Rialto, California, Christmas shopping always included a trip up the escalators of J.C. Penney, Sears and the Harris Company to their special toy departments. I loved seeing the elaborate model train displays with their Christmas villages and snow-covered countryside.

The Christmas season in Rialto also included an evening trip through the neighborhood famous for its houses decked out with thousands of Christmas lights and front yards populated by animated Santas, elves, grinches, toy soldiers, carolers, snowmen, candy canes and manger scenes.

As an adult, I looked forward to my annual trip north just before Christmas where I would join mom Christmas shopping. We'd always shop in nearby Parkersburg and then head north to Akron where we'd visit Grandma Mid in Rittman and do a bit of shopping at the Akron/Canton malls.

I especially remember December 1994 up in Canton. Christmas music was playing in J.C. Penney and Cleveland Browns memorabilia challenged holiday decorations for dominance. The Browns were in the playoffs that year and it was exciting to see fandom going bonkers over the Browns' playoff appearance. We bought a Browns ornament for the Christmas tree.

The years march on, and as the old hymn says, "Precious memories, unseen angels from somewhere to my soul, how they linger ever near me, and the sacred scenes unfold."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tower of Babel parable bothers me...

The Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel relates how God introduced multiple languages because mankind was building a tower designed to reach Heaven. Traditional Biblical teachers explain that this is a parable designed to be a lesson about too much pride. As one website says, “God came to see their city and the tower they were building. He perceived their intentions, and in His infinite wisd...
om, He knew this “stairway to heaven” would only lead the people away from God.

Genesis 11:16 reads, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

This bothers me. If taken literally, it’s a manifesto call against exploration, against scientific inquiry, against anyone having a probing mind. While I’m a man of faith, I’ve also come to see that not every passage, especially in the Old Testament, should be taken literally. This sounds very much like the effort of some old-school Temple priests in ancient Israel to squash the thoughts of philosophers and their inquiries into how things work.
Why study how tornadoes form? It’s sufficient to know God dwells inside them and powers their whirlwinds for his own reasons. Why try to understand the nature of lightning? It’s enough to know that God hurls lightning bolts down to the mortal realm. Why seek reasons for diseases? It’s enough to know that God uses diseases to punish people.

The modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel are the rockets, satellites, space probes and telescopes that allow us to learn more about our universe. I saw the last Saturn launch in 1975 and around a dozen space shuttle launches – and I felt pride every time they thundered away from their launch pads. I refuse to believe that God finds space exploration unacceptable.

In the movie “October Sky,” Quentin says to Homer after the last homemade rocket launches, “Look at it go, Homer. This one’s gonna go for miles.”

I says let’s keep going for miles and miles and miles ….

Friday, August 31, 2012

My almost chance to decide a man's fate...

This is a story of forgetfulness and second chances.

And a moment of terror when I thought I might actually be called on to decide something extremely important in one man’s life.

Back in June I was suppose to report for jury duty.

Guess what I didn’t do.

I just happened to look on the night-desk beside my bed and there it was … the jury duty summons from the sheriff.


I read the summons and gulped. For not showing up, I could be found in contempt of court.

Again, whoops.

I’m writing this from jail.

I’m kidding. Truly, I promise I’m kidding. No manacles for me. I’m a good boy – even during times when I would have preferred to be a bit of a rake.

I immediately drove to downtown Wilmington and went to the clerk of courts office to see how much blood they would demand.

It turned out to be not much.

The clerk gave me a bored half-smile and shifted my jury duty to August.

In the later part of July I got another jury summons from the sheriff telling me to report on Monday, August 20.

I quickly realized the potential was there for another mind meltdown. Yep, the stars were settling into a familiar pattern foreordaining me to forget to report. The week before the summons would see me on vacation in West Virginia and Ohio visiting my 85-year-old father, my sister and a cousin battling breast cancer. It would be easy to let the jury summons slip into the cobwebbed recesses of my less-than-stellar mind. Yes, I admit … I am very good at the TV game Jeopardy – if I could only remember the answers.
Back to the jury duty summons … because I fretted so much over the fear of forgetting I ended up obsessing on it. I wouldn’t let myself forget.

As soon as my vacation ended and I got back to my home in Wrightsboro, I called the jury summons’ number and heard the pre-recorded message. The voice said to report to the justice building at 9:00 a.m. on August 20. I cursed silently, knowing that meant I might have to serve on a civil or criminal trial. I’m the reporter – the ONLY reporter – at a weekly newspaper in the neighboring county. If I’m not writing news stories, there won’t be a newspaper to print. Somehow, though, I don’t think the judge would be the understanding type.

Here’s a jury-pool secret in case you’ve never been summoned. Being a member of the jury pool entails a lot of standing around or sitting with little or no movement. There’s a reason the summons from the sheriff recommends bringing a book or magazine.

Instead of using the recommended parking deck, I chose to park on a side street off Princess Street where I used to work back when the nation had a functioning – even robust – economy. The street didn’t have parking meters, but it did require a bit of a walk – and I do need to get into shape. I’m guilty of spending far too many hours sitting in a comfy home-office chair in front of my desktop computer. I’ve another vacation planned for October – and the woman I’m going to see will want me in top-of-the-morning shape.

Again, I’ve allowed myself to get sidetracked. It’s that forgetfulness thing. Let me see … once inside the justice building and past security, I waited in a fourth-floor line that led to the jury room. Well, that’s not entirely true … some folks chose to sit on uncomfortable benches in an open area.

Once inside the jury room, we potential jurors swore on Bibles to do our civic duty and were given a video primer on how the justice system works in North Carolina. When the video ended, I spent most of my time taking short visits to the coffee pot followed by bathroom visits.

The jury clerk disappeared for fifteen minutes and when she returned she called out about 40 names of potential jurors for a civil or criminal trial. I was one of the names. We were ready, but the judge wasn’t, so we sat and sat and sat. Truthfully, that seems to be the SOP for potential jurors.

Around noontime, the clerk told us the judge wouldn’t need us until 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 21. But before she gave us our freedom, she had us fill out a questionnaire from the judge.

The questions dealt mostly with perceptions about boozing, spousal abuse and guns. I answered them the best I could. I don’t drink at the house because my roommate is a recovering alcoholic. I’ve never hit a girlfriend … I prefer to kiss feminine lips, not bloody them. And I used to own a musket back when I was a Civil War re-enactor. Still, I headed to my car thinking those questions were a bit ominous. The jurors chosen to sit for this trial wouldn’t be deciding monetary relief for a homeowner with a leaking basement – as I had to do on an Ohio jury more than 30 years ago.

The next day the clerk separated the jurors, placing my group on one side of the room and the remaining jurors on the other side. All were handed out string necklaces for holding our juror ID badges. And then we did more waiting.

Around 10 in the morning a bailiff led us into the fourth floor courtroom. I was second in line and took a seat at the end of the first row in the public gallery area. The judge – on loan from a nearby county – explained the case, a first-degree murder trial and introduced the defense attorneys and the defendant and his lawyers.

My immediate thought: Don’t pick me.

Murder trials have a tendency to last a long time and the Pender Chronicle newspaper would probably shrink from 16 pages to a one-page broadsheet if I spent a week or more as a juror. Although we now have a sports reporter, I remain “it” for covering the news side.

The omens were not good. The judge called out 12 names of men and women to come forward and sit in the jury seats. Again, I heard my name. For close to three hours, the 12 were questioned by the defense attorney about our views concerning booze, bad marriages and guns. One juror was released before the questioning ended because she had relatives coming for a family gathering while the trial would still be going on.

A new potential juror was selected from the pool and the questioning continued unabated. Amazingly, quite a few jurors told the DA they had relatives who had been arrested for DUI or drug abuse or knew deputies, attorneys or judges. When the questioning ended, the DA released three – and I was one of the three. I wanted to do a jig in the middle of the courtroom. Instead, I skedaddled out as fast as I could.

Thank God most lawyers don’t want a reporter on a jury.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Of elves and humans...

An illustration of an elf babe got me to thinking … our image of a female elf has become very stereotyped.

To be brutally honest, the traditional depiction of a female elf is a stylized image of a human woman – perhaps a bit more lithe than a human but still shapely, an angel without wings. The major difference shown in paintings is long, pointed ears.

The artists on websites that feature elves are painting or using drawing programs to feature elves with fantastically long ears. They look like Roman shortswords. I’m thinking the women – and men – probably look forward to bedtime when they can sleep and wake up without neck aches.

That’s right … those mile-long ears would lead to horrendous neck aches.

Like human boys have their foreskins removed, I’d think elves would hold “ear rites” that would see the lengthy ears shortened somewhat. Like dragon skins used as armor, perhaps the cutoff end of the ears could be used as elven swords.

Now there are some cosmetic differences between elves and humans I’ve not mentioned. Some short stories and novels feature dark-skinned elves or drow elves. I’d prefer purple or orange skins. Now that would be stunning. Even better would be camouflage skin that would allow them to blend into forest terrain.

Elven hair color is so similar to human hair that I have an itch to call it hair on steroids. It’s golden, black or silver – and the major difference is that the color is much more brilliant than human hair. My thought: why not shades of green? Or blue?

Now I concede … the elves in my trilogy, Larenia’s Shadow, are traditional. I took the lazy route – golden skin and hair and a lithe figure.

If I could go back in time and redo the novels, I’d give the women more irregular traits. I can see it now – three breasts, three arms and six or seven fingers.

Now that would make for some intriguing bed romping for human men and elven women.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How the Fourth of July did a disappearing act...

Everyone loves fiery displays and explosions.

That’s why summer blockbusters usually do well at the box office, racking up millions of dollars that make the moviemakers break into wide grins.

And it’s why folks love Independence Day. It’s a fine day of eating hamburgers and hotdogs along with corn-on-the-cob and potato salad followed by a night filled with sparkling fireworks in the sky and boom…boom…boom.

On the Fourth I decided to post on Facebook some photographs of long-ago folks celebrating the nation’s birthday.

So I went a googlin’ and found me a heap of yellowed, old-timey photographs. I settled on the time period between 1880 to about 1910. Over a multi-hour period I posted about a dozen photographs along with captions. They captured moments in time – picnics, band concerts, parades, even the Wright Flyer at a Fourth of July event.

My favorite is a faded shot of Uncle Sam leading a late 19th century parade in an open-air buggy.

I’m a reporter; I thought that perhaps I could incorporate these photographs into a news story. First, though, I wanted to find an old photograph of two of a Fourth of July picnic or band concert in Pender County, N.C., from the late 19th or early 20th century.

With the help of a librarian, I scoured the Pender County Library’s reference section looking for photographs. We turned up nothing. The closest was a photograph of a picnic at Moores Creek Battlefield, but those folks weren’t picnicking on the Fourth of July. I left the Burgaw library empty handed.

Initially, I figured digging deeper would result in a photograph. Then I had an epiphany moment.

In my younger days, I had been a Confederate re-enactor. Of course, I didn’t find a photograph. All the photographs I posted on Facebook were of people from New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Ohio, Minnesota, Kansas and Illinois – all Union states.

The men and women in Pender County had just been through four years of a terrible war. They were more likely to celebrate Jeff Davis’s birthday. During the war, they sent nearly 4,000 troops to battle. Many didn’t come home.

During the Civil War and up to 1875, the land that would become Pender was part of neighboring New Hanover County. Tired of Reconstruction corruption and carpetbagger rule in Wilmington, the voters in the northern portion of New Hanover voted to establish a new county. They named it after Confederate Gen. William D. Pender, who was killed at Gettysburg in July 1863.

People naming their county after a Confederate general are not likely to celebrate the Fourth of July.

To borrow a timeworn metaphor, time heals all wounds. Or to be more succinct, graveyards fill up with more and more bodies. The men and women who lived through the war and Reconstruction passed away and their descendants were molded by different life-changing events – two world wars. When loved ones die defending the Stars and Stripes, you look at the Fourth of July reverently.

As an afterthought, a photograph or two of a Fourth of July celebration in Pender County could very well exist from around 1905 or 1910. Europeans settled in a farming community known as Van Eeden starting in 1905. I figure these new immigrants to America and Pender County may very well have celebrated the Fourth of July, even though they struggled mightily to make their farmland productive and ultimately failed.

And Reconstruction military forces would have probably celebrated Independence Day in Wilmington and invited locals. Would any have shown up? And would a photographer have captured the moment with his wet-plate style camera?

I’ve quite a few Facebook friends who are romance authors. An unlikely romance between an unreconstructed southern lass and a Union officer has the makings of a melodramatic novel. Let’s assume the lady is willing to risk the ostracism of her relatives and friends for the caresses and kisses of her Union soldier. If asked by her lover, would she go with him to a Fourth of July band concert and picnic? And what would happen if she did?

I once read a newspaper story about a Fourth of July picnic in Parkersburg, W.Va., during the Civil War. Early in the war the counties of West Virginia seceded from Virginia and were admitted to the Union in 1863. Yet there were still residents who were secesh, a slang term for folks who were pro-Confederacy. Insults were hurled at that picnic and the affair devolved into a brawl involving both men and women.

I can well imagine some Northern wives of Union officers making some unbecoming remarks about the Southern lass’s hometown. I picture her as fiery with an untamed heart. It’s one thing to launch into shouting matches with her relatives; it’s quite another to listen passively to Yankee women disparage her loved ones. I’d be disappointed if she didn’t slap the smiles from their faces.

Yep, I’m going to have to outline and write a Civil War novel someday.

Mike Staton is the author of a fantasy trilogy called Larenia’s Shadow. The first two novels – The Emperor’s Mistress and Thief’s Coin – have been published and are available on the websites of Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, and Wings ePress.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The frustrations of Facebook …

For Facebook users like authors and artists trying to market your books and artwork, you need to know about EdgeRank.

EdgeRank rules the Facebook universe. It’s the Facebook god.

When I log into Facebook, I see my newsfeed. Nothing mysterious here … just a summary of what’s been happening among “friends” on Facebook.

Every action my friends take is a potential newsfeed story. In Facebook tech-talk, they're called “edges.”

Whenever a friend posts a status update, comments on someone’s status update, tags a photo, joins a fan page or RSVPs to an event, it generates an “edge,” and a story about that edge might show up in my newsfeed.

If the newsfeed showed all of the possible stories in my newsfeed, I’d go mad slogging through all the postings – at least that’s Facebook’s explanation for the EdgeRank algorithm.

The algorithm predicts how interesting each story will be to me. It’s called EdgeRank because it ranks the edges. Any action that happens within Facebook is an edge – status updates, comments, likes and shares.

Then the algorithm filters my newsfeed and everyone else’s newsfeeds to show only the top-ranked stories.

Some of you reading this may be thinking: So what?

Because most of your Facebook fans never see your status updates.

If you have an author’s page, they never see your posts.

Facebook ranks stories based on the EdgeRank score. If EdgeRank predicts a friend will find your status update boring, then it will never be shown to your friend. It will be cast down into Facebook hell.

Basically, the more my friends click, like, comment, tag and share on my Facebook profile and author pages, the more I will appear on their newsfeeds.

Commenting on something is worth more than merely liking it, which is worth more than clicking on it. Passively viewing a status update in your newsfeed does not count. You have to interact.

Not all edges are treated equal in the Facebook universe. If I comment on an author page, it’s worth more than if my friend comments, which is worth more than if a friend of a friend comments. The death knell for a fan page is to be ignored.

When it comes to my author’s page, EdgeRank is causing me some stomach-churning moments. Like other authors, I’ve been striving to build a fan base via my author’s page. The ultimate aim is to get the folks viewing the page to take a look at my novels. It’s marketing, but hopefully done in a subtle way. I don’t want to blare out: “Buy my novels!” Instead, I want them to enjoy their visits to my author’s page and see some interesting – even fascinating – posts.

But there’s a problem. My penetration numbers are horrible thanks to EdgeRank.

I’m seeing that my posts are getting to only 15 to 30 percent of folks who have “liked” my page.

Those numbers will only improve if Facebook friends play the Facebook game of liking, commenting and sharing. The same holds true for your fan pages.

Some bloggers are contending that Facebook wants me and others with author or fan pages to pay for ads to make posts condemned to hell visible.

Facebook’s “Marketing Solutions” page recently posted a note explaining that in order to make sure fans see my posts on my author’s page I need to purchase ads to “sponsor” my stories. It’s Facebook’s new world where profit is the driving force behind all its decisions.

To mangle an old hymn: “Praise EdgeRank in whom all blessings flow.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From Gutenberg’s printing press to the linotype machine …

In Thief’s Coin, the second book of my fantasy trilogy, an inventive chronicler hires a mage to conjure magical copyists to prepare his broadsheet newsletter pages. The chronicler prepared one “template,” and then dozens of disembodied hands holding inked quills would copy the chronicler’s sentences to newsletter pages.

In a way, it was a non-mechanical version of a linotype machine except a printing press wasn’t required for the final step in the process. A Folded broadsheet produced four pages of copy. The disembodied hands could produce hundreds of newsletters and were fast enough that the chronicler could print on a daily basis. Of course, magic doesn’t exist in our world. We rely on machines.

 When people think of a revolution in printing, they think of German Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press. Gutenberg, a goldsmith by profession, based his machine on existing screw presses. When combined with Gutenberg’s newly devised hand mould for movable metal type, it made possible the first mass production of books in assembly-line style. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per workday compared to 40 by typographical hand-printing and a few by hand-copy.

But it still took time to build books by the hand mold. Thankfully, a 300-page page book didn’t need to be prepared for the printing press in a week or less. That wasn’t the case for broadsheets and newspapers.

Before 1884, no newspaper in the world had more than eight pages. That’s more than 400 years between Gutenberg’s printing press and German-born Ottmar Mergenthaler’s invention of the linotype machine. The linotype was the first mechanical device that could quickly set complete lines of type for use in printing presses. Mergenthaler has been called the second Gutenberg for initiating a second revolution in the art of printing.

The linotype is a line-casting machine used in printing. Along with letterpress printing, linotype was the industry standard for newspapers and magazines from the late 1800s to the 1960s and ‘70s when it was replaced by offset lithography printing and computer typesetting.

The linotype gets its name from the fact that it produces an entire line of metal type at once. That’s a revolutionary improvement over what came before it – letter-by-letter typesetting using a composing stick and drawers of letters. I know how laborious this can be; in a journalism class at Ohio University, I had to set type this way.  It was an enlightening history lesson.

So how does a linotype work? The machine operator enters text on a 90-character keyboard. The linotype assembles matrices – molds for the letter forms – in a line. The assembled line is then cast as a single piece of metal – called a slug – in a process known as hot-metal typesetting. The matrices are then returned to the type magazine for reuse.

The machine transformed newspaper publishing, making it possible for a relatively small number of operators to set type for many pages on a daily basis.

I’ve actually seen linotypes in operation. At my first newspaper reporting job in the mid-1970s, linotypes were still in use. Sometimes I’d walk back into the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette’s Composing Department and watch the machines in action.

Today there’s another revolution afoot. One of the nation’s oldest newspapers is joining a growing movement away from seven-days-a-week print publishing. Starting in the fall the New Orleans Times-Picayune will only distribute print editions three days a week. Of course, all seven editions will be available online. That’s the crux of the matter – in tough economic times newspapers are painfully beginning the move toward only online editions.

The digital age also has ushered in a watershed change in the way some books are printed. Print-on-demand or POD books are not printed until an order has been received. It means books can be printed one at a time. Digital printing made POD economical. Before ultraviolet curable inks and large format inkjet printers, it was cost-prohibitive to print small runs using letterpress or offset printing.

POD has fueled the large increase in self-publishing authors who can use a POD publishing or printing company that offers services directly to authors for a fee. These services generally including printing and shipping a book each time one is ordered and getting listings in online bookstores.

As Bob Dylan sang back in the ‘60s, “The times they are a-changin’.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Straight from me to you: A few Journey Stories

The Smithsonian has a traveling exhibit known as “Journey Stories.” It showcases journeys Americans have made to make a better life for themselves and their children – everything from ocean journeys from the Old Country to the New World to highway journeys from the East Coast to the West Coast.

All American families have journey stories but some are easier to chronicle than others. That’s because family history can easily get lost if the memories of older generations were not passed on through the written word.

I’m thankful that a couple of family members completed the necessary research to uncover the journey stories of several branches of my family tree.

Let me relate some journey stories of my family. Here’s a story of sailing ships and a father and his sons from Alsace who booked passage to the American colonies in the late 1740s. In the mid 18th century, Alsace was a French province even though the people spoke German. French and German armies had laid waste to the Alsace countryside during the 17th century religious wars. With the population decimated, many Anabaptist refugees came from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Lorraine and Savoy to Alsace between the 1670s and the early 18th century. I figure the father and his sons, including Jacob Franks, my maternal great-great-great-great-great grandfather, were Anabaptists, probably Mennonites.

In 1749, six-year-old Jacob, along with his brothers and father, boarded a sailing ship that voyaged to Philadelphia. Jacob grew up in German Township, Pa., and married Barbara Brandenbiger. He served in the American militia during the Revolutionary War. His great-grandson Jesse Franks, Jr. married Mary Ann Fox and moved the family by wagon to Apple Creek in Wayne County, Ohio. My mother was born in Wayne County and I was born in neighboring Medina County.

Here’s another journey story, this time a branch of the family tree from my dad’s side of the family. Great-Grandmother Lena (Russell) Iuppenlatz no doubt told stories of the Traveling Church to her children. That’s because her mother Sarah was a Craig who could trace her family history back to Benjamin Craig, a Baptist preacher from Spotsylvania, Va., who along with his brother Lewis angered the Anglican establishment for preaching without a license.

In 1781, Lewis led a wagon train of about six hundred souls – including his 30-year-old brother Benjamin, Benjamin’s wife Nancy and their children – into the western portion of Virginia that would in time become known as Kentucky. Benjamin was one of the founders of Carrollton, Ky., and he built the first brick house in Carroll County in 1792.

Sometimes a journey story includes tragedy. In the case of the Craig family, it happened in January 1847 when Benjamin Craig, Jr. and his son Silas, along with four other men, drowned in the Ohio River when their skiff capsized in a storm.

Sometimes a journey story can even include murder. My Great-Grandfather Louis Iuppenlatz, a railroad man for 60 years, had a younger brother, William, who married Anna Young, a woman with a wandering eye. After 22 years of marriage, Anna ran off to Indianapolis in 1914 to be with her lover, John Lee, a barber. A jealous, possessive man, Lee shot her in June of that year and then killed himself. Anna was taken to the city hospital, but when it became certain she had no hope for recovery, she asked to be taken to her sister’s house in Indianapolis to die. She took her last breath on June 24 and her body was returned to her home in St. Paul with burial in Paul Hill Cemetery.

I have my own personal journey story, and it’s very much a story anchored in the mid-20th century. In the midst of the Cold War, my dad moved the family west to Rialto, Calif., in the summer of 1957. The aerospace company my dad worked for in Brecksville, Ohio, had purchased a plant outside of Rialto and intended to manufacture rocket engines for the Minuteman I missile. So dad packed my mom, my sister and me into the 1955 red-and-white Ford station wagon and we followed the yellow brick road – U.S. Highway 66 – to California.

For a few days before we moved into a rental house, we stayed in the Wigwam Hotel in Rialto. For a five-year-old kid on the verge of kindergarten who loved wearing cowboy outfits and watching TV shows like Wagon Train, staying at the Wigwam was like visiting Heaven.

So all you folks reading this…you must have journey stories of your own eager to escape your mind and find life on the written page or on the kindle or nook. Listen up…flex those fingers and start typing.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ebooks to ailing economy: ‘Nuts!’

Now we’re hearing that the U.S. economy is running out of steam.

Well, stoke the boiler, right?

No. At least not with government “coal.” That will add to the prodigious deficit.

The Commerce Department says gross domestic product grew at a 2.2 percent annual rate in the first three months of this year, much below economists’ expectations. Analysts said government spending cuts offset a pickup in consumer spending.

Apparently we can thank shoppers for keeping the economy afloat. So keep your billfolds and purses open, ladies and gentlemen, and keep buying.

For the last few days there’s been an interesting online discussion on my publisher’s Yahoo author loop. Royalty checks for the novels have been on the disappointing side.

Some authors have been contemplating going it alone as independents. They got a shock of sorts from the publisher. The authors who bail out on the publisher at the end of their contract period lose the cover and the version of the manuscript that includes publisher edits.

Borders closed its doors last year. Bookstore chains haven’t been doing all that well as customers buy Kindles and Nooks and download ebooks from websites like Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Smashwords. Ebook publishing has been one of the industries posting good numbers during these sullen economic times.

Ebook sales rose 72 percent in December 2011 over the same period in 2010. But that’s a slower rate than the triple-digit gains earlier in 2011.

So if ebooks are garnering double-digit sales, I’m left wondering why my ebook publisher is struggling with sales.

My best guess: A glut of small ebook publishers are fighting over market share. That’s the case with my publisher. My publisher, who has placed around 800 novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites, is 10 years old. It was a pioneer in ebook publishing, but is now having to contend not only with many new ebook publishers, but with a growing number of authors who are self-published.

The ebook world is constantly changing. In the early days, the small ebook publishers ruled. Now the major publishing houses have ebooks. And more and more authors are going the route of self-publishing. They list their books on Amazon for between 99 cents and $2.99 and love to have one-day free giveaways.

For marketing nowadays, both authors who are self-published or under the wings of an ebook publisher market their novels by trying to get online reviews, going on blog tours, attending various conventions and doing book signings.

The ebook world is driven by genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. I recently joined a Facebook site called Books Gone Viral and it’s almost entirely made up of romance authors. Many are self-published authors who use the site to announce giveaways and new blog posts. They are changing the face of the ebook world.

Publishers watched the slide of the music and newspaper industries. Should they keep prices high and differentiate their wares from the sometimes unedited efforts of the self-published? Should they cut prices for ebooks and risk accelerating the decline of print? And for the small ebook publishers like mine…should they spend more money marketing their websites and their stables of authors and their novels to set themselves apart from their competitors? Their decisions will ultimately decide their fates.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Memories are fleeting...

I treasure the memories of the Great Depression.

That’s remarkable considering I was born in 1951.

But my grandparents, aunts and uncles all lived as young adults in the grim 1930s when banks failed and the unemployment lines grew longer and longer – and no one had heard of safety nets.

They shared their memories with me, and though all are now ensconced in heaven their memories are snug and comfortable inside my head.

What got me thinking about my loved ones and some very bad times they struggled through was a news release about Homestead Day on April 28, the commemoration that honors Penderlea Homestead Project’s Depression-era settlers. Penderlea Homestead Farms was the first of 152 homestead projects developed in 1934 under President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. They provided penniless tenant farmers, bankrupt farm owners and unemployed ex-farmers with a means of making a living.

The stories told to me came from my mother’s side of the family. I presume my father’s side persevered better. My Great-Grandfather Louis Iuppenlatz and Grandpa Bud Staton were depot masters in Indiana and Ohio and trains continued to run during the Depression years.

On my mother’s side of the family, a great-uncle lost an arm in the 1930s in a train accident. We’ve all heard stories of hobos hitching rides aboard freight trains and the company bulls who tried to catch them in the act. Well, Uncle Georgie Kurtz tried to board a train; he slipped and a wheel ran over his arm.

I’ve a photograph on my hard drive of Georgie standing in a martial pose … he’s wearing his World War I uniform. He looks quite handsome. I remember a much older Georgie sitting in a chair in his sister Ethel’s front room, his shirtsleeve tucked in where an arm should have been. Georgie liked to look out the front window at the doings on Rittman’s Main Street.

As the 1930s began, the small Ohio town of Rittman depended on two factories, a plant that made salt and a plant that manufactured cardboard boxes. When the Depression forced them to close, it left the town’s breadwinners without a livelihood. Back in those dark days, 25 percent of the work force were without jobs.

Grandma Mid told me hobos would come up to the back porch and ask for handouts. Just before the stock market crash in ’29 grandma had bought some stuff on credit and Grandpa Frog spent years working odd jobs to pay off the debt. It left a lasting impression…he never used credit cards. He even paid cash for new cars.

Grandpa Frog gained a lifelong respect for the union movement thanks to the Great Depression. He knew workers had to look out for themselves and not depend on the largess of factory owners. He was a union leader at the local salt company and even served as union president at the state level. When Grandma Mid died in 1995, I went through their walk-in closet and found the textbooks grandpa studied to become a boiler man at the salt company.

Grandpa Frog knew that only through hard work and perseverance could a man improve his lot in life. That’s what he taught me and that’s where I got my memories of the Great Depression.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Authoring the Superbowl ...

Watching a Superbowl is like reading a book.

Like most fans of fantasy novels, I love a slam-bam opening scene with something shocking transpiring. In my novel, The Emperor’s Mistress, it’s a brutal battle where an emperor is struck down and his magical sword captured by the enemy. It’s the same with the Superbowl. I want the first quarter to explode with action – or at least have something happen to draw me into the game.

In Sunday’s game, the Giants’ punter backed the Patriots deep into their own territory after Eli Manning could do nothing on New York’s opening possession. On the Patriots’ first play of the game, Tom Brady dropped back into his own end zone and had to throw the ball away to evade a tackle. Out came a ref’s flag. Brady had been penalized for intentional grounding when he threw the ball deep down the middle. He’d tried to avoid a safety. Guess what? The Patriots were slapped with a safety and trailed the Giants 2-0 with the game barely begun.

The safety proved controversial for some sports pundits. They thought the ref had been unfair in throwing the flag. After all, a speedy Patriot receiver might have been able to sprint under the ball.

Add in a bit of controversy in a novel’s opening scene and the stage is set for followup chapters that build suspense and tension, laying the ground work for a climatic final action scene. In The Emperor’s Mistress, it’s our heroes fighting a swarm of horse-size dragons. In the Superbowl, it’s Brady and rest of the Patriots clinging to a 17-15 lead, setting up what would prove to be a hum-dinger of an ending.

With time down to about 3:50 left in the game, Manning completed a deep, sideline pass to Mario Manningham. Somehow, the Giants receiver kept both feet inbounds. Remember that safety? Without it, the Giants would have been trailing 17-13 on their final drive, not 17-15 as the scoreboard showed. When the Giants drove to inside the Patriots’ five-yard line with about a minute left, the patriots’ defense would not have let running back Ahmad Bradshaw score his clumsy touchdown. Perhaps the Patriots could have mounted a goal-line stand and won the game.

But that’s not how it ended. The Patriots got the ball back with 57 seconds left and New England fans hoping for a “Brady” miracle. It almost happened. On the last play of the game, a desperate heave by Brady into the end zone was almost caught by tight end Rob Gronkowski, but the ball fell harmlessly to the turf. The Giants and their fans went crazy; Brady looked emotionally drained.

For a novel, a humdinger of an ending leaves the reader eager to read book 2 if it’s a trilogy. If it’s the Superbowl, the happy Giants fan buys a round for his buddies and then everybody watches the post-game show on  sports bar’s wide-screen TV.