Traffic Is Vanity

I was looking at this site’s stats the other day, and I re-learnt something I’d known a long time ago, from my days in magazine publishing: numbers are sheer vanity.

Like most bloggers I get regular spam promising me that if I just buy some little doohickey for the site I will explode on the Internet. My site traffic will soar. It will feature more prominently in Google searches. Etc. etc. Here’s why I ignore these messages (and probably always will): I don’t care about traffic — by itself, traffic means nothing.
Of course, it depends what you’re setting out to achieve. If you want to build a huge audience for advertisers, you need eyeballs: an audience. But if you think advertisers don’t care who that audience is, as long as you can show them big enough numbers, think again. Advertisers want to be able to qualify their audiences. That way, they can tailor their messages to their audience, and spend less cash getting their messages to the right consumers.

But I don’t really care about that, because I don’t write this blog to attract advertising (just as well really). So traffic — by which I mean sheer numbers — doesn’t concern me. Of course, I want readers. But not any readers at any cost.

So when I look at my traffic numbers and note that a large number of readers are driven to my site by (for example) searching for ‘ugly Afro’, I shake my head. These are not my peeps. They will take one look at the site and leave for ever, in all probability. And I don’t even care. I’m not interested in traffic for traffic’s sake. If that seems arrogant, it’s not. Far from it.

My major goals for this blog are a) to build a platform for my writing, and b) to achieve some visibility in the publishing world. Now, I realize those are mighty ambitious goals for a humble little blog, but I didn’t (and don’t) expect to achieve them overnight. If I achieve them at all, I will achieve them by slowly building an audience. A loyal readership. It’s a steady-as-she-goes, tortoise-not-hare approach. But it’s the only one that makes any sense, given my goals. To me, a reader who is also a literary agent, or an editor of a magazine is worth a million random page views.

I suspect, if you write a blog, the same is probably true for you too. So focus less on numbers (Seth Godin says he doesn’t even look at his) and more on your goals. If you’re looking to attract a certain type of reader, seek out their blogs and comment on their posts. Engage with them. Swap links. Quote them in your own blog and on your Twitter feed. Not willy-nilly, but in a disciplined way which will gain you a sustainable following.

Now, my other blog, that’s another matter. I started that for a bit of fun. I didn’t really have an aim in mind, I was just riffing for the hell of it. And (while I haven’t posted to it in a while) I’ll continue to add to it because it doesn’t actually take very long, and I have fun doing it. And that’s OK too.

July Book(s) Of The Month: Malarky & Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace

I’ll be honest, I chose this book almost entirely because of the author’s interview in the June issue of Quill & Quire. There were a couple of things in that piece that intrigued me: that the published book is more or less the same text that author Schofield delivered to Dan Wells at Biblioasis, her publisher; and the quote from John Metcalf, fiction editor of Biblioasis: “I read the first two pages and I thought, ‘This is a book we have to do.’ It was very well written, wildly funny, and strange.” I’m pleased to report that I agree with him. The voice of the narrator/hero of the book is delicious and quirky. It’s a delight. It took Schofield ten years to write, but who am I to carp about a glacial pace of productivity in the book-writing department?

I’ve paired Malarky (a novel) with Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace (a biography, of sorts), this month because 1) I’m reading both at the same time at the moment and 2) they are both about women of a certain age who are dabbling with extra-marital affairs. I didn’t arrange it that way, it just happened. I’d seen Mrs. Robinson reviewed on the Publishers Weekly site, and when I was picking up Malarky it just happened to be sitting on the display next to the cash till. I’d like to say I’m enjoying it as much, but I can’t. I’m finding it, truth be told, a little dull. It’s not the lack of prurient detail, it’s that really the only way into Mrs. Robinson’s mind and character is through her diary, and it’s an extremely flawed mediator.

Malarky published by: Biblioasis

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace published by: Bloomsbury

 

Both books bought at: Nicholas Hoare.

A note on Book of The Month. New Year resolution: Buy one book a month at full price, from a local independent bookstore (for me, local means I can walk there). Let it be fiction, and by an author whose work I’ve never read before. Thanks to Red Sofa Literary for the idea.

Digital Dystopia – A Cautionary Tale

Yesterday, my friend Laure Baudot emailed me to tell me that one of her stories has been published by Found Press. She’s understandably stoked to have one of her stories picked up (I should think she’s also pretty happy that Sarah Selecky gave her work such a ringing endorsement and to be sharing an issue with the likes of Jessica Westhead). FPQ is a digital journal, so if you’d like to read Laure’s story (and a new story from Jessica Westhead) you can buy  it here (the price for the entire issue is $3.75).

However (and here we get to the cautionary tale part) be aware that you might have to labour a little before you have Laure’s words nestling gently on your hard drive. I did. It’s not Laure’s fault, and I don’t think it’s Found Press’s either. It’s just the current state of play in the digital book world. Found Press offers its stories (you can buy them by the story, for $0.99 each, or by the issue) in two formats – EPUB and MOBI. That’s entirely logical. They are currently the two most common formats for e-publishing, and give you the greatest coverage of devices and computing platforms for the least effort. So far so good.

Most of my digital book-buying has been done on my Kindle, which, for all its faults, does make the whole process quick and painless. Just a click of the buy button and the book is on the device a few seconds later. So I wasn’t prepared for the sink-hole which was about to open up at my feet when I chose the EPUB format and clicked the buy button on Found Press’s site.

I didn’t mind filling in the form which asked for my contact details. FPQ seems like something I’ll buy again in the future, so I was happy to take a minute to fill in my details. I waited for the email giving me access to the product. I recently purchased the second volume of Sarah Selecky’s Little Bird stories (not, you understand, by Sarah Selecky – it’s a competition she runs) by a similar process so at this point I was still sanguine that I’d have the issue any minute.

Sure enough, an email popped into my inbox a few minutes later, giving me a link which would download the file. I clicked it, and sure enough it downloaded almost instantly. So far so good.

Now I don’t think I’m a technological dinosaur. I may be the wrong side of 40 (ahem,,, 50) but my first degree was an electronics degree, and my masters was in digital systems. I’ve designed and built circuitry. I’ve coded in hexadecimal. I’ve worked on operating systems, and developed circuitry on digital simulators. I should have no problem accessing a stoopid little digital text file. Should I?

I imagined, in fact, that I’d probably have some little app already sitting on my Mac that would open the little doohicky up right away, and I could get reading. Notso. TextEdit wanted to have a go when I tried to open the file (I always try the simplest thing first – clicking on the downloaded file seemed like the way to go). I knew it wouldn’t work, of course, so I shut it down and looked around for another likely candidate. Adobe Reader didn’t seem interested, and neither did anything else. Back to the Found Press page. It suggested a couple of options:

EPUB files can be uploaded to and read on most non-Kindle e-readers. They can also be read on PCs and Macs, tablets, smartphones, and iPods, using a variety of free programs and apps such as Adobe Digital Editions, Stanza, Kobo, and iBooks.

My first inclination was to try Stanza. I downloaded it, copied it to my Applications folder and fired it up. Here’s what Stanza told me:

 

So, 20 minutes into the process, and I’m still no closer to getting hold of FPQ5, but I have a tangle of meaningless gobbledygook to untie. Never one to slavishly adhere to the advice of my parents (advice like Don’t Give Up at the First Obstacle and  Persistence Wins The Day) I gave up on Stanza and went in search of Adobe Digital Editions instead.

Now I’m a little steamed, so when it asks me (for the 2nd time in 20 mins) for my contact details, I’m less than impressed. I register, log in and finally (yay!) download yet another file, drag it to Applications and fire it up. Miraculously, it works. I now have FPQ5. At last.

But it was too hard to get it. Way too hard. WAAAAAYYYYY too hard. That’s me shouting. People less persistent than me (or more technologically challenged) would have given up a long time before they actually got their hands on the product. Actually, to be honest, I would have probably given up too, except I’d already paid for it. I felt as if I’d just crawled through razor wire and under a couple of machine gun emplacements to reach an enemy target. It certainly didn’t feel like shopping.

We have to figure this stuff out. People don’t want to be bothered with formats and standards, platforms and performance. They wanna read. That’s all. That’s why physical books are genius. All the fussing and nonsense that gets the book into our hands is hidden in the background, and we don’t have to deal with it. That’s the way it should be in the digital domain too. It should be invisible to the reader. It’s not my friend Laure’s job to figure this out, she just writes the stories. It’s probably beyond Found Press’s power to figure it out too – they are all about finding an audience for the stories. It’s the job of the software developers, the device manufacturers, the platform builders. Currently it’s a mess. Figure it out guys. Quickly. Before a generation of readers gives up and goes off to do something easier, and more fun.

 

 

The Price Of The Independent Bookstore

The price of the independent bookstore is about $18 a month, or just over $100 for the first six months of this year. At least in my case. Curiosity, which is alleged to have killed a cat or two, overcame my greater good sense this morning, and cajoled me. It wanted to know how much actual cash my New Year’s Resolution is costing me. For those of you that don’t know, the NYR in question is to buy at least one book a month at full price from a local independent bookseller (idea courtesy of Red Sofa Literary). So far this year, I’ve paid about $100 more for my books by buying them from independents than I would have if I bought them at Indigo’s online store (for those of you not in Canada, Indigo is Canada’s major bookstore chain, including the brands Chapters, Indigo, Coles and The World’s Biggest Bookstore). That’s about a 21% premium. It’s a lot of money, especially if you’re a struggling writer with little or no income.

Just for the record, I don’t buy ALL my books at Independents. This year, so far, I’ve spent over 80% of my book buying money at Independents. Most of the rest has gone to Indigo.

So what do I get for my $20 a month? Is it worth it, really, paying the extra?

Here’s my perspective. While it may not actually be any more convenient to use my local bookstore (Indigo will deliver them to my door, just as, if not more quickly), Nicholas Hoare will order them for me, for free, and call me when they arrive. They’ll track down hard-to-find books that Indigo doesn’t stock (only one of the 22 books I’ve bought so far this year falls into that category, but one is enough). They’ll recognize me when I walk into the store and the little old lady who orders most of my books for me will always recommend something she’s reading that she loves. LOVES. She’s rarely steered me wrong, and I’ve been introduced to a number of authors I would probably never have read if it hadn’t been for her.

Local bookstore owners champion writers and writing. Their passion for books can ripple out into the community around them, especially when they are regularly putting on readings and events (as, say, Ben McNally Books, another local store, does). With the likes of Indigo increasingly turning to other products (gifts and geegaws) it may well be (in Canada at least) that, sometime in the not too distant future, the independents will provide the only viable places for writers to connect with the public.

Is that worth $20 a month to me? You betcha. Is it to you?

The Mystery of the Short Story

So here’s what I find a little mysterious about the short story. Why don’t more people read them? If it’s true that people no longer have time to read full-length novels (and I hear that a lot), why isn’t the short story taking over?

Fiction seems to be shrinking all around us. The Canadian literary journal The Malahat Review is currently running a competition based on Twitter length pieces. Flash fiction competitions abound. Postcard pieces, micro-fiction, the list goes on and on. And even the traditional short story is being squeezed. Here in Canada our national broadcaster, CBC, runs an annual fiction competition called Canada Writes. In previous years the word count for this competition was 2,500. This year it was just 1,500. The received wisdom is that all this shrinking down is necessary, because in this frenetic, media-rich environment, people don’t have the time (or the attention span) they used to have. The novel is dying, the wisdom says (it’s not the first time the novel has died. It has died pretty regularly since it first appeared) and we have to experiment with these new forms, because that is the only way we’ll persuade people to read in the future.

I think conventional wisdom is off its rocker. If people wanted shorter fiction they would be turning to the short story. They are not. In Canada this form of fiction is celebrated and still widely practiced, but (outside of the creative writing programs) elsewhere it is largely ignored. People don’t seem all that interested in short fiction.

Why? I have a theory about that. Short fiction takes a big investment for a small payoff. You have to enter an entirely new world with every story you pick up, immerse yourself in a new set of characters, and fall for them a little bit (at least, that’s what the writer is aiming for). That’s a lot of effort. I’ve just read the first story from Karen Russell’s short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

Now I love Russell’s writing style. It’s quirky, funny, and at times beautiful. It crackles on the page. But (you spotted this coming, right?), whereas her book, Swamplandia! immerses you in the worlds of the weird, alligator wrestling Bigtree family, the short story which mothered that novel left me feeling a little dissatisfied. Not that the story had the wrong, or a botched, ending. It didn’t. But I was just getting warmed up when it all ended. Which is why, I guess, she wrote Swamplandia!

We love to enter new worlds. And when we fall in love with characters we want to spend time with them. Want to experience their triumphs and disasters. Having fallen in love, we don’t want them to wave us away dismissively after 25 pages. So I think the idea that we don’t have time or attention for full-length works is just hogwash. Probably planted by a marketing exec at a big publishing house.

That’s not all I have to say on this subject, but it will do for now. What do you think? Is short fiction over-due a revival? Or do you want the full-on experience of the novel to possess you for hours at a time?

“I don’t have time to read fiction…”

It was an unlikely locker room conversation to begin with… two guys talking about what books they were reading while they stripped their sweaty gear off after a workout. Any book discussion gets my attention, so I tuned in. The reading habits of guy number 1, let’s call him Mr. Hirsute, seemed pedestrian and mainstream: he said he’d just finished The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and was now reading The Help. I think he may have also mentioned The Hunger Games. The response of guy number 2, let’s call him Mr. Baldaz a’Coot, drove a cold hard sword through my heart. “I don’t,” he said, “have time to read fiction.”

I felt like grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. I felt like taking a large novel, Don Quixote for instance, and whacking some sense into his hair-free cranium. What does that even mean, he doesn’t have TIME to read fiction?

He told Mr. Hirsute that he was currently reading Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs (called, in a fit of naming appropriateness, Steve Jobs). Now, I haven’t read Mr. Isaacson’s book, and what follows should by no means be taken as a critique of that work. It may be one of the best biographies of this or any century. The point isn’t that Mr. Coot should not be reading biographies. The point (implied, at least, by his snarky remark) is that he believes reading fiction is a waste of time. He sees it as mere entertainment. Frippery. Pointless time wasting. He doesn’t have time to waste. Other people may. Let them read fiction. He will focus his mind and sharpen its faculties on non-fiction. Non-fiction will make him a better, wiser man. A more knowledgeable man. A man equipped to take on the 21st century, and all its weird ways.

Now, I’ve got nothing against non-fiction. I read it myself. I’m reading two non-fiction books at the moment. (I’m also reading at least two novels and a couple of short story collections). In the past few months I’ve also read The Swerve and In The Garden of Beasts. I enjoyed them both. Learnt a lot. Time well spent. And I will continue to read non-fiction, because although I’d rather be reading fiction, I think minds work best when they are exposed to a wide landscape of thought.

However, as a writer, I take exception to Mr. Coot’s implied criticism of fiction. Writing is a daily struggle to get to grips with the human condition and unearth some sliver of truth about it from the everyday pile-ups of our lives. Story, as my friend Sue Reynolds reminded me recently, is what makes us human. To be human is to craft a narrative for ourselves and the seemingly meaningless stream of sense impressions that barrage us in what we call life. If you don’t have time to get to grips with the human condition Mr. Coot, you’ve lost the plot of your own life.

Is this the special pleading of the specialist? The tortured bleating of the increasingly irrelevant? Or do you agree that in crafting (and immersing ourselves in) narrative, we capture something essential and integral to our nature as homo sapiens?

December Book Of The Month: Long Drive Home

Right. So, with this book I’m officially all caught up. Up to date on 2011 and up to date so far this year (I’ve already got two books up my sleeve, and others I’ve recently bought which may not make the cut).

This one, Long Drive Home by Will Allison, will (I promise) be the last Julie Barer book I choose. I bought it for the same reason I bought the others: same emotional territory as my own book; interested by the literary style that hooks this particular agent (not so I can write like him, just so I can see if my writing will mesh with her tastes). However, it turns out to have been a very successful choice. An Oprah pick for June 2011, and a NYT bestseller (hmm… maybe there’s a connection there?).

So here’s the thing that hooked me (from the dust jacket blurb on the front flap): “Chronicles a father’s attempt to explain himself to his daughter, even though he knows that in doing so, he risks losing her.” I’m a father. I have a daughter. And something like two years ago I wrestled with the same thing – telling her some ugly truths about myself and my past that she needed to know to make sense of her present. So this is territory I know. I’m not sure I’m ready to explore it in my own fiction, but I’m interested to see what Mr. Allison makes of the landscape. I haven’t read this one yet though, so I’m afraid I can’t report on results.

Published By: Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster

Bought at: Nicholas Hoare (ordered by my nice little old lady bookseller – I must get her name next time I go in the store. I hope she’s called something cute and old-school like Enid).

A note on Book of The Month. New Year resolution: Buy one book a month at full price, from a local independent bookstore (for me, local means I can walk there). Let it be fiction, and by an author whose work I’ve never read before. Thanks to Red Sofa Literary for the idea.