App Review: Good Citizen or Content Mule?

Beneath my first-floor apartment window in Manhattan, I witness a man trying to force a woman to get into a parked car. He orders her to drive. She resists hard while repeating "NO," and threatens to call the police. He's belligerent.

So, I call 911. This is what good citizens do, right?  

Moments later, ​I receive an alert message from Citizen, a smartphone application that notifies me when a 911 call has been reported near my location. Citizen registers that I am "very close" to the scene of a 911 call about a woman being harassed by a man. Citizen suggests that if I can do it safely, I should press the application's video record/stream button to capture the incident. 

Really? I should do that?

Peering through the window blind, I watch as the tension escalates. With one hand, he's holding her slender wrists. With the other hand, he pulls something from his pocket. They struggle. While I could raise the window blind to livestream the scuffle, I would also be within easy striking distance. Is the object they're wrestling for the car keys or is it a gun? 

He is ordering her to "get in the car and drive." She responds "NO." Then, the struggle stops. She acquiesces and slides behind the steering wheel. He gets in the passenger seat. She pulls the car away from the curb. From my window, I see the car at the stoplight. She makes a left turn.

Since the NYPD are on the way, I go out to the street in order to flag them down. They arrive. I give a description. They take off in pursuit of the car.

For all I know, their altercation illustrates this woman's ordinary, daily life with an abusive jerk. ​

window blind

The Citizen smartphone app suggests that if I can do it safely, I should record/stream the incident.

Citizen Empowerment? 

Several hours before this incident, I learned about Citizen from the App Wrap news segment on NY 1 News. My immediate reaction: that's a good idea. I want to know about police activity near me. With a swipe and click, I download the application with the full knowledge that in order to use it, I'm allowing Citizen access to my phone's location. My consent feels like a small price to pay for what I hope is a proactive step toward personal safety. 

But Here's the Catch​

Since that day, Citizen continues to send emails coaching me how to record/stream 911 scenes. Why is this so important to them? I wonder. So, I read their TERMS OF SERVICE.  ​If you try this application, I encourage you to do the same in order to judge for yourself, especially Paragraph 5: Content Rights

Now, I would show you the screenshots of the exact language, but Citizen's terms prohibit the use of screenshots without their express permission. So as someone who has negotiated content licenses, I shall summarize my understanding of Paragraph 5 in one sentence.

When you record/livestream activity using the Citizen application, you grant Citizen the exclusive license to repackage, distribute and monetize your content--without giving you a second thought--in perpetuity. 

This is a royalty-free deal. Upon receiving a Citizen notification about a reported 911 emergency near you, you have the option to voluntarily assume all responsibility for your personal safety as you record/stream the scene. Simply, you volunteer to be a content mule. Citizen's emails to me are cheery and instructive for one reason. They are in the news aggregation business, even though they frame it as community awareness.

Transparency: The Word That Rationalizes Everything

​Using the Citizen smartphone app is analogous to grandpa using his citizen band radio to monitor police calls from his basement.

But if grandpa responds to a 911 call by going to the scene, where he snaps a news-worthy photograph or records video, grandpa has the right to sell that image or video to the media. Grandpa takes the personal risk and he keeps the money.

Citizen's safety awareness approach implies that the more transparent we are in reporting danger in real-time, the safer our community. They suggest you are doing your community a service by streaming/recording a 911 scene.

And somehow, this "transparency" makes it okay for them to suggest you record/stream a dangerous situation, of which they are absolved of any liability for your safety, and they hold all opportunities to make the money, not you.

This feels to me like the definition of a content mule. 

At the very least, I think if Citizen believes in transparency, every email with suggested recording/streaming instructions should also include a notice about the account holder's assignment of content rights.

That would be real transparency. 

Amateur CB Radio

Using the Citizen smartphone application is analogous to grandpa monitoring police calls from his basement. Image by Diego Grez (Own work) [CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Community Citizenship in Context

About once a month, the NYPD stations officers in front of retail shops along Columbus Avenue. These officers pass out recruitment brochures about how to become an auxiliary police officer. ​This is a voluntary program, which involves weeks of training. Before putting on the uniform, the volunteer must pass a physical and written exam. In other words, there is a process for learning personal and public safety procedures in dangerous situations. 

The Citizen approach appears to be: release the app and see what happens. See what happens is not a process. Citizen has a news aggregation process in place for building an audience and doing distribution deals. As a business, this is their right. But business processes are quite different from processes for public safety. I am not convinced that Citizen appreciates this distinction. 

Further, I leave it to the legal experts to weigh in on the privacy questions. For instance, if I had recorded the man and woman outside my window, what would be my liability if one of them felt their privacy rights had been violated? Would Citizen come to my defense? I think not. 

According to NYC.gov, there are more than 11 million calls made to 911 every year. If Citizen's intention is to sell account holder footage to news organizations or movie studios, for example, their investors' bet could pay off nicely. New York City leads the nation in 911 calls annually. Maybe that's why Citizen selected NYC as the first test market. 

The Wake-up Call to Re-read Terms of Service

​With any shared-platform application, the company is interested in their results, not yours. Since Citizen keeps nudging me that I should learn how to use the recording/streaming function, I'm suspicious. Something does not feel right about this relationship.  

Digital power is similar to electricity. When you depend on something that is intangible, you cannot see or feel it, you are at a disadvantage to those who control the power. This is why I've decided to conduct a fresh review of terms of service for all my social accounts (future post).  ​

When the Mule Comes Full Circle

In 1903, ​Eadweard Muybridge was a photographer, the first to develop photographic sequences of moving objects. This was the cutting-edge technology of his time. It is incredible to view this gif file of mules bucking and kicking. Today, we touch screens, give voice commands, watch and engage with content from a myriad of devices. Each device is synchronized by an invisible force that few outside of the tech industry understand. 

How much royalty was paid to Muybridge and to his estate? The answer depends on how savvy Muybridge was about his copyrights and patents. Whom did he trust? Did those in power prove worthy of his trust?

In the early 20th century, mule power built our national infrastructure from New York to California. These beautiful animals are unassuming, hardworking servants. However, when mistreated, mules kick with deadly force. 

In the 21st century, technology entrepreneurs and their investors may soon face flying hooves. As account holders begin to question the business models and their role in relation to the revenue, I believe very interesting days are ahead. For instance, unless Citizen chooses to become more transparent with its account holders about its core business function--news aggregation, not public awareness/safety--I suspect account holders, much like Muybridge's Mules, will deliver their kicks in all the right places.

Mule .gif

In the 21st century, technology entrepreneurs and their investors may soon face the flying hooves of Muybridge's mules. CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1857864

A Bird’s Eye View of Social Media Skills

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is home to hundreds of birds in New York. On a walk there recently, I saw a seagull with an enormous clam in its beak. A few feet in front of me, the gull hovered above the trail.  Then, the bird dropped the clam.

Thud!

The gull flew to the ground, inspected the clam, picked it up, and flapping its impressive wings, climbed higher in the air. The bird opened its beak, releasing the clam. 

Thud!

The gull dropped the clam once more and failed again. Then, the bird changed its strategy. By gliding even higher in the air, the gull spotted a rock just ahead on the trail. It released the clam. Splat! The clam burst open and the gull enjoyed a tasty clam on the half shell lunch.

Social Media Skills​

What does the seagull teach us about social media skills? A lot.

At first, the gull's instinct was to climb higher in the air, increasing the gravitational force when it dropped the clam. This is similar to our instincts when we amplify the volume of a marketing message because we're not getting the attention we want. The 'louder works better' assumption is not a realistic marketing communications strategy for the twenty-first century.  

Change Your Perspective​ to See the 'Big Picture'

​Each time the seagull flew higher in the air, more options came into view. The rock, the gull recognized, was the right platform tool for the job. Today's state of social media marketing zeitgeist makes every platform tool sound like the perfect solution for being seen and heard. But what we really need is to practice taking a bird's eye view on a regular basis, and always start with your audience in mind.

​The 2017 Social Media Map from Overdrive Interactive provides a helpful bird's eye view. Notice the categories by function and topic. You can download this map for your own reference. 

Overdrive's Social Media Map 2017

How to Build Your Social Media Skills

Social media platforms evolve quickly and are guided by the invisible hand of number crunchers, many of whom hold PhDs in the psychology of social media. Behavioral data, relating to search, discovery, and conversion to sales, is the holy grail. My point is not to comment that this is a good or bad development, it just is where we are in the evolution of our digital era. 

My goal is to help you choose the appropriate platform tools to reach your audience and to scale your activities in order to achieve measurable results.

Five Steps to Change Your Perspective and Enhance Your Skills

1. Record your habits. For one week, keep a social media journal. Which applications do you access most often and how do feel while you are using them. For example, do you feel relaxed on Facebook or agitated? For each application, what is your level of trust in terms of content veracity and security of your data? (rating scale of 1 to 5) For instance, do you consider LinkedIn more trustworthy than Google+? At the end of the week, review your journal and consider the value these social platforms contribute to your professional goals. 

2. Listen to the voice of your target audience. Identify published authors in your field. In addition to reading reviews of their books, read the comments from book buyers on Amazon. Read the comment sections of their blogs or comment sections from the top blogs in your specific field. What's the tenor of the conversation? What are the hot button words and phrases? ​Before you can understand how search and discovery algorithms operate on a social media platform, you need to understand the language of your audience and their emotional connection to topics and brands. 

3. Collect examples of the best social media practices from experts in social media. There is a difference between the subject experts in your field and the expertise of social marketers. Invest fifteen minutes per week reading articles in The Social Media Examiner. These practitioners answer to clients who expect results. Your goal is not to become an expert in social media. Rather, your goal is to understand how the experts think about social media platforms and the results these platforms deliver for their clientele. Then, adapt their best practices to your goals.  

4. Learning comes from solid, written goals. Remember the seagull. The bird dropped the clam three times before it found the right platform tool. When it comes to social media skills, we are all learning and it is a continuous learning curve. With written goals, you have a baseline to evaluate your efforts objectively, allowing you to construct good questions for next steps.

5. Get outside and take a nature walk every day! No headphones. Walk. Listen to the sounds around you. Appreciate what it means to be part of something larger than yourself.

When you know how to keep social media in perspective, the world is not your oyster. The world is your clam. ​

Who Will Manage Your Literary Estate?

Not to go all spooky town on you, but I have a feeling that both Robert Burns and Robert Donald Thornton want me to ask: who will handle your literary estate?

​It's a gorgeous day to read The New York Times in Central Park. And today at lunch, I thought I would meander around in the West 60s. This is not far from where the police, within the last several days, pulled a second body from a pond. And okay, if I am really honest with you, yes, I'm writing a murder mystery; so, I thought maybe I'd pick-up a few investigation tips at the crime scene.  

There. You know the truth. 

​Now, I'm not suggesting you'll meet an untimely demise. Rather, somewhere between surveying the crime scene, interrupting my walk to correct a park tour guide that Sir Walter Scott is not known as Walt Whitman in America, and locating a suitable park bench to read the newspaper, I consider how short our time is in this world.

In this blog post, I am suggesting that you consider how to protect and preserve your scholarship, which is the foundation of your literary estate, especially in this digital age.

Here's why.

NYPD tape

Within the last several days, the NYPD pulled two bodies from this pond in Central Park.

Robert Burns and Robert Donald Thornton

After defending Sir Walter Scott's honor (and Whitman's, for that matter), I turn around and notice the statue of Robert Burns. The park bench I choose has a plaque dedicated to Robert Donald Thornton, an author and scholar on the works of Robert Burns (blog header image).  

In the spirit of the moment, I query Thornton using the Amazon application on my iPhone. Thornton's book, William Maxwell to Robert Burns, is represented by a dead entry. ​With a deep breath, I query Google. As part of the University of Michigan's library, the book was digitized by Google in 2006. There is no context about Thornton as the author. Further, there is no metadata  beyond publication date (1979) and page length (263). As a publishing professional, this is heartbreaking to me because this waste of scholarship is so unnecessary. 

Managing Copyright is Beyond Most Executors

​On Thornton's plaque, I ask that you note the seven names of children, grandchildren, or a mix of family and friends. While they cared enough about Professor Thornton to dedicated a park bench in his memory near his beloved Robert Burns, this loving gesture does not mean any of them are qualified to manage his papers, letters, unpublished and published works.

Managing copyright, including the subrights contained within it, requires specialized skills. At the time of your death, the task of sorting out your contracts, copyrights, and royalty disbursements will fall to your estate executor. This person is not likely to know the first thing about how to navigate the publishing world in service of what you wanted or your best interests. It is also unlikely this person will know how to maintain and to maximize the discoverability and visibility of your work on Amazon and Google. Or, any library databases for that matter. 

Robert Burns

The statue of Robert Burns is inside Central Park.

The Role of the Literary Executor

In their excellent article, Final Drafts: Selecting a Literary Executor, ​Lloyd Jassin, a publishing attorney in New York, and Ronald Finkelstein, a tax attorney, quote one court's description of the literary executor's role as "requir[ing] a delicate balance between economic enhancement and cultural nurture."  The ideal literary executor is someone knowledgable about copyright, royalty statements and disbursements, contract negotiations, and your specific intentions for how your work can be used and in what contexts and formats. 

Don't Be John M. Ford​

It's human nature to avoid thinking about death. For some writers, there is the faint whisper of "no will be interested in my books and papers, so why bother?" Or, "I'll think about it tomorrow." ​

Writing on his journal blog hosted by HarperCollins, Neil Gaiman mentions that science fiction writer John M. Ford knew he was ill and did nothing to plan for his literary estate. It's an unfortunate situation, but also a common one. Gaiman provides a simple will document that he suggests all creators can use. This is a helpful starting point. However, I think it is always best to have a conversation about your situation with an appropriate legal adviser. ​

Follow the Example of Doris Lessing​

In regard to her literary estate, Doris Lessing is a marketing genius. She specified that her future biographer is the only one who can break the seal on never-seen diaries. Wow. As a publisher, I cannot imagine publishing a biography more exciting than this one. The speculation around never-seen diaries will create unprecedented word-of-mouth. Of course, a biography of this scope will take at least ten years. I'll wait. How about you? 

My point being that Lessing put a great deal of effort and time into appointing a literary executor and preparing specific instructions. To help you get started, consider the following questions.

  1. As things stand today, who will inherit your copyrights?
  2. If you have an agent, how will the agency handle your literary estate? Is this covered in your agency agreement?
  3. For any works you have in progress, who are the best candidates to finish them and to carry them forward to publication?
  4. How should your royalties be distributed and to whom? ​
  5. After your death, how do you envision your digital presence? Who will update your Amazon author page? Do you want your website maintained or removed? To make life easier for those responsible, how will they access the passwords to your accounts? 

What Would Professor Thornton Think about PoetryReincarnations? 

It seems right to end this blog post with a reading of A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns in honor of Professor Thornton. I chose this animation by Jim Clark, founder of PoetryReincarnations. While I am not smitten with it, I give Clark credit for experimenting with animating a wax figure while stylizing the video with early-film overlays. A very interesting approach to content that will endure "TIL 'A THE SEAS GANG DRY."  Take the necessary steps to say the same for yours. 

Book Review: The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Erica Ferencik owes Tyler Comrie, the book cover designer of her debut novel, a big thick moose steak lunch. 

Last week, while walking out of the library and passing by the new releases, Comrie's cover pulled me in like a rip current. I had to read this book. The cover begs the question: who could survive this raw rush of energy?

 The River at Night tears apart any beliefs you might hold dear about human superiority over Mother Nature. Ferencik's Maine wilderness is no place for Candace Bushnell. The novel's setting extends far beyond a few pushy squirrels in Central Park. Titillating her readers with danger from hungry wolves and bears in the shadows, Ferencik explores the relationship dynamics among four women who are on a river rafting trip, led by one self-styled "Mr. Big," all of the action by way of James Dickey's Deliverance

The story unfolds through the first person viewpoint of Winifred Allen. Win works as a graphic designer for a struggling food magazine in Boston. She seems as resigned to the inevitable pink slip as a trout is to the gnashing teeth of a black bear. ​She is also divorced and grieving the death of her brother. And then, there's the first-world blight of comfortable women. Win loathes the way she looks in her clothes.

Will Win find the courage to go freelance like real-life graphic designer Tyler Comrie? Fortunately, the story is more intriguing and complicated than a mid-career woman searching for the right job, the right man, the right ordinary life. 

"The doors to the wild Self are few but precious," writes Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run with Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Women Archetype. Ferencik sends Win down deep to find those doors through past tragedies, emotional pain and disappointments. The river shows no mercy to the self-created narratives Win has for living small. 

The River at Night

Erica Ferencik's debut novel serves as testimony to how a writer becomes an "overnight success" in thirty years.

The River Runs Deep

​There are a few spots early in the novel where you feel the author's scaffolding of the story has been left in place. Perhaps some might say "still water runs deep." Once the action starts, Ferencik's prose shows her wild Self. This novel is a terrific ride. 

"We whipsawed around a bend, and everything changed again...A meringue of white water for what seemed like miles. Water quickened, leapt, broke, and foamed again. And always we kept falling, the river dropping out from under us again and again. Blinded by white waves that broke over our heads, we banged down and down, my knees and spine stunned and throbbing with pain."

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

River and Rocks

When There's a Will There's a Way

Through the churning water, the bone-chilling cold, and vicious mosquitos that you'll swear are biting at your neck as you turn each page, there's more to this thriller. I won't spoil what happens next to Win, Pia, Rachel and Sandra because this novel belongs on your summer reader list. A River at Night is one one book that you can judge by its cover. 

Academic Publishing Hashtags and Where to Find Them

Hashtags, those old-fashioned pound signs (#) that we place in front of words to organize our information and spark conversations (#helloitsspring) on social platforms, could have been claimed as intellectual property and patented by former Google designer Chris Messina

In this interview with Business Insider, Messina said​: "The value and satisfaction I derive from seeing my funny little hack used as widely as it is today is valuable enough for me to be relieved that I had the foresight not to try to lock down this stupidly simple but effective idea."

Messina's intellectual property is the string of code he wrote for the hashtag. This handy symbol pulls together topics of interest, allowing readers to search for related people, places, things, and events across the Internet. As writers, editors and publishers, how do we harness this "stupidly simple but effective idea?"

This blog post provides an overview of three tools: Hastagify.me, RiteTag and Tagboard.

Chris Messina Tweet

Initially, Twitter rejected Messina's suggestion about the hashtag as "too nerdy," translated to mean, perhaps, it's tailor-made for conversations among academics and their publishers. 

How Hashtags Work

A hashtag's power comes from its relational connections to content. The three tools discussed in this post allow you to weigh the value of hashtags in relation to your goals and audience. To go a step further, you can dig deeper into these relationships by frequency, influence, time of day, among other parameters. 

Keep in mind a hashtag does not deliver equal results across all social platforms. In fact, if you use hashtags on Facebook, for example, the hashtag appears to trigger something akin to Hester Prynne wearing the Scarlet Letter, directing readers away from your content. According to a 2016 study by Buzzsumo, Facebook posts without hashtags have significantly higher levels of engagement. 

Alternatively, hashtags can be excellent tools for facilitating engagement on platforms such as Google+, Instagram, and of course, Twitter. ​

3 Hashtag Tools to Focus Your Influence in Academic Publishing

As a new member of the Society for Scholarly Publishers, I'm looking forward to the annual meeting in Boston, May 31 to June 2, 2017. The meeting hashtag is #SSP2017. Since there is not much activity with this specific hashtag yet, I used last year's hashtag (#SSP2016) to identify conversation influencers from the 2016 conference.

Tool #1: Hashtagify.me: You'll notice in this graphic (right) that we are looking at  #SSP2016 in the center and the spokes of 10 related hashtags. At first blush, the related hashtags do not provide much insight. However, the Top Influencers tab was more helpful. In addition to learning about the size of each network, I played around with several hashtags in relation to these influencers and found valuable information. 

SSP 2016 Top Influencers

Hashtagify.me's Top Influencer feature cuts to the chase.

hashtags data by hashtagify.me

Tool #2: RiteTag: This tool is visual and intuitive. The algorithm called to my attention that #SSP2016 is a hashtag used in multiple contexts. So while I had the sense from Hastagify.me that the related hashtags were not helpful, I recognized immediately why in RiteTag

By design, a conference hashtag has a short lifespan. To mine the hashtags for more value, I took advantage of RiteTag's comparative horsepower. I selected the following hashtags: #copyright, #scholcomm, #scholarlywriting, #phdlife, #publishing, #academicwriting, #books, #AcWriMo, #scholarly, #editors, #universitypress #pubtech, #articlewriting, #academicpublishing, #openaccess.

In this second screenshot, we see what is trending in the moment. RiteTag gives helpful tips for pairing hashtags in relation to conversation trends. For example, while I am writing this blog post, tweets containing the hashtags #socialmedia paired with #scholcomm are trending. Before I schedule the post link for Twitter, I can select the optimal hashtags as well as the best days and times to share the link. 

Word of Caution​

​If you are like me, you could spend hours frolicking among the hashtags, losing focus and wasting valuable time. To stay on task, you might try these tips.  

  1. ​Before you begin, write down the goal of the exercise and refer to it in order to stay out of the weeds. 
  2. Use the platform's own save feature or a curation tool such as Pocket or Evernote to save searches for future reference. (For example, save your search by using tags such as: Twitter, How to Hashtags, Ritetag).
  3. Set a time limit and stick to it. 
SSP2016 Tag on Rite Tag

By design, a conference tag has a short life span. It's ideal for live tweets from the conference; but the farther away in time, the more diluted the hashtag becomes by other conferences with using the same hastag. 

Popular Twitter hashtags for scholcomm

RiteTag gives helpful tips for pairing hashtags in relation to conversation trends. Multiple studies show two hashtags per tweet is optimal for engagement on Twitter.  


Tool #3: Tagboard: The clean, sleek, and ridiculously simple design of Tagboard makes it a pleasure to use for hashtag research. 

From the screenshot, you'll notice Tagboard displays hashtag results by network and post type. ​Because each social network has its own audience (similar to cable channels), you do not want to post the same content across all networks. The Tagboard channel and post filters make it easy to see current content and presentation style.

Immediately, I see three benefits.

  1. Tagboard is a useful curation tool for influencer content that I might want to share in my networks.
  2. Tagboard's visual content layout offers insight into what types of original content would work best on specific channels.  
  3. I can comment and engage with the audience directly in the Tagboard interface. This is a big plus. 
Tagboard

Tagboard displays hashtag results by network and post type. 


Hashtag Ownership is Based on Influence

Hashtags are easy to learn, flexible, and a powerful way to segment conversations. I encourage you to create a goal, make a list of hashtags, and try out all three tools. Not only might you be more influential in social conversations than you think, you might also discover new opportunities to engage with colleagues and to make new connections. Please share your thoughts and favorite tools in the comments section.

For my networking goal, I believe Tagboard's functionality is a good choice. Below is the Tagboard I created. I look forward to meeting you in Boston!

#SSP2017

My Tagboard to follow and engage in conversations about the Society for Scholarly Publishers Annual Meeting in Boston. The skyline image of Boston is from Unsplash.com, which is my favorite site for royalty-free images. I created the header in Canva


Coda: An SNL #Hashtag Blast from the Past

Lincoln on the Importance of Writing

The Sugar Palace in Darrow, Louisiana, once home to 753 slaves, is the last place I expected to see Abraham Lincoln. This magnificent sculpture in Houmas House (formerly the Sugar Palace) is remarkable. According to the docent leading the tour, four of these sculptures were made. Three are accounted for with collectors. One is missing (a tantalizing mystery for a future novel). And just to put Houmas House in historical context, it was the largest sugar plantation in the country at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. 

Lincoln on the Importance of Writing​

While American marketing campaigns focus on George Washington as a backdrop for selling cars and winter closeouts, it is Presidents' Day plural, meaning it does include Abraham Lincoln. On this day of honoring Lincoln, his voice, captured in the two quotes selected for this post, is as powerful today as it is prescient. 

Abraham Lincoln

"Writing, the art of communicating thoughts to the mind through the eye, is the great invention of the world...enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space." ​

​In his speeches and letters, Lincoln possessed an indelible fearlessness, which we are so hungry for in this world. This quote about writing is from Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 3

More the 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln, (only Jesus Christ is the subject of more books). 

Have you read a biography of Lincoln? Please share in the comment section. ​

Are the American People Listening? 

"If the great American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled just as surely as all other difficulties of like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted."

A Man for Our Times

In last week's New York Times Book Review, Colson Whitehead reviewed George Saunders's first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Bardo is the intermediate state between death and rebirth. 

So, Let's Suppose​

Lincoln is, literally, in the Bardo right now. We know from his writing that he believes time and space are fluid states. What question would you ask him?

Now, more than ever, we need his answers. 

Please post your questions in the comment section.  ​

6 Secrets to Reading Like a Publisher

Publishing is a competitive business. Can you recall a writing conference that did not include overcrowded sessions on how to pitch an editor? 

Neither can I.​

As Stephen King once said...

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

While conference speakers expound on the editor as "champion for your book," they pay scant attention to an editor's process of reading a manuscript. Granted, every editor is different; but, every editor is also responsible for turning a profit on the books they acquire for publication. Successful editors have a process for reading manuscripts with business acumen and efficiency.

A major part of the "hard work" King refers to means that you, the writer, must broaden your reading skills in order to think like an editor who acquires manuscripts. 

In this post, I share my 15-years of experience reading and buying nonfiction books for publishers such as HarperCollins, Van Nostrand Reinhold, Routledge, and McGraw-Hill International.

Talent is cheaper than table salt

Reading Like a Publisher 

Secret #1: The writer's voice is obvious in a 90-second cold read​.

I love an amazing first sentence as much as the next editor. However, I like to pick a manuscript page at random in order to start reading wherever my eye lands on the text. I do this because I know you've been trained at workshops to make the first page sing like an opera star. But can you sustain your voice throughout the manuscript? That is the question I turnover in my mind while I read on. 

Secret #2: From reading the manuscript, what other medium could showcase the writer's voice and story?

​In my General Interest Books (trade publishing) course at Pace University, I required the graduate students to read Another Life: A Memoir of Other People by Michael Korda, now retired editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster. These students represent the future of publishing. One day soon, these new editors will evaluate your manuscripts. When I opened our class discussion by asking about their first impressions of Korda's book, the first student said, "it would be a great book if it had pictures."  The rest of the class agreed.

This soon-to-be editor knows by instinct that the future of storytelling is visual. And, a good agent knows that the greatest earning potential comes from the myriad of licensing opportunities in multiple mediums for your work. The more licenses sold, the more opportunities for the publisher to sell books.

Today's editor reads manuscripts while thinking about tomorrow's new revenue sources.  

Secret #3: The market for this manuscript is ....

A book's category must be clear to the editor, the marketing and sales teams, and, most important, to readers. Editors understand the market dynamics in their list category, including the nuanced differences among authors. 

While reading a manuscript, even now as a consultant, I jot notes while making comparisons based on the subject, the market, your brand, platform, and how your book compares and contrasts to other titles. To learn more about specific categories, I recommend that you review the BISC codes. Published by the Book Industry Study Group, these codes are used by publishers and booksellers to place your title in the appropriate category on the bookshelf and to appear in reader search queries on Amazon. Like the editor, your job is to be confident where your book fits in its category. 

Secret​ #4: What is different in this manuscript and what makes this difference significant? 

Here's where your title and subtitle are critical. The main title represents the book's promise to the reader. The subtitle explains how you deliver the promise to the reader. In marketing parlance, this is your value proposition. To illustrate this point, here are three nonfiction books I'm in the process of reading.

1. ​Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura. The main title marries two evocative concepts: silence and beauty. The subtitle sends me off on a challenging journey. Suffering is a necessary catalyst in order for me to uncover, feel, accept, and transform my personal understanding of faith. 

2. Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott. Revolution is a powerful word. What kind of revolution am I going to learn about? The Blockchain Revolution. What do these authors promise to explain to me? They are going to show me why they believe the technology behind Bitcoin is going to transform how people conduct all business and social financial transactions. 

3. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin​. Love it! The main title is slang for money. The subtitle explains who needs the money (writers) and what writers want most (after readers, of course) to make a living from their writing. Hallelujah.  

Secret #5: How has the manuscript changed and/or deepened my perspective?

It is often said that Joseph Campbell, the preeminent American mythologist and author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, stood on the shoulders of C.G. Jung, father of analytical psychology and author of The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society (a must read now more than ever!). In other words, no writer is an island. We all stand on the shoulders of our teachers, mentors, and the people who inspire us to pursue our passions and to share them. 

I believe this question of how the proposed manuscript is advancing ideas and conversations is a critical factor for an editor to consider when making a publishing decision. Every editor wants to believe that his or her publishing decision contributes to making the lives of people better. Another way to think of this secret is: why does the world need your book? 

Secret #6: I would recommend this book to ....​

This is the best part. After I've read the book proposal, sample chapters and/or the manuscript, I make a list of 10 people that I believe will like the book too. Within a publishing context, I consider booksellers, bloggers, reviewers, the sales reps, other authors, friends. Who would enjoy and/or benefit from the book?  Enthusiasm is contagious.

Publishing is a networking business. If 10 people do not flow easily from my pen in a stream of consciousness, ​I know I have an interesting book, but not necessarily a marketable one. This why I pass on interesting books. The standard is interesting + marketable. 

Read On and Rock On

So, we know you are talented. Now, you have a process for doing the hard work. With this knowledge, you will be able to put yourself in the editor's shoes while reading your manuscript. Raise your game and compete to win in the publishing arena. 

Happy 2017 and New Teaching Space!

While walking through Central Park on a bright November day, I saw this rainbow (header image) in a fountain. Little did I know that it was sign of good fortune to come. Several days before New Year's Eve, I received a phone call from my dear friend Mr. R.D. Chin to meet him on West 30th Street, near Penn Station. With his lovely wife, R.D. secured a gorgeous space above an art gallery in midtown Manhattan. "It's a place where we can all teach," he said. This is a dream come true.

The Teaching Space to Grow in Community

​With this new chapter for Melissa's Coaching Studio, I hope you will come visit as well as join a discussion or take a workshop. Beginning in February, I'm offering several different events.

Chi: A Journal Writing Workshop

Writing is the perfect way to make the invisible visible. Writing together, we will learn how to express the best of who we are in the world. Learn how to channel your chi into journal entries, affirmations, and much more. We'll be writing, reading passages from the mystics, sharing, and helping each other through the art of words. More details here.

Perfect Pitch Thursdays

Do you have a book idea? But, you have no idea how to crack the publishing world? I'm dedicating four, one hour session every Thursday afternoon to work one-to-one with writers. Well work on your pitch and networking strategies in order to help you bring focus, clarity to your concept, brand, and platform. More details here.

Book Club 307

I'm so excited to start this book club. Book Club 307 is for agents of change. It is no coincidence that I selected Kelly Link's Get in Trouble: Stories, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, for our first book discussion. We meet the first and third Tuesdays of the month. More details here

Social Media Labs, Marketing Workshops, Career Strategy Seminars in March!

3 Universal Truths of Authorship

The writer's life is ruled by three universal truths of authorship. During my book publishing career, I've seen these truths play out for dozens of authors. May these tidbits help you in those moments of doubt about why you wrote a book in the first place!

​1. The Book Never Feels "Done."

Writing is your internal world.

You started with an idea. Developing the idea, you fall in love with the concept, whether fiction or nonfiction. The story is incredible and you want to share it with the world. 

Publishing is your external world.

The path to publisher is circuitous. Once there, though, the steps in the publishing production process are the same: copyediting, design, proofreading. You participate in a back and forth over many details. Finally, the book files go to press. 

The Taunting of "Perfect"

Shortly before the final copy of your book arrives, you awake in the middle of the night, sweating. You've composed the PERFECT SENTENCE that would make all the difference in chapter two, if you could just revise it one more time! But, you can't.

Your inner critic takes over. You start to doubt the entire process. Happy anticipation morphs into a gooey dread. The cure, here, is to prepare for "done."

How to Prepare for "Done"

Define what "done" means and looks like for you. Write, by hand, a paragraph about the future of your book and how your life will be different as a result of publishing it. 

Manuscript Never Feels Done

TIP: Create your own "Done" checklist. This is a great way to hold yourself accountable. It becomes much easier to let go of the final manuscript when you know you've met your own expectations. Inevitably, your editor will ask for revisions. Your checklist gives you a baseline for considering her revision suggestions. 

2. The Book is Out of Your Control

From the time you conceived the idea through the final proofread, you maintained a measure of control over the book. During the process, you may not have liked some of the decisions the publisher made. For example, almost every author I know has a horror story about how they felt dismissed about the cover choice. Trust me, you were not dismissed. Nine times out of ten, the publisher does know best. It's their business. 

When the book arrives in your hands, it is a real, physical thing. My all-time favorite example comes from the final scene of Julie & Julia. Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep, is at the stove when Paul Child, played by Stanley Tucci, walks through the door carrying the mail. Among the letters, there is a package. Julia opens it. It's the book. She looks at it and clutches to her chest. She is so happy. Paul is thrilled. It is a beautiful, private moment.

 Mastering the Art of French Cooking, just as the caterpillar becomes the butterfly, transformed from a writing and publishing exercise to a new book in the world. At moment of publication, the editor "lets go." Readers judge books. Word of mouth is the primary mechanism for selling books. Your editor moves on to the books for the next season. 

You, on the other hand, might be feeling naked and afraid. ​The reader is a book browser you don't know personally. Think of your readers as the 10,000 people you will never meet in person. It is precisely at this moment when you need to let go and resist the temptation to "correct" readers about what you intended for the book.  

Julie and Julia Book Cover

TipJulie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell is an excellent example of a blog to book project, plus movie deal!

3. The Irresistible Urge to Correct Reviewers

Once upon a time, one of my authors contacted a book reviewer for The New York Times and told her how she obviously did not understand the book. Another author accused the host of not reading the book at all, during a live, national news show broadcast. 

In both cases, these authors were using what Albert J. Bernstein calls their dinosaur brains. According to Bernstein, ​people's irrational and emotional acts are based on primitive flight, fight, and freight responses. 

Of course, it is natural to feel you need to defend your book. You are human. But what is even more important, you are writing other books. Your career path is ahead of you. ​

As you might image, the publisher gets very angry when authors contact reviewers. Why? It is unprofessional, reflecting badly on you and your publisher.

What to do instead​

Be thankful for every review, especially the harsh reviews. It is better to have a review with a strong reaction than a tepid one.

Step back, read reviews for consistency. Are reviewers commenting on the same issues or different issues? What are you learning from the reviews? Learning is key to your future success. 

Irresistible Urge to Correct Reviewers

Tip: It's a challenging transition: moving from the publishing process to finished book. Suddenly, the 10,000 people you will never meet are talking about your book. Resist the temptation to "correct" their points of view in reviews. 

Try This Exercise to Prepare for Your Book's Publication

Make a list of the ten questions you want to be asked. Then, make a list of the 10 questions that terrify you. These are the questions you fear you will be asked in an interview or at a book signing event. From this exercise, authors discover that the questions they most fear yield some of the best stories about how the book came into existence. Facing your fears is an act of courage. Readers connect with authenticity.  

​So, no dinosaur brains. Go forward to express the best of who you are. Find your own universal truth.  

"So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing." -- T.S. Eliot #amwriting #bookpublishing

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Van Gogh Unfinished

Vincent van Gogh unfinished means (fill in the blank). This prompt's potential is limitless. 

Rocking the art world last week, The New York Times reported Sketchbook Attributed to van Gogh Pits Scholars Against a Museum. The sketchbook's 65 drawings trace back to van Gogh's time spent in Arles, France. According to Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, a University of Toronto professor emeritus of art history, and Ronald Pickvance, author of two book about van Gogh's life in Arles and Auvers-sur-Oise, France, the sketchbook is a remarkable discovery for several reasons. However, one reason caught my interest. Vincent van Gogh: The Lost Arles Sketchbook is based on sketches made in a commercial ledger. 

​In my recent post on Ledger Art: A Narrative of Resilience, I wrote about how Native American artists, confined to reservations, used government ledgers as a medium to record their stories and history. They used ledgers because ledgers were all they had. Welsh-Ovcharov contends van Gogh did the same thing. He used any medium available to sketch. Welsh-Ovcharov and Pickvance believe the van Gogh sketches are authentic. When short of money to purchase canvases, van Gogh had a reputation for drawing and painting on any material not nailed down. The sketchbook is a commercial ledger, most likely given to van Gogh by the proprietors of the Cafe de Garé. Van Gogh lived at this cafe and inn while in Arles from May to early September 1888. 

From my longtime friendship and association with Dominique-Charles Janssens, Founder and President of the Institut van Gogh and owner of the Auberge Ravoux, van Gogh's last home and where he died, I've heard many stories. With joie de vivre, Dominique describes Vincent swiping tea towels off the tables at the Auberge. Six of Vincent's tea towel paintings are now in private collections. So for me, Vincent sketching in a commercial ledger is not a far-fetched reality.

Alas, though, I am an enthusiast and not a scholar or art expert. ​With all the fake news swirling around us, what is the truth?

The Van Gogh Museum Statement

In Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum is the sole authority responsible for the authentication of van Gogh's work. ​The Museum released a statement citing several reasons why the sketchbook is not van Gogh's. 

  1. Characteristic style not in evidence.
  2. Brownish ink not typical.
  3. Topographical errors.
  4. Sketchbook's provenance raises many questions.​

According to Louis van Tilborgh, a senior researcher at the Museum, the sketchbook was reviewed in 2008 and 2012 with same conclusion: the sketchbook is not authentic. 

Given the financial value of van Gogh's work, the likelihood of forgery is high on the Museum's list of concerns whenever someone claims discovery of a "lost" van Gogh. In fact, while researching forgeries for this post, I noticed that investigative reporter James Ottar Grundvig is the author of Breaking van Gogh: Saint-Rémy, Forgery, and the $95 Million Dollar Fake at the Met published last month by Skyhorse Publishing. 

When it comes to van Gogh, everyone seems to have an angle. ​

Vincent van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Creative Truth or This Much I Know is True

The one thing I know is true is this: when you enter Gallery 825 inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you will see more people clustered around paintings by Vincent (as he signed his paintings) than any other artist. And if you take seat and observe people, as their eyes travel over the colors and textures, you realize you are in the presence of the spiritual connection between artist and viewer. It is remarkable.

Every now and then, I'll take my dog-eared copy of Dear Theo: ​The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh edited by Irving and Jean Stone to Gallery 825. Reading one or two letters surrounded by the paintings is deeply moving. Amid his doubts and obstacles, van Gogh's vision and hope for the world remains extraordinary. 

Creative expression is what makes us human and it is through this impulse that we each have the potential to bring more beauty into the world. We are all unfinished works in progress. And that is an encouraging truth. ​

van Gogh Sunflowers

Sunflowers, Vincent van Gogh. 1887. Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gallery 825.


Note on the Post Header Image: van Gogh's unfinished canvas of the Village of Auvers-sur-Oise was one painting among many by other artists included in the MET Breuer's exhibition: Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible. I could not resist taking a photo of the people gathered around Vincent's canvas. No other canvas drew as much attention in this particular gallery. 

Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible was a fantastic exhibit and merits its own blog post. So many posts to write!

How do you manage your time for creating content for your blog? Please share your tips!​

van gogh unfinished painting

Viewers gather around van Gogh's unfinished painting of Auvers-sur-Oise at the MET Breuer, September 2, 2016. 


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