Thursday, August 20, 2009

Our Short Story Contest

We have just chosen the winner and the runner-ups for the Fifth Annual Warren Adler Short Story Contest. Our submissions have been steadily increasing and the aggregate of submissions in the five years of our experience has been running into the thousands.

My motivation for establishing this contest was to enhance the popularity of the short story which was once a staple of American literary output with numerous magazines offering them to their readers. Indeed, it was once possible for a fiction writer to earn a good living by having his or her stories published in these venues. Sadly, that market has dried up.

Nevertheless, the art form endures and will surely catch on again in the age of electronic reading, which stresses brevity and compactness, although making a living from writing short stories is probably a very dubious possibility.

My observations from reading these submissions is that there is quite an array of literary talent out there and, more importantly, a palpable desire to be read. I have been amazed at the geographical reach of our contest. This year’s winner has come from Tel Aviv and we routinely receive submissions from all corners of the world.

I have found the quality of the writing running the gamut from fair to excellent and the sincerity, passion, discipline and devotion of the writers quite inspiring. I have been somewhat astonished by the number of stories that dwell on some terrible and traumatic circumstance of raging emotional intensity.

It appears to indicate that today’s writers view the world from a dark and gloomy perspective and prefer to explore those life and death issues that we face in our daily lives. It tells us that as we move further into the 21st century we are living on a fault line that might, at any moment erupt and send us all into oblivion. Few of our submissions offered escapist themes that inundate the popular media.

The fictional artist relies on deeply imagined circumstances and characters to create his narratives. He cherry picks from incidents and characters that have populated his or her real life. It takes talent to weave these details and experiences into the tapestry of fiction to create a genuine work of the imagination.

In the end, winners were chosen through the subjective interpretation and eventual collaboration of each judge in the traditional collegial manner. All of our decisions took into account the narrative drive, insight and imagery that underlie the creative process and were expressed in these submissions. We judged every story on the merits and are very happy with our choices. Although we judges came from different backgrounds and perspectives, we were remarkably similar in our tastes and in our selections.

When we started our competition five years ago we were pioneers of sort with a specific agenda. Today there are numerous short story contests as well as contests for novels and plays being mounted via the Internet. The key to the validity of these contests is the integrity and expertise of the judges of these contests. Without revealing who these judges are and merely using a generic term like “a panel of experts” is, in our opinion, worthy of caution for any submitting writer.

Note that the names of our judges Thane Rosenbaum, a respected novelist, and Kirsten Neuhaus, a literary agent, and myself, are freely offered. We are experienced people who understand good writing as well as the realities of the literary market and our judgments have been made based on our experience and very diligent evaluation. As in all such cases, we have made our selections based on how these stories have resonated and the skill by which they have been presented. Others might choose differently, but we stand by our choices.

What we have learned after these five contest ventures is that there is a great appetite for creative writing, which we celebrate. Even as the marketplace shrinks for fiction in every mode, the urge to create stories seems to be expanding exponentially with the ease of dissemination on the Internet. There are voices out there itching to be heard and we are proud to help in some small way to find a venue for these urges.

The next competition will be announced shortly and we thank all those who have submitted their work and will do so in the future.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The End of Life Debacle

At the risk of throwing a figurative match into a giant batch of kindling, I would like to weigh in on the subject of “end of life issues” that has prompted an angry response by citizens at town hall meetings in which they confront their elected representatives.

The issue is deeply embedded in the human psyche touching on the most basic philosophical and religious tenets that are fundamental to our concept of mortality. We know from the very moment when intelligence dawns on the human brain that we are going to die.

So what is all the mystery about? Of course people are angry. It is the paramount issue of human life. We are well aware of the inevitability of death. We are well aware too that the highest expenditures of government health care occur in the last year or so of life. Couple this fact with the necessity of saving money on our health care programs and what you get is the logical progression that leads inevitably to the of economics of dying. It is a costly business.

This is the ultimate decision for all of us. If we are useless, unproductive, terminal, hopeless, how are we to be ushered into the great beyond? Are we to be cast out like human garbage or given the dignity of survival for a time? If we are comatose and brain dead are we still people? Who then will make the decision about the speed of our demise now that we have developed the technology of life extension? Doctors can advise, but the choice is up to the living, the progeny, the loved ones, who have a compassionate stake in the speed of the outcome.

It is a deeply personal issue, so painful, so fraught with guilt and contradiction, so scary that it tempts denial. It is a decision that pits the concept of murder against that of love, compassion and the sacredness of the life, however diminished.
Many of us have spared our loving survivors the decision by coming up with written directions on how and when to stop artificial life support. In some countries governments have sanctioned assisted suicides arguing that the human being has a right to make his own decision regarding the termination of his or her own life.

Considering the technological advances in medical technology and the fact that we are living longer, there is a certain logic in end of life counseling. We are all living longer and in a very short time there will be a giant glut of people crowding the corridors to oblivion. The costs will be astronomical especially when the baby boomers hit the end of their life cycle. The bean counters will be tempted to follow the logic of swifter end of life disposal, an utterly ghoulish thought.

What scares people is not necessarily the logic of such counseling, but the very idea that such counseling could be sponsored and paid for by THE GOVERNMENT. People instinctively know that once this issue becomes part of a government program, no matter how benign at first, it reeks of danger. If there is an issue that the government should not intrude itself, this is it. Yes, it is alleged that all language about exit counseling has been stricken from the thousand page draft circulating everywhere as a kind of stalking horse for a permanent bill.

In my opinion, the mostly clueless legislative bureaucracy on Capitol Hill shot themselves in the foot when they inserted this language in the health care plan. How obtuse are our so-called Congressional leaders? Don’t they have any insight and awareness into the deeply felt fears of their constituents?

This is not a partisan issue. It strikes deep into the heart of our psyche. Will there come a time when the powers that be decide who shall live and who shall die based on their productivity and their cost to the community?

Maybe to dub it a “Death Panel” is a stretch at this point, but that, too, has a certain logic if one projects it over time. However depressing, the issue must be confronted, hopefully not by the government. Not everyone will have the good fortune to die a swift and painless death. Some will linger in pain, under sedation, still clinging willfully to life with the help of technology. Few of us will be free to choose our method of expiration.

That is the issue and the dilemma that frightens us and provokes our anger. What it tells us is that most of us do not want the impersonal government and its army of indifferent bureaucrats to be a party to this profound decision.

What seems benign at first could one day morph into a directive, a legal requirement that might force us into some action that inhibits our having any choice on this matter. Worse, we might be told some day that government directives requiring certain actions to terminate life are for the common good.

It is futile to be accusatory and point to deliberate conspiracies and false rumors. Fear and hysteria are inevitable when this subject is raised, especially in a proposed bill before Congress.

Losing control over our destiny when we are most vulnerable is a frightening prospect. Intoning the biblical suggestion, this is one issue that we must keep out of Caesar’s hands.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

But Is It Good For Authors?

On the surface, the surge in the popularity of e-books and the proliferation of devices on which their content can be read seems like a boon to authors. At first blush the benefits seem too good to be true.

Books will never go out of print, a term that will have to be revised. In fact, all books that have been out of print, via Google’s vast undertaking, will be reincarnated. Everything ever written and published will be available to everyone who is tethered to cyberspace, which means the bulk of the literate world.

Moreover, everyone who creates content, whether it bears the indicia of a traditional publishing house or is self-produced, will be able to enter the world library, easily accessible to the eye-balls and minds of every literate person on the planet. Soon, very soon, the availability of e-books will permeate every electronic device across the full spectrum of gadgetry from laptops to cell phones to e-book devices to whatever new technology bursts upon the scene.

Thus the bound paper book as we have known it over the centuries will no longer dominate the business of printing, distributing, wholesaling and retailing content. That cannot be good news for the best selling author, book stores and traditional publishers and it may or may not be good news for the average author who has managed to eke out a living writing content of every category in fiction, non-fiction, and self help for every age and demographic.

It will seem like good news for the writer who will finally be able to have his work available for access by the multitudes. At last, the traditional gatekeepers to the world of publication will be demolished. All fences will be down. Anyone who believes their work should be read by others will have this opportunity for mass dissemination.

Unfortunately, the economic reality for the author and publisher is still illusive. The marketing challenge will be enormous. The day is coming when the marketing universe will shift almost completely to the Internet. Print media as we know it is in its death throes. Television and the Internet are swiftly merging. Availability of entertainment media is proliferating to infinity.

From the point of view of the individual author who cherishes the exclusivity of his lengthy copyright, who has labored with fierce determination to compose original content which he or she hopes is meaningful, important and for the ages, the outlook is somewhat cloudy. In fact, downright discouraging.

Considering that the marketplace will be glutted with perhaps centuries of out of print books with hundreds of thousands added by the vast army of wannabe writers from every corner of the planet, how will it be possible to rise above the cacophony to be heard, noticed and ultimately read? Worse, how can an author’s work expect to be monetized in an environment in which reading matter is mostly offered free of charge.

There is, of course, an opportunity to advertise in various ways on websites where eyeballs will temporarily reside, but the fickleness of an amorphous public will require a complete rethinking of advertising strategies. The cost per thousand measure used for years by advertising agencies is swiftly becoming irrelevant as a measure of real penetration.

How then will the individual author’s work be noticed, huckstered, promoted and monetized? I have been wrestling with that problem ever since I had the notion to digitize my then published novels more than a dozen years ago. Frankly, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that digital books disseminated over the Internet was the future and that original work could be protected through the life of its copyright and forever in the public domain via cyberspace.

Being ahead of one’s time has its psychic satisfactions, but the pace of creation will quickly outrun it. Surely, someone will figure out how to rise above the chatter and find the illusive key to the marketing dilemma. We all know that word of mouth is the only sure fire method of wide dissemination. But what happens when everyone is working their mouths at the same time?

It is obviously a boon to have one’s work available. You might even be able to forward it to vast multitudes. Much of these offerings will land in spam files. Publishers determined to stay in business will hurl fusillades of advertising at hundreds of websites hoping to score sales. They will go on a niche hunt, much like trout fisherman pick the right fly to match the ever changing insect hatch to lure their prey.

The on-line bookstores will be happy to take your money to place your material front and center and allow reviews, both biased and unbiased to analyze your effort. Lots of books will be sold somehow at much lower prices than the traditional paper book. Price points will be vastly changed.

It is still too early to tell what works and what doesn’t in today’s transitional environment. The phase out from the printed to the electronic book is just beginning and will take time to make the shift. The fact is that the book industry is entering a dark tunnel. There might be light at the end, but the chances are it will be greatly diffused with niche bright spots here and there.

At this moment in time many authors should be delighted that their books will be available for readers. That is certainly good news. To be “back in print” is a lot better than oblivion. At least the author will have a fighting chance for recognition, if not fame and fortune.

Dream on.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Dividing Line

As I grow older, I have become fascinated by “pop memory” and the difference between what I deem popular and what younger people see as popular. This has led me to contemplate where the dividing line is between this generational phenomenon.

For example, if I am sitting in a waiting room and pick up a copy of People magazine, devoted to the happenings of today’s popular celebrities, I quickly discover that I have absolutely no knowledge of who they are or why I should be interested. This is true of most items I am confronted with in the popular media. I used to be an avid reader of gossip columnists, a rabid movie fan, and I prided myself of an acute awareness of the popular culture with an encyclopedic knowledge of the names, lifestyles and antics of so-called celebrities.

No more. I am out of the loop.

Indeed, I sometimes enjoy tweaking my many younger friends with a barrage of questions about what I thought were the well-known names of celebrities only to discover a blank stare and a lined forehead in response. Making allowances, I do not really expect my younger friends to remember Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Eddie Cantor would be a stretch.

But I have now discovered that even Frank Sinatra is fast becoming a “never heard of” among the “with it” denizens of the upcoming generation. I dare not even ask about Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Winston Churchill and often wonder what would have happened to the memory of George Washington if he wasn’t prominently displayed on the one-dollar bill. Indeed, I have discovered younger people who think he was a bridge, a state, or a national capital. Worse, I have encountered younger people who believe that Adolph Hitler was an actor who played in some movies about Nazis.

As a kid, in the glory days of the Brooklyn Dodgers, I knew every player on the roster and their stats. What would it mean to today’s baseball addict if I mentioned that I had seen Ducky Medwick beaned or thought one of the greatest pitchers on the diamond, although often wild, was Van Lingle Mungo? Think of the giggles I would get from those who worship A-rod or sit in the bleachers of the spanking new Yankee Stadium.

What interests me is not the gap of awareness between the generations, but where one can place the dividing line where memory switches between the now and yesterday. At what age can one expect to be talking in tongues to a younger generation? At what age did my parents begin talking in tongues to me?

My mother once mentioned to me that twenty thousand people showed up at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral. Rudolph who, I wondered then.

In my short story collection New York Echoes, published last year, there was a story called, what else, “The Dividing Line” in which an older man married to a younger woman tries to discover when exactly their memories of the popular culture reach that grey area where neither find common ground. They grapple with this strange gap between them and agree to disagree leaving them to accept the situation as the way of all flesh.

Is it because we are living longer and our memories, if they are still operative, stretch over a larger expanse of time and our natural expectation is that others of whatever age have these same memories? Or is it because the cycle of awareness has accelerated beyond our brain’s vaunted storage ability and we are relying instead on the whirling dervish of technology to keep our memories somewhere in a computer file?

Perhaps this is why I am discovering a dividing line between people in my own age group between those who are reasonably or even marginally computer literate and those who have eschewed the computer as either too complicated or an instrument of the devil. It is often frustrating to discover that a close friend my age does not have e-mail and still relies on the pen and the telephone for their communications. That gap will disappear in time.

I am well aware that these observations are somewhat of a cliché and, I suppose, a normal part of the aging process specific to my generation which got caught in the middle of the computer revolution. I suppose, too, that if one made the effort as a kind of sociological and pedagogical experiment, one could keep up with the emerging pop culture.

On a sentimental note, one might opine that one person’s historical memory is nothing more than normal nostalgia and a yearning for one’s lost youth. This might explain my addiction to the black and white movies cranked out in the golden age of Hollywood. Not only can I name every actor in the flicks and know most of the stories cold, my interest is primarily in the sets, clothes, habits and language of the dialogue.

The atmosphere of those movies was bathed in cigarette smoke, men wore fedoras, and women’s clothes appeared far more elegant than today. People were dressed
up at even the most casual events and the value of money was astonishingly deflated when compared to today’s numbers. Brother can you spare a dime for a cup of coffee would be laughable in today’s Starbucks saturated world. A bad guy was a “mug.” A lady was a “dame” and often called “toots.” People said things like “scram” or “twenty three skidoo” and hundreds of other now dead slang expressions.

Most younger people I know instantly tune out black and white movies. Clark Gable, once known as the king of Hollywood, is identified occasionally by my younger friends as some kind of roofing material and Myrna Loy, at first guess, is usually considered a member of the Chinese Politburo.

Whoever is considered more ignorant or out of touch in the great lottery of life, there is one sure thing. Those who are completely in sync with the comings and goings of the contemporary celebrity culture will one day be completely out of touch with it in a few short years. Indeed, the Beatles will one day go back to being insects, Elvis will be the name of some hip surgery prosthetic, and Marilyn Monroe and Michael Jackson will one day be confused with American Presidents.

Andy Warhol was wrong when he said that everyone will enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame.

The time frame he referred to might one day be measured in seconds.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The E-Book Is Winning

The e-book is winning. Its ultimate victory was never in doubt.

This does not mean that the printed book will disappear. It will fade out slowly as a viable mass economic enterprise as this new reading technology takes hold. The basic issues were, and still are, about marketing and its twin sister packaging. The product has always been the same, content delivered by words, sometimes embellished by speech and illustrations.

Trade book publishers, using the familiar technology of print on paper and packaging their product for shelving, utilized every practical inducement device to make their product attractive to the potential consumer. They came up with eye-appealing colorful cover art to make their product stand out in stores, created advertising and publicity campaigns, best seller lists, advanced review copies, and endorsements from prominent authors to hawk their product. It worked for years. It still works, but it is morphing into other forms, some yet to be invented.

The education book market with its vast captured audience used other marketing techniques to get their product before students, utilizing the usual ploys of influence, lobbying and marketing, and following traditional methods to keep their product up to date and viable, using different, but effective marketing techniques. That too, worked for decades and that too, is subject to intense innovation as the new technology catches on.

Public libraries will continue to be impacted with the methods of book lending and the use of their facilities as gathering places for the literate and informed. They will live on, but in ways that will evolve their mission to continue their invaluable service.

But what these books contain within their printed covers, the content, will survive forever. Content is king, no matter how it is delivered. It is the economics of the delivery that is the main issue currently in play.

If you can dispense with expensive and complicated distribution expenses and deliver your product at a fraction of the cost of print publishing and without in any way denigrating your product, then the rules of profit and loss apply. Without costly production costs based on older technologies, pared down distribution systems, and no need for warehousing, the result is obvious. You don’t need an advanced degree in economics to see where the publishing industry is headed.

Because the commercial emergence of so-called “electronic paper” and the devices to support its use are accelerating exponentially, the technology will become more and more user friendly. Kindle and SONY Reader, the pioneers of this new marketing miracle will soon have more and more competition from many sources. Devices will be re-engineered and improved. Prices for these devices will be lowered and in the not too distant future electronic publishing will be the norm, the standard for the delivery of content.

This rather dry and self-apparent explanation seems to dismiss the fact that books are not only content deliverers, they are also sources of inspiration, insight, entertainment, and knowledge, and objects of esthetic devotion. They have been our beloved friends for centuries. The large collection of books in my library are like family and the electronic book poses a soul wrenching challenge, not only to the publishing business as it now exists, but to the psyche of all those who cherish books. Those that come after us will barely notice, if at all, the revolutionary character of the changeover of content distribution.

One cannot argue with reality. In my lifetime I have seen an endless line of products disappear from stores. Remember the ice box, the silk stocking, the girdle, the corset, the washboard, the mechanical lawn mower, horse drawn transportation, steam locomotives, the manual gearshift, the rotary dial telephone, the black and white movie, and on and on. But why belabor the obvious.

The paper book, bless it, will now go through the grueling process of pre-emption.
The good news is that content will never die. It is the circulatory system of the human intellect, the very heart of the one-on-one system of human communication through words. Innovation will provide another way to dispense content and create profit- making opportunities.

When I digitized all my then published novels more than a dozen years ago, I was defending my authorial name and assuring that my books will never go out of print, every author’s nightmare. There was a brief window of opportunity since publishers, during the early days of my novel writing career, had not yet demanded that their authors give up their e-book rights. That window has closed. Publishers now covet electronic rights and Google is now digitizing all out of print books.

The challenge for publishers and authors now is how to find traction on the infinite highway of limitless content. It will not be easy to separate the author from the pack, although clever innovation might one day find a profitable path. So far this magic bullet is illusive.

Marketing and distribution skills will be revamped to tackle the new reality. Authors and their heirs whose out of print books will be able to see the light of day via the Google operation will at the very least have their books available, although it is unlikely they will see much, if any, income. Even if the books are still under copyright, only the tiniest fraction of authors will ever see a dime. The book listings will be infinite.

We are entering a new world of book publishing through electronic books. At this point in history they are still a small part of the total book publishing economic pie. But the avalanche is coming as more and more books are digitized and more and more devices hit the market. The competitive issue now will be tweaking the devices to make them more efficient and user friendly as well as pricing their content.

Publishers are awakening from a long slumber as they are challenged to meet the electronic onslaught. Some will not go willingly into the fray, just as horse drawn coach manufacturers resisted the automobile. Others will figure out ways to compete and innovate, embellish and monetize their skill as the gatekeepers of content.

One thing is certain. Content will not disappear. In fact, it will multiply as more and more content providers enter the vast cloud of the wired world. The challenge will be how to find the model that will allow the publishing business to continue to be viable in this new environment, and how authors will attract and aggregate their readership and be supported by their art.

It will not be an easy task.