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Apr 22 15

Earth Day: Tell your mother you love her.

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Spring brings new beginnings...

Spring brings new beginnings…

This morning, I sat in the sunshine, surrounded by our oaks and watched as the very industrious squirrels climbed high in the neighboring Maple branches to nibble the tender green flower clusters.  A number of birds were dipping in and out of my field of vision, hopping along branches, dropping down once they knew it was safe enough, to find something tasty on the ground. It’s Earth Day, today, but as my wife reminded me over our breakfast, it should be every day. She added, “it’s the only place we’ve got!”

It is. More than our home, it’s where our lives began. Where, in the narrow range of our current knowledge, it may well be where all life began. From its icy peaks to the depths of its seas, living things have made their homes and livelihoods, raising their families under it’s skies. Many ancient cultures of our peripatetic species refer to the earth as our Mother. Of course, our more advanced civilizations, being in possession of documented evidence of our species ascendancy in the form of religious dogma and tradition, feel that we are the end-point recipients. Owners of all of creation. It’s a terrible, self-serving mistake that will continue to be very costly to our own survival.

While worldwide commerce and technical progress continues to be linked to the exploitation of natural resources, individuals can make a difference on a daily basis. It can begin as simply as spending a few moments every day, just being aware of the natural world. Get outside, and if it doesn’t come on its own, clear your thoughts of the day’s obstacles and activities then focus your mind to assume a feeling of thankfulness for life itself. It’s easy. Over time, if practiced regularly, it will become your natural, base-level attitude towards our planet. It’s a simple way to tell our Mother that you love her, and soon, you’ll feel a closer connection to the rest of life.

The Lakota have a phrase they use in ceremony to send prayer, “Mitakuye oyasin.” It translates in a simplistic way, to “All my relations”, but the full meaning is a widening spiral taking in your blood family, then spinning outwards until it encompasses all living things. All your relations. We share the same mother, whether we are aware of it or not, and she needs to feel our love in return for all we’ve been given.

 

Apr 19 15

Once…

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earth3Once. There was a verdant planet which held living things in every possible wrinkle and fold. As many different kinds of life as there were colors for the living to see. One of them, a particularly capable species who liked to cover distance, also enjoyed observing the world around them. They found joy in both the sunrise and the rising of the moon. Both the warmth of the sun on their faces and the feeling of the rain on their backs. They shared their lives with each other and respected what had come before and what lay ahead equally. Life around them unfolded in glory and wild profusion. The power and beauty of all Creation surrounded them and they were in awe. They recognized other living things as their partners. While they watched, they learned. They found patterns and cycles they could use. They held their knowledge in memory and gave thanks with each breath. There was knowledge and joy and reverence.

Then someone came up with the idea of religion, and it all went to hell.

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I wanted to add a few more comments to this post.

While I’m not a fan of organized religion, I am not an atheist in the sense of the definition of the word. I believe very strongly in the existence of some abiding, overarching spark of the creative presence, or God, for want of a better word. There just is no ready name for my own belief system, and I don’t think that trying to define that presence in terms beyond the visible, engaging evidence of creation itself, is part of my job description as a human. I also recognize that while we’re one big family of homo sapiens, we are all very individual.

Depending upon our location and bloodlines, we all have very different needs and ways of living. This means that each of us will have their own, personal method of finding a connection with that presence — something larger than themselves. Making that connection is a good thing, as it expands our consciousness and makes us generally better people. If we treat each other with fairness, love and concern, it doesn’t matter how we came to that place. Because of that, I find the need many atheists seem to have, to bash other people’s religious beliefs and systems, useless and mean-spirited. It comes from exactly the same place in our rather limited mental framework, as seeing other people and needing to convert them to our own systems of belief. Of course, adhering to similar stated values relieves members within a group from some of the need to truly strive to understand each other and keep an open mind. It’s much simpler than having to deal honestly with everyone at face value and limits your exposure to the unknown.

All religious beliefs were created by people in the attempt to make a better spiritual connection with God, no matter the name they choose to give it. That alone deserves respect, but throughout our history, there has been so much divisive, evil done in the name of faith, that each system of belief, on its own, has little to recommend it as a single, one-size fits all solution to our suffering. Since each of us has different paths to tread, I can respect those who actually are trying to reach that destination of connection peacefully, no matter the means they use to get there. I also have nothing but disdain for those who take on the mantle of faith for purposes of personal gain, political power or amassing wealth and whose expressions of religious truth are hypocrisy. These actions have been historically-proven to be very dangerous to the survival of specific communities and destructive to our entire species.

I also respect the need for ritual and even magic. Religious ritual has been devised to give us a taste of the raw beauty and power inherent in creation. It helps focus the mind along the pathways that help us connect with those things greater than our ability to understand. Of course, I realize that the actual value of the ritual is not in the prescribed actions, but rather in the spiritual state of the person engaging in the process. I think that’s also worthy of respect. We all need to learn to respect each other on the most basic level, recognizing that we all share a common origin. Our paths may vary, but they will all lead along similar byways. If we can learn to extend that respect and love to all living things, we will have managed to return to what has been called Eden. The garden we all were born into. We lost track somehow, of how to return there, but the signs are all around us if we choose to read them.

Thanks for indulging my occasional need to get all preachy and philosophical. Your comments and ideas are always welcome…

Apr 14 15

An Open Letter to Book Cover Illustrators, from an Old-School Designer…

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Man-painting-artwork-by-Jean Francois Phillips

Man-painting-artwork-by-Jean Francois Phillips

In the mid-1970s, when I worked in the ad game as a graphic artist and packaging/identity designer, we brought illustrators in on projects from time to time. Most of our projects required photography, as we were doing a lot of corporate work and consumer packaging, but there were always specific areas where illustration was the better solution. Of course, we always had to weigh the realities of the cost of original illustrative materials in both turn-around time and in art fees, against the budget the client agreed to. If the budget could not be tweaked to afford it, we would instead search out stock material or flat color illustration, as opposed to full-color for process printing.

There were always lots of variables, just as there are now, but those days were long before the advent of video gaming and CGI graphics. Those two sea-shifts in technology and the resulting consumer awareness have made it a Golden Age for original illustrators. Still, some similarities to the earlier industry remain and those are the reason for this letter. Illustrators now have more opportunity than ever before, especially in the publishing industry. There are quite a few, high-sales genres that almost require illustrated covers, so between the needs of self-published authors and small presses, who normally use outside talent for illustration, there are lots of ways to keep busy. For the purposes of this letter, we’ll assume that you are familiar enough with your own creative process that you can safely estimate the amount of time you’ll need to develop a project, but also an acceptable amount of time spent in tweaking the results, which is inevitable. So, moving forward from the point where you can ethically offer your professional services, there are a few things that need to be addressed, at least in this old marker-jockey’s mind.

Book cover illustration is a collaboration between the images and emotions a writer creates in words and the images that proceed from an artist’s process. However, unlike art created for purely personal reasons, book cover illustration has one more silent collaborator — the reader who is the target of everything that emerges from the mix. There may only be one or two opportunities to engage the reader, so in cover design and illustration, there is little room for haphazard thinking or accidental solutions. The goal should always be motivating the reader to want to read/buy the book. To that end, the post-creative production processes involved, should be players from the beginning and that should include an idea of what the target reader will respond to.

Back in the day, the illustrators we always preferred working with were those that kept the actual needs of production, as opposed to the vagaries of the creative process, in the forefront of the entire process. We always provided extreme detail in speccing out a project to provide all the working knowledge the illustrator would need, but also to elicit possible discussion if the illustrator had additional ideas that might affect cost or the final work, based upon what the client’s needs were and the illustrator’s prior experience. Thirty years ago, in only rare cases when a package was going to be shot for TV advertising, did how it appeared on a monitor even enter into the discussion. Those were the days of expensive full-color ink proofs and small runs on sheet-fed presses to tweak color and coverage.

Today, of course, the monitor is where the work is created and viewed, until it’s ready to proof if it’s going to be produced in print. But color on a screen doesn’t look the same as color on a reflected surface — then or now. Today, I would hope that an illustrator working on a book cover which will appear in eFormats as well as print, would take the extra step of proofing their work in the CMYK color model, on paper, to their own satisfaction as well as in RGB on screen. Final files should be submitted in both RGB and CMYK full resolution versions, adjusted for the best appearance. For print use, the resolution at the trim size, plus bleed should be 300 dpi. For screen use only, a smaller file in RGB is adequate, but the 300 dpi resolution will give maximum flexibility for a series of optimized cover files for various online uses from thumbnail to large size listing art.

The fact that there may be substantial variations in size should also be a key element to the composition of your illustration itself. Too much detail, especially in low-contrast situations will provide plugged-up, muddy results in small sizes. Use enough detail to hold the reader’s eye, but not so much it destroys the effectiveness of the subject. Keep it interesting and fresh. It’s a tough balancing act, but part of the illustrator’s job.

Another important consideration is a book covers’ typography. In fact, the title and author name blocks are often important selling points on their own. Your illustration is actually there to support the title and hold the reader’s eye long enough to inspire some response and a specific behavior — to find out more, and click the buy button. Your illustration, therefore, needs to be conceived to allow room for that typography during the conception, not as an after-thought.

Of course, the type will “float” above the artwork, but what lies beneath is critical to how legible the results are. If the type — especially a somewhat busy typeface — floats over a complex, detailed background, it will fight with the typography for the reader’s eye, which is not a result anyone wants. In small cover sizes, it may make the typography illegible or hard to read, so think of the type block areas from the beginning and keep the illustration behind where the type will go as simple as you can. Consider also the relative brightness of these areas. If the mood of the cover will be bright, then the typography selected to superimpose over the background should be dark enough to create contrast, “popping” the typography out into the foreground. The reverse holds true if the mood is dark.

One technique that I especially appreciate is when an illustrator plans for the typography from the beginning, allowing some interaction, visually between the illustration subject and the type. Especially effective in Fantasy and SciFi illustration, where a portion of detail can actually fly out, into or above the type to suggest some extreme motion and further engage the reader. It may take the form of a composition that holds the eye on a circular pattern, for example, working with both the type and the subject to suggest eye movement folding back in upon itself. In any case, the longer a reader’s eye and interest is held, the more opportunity for emotional response and reaction.

Which brings me to my first request. Learn how to work with typography. Know the names of fonts, and where they can be purchased. Understand the difference between a font designed for the screen and one designed for the page and a range of display and text families. Learn how to make a title effective with the right line breaks and the right size. Learn the tricks that can highlight type against an active background. Too often, I’ve seen a perfectly good illustration ruined when the typography is applied in an amateurish manner. Keep in mind what the “picture” you’re rendering is for. It’s not to be hung in a gallery (although it may indeed be fine enough for that) or used as a screen-saver. It’s packaging for a book, and it should be designed to engage readers, give them pertinent information, hold them long enough to suggest reactions and sell books. If you prefer working with a designer for typography, make sure your client knows that. If adding the typography after the fact is an option you can hand-off to the client, make sure they know that as well. Finding out, after the fact that the illustration is not proportioned to fit the print format with typography added is an expensive discovery that should have been taken care of when you began to conceive the overall composition.

For the best results when I’m working on a cover, I generally import an illustration into a vector-based program for the final design, adding of typography, etc., because bitmap-based paint programs do not handle typography as well as a vector program with its layers can. They always provide clear, sharp edges in any needed size, that can easily be seen once exported as a bitmapped image again. If you’ve never used a vector program for page composition and design, my second request would recommend that you learn to do so to offer your clients a more professional range of services.

Finally, ask questions. There will be many things that an initial meeting may not cover, that will need to be nailed down in order for you to work most effectively. Try to familiarize yourself with the kinds of illustration styles, tones and moods are working in the genre this cover will be used in before you begin. The client, may or may not be fully aware of all the variables, but you should be able to add to the discussion based upon your own process, and how much information you need to move confidently before you commit stylus to pad. This will minimize the do-overs that can turn a profitable project into a disaster. Remember, your client may not be conversant in the area of graphic arts, so part of the entire project will be to educate them as much as to absorb what they need and what they want. Several productive meetings will always be well worth the time as when conversations flow, ideas do, too. Time spent before the creative part of the project begins is never wasted, and much less expensive than going back to plug the holes. Keeping that in mind leads to my third request. Please don’t underestimate the time this all will require in order to get a job. Rush jobs are never a good way to begin any relationship.

In the circumstances that you have an edge for a particular project that will allow you to pare off some of the time required, you will need to consider carefully if you will pass this along to the client or if you will be a hero and come in faster than you initially estimated. Every client wants the work tomorrow. Agreeing to a severely limited period of time to produce a project almost always guarantees that it will not either be what the client has in mind, or your best work. Neither of those will instill confidence for future consideration. Many self-published and small-press writers write in series. That means they will be establishing (if at all possible) a product brand with some recognizable level of uniformity in cover style and design. It is in everyone’s best interest for the initial project to be beyond the client’s expectations and within budget. Don’t make the mistake of low-balling a project to get your foot in the door only to find you don’t want that door open. This is a business of referrals, and a disappointed client won’t recall whose fault the whole mess was, only that the project failed.

Finally, I’d like to thank you for the fine work that you are doing. The new reality as self-publishing establishes more choices for every reader, will mean more projects for accomplished illustrators. Sure, those at the top will find video and gaming applications much more profitable than book cover illustration, but for those who enjoy collaborating with writers and expressing stories in a single frame in shorter-term commitments, opportunities will be there for you. Know your gifts as well as your limitations and go forward into the security of a career doing what you love. I am still quite moved, after all these years later, when I see my own work on a shelf in a bookstore, or in an online listing I didn’t set up. Books endure, and with some focus, ongoing learning and applied business considerations, so will your contributions.

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Your comments and questions are always welcome…

Mar 26 15

Marketing Consultant Michael Barry on Branding

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PCM New LogoMy friend Michael Barry is the originator of Holistic Marketing. It’s a more organic approach to getting the word out and his monthly newsletter from Princeton Creative Marketing is always sure to include very useful points. This month, he discusses the concept of branding. While this is primarily directed towards service and small consumer businesses, many of his concepts can be easily adopted by Indie Authors and small press publishers…

Branding: It’s Not Something
You Do to Cattle…

Michael Barry

Michael Barry

You know how important the quality of your product or service is to your customer. Your customers judge their experience of your business through the product or service they receive from you. But there are many other indirect and subtle ways in which customers interact with a business. Businesses can foster positive impressions from their target markets through applying smart branding strategies.

Successful and cohesive branding can tell your audience immediately who you are and how you want to be perceived. For example, do you want your audience to see you as a cutting-edge innovator or as experienced and reliable?

One critical aspect of successful brand messaging is consistency. You want your target audience to readily recognize you based on a logo or tagline or certain color combinations. The audience associates an impression or feeling based on your branding. If your message is not consistent, your audience will keep changing what they think and feel about you. You may be perceived as confused or even dishonest and lose your audience.

So how do you create successful and cohesive branding? It all starts with some essential components:

Name – The name of your business can, of course, have a strong influence on impressions. You want your business name to reflect your uniqueness and value. This is likely the first brand asset that you created for your business.
Logo – A great logo can be a powerful asset for fostering brand recognition. Once you have a great logo, you can place it everywhere. You want to make sure you have several versions and formats of your logo available for different uses: color, black and white, on a white background, on a black background, JPEG, PNG, EPS. It is also helpful to have a printed reference sheet to show how the logos should look.
Color Scheme – In addition to your logo, you can use consistent colors in your materials to help support or reinforce the look and feel of your brand. Make sure to select colors that complement and do not clash with your logo colors. Once you have determined a color scheme, use it on your website and on printed items such as postcards, newsletters, business cards, etc. Again, you will want to be consistent in using your chosen color scheme to help strengthen your brand message. Make sure you know the exact values of all the colors you are using in both RGB and CMYK models. (If you are not familiar with RGB and CMYK color models, speak with a designer or someone who can explain this or obtain the correct color values for you.)
Font – The consistent use of chosen or specified fonts helps reinforce your branding message. Fonts and typefaces can actually have a significant impact on how customers relate to and perceive your brand. Make sure you utilize font faces on your website that are easy to read online and align with the impression you want communicate about your brand.
Usage Guidelines – In case this concept has not been repeated enough, the key to successful branding is consistency! Creating and adhering to a set of Usage Guidelines will help ensure you and your staff are absolutely clear about how to use all the branding assets listed above. Your Guidelines can contain specific instructions on how to use your logo such as where and how often your logo can appear on a page, minimum and maximum size boundaries, etc. You can also create instructions on how colors in your color scheme are to be used, how text should be formatted for different uses (e.g., bold, underline and color for headlines), and include formatting templates for standard documents.
Photos – Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words so make sure you have a good digital photo library that can help support the story you want to tell. Make sure you have different available formats too. For example, high res for print, low res for web, color versions, black and white, and different sizes. But please make sure your photos are good quality, preferably taken by a professional photographer. And, once again, it is important that the quality of all your photos is consistent. The one terrible and blurry photo among a dozen great ones will stand out in the customer’s mind!
Boilerplate –This is the short blurb or key message you want to communicate about your brand. This should be similar or identical to your short-form value proposition and every employee should be familiar with it. Keep your boilerplate statement in a Word or text file so it is ready to send instantly to anyone (e.g., designers, media) who might need a quick description of your brand. Don’t leave it to an outsider to create this statement for you!
Digital Document Library – Keep a digital library of all your printed materials including newsletters, white papers, articles, marketing collateral. It is always a good practice to keep all your materials organized in an easily searchable and retrievable format.

The proper – and consistent – use of brand messaging is essential to establishing your business identity and differentiating you from your competitors. Good branding strategies help your customers take the guesswork out of figuring out who you are and what unique value you offer.

Creating your branding strategy and setting up the key branding assets listed above can seem a complex task. A designer or marketing expert can help guide you through some of the initial setup. But once your assets have been established and organized, it is up to you and your business to regularly apply these strategies to clearly communicate who you are.

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Mar 20 15

Review: Andrew May’s Museum of the Future Collection

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81Lhl1BfTZL“A gift box of the finest chocolates with a decidedly odd… flavor”

Science writer and author Andrew May set out to create a smartly linked collection of short stories with a delightful, retro flair. He succeeded, brilliantly. My five star review on Amazon, follows…

If a reader can approach a thought-provoking novel as they might an epicurean meal, they would see, as I did, that Andrew May’s wonderfully-retro collection of short stories would be the dessert. Actually, more than one. One of the best things about collections of stories is that they can be entertaining and absorbing in smaller doses, when you don’t have the time or focus for a more lengthy read. Besides, how could I resist a collection that offers glimpses of both H.P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick. In one story, no less.

I especially enjoyed the almost transparent thematic thread of individuals’ perceptions of reality which winds its way through these quirky tales. They exhibit a rare combination of both macabre subjects, considerable science (real and not) and exactly the right sprinkle of humor. I enjoyed each one in its own right as time and space were bent and broken repeatedly; but there… right in the middle… lay a jewel of particular sparkle, that so moved me I had to read it aloud. (it is titled The Collector)

Andrew May is a uniquely gifted writer that readers of SciFi, Spec Fiction and Fantasy should acquaint themselves with. His Author’s Notes in the endpages are a distinct revelation rarely seen in this new century, that gave me a great deal of what-ifs and wherefores to carry me into the evening. We are a mercurial species, who engage in many odd pursuits. Our on-going opinion of the fruits of our own labors often leads us down questionable alleyways of perception and belief. If reading, and then re-thinking stories of such strange excursions delights you as it does me, then don’t miss this excellent journey.

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I meant to add that this is a great book to leave laying about where it can be easily picked up when the mood strikes. Open it to any page and begin reading…

It’s also available on Barnes & Noble

Mar 19 15

Waiting for the next pitch…

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Artist: Norman Rockwell; Title: 100th Year of Baseball; Publish Date: 07/08/1939; http://saturdayeveningpostcovers.com/frame/60901/; © 1939 SEPS.

Artist: Norman Rockwell; Title: 100th Year of Baseball; Publish Date: 07/08/1939; http://saturdayeveningpostcovers.com/frame/60901/; © 1939 SEPS.

 

Rubbing rosin into your grip, you tighten it and choke up a bit more, just in case. And wait. 

Our world is often expressed in terms of sports analogies. Oddly enough, they seem to hold up well across cultures and languages. Just change the name and a few particulars of the sport used, chances are you’ll find a sizeable group able to relate. We can momentarily drop away from life’s real distractions to savor a tiny immersion into a game. With life more complex than ever, requiring more active engagement; we’re all looking for that momentary release of the pressure. Ready and more than willing.

Up to a point. I’m noticing that online, the pitching doesn’t abate much whether in conversation, mid-message or doing a search. As the social mediums that have so completely won us over amass the user data to finally make the transition to Full Revenue Sources, we can hardly dodge the pitches. They come from every direction in lots of different styles, angles and disguises.

Not that we don’t all enjoy the entertainment that comes with a well-conceived pitch, but being sold, non-stop, gets tiresome, doesn’t it? Having been in the business of crafting targeted marketing messages for most of my adult life (and to be honest, quite a bit of my childhood), I can see a pitch coming pretty easily. Lately, though my reaction times seem to be slowing and it’s getting harder to always keep my guard up. If you see someone knee-deep while cleaning out a well-used stable for example; offering them a wider, deeper shovel might not really be the best way to be of help.

Writers seeking publication and readers, seem to be well-past knee deep in all these kinds of offers of help. There’s almost no place you can hide from the pitch-men, without cutting yourself off completely. If you want to discuss book marketing for example, whether you find yourself online in a safe chatroom or writers’ group, you’re almost certainly being pitched in some way or another. One of the refinements of search engines and discussion forums is the ease with which pitch-men of all stripes can sugar coat their message with all kinds of pertinent information and even embraced opinion. Winning you over, post by post. It’s the nature of the game and when done well is a remarkable achievement. I don’t object to the fact of the pitching itself. It’s been one of my primary livelihoods for a long time. What I’m finding more annoying than the sheer volume of it though, is the stealth pitching being done in the guise of offering honest opinion or advice from personal experience to those who may be unaware of exactly how the game is played.

There was a time that some of us remember, when discussing writing took place either in a college classroom, or in a booth at a local watering hole. In either case, those engaged were mostly protected from public scrutiny or being set up as a potential sales lead. This all changed with the advent of social media online. While we used to “know” our classmates or drinking buddies, our online groups are made up of people we get to know from an arm’s length, depending upon those things they share. Their identity and backgrounds are often carefully hidden. Of course, there are also lots of folks just hoping to engage with other folks with similar interests in order to learn more about the craft of writing. But not all discussion agendas are clearly stated. Smart pitch-men reveal only what is useful for them to reveal, which can disguise their intent pretty well. Simple trolls are easy enough to dismiss, but not all that troll are necessarily trolls. Fortunately, there are caution signs nearing sharp turns on rough sections of the road we’re on. With a little practice we can learn to see them even when they are behind those pesky bushes.

Caution!An example of this are hungry freelance book editors that might provide less than stellar reviews online, making sure it’s not too hard for the bruised author to make contact after the fact. Or people working for book cover mills disparaging self-published authors’ posted cover designs while making suggestions of who the author should approach.  Since most writers tend towards insecure, we make perfect targets for stealth pitches like this. Whenever I visit a discussion site, I always like to check out the profile of the user who has begun any thread I have an interest in. Chances are, if there’s a professional service shingle hanging out there, the discussion thread is a roundabout service pitch. I’ve found useful information in such discussions, by keeping my skeptical eyes wide open and skimming off the information I can use. Remember, there are writers who offer helpful advice from their own journey to other writers that need a hand up, with no motive beyond the good feeling of being able to give someone a hand. I’ve been helped myself, several times, by these wonderful human beings. But the pitch-men often wear the same outfits, so it’s always a good idea to remain a bit skeptical.

Caution!We also can be easily fooled by sock-puppets supporting someone’s amazing claims of results through the use of (insert program, consultant, distribution or software name here). Back in the day, when medicine shows traveled about from town to town, the pitch-man wasn’t the only one working the crowd. Agents would have gone into those towns ahead of time to secure the services of folks known as “shills” who were paid to provide support for the pitch. They would faint away at exactly the right time during the presentation to be miraculously revived, or would shout out supporting encouragement. It was a recognized profession at the time, and it endures today.

Caution!Another caution sign pops up for me  with high visibility, well-advertised ( read: well-funded) “groups” of writers banding together to market their books at a grassroots level or to improve their work through mutual editing and popularity-based writing contests. More often than I like to see, these groups turn out to be prospect mines for a marketing, advertising, consulting or vanity publishing company. One component of the growing crop of online book advertising venues is that they rarely provide accurate circulation/impression figures. Print advertising mediums have been regulated for years now and required to share circulation figures to give prospective advertisers some numerical basis for the fees they charge and the results that can be expected. No such regulation exists for online advertisers, who may make their fees appear more attractive by breaking down the cost per impression, or the smaller figure, click-through. Independent Authors that want to advertise their books are at a distinct disadvantage compared to publishers’ media departments that know exactly who is seeing the print ads and exactly what the response return should be for the money spent.

Caution!Not to be confused with P.O.D. Production companies, Vanity Publishers still exist and deserve their own comments here. The self-publishing explosion along with high-quality Print on Demand production has not forced them completely into the shadows. Instead, they are now gobbled up and added as new divisions of respected mainstream publishers. They show “interest” in new authors and active writers in emails, tweets and online contact through forums. The attention makes a writer feel good, resulting in a response to the initial pitches. But the bottom line hasn’t changed much. If it is going to cost you money out of pocket to bring your work to market, run. Run fast. I have never paid a publisher beyond the cost of proof copies, to put a title out for me. I have never had to purchase a large quantity of books to get them to market, and unless your garage needs filling with heavy boxes, I’d advise you to do likewise. Producing a quality book in a readable design with a well-conceived cover isn’t free unless you have the skillset handy, but then having to cough up again when your publisher bills you for publishing your book, is just wrong.

Caution!Another seemingly new pitch comes from “Marketing Platform Consultants”. All authors need to create a brand, don’t they? Well, platform consultants sometimes operate by suggesting such a huge, endless pile of activities a writer “must do” to build their brand, the writer at some point, has no time left to write. So, rather than lose all that valuable effort, the consultant invariably offers publicity services or a software package that will do it all while leaving the writer free to do their best work. Right. Back in the day, when print book sales were humming along and publishers actually had budget to promote their authors’ work, the idea that a writer was somehow responsible to create a platform from which to launch their brand was unheard of. All of that was handled in-house by a staff of professionals on salary. When the tech sea-change began, many of these same professionals found themselves laid off despite having useful skills, so they had to become pitch-men to survive. Fortunately for those in the biz, the market is always changing, often even faster than the technology shifts. Just trying to figure out your exposure goals can be daunting, as the numbers that signify you’re making progress change depending upon who’s doing to pronouncing.

An example for me hit home when two years ago, reading a respected lit agent’s blog, authors were advised to try and amass at least 400 followers on Twitter as that was the number below which an agent wouldn’t think the writer had done much to connect with their market. When I reached 500 followers, I felt momentarily self-satisfied… until in another forum, a different marketing professional suggested that you shouldn’t listen to anyone who hasn’t got at least 1500 followers. So, according to the numbers, I was less than halfway there after two years. I began to look up writers I knew on Twitter to find that many have followers well in excess of 2K! It seems, that on Twitter at least, it really has become a numbers game. Keeping up with your particular reader niche is not the kind of work you can do in your spare time if you intend to also perfect your writing skills. Finding help is a good idea, just keep in mind that real professional help comes with a price.

Of course, everyone offering a service has to get the word out to prospective customers, but I believe it’s always best that the customer knows up front, that there’s an invoice waiting at the end of the rainbow. I don’t want to suggest that promotion should not have associated costs, just that you should know when you’re entering into a commercial relationship or activity, especially through the back door.

Legitimate writing forums and author groups without hidden agendas do exist. There are many, but it’s getting harder and harder to find them as the bandwidth of social media is more full of advertising than ever before. It’s showing no sign of even leveling off.  This means that in order for a writer to actually find some honest peer support out there, they’ll have to take some time making their choices. Spending some time observing on any site before jumping in can save you from having to grab a shovel to clear the exit. Same thing goes for blindly accepting the earnest advice you read in discussion posts. Listen carefully. Learn first. Make your decision when you know what the game actually is.

Think before you swing. Look for the pitch. Wait… wait… here it comes. If you decide to connect, step into it and be sure to follow through with the full twist. If you don’t, it’s easy enough to just stand there and let it fly past. Remember, it’s still sometimes possible to get on base without swinging at anything. Might even save you some money.

Suggested Further Reading:

Mar 14 15

Old Tools Contest No. 1

by
oldtools02

Old Tools Contest Group 01

For the fun that’s in it, and possibly some retro-learning for design and print geeks, I’m introducing a regular contest on Saille Tales — Design Cents.

This will involve in my posting an image of a group of design and/or production tools from the mist-shrouded days of pre-digital artwork, and print production. Readers will have the opportunity for one month, to leave their guesses as to what these are/were (actual industry names, please) and what they were used for in the graphics business.

If you can name all three, and explain their uses, you will win your choice of any of my book titles in your choice of eBook format.

Let the guessing… or the erudite, informed commentary begin…

We’ve had no winning guesses, so I’d better let everyone off the hook. Here are the names and descriptions:

  • “Oil Can” named for it’s shape alone, it was actually used to keep the volatile Rubber Cement thinner handy atop a production desk. The conical shape kept it more stable on sloped surfaces and the top nozzle can be shut off to prevent evaporation. Rubber cement was used to adhere elements such as type galleys, images and photostat prints of line art to a backing board when producing “mechanical art” for creating film to then burn offset printing plates from.
  • “Linen Tester” a magnifier with a set-focus and marked graduations, it could be folded flat and carried in a pocket. While originally used in the weaving trade to check thread counts, it was adopted by prepress “strippers” and camera men to check the consistency of dot-shape in halftone film before burning a plate, or to check the density of specific color halftone areas when making up the individual plates for process color printing. I used this one, mostly for checking to make sure that small-sized type galleys were clean, than the letterforms didn’t have broken sections in the thins especially, and also to check newsprint-level (55, 65 or 85 dots per inch) halftones for camera artifacts or too-dense backgrounds.
  • “Ruling Pen” In the days before the German Engineers at Pelikan, perfected the nested tube style of India Ink ruling pens (mostly called Rapidographs, after one of the leading brands),fineline ruling in black ink was handled using one of these pens. Ruled forms, crop marks and division ruling used the kinds of lines these pens produced. I even owned on that did two-line rules with two attached heads independently adjusted. Ruling Pens were infinitely adjustable for width of line using a small, graduated wheel which squeezed the points closer or further apart, the dipped into a bottle of India ink, tapped on the edge, to drain off a bit, or quickly blotted to remove the pesky drop at the bottom. Most of us who did production artwork would have splatters of ink all over our hands and even our faces by day’s end. The small knob at the end of the pen’s handle was shaped to allow an artist to hold the pen between their teeth for situations when you needed both hands free.

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This was a hard one. Everyone’s been such a good sport with this, I’ll continue the series every few months. In the mean time, anyone who commented either here or on Facebook, can contact me if they would like a free copy of any of my titles in eBook format of their choice!

Feb 23 15

Monday’s Rant: The Death of the Message in Marketing

by Richard Sutton
Take one.
Take one.

“So… I really, really want to talk about how excited I am that we can all watch videos about my newest idea.”

How may televised interviews with entrepreneurs and media artists have you seen lately that begin with the word, “So”? Maybe because I wasn’t born in the eighties or later, it jars me every time I hear it. What surprises me the most is how frequently I hear it. Aside from its hurried style and less-than-sincere tone, I wonder where the younger business people, writers and media artists who use it constantly learned how to communicate? Given an on-the-air opportunity to pitch their idea, service or product effectively, they instead launch into a “hand-held-camera” style of speech: jittery, nervous and prone to skip ahead. Little help comes from most of the interviewers who seem to be more interested in fulfilling the time-count than capturing useful information for their viewers.

It probably annoys me more because of my years working actively in marketing and advertising. Back in the day, ad men were taught to show some respect for the market and especially for the target. Talking “down” to your prospective customer was strictly forbidden. You didn’t want to write or speak in a stilted manner, but you didn’t want to sound like a feckless teenager either. Now, it seems perfectly acceptable for a business person to speak to their target audience as if they were all rushing down the hall in their dorm, trying to get to a class.

The idea of life-style appeal wasn’t lost on me, but to dumb-down the message really gives the consumer every opportunity not to listen to it. It makes it unimportant, no matter how “high-energy” or young-vernacular it might be.

When I was coming up in the business, I was taken under the wing of a succession of older, knowledgeable professional people. I learned from making mistakes, of course, but also by seeing how carefully crafting a pitch message could pay off in improved recognition and product sales. As I watch what passes for the current refinement of the techniques of the biz in commercials and pitch interviews, I’m beginning to get the impression that the intent and consideration of the core of the message has been lost along the way.

Not that the current video crop are not beautifully produced and edited. Not that lifestyle appeal isn’t reinforced in the choices of diverse spokespersons wearing bright, engaging, diverse-themed clothing. No, those values are all very “current”, upscale and culturally sensitive. However, what I’m seeing more and more is evidence that the state of the art in marketing has moved from improved product awareness and positioning, to high-recognition for the producer’s portfolio and resume. I can’t even begin to count all the commercials I’ve been seeing that fail to end on a logo image or any visual reinforcement of just who is footing the bill for putting the message out.

When “trademarks” were so strongly touted beginning in the late 1940s and name branding became the focus of the advertising industry in the 1950s and 1960s, it was for a reason. The Golden Age of Advertising had a lot to do with the amount of gold spent on projects. There was a great deal of effort and time put into empirical studies of how humans reacted to images and how much repetition was necessary to achieve recognition in various mediums. Both psychologists and neurologists were brought in to discuss and investigate the hard-wired side of our memory and our emotional responses. It was as much science as art.

Today however, the selfie is king. Conscious direction and planning in marketing seem to have been discarded as so “old-tech” they are just not useful. What replaces them is a focus and concentration upon individual moments frozen in time, then looped together. Engaging as they might be, they are very easy to forget. Impressions that only feed the most fleeting emotions without addressing any real thought are very easy to completely forget.

Which is why despite enjoying the production values in a flashy, new commercial for a chain of shoe stores this morning, I couldn’t tell you which store or even the names of the brands carried. But it might be because I’m too old, or too male, or just out-of-the-loop-duJour. Or not.

So… maybe we should really be talking about just what the messages we send are really supposed to do?

You think?

Feb 22 15

by Richard Sutton

Retold, brilliantly, by author Robert Davidson…

The Bagpiper

838886199_56282daaffTime is like a river. You cannot touch the water twice, because the flow that has passed will never pass again. Enjoy every moment of life.

As a bagpiper, I play many gigs. Recently I was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man. He had no family or
friends, so the service was to be at a pauper’s cemetery in the Nova Scotia back country.

As I was not familiar with the backwoods, I got lost and, being a typical man, I didn’t stop for directions.

I finally arrived an hour late and saw the funeral guy had evidently gone and the hearse was nowhere in sight. There were only the diggers and crew
left and they were eating lunch. I felt badly and apologized to the men for being late.

I went to the side of the grave and looked down and the vault lid was already in place. I didn’t know what else to do, so I started to play.

The workers put down their lunches and began to gather around. I played out my heart and soul for this man with no family and friends. I played
like I’ve never played before for this homeless man.

And as I played “Amazing Grace”, the workers began to weep. They wept, I wept, we all wept together. When I finished, I packed up my bagpipes and
started for my car. Though my head was hung low, my heart was full.

As I opened the door to my car, I heard one of the workers say, “I never seen anything like that before, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for
twenty years.”

Apparently, I’m still lost….it’s a man thing.

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Thanks! We needed that!

The-Tuzla-Run-196x300

“Robert Davidson’s great novel, in the tradition of Tom Clancy, throws a mis-begotten group of adventurers, assassins, ex-military and oddballs at the morass of war-torn Bosnia. Their task? To drive a unarmed UN convoy carrying relief supplies through the ragged countryside, on impassible roads with well-armed enemies behind every bush and bombed-out building.” Five Star Amazon Reviews…

 

Feb 17 15

Some Ol’ Mardi-Gras Voudou…

by Richard Sutton

lebontemps02It’s been a long, very cold winter this year. I usually enjoy the serene beauty of the occasional snowfall, but with the stuff on the ground more than a foot deep for weeks, despair finds its way in. We haven’t been sleeping that well, either.

This morning, at a quarter to seven, we were suddenly awakened by the raucous sound of a crowd cheering and whistling. Very loud, I couldn’t tell if it was coming from outside, or… inside. Terrified, I crept down the hall and around the archway into the living room. A low, trombone growl alerted me that if it was a home invasion, at least they brought instruments!

The traditional sounds of “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be”, began blasting from our loudspeakers, to paraphrase Clement Moore, it soon let me to feel I had nothing to dread. Why of course not. It’s Fat Tuesday, and the parade bands are tuning up… somewhere along Saint Charles Avenue, far to the South, where it wasn’t actively snowing.

We’d been to New Orleans in January where my grandson and I contracted the flu. Still, some good old voudou must have hung on, to spring free when it was needed the most, up here in the frozen North. I went into the den, with a lively step, to turn down the music. We keep our gear in a tall entertainment armoire with doors that close so we don’t have to look at the electronics when we don’t want to. I’d closed those doors securely when I retired for the night a few hours before. One door, lay slightly ajar… just wide enough.

I knew when I saw that, how the magic had worked. One of our cats is a bonafide tunnel-cat, preferring to tunnel under bedclothes and inspect dark places in his spare time. This morning, he must have crawled up inside the armoire and stepped on the remote lying next to the receiver, to turn on the music. It had been set to our Satellite Radio station (Sirius/XM Channel 67, Classic Jazz) yesterday afternoon. I switched it off when it was time for the news.

So that’s what I’ve decided to tell myself instead of the alternative, which is that the ghost of Marie Laveau, knowing we were beginning to let the weather get us down, sent one of her familiar spirits over the miles to bring a little Mardi Gras cheer just when we needed it. Besides, I’ve got two handy bathrooms here.

Laissez le bon temps rouler! Where are those purple crew beads anyway?

Watch the live NOLA Parade Webcam: http://www.nola.com/paradecam/