Archive for September, 2012

Someone recently criticized a review of a book I wrote because it contained spoilers, particularly about the ending. I won’t mention the book because, frankly, it doesn’t deserve any more of my attention, but I wondered whether I had been wrong about posting information within the review that might have “spoiled” the ending for others.

Then I thought, No, I wasn’t wrong.

What was “wrong” was that the person didn’t want to read a review they weren’t prepared to agree with, or at the very least consider my arguments.

Of course, I wouldn’t have wanted people, say, telling me what the big “twist” in “The Sixth Sense” was about, but when I went to see it (after many friends gushed about what a huge surprise it was) I was disappointed more to have guessed the twist in the first ten minutes of the film. Had I been warned that the entire film was based on a premise that the audience wouldn’t be smart enough to guess the twist in those first ten minutes I would have been more entertained, because, honestly, I felt the fuss over that film had more to do with how easily people could be fooled by a simple lack of visual literacy than it did some great narrative surprise. You want a real spoiler? Go into a deep philosophical discussion about the meaning of the ending in “Inception.”

Here’s where I find many people wrong about the notion of spoilers: What they want is to be reassured the book/play/movie is going to meet their expectations without being told how. By this very reasoning, it is impossible to write a critical (i.e. negative) review of any narrative form because a reviewer would need to discuss specifics in order to explain and justify their point. What is spoiler to some is a critical examination to others, and thus we come to the great truth about media reviews:

You should be reading them AFTER you’ve seen/read/experienced the thing in question if you don’t want spoilers, because who knows exactly WHAT is going to be a spoiler for any given individual?

People use reviews online to help them make decisions, and with a service like Amazon, reviews and their subsequent ratings (another topic, a question of pure evil) can determine the success of a product.

For example, earlier this summer I bought a car-top carrier for our family vacation and of all the warnings I read, all the positive and negative reviews, NO ONE mentioned this top-rated item had a zipper that was not properly stress rated for this design. It isn’t really a “spoiler” to say “There are design problems” or “I had problems with the zipper” but if someone had said “I have pants with stronger zippers than on this item” I would not have bought it, I would have been “spoiled” from making a purchase that in the end upset me.

So if I’m reading a book with an ending that is full of problems, and I simply say it was “weak” and “didn’t meet my expectations” you would not get as full a sense of my criticism as if I’d said “There are serious errors in human behavior that, in the real world, would have made this happy ending implausible, if not impossible” followed by a brief outline of the issues at hand. Does it reveal too much to be thorough? For some people, perhaps, but there’s still a larger issue here, one i came to many years ago when i began reviewing movies for radio.

See and read everything that interests you, and judge for yourself.

Don’t let a reviewer or a critic ruin anything, simply go out into the world and read the reviews AFTERWARD. If you felt cheated by the story, angered by the implausible, or otherwise burned by the experience, you have performed a very valuable service for yourself: You have gained insight into what does or does not appeal to you, and you have gained the insight without the aid of being told what to think by others.

And in light of recent concerns over reviewers accepting pay for positive reviews, perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing.

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Last night I worked my first author event in eight years. It wasn’t a kidlit event, but it was public and there was a book for sale and I was suddenly reminded of something I have noticed in the past.

Less chatter = more sales.

This isn’t scientific, and my not ring true for name-brand authors, but I witnessed once again something I had seen many times over in the days before there were blogs and twitter and other social media, so I’m sharing.

I’ll make the numbers round so they’re easier to discuss. As the author began their talk and reading there were 50 people in the room. The author spoke for around 40 minutes and then took questions for over 50 minutes. As the Q&A wore on people slowly began to slip quietly out of the room. By the time the event was over there were 20 people left in the audience. Those who slipped out went to the nearest exit, as unobtrusive as possible, not wanting to create any noise or fuss… which included avoiding or barely glancing at the table with books for sale.

Bottom line: we sold 3 copies of the author’s book.

True, it may have been that everyone who wanted the book already bought it elsewhere, or that they decided the author’s presentation wasn’t all that great, but what is more commonly true is that you cannot sell books to an audience that isn’t there.

Here’s where I think many authors make a huge mistake: getting so caught up wanting to talk about their book or area of expertise that they do so at the expense of book sales.

Granted, it can be tough to set a limit of questions (or worse, open the floor to questions and not get any response) but time and again I’ve seen audiences leave the longer they were forced to sit and listen. It’s almost as if there is a point where the authorial magic is lost, where people feel like they’ve heard so much that they no longer need to purchase the book.

And so they don’t.

I have read (and seen) a similar principle with business meetings. Any meeting that is over 20 minutes long becomes a drag. People stop listening and cannot wait to leave. The experience is not positive, and honestly, the longer the meeting the more it taps into the those memories of boring school days. Conversely, regular meetings that are no longer than 15 to 20 minutes make people actually enjoy the meetings. They feel like their time is being respected and they’re more engaged in the process of give-and-take.

You wouldn’t waste a reader’s time on the page, so why do it in person?

Here’s what I think would make an ideal author event: After the introduction, five minutes of anecdote or something light-hearted, ten minutes TOPS of reading, and then ten minutes TOPS of public Q&A, with the promise of “I’d really rather talk one-to-one with you.” Then the author should plunk themselves down at a table and sign books for those buying and answer questions for those not buying. The author would still be devoting more time to talking to people but there’s a greater chance people will buy the book because it makes people feel more comfortable to make purchases when they see other people doing it. This is a proven fact of retail, that people will be more inclined to buy what everyone else is buying. Why do you think there’s such a thing as a bestseller’s list?

There will be times, of course, when sales aren’t the goal – a lecture at a symposium or a Skype visit to a school, for example, or giving a keynote address. But any author whose appearance provides the opportunity for sales would do well to take into consideration the simple fact that you cannot sell books to people who aren’t there, so you really need to think about doing everything you can to retain your audience.

So they’ll buy your book.

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You know what I’m talking about. Glossy over-sized activity books for kids with pages of colorful stickers that they can take from one place and put anywhere they want – in scenes in the book, on lunch boxes and notebooks, on the walls of your home…

What have I got against them? Plenty, but here are my top five peeves.

Fit the First:  They aren’t books
Lulling a child into compliance with the promise of a book is not a new form of parenting, but I’ve seen it descend into a compromise to accept a sticker book as a reward. Letting them pick a sticker book legitimizes a play activity as a reading activity. Also, as most sticker books are linked to commercial merchandising, their sole purpose is to build brand awareness toward a particular commodity. In other words, they are designed to build consumers, not readers. I say, if you promise a book, deliver a book.

Fit the Second: They have no story
True, kids can make up whatever story they want – this would be the proposed “activity” portion of their generic categorization – but then why are the sticker books all centered around well-defined characters where the kids can imitate what they know and not invent something new? Star Wars sticker books. Marvel Comics sticker books. Disney princesses. Lego adventure. SpongeBob. Pinkalicious (a word so heinous I had to take an antacid just to type it). Kids know the stories behind these stickers, they won’t be too creative in this play as a result because they cannot imprint their own character onto them.

Fit the Third: They’re killing the environment
Seriously, what’s in that adhesive? What chemicals are in that coated, glossy paper to make it slick? Sure, it’s non-toxic, but that doesn’t mean its processing wasn’t harmful. There are plenty of books and publishers using recycled paper and soy-based inks, acid-free paper and environmentally friendly glues, but I have yet to see a sticker book that claimed to use any of these.

Fit the Fourth: They take up valuable space
Those paper-thin books are taking up valuable space? By clogging shelf space in stores that could be used for other, better books. By taking space in landfills and recycling centers as they are quickly discarded. Trees died for this?

Fit the Fifth: They might actually be harmful
In the same way that coloring books teach and reinforce conformity – stay in the lines, keep the sky blue and the grass green – sticker books reinforce the idea of moving a sticker from one place to another as a true activity. In many of these books there are outlines “suggesting” where kids should place the appropriate sticker, but in no way does this “activity” reinforce anything but following directions and keeping mindlessly active. It’s busywork of the lowest order and the time spent moving meaningless pieces of sticky paper around would be better spent outdoor, if not reading a proper book. Is it any wonder we have a child obesity epidemic?

Why this invective against sticker books? Recently I discovered a section of a bookstore set aside for “children’s nonfiction” that had nearly 9 linear shelf feet of space full of sticker activity books but didn’t have a single book on snakes. Also, no books on wolves. Or spiders. No Seymour Simon, no Nic Bishop, no DK Eyewitness, only a handful of biographies… but there were literally hundreds of television and movie and cartoon characters spilling off the shelves. How are these nonfiction, is it because they have no traditional narrative? It was a shame, and I had to assume the reason there were so many was either because publishers are pushing them or parents are buying them. Or both, sadly.

Stop. Just stop. Stop making them and stop buying them. And for gosh sakes, don’t let them take up valuable space in the nonfiction section!


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