Sunday, November 30, 2014

What Makes You Pick up a Book? (Also, a warning about sociopaths)

As a compulsive reader I am interested in the answer to this question because I have a crazy number of books teetering in stacks around my house and sometimes I am paralyzed by the choices.

As a writer I am curious about the answer too, because what I am really thinking is: what is going to make a person-- a stranger somewhere out in the world-- pick up MY book? -- especially when there are so many other books and entertainment options (in addition to books) competing for his or her attention.
(example: Binge-watching a TV show
as my husband and I are presently doing
with the compelling series House of Cards)

Yeah, I know. There is an entire industry built around the question of what makes a person buy/read a book.


I've learned quite a bit about marketing over the past few years as I attempted to promote my book Thin Space. I had a publishing house behind me doing their Thing. Stuff like designing a book cover and ensuring that the book made it into the hands of professional reviewers, setting up blog interviews and author tours, figuring out bookstore placement.

Not being an expert in marketing, but wanting to do everything I possibly could to help, I helped. But I never knew if what I was doing was working. I had a Throw the Spaghetti on the Wall and Let's See If It Sticks approach to marketing and promotion. If someone asked me to do something, 99% of the time (because of the lessons I learned from my writer friend Mike Mullin), I said Yes. 

Interviews, guest blog posts, school and library visits, book festivals, bookstore signings? YES

TV and radio programs? Gulp. Okay. Yes.

Book tours? HELL YES.

Do some of this stuff for free? Um, yeah. okay.

Let us pay you? SURE

Did any of these translate into book sales? Yeah, but how many and which ones were most effective? Uh. No idea.

Or I guess I should say, Some idea. But it's not something you can control or count on. Someone likes the book and tells someone else. That's at the heart of it.

And the key seems to be if that Someone is in a position to tell MANY others. Example: a bookstore owner. A librarian who happens to be the president of a librarian association. A librarian who sits on a committee to choose books for a state's reading list.

It's Word of Mouth many times over and it all comes down to what makes a person pick up a book in the first place. What makes her READ it. Like it. Like it so much she wants to tell another person. 

Which brings me back to my teetering stacks of books.

For the sake of analysis, here are the last few books I picked up and why I read them:
1. (Reading now) The Outlander, Diana Galbadon. Why? My book club chose it.

2. Perfectly Good White Boy, Carrie Mesrobian. Why? I read her book Sex & Violence and loved it. Plus, I was interviewing her for a group blog.

3. Gone Too Far, Natalie D. Richards. Why? Natalie is my friend and I loved her other book.

4. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. Why? Book club chose the book.

5. Behind the Scenes, Dahlia Adler. Why? I know the author from online interactions.

6. Kiss, Kill, Vanish, Jessica Martinez. Why? Did a joint book-talk/signing with the author.

7. The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma. Why? I know the author, read and loved all of her other books.

8. The Living, Matt de la Pena. Why? The book is on the Florida Teens Read list and I heard the author speak at a conference.

9. Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, Jenny Torres Sanchez. Why? I knew I was going to meet the author at a book event.

10. Burning Blue, Paul Griffin. Why? The book is on the Florida Teens Read list and I knew I would meet the author at a conference.

11. The Killing Woods, Lucy Christopher. Why? Natalie Richards told me to read it.

12. The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout. Why? Someone was tweeting about the book and it seemed like it would be interesting. (it was)
13. Wicked Lovely, Marissa Marr. Why? Another author suggested it because she thought it sounded like a comparable for a book I am working on. (it's not)

14. The Journey that Saved Curious George, Louis Borden. Why? Met the author at a conference and the book sounded interesting. (it was)

15. Ghosting, Edith Pattou. Why? The author is a new friend.

16. David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell. Why? The book was a gift from my brother, plus I've read several other books by the author.

17. The Likeness, Tana French. Why? I read the author's other books and liked them.

Hmm. So, some of this is "work-related." I know I am going to be on a panel with a particular author or I am going to meet him or her at an event.

Some is friend-related. Over the past few years I've gotten to know other authors-- writers who live in the area, writers I've met on the road, as well as writers I've interacted with online. I want to read their books, and I take their book suggestions seriously.

(Books by Ohio authors featured at Cover to Cover Bookstore
for a Support Local Writers' Display.
I've read many of these books
and the ones I haven't yet, are on my TBR list.) 

The others on the list are books that are written by authors I've read before and/or books selected by my book club.

The only outlier is The Sociopath Next Door, which was a book I'd never heard of, by an author I'd never read, and suggested by a person I do not know, on social media.

The book was fascinating.

It's non-fiction, written by a psychiatrist who started noticing a pattern in her patients' experiences--many of whom had been hurt (sometimes had their lives ruined) by sociopaths. Turns out 1 in 25 people are sociopaths and they're not the people you'd expect. ie Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, but often a seemingly normal person-- who happens to lack a conscience. I could not put the book down and the idea of it-- that we might interact with and be manipulated by sociopaths without realizing what's happening, is truly creepy.

It's also made me look at House of Cards through a whole other lens.

Take it from me--writer, reader, blogger, friend-- pick it up and read it.

PS: What makes YOU pick up a book?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Story of a Couch: Fun Times Paying College Tuition (with guest appearances by Rick Grimes and the zombies from The Walking Dead)

Next week our son's mind-blowingly large second term college bill is due. And just as mind-blowingly, my husband and I will scrounge up the funds to pay it.

Say wah??

Younger daughter is a high school senior, and next year, we will be paying TWO bills. I know!! It freaks me out too!!

No. No. No. There is NO way you will be able to do this. 

But we ARE, Rick Grimes. Somehow, we are.

But how, Jody? It's INSANE. 

This is true too, Mr. Grimes. College costs are crazy high. I could do some online research and give you actual numbers but I don't feel like doing that. So you're going to have to take my Anecdotal/I Remember Reading About This Stuff word for it.

It costs a lot to go to college these days.

(A college parent, upon receiving a bill)
Kids are taking out insane loans that cripple them the moment they throw their caps up in the air. I've heard some people in the, ahem, somewhat older generation, kinda mocking this phenomenon, saying crap like: In my day, I worked two jobs and put myself through college, yadda ya.

blah di blah blah
Right, Gramps. I'm sure you did. But college costs more today.

For comparison purposes (OKAY, I did the research) If you went to Ohio State University in 1970, you would pay $1,550-1,700 per year. If you went to Yale, you'd paid $3,900. 

Today: that's $21,703 at OSU and $63,250 at Yale.

Old Zombie Man: But isn't that sorta the same when you factor in the cost of living blah blah, etc?

Author of this blog: No.

OZM: I don't believe you.

Author of this blog: Oh my Lord, please don't make me do math.

OZM: Then I don't believe you. Meh bluh gripey gripe.

All right, I will do math. Damn it.


FYI -- minimum wage in 1970 was $1.45
Today it is $7.25 (really. I just looked it up) 

Example 1: 1970 college-age guy works 40 hours per week for ten weeks during the summer, at $1.45 an hour and earns $580 by the end of the summer. He works part-time (20 hrs) during the school year and earns 1,218. Wah lah! He can afford OSU totally on his own with no help from his parents or loans or the government.*

Example 2: 2014 college student works the summer at $7.25 per hour and earns $2,900. She works the rest of the year part-time and earns $6090. She is still short $12,713 for OSU** But no need to stress: Yale will give her a decent financial package.***

*The government used to invest more in public education, which is why it was more affordable. I know. It's crazy! Our country used to care about stuff like that. Now, Old Zombie Men defund higher education and at the same time complain about how lazy kids are.  

**tuition only (no room and board) is 10,010, and she almost has enough. But she'll still need to cough up living expenses if her parents won't/can't support her. Note that the 1970 guy earns enough money for tuition AND room and board, with money left over for pizza.****

*** If she can get in. 

****a slice of pizza in 1970 was 35 cents.

So, yes, it really does cost a lot to go to college these days, but my husband and I are in a position to take care of it.

I know we are lucky, and I am grateful for the rays of the Universe shining down upon us.  


Which doesn't make the mind-blowingly large bill any easier to look at and/or pay.

Sacrifices must be made.

And all of this brings me back to the point of this blog. A couch. Specifically, two couches.

A few weeks ago my husband was downstairs in our den watching TV, and he called me down to watch something with him and we both realized that I rarely sit in the den anymore. For a variety of reasons. One, I have a hard time sitting. See: cyst in my back. But also, because I really don't like the couches in our den.

Once upon a time, I thought the couches were nice. Comfy and bright and modern-looking and pretty much perfect for a young happy family.

Lately, (like, maybe for the past two or three years?) the couches aren't comfy. Or bright. Or modern-looking. They're faded and flattened and also randomly lumpy. There are wires poking out in hazardous places. We lost a remote control for a couple of years and didn't realize we'd been sitting on it because it had slipped into a hole in the material and found its way to some other part of the couch underneath that we couldn't see.

The dog sleeps on the pillows and has smushed them out of shape.

Years of kids jumping on the couches and eating cinnamon toast and spilling sodas and chocolate milks, sweat and dirt and people's shoes have all taken a toll.

The couches are ugly.

To be honest, they reek.

I don't want to watch TV and flop out on one of the couches anymore. I don't even want to look at the couches anymore.

Last week I was ranting about our disgusting couches to one of my friends, and she asked the obvious question: Why don't you buy new couches?

Hmm. Why don't we buy new couches?

Read the first sentences of this blog again for the answer.

Reeking couch  circa 2014

(The same couch in 1970. Nah. Just joking.
The same couch in 2004--
when these two future college-going cuteys were in elementary school)

PS. Conclusion: college is for the rich and blessed and now I feel like I'm almost as bad as Old Zombie Man for even griping about it if the biggest sacrifice my husband and I have to make in order for our kids to go to school is to park our butts on stinky couches for five more years.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Librarians Saved My Life, and now, damn it, I am going to try to save theirs

My love affair with librarians goes way back.

The romance began in my childhood, when a librarian saved my life. Our first date was a lovely one. She was young and beautiful and kind. She saw me--a sad shy little girl -- scoping out the shelves in the children's section of the New Britain Public Library in New Britain, Connecticut, and she struck up a conversation. One thing led to another and she was selecting books for me, even going so far as to place books in my hands. 

After a few weeks, she knew what I liked. Sweet quiet stories. Mysteries, but nothing too dark. Fantasies. I think she guessed something about me: I wanted--needed--to escape.

Our break-up was tearful. One day I came into the children's section and she was waiting for me, as always, with a stack of books. It was her last day, she said.

(Me, age 10 or so, at the library)
I cried.

She took me out to a nearby restaurant. Things would be okay, she said. I would be okay. Books would always be my friends.

From that point on, I've loved libraries.  The buildings themselvesthe books that fill those buildings. And I've never gotten over my love for librarians.

They still help me choose books. When my kids were little, librarians helped them. The librarian at their elementary school knew them by name, of course, and she knew what kinds of books they liked. My son was a big non-fiction guy. My daughter liked mysteries.

As a writer of children's books, I spend a lot of time in libraries. I enjoy chatting with the librarians in the children's section of my local library. I am friends with the librarian (just retired) from my kids' high school and with several of the librarians at other high schools in the area.

The librarians in Ohio invited me to speak at their annual conference. They've brought me to their schools and book clubs. They put my book on their Battle of the Books lists. Librarians at the New Britain Public library, the same library where my love affair began, invited me back to give a talk. They searched for the kind librarian of my childhood by looking up old employment records. They wrote me emails with the subject line "The Case of the Missing Librarian."

They did not find her, but they told me they will keep looking.

A few librarians in Florida put my book Thin Space on the list of books teens should read, and I went to their conference. Those librarians set me up in a gorgeous hotel in Orlando and treated me like I was a rock star.

I still cry around librarians. I know what a powerful and potentially life changing effect they can have on individual children. I know that some people don't recognize what librarians do. Librarians never toot their own horns.

That librarian in my children's school --the one who knew their names and what books they liked to read-- she was let go. The short-sighted well-meaning principal decided that her position wasn't important. A better use of tax dollars would be a reading specialist to analyze reading test scores. Maybe a parent volunteer could sit in the library and check out books and straighten the shelves.

I visited a school in Florida with 3600 students and one librarian. She was lovely but frazzled, telling me that when she teaches lessons on research or technology, she must visit 75 classes. But she felt lucky. She has a job. There are entire districts in Florida with no librarians at all.

A few weeks ago, when I spoke at the Ohio state librarians' conference, I noticed a stark difference between the number of attendees from the year before. The president told me that they've lost many people. Many districts no longer reimburse librarians for conference expenses. Anyone who was there, most likely paid for the attendance themselves.

They were upbeat though. Talking about their love of books and of students. Sharing information about how best to reach and help and support their kids, as they call them. I gave a talk about my book and my evolution as a writer and I was shocked to see that I had made some of the librarians cry.

Last week I bumped into several of librarians I know. They were anxious and upset.

The state board of education in Ohio is seriously considering passing a law that would make it easy for districts to cut the arts, music, guidance, PE, and librarians from the schools. At the last meeting, several school board members walked out in protest of the proposed law.

I never get political on this blog, but today I am going to.

If you live in Ohio, please take a moment to show support for school librarians. Write a thank you note to one (or all) of the following board members who care about school libraries and librarians and understand the true insidious ramifications of the proposed law--or at the very least, seem to be open to supporting the librarian profession:

Stephanie Dodd     
Sarah Fowler         
Kathleen McGervey
Ann Jacobs            
Michael Collins    
Deborah Cain        
A.J. Wagner          
Mary Rose Oakar 

Here's a link to one of the articles in The Columbus Dispatch about the crisis.

If you're on Twitter, you can support and follow along --using the hashtag #Ohio5of8

Thank you.

One of these schools is next to Hogwarts. One is next to a power plant.
What do they both have in common?
A dedicated, professional librarian 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Don't Step on the Seal. And other stuff I learned on the college tour circuit

I've visited a lot of college campuses over the past few years.

It was fun at first. (Side note: I was looking at these colleges with my teenaged son as part of his college search process, so once I got past the shocking/horrifying fact that I was the parent of a teenaged son going through the college search process, I kinda got into the whole thing.)

While my kid was slouching in the back of the parent info session, I was the perky helicopter mom jotting down notes about the application process and average SAT scores (that my equally helicoptery husband would later input into an Excel spreadsheet).

I loved the student led campus tours where a gushing model specimen of collegiate-ness walks backward and spouts off fun facts about college life while at the same time pointing out interesting aspects of the architecture. Look at the ivy crawling up the side of that building! Did you know that 25% of our students study abroad? See that stained glass window?-- that was once Einstein's office.

Maybe four or five visits in, some of the fun facts and interesting architectural aspects started to bleed together.

Did you know, for example, that pretty much every college campus has a nearby ice cream parlor/pizza place/bbq joint where THE BEST ICE CREAM/PIZZA/BBQ EVER is served and you simply must stop there on your way out of town?

Every college cafeteria has a pasta bar.

Every place has some kind of elaborate etched into the brick walkway college seal or special archway that you must not walk across/step through or you won't graduate.

Every place is gung ho sustainability and yoga and 25,000 intramural sports and clubs.

The tour guides lie to you. About the ice cream parlors. And Einstein's office. 

After the blurry whirlwind of touring, a couple of tidbits stand out:

Most original dorm option (can't remember which school this was. Oberlin? Swarthmore?): You can apply to live with a handful of other kids in a Thoreau-like cabin way off campus, with no running water or electricity.

Fun fact that probably should NOT have been said by a tour guide: We were passing by a beautiful pond, and someone (Me) mentioned how nice the pond was, and the tour guide said, Yeah, but we can't swim in it because it has like, 30 strains of e-coli bacteria.

By the time kid number two came along, I was jaded and cynical about the college search process but trying to be joyful and rah rah about it for the sake of my child --who was looking at totally different schools from the ones we looked at with her older brother.

The first place we visited with kid #2, my husband and I were rolling our eyes and whisper-mocking the newby parents. (Did they not get the memo about letting your kid be the one to ask if there is a study abroad program at this school?

Answer: Of course there's a study abroad program at this school. There's a study abroad program at EVERY SCHOOL.

On the tours: more lies about not stepping across supposedly magical seals. More strolls through libraries and campus bookstores and chemistry labs and chapels and state of the art gyms.

RE: the cafeterias. Pasta bars are so 2011. Now the In thing is a panini press station.

Yesterday, my husband and daughter and I were sitting in the parlor of a yet another lovely admissions office awaiting yet another official college tour. Outside it was gray and cold. When we started out the door following after the student guide, the wind picked up. Even so, the campus was gorgeous, with its old brick buildings and crisscrossing walkways, and a stunning panoramic view of rolling hills and woods and fields.

The student tour guide was appropriately hip and peppy. He walked backward like a pro, spouting off the admission stats and waving at points of interest. Two minutes into the tour, we stopped and looked down at the school seal.

"You know," said our student guide, "Students can't ever step across that or they won't graduate." He went on to say something about the number of kids who participate in Greek life or who volunteer to do community service.

I had stopped listening to him. I was looking at my daughter, her hair flicking up in the breeze, her arms crossed, either because she was freezing or anxious or both.

I looked over at my husband, who had his hands thrust in the pockets of his not weather-appropriate hoodie, and wondered if he was freezing or anxious or both. Was he thinking about our older child in college and how the second semester's horrifyingly high bill would be due soon and how the hell were we going to pay for the next kid on top of it and maybe it was time to pull out the Excel Spreadsheet where we have our college savings plan charted out for the next 5 years and doublecheck it?

A few years ago, at a college info session--(Williams?), the speaker talked about the school's 4-week Winter Term. Because I was a newby at that point, I'd never heard of such a thing, but apparently, you can do an internship or study abroad or stay on campus and ski. Or you could take a class. Or make up your own class, based on your interests. Teach yourself Morse Code or read all  of the poems by Emily Dickinson.

My mind was wandering, imagining that. How cool that my kids would get to Do those things. Eat paninis and live in Thoreau-like cabins and study in France. What would it be like to take four weeks and just read Emily Dickinson?

And then it hit me, I COULD take four weeks and read Emily Dickinson poems if I wanted to. What was stopping me? And damn it, if I want to eat paninis or pitch a tent in the back yard and pretend I'm Thoreau or throw caution to the wind and put a trip to France on the credit card, I could do that too.

Back in the gray windy day at the lovely college on the hill, the tour guide was gesturing to the library.

"This is our seventeenth college tour," my husband whispered to me.

We hung back further from the tour. The wind picked up and everyone was relieved when we got to go inside a dorm and see a sample dorm room.

"Are these dorms coed?" asked a parent.

YES!!! I wanted to tell him.

"Yes," said the tour guide.

When the tour was over, we ate lunch in the cafeteria. Salad bar. Build Your Own Omelet Station. Create our own sandwich. Paninis.

We ate pizza.

Before we left town, we stopped for ice cream at the best ice cream place ever.

At home, my husband pulled up the Excel Spreadsheet of College Costs. I got online and ordered a panini press.