Tuesday, April 29, 2014

My sojourn in direct marketing

I semi-retired early and went into consulting to forestall boredom and to help make ends meet.* I ended up consulting for a Boston direct marketing travel company. I expected to consult with them for a few weeks, but ended up working for them for over a decade.

Direct marketers are a different breed of retailers. This travel company never advertised and you could not buy their trips through a travel agent, yet they were the largest tour operator in the country. All of their sales came through their call center. How did they get customers? Like Land’s End, L.L. Bean, Crazy Shirts, and other direct marketers, this company promoted its products primarily through paper and online catalogs … and then depended heavily on repeat business.

Direct marketing is a specialized segment of the retail business and it is far more data-driven than store-front retailing. Because everything is ordered directly, they know each customer and how they behave. They know what they buy, how often they buy, their price sensitivity, and their product satisfaction level. They are fixated on customer data because their business models are based on what they call lifetime value. Once a customer is acquired, they know statistically how much business that customer will generate in future years. Since they focus on lifetime value, direct marketers are obsessed with customer satisfaction. They are constantly measuring every aspect of their business, analyzing the data, and adjusting their practices.

What brought this to mind was a New Yorker article by George Packer: “Cheap Words: Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” Amazon is arguably the best direct marketer in the world. The following alleged comments by Bezos may or may not have been made in 1995, but they fit perfectly with the direct marketing business model.

“Bezos said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers. The books would be priced close to cost, in order to increase sales volume. After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet … Bezos had realized that the greatest value of an online company lay in the consumer data it collected. Two decades later, Amazon sells a bewildering array of products: lawnmowers, iPods, art work, toys, diapers, dildos, shoes, bike racks, gun safes, 3-D printers.”

I believe Amazon has been good for books. The Kindle—and other e-readers—have revitalized reading. Amazon has, however, been bad for bookstores. But whenever I start to feel bad for Borders, Barnes and Noble, et al., I just download a streaming copy of You’ve Got Mail from Amazon.

*  I’m interested in etymology of phrases.  “Where it (this phrase) comes from is hard to be sure about. It’s often said that it’s from bookkeeping, in which the total at the bottom (“end”) of the column of income must at least match that at the bottom of the expenditure column if one is not to be living beyond one’s income”—worldwidewords.org

Friday, April 25, 2014

Bob Boze Bell: Wyatt Earp - Hero or Villain?

The Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival is in April. For those of you without a calendar, that's coming up. In the 2011 Festival, Bob Boze Bell gave a talk titled Wyatt Earp—Hero or Villain. He presented some interesting facts and trivia about the old West and Tombstone, along with some perspectives on Wyatt Earp.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs of the Real Wild West

Timothy O’Sullivan, who had been an apprentice to Mathew Brady, headed west after the Civil War to photograph the American frontier. O’Sullivan made three expeditions to the West. In 1867 he was appointed photographer for the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, the first governmental survey of the American West. In 1871, O'Sullivan joined the geological survey under the command of Lieutenant George M. Wheeler of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. His third expedition in 1873, also with Wheeler, included the Zuni and Magia pueblos and Canyon de Chelly.

#photography, #art, wild west

native Americans, Indians, Wild West

desert, teamsters, wild west, frontier
Toby Jurovics, exhibition curator for a 2010 (Smithsonian and Library of Congress) O’Sullivan’s exhibit  said, “The important thing about O'Sullivan is that this is a person who spent three years during the Civil War and seven years in the West with his head under a dark cloth making pictures. There’s an intimacy in the creation of his photographs that goes beyond being an agent for a scientific purpose or government agenda, or making photographs as a hired documentarian. At the end of the day, it comes down to a single person with a camera making decisions, and the ones O'Sullivan made were pretty interesting. What you can tell about O’Sullivan is that he had very different ideas about how to structure his photographs. If you put one hundred nineteenth-century photographs in a box, you can pull out the O'Sullivans pretty easily.”

Monday, April 21, 2014

Go On A Blind Date... With A Book

suspense fiction

Here's something you can't do on Amazon... go on a blind date. Chris Jager at lifehacker reports that a Sydney independent bookstore, Elizabeth's Bookshops, is wrapping novels in brown paper and selling them as blind dates with a book. These books are hand selected, staff favorites, so the promise is that each will be a good read. That's not always true with a blind date, so take a book out to your favorite café instead

Friday, April 18, 2014

“Everything has to come to an end, sometime.” ― L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz

how to write fiction

Everything is working just fine. The grandkids in New York and Omaha are great, our electronic gizmos have not rebelled against humanity, and Jenny is up to mischief.  Jenny, of course, is a character in the next Steve Dancy Tale, tentatively titled Jenny’s Revenge. As you probably guessed from the title, she’s not a bit player.

Jenny was a character from The Shopkeeper—the first in the series—and her absence has been long. Absence has not made the heart grow fonder, however. She’s on a tear, and I can’t wait to see what she does next. Which brings up a question: if I’m the author, why would I not know what Jenny is going to do? When I start a book, I know the beginning, the end, and the players, but I do not map out the middle. I get the characters started, and then type like crazy to see how they will take me to the predetermined end. (There was an instance when my characters got ornery and discarded my ending for one of their own.)

I’m not suggesting this approach to all writers. In fact, for Tempest at Dawn, I outlined every single day of the four month duration before writing a word. For me, the amount of pre-planning depends on the subject of the novel. This is going to sound odd, but it also depends on how much I trust the characters. I created Steve, Jeff, Joseph, Virginia, Maggie, and Jenny. These characters would never let me down. I know them better than they know themselves. I can rely on them to act out a rousing story and to stay pretty much on the path I set for them. George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Roger Sherman, and even good ‘ol Ben Franklin might reject my fanciful plot for one they actually lived. In this case, it’s better to lay everything out in advance.

I participated in three panels at the Tucson Festival of Books. I was asked how I found inspiration to write. My answer was vague because every writer has to find what works for them. For me, it’s getting back to my friends and seeing what they are up to. And that’s the real reason I don’t outline the entire plot—writing wouldn’t be as much fun if I knew what was going to happen.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Surfers, Cowboys, and Manifest Destiny

The March issue of Vanity Fair has a great article on the iconic movie poster for Bruce Brown’s Endless Summer, titled “One Summer, Forever” By Lili Anolik. I often blog about surfing and my Westerns, but I always thought the only connection was my interest in both. Anolik set me straight. In the article, she wrote,
“And the image’s hero, the surfer, was a new kind of hero. Well, he was old and new. If he’d been born a hundred years earlier, he’d have been a cowboy. He had the cowboy’s instinctive loathing of fences, love of the great wide-open. And what was standing at the farthest edge of America, surveying the Pacific, but the next logical phase of Manifest Destiny and lighting out for the territory and Westward ho.”

Why I never saw that before is beyond me. At least Anolik has given me an excuse to intersperse an occasional reference to surfing on this blog.  By the way, this is a fun article if you have any interest in surfing, film, design, nostalgia, sports, world travel, or tan lines.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

New York Public Library—Struggling to Stay Relevant

Last post I commented on how the New York Public Library has become a gathering place for electronic enthusiasts who never feel a need to bother a librarian. Most of the patrons I observed were focused intently on computerized devices. An indication of the library’s struggle for relevancy can be found on their website. The above the fold promos are for The Beatles and Tax Day, April 15, neither of which is what one would normally associate with arguably the country’s second most important center of literature and research material. (I put the Library of Congress in first place.)

Other front-page teasers include:
“Make ‘Em laugh: Gut busting Picture Books—NYPL's Elizabeth Bird shares some picture books that will have both adults AND kids rolling in the aisles.”
“Game of Thrones is Back! Now Where is it Going?— NYPL's Shawn Donohue ponders how George R.R. Martin's hit book series will manifest on screen this season.”
“Mad Men: The Beginning of the End— NYPL's resident Mad Men blogger Billy Parrott speculates on what's to come in the seventh season of the hit show.”
“Craft BeerStevie Feliciano of the Hudson Park Library shares her adventures in beer tasting and home brewing, along with some helpful books for novices.”
The Home page includes a few traditional library themes, but they are overwhelmed by appeals to pop culture. I suppose the idea is to get New Yorkers into the library in the hope they’ll learn something they couldn’t pick up from People magazine.

The most disappointing part of the NYPL webpage was found at the very bottom: “The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter.” This is an enlightening exhibit of children’s books that promotes reading, art, and appreciation of literature.  This exhibit is exactly the type of event libraries can use to attract new patrons. It’s colorful, nicely organized, learning centric, and above all, interesting.  “The ABC of It” deserves to remain above the fold for as long as it's open.

Friday, April 11, 2014

New York Public Library—A Museum or a Hive of Erudition

The New York Public Library is one of the world’s great institutions. The Map Room is grand space with an impressive collection. The Reading Room is outsized and majestic. The comprehensive Art & Architecture Collection is housed in yet another gracious room.

I have written previously that libraries may eventually become museums for printed books.Are books becoming obsolete? Is a library the only place we’ll be able to see these odd antiquities? Will librarians admonish us to “don’t touch,” instead of shushing chatterboxes? Are we entering a binary world where everything is decomposed into a series of ones and zeros and then instantly reassembled on a hand-held device?”

Nothing epitomizes this eventuality more than the New York Public Library. There seem to be miles of marble hallways that can accommodate twelve abreast, super-high ceilings, broad staircases galore, and very few books. The stacks are forbidden to all except the high priesthood and nowhere in sight. In fact, it’s rare to see a printed book even in the Reading Room. Everybody seems engrossed in computer or iPad screens umbilicaled to handy electrical outlets that run down the center of the tables. Only two rows of tables in the far back restrict computers and e-readers. On the day we were there, these were the only available seats in the expansive room.

I don’t lament the rarity of printed books, but I fear we might lose the expertise of librarians. I saw few people get up from their prized seats to make an inquiry to one of the staff. I suspect if they wanted an answer, they Googled it at their table. What a shame. My experience with librarians is that they are not only highly knowledgeable, but eager to share their knowledge. Unique nuggets of information cannot be discovered on Google, but a librarian can point you toward a source that can elicit a eureka moment. Print is a medium and a book can be presented in other formats without losing all of its worth. On the other hand, the demise of librarians would be a tragedy.  

Monday, April 7, 2014

San Diego to New York City

On Friday, my wife and I flew from San Diego to New York City. What a difference. Of course the weather went from balmy to nippy, but that was the least the change. We actually left Pacific Beach for Manhattan. Pacific Beach may be the most laid-back community in laid-back California, and Manhattan the most intense district in the country. Over the weekend we rushed from one venue to another to watch our grandchildren play sports, dance ballet, attend professional sporting events, and shuffle between birthday parties and sleep-overs. Several scheduled activities were cancelled because the nerds at MIT haven’t yet figured out a way to be in two places at once. This was a long way from a long yawn as I checked out the waves trying to decide if I wanted to go surfing now or in an hour when the tide would be better. Perhaps all the clichés about Southern California and New York are true.


Pacific Beach

I did some googling to see what others thought.

The Urban Dictionary defines laid-back as: “Repressive, apathetic, does not care enough, brain dead, has no pulse, unlively, passive or passive aggressive, not caring enough, slow paced, follower mind set, compatable, middle american, lack of passion, lack of drive, bland, boring, white bread american.” (sic)

The Free Dictionary defines laid-back as: “Having a relaxed or casual atmosphere or character; easygoing.”

I’m guessing the first definition was written by a New Yorker on an iPhone while racing on foot to an appointment, while the second was written by a beach bum drinking a Stone IPA at a strand-side bar. 

Whoops, maybe I just reinforced those clichés. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Raymond Chandler's 10 Rules for Murder Mysteries

James D. Best
Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler is one of my favorite authors. I even wanted to buy a house he owned in La Jolla. I wanted to buy it, but I couldn’t afford it. In fact, I couldn’t afford the property tax on the house, which was over sixty thousand a year. I need to sell a lot more books before I get there. 

Beyond great novels and screenplays, Chandler wrote about Hollywood and writing. It would be an understatement to say he disliked English murder mysteries. Chandler liked realism, not puzzles. Here are his 10 rules of mystery writing. I tried to follow them in Murder at Thumb Butte, a murder mystery that just happens to occur in the Old West.
  1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
  8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
  9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
  10. It must be honest with the reader.
Honest Westerns filled with dishonest characters.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Open or Closed—John Cleese on Creativity

Although recently posted on Youtube, this John Cleese speech on creativity was given before his hair turned gray and thin. Like everything Cleese does, humor abounds, but between the jokes is some good advice. There is some especially good advice for writers.

Here’s a Snippet of him blending humor with wisdom:

“The only thing from the research I can tell you about how to be creative is the sort of childhood you should have had, which is of limited help to you at this point in your life.”

He actually goes on to give some great tips on being creative in adulthood. Writers should listen carefully.