That book life…

Last week I finished reading a book, The Gentle Madness, that outlined the lives of some of the great book collectors and personal libraries assembled over the last five hundred years. It also covered how many of those libraries were broken up over time – sold off in toto or in part, lost to fire, stolen, gifted to public institutions, or released back into the wild through glittering auctions. These were the “important” libraries of history – the first printed books, manuscripts on velum, hand-copied tracts carefully illuminated by monks in the Middle Ages – the incredibly rare and the magnificently expensive. These were the libraries of royal dukes and titans of the industrial age.

It makes me extraordinarily happy that such collectors and such libraries even exist. Even so, I walk away from that read feeling just a little bit sad – mostly because, unless there’s a multi-state lottery jackpot in my future I’ll never be able to possess books like that. I’ll never have the opportunity to walk into a room filled with five hundred year old volumes and revel in their smell and feel and the sheer joy of knowing that for just a short slice of history I am custodian of such rarities.

I love books. I love being surrounded by them. If I had but the funds, I’d like nothing more than to assemble a first rate, proper library – old classics well made and maintained dating back from the dawn of printing and beyond. Given the reality of not having fabulous mountains of wealth, mine is a simple working collection of books.  It’s hardly worthy to be considered a library at this point – just 500 or so volumes of history mixed with fiction, some government and politics, and a few outliers straying into sociology. Hardly a blip when compared to some of the lions of book collecting, whose personal libraries swelled to hundreds of thousands of books.

I read what interests me at the moment, acknowledging that it would be impossible to dive down every rabbit hole – or even one tenth of the rabbit holes given the limitations of time. Sure there are a few modern first editions living in places of honor on my shelf. There are a few well worn favorites that I keep coming back to time and again. If nothing else, I can at least claim that every book that ends up on one of my shelves is one that I’ve read. Nothing earns its spot there simply for decoration or adornment.

I could save a shitload of money if I were just able to borrow books from the public library like a normal person. I’m touched lightly by that gentle madness, though. The books possess me at least as much as I possess them… and I don’t mind it even a little bit.

A year with General Marshall…

I’ve spent the last year living with the ghost of George C. Marshall in the form of Forrest Pogue’s 4 four-part biography. I’ve read a lot of dense history on a host of obscure topics over the years, but this was likely some of the hardest reading I’ve done since diving into the rich esoterica of imperial Russian history about 20 years ago when I thought history was going to be a legitimate way to make a living. There are a dozen respectable biographies of Marshall that would have been far more accessible, but Pogue’s was a master class that truly offered a “one over the world” view.

Weighing in at 1,882 pages taking up a third of a shelf, I don’t supposed you dive in to this biography unless you have more than a casual interest. I picked it up, set it down, let weeks pass between volumes, and faced names, places, and events that sent me down dozes of separate rabbit holes of additional research and reading. I should be happy that I managed to get through it in 1/24th the time it took Pogue to write and publish the set in the first place. The thing really is a monument to the historian’s art.

I walked away from my experience with the general a little sad that he’s been so constatly overshadowed in popular memory of the war years by more glamorous subordinates – Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur even now 70 years later are names recognized by the average household. Outside of those who study the Army, a few professional historians and soldiers, Marshall fades into the background. It’s a shame, though it strikes me as what the man himself would have probably wanted.

So what am I left with after spending a year with General Marshall? Aside from a really great looking bookshelf trophy, I’m left with the determined opinion that George C. Marshall was only the second truly indispensable man in the history of the republic.

It was a weird day…

Today was weird. Unfortunately it was almost certainly the kind of weird that should probably stay embargoed for blogging purposes. It’s a shame, really, because those usually make the most interesting stories. Sigh. Maybe someday when I don’t have to at IMG_3043least be minimally concerned with not throwing too large a wake all over everything. For tonight, though, you’re just going to have to accept my pronouncement that it was, indeed, weird on all counts.

Instead of that, let’s focus instead on the glorious news that Amazon has started shipping my “Fall release” preorder books. I buy a lot of second hand reads, but for some authors I’m willing for fork out the premium to have them brand spanking new. Plus, it feels good buying from a source where a living author, who is presumably making a living from his writing, is going to get a cut of the proceeds. There are million good books out there you can have access to for next to nothing, but helping to make sure new material stays in the pipeline feels like the right thing to do now and then.

When I’ve already got 100+ books sitting on a shelf waiting to be picked up, you could be forgiven for thinking adding two more to the stack wouldn’t make me unduly happy. In this case, you would be exactly wrong. I get a little sparkle in my eye every time one of these little gems walks through the door. Now if I could just make more time for reading and require less time for weird, I think we’d be all set.

AMA: Tell me about your ebook…

Editorial Note: I stumbled on a few “Ask Me Anything” questions I got a few months ago and had completely forgotten about. Over the next week or two, I’ll do my best to work them in to the schedule.

Tonight’s AMA question is another posed by someone I’ve Identified as LS. LS asks, “Kindle books… how many titles have you published, how many have sold, how you decided to set prices and whatnot?”

That’s not as straightforward a question as it might seem at first glance. To cover the basics, I’ve got two formal ebooks published under my own name. The first, Nobody Told Me: The Cynic’s Guide for New Employees, is my treatise on what it means to be a youngish employee in the bowels of a giant bureaucracy. It’s still one of my favorite efforts to date. The other primary ebook I have up for sale is Retribution: Chasing Hearts and Minds. That’s my first foray into proper fiction – and one that I hope gets a follow-up sooner rather than later. I’ve actually got that next installment “sort of” outlined, but haven’t forced myself to sit down and do the hard work of putting words on paper.

I’ve also done a bit of short story writing under a pen name that, for the time being, is not a topic for public discussion. Writing under a name other than your own is a remarkably freeing experience and lets you dive into topics and ideas that you wouldn’t otherwise explore. I’ve made a conscious decision to largely keep me and my alter ego completely separate for purposes of discussing what I write about on a regular basis. Although I’m not ready to drop that veil just yet, for purposes of answering this AMA, I’m including the sales totals from these 15 or so other short stories.

I try to be “platform agnostic” when it comes to sales. I’m happy using Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Smashwords, and a dozen or more other small e-retailers. Without making this post into an enormous spreadsheet of sales figures, between all my titles and across all print and electronic platforms I’ve had 1905 total sales and earned near enough to $1,450 in royalties.

That’s not setting the world on fire in the publishing business, but I’m proud of those numbers because it’s something I carried through every step of the creative process and convinced people to pay real money for. It’s a deeply satisfying experience.

When it comes to price, I keep it simple. For ebook buyers short stories go for $.99 and the longer works for $2.99. Paperback copies come in at $7.99. Those are pretty much the lowest prices allowed by the retailers unless you’re running a giveaway promotion. I realize that I’m competing against a host of people who have jumped into the epublishing world over the last five years. My logic there is that I don’t have a built in audience and can’t expect anyone to pick up something I write over any of the thousands of other “no name” competitors. I never wanted price point to be the factor that sent someone over to the next guy to find a bargain.

I’d love to spend a little time talking about what might be next, but the reality is I’ve got seven different files sitting on my desktop right now in various stages of development. One is ready for final editing. Most are somewhere between notes or rough outlines and fully fleshed out written chapters. Some are “mine” some belong to my alter ego. What I work on largely depends on my mood. It’s not exactly an efficient way to operate. It might not even be an effective way to operate. Fortunately, since I’m doing this more as a way to blow off stress and be creative, the need to be effective or efficient isn’t exactly a driving force.

I love writing and get a real charge out of seeing someone pay money to read something I’ve come up with. At heart, though, I still mostly identify as a half-assed blogger so it’s safe to assume that the lion’s share of the day’s word count is going to keep pouring out on these pages for the world to see at no additional charge.

You’re welcome.

The problem with Goodreads…

A few weeks ago I wrote about going “all in” with Goodreads.com as the means and method of keeping tabs on what I’ve read, what I want to read, and generally keeping me from buying the same thing twice. Yes, that happened more than once.

Now that I’ve been living with it for a few weeks, I’ve discovered what I’ve come to think of as its major problem… that would be the fact that every time I log in it forces me to face the ever growing list of books I’ve purchased, but not yet taken the time to read. It’s a problem I was vaguely aware of in the past, but now I’ve got this marvelous automated tool to remind me constantly that there are 31 books just sitting on various shelves and flat surfaces at home waiting for my attention. It wasn’t nearly so much of a problem when all they did was sit there quietly.

I’d like to be able to tell you that I’ll simply resolve this problem by delaying the purchase of any new reading material until I’ve cycled through what’s already here. I think we both know that’s not going to happen, though. What I’ll probably end up doing, in the interest of freeing up more shelf space for books I’ve actually read, is order yet another bookcase and set up all of my eventually-to-be-read collection in the spare bedroom. That’s how normal people do it, right?

Ordeal and hope…

 
I just finished reading the second volume of Forrest Pogue’s monumental biography of George Marshall. At least two nights of reading featured the weeks immediately preceding and following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s like being a spectator to a train wreck – You can see the thousands of tons of steel barreling down the track at a high rate of speed but there’s way to slow down and no off ramp and the people around the bend have no idea what’s heading their way.

Sometimes hindsight is infuriating – knowing that what the planners in Washington were thinking made perfect sense based on what they knew at the time, but also knowing how history was about to play out. I ended up needing to give the book a rest when I caught myself grinding my teeth to the point of real, physical pain.

I wanted to reach back through history, grab the Army Staff by the lapels and shake them. I wanted to scream in exasperation at a story that only makes complete sense when all the pieces are put in place after the fact. It’s not the Philippines! For God’s sake they want to blunt the fleet! Read the cable! Understand!

But the bombs fall and the fleet, still at anchor, is decimated. You can’t change history.

I’ve always found it easy enough to disappear into a world of fiction and lose myself. It’s a rare writer than can present history in a way that also lets you lose yourself into those moments. Forrest Pogue clearly doesn’t need my accolades, because his work speaks for itself. Even so, here is a writer who finds a way to make what could be dull, dry stuff jump off the page larger than life. I’m simply in awe.