Tuesday, September 4, 2012

John Locke's Amazon Con

Bestselling self-pub author John Locke
Much has already been said about the NYT article on the "entrepreneur" Todd Rutherford, who built a business selling four and five-star Amazon reviews to self-published authors.  The most widely-discussed revelation of the article is the fact that author John Locke freely admits to purchasing hundreds of reviews from Rutherford at a cost of thousands of dollars.

Most people discussing this article seem to assume that Locke's bogus reviews were a fraud against his readers, and since many people believe they can sniff out bogus reviewers, some readers haven't expressed much concern.  As many people point out, the trustworthy reviews stand out when you read them.  But Locke didn't care about the content of his reviews. He was interested in having a high star rating across a large number of reviews.  He wasn't trying to fool readers; he was trying to fool Amazon's computers.

Over a period of many years, Amazon has collected a great deal of customer purchase information, and used that to construct a powerful sales apparatus.  There are a bunch of "Recommended for you" books on the front page of the site, and there are lots of "people who bought x also bought y" lists it shows you as you peruse the site.  Books that get onto those lists get more sales, and then they get onto various genre bestseller lists, which drives more traffic to the books and boosts the sales further.

Amazon wants to show you stuff it thinks you'll want to buy, including stuff you might not already know about. However, since it sells over 8 million books and millions of other products, its human employees can't put their eyes on every product in its store and decide which ones to recommend, the way a bookseller in your local bookstore might.  Instead, Amazon's computers make predictions about what books or other products might interest you based, in large part, on what other people are buying or talking about (particularly other people whose past sales have demonstrated taste similar to yours).

If Amazon's computers catch a product becoming a nascent trend or a book breaking out, they're designed to recognize that and amplify the sales by showing the book to people who are likely to buy it.  In an environment in which thousands of books are trying to break out of obscurity, that kind of exposure is priceless. So a great way for a self-published author to become popular is to trick Amazon into thinking that he's already popular.

Obviously, if people knew how to do this, everyone would be doing it, so the operation of Amazon's recommendation algorithms is a closely held secret.  But Locke made an expensive bet that he could influence Amazon by buying lots of customer reviews and that bet paid off.  None of the safeguards Amazon had in place thwarted Locke and Rutherford.  The fake reviews came from all over the country, because Rutherford was farming the review work out to freelancers.  The reviewers were all "verified purchasers" because Locke's books only cost $0.99, so he could easily pay an extra buck to each reviewer to buy his e-book (which also spiked his ranking).

Locke had many other mechanisms of self-promotion; he's unquestionably talented at getting his name and his books in front of readers.  If buying fake reviews was what got him favorable placement on the Amazon website, it was probably a much more effective investment of money, in terms of traffic to his book page and overall sales, than purchasing Facebook or Google ads to promote a book.

Phony Amazon reviews are now as cheap as $5 on sites like Fiver.  According to the NYT, Locke paid $20 for each of the 300 he bought from Rutherford. The good news is that, as fake reviews have proliferated, Amazon has changed its recommendation algorithms to reduce the benefit authors can gain from spamming the site with fake reviews. A hundred purchased reviews will no longer boost an author's standing in the recommendation system the way they did for Locke.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My Successful Query Letter for DON'T EVER GET OLD

As long as I'm sharing writing and publishing advice, I thought I'd show off my successful query letter for DON'T EVER GET OLD.  I sent this out as unsolicited slush, and that's how I found my literary agent, Victoria Skurnick at Levine Greenberg:

Ninety year-old Baruch “Buck” Schatz remembers a time when the only “portable handheld device” anybody needed was a .357, “Google” was the sound a guy made when you punched him in the throat, and “social networking functionality” came out of a bottle.

These days, though, this retired detective is extremely frail and frequently confused.  But when he learns the SS officer who tortured him in a POW camp may have escaped Germany with a fortune in stolen gold, Buck decides to hunt down the fugitive and claim the loot.  He’s got nothing better to do, and keeping his mind occupied is supposed to ward off dementia.

Assisted by his grandson, a law student who knows how to find information using a computer and is allowed to drive at night, Buck finds a lead down the Nazi’s long-cold trail.  But lots of people want a piece of that treasure, and Buck’s investigation quickly attracts unfriendly attention from a Mississippi loan shark, a seven-foot tall Hasidic Jew, a preacher on the take, a cop with a grudge and a bloodthirsty maniac hell-bent on rubbing out everybody who knows anything about Nazi gold.

“Don’t Ever Get Old” is a 76,000 word mystery/thriller about a hard-boiled man in a world gone soft, confronting the existential reality of his inevitable decline and death while trying to get rich quick.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Query Advice: Everyone Gets Rejections, But Not Just Rejections

Stephenie Meyer really didn't have a hard time getting published
It's true that all writers who cold-query literary agents get rejections, and lots of them.  Most literary agents get between 5,000 and 10,000 queries per year, and requesting even one manuscript per week is a huge time commitment.  They have to cull the slush and make very fast decisions about most of those letters.  If you're interested in seeing the process that goes into the decision to request or reject queries, literary agent Kevan Lyon live-tweets her slush-reading sometimes.

Agents may reject a query based on a subjective disinterest in the concept, or because it competes too closely with an existing client's manuscript, or because they only have time to take on one new client, and they're looking for something very specific.  But mostly, they reject queries because the pitches and the pages that accompany them aren't good enough.

Successful authors seem to like to tell stories about their rejections, either to shoehorn their paths to publication into some narrative about overcoming hardship, or to commiserate with aspiring writers who are struggling to get agents' attention. There are legends, repeated constantly at writers' conferences, of bestselling authors who got dozens or hundreds of rejections before breaking through to spectacular success.  

A lot of stories make it sound like successful authors got their agents by accident, like when Nicholas Sparks signed with an agent who fished his query out of a dead person's mail.  But Sparks also spent weeks perfecting his letter, and, as a result, signed with an agent on his first batch of 25 letters, despite sending out letters "at random," rather than targeting agents who represented his genre. 

Similarly, when I attended Thrillerfest last month, three different writers told me about how Stephenie Meyer only got representation for TWILIGHT because an assistant who should have auto-rejected the manuscript for its overlong word-count decided to pass it along to her boss.  People who tell this story tend to omit the fact that Meyer got her agent in her first batch of 15 query letters, and she got a $750,000 deal so fast that some of those 15 agents were still responding to her query after she had already sold her book.

Based on such tales of perseverance, many aspiring authors premise their submission strategy on the assumption that queries fail until they succeed, and that the next agent they query could always be the one who will take on their book. But this isn't quite true; while everybody gets rejections at every point in the process, successful submissions don't get ONLY rejections.  The best queries tend to get a significant percentage of positive responses almost immediately.  Similarly, a query that's getting no requests probably needs to be rewritten.

Despite the huge volume of slush and the very brief consideration any individual query gets, the best letters really tend to stand out.  Most authors I know who have ultimately secured representation got requests for partial or full manuscripts from at least 20% of the agents they queried, which is an amazing degree of consensus when you consider that agents reject about 99.5% of queries.  If an author tells you that 25 agents form-rejected her query, she may be omitting the fact that she also had ten full requests and three offers of representation.  

I think this is an encouraging fact, because it means the query process is something you can control. It may seem like your letter is a single piece of paper in a vast sea of submissions, each with only one chance in 250 of getting an agent's attention, but it's actually more like 210 queries with zero chance of ever getting requested by anyone, 25 queries with a slim chance some agent might take a look, and maybe 15 queries that will get requests a significant percentage of the time.  All the agents will be requesting from among the same handful of manuscripts. Although any given agent is likely to reject 12 out of the 15, the authors will be querying dozens of agents, so multiple agents will be reading each of these books.

It's not a lottery; agents really read the queries you send them.  If your letter is the best one an agent reads in a given week, there's a pretty high chance the agent will request your manuscript. 

If you delve into the query-tracking threads on forums like AbsoluteWrite, you'll see that this is how it plays out: a few people will have 8 or 9 full-manuscript requests from 30 queries, a couple of people will be pinning their hopes on one partial request, and everybody else will have nothing but rejections.

Of course, that means the people everybody's jealous of also have a pile of rejections, so when established authors talk about the agents that turned them down, many aspiring authors take away the wrong message.  You aren't looking for one "yes" in a sea of rejections; you're looking for a positive consensus among a substantial proportion of the agents reading your submission.

Most agents will only consider a query from you once per novel, so it is a mistake to continue to exhaust all your leads hoping for a different outcome when your previous feedback has been unanimously negative.

If you send out ten queries with your first five pages to ten agents you think represent books in your genre, and you get zero requests, you shouldn't respond to that by sending out more identical queries.  You should go back and work some more on your letter and your pages (and possibly your entire manuscript) before you send it out to more agents. Query in small batches, and keep working on refining the letter if you aren't getting the responses you want.  AbsoluteWrite and other message boards have spaces devoted to query critiques, and you should use those.

Perseverance is an important quality for writers, but the way you persevere is by writing enough to develop the skill-set that will produce the best manuscript in an agent's slushpile.  If you fail, read more good books, write more, and produce new work you're even more proud of.   

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why Authors Sign With Commercial Publishers

We've been hearing a lot of narratives over the last few years about self-published bestsellers, but it remains true that almost everyone who has the option to publish with a commercial publisher chooses to do so.

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner had a post a while back about why authors still want deals with trade publishers.  I'm going to point out a few other things that come with traditional publishing that are unavailable to self-published authors, and which translate into real benefits:

1. (Perceived) Legitimacy

A lot of authors say they want to publish commercially because they want "validation" from a trade publisher.  This may sound like a vanity concern, but reviewers and readers also perceive a validity inherent to trade-published books that is not automatically assumed of self-publishers.

All writers think they're talented, and that their books are good.  Most of them are wrong.  Readers want to see some endorsement of a book's quality other than the author's high opinion of himself. When a publishing house puts a book out, there's an expectation that it will at least meet a certain standard of competence.

There's nobody standing behind a self-published book except the author.  For new self-published authors, it can be very difficult to get anyone else to look at the book, even if it's actually good.  Many readers -- perhaps most -- won't read self-published books at all.  Many online reader forums, including Amazon's customer discussions, have made rules excluding authors from participating in forum threads because readers don't want to interact with self-published authors or have their discussions spammed with self-promotion.

In 2011, Bowker counted 211,000 new ISBN numbers for self-published books.  That's a huge number of people competing for readers' attention.  Even bloggers and reader-reviewer communities who are dedicated to spreading the word about self-published books can't possibly sift all that slush.

The solution to this problem has been for self-published authors to give away a ton of e-books.  The hope is that, by giving away 5000 downloads, maybe a couple of hundred people will actually read the book and five or ten will review it on Amazon or on their blogs, or recommend it to friends.  But with so many authors giving away books, even the audience for free e-books is swamped.

All the things that might have helped a book stand out eighteen months ago, like buying professionally designed covers, running large-scale giveaways, and pursuing pricing strategies to manage Amazon's internal recommendation system are becoming standard practice across a much larger chunk of the market, so it's getting harder for self-published authors to gain traction.

A survey of self-published authors by Taleist found that the median self-published author earns $500 per year.  In fact, that number is probably high; the survey uses self-reported data, so unsuccessful authors may have lied about their sales or may have been less likely to respond to the survey.  And since Taleist found self-published romance authors make twice as much as other self-published authors, if you're writing in any other genre, your results will probably be even worse.

If the median self-published author pays a freelance editor for copy-editing and hires a freelance jacket designer, the cost of these services will likely exceed the royalties from the author's book.

2.  Trade Reviews

There are four major trade publications that review books ahead of their release: Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal.  Each of these magazines reviews about 7500 trade-published books a year, so if your novel is published by a big publisher, there's a good chance you'll be reviewed by a trade.  If your novel is published in hardcover by a Big-6 house, you're likely to be reviewed by all of them.

For traditionally published books, these reviews are free if your publisher sends galleys for the trades to review.  But the booksellers and librarians who subscribe to the trades don't stock self-published books and aren't interested in reading about them.  The freelance critics who review galleys for the trades don't especially want to read self-published books.  The only people who want to see self-published books reviewed in trades are the authors, and that means self-published authors have to pay the trades to review their books.

If your book is self-published, you can pay a fee for a listing in Publishers' Weekly's quarterly supplement about self-pubbed titles.  They also select some titles for review, but buying a listing does not guarantee a review.  Kirkus charges a significant fee to review self-published books, and they post these reviews in a segregated part of the Kirkus website.  Kirkus calls prides itself on employing "the world's toughest book critics;" so even if you pay them, they may not say nice things about you.  If you don't like your review, Kirkus won't post it, but they'll keep your money.  Booklist and Library Journal do not review self-published books.

A positive review from a trade gives you a good pull-quote to use for promotional purposes, and earns you notice from booksellers in librarians.  Fewer than 10% of the books reviewed by any given trade will earn a starred review.  DON'T EVER GET OLD was starred by all four trades, which is very rare, and really jump-started my sales.

3. Libraries

Libraries are a major revenue stream for the publishing industry and for trade-published authors, and they're almost entirely inaccessible for self-published authors.

There are 9200 public library systems in the US and nearly 17,000 library facilities.  They buy a lot of books.  Many hardcover releases from Big-6 publishers sell thousands of copies into libraries.  To put this in perspective: if you sell about 20 self-published e-books a day, you'll maintain a Kindle store rank of around 5,000, which is very good.  That moves about 600 copies a month, so it takes you 5 months at that rank to sell 3000 copies.  If only 1 out of every 5 library branches buys just a single copy of a traditionally published author's book, he's matched your 5 months of Amazon self-published success before he sells his first retail hardcover or e-book.

DON'T EVER GET OLD sold very well into libraries, likely on the strength of the starred trade reviews.  Librarians have also been very enthusiastic promoters of the book to their readers and on their blogs.

4. Foreign/Subsidiary Rights

Some self-published authors have secured foreign rights sales, but it's uncommon, and your self-published sales have to be extremely strong to generate international interest.

Translation and other rights are often very lucrative for traditionally published authors. DON'T EVER GET OLD has sold Portuguese, Japanese and French translation rights, as well as large print, audio and film rights.

5. Events/Speaking Engagements

There are literary festivals all around the country, and a number of famous and bestselling authors spend a lot of time traveling among them.  These trips offer great opportunities to attract new readers, and the costs are often partly defrayed by event organizers or publishers.

I've been invited to the Decatur Book Festival outside Atlanta over Labor Day weekend, and the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October.

While some of these events do include self-published authors, the indies are often put in a separate tent or have their readings scheduled on a separate stage, and they may have to pay the festival for space to exhibit their books.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Mike Judge, Prophet

Compare this scene from Mike Judge's 2006 film Idiocracy:

With this clip from the current season of America's Got Talent:

This encapsulates the current state of our national discourse. David Brooks should write a column about this guy, or something.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


It's out.  

The critics loved it and now, you can too.  Here are some reviews:

Publishers Weekly (starred): "Friedman makes his limited lead plausible, and bolsters the story line with wickedly funny dialogue."

Kirkus (starred): "The real prize here, however, isn’t Nazi treasure but Buck’s what-the-hell attitude toward observing social pieties, smoking in forbidden venues and making life easier for other folks. As he battles memory loss and a host of physical maladies, it’s great to see that he can still make whippersnapper readers laugh out loud."

Booklist (starred): "a knockout of a book"

Library Journal (starred): "Short chapters, crackling dialog, and memorable characters make this a standout 
debut. With his curmudgeonly lead, Friedman ensures his intergenerational detective story maintains a pitch-perfect tone. The underlying theme of revenge balances a wacky plot that evokes Elmore Leonard."
You can buy it at:

Mystery Scene Magazine: "It’s a pitch-perfect debut novel, expertly balancing comedy, gritty crime drama, absurdity, and genuine poignancy. It’s also one of the most assured debuts in some time."

BookPage Magazine (Top Pick): "Schatz is an anachronism: a chain-smoking Lucky Strike addict; a Luddite to a fault; cranky and crotchety at every juncture. He is also wickedly funny and full of pithy homilies. Don’t Ever Get Old is just about as good as debut mysteries get."

Library Journal's "Books For Dudes"Buck transcends masculinity in favor of manliness...If you don’t like this book, there’s something wrong with you."

Criminal Element "Fresh Meat:  "This book reflects back to a serious and dreadful time in world history and yet, Buck is so funny in his approach to life, that I laughed my way throughout. For the sheer joy of it, I re-read the part where Buck and Tequila are in the bank, trying to open the safety deposit box, three or four times. It was that irresistible."

You can read the first chapter here

And you can buy it at these places:

Or at your local independent bookstore, which I recommend, because DON'T EVER GET OLD is a SIBA Okra Pick.

Here is an ad about how all four trades gave the book starred reviews:

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Mystery Scene magazine loves DON'T EVER GET OLD

Mystery Scene Magazine has reviewed DON'T EVER GET OLD.  Reviewer Derek Hill said:  "It's a pitch-perfect debut novel, expertly balancing comedy, gritty crime drama, absurdity, and genuine poignancy.  It's one of the most assured debuts in some time -- the dialogue and tight, expert plotting should please fans of Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, and Joe Lansdale.  The mystery field is crammed with "colorful" amateur detectives, but you've never met anyone quite like this old bastard.  You'll never forget him either.  Highly recommended."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Four Starred Reviews for DON'T EVER GET OLD

Prepublication reviews by the four publishing-industry trade journals -- Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal -- are extremely influential.

They each review thousands of books a year, and they award starred reviews to distinguished or exceptional books.

Librarian Ann Chambers Theis maintains a blog called Overbooked, where she tracks the starred reviews awarded by these publications. Here is a list she compiled of all the adult fiction titles last year that got stars from three or more of the trade publications.

When you consider that upwards of five thousand novels are published by commercial presses each year, that's a short list.  And the number of books that are starred by all four trades is very small.

For all of 2011, this is the full list:

"Red On Red" Conlon, Edward
"Broken Irish" Delaney, Edward J.
"The Marriage Plot" Eugenides, Jeffrey
"Say Her Name" Goldman, Francisco
"Turn of Mind" LaPlante, Alice
"The Troubled Man" Mankell, Henning
"Trackers" Meyer, Deon
"The Night Circus" Morgenstern, Erin
"1Q84" Murakami, Haruki
"The Cat's Table" Ondaatje, Michael
"Zone One" Whitehead, Colson

So I am very happy to announce that DON'T EVER GET OLD has been starred by all four trades, and joins that illustrious company.

Friday, March 30, 2012

3 Starred Reviews

DON'T EVER GET OLD has earned coveted starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Review and Booklist.  These are three of the four major trade publications which review most trade releases. Only about one out of every ten to twenty books reviewed gets a star, so this kind of early critical consensus is really exciting. 

Friedman’s excellent debut introduces a highly unusual hero, 87-year-old, politically incorrect Buck Schatz, a former member of the Memphis PD, who’s become a living legend. Schatz’s memory is less and less reliable, and his physical decline is making his world “a gradually shrinking circle.” That circle becomes a good deal larger after he agrees to a request to visit Jim Wallace, a soldier he served with in WWII who’s on his deathbed. Wallace reveals that Heinrich Ziegler, the SS officer who ran the POW camp where both Schatz and Wallace were imprisoned, survived the war. On top of that shocker, Wallace reveals that he facilitated the Nazi’s escape in exchange for a gold bar. Schatz’s furious reaction accelerates Wallace’s demise and sets off a frantic search for Ziegler and the treasure he still possesses.

Friedman makes his limited lead plausible, and bolsters the story line with wickedly funny dialogue.

A geezer cowboy who’s been retired from Memphis Homicide longer than he served there is thrust into the middle of a murderous hunt for Nazi plunder.

What a shame that when Jim Wallace was on his deathbed, he asked his old comrade-in-arms Buck Schatz to come see him. The two had never been friends, and they don’t bond now over Jim’s revelation that he’d accepted a bar of gold in return for letting the supposedly dead Heinrich Ziegler, the SS commandant of the POW camp where both GIs languished in 1944, pass through a military crossing and out of history. As if Jim’s confession weren’t bad enough, Buck soon realizes that Jim blabbed to everyone he could reach from his hospital bed. Now Jim’s daughter Emily and her repellant husband Norris, Baptist preacher Lawrence Kind, Israeli agent Yitzchak Steinblatt and casino debt collector T. Addleford Pratt are all convinced that Buck is on the trail of Ziegler and his gold, and they’re all determined to cut themselves in for a piece of the action. Worse still, someone doesn’t trust natural causes to eliminate his competitors. Since he’s 88 years old, Buck’s clear mandate is to go back to watching daytime TV. Instead, he pokes Det. Randall Jennings with a stick and, when that fails, enlists his grandson William, aka Tequila, to spend his summer off from NYU Law School helping him track down Ziegler. The real prize here, however, isn’t Nazi treasure but Buck’s what-the-hell attitude toward observing social pieties, smoking in forbidden venues and making life easier for other folks. As he battles memory loss and a host of physical maladies, it’s great to see that he can still make whippersnapper readers laugh out loud.
A sardonically appealing debut for a detective who assures his long-suffering grandson, “I care about people. I just don’t like them.”

The title of this knockout of a book is misleading. Ninetyish, retired Memphis homicide cop Buck Schatz makes coot-dom look like a riot. Buck is an abrasive old party with not an ounce of codger cuteness. He has trouble remembering, his skin has grown papery, he can’t push his lawn mower anymore. But his cop’s watchfulness is intact. He keeps his .375 Magnum close by. He’s a death-camp survivor—his real name is Baruch—and right off, he learns that the sadistic guard who brutalized him is likely still alive and the possessor of much stolen Nazi gold. To honor the Nazi’s victims and maybe grab the gold, Buck and his chatterbox grandson go on a quest. But who are these people who suddenly come out of the woodwork—a loan shark, a scholar, a pretty Israeli soldier? And why does everyone start dying? In prose as straightforward and tough as old Buck, the plot reveals its secrets with perfect timing. It’s a shock when the killer’s identity is revealed. But, then, we think eventually, who else could it be?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Did This Con-Artist Trick The Big Six Into Publishing Him?

Mitchell Graham's mugshot
Via Ann Crispin and Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware, comes the fascinating tale of Mitchell Gross, a.k.a. Mitchell Graham.

Graham is the author of five books; three fantasy novels and two mysteries.  HarperCollins publishes his fantasy series and Tor/Forge put out his mysteries.  Graham is also a felon. He swindled women he met on Jdate for millions of dollars.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution story linked above describes how Graham persuaded his girlfriend to "invest" over three million dollars with a nonexistent financial manager, how he sent her fake tax forms, and how he used her life savings to support his lavish lifestyle and pay off his ex-fiancee, who he'd bilked out of $1.4 million using a similar scheme.

But, years before he duped his lovers, he may have conned a literary agent into representing him, and HarperCollins into publishing his book.

In 2002, Graham "won" the gold medal for fantasy and the overall grand prize in the prestigious third-annual Delmont-Ross writing contest.  There was no fourth-annual Delmont-Ross writing contest, and there was never a second or a first.

Writer Beware is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' of America's scam-watching task-force.  The Delmont-Ross contest came to their attention because writers who had seen publicity about Graham's book asked SFWA about the contest, and how they could enter it.  Writer Beware found that Borders and Merrill-Lynch, the purported sponsors of the contest, had never heard of it, and there was no trace of any Delmont-Ross foundation.  Prominent sci-fi writer Ben Bova who was hired to judge the contest, told Writer Beware that Graham's manuscript was the only "finalist" submitted for his consideration.

The Delmont-Ross award was fake.  Graham made it up, so he could give his manuscript a "grand prize."  Then he sent out fake press releases, ostensibly from a Merrill-Lynch trust administrator, announcing his victory.  He also placed an announcement about the award in Locus magazine, a legitimate sci-fi/fantasy publication.

In interviews with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the online journal Writers Write, Graham claimed that he was inundated by requests for the manuscript from agents and publishers after his Delmont-Ross announcement. If he's telling the truth (which he almost never is), this con man actually got literary agents to query him!

I'm not going to muck up his agent's Google results by putting her name in this post, because she did exactly what an agent is supposed to do.  She got him a 3 book deal.  But I wonder if the agent really reached out to him based on his phony press releases, or if she was persuaded to offer representation by his grand prize in the prestigious Delmont-Ross competition.

There's no way a con like this would work today.  Agents are inundated with too many submissions to chase down the winners of writing contests they've never heard of.  And there are so many contests these days that  even legitimate awards don't carry a lot of cachet with agents.  But agents were a lot harder to get in touch with a decade ago, queries were only accepted by snail-mail, and the slushpiles were a lot smaller.  Maybe agents ten years ago were subjected to a lower concentration of insanity.  A completely phony announcement could have looked very credible, in those days, if it was placed in a legitimate publication.

Anyway, for bonus Mitchell Graham hilarity:

In this interview he claims to have corresponded at length, over a period of many years, with both C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien.

And, in this article, which Writer Beware fished out of the deep recesses of the Internet, Graham claims that Stephen Spielberg personally called him on the phone to option his books for film.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Being Times Square Elmo

Let’s assume, for purposes of keeping me from getting sued or arrested, that Elmo is my name.  Like, my actual name.  I’m just some guy who happens to be named Elmo.  Elmo is a name that people have, sometimes, so this is a fact that could, conceivably, be true.  There was a saint named Elmo.  All similarities to well-known media properties are entirely coincidental. 

"I've got something you can tickle."
No, I don’t have any identification to back that claim up.  I’m wearing a fuzzy, red costume.  It’s got a round, orange felt nose, big googly eyes, and no pockets.  I don’t carry a wallet.  I have a cloth sack with the word “TIPS” stamped on it with plastic bedazzled rhinestones.  There’s no driver’s license or passport in my sack.  No credit cards, either.  Men with sacks don’t tend to have credit cards.  So you’re just going to have to trust me.

The costume is unrelated to the trademarked Muppet characters, the Childrens’ Television Workshop or the Sesame Street program.  Any similarities are, like I said, coincidental and unintended.  The costume is made in Taiwan.  According to the tag, it’s called “Tickles,” and it should be machine-washed on a gentle cycle or dry-cleaned.  I almost never do either of these things, so the suit is usually rank and filthy.

“Oh my God,” says a teenage girl, to one of her stupid friends.  “It’s a hobo Elmo.  It’s an Elmo hobo.  It’s Elbow.”

“You should totally tweet that,” says her fatter, oilier little sidekick.

“I will,” says the first one, and then she takes a picture of me with her iPhone. She’s not even sneaky about it.  The flash goes off, and everything.  I wave my “TIPS” sack at the girls, but they just giggle and run off.

People who take photos of me and then don’t tip are the worst people in the world.

If you see me on the corner of 42nd Street at Seventh Ave., and your kid hugs me and you have your picture taken with me, just remember I’m not that Elmo.  I’m another, unrelated, entirely coincidental Elmo. You have no idea who I am, underneath this.  I could have a tattoo of a pentagram on my neck.  I could have oozing, dripping sores on my face.  I might be missing an eye.  If your kid asks why Elmo smells funny, it’s definitely not because I just burned a J in the backseat of somebody’s Bentley with the guy who valet-parks cars at the W Hotel. 

Maybe I am Elmo Gutierrez; just a guy who does this job because his immigration status is questionable, and he can’t get a straight gig. 

Maybe my name is Elmo Yoder, and I came here two years ago, on a Trailways bus out of Des Moines.  I was the best singer in the church choir and the best dancer at the hoedown, and I thought I could make it on Broadway.  Maybe this is as close as I got.

Maybe I’m Elmo Johnson; a man who spends an hour every morning on the train to get down here from Yonkers; a man trying to keep his nose clean and put in an honest day’s work in a tough economy.  Think about that, and about how you call yourself a progressive, while you don’t punish your pampered, Park Slope private-schooled ten year-old for sticking his chewing gum in my fur.  I know you saw him do it.  Don’t just walk away like nothing happened.  I didn’t spend all that time bedazzling this sack for you to not put money in it.  It says “TIPS” for a reason, asshole. 

Maybe I’m Elmo Schmitt, convicted felon.  Try not to think about how there are no schools within five hundred feet of Times Square while I’m tickling your kid.  Parents will let anyone in a cute costume touch their children.  It’s really kind of amazing and terrifying.

Ever taken your child to visit a department store Santa?  That is a man who was in need of seasonal employment; a vagrant of some kind.  Think about it for a second, and try to calculate the odds of whether the department store Santa has a substance abuse problem. If you roll up Santa’s velveteen sleeve, will you find needle tracks and prison ink?  Go ahead and let your first-grader sit on his lap.

You can’t even roll up the sleeves of the Elmo – excuse me, the “Tickles” costume.  The gloves are attached to the sleeves.  I can’t get out of it unless somebody unzips the back for me, and helps me take off the head.  When you’re taking a photo and then not paying me, don’t think about how hot this gets in the summertime.  Don’t think about how difficult it must be for me to deal with having to take a piss.

Psychookie probably just pees right in his suit.  “Psychookie,” by the way, is what I call the psychotic Cookie Monster who hangs out by the flagship Toys R Us store.  I don’t even think he bought a Taiwanese knock-off suit.  His costume looks like it’s made out of blue dryer lint.  His googly eyes are just ping-pong balls krazy-glued to the head of his suit.  The pupils are just drawn on there, and not even with, like, a sharpie or a magic marker.  I think he scribbled them on with a ballpoint.  His sack says “COOKIE” on it, but he still wants tips, and if you take a photo and don’t pay him, he will chase you down the street.    

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Rejected Titles for Nathan Englander's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank"

  •  Jewlysses
  • A Passage To Israel
  • The Way Of All Gefilte Flesh
  • Catskills Revisited
  • A Portrait Of The Rabbi As A Yeshiva Student
  • Where I Hardly Ever Remember To Call From
  • Zuckerman's Wake
  • Tender Is The Brisket
  • Whitefish Noise
  • The Sound And The Fury And The Holocaust

Thursday, February 9, 2012

For Whom The Butt Tolls

A little after six in the morning, while I was putting in my daily four miles on the elliptical machine at the New York Sports Club near my apartment, I smelled a fart that made me contemplate death and its inevitability.

As I’m sure the reader is aware, there are many different kinds of farts.  There are loud baritones and there are brazen trumpets. Sometimes, there are squeaky ones.  I didn’t hear this one at all; if it announced itself in any way, the sound was lost amidst the whirring and clattering of the cardio machines.  But what the fart lacked in fanfare, it made up in foulness.  It smelled like a dumpster behind a Chinatown fish market.

I put a hand against my face to mask the ass-stench with the stink of my own sweat, and I looked around for the culprit.  I was on the elliptical at the end of the row.  The machine next to me was vacant; it was broken, in fact.  There was a woman two machines over.  I wouldn’t say she was a big woman, exactly, but she wasn’t skinny either, and she was tall. Like, five-feet ten; a strapping specimen.  Had she the capacity to unleash such an abomination?  I wouldn’t put it past her.

I tried to gauge the expression on her face, to see if she seemed guilty, but I could only steal glances, because I didn’t want her to catch me looking at her.  I always try to avoid looking at people at the gym.  I don’t want anyone to think I am a pervert.

Behind the ellipticals, there was a row of treadmills.  Most of them weren’t in use this early, but there was a guy on one, behind and to the left of me.  He looked ethnic.  I thought the fart smelled ethnic.  I wondered if this was racist of me.  I realized it probably was, since I had no empirical basis for my belief that farts had ethnicities.    

Off to my right, a man was working with free weights.  If you’re looking for somebody to blame a fart on, the guy lifting free weights is generally a pretty good suspect, since science has proven squatting against resistance has the same effect on the human colon that rolling up the bottom of the tube has on toothpaste.  But the tall woman and the ethnic man were closer to me than the weightlifter.  I wondered how far a fart could travel; it seemed like it would dissipate pretty quickly in an open, high-ceilinged health club.

In college, I read a book about the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.  People within a certain distance of the blast were instantly incinerated, while victims further away died slowly from radiation poisoning.  This information was in no way applicable to my fart problem.  I decided to let the whole matter slide, so I switched on my iPod and listened to Lady Gaga sing about Nebraska for a while.

But ten minutes later, somebody released a bigger, more bombastic, more pungent sequel; the “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” of farts.

The free-weight guy was gone, so I could cross him off the list.  I looked back and forth between the tall woman and the ethnic guy.  She caught me looking, and she scowled at me. He had a Forbes magazine draped over the console of his treadmill, and he was oblivious.

I leaned back on my elliptical, and tried to take a broader look around the room.  Maybe there was some sort of ass-ventriloquist who had mastered the art of throwing farts across great distances.  But I didn’t spot any such trickster.  And then I realized there was a suspect I hadn’t considered.


If you’ve seen movies, you are probably familiar with this moment.  This is the part where they realize the serial killer’s phone calls are coming from inside the house.  This is the moment when Bruce Willis learns he’s already dead.  This is the bit when Edward Norton figures out that he and Brad Pitt are actually the same guy.  This is the plot twist.  This is the part where the story about farts becomes a story about death.

Now for the expository flashback: four days before the events described herein, I had decided to try a three-day crash diet called a “juice cleanse.” The purveyors of this product argue that a super-low calorie diet of raw vegetable juice can cleanse the body of certain unspecified “toxins” and “rest” the digestive system. 

Most doctors respond to these dubious claims about the same way one might respond to a fart in the gym.  But people on the Internet claimed to have lost six pounds in seventy-two hours. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Amazon.com customer reviews for self-published books, it’s that I can always trust people on the Internet.

Also, the people claiming to have lost all the juice-weight seemed to mostly be marathon runners and yoga instructors, so if they could find six pounds to lose from their waifish, birdlike bodies, I could probably expect to drop even more from my own keg-shaped, fat-sheathed torso.

I ordered the juice.  By lunchtime on the first day of the cleanse, my nose was running like a snot faucet. The website claims that this is a common result of the purging of toxins, but since toxins do not exist, it was probably an allergic reaction.   Or else, the unpasteurized juice was full of bacteria.  But it didn’t matter; the juice people already had my money, and, being both stubborn and stupid, I decided to see the thing out. 

So, the morning of the gym fart, I had just eaten my first breakfast after completing the cleanse: a container of Greek yogurt and a couple of kiwifruit.

With this data taken into consideration, I had to put myself right on top of my list of potential fart culprits.  And that was scary, because I was a reasonably healthy thirty-year old man, or at least I had been one, prior to my juice cleanse.  If I farted, I was usually the first person to know about it.  The idea that something so singularly noxious could make a frictionless escape from my bowel was one I found extremely disquieting.  It meant that I’d done some serious damage to my body.

I had a great aunt who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.  She lived, during her last years, in the dementia ward of an assisted-living complex.  I remember going to visit her, and sometimes seeing one of the other residents, a man who had suffered a stroke.  He’d lost motor control over half of his body, so the lid of his left eye and the left side of his mouth always drooped, slack and loose.

Maybe that was what my asshole looked like after the juice cleanse.

I imagined myself lying face-down on a hospital bed.  A doctor entered the room, trailing a group of medical students, like a mother duck with a string of ducklings.

“Mr. Friedman presents with some interesting symptoms,” he said. “Can anyone identify this?”

A young, attractive woman, a dead ringer for Katherine Heigl, jumped up and down on the balls of her Croc-shod feet and raised her hand: “He’s had a butt-stroke,” she shouted.

Still jogging on the elliptical, my heart rate had begun to speed up, even though my pace was steady.  I was thinking that I should cut my workout short and go to the drugstore.  What would I ask them for, though? Some kind of ointment?  A hand mirror?  Maybe I should go to the emergency room.  I was three miles into my run, with only one to go, so I decided to finish.  But I promised myself that, if I experienced any more farts I couldn’t feel, I’d find myself a gastroenterologist, or something. 

I didn’t, though.  My ass turned out to be undamaged, which means that I was not responsible for the gym farts, after all. The real culprit got away.  I think it was the ethnic guy.  All I did was spend a lot of time sniffing at a stranger’s butt-gas, and thinking about it.

So, yay for me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

E-Galley Giveaway

 I am giving away some secure e-galleys of DON'T EVER GET OLD through NetGalley.  To be eligible, just leave a comment on this post, OR tweet a link to any post on this blog you happen to think your followers might enjoy OR tweet at me that you want to be entered, and retweet anything from my Twitter feed, OR add DON'T EVER GET OLD on Goodreads.

The contest ends on February 1, so do this immediately!

I'll assign everyone a number and pick the winners using using Random.org and I'll give away 3 e-galleys of DON'T EVER GET OLD, but if I get up to 1000 followers on Twitter, or if 250 people add me on Goodreads by the end of the contest, I'll give away 5 of these e-galleys, and I'll also give away some muffins from Modern Muffin.  These are some seriously awesome muffins, and the book is pretty good, too. So tell all your friends about my Twitter feed, retweet my funniest tweets to your followers and make me famous.

NetGalley e-galleys are compatible with just about any e-reader, tablet or smartphone, and you can also read it on your PC if you don't have a reader.  If this goes well, I'll run more contests in the future, and give away some print galleys this way as well.

UPDATE: I just ran the Random.org number generator, and the numbers I'd attached to Mindi, Albert and Steph from Twitter came up.  So you get e-galleys. Congratulations.  I'll ask my marketing contact to get your e-mail addresses authorized, and you will be able to download your secure e-galleys to your computer, tablet or e-reader.  I am also having a copy sent to Rita Meade, who is a librarian and blogger and said she wanted one.

ANOTHER UPDATE: If you reach this page from Google, we are doing an giveaway for signed print ARCs through Goodreads. You can enter here:  http://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/21061-don-t-ever-get-old

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I Need A Diet Soda That's Not For Women: A Personal Narrative

The other day, I was  hanging out in a vacant, foreclosed house, smashing holes in the fucking drywall with my goddamn forehead, when I happened to catch a look at my reflection in a nearby mirror.  That’s when I realized I’d gotten fat as shit.

I don’t know how the fuck I became such a porker.  I consume only high-octane extreme-sports food, such as Taco-Bell’s Double-Stuf Torpedito combo meal, King-Size Super-Spicy Slim-Jims, and Nacho-In-The–Face  Cheezy Doritos.  But, despite my carefully-calibrated athlete’s diet, my form is significantly softer and less-defined than one might expect, based on my intense, manly lifestyle.

I blame high-calorie sugar soda.  I chug a two-liter bottle of that shit to hydrate after I do my ten minute version of P90X on fast-forward, and then I usually pick up a 64-ounce Godzilla Gulp when I make my daily stop at the Exxon station to put another 30 gallons of super-premium in my Expedition.  Clearly, I need to stop doing that.

I’ll be damned, though, if I am going to drink some pussy-ass diet soda with dainty little bubbles and curlicue cursive lettering on the can. And I am sure as shit not going to drink water.  Have you seen water?  Water is clear, like the vodka drinks on “Sex And The City,” which I have never watched.   I don’t trust a clear drink.  A man’s beverage should be the same murky brown color as a mouthful of tobacco-spit.  If you drink water, you’d better stock up on tampons, because pretty soon, you’re gonna start bleeding out of your vagina.

I thought about drinking Gatorade, but it doesn’t seem like that will help much.  It turns out that Gatorade has almost as many calories as soda.  Plus, it tastes like fruit, which seems pretty gay to me.  That is not an appropriate beverage for a man.  A proper drink should put hair on a man’s scrotum, hair that he will leave ungroomed and unwashed, in a long, matted tangle, like God’s own beard.

Thank Christ for the rocket scientists at Dr. Pepper, who have developed a new man-soda called Dr. Pepper 10.  An extensive marketing campaign has persuaded me that this awesome low-calorie beverage is emphatically not for women.  This stuff comes in a can that’s the color of a gun, and it tastes like it feels to get punched in the face by an iceberg.

 At long last, I will be able to enjoy a beverage that doesn’t shatter my fragile perception of my own masculinity, and I will also be able to enjoy a view of my penis that is not fully occluded by the protrusion of my belly.  Fuckin’ A.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How to keep people from pirating your book

Much has been written elsewhere about SOPA, the industry-driven and deeply misguided legislation that the media industry is trying to push through the US Congress.

I believe that legislation and litigation are absolutely useless at deterring piracy.  The Internet always finds a way around these things.  Online media piracy has been around for nearly as long as the Internet.  Industry groups like the RIAA and the MPAA classify downloading as theft, and disseminate marketing material urging this viewpoint onto the public.

But, despite their efforts, piracy continues relatively unchecked.  Years of efforts to convince the public that downloading is wrong have failed; in 2008, 95% of music downloads were illegal.  The results of this activity for the music industry have been devastating.  Sales volume has dropped by more than half over the last decade, because a huge percentage of the consumers who used to pay for music now get it for free.

People pirate media online when the pirate copies are easy to get and function identically to legal copies.  Efforts to make pirated media difficult to obtain always fail.  Therefore, the best way to deter piracy is to make pirated media less functional by excluding it from popular devices.

You can see the difference between a protected media format and an unprotected media format by looking at a single device, the iPhone.

Apple's music devices, dating back to the original iPod, have always been very welcoming to pirated music.  You can download a song and drop it right into your device through the iTunes software, and it plays.

This function was something of an unavoidable necessity for music.  Listeners had extensive collections of high-quality digital recordings on CD when the iPod devices first came out, and they had a reasonable expectation that they'd be able to move their CD music collections onto the new devices.  And since the CD format was developed before anyone knew about the Internet or digital piracy, CDs had minimal protections against getting ripped into unprotected MP3 formats and distributed online.  iTunes and Apple have no way of telling the difference between a file you've ripped from CDs you bought and a file you downloaded.

By contrast, it is extremely difficult to use pirated software applications on iOS devices.  There is only one point of access for software, and that is Apple's App Store.  If you download some illegal software for the iPhone, it's very difficult to make your phone run it.  If you have tech-savvy friends, you'll find that many of them download music illegally, but regularly pay for apps.

People don't feel that supporting app developers is a moral duty, while supporting musicians is not. People don't feel that the apps contain more value than the music.  If you could load your iPhone with pirate apps as easily as you could load it with pirate music, nobody would pay for apps.  But it's easy to pirate music and hard to pirate apps.

The same rule holds true with video game consoles; getting them to play pirate software is very difficult and often requires physical modifications to the hardware.  So most gamers buy their software legally.

Publishers need to be talking to e-reader vendors and tablet makers about how these devices will deal with e-book files that originate from places other than the stores affiliated with the apps.  Right now it's possible to read pirate books on a Kindle, but it's much more involved than loading a song onto an iPod.  It's important that these devices not be allowed, in the future, to read PDF files or other pirate formats like e-books, and that measures are kept in place to prevent purchased e-book files of being downloaded from the devices, stripped of DRM and shared online.