Is Heredity Destiny? A Matter of Family Ghosts and Genetic Memory...

An overview of the structure of DNA.Structure of DNA Image via Wikipedia
Heredity haunts us and genetic memory is an intriguing notion: it is based on the idea that fragments of memory could be handed down to us through our DNA. Many of the things we know and think we have learned are actually innate

We are born not only with genetic physical traits, blue eyes and red hair like Grandma, but with specific knowledge and skills. 

We are not a virgin slate on which Education and Life draw our Character. Much of it (if not all) is already there from the start. 

Heredity is Destiny. 

Or is it?

How Much Do We Inherit from our Forebears? 

Are we the product of heredity? Are we the prisoners of our genes? Do DNA strands determine how we act, how we feel? That's a highly debatable question. And it gets the proponents of the virgin slate (usually educators) really angry: they are firm believers that what we are is the result of education or experience. 

I lean in another direction. I like to believe in free will. I like the notion that we can choose, that we are not beholden to either our genes or our education. That our life is in our hands. Each one of us is a unique individual and not the replica of some forgotten forebear, nor the product of principles taught by family and school! 

On the other hand, I can accept the notion that, as a minimum, we are predisposed towards certain values and skills. Some of us are naturally generous, others short-tempered and egotistical. Some have a talent for music, others are tone deaf. For instance, I'm a hopeless mathematician and a great doodler - always was.

I recently googled the notion and was amazed to read the results (no, I didn't read all 12 million of them!). The subject seems to inspire an astounding number of complex theories. There were obscure references to difficult notions such as Carl Jung's archetypes and Sheldrake's "morphic fields". 

Fortunately Wikipedia (ah, what would we do without it?) was reassuring on one point. It reported that scientists now generally consider genetic traits as "dispositional", that is they encode the way one reacts to stimuli, and they do not transfer the actual memory or experience. 

Phew, that's reassuring, isn't it? 

Some Strange Results of Genetic Memory Tests...

But tests have been carried out on animals and the results can be worrying, to say the least. 

There was this particular one that caught my attention. A first generation group of mice was taught how to get through a specific maze, and it took them weeks or months to learn. A year later, the offspring were made to go through the same maze, and it took them half the time. 

The next generation was even faster and several generations down the road, they managed it in 30 seconds, without ever having seen the maze before.


Are We Conditioned by our Family's Past?

So are childhood memories and teenage experiences not quite the maturing events we think they are? Is whatever we're good at something we've inherited from our forebears? Are we not responsible for our successes and also for our failures?

The notion of heredity implies that we are not responsible for our talents (or our shortcomings) anymore than for our blue (or brown) eyes. We just drew the lucky ticket in Life's Lottery - or the unlucky one!

I am not me, you are not you, we're both the results of genetic chance

The notion is terrifying...or is it? 

You could look at it another way. What if it only meant that we're part of one great family - the human family - past and present? But isn't that a little abstract? How can we handle this terrifying notion?

What's Your Opinion? 
I've worked on this notion for years - as a novelist. In fact, genetic inheritance is the issue at the heart of my trilogy  Fear of the PastFor the protagonist, meeting the ghosts of his forebears is a traumatizing coming-of-age experience. Unlike us (we don't normally meet the ghosts of all our forebears going back 900 years!), he is in the unique position of finding out exactly who he takes after. That's hard to recover from, particularly as he learns how his look-alike forebears lived, how they handled their work life, their loves, and in particular their failures...He eventually realizes he's been dealt the same genetic cards, but how he plays them is up to him. 

And I think that you'll agree that by the third book, the protagonist finally reaches maturity, not without having first gone through some harrowing experiences!

Take a look, I'd love to know what you think! Do you agree that heredity deals you your cards, but how you play the life game is up to you?

Book 1, FEAR OF THE PAST, is available on:

The sequel, RECLAIM THE PRESENT is due out shortly, and Book 3, REMEMBER THE FUTURE comes out in November. 

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Ten Tips Plus One Step to Achieve Success in Blogging!

Lacrimae mundiLacrimae Mundi Image via Wikipedia
If you're starting a blog now, there's super advice around to make a success of it. You're among 50,000 people doing that every day (yes, that many!), so you really need help to stand out! See here for a couple of  the latest and best:
2. A beginner's Guide to Blogging: 10 Tips to put into Practice Right Away   

I'm not sure why the tips add up to ten, but in both cases, they make sense! Actually I've attached below an article by someone suggesting 12 tips...but here let me focus on just one essential step, but it's the KEY one!
When I started my blog two years ago, I wish I had known…I certainly wasted much time to figure out the gadgets, things like the share button, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and all the rest. Sure, they're important but there's one thing that tops them all.
What is it, you say? Simple:  blog in a “niche” !  Be generous with your expertise! Fill your blog with your expert content! Yeah!
Funny I should say that, right? Because that's precisely what I don’t do. 
My problem is that I’m interested in so many different things: books (yes, I’m a writer - see that book icon on the top left corner? That's mine!) but also politics, economics, cooking, contemporary art and classical painting - not necessarily in that order! That doesn't mean I'm an expert in all those things, just someone who likes to keep herself informed and has rather...strong likes and dislikes!
Go figure how you’re going to fit all that stuff into a single “niche”! 
What niche? There’s none. 
What online community should I belong to? Okay, you're right, I know what you're thinking: go and join several. I'm trying, but believe me that takes TIME! And I also want to write the sequel to my novel, and the day has only 24 hours (and help, I need to sleep too!). 
As for search engine optimization strategies, forget it. I'm not going to put a keyword in the title and the opening sentence just to get attention. If the keyword happens to be there, it's only because it makes sense! One day I'm here, writing for a certain set of readers (say, writers and bloggers), the next I'm somewhere else, writing for people interested in politics...or in cooking!  So I always end up disappointing somebody, sorry about that! I don't mean to annoy anyone. It's just that I can't stay interested very long in the same subject...
Hey, I like change! Just as I read books in all sorts of genres (provided the writing is good)! And in the news, everything interests me, from the latest archeological find to riots in Syria...
Obviously, I'll run into problems growing my blog! Only one thing’s certain: for success, do “niche” blogging! Do NOT follow my example!
Oh well, it's tough being me in this digital world! How do you manage? Are you also interested in all sorts of things? Do you like a far-flung blog such as mine or do you get annoyed when I suddenly turn to something that is of no interest to you? Conversely, do I succeed in interesting you in something you've never considered before? 

Let me know, so I can decide whether to retreat in a niche like a good doggie or continue to roam around freely!

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If Greece Defaults, Is It The End of the World?

Holownik H8 (2)Tugboat at workImage via Wikipedia

Greek default = Euro crash = end of the world as we know it.

World trade collapses. China - universally considered as the bulwark against the West's recession -  grinds to a halt. The other BRIC countries (India, Russia, Brazil) too. And America, already on the brink with historically high unemployment, will tip back into recession.

That's what the media will have you believe. That's conventional wisdom.

The Latest Kink in the Bailout Process

Auditors from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund unexpectedly left Greece last Friday, breaking off the fifth quarterly review they were conducting regarding Greece's compliance with the bailout - reviews  are a standard bailout requirement.

By Monday, the markets, jittery as always, came crashing down, losing an average 4% across the globe. Yet all the auditors had was a banal dispute over how the Greek Government intends to meet its deficit targets. It seems they'll be back by mid-September, by which time the Greek Government should have prepared a note for them clarifying its position.

A New Chapter in the Great Recession?

In the gathering gloom about the Euro's future and the conviction that measures to handle the debt  (any country's debt, really, but the Greek debt in particular) will cause a deep recession, let's consider the unthinkable: a full Greek default.

Will that be a new chapter in the on-going Great Recession?

The Americans have clung to the idea that they are into a (slow) recovery (that produces no new jobs), and that things will turn out okay in the end provided the world's economy is not rocked by a Euro crash.

That's conventional wisdom too.

Let me don my Pessimist's Hat: I'm convinced we are not out of the woods.

The American so-called recovery is just a bubble on the surface of an on-going Great Recession.

The proof? Unemployment is bad in the US and growing, no question about it,and it is bad everywhere else too. It is abysmal in Spain and Greece, but the rest of Europe is suffering too, with one exception: Germany.  And China of course.

But Germany's exports have just begun to slow down again and even China is riding rough waters, what with its imminent real estate bubble that could burst anytime and rising wage demands on the part of Chinese workers that are slowly squeezing China's trade advantage.

So the two world economic tugboats are definitely slowing down and coming into rough waters, if I may be permitted the metaphor.

Let me ask you, is this the time for our politicians to concentrate on controlling deficits when the real problem at hand is lack of growth and unemployment?

When Controlling Deficits Means Killing Growth and Letting Unemployment Increase

No, we're not out of the woods. By a long shot. We are right in the middle of them. European politicians - along with the Republican party in the US that has successfully shackled Obama so far -  seem bent on taking every political decisions they can think of to make matters worse.

Needless to say,  Cameron and Osborne's drastic cure for Britain that has instantly slowed UK growth and there's no need to go further into this here: it's obvious that austerity measures in Britain can only have the effect of discouraging growth.  The stats are in to prove it.  And, as we've seen recently with the wild rampage of disgruntled youth in London and other cities, austerity, even just the prospect of it, can cause unusual social tension.

Likewise Angela Merkel has been irresponsibly late in bailing out Greece, only agreeing reluctantly and at the very last minute to do something (half) constructive.

Result? The Greek bailout is now running into trouble, My only consolation is that Merkel is also politically in trouble, as shown by the poor showing of her party at the latest regional elections. This is a woman who has absolutely no understanding of economics and no European vision at all.

The Finns too are showing a total lack of European vision: they want collateral from the Greek Government to cover any funds they might provide to the bailout effort!!! That obviously defeats the purpose.

Actually, the Finns are only expected to provide 2% of the total (small country, small input). But one can't help but wonder about them! The trouble is they've set a bad example: other Eurozone countries have jumped into the fray, including countries that ought to know better like Austria, shamelessly clamoring for a guarantee.

Thinking the Unthinkable: Go Ahead, Greece, and Default

What happens if Greece defaults? Nothing.

Yes, you read that right. Well, nothing in the sense that it won't be the end of the world, and may well signal a new beginning for Greece, finally free of its strangling debt.

Yes, I know, many of you will be surprised that I write something like this, after having so often explained that the way to defend the Euro is to avoid a Greek default.

Let me be clear: I am not saying Greece should come out of the Euro. I'm only saying that a controlled default is the only way out for Greece. To wipe out its debt and start anew on the path to growth.

Actually, it's already in controlled default mode.

In the latest bailout process, private investors in Greek bonds are asked to accept a bond swap taking a thirty percent cut or thereabouts. And the cut is a lot less painful than the one that is already operating in the markets where Greek bonds are trading at nearly half their value. Also, Greece should make clear what policies it will pursue to re-awaken growth.

The problem is: so far, all we've heard are measures aimed at righting the deficit.  More taxes, a higher VAT destined to strangle Greek tourism, and a shameful garage sales of the crown jewels - I mean the best of State-owned property: how can anyone hope to sell them at a correct price in these recession times?

Surely, this is not the way out of the recession!

But let's consider for the moment a careful, controlled Greek default.

That means immediate relief on the debt front. Just like Iceland: so much has been written about how lucky Iceland was not to be in the Euro because it could devalue and start afresh. And it has just done that: its economy is not exactly roaring but it is clearly on the way to recovery.

If Greece defaults but stays in the Euro, what will happen? Euro devaluation? Yes, a little bit, and it has already happened: the Euro trades lower against the dollar, in spite of the bad employment news out of the US. Probably this downward slide would continue. The Euro might go down to trading at 1.25 against the dollar, or even lower.

Is a weaker Euro bad for the Eurozone economy? Not at all, it would help European exports, chief among them the German ones that have just stalled.

The German tugboat would start chugging again. Much to the benefit of all its European partners (whose exports would also improve), including Greece.

Let's not forget, please, that the Euro is the second reserve currency in the world after the US dollar. The Euro cannot and is not about to disappear.  True, it is badly managed and it walks on one leg only (the European Central Bank) and it lacks its second leg in the form of a federal European Treasury to carry out fiscal measures. Such a Treasury, modeled after the American one, is urgently needed, and that too is a question our politicians should address.

But let me repeat: this has to be a controlled default accompanied by measures aimed at reviving growth and employment.

That is what we should all talk about: how to revive economic growth and create new jobs. Obama is to address Congress next Thursday 8 September, and it will be interesting to hear what he has to propose to stimulate growth and employment in the US. Hopefully, some of his proposals will be heard and followed by the European political class - a class that has been remarkably deaf and dumb on economic issues, in spite of what the best economists of our times are saying, all of them getting hoarse in the attempt to draw their attention to the real problems that beset all of us: slow growth and unemployment, not deficits! I'm getting hoarse too!

Why Keynes Is Neither Irrelevant Nor and Idiot

Every time an economist talks about fighting recession with government intervention in the economy - things like investing in infrastructure, the most basic of Keynesian recipes (and surely the US needs some investment to renew its crumbling infrastructure?) - he is accused of being a Keynesian, as if this were an irremediable shortcoming. If you come forward with a Keynesian recipe to cure our economic ills, you're considered an idiot. You're told Keynesian recipes lead to Big Government, and Big Government is Bad.

Why this extraordinary black and white or cowboys-and-indians vision of the economy?

Why should Big Government be bad in a democratic society that has parliaments to control government?

Big Government is needed in recession times because it is the only economic agent that can be counted on to invest and create jobs. Private agents - businessmen and investors - are too afraid to invest: they don't see any quick returns in recessionary times, so they stay put. They sit on their cash. And that's exactly what the Big American Corporations have been doing since the start of the Great Recession. Sitting on their cash. And avoid paying taxes. And getting the media (Murdoch with his Fox News first among them) to support their Small Government/No Taxes/No Budget Deficit position.

That position is based on a hugely simplistic argument: it's bad for a family to be in debt, right? So it is likewise bad for a country. Future generations will have to pay for our (debt) sins, if we don't put our house in order! This argument calling in the sorry fate of our children and grand-children is really aggravating. Of course, no one wants to willfully hurt one's children. So should we really pull in our belts and go full blast for deficit control? Will that solve the problem of slow growth and unemployment?

Actually History teaches us otherwise.

The Lesson of History: Default Can Have a Positive Outcome!

Not just in Iceland. In the United States too!

Yes, the United States! This is not a typo on my part. I mean the United States, the top economy in the world, the country whose currency forms the basis of international trade. Sure, it happened a long time ago, in 1841, when the Second United States Bank defaulted. It was, to all intents and purposes, a Central Bank default. And it hurt like hell the British investors who had bet on American industrial development and had financed the construction of the first big American railroads. They were left with precisely nothing in their hands!

But America, freed from the weight of a huge debt, started growing again - all through the rest of the 19th century, and of course, the rest is History. And yet, if you examine the history of banking in the United States during this whole period when the great American economic might was being born, you'll be struck by the instability of the banking system (banks didn't last longer than 5 years on average) and more generally, the political mess and uncertainty in which the system operated. Worse than the Euro!

So why can't Greece - and Europe - follow the American example?

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How to Promote Your Book: Use Loyalty Transfer!

John Locke pancakeImage by tsand via FlickrThat is John Locke's marketing secret: "loyalty transfer". Coming from the man who sold a million ebooks in five months, you better believe it works!

He's very open about it in his book recounting his experience, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months: (1) latch onto a major public figure - somebody you really like and genuinely feel for - and (2) write about him (or her) in a superlative way on your blog.

Don't make it too long, nobody has time for extended dissertations: 500 words is about right.  Write in the style that is your own - keep it real close to the "voice" you use in your book - and express your feelings as vigorously as you can.

Make sure you sneak in stuff about yourself. That's important, because you want people to know what sort of person you are, that you are a real fan of that "celebrity" you are celebrating. That you are "One of Them". Or as Locke puts it: OOU, meaning "one of us".

It's that wonderful, warm feeling of participation, of sharing that you need to provoke and stimulate.

Then make sure you put a link at the end of your post that takes the reader straight to your book. Not a link somewhere else on your blog page. No, it has to be placed at the end of the post, so it's easy to click.

But you're not finished yet. Now, you need to find where all the fans of the celebrity you just wrote about happen to hang, and you need to address them directly.

The easiest vehicle for that is Twitter. So you tweet them about how wonderful xyz Celebrity is and tell them you just blogged about him/her. You tweet this message to one hundred fans the first day, another hundred the next day and so on, until you get to the end of the list.

Then, because you're a polite person and know all about Internet etiquette, you watch for re-tweets and engage with the re-tweeters, thanking them for the re-tweet. At that point, you've become pals and you can start asking them about your book...Meanwhile, keep an eye on your sales, and watch them zoom up!

Of course, all this works pretty smoothly if you let your blog post sit there for at least one month: that's the amount of time you need to drive your Twitter campaign. And you can't have lots of posts on your blog, that would confuse people! Indeed, John Locke makes about a dozen posts a year. Yes, you read that right: not two posts a week (something considered a standard for regular bloggers), but just 12 or 13 in the whole year!

Ah, and here is one more peculiarity: his posts elicit relatively few comments (not more than a dozen or so). He figures that's because people click on the book link and buy the book instead of commenting!

John Locke swears that with this kind of blog model, his sales, which had been stagnant for several months, suddenly took off. Just flew out the window.

He figures he's now got about 100,000 "core" fans, people who've bought one or more of his books and swear by him. They are ready to buy ALL his books and every new one that comes out. They're all his dear OOUs ("one of us", right). They're his pals, they've moved up from Twitter to email exchanges. They're in touch with him. They all share in a double loyalty: to the celebrity John Locke originally wrote about on his blog, and to John Locke himself.

Hence, the phenomenon of what he calls "loyalty transfer": they've transfered their loyalty from the celebrity to him.

Clever, isn't it? He says he is not "manipulating" anybody. He strenuously rejects the notion. He claims it's just the way he genuinely feels about the said celebrity. All I can say, is that one has to believe him, because in his case, it sure worked!

Of course, it doesn't need to be a specific celebrity, it could be anything else. Say you've written a cookbook or a wine directory, you want to look for people with a love for cheese or wine. So that's what you blog about and it's something that can be easily shared with lots and lots of people who love cheese and wine. Then, once your post is up on your blog, you go look for these people on Twitter.

How? For example, Twellow (linked to Twitter) has directories of Twitter users broken down by...over 1300 categories - so you can always find who you're looking for. Then, to spread out the good word beyond your immediate followers, you need to use # hashtags in front of keywords. You can also latch on to daily trends Twitter announces and add your voice to the trend, thus ensuring you are reaching out to many more people than those who follow you.

The point is to aim straight at your audience, tell them you share in their feelings. Yes, but...there's always a but. It also means you've got to KNOW your audience. You have to have a clear idea of who your book is written for. And this is something John Locke had no doubts about: he knew exactly what sort of person would read his novels!

Get the idea? I think it's pretty neat. It's worked for John Locke. Has anyone else tried it? Do you know exactly who your audience is? Do you know how to reach them and move them so they fall in love with you and your book?

In short,what has worked for you?
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Libya: A New Day or a Long Night?

Arabic Machine Manuscript (Orient manuscript 3306)Image via WikipediaMuammar al-Ghaddafi is still missing as I write, his mercenaries still shoot from rooftops in certain parts of Tripoli. But Syrte, Ghaddafi's last stronghold and hometown, is bound to fall sooner or later. And more and more countries recognize the Rebels' National Transition Council: the Rebels have won!

Libya has turned a page.

Trouble is: what's going to be written on that new page? For the moment, all we see on TV is a ragtag army rushing about in pick-up trucks, waving guns and flags, and making the V-sign with their fingers (surely not the first letter for Victory in Arabic!) But the war has made many victims, there are threats of revenge, and it will take months before oil exports resume at the level they were at before the rebellion.

Libya has to clean up house after 42 years of a harsh, bloodthirsty dictatorship, and has to build up something it has never had before: a democracy. All the harder that Gaddafi has literally sucked the life blood out of every state institution, starting with the army (he relied on mercenaries and on his sons running special brigades).

A tall order.

Its two neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, can't act as models to follow: to begin with, these were countries with a much stronger civil society than Libya. Their starting point is much higher, yet neither so far has fulfilled the promises of the Arab Spring revolution.

Sure, they've kicked out their respective tyrants much faster than Libya and without (or with little) bloodshed. But in spite of that achievement, they too have yet to build a solid, equitable, democratic system of government. We'll see how it goes this fall in their respective parliamentary elections, but the signs so far are not encouraging. Particularly in Egypt, where the Copts, its Christian population - fully 10 million people out of eighty - is increasingly the target of persecutions by Muslims who now feel  the country is theirs and they can do with it whatever they want. Christian churches were burned at Christmas time before the Arab Spring took off, and again more recently, after Mubarak had stepped down.

And all this is happening in a dark economic climate, as tourism has come crashing down in both countries.

Perhaps that is one (small) advantage for Libya: it never was a tourist mecca. Its wealth was always based on oil, and it has plenty of money stashed abroad: reportedly some $150 billions. In principle, it has enough money to successfully carry out reconstruction.

Unfortunately,  it's not just a question of money. It's a management question, and in a society like the Libyan, historically torn between feuding tribes, this is going to be very, very difficult to solve. Libya is like Iraq, divided into at least three parts, if you add in the Berber-held mountains to the south.

So far, democracy has not proved to be a very good system to hold a country like this together.

Is Libya destined for decades of instability as the various factions fight for power? Perhaps, and that won't make Western energy companies particularly happy, starting with the Italians who are Libya's chief customers.

But too much Western interference in Libyan affairs is bound to backfire: already NATO walked a dangerous borderline with its continuous five-month air battle, provoking a lot of sour comments around the world. Surely sending ground troops would be a bad idea, as shown by the disastrous experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So chances are that Libya will be left alone to struggle its way out, with perhaps only a few gentle and discreet prods and nudges, here and there, to try to keep it on the road to recovery. It doesn't require much of a crystal ball to predict that sooner or later, stability will come to Libya only through another strongman.

Another strongman, another Ghaddafi? God forbid! All I can say is that I hope I'm wrong.

How do you see the situation? How do you think it will evolve? Should the West get involved further or not?

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Customer Reviews: the Best of Marketing Tools or the Worst?

Illustration of DNA "Holliday junction"Image via Wikipedia Illustration of DNA Holliday JunctionCustomer reviews are the latest buzz in marketing:
They are used by everyone, from hotel keepers to fiction writers. As marketing tools go,they are cheap by definition: a customer review is meant to be a customer's own independent opinion.

It is also a great way to move away from top down, authoritarian style reviews, as those provided by, say, literary critics. Because one person's taste may not be the same as everyone else's. So customer reviews, if in sufficient number, provide a buzz, start a fashion, really make sales take off.

It's not surprise that when you travel, you find them on TripAdvisor, when you go to a restaurant, you find them on Zagat, when you're looking to buy a book, you find them on Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing.com, the Reading Room and a host of virtual book clubs, both in the US, the UK and all across Europe.

When Customer Reviews Boomerang
 Problems have turned up with customer reviews in all these areas and for obvious reasons. Chief among them: corruption. It is understandable that in a highly competitive market, all shots are allowed. If not allowed, at least tried. Friends will write favorable reviews. Businesses will be tempted to provide incentives (say a discount) for good reviews.

But - there's always a but! - if the customer review system is broadly corrupted, it collapses. Nobody believes in it anymore, potential clients run away. The best of marketing tool suddenly boomerangs, and turns into the worst.

So those who run customer review systems have to be very, very careful and constantly weed out the offenders.

The Amazon Solution
Amazon is probably one of the most adept at this sort of game - mainly because it uses a double prong.

On the one hand, it has set up boxes for customer reviews (with one to 5 stars) as well as buttons for "likes" just below the book title (for those who can't be bothered to write reviews) and buttons for "tags" (to indicate agreement with descriptive keywords that help in searching for the book - you the reader can also provide the tag you feel best describes the book).

On the other hand, Amazon keeps track of every customer's past acquisitions. In other words, it uses social feedback and buying behavior. That's what I mean by a double prong. What doesn't come out right with one is corrected by the other.

Very clever, and no doubt it explains to a large extent the success of Amazon as a virtual bookstore, where much of the book discovery work is already done for you, and you are directed into virtual shelves that contain books similar to what you have bought in the past and that correspond to your tastes.

Trouble is: what happens if you want to get out of your past purchases and try something new? It recently happened to a friend of mine: in a bout of enthusiasm, she had filled her newly-bought Kindle with all sorts of 99 cents books, just to see what they were like. After a while, disappointed by most of them, she had decided she wanted to try something else. A different genre, a different price range. She knew the sort of thing she liked, but Amazon didn't. And at that point, finding a book became very, very difficult. She should have probably started from scratch and moved into the Amazon site incognito!

Why Book Discovery is so Difficult
Actually, we are touching here the core issue of what makes book discovery so very difficult.

Few books are actually genuinely "discovered". Trouble is: social feedback - i.e. book reviews - feeds on itself.

What drives public awareness of a book are marketing dollars - especially if movies are involved. When a movie is made out of a book, it becomes the buzz of the town. Of course, that's what all aspiring writers dream of: that a movie be made from their book. The ultimate consecration. But there are various degrees of consecration like the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize etc. No matter how you view it, the book is there because somebody - usually the Big Publishers - have spent a lot of marketing dollars on it.

So in terms of book discovery, we have a very simple equation: marketing dollars drive public awareness, this in turns drives what is discoverable and recommended. Therefore bestsellers occupy the top of the heap, simply because more people know these books exist. Presumably, that leaves a lot of very good books at the bottom of the heap, undiscovered.

Can this equation be broken?

How to Make Book Discovery Easy
There is one interesting, experimental website that is trying to do just that: BookLamp.Org.

Arising from the "Book Genome project" started in 2003 by a bunch of students, BookLamp started working a year ago, setting up a new kind of book recommendation engine.  Similar to what Pandora does for music, it is based on what it calls the "story DNA" or "data points" - really the book's thematic ingredients, covering both contents (physical characteristics, history, environment etc) and the way it's written (pacing, motion, dialogue, description, density).

So far, it has some 20,000 books in its database, currently tracking over 600 million "data points of book DNA" in their system (and growing!). They started out with  fiction but also mean to cover non-fiction, and they work only with publishers, chief among them Random House and Kensington Publishing Corp.

What's their objective? Simple: help readers find the sort of book they like to read. As they put it in their FAQs section:  "If you think about it, what we’re basically doing is championing the idea that the contents of a book – what the author actually wrote – should be the primary consideration when finding new books for readers. It shouldn’t matter that one book has a million dollar marketing budget, and the other is from a new author with no track record at all. If the content between the covers is a good match, that should be all that matters."

Sounds great, doesn't it? Here is a way of discovering books independently from any marketing push, just focusing on a book's contents. In other words, it makes the value a book potentially has for a reader the key feature, responding to a given reader's tastes. And of course, it would be any author's dream come true.

How does BookLamp do it? By asking you to indicate your favorite title(s), then it searches for similar stuff. The system usually works, except when some "zingers" turn up, as they call it, largely a result of not having yet a sufficiently large database to find suitable matches in every case.  For example, if you have outlying tastes and give them a book title that is unique in style (say cross genre etc), they may have trouble coming up with satisfactory choices for you.

What BookLamp Needs to Achieve its Objective
They admit themselves that they need an extra 100,000 books to smooth out all the crinkles and achieve their cruising speed and main objective - which is of course to sell their tool to publishers. They want to be the book Pandora. If you read their FAQs, you'll see they repeatedly ask you to suggest publishers names, so that they can add more books to their database.

It is surprising that publishers are not flocking to them. Particularly since publishers have had a notoriously hard time figuring out the "next bestseller" and  finding the way to connect directly with readers. That was, as you'll recall, the purpose of Bookish launched in May of this year, with the backing of Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Shuster but it's still not functional. In fact, publishers act very much like huge steamships that are having a hard time turning themselves around in the digital storm.

I don't know why publishers are reticent and it may well have something to do with being such "huge steamships" (hopefully, not the Titanic variety!).

And I don't know why BookLamp isn't willing to turn to Indies: that would be an inexhaustible supply of books to test their search engine with. They needn't accept everybody: they could call the shots and specify the types of books they want to fill the "holes" in their system. After all, the stigma of self-publication has disappeared now, with the successes of John Locke, Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath et al. Surely BookLamp must have taken notice?

What do you think?
What is your take on this problem of book discovery and the sort of solution provided by BookLamp?

Personally, I worry that their solution is too dependent on restrictive algorithms and that good books will still remain at the bottom of the pile. But I'd be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, until they've proven, with an additional 100,000 books in their database, that it really works...

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Sex and the American Novel

Sexuality and gender identity-based culturesImage via WikipediaJ.A.Konrath recently fumed about sex: when his books contain explicit sex scenes, his readers are unhappy and call him a pervert! Amazing! 

Although I know America well and am a keen observer of American mores, I'm still puzzled by the way Americans view sex. This is particularly evident in politics. The on-going Dominique Strauss Kahn affair or scandal if you prefer to put it that way, certainly shows the complexities and innuendoes of how sex is viewed in America.

And it's not just a reaction to the sexual habits of a French celebrity, American politicians have repeatedly fallen prey to American public opinion. 

Most recently, it was Rep. Anthony Weiner (D - N.Y.) who sent nude photos on Twitter to some woman in Texas. He caused quite a stir and subsequently the Washington Post explored the question, polling some women on how exciting they found "naked man-parts" (not very), and what research had turned up. Unsurprisingly, research shows that women, as the Post delicately put it, are "nuanced sexual beings whose arousal depends on context, mood and a whole bunch of things they aren’t even aware of. Men are different. Men do tend to find the equivalent naked pictures of women titillating."

If this is the way it is in politics and American society, where does it leave the American novelist writing for adults?

It would seem, on the face of it, that a writer should figure out who are the majority of his/her readers, men or women, before sticking torrid sex scenes in novels.

Now, if you write romance or what used to be called "chick lit", it's pretty clear that the majority of your readers are women. So, no explicit sex scenes please!

But if you write mysteries/thrillers? Science fiction? These are genres that presumably are read by both men and women - perhaps more men than women. So some sex should be okay.

Yet, if you insist on your torrid sex scenes, you're in trouble, as J.A.Konrath found out. It is a fact that the genre he writes in - mysteries, thrillers, detective stories - has traditionally very little sex: it's there but it "fades to black".  Readers don't expect to find it in that kind of book. In fact, two of his followers who left comments on his blog, were quick to point that out.

I can agree with them on one thing: people don't expect torrid sex scenes from someone like Konrath. One goes to his books for the suspense: violence is right smack in the middle but sex is peripheral. Still, here is a writer who would like to write sex scenes: he enjoys writing them, he feels they forward his story plot, they enable him to better describe his characters and their relationships.

Sex scenes have definitely a place in literature, and why deny them to a writer?

A way out of that conundrum, and it has been chosen by many of my professional writer friends, is to write erotica under another name (I could name at least three...all women). To write sex scenes, if they don't fit into your genre, you have to hide behind a pseudonym.

In short, you can't write the way you feel like because your novel won't find a market.

And that's the whole point about pushing novels into genres. Yes, genre is a STRAIGHTJACKET! This can be very frustrating to an author: it conflicts with (part of) his inspiration. But, hey, you can't get out of it, you're in America, this is a business matter! It makes business sense! Genre, as everybody knows, is a marketing tool. It picks out the main features of your novel and shoves your book in a box where people who like that particular genre will find it. Past sales history shows how a given genre fares, so you know what sort of sales to expect.

Books that are "cross genre" are trouble: they're difficult to categorize, and therefore to market. Hence you have to be careful not to cross over: in the mystery/thriller genre, too much sex means crossing over. Konrath beware!

As I see it, there really are only two ways out:
(1) you pick a pseudonym and write as many sex scenes as you like turning your novel into booming erotica, or
(2) you move up to the "literary" category where anything goes, and indeed where erotica and violence work well together!

How do you feel about sex and the American novel? Is it easier to work in sex scenes in French, German, Spanish or Italian novels? Or is it about the same as in America, with genre acting as a straighjacket?

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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: ELIZABETH JENNINGS, writer and founder of the best writers conference in Italy

Elizabeth Jennings, a writer with twenty years of experience, has just published Darkness at Dawn with Berkley Sensation (Penguin). When you meet Liz (that’s how her friends call her), you are immediately reminded of Carol Joyce Oates line: “this is a person of surpassing integrity; a man of utmost sincerity; somewhat larger than life”.

But of course, she’s not a man! 

She’s very much a woman, a dedicated mother and wife, and a prolific writer (three books a year don’t scare her). She is not only a shoot-from-the-hip suspense author with a poetic streak when she sticks in romance in her novels – like in Darkness at Dawn, so far, one of my favorites! – she is also an amazing conference organizer. 

She founded nine years ago, and is personally running, what has become the best writers conference outside the US and UK: the Women’s Writers Festival in Matera, Italy. It claims to be and is in fact the only international writers' conference in the world, bringing together writers, agents and editors from across Europe and the United States. The next session is scheduled for 29 September-2 October 2011.

Try to be there, it’s bound to be full of interesting people, from agents and editors to published writers and newbies. I know she’s got lots of goodies in store for participants and I’ll let her explain it all in the interview below. And, icing on the cake: Matera, a UNESCO-classified town in Southern Italy, is a great place to visit!

Most recently Elizabeth organized a 4-day session of “brainstorming at the Spa” in a lovely hotel in Matera, with a thermal pool in troglodyte caves. That was a blast! Some twenty writers, both newbies and multi-published, participated along with one literary agent, Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary (link to her site: http://www.bookcentsliteraryagency.com/).   

None of the participants is about to forget that experience: rather than focusing on fine points of writing technique (can be very boring!), the group was prodded along by Elizabeth and Christine who never tired of asking pointed questions. We very literally “brainstormed” ideas for stories – digging into what makes a good story, the very basis of literature…

Here I’d like to take you through an interview I was lucky to do with her just a few days ago...

Question: What is your new novel, Darkness at Dawn, about?
Answer:  Darkness at Dawn is a romantic suspense, a genre I love writing. It allows such latitude for digging into characters, into their lives, into what has shaped them, into how they grow. The suspense element is often a pressure cooker reducing them to the bedrock of their personalities. My heroes and heroines (that’s the name for the male and female protagonists in Romancelandia) are complex creatures but their bedrock is a sense of honour and loyalty, and they are courageous, not always in ways you’d expect.

Darkness at Dawn is essentially a quest. The heroine, Lucy Merritt, leads a very quiet life immersed in the arcane art of manuscript restoration. It fulfils her on several levels—it requires deep scientific and artistic knowledge, it is painstaking (being narrowly focused on something you excel in and which is difficult and rewarding is one of life’s greatest pleasures). Her job and her life are tailored to fit her psychological need to have a safe and controlled environment because her childhood was anything but.

Her parents were cultural anthropologists who used their profession as a cover for espionage. In truth, they were CIA operators, and very good ones, who were able to go into the world’s hotspots as scholars and gather intel. This was the life of adventure they chose but it wasn’t the life their little daughter would have chosen. Her life was following her parents around to dangerous places where her parents did dangerous things and where a wrong word could blow their cover and endanger their lives. She watched her parents die in a blazing gunfight in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nhala when she was fourteen.

No wonder she prefers the quiet life and no wonder she wants to refuse when the CIA calls her to infiltrate Nhala once more because there is a dangerous threat to the world—a deathly virus which, if unleashed, could cause millions of deaths.

But Lucy is the very definition of a brave person—one who can overcome her fears—and she accepts.

The hero, Mike Shafer, of the Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division doesn’t shy from danger in any way. The 10th forges its men from steel and then makes them harder. No, Mike’s problem is accepting that all his expertise and courage and fighting skills make no difference in the cat and mouse game of international intrigue, where Lucy shines. And by the time his skills do come into play, carrying a grievously wounded Lucy through a snowstorm, he is head over heels in love with the bravest woman he’s ever met.

I love writing about these kind of people—the kind who step up to bat, the kind who don’t shirk their duty, the kind who show bravery in every way there is. And when they fall in love, it isn’t ‘sunshine love’ just as their patriotism isn’t ‘sunshine patriotism’. I fully expect my heroes and heroines to stay in love and with each other to their dying day.
So, dear reader, if love and danger and adventure and just a little hot sex entice you, you might want to give Darkness at Dawn a try!

Q: How long did it take you to write it? What inspired you?

A: Like most romance writers I have (per force) learned to become a fast writer. We have contracts and publishers are not amused when we don’t meet deadlines. Many writers have scarred welts across their backs from publishers’ lashes. (Just kidding. Sort of). So I wrote Darkness at Dawn at my usual pace. Start to finish, rough draft to final, four months.

For some time now I’ve been wanting to write about a girly-girl who likes a real cushy and danger-free existence (which would be moi in a younger, thinner version) who completely confounds expectations and is immensely, incredibly brave when it becomes necessary. And as a foil, I needed an incredibly physically brave man who underestimates her and has to reassess his image of bravery.

Because, dear reader, Lucy does something amazingly courageous. Something very few people would have the courage to do, knowing full well the consequences. Read the novel to find out.
Anyway, I wanted those two elements, I read a fascinating article about bioweapons and by the magical alchemy of a writer’s mind the book was born.

Q: When did you start writing?
A: I started writing in 1991, the year my son was born. The year the Soviet Union collapsed. An epochal year. And the year I turned forty (which had nothing to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union, promise). I turned forty. I was a successful simultaneous interpreter, but the cost of success was high and getting higher. I'd always wanted to write. And so the classic question--if not now--when?

So I did what all US writers do, I turned to the amazing amount of information online. I now, with hindsight, realize how privileged we all are because there is tons of help on tap. Not so for Italian or German or French writers.

I joined the Romance Writers of America, the only large writers organization open to unpublished writers, which is amazing. An unpublished author can access reams of information on how to structure a novel, how to write a query letter, the names of agents and editors...priceless. What is an impossible hurdle in Europe is made available to Americans.

Anyway, I starting writing my first novel in 1991. It sucked. I sent it around to friends who kindly, gently told me it sucked. I joined critique groups who said...you get the idea. I rewrote that book eight times. Eight. I sent it out and sent it out. I wrote book after book and sent them out and sent them out.

In March, 1998, while I was in Brussels working for the EU, someone called me in my hotel room. An editor for Kensington. She loved one of my books and was acquiring for a new romance line. Did I have anything else? Yes, I did. Five more books. And they were published in the space of a year and a half. The first book I wrote was the fifth book I published.
So I guess the moral of the tale is--persevere.

Q: Did you pick a genre first, then wrote a book to fit in, or was it the reverse, I mean: did you write the book you felt like writing, then tried to determine the genre once it was finished?

A: Oh man, this is a toughie because at the same time that I decided I was going to give writing a real try, I was also getting sick of the travel involved in simultaneous interpreting. I worked for the European Parliament which meets in Strasbourg one week, Luxembourg another week, Brussels another week and one week in capitals, depending on the working group. I lived on the road, slept in hotels much much more than I slept in my own bed. I was away two-three weeks a month. And I had a husband and a small child, both of whom I loved.

So in the back of my mind when thinking of writing was also--I need to earn a living.And, well, romance is a commercial genre. So it's the chicken and the egg. Which came first?

The stories that came to me were romances, mostly. And the romance market was knowable. So that's where I went.

I note also that you said--the book you felt like writing. I don't think anyone makes a living as a writer with only one book in them. I very definitely felt like I was wading into a new life, not writing one book. Because if you are of the opinion that you are becoming a writer, as opposed to writing a book, then the genre makes no difference. you'll knock at the door that opens. and once you walk in--the whole world awaits you.

Q: This is, of course, a novel of romantic suspense. Are you working on something else? A novella? Do you like shorter fiction? What is the advantage (drawback) in your opinion?

A: I love novellas. The novella length (about 30-40,000 words) is a sort of invention of the romance genre. Other genres, such as mysteries and science fiction, have perfected the art of the short story, because their roots are in the genre magazines like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Analog. The romance novella comes from readers liking the short form, and publishers have discovered that anthologies are a very good way to introduce new authors to readers.

Most romance anthologies have three novellas. The headliner, whose name is in bright lights, is a very popular romance author (Nora Roberts has been in dozens of anthologies) and then come two relatively unknown names and if the unknown writer is lucky, in about ten years’ time she’ll be the headliner for an anthology with two younger writers.

I don’t see any disadvantages, really. A good novella is essentially a full blown novel, with a complete narrative arc and character development, only shorter. Delicious reading on a short trip or at bedtime. Often the anthologies have a theme and it’s fun to watch three gifted writers riff on Christmas, or vampires or those rakes in London during the Regency. So you get three flavors in one book. Win win.

Q: Have you ever considered writing in another genre? And if so, in what genre and why?
A: I wrote a women’s fiction, Homecoming. It would now be called a women’s fiction with romantic elements. And I wrote a murder mystery, Dying for Siena, set in Siena during the Palio. I love writing thrillers (romantic suspense books are thrillers with better sex than the men can write) but I don’t think I’ll be writing any other mysteries, the puzzle element doesn’t fascinate me. I like adventure and strong emotions, not someone puzzling over something in a room.

I’m back to reading my very first love, science fiction, and am seriously contemplating making a switch for a while—science fiction with romantic elements. I love apocalypse stories because they respond to a deep-lying anxiety in me that society is headed off the rails. Maybe writing about the world collapsing with exorcise my fears.

Q: What is your opinion on the sea changes the digital revolution is bringing in the lives of writers? I know you believe it opens up new opportunities that have never existed before, in particular the possibility of self-publishing e-books without incurring the stigma attached to vanity publishing. This adds a whole new dimension to the options an aspiring author may have: going through publishing with a “legacy publisher” is no longer a must. For those already published like you, it opens up the possibility of e-publishing their backlist. Would you consider self-publishing in future?

A: This is a very interesting topic. Contrary to widely-held opinion, it’s not that hard to be published nowadays. Certainly compared to when I started publishing in the late 90s. (God that feels like a generation ago now!). It’s arguably harder to land contracts with the big 6 ‘legacy’ conglomerates, but there is a plethora of epublishers and small presses who are looking for content as long as you are writing a commercial genre.

What’s really exciting about the digital revolution is not HOW you are published (legacy publisher, self publishing) but rather that the digital revolution has solved the age old enormous problem of distribution which was once a huge wall between reader and writer. That wall has come down as clangingly as the Berlin Wall. What’s exciting is that a reader in Buenos Aires can enjoy your steampunk fiction and a reader in Thailand your romance and a reader in South Africa your thriller. That’s big. That’s epochal. That’s revolutionary.

As for me—for complex reasons I don’t own the rights to any of my backlist and won’t until about 2019 by which time either the publishing industry will have established a direct tube in my veins to suck my blood, or the ice caps will have melted taking southern Italy with it, or I won’t be interested in writing anymore because I’ll be so rich I’ll have servants to breathe for me.

Take your pick.

Q: You have established the Women’s Writers Festival in Matera as a must venue on continental Europe for writers and agents. How did you get started?

A: When I was a beginner writer I got an AMAZING amount of help from writers’ conferences in the USA, notably the Romance Writers of America’s national conferences. You cannot believe what it is like to have the entire publishing industry at your fingertips while spending all your time with fellow writers. It is just such an amazing vibe and it sheds such light on this most closed of professions, writing and publishing. I knew nothing like this existed in Europe where publishing was still an industry shrouded in mystery. For all we knew, editors made decisions by consulting the I Ching or their horoscopes.

I am also a translator. I translated a book for the Italian Harlequin, Harlequin Mondadori, and established a telephonic friendship with its editorial director, Maria Paola Romeo. We were chatting and talking about establishing a writer’s retreat in Matera, which is quite beautiful and quite conducive to writing.

The writers’ retreat morphed into a writers’ conference and voilĂ ! The International Women’s Fiction Festival.

Q: How do you ever find the time to both write your novels and organize the Festival? It sounds daunting!

A: Well, some writers write 7-8 books a year (Nora Roberts again). Here’s a link to an interview with Maya Banks, who writes close to a million words a year and earns close to a million dollars a year. It’s mind-boggling:

Now THAT’S a hard worker! It’s also an interesting post because Maya got her start with a digital publisher, Samhain, whose founder worked at Ellora’s Cave. Erotic romance gave digital publishing its first big push.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is—it’s not easy to get everything done. And sometimes I freak when I’m close to a deadline and sometimes I am stressed to the max.

Q: Will you organize another “Brainstorming at the Spa” with writers in future? As you say, it is better and cheaper than therapy, and this first session was a huge success.

A: Absolutely! And look for SEVERAL Brainstorming at the Spa sessions in 2012!

It was, hands down, the single most effective writing-boosting event I’ve ever been to. Amazingly effective in pushing you forward with your story, eliminating false starts and things that don’t work. It’s like pressing ‘fast forward’ on your writing. So check the website of the International Women’s Fiction Festival for the dates. We’re already thinking around April for 2012. Maybe April and November!

Thank you, Liz, for being so forthcoming and giving us all this information about yourself and your exciting writers’ conference. I know people who read us will want to buy your books and get in touch with you! 

Here’s the link to Elizabeth Jennings’ blog, do visit her and make comments: http://www.elizabeth-jennings.com/

Here's the link to the Writers' Conference home page: Women's Writers Festival in Matera
or Join on Facebook: Women's Fiction Festival