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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

An Idea to Save Book Stores and Help New Authors

One of the saddest events of the past ten years or so has been the inexorable demise of the brick and mortar book store. Fully half of the bookstores in the United States have vanished in the past ten years.

Gone are places like Borders, Crown Books, B. Dalton, Kroch's and Brentano's, Oxford Bookstore, Atlantic Books and Davis-Kidd Booksellers.

A few are still hanging on. Barely. Barnes & Noble, for example, and Follett's, Book Off USA, Hudson News and places like the sprawling and immensely popular Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon.

But for the most part, physical books stores are being shoved aside by online booksellers like Amazon, Alibris,,, ValoreBooks, etc.

The exception to this trend were recent reports by CNBC and Wall Street Journal that Amazon is planning on putting up a physical retail book store across from New York City's Empire State Building.

So far there has been no confirmation from Amazon.

But even if that were to happen, most experts see the demise of brick and mortar book stores continuing as more and more readers chose to buy their physical and e-books online.

So what can be done?

I recently received an e-mail containing an intriguing idea.

It came from author Doug Preston, who along with co-author Lincoln Child, has written such bestselling books as Relic, Riptide, Mount Dragon, Gideon's Sword and The Lost Island.

Preston attached a note containing an idea for saving book stores and helping authors sell more books in them. The idea was from author Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, who has written books like The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and Why We Broke Up.

Rather than paraphrasing Handler's note and idea, I will include it here verbatim and add some final thoughts:

"Dear comrades-in-ink,

"Whether or not you are an author published by Hachette (as I am), you may lately feel as if you are engulfed in a rather unpleasant flood -- as if the fate of your books is whirling dreadfully out of your control, battered by the waters of some enormous South American river, the name of which I cannot remember at the moment. 

"While all this fierce sword fighting rages on without you, you may find yourself feeling even more hapless and hopeless than authors usually do, while your local independent bookstore struggles with a similar feeling that it's some sort of jungle out there.

There is Nothing Like a Book Store
"As a tonic, allow me to suggest a new program, cooked up by assorted interested parties and named, after some tipsy debate, Upstream.  The idea is to connect authors with their local independent booksellers to offer signed books as an alternative to, say, larger and more unnerving corporate machinations. Upstream was test-piloted this summer and is now spreading steadily, like optimism or syphilis.

"How does it work?  Easily, hopefully.  Here are some numbered steps.

"1. Choose and contact a bookseller close to your home.  If you cannot find one, the good folks at Indies First, coordinated by the American Booksellers Association, can be of service.  They are quite excited about the launching of this new and hopefully enormous campaign.

"2. The bookstore will order and sell your books; you will sign them.  Perhaps you'll stop by at regular intervals with your pen, or perhaps you can convince, with cake or gin, the bookseller to come to you.

"3. Both you and the bookseller will promote this arrangement as best you can, spreading the word not only about an exciting source of signed books to your readers anywhere in the country, but about a program anyone can join. 

"Feel free to tell your publicist you're participating.  Upstream should be in full swing in time for the holidays, when signed books are good gifts for loved ones and distance acquaintances alike.

"Will Upstream rescue us all from strife and worry?  Of course not.  But the hope is that it will remind both authors and booksellers of their local, less monolithic resources, and improve general esprit de corps at a disheartening time.

"With all due respect,

"Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket"

It sounds like a great idea. I have yet to approach any of my local bookstores about it, but I plan to. It seems like a win-win proposition. It's an opportunity to have authors in the store signing books and for readers to interact with authors.

E-book sales are fine. I have nothing against them. In fact, most of the sales of my own books have come as a result of Kindle, Nook and Kobo book sales.

But as convenient as e-books are they are also impersonal. You can't sign an e-book or talk to readers.
And let's not forget. What exactly are e-books? They are a collection of computer code that we essentially lease from companies like Amazon. Think about it. You can loan your physical books to as many people as many times as you wish.

But that is not the case with e-books. You may think you own an e-book, but you really don't. If you want to loan a Kindle e-book to a friend you must make sure the person you are loaning it to is using compatible e-book software. Then you can lend it only once for 14 days--and even then, you need to belong to Amazon's "Prime Program," which costs extra.

For an author like me, another frustration with e-books is this: if everybody on a train, or bus or plane is reading an e-book, I can't tell what they are reading. There are no covers, so I don't know if they are reading one of my books (highly unlikely) or one by J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, or Stephen King. 

Finally, (and for me this may be the most important point) I like bookshelves. And I like bookshelves with lots of books sitting in them. An office or den or family room without a bookshelf filled with books seems naked to me.

Maybe that's why I like brick and mortar bookstores and why I hope they never vanish completely.
They have LOTS of bookshelves filled with books that you can pick up, handle, thumb through, take home and put in your own bookshelves.  

It's one of life's simple pleasures.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Amazing Mind of Nikola Tesla

When I look at the world that creative thinker and inventor Nikola Tesla envisioned in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, I think it is a shame that this man never dabbled in science fiction.

The world Tesla foresaw, along with his inventions and ideas, was so far ahead of his time that they seem to have come from the realm of science fiction. Contemporaries such as sci-fi masters H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Rice Burroughs must have taken inspiration from Tesla.

Yet, today, few Americans are aware of this genius and his contributions to our world.

 Tesla is the kind of character those of us who write historical fiction love to create and insert into our stories--brilliant, innovative, intractable, mysterious, intriguing, reclusive, eccentric.
Nikola Tesla

What he wasn't, unlike concurrent inventor Thomas Edison, was wealthy. Even after holding 700 patents, developing the Alternating Current (AC) electrical system, partnering with Westinghouse, and designing the nation's very first hydroelectric power plant in 1895 at Niagara Falls, N.Y., Tesla often was unable to fund his own research.

 Perhaps his boldest project was an idea in 1900 to build a global wireless system for the transmission of electricity using a special tower he constructed at Wardenclyffe, N.Y.  It was a system that Tesla said could provide "free electricity" to the whole world--not something profit-minded entrepreneurs like Edison and Westinghouse were in favor of.

Unable to generate funding for his tower project, he eventually abandoned the idea. And that wasn't the end of his commercial disappointments. Dozens of his valuable inventions were usurped and patented by others. These include radar technology, the induction motor, the dynamo, the rotating magnetic field, and x-ray technology.

Tesla, who was born in 1856 in Smiljan, Serbia (Croatia today), was an optimist who imagined a primarily utopian world where new scientific discoveries, rather than violent conflict, would guide humanity. He was a man less concerned with making money than with innovating for the public good.

“Today the most civilized countries of the world spend a maximum of their income on war and a minimum on education," he once said. "The twenty-first century will reverse this order. It will be more glorious to fight against ignorance than to die on the field of battle.”

While that hopeful prediction has failed to materialize, many of his other forecasts were amazingly prescient.

Minds like Tesla's come along maybe once every few hundred years. Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind, as does Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.

In addition to Tesla's native intelligence and creativity, we have his mother, Djuka Mandic, to thank for providing the spark to her son's powerful intellect. This was a woman who spent her spare time inventing small household appliances. No doubt she was a powerful influence on the young Nikola. She also made sure he obtained a first class education.

 He began his studies in the 1870s at the Realschule in Karlstadt, Germany. Then he moved on to the Polytechnic Institute in Graz, Austria, and finally studied at the University of Prague.  

Tesla immigrated to the United States in 1884 and almost immediately began working with famed American inventor Thomas Edison. The two parted ways after a short time because of differing business and scientific philosophies.

Thomas A. Edison
Tesla did not have the commercial and marketing instincts that Edison had. He also battled Edison over their competing electrical systems. Tesla developed the AC or alternating current system of generators, motors and transformers still in use in most of the world today, while Edison favored the DC or direct current system.

Tesla held 40 patents on his AC system, all of which he eventually sold to George Westinghouse. In a well-publicized battle of wills and technologies, Tesla and Edison went head to head with their competing electrical systems at Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. Eventually Tesla and Westinghouse defeated Edison and his General Electric Co. when the exposition opted to use the AC system to light its sprawling array of buildings and attractions.

The two remained bitter enemies the rest of their lives.

Here are some of Tesla's other ideas and inventions:

·       The Wardenclyffe Tower Wireless Energy Transfer System. This aforementioned system was introduced at the 1893 Exposition in Chicago. Tesla demonstrated that you could transmit electricity wirelessly via a series of phosphorous light bulbs in a process he called "electrodynamic induction." He believed his technology would enable wireless transmission of electricity over long distances through the upper atmosphere, thereby supplying even the most remote locations with the energy needed to live comfortably.  Tesla actually succeeded in lighting 200 lamps without wires from a distance of 25 miles and shot man-made lightning into the atmosphere using a Tesla coil, a transformer antenna he had patented in 1891. Today, more than a century later, companies such as Intel and Sony are working to apply wireless energy transfer to devices such as cell phone batteries so you can charge them without power cables.

·       X-rays.  Tesla's research in the field of electromagnetism helped give radiologists everywhere the ability to peer into a person's anatomy without cutting them open — a concept that, in the late 1800s, sounded far-fetched. Although German physicist Willhelm Röntgen is widely credited with the discovery of X-rays in 1895, Tesla's own experiments with the technology eight years before Röntgen demonstrated the dangers of using radiation on the human body.

·       Death Ray. In the 1930s Tesla reportedly invented a particle beam weapon (laser). The device was, in theory, capable of generating an intense targeted beam of energy that could be used to dispose of enemy warplanes, foreign armies, "or anything else you'd rather didn't exist." The so-called "death ray" was never constructed.  Tesla shopped the device around to the military without success.

·       Robotics. Tesla predicted a future rife with robots that "would be able to perform labor safely and effectively." He envisioned a world filled with "intelligent cars, robotic human companions, sensors, and autonomous systems." In 1898, he invented and demonstrated a radio-controlled boat which many credit as the birth of modern robotics.

·       Earthquake Machine. In 1898, Tesla declared that he had constructed and set up a small oscillating apparatus that, when activated in his office, nearly shook down the building and everything around it. The device weighed just a few pounds, but Tesla was able to tune the timing of the oscillator at such a frequency so that each vibration created enough energy to shake apart almost any man-made structure. Realizing the destructive power and the potential disasters his oscillating device could cause, Tesla later said that he smashed the oscillator with a hammer, and told his employees to claim ignorance if anybody asked what had caused tremors.

When you put these five ideas and inventions into the context of the time (the late 19th and early 20th Centuries) you have the ingredients for several extraordinary science fiction novels.

Tesla died impoverished in 1943 in the New York hotel where he lived. Toward the end of his life, Tesla had been working on several ideas for new weapons. It was during World War II and any new weapon was coveted by both the allied and axis powers. That's why within hours of Tesla's death, the FBI seized all of his belongings, detailed schematics and notebooks.  

Among the items seized were Tesla's plans for the "Death Ray." After World War II the U.S. government established a secret project to turn Tesla's particle beam weapon idea into reality, but the project was shut down and the results of the experiments were never published.

Sounds like the starting point of an intriguing book.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Famously Wrong Predictions From the Past

Predicting the future can be a daunting, if not a sometimes embarrassing occupation. I have already posted on this topic a few times because as a writer of historical fiction I think it adds something when characters look ahead and wonder what the world will be like in one hundred or two hundred years.

Unfortunately, not all of us can be accurate prognosticators. Even the geniuses and giants of science and industry have faltered from time to time.

Here are a few examples:

·       "Theoretically, television may be feasible, but I consider it an impossibility--a development which we should waste little time dreaming about."--Lee de Forest, 1926, inventor of the cathode ray tube

·       "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."--Thomas J. Watson, 1943, Chairman of the Board of IBM

·       "It doesn't matter what he does, he will never amount to anything."--Albert Einstein's teacher to his father, 1895

·       "It will be years - not in my time - before a woman will become Prime Minister." --Margaret Thatcher, 1974
Margaret Thatcher

·       "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us."-- Western Union internal memo, 1876

·       "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out." -- Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962

·       "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"--H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927, pooh-poohing the idea of sound in film.

·       "640K ought to be enough for anybody."-- Bill Gates, 1981

·       "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction." -- Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

·       "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." -- Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

·       "We don't need you. You haven't got through college yet." -- Hewlett-Packard's rejection of Steve Jobs, who went on to found Apple Computers

·       "Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value."-- Marshal Ferdinand Foch in 1911

Marshal Ferdinand Foch

·       "With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market."-- Business Week, 1958

·       "Whatever happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping." -- Frank Knox, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, on December 4, 1941, three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

·       "Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." -- Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, October 16, 1929, thirteen days before the "Black Tuesday" stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression.

Then, there these gaffes from the past:

·       King George II said in 1773 that the American colonies had little stomach for revolution.

·       An official of the White Star Line, speaking of the firm's newly built flagship, the Titanic, launched in 1912, declared that the ship was unsinkable.

·       In 1939 The New York Times said the problem of TV was that people had to glue their eyes to a screen, and that the average American wouldn't have time for it.

·       An English astronomy professor said in the early 19th century that air travel at high speed would be impossible because passengers would suffocate.

Someone once said that an optimist is someone who thinks the future is uncertain. 

But I always liked this variously ascribed quote:

"The future isn't what it used to be."

Amen, brother.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

More Predictions From the Past: "Oranges will grow in Philadelphia"

In my continuing examination of the way people of the past predicted the future, here is yet another look at some interesting forecasts from long ago.

Why am I blogging about this? Because, as an author of historical fiction I sometimes wonder what my characters thoughts might be about the future. What kind of world do they envision? What will life be life 100 years hence? How will things like communication and transportation change? What of society, morality, conflict and warfare?

I think adding those kinds of observations to characters in historical fiction novels adds another dimension to their personas. For one thing, all of us wonder at one time or another what the future will bring. Why not the characters we create in our historical novels?

Recently someone sent me an electronic copy of a Ladies' Home Journal article from 1901 that talks about future predictions--what the world will be like in the year 2000, just 14 years ago.

Here's a summary of those predictions. Enjoy:

·       There will be 500 million people in the USA. (Close, but no cigar. There are 317 million of us in a world population of 7.1 billion)

·       The average American will be 1 - 2 inches taller because of better health due to reforms in medicine, sanitation, food and athletics. (Well done. The average height of American males in 2014 is 5 ft 9.5 in and 5 ft 4 in for females. In 1900 it was 5 ft 7.5 for men and 5 ft 2 in for women. Science says a better diet, better health care, better sanitation are all contributors)

·       The letters "C", "X" & "Q" will be abandoned from the alphabet because they are unnecessary. (The last time I looked those letters were still in the alphabet--and quite necessary)

·       Hot and cold air to heat/cool a house will come from spigots. (We call them vents today and yes, most homes are heated and cooled by forced air HVAC systems)

·       Mosquitoes and flies will be essentially extinct. (Sigh, not quite. The pesky insects are still with us.)
·       Foods will not be exposed to air prior to being sold and storekeepers who do expose them will be arrested. (Well, if not arrested, then fined by health and food inspectors--IF they are doing their jobs)

·       Coal will not be used for heating or cooking. It will be scarce but not exhausted. (It is neither scarce nor exhausted and it is still used to power electrical plants. So in that respect, this prediction is off the mark--though few, if any, folks use it as fuel for stoves and ovens.)

·       No more streetcars in cities. (This is pretty accurate, though some cities are bringing these once ubiquitous urban conveyances back).

·       Photographs will be telegraphed from any distance (same day publishing) and will be in color. (Very prescient calculation)

·       Trains will go 150 MPH. (NOT in America, sadly. But in Europe and Japan they do)

·       Automobiles will be cheaper than horses. (Hmmmm. Not true UNLESS you are talking about a stable of Kentucky Derby winners)

·       Everyone will walk 10 miles. A man or woman who cannot walk 10 miles will be considered a weakling. (I would wager that not everyone in today's world can walk 10 miles. Weaklings, I am afraid, abound)

·       You will be able to travel from the USA to England in 2 days. (How about in just a few hours? An unfathomable concept back in 1901)

·       There will be airships. (There will be, but most today are seen hovering over football stadiums)

·       There will be aerial warships and forts on wheels. Fleets of airships, hiding themselves in dense smoky mists, will float over cities and hurl deadly thunderbolts onto unsuspecting foes below. Giant guns will shoot 25 miles or more and destroy entire cities. (Airships no, but squadrons of stealth bombers and fighters capable of launching nuclear weapons that can destroy entire cities are here)

·       There will be no more wild animals, except in menageries. The horse will have become practically extinct. Food animals will be bred to expend practically all of their life energy in producing meat, milk, wool and other by-products.  (While the prophet here was wrong about wild animals and the horse, he or she was fairly accurate about domestic animals. Not a pleasant existence for many of today's domestic animals)

·       Telephones will be everywhere.  (Yep...everywhere...and are we better for it? That is up for debate.)

·       Grand Opera will be telephoned into private homes. (I assume this prediction is not about the Grand Ole Opry. In any case, music of all kinds is indeed in our homes--via cable, satellite, etc.)

·       Store purchases will be made by "tube". Pneumatic tubes, instead of store wagons, will deliver packages and bundles. The same for mail. Fast automobiles will distribute purchases from house to house. (Hmmm. Was this person envisioning Fedex, UPS, etc? Possibly. But thank God the pneumatic tube idea never came to pass. Can you imagine a city linked by millions of pneumatic tubes whisking refrigerators and flat screen TVs from Best Buy or Costco in giant tubes of forced air? I think I would rather live in the Amazon basin)

·       Strawberries will be as large as apples. (Why? Will they taste better? I don't think so.)

·       Roses will be as large as cabbage heads and come in many colors, such as black, blue and green. (I have nothing against multi-colored roses, but why as large as cabbage heads? Will they look better? I doubt it. Who wants a black rose?)

·       Oranges will grow in Philadelphia because science will have discovered how to raise in cold climates many fruits now confined to much hotter climates. (Was this person envisioning "hot house" vegetables and fruit that have little or no flavor?)

·       Few drugs will be swallowed or taken into the stomach. Drugs needed for the lungs, for instance, will be applied directly to those organs through the skin and flesh. They will be carried with electric current applied without pain to the outside skin of the body. The living body will to all medical purposes be transparent. Not only will it be possible for a physician to actually see a living, throbbing heart inside the  chest, but he will be able to magnify and photograph any part of it...via rays of invisible light. (This prediction is really quite amazing. Almost everything it suggests is fact today.)

·       Man will see around the world. Persons and things of all kinds will be brought within focus of cameras connected electrically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span. American audiences in their theaters will view upon huge curtains before them the coronations of kings in Europe or the progress of battles in the Orient. (Another prescient forecast, possibly foreseeing satellite TV broadcasts that we take for granted today.)

·       A university education will be free to every man and woman. Poor students will be given free board, free clothing and free books if ambitious and actually unable to meet their school and college expenses. The very poor will, when necessary, get free rides to and from school and free lunches between sessions. In vacation time poor children will be taken on trips to various parts of the world. Etiquette and housekeeping will be important studies in the public schools. (Interesting ideas...some of which have indeed been adopted. I am not so sure about those etiquette and housekeeping classes though.)

So what do you think? How accurate was the Ladies' Home Journal of 1901? I give them an "E" for Effort.

Friday, September 26, 2014

19th Century Newspaper Editors Imagine Newspapers of the Future

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post that discussed how people in the past predicted the future and I promised a sequel. Here it is with another sequel to follow.

Back in 1895 several prominent newspaper editors were asked to speculate on what newspapers would look like in the 20th Century. Some of their predictions were quite uncanny, and some were, well, a bit off the mark.

Here are a couple of examples:

·       Felix Agnus, Editor of the Baltimore American:  “Today I saw a new invention that distributes written messages to its customers, the matter clearly printed on convenient sheets. The inventor tells me he can afford to place these at a very moderate cost in offices or in homes. All it needs is a long roll of paper. It does the rest. Now what is to prevent the people of the next century from having their news continuously? As soon as an event occurs it is broadcast over the wires and is immediately printed by the automatic machine. How will a newspaper published once a day compete with a scheme such as that?”

Sounds a lot like something we used to call a telex machine. They never made it into homes, at least not on a large scale, but they were in just about every newsroom in the world.

·       Then there was this prediction from A.G. Boynton, editor of the Detroit Free Press: Keeping...with the limits of the possible, this much is safe to forecast….there will be great and marked progress in independence—that the newspaper of the twentieth century will not be tied, as the newspaper of the nineteenth century is far too often, to a party, a sect or a creed."

Sadly, Mr. Boynton's vision of today's newspaper has proven to be more aspiration than reality. News today is too often skewed by reporters, editors, producers and publishers to fit their own political agendas or world views. I should acknowledge, however, that for a while in the 20th Century the concept of trying to achieve some form of objectivity and fairness in reporting was rigidly adhered to in the best newspapers. At least it was at the newspapers I worked at.

Mr. Boynton's predictions and others appeared in an article that appeared in the Tacoma Daily News March 30, 1895.

We are able to enjoy this 120-year-old article because of Readex, a company that for seven decades has specialized in providing access to primary source research materials such as early American Newspapers. Here is a link to the Readex blog: and a link to the actual article:

Many of these editors had already personally witnessed amazing advancements in newspaper publishing, the Readex article pointed out.  They had seen newspapers progress from the old Washington hand press to enormous printing presses capable of producing tens of thousands of newspapers in just a few hours; from the Pony Express and stage coach to the telephone and telegraph; from hand-setting type to typesetting linotype machines and the halftone photo reproduction process.

And while some of the predictions may seem a little quaint, given The Internet and today's 24-hour news cycles, I am amazed at how prescient these editors were.

Here is James Elverson, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

·       “The chief characteristic of the twentieth century newspaper must necessarily be correlated with the twentieth century scientific inventions….If the flying machine is perfected, every first class reporter will have one. If the air ship is a success, they will distribute tons of newspapers daily. If telegraphy becomes an exact science, the inmost heart of man will be revealed daily to the public. If Esoteric Buddhism gathers the world to its bosom and Mahatmas drops messages about the present, past and the future through newspaper roofs from the desert of Gobi, then every first-class newspaper will have its staff of Mahatmas to preach ethics to its readers. Pneumatic tubes may distance trains; photo scopes may reproduce pictures 10,000 miles away, and possibly the kinescope may be so adapted that every reader may have one in his house in which to view the scenes of which he reads in his favorite newspaper, the photographic strips therefore being issued as supplements. Possibly we shall not use type any more, but by some complex arrangement issue rolls that shall run through phonographs. Then, as the twentieth century man sits down to breakfast he can have the news read to him while he sees every event in the kinescope, and at the same time he can swallow his morning meal.”
Sounds a lot like watching CNN or FOX while eating your oatmeal. And don't forget, this was BEFORE the invention of radio or television.

Percy S. Heath, editor of the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette may have foreseen the ubiquitous "Op Ed" page of today's newspaper
·       “A forum, where the people may go with ideas and grievances, and appeal to public opinion. This to my mind will be the feature and the characteristic of the future newspaper. I believe the forceful utterances of the press will come direct from the people; that the intelligent reader is becoming every day a man or woman of opinion, of fixed ideas, and that sentiment will be expressed more and more freely through the press by those not directly connected with it. There will be less arbitrary editorial expression. The ‘fourth page’ will contain that thought of the reader which up to this time the editor has sought to forestall or anticipate.”

            Charles W. Knapp, editor of the St. Louis Republic seems here to presage the way many of us customize the news we get from our online newspapers.
·       To fulfill its mission perfectly, (the newspaper) will be issued not once, or twice, but half a dozen times every day. Perhaps also the great fin de siècle newspaper of the twentieth century will be issued in several different editions varying radically in the character of their contents, so as to meet the varying wants of different classes of subscribers and at the same time obviate the undue enlargement of its size. It is bound to be more comprehensive in the exhaustive completeness of its information than the newspaper of today, but it will not be necessary for every reader to take the whole daily encyclopedia. Those who wish will have the opportunity to designate certain classes of news to be sent to them, and in some degree every subscriber will have the privilege of ordering his newspaper made to fit his own individual and particular wants."
George A. Robertson, editor of the Cleveland World sees newspapers using several "new" inventions to collect and disseminate news faster. He also sees the use of more photography.  However, his vision falls a little short when it comes to his altruistic view of the 20th Century newspaper.

·       “Already within sight are numerous remarkable inventions that will be made use of to improve the newspaper of the future. A machine is already patented and in limited use that sends messages by wire ten times as fast as the present telegraphic code and these messages are automatically written out as they arrive. This will be employed by the coming newspaper in improving its news facilities. A machine for transforming pictures by wire will be fully perfected within the near future and there will be such a cheapening of engraving processes that newspapers will be much more fully and beautifully illustrated than at present. Telegraphic accounts of happenings in all parts of the world will be accompanied, as received, with engravings ready to be dropped into the forms….Sensationalism is on the wane and the time will come early in the next century when the newspaper that lies will be considered as despicable as the man who does the same thing now. The twentieth century newspaper will not be entirely composed of the record of the ‘evil that men do,’ but some the good things will be mentioned also.”
 Finally here is Frank A. Richardson, editor of the Baltimore Sun. While I applaud his optimism concerning the human condition and his laudable vision of scrupulous and truthful editors, there are far too few of these trustworthy souls toiling in today's newsrooms.

·       “As mankind with the march of time becomes more noble and elevated, the newspaper, which is at once the leader and the follower of public sentiment, must share in this. Therefore I should say the newspaper of the twentieth century must be conducted on a higher plane. Its great aim must be to instruct and purify, rather than merely amuse for an idle hour and increase its circulation by pandering to the baser instincts of humanity. There are a few striking instances among the leading newspapers of this day where the desire for gain is not made the paramount consideration. In the twentieth century this will become more and more apparent, for incentives to the contrary course which exist now will disappear. The newspaper of the next century will be guided by the hand of strictest truth and honor, for policy, if not conscience, will make it so.”
Perhaps the most troubling part of this story is the fact that of the 13 newspapers polled in this 1895 exercise, only four are still being published today. That none of the editors could foresee the demise of their own newspapers is not surprising to me.

The 1890s were an optimistic decade in American history with a young nation just beginning to flex its political and economic muscles on the world stage.  

 Given the gloomy, often deplorable world we live in today with its poverty and wars waged by religious fanatics like ISIL with its beheadings and mutilation of innocents; its pervasive drug use; the decline of the traditional family; the inexorable secularization of society and with it the relentless obliteration of morality, integrity and civility; I wonder how today's 21st Century editors would foretell the world of the 22d Century.

With much less optimism I would wager.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Who Writes Better? Women or Men?

I recently received the results of a poll asking that very question. It was produced by a company called Grammarly, a leading automated proofreader.

The results are sure to set off some interesting (read: heated & intense) discussions among writers of both genders.

I won't keep you in suspense. The result of the poll of some 3,000 men and women world-wide is that women are better writers than men by a margin of 59% to 41%.

Ahem. I am sure there are plenty of male colleagues who beg to differ. And I am sure there are plenty of female scribblers who are saying: "See, I told you so!"

So just how did Grammarly arrive at this staggering conclusion?

Women, the poll said, tend to be more descriptive in their writing, and spend more time developing a greater variety of characters than men.

Perhaps as a result, women are generally regarded to be superior writers, the survey concluded.
Note the qualifiers in that sentence: "perhaps" and "generally."

On the other hand, male writers get to the point faster, and both sexes are more likely than not to write about people like themselves, the poll added.
OK, now let's do a little parsing here.

First, let's not forget that the poll was highly subjective and I have no idea if the 3,000 men and women polled were split equally between the sexes.

Having said that there were some interesting results.

For example, one question asked which of the sexes are likely to spend more time developing characters and which will get to the point faster.

The answer? 83 percent of the respondents said that women were likely to spend more time developing characters and just 17 per cent said they would get to the point faster.

As for men, 44 percent of respondents said that men would spend significant time developing character and 56 per cent said men would get to the point of the story faster.

Before going on, I should explain just what Grammarly is. According to the company, the software program uses elite natural language processing technology to check writing for more than 250 types of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. It delivers a passive learning experience that identifies writing patterns and sends users personal recommendations to help understand their most common mistakes and opportunities to develop their writing skills. 

Grammarly is also the creator of GrammoWriMo, a collaborative writing project to celebrate National Novel Writing Month (November). Last year the project brought together more than 300 writers from 27 countries and 44 U.S. states to create a group novel, which was then sold as an e-book on Amazon and benefitted the Make-A-Wish Foundation

Now, back to the poll. Another question asked if men are more likely to write about people (using pronouns such as "she," "me," "hers," or "we") or things (using determiners such as "the," "a," "some," or "more").

Fifty-six percent said men were more likely to write about people and 44 percent they were more likely to write about things.

On the other hand, 68 percent said women were more likely to write about people and just 32 percent said they were more likely to write about things.

I am not sure what that means. I have never seen a successful novel yet that focuses entirely on "people" or entirely on "things."  I would assume that any good story would give sufficient attention to both.

The results of one question seemed to run counter to what I would regard as crisp and clear writing. That had to do with sentence length.

The question asked which, men or women, were more likely to write long, descriptive sentences, or simple, straightforward sentences.

The answer: 34 percent of men wrote long sentences and 66 percent wrote short sentences. For women the percentages were quite different. The poll revealed that 76 percent of women wrote long, descriptive sentences while just 24 percent wrote short, snappy sentences.

Once again, I am not sure why those results indicate that women are superior writers. I prefer, like Ernest Hemingway, to write shorter, crisper sentences--though if William Faulkner were queried I am sure he would say just the opposite.

Is the Grammarly poll conclusive? Hardly. But I am sure it will make for some interesting conversation at book fairs, writing conferences and in college literature classes.

Conclusive or not, I give Grammarly props for tackling a potentially fractious topic.

Check out this link to Grammarly:

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Festivals: A Great Way to Meet Readers and Fellow Authors

I just returned from the Kansas Book Festival, where I was one of 30 writers from a variety of genres invited to be "presenting authors" at the day-long event.

The state of Kansas doesn't mess around when it comes to supporting the festival.

It is held in the venerable 149-year-old State Capitol building in Topeka with authors making 50-minute presentations followed by Q & A sessions throughout the day in the hallowed Senate and House Chambers as well as the courtroom of the Kansas Supreme Court.

State Capitol Building: Venue of the Kansas Book Festival

Spectators sit at the original 1885 handmade Kansas wild cherry wood desks in the Senate and House surrounded by ornate bronze columns plated with copper and silver; and carved white Italian marble walls inlaid with silver panels.

Not a bad venue for a bunch of scribblers to perform in.

This was the fourth year of the festival which was started by Kansas First Lady Mary Brownback in 2011.

The criteria used by the Selection Committee to choose presenting authors for the festival were these: The author was either a Kansas writer, a former Kansas author, an author who wrote a book that dealt with Kansas in some way, or a native Kansan.

However, ultimately the selection committee made its selections based on the quality of the work--which is the way it should be.

"We want to have quality books by quality authors at the Festival," Mary Brownback told me. "We think we have achieved that."

Here is a link to this year's Kansas Book Festival Presenting Authors:

The mission of the Kansas Book Festival is to promote literacy and a life-long love of reading among people of all ages.  In addition to the annual book festival, the festival also sponsors  a children’s writing contest, and awards more than $10,000 annually in grants to public and school libraries across the state.  More information about the festival is available at

This was the second book festival I have attended in the past four months. The first was the L. A. Times Festival of Books held on the campus of the University of Southern California.

I found both festivals useful and rewarding. At the L.A. Times event I signed more than 100 of my books (Book #1 in my Finding Billy Battles Trilogy) for readers. Because it was so large with something like 50,000 people in attendance each of its two days, I didn't get an opportunity to talk with many fellow authors.

The Kansas Book Festival, which attracts about 4,000 for the one-day event provided greater opportunities to talk with other authors, but the book signings were less fruitful. Nevertheless authors should always take advantage of any opportunity to talk with  readers, no matter how few show up for a book signing.

Without readers authors are nothing. Readers provide critical feedback, often ask questions we may never have thought to ask ourselves, and most of all, they provide validation for what we produce.

If you are an author and you have never attended a book festival to sign your books or to interact with the reading public and other writers, you are missing a valuable opportunity.

Talking about my book at the Kansas Book Festival
It is one thing to sit in the solitude of one's home or office and pound away on your computer (or typewriter for those who still do that). It is quite another to leave that sanctuary and actually meet people who read books--perhaps even some that you write.

Some may think participating in an online "virtual book tour" or perhaps writing a blog  is all you need to do.

It is not. There is no substitute for face to face, person to person communication. And where better to do that than at an event geared to bring authors and readers together.

There are hundreds of these events throughout the United States every year. Find one near you and go. It may be the best marketing tool you will ever use.