Monday, July 7, 2014
Escape to Cat Ba Island
Golfing in Vietnam
Honeymooning in Vietnam
Motorcycling in Vietnam
Tam Dao Hill Station
360 Days a Year
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Thursday, March 27, 2014
On underwater photographer Norbert Wu - Photos to (Almost) Die For
On boutique hotelier Chip Conley - The Karmic Capitalism of Chip Conley
On improv professor Patricia Ryan - Making It Up as They Go Along
On international water and sewage expert Jenna Davis - 646 Very Personal Questions
On psychiatrist David D. Burns - Mind Over Misery
and also on Burns - Try, Try Again
On archaeologist Ian Hodder - What Happened Here?
and also on Hodder - Why Dig?
and - Archaeology's Bottom Line
On former U. S. Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul - A Chill in the Air
Tuesday, January 3, 2012
I never intended to write a bestseller. During my wife's pregnancy, I kept a journal in which I recorded our fears, hopes and concerns -- all written to our unborn child. Several years later, I realized the thousands of words I had scribbled might make a fine gift. I would edit them down, bind them and present a book to Nina in time for our fifth anniversary. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that other readers, particularly first-time expectant parents, might find the account as compelling as I did. Anne Lamott's Operating Instructions and the What to Expect series sold millions. Maybe my book could, too.
Nina was considerably less enthusiastic. She didn't want strangers reading about how she had been rolled off to the operating room for an abortion after we had been told our embryo was "nonviable" -- only to learn, moments before the procedure, that a critical lab test had been misinterpreted. But when I hinted that, if the book sold well, I might feel comfortable springing for the marquis-cut diamond engagement ring she's always wanted, she relented. I wrapped up copies of the manuscript and committed their fate to the postal service. Thus began my journey from cellulose and traditional publishing to the silicon frontier.
Within a few weeks, the rejection letters started to trickle in. One agent wrote, "You take the story beyond the merely personal," while another commented, "Its contents felt a bit too personal." And yet another said it was difficult to sell books by fathers. (No doubt what Bill Cosby was told.) About this time Salon, the online magazine, published an excerpt from the book. A few days later, I called my editor at Salon to find out how many people had "clicked through."
Forty thousand, I was told to my complete astonishment. My mental calculator began churning -- if 1 percent of those people were to buy my book, then tell 50 of their friends, and 1 percent of those friends bought it -- and pretty soon I was spending my afternoons chatting it up with Oprah.
It was while these sugarplums danced in my head that I first heard of eMatter.com and experienced a literary harmonic convergence. With eMatter, I could list my book on the web and buyers could download it electronically. I could set my own price, $6.95, and eMatter would pay me a handsome 50 percent royalty. I formatted my manuscript as instructed and uploaded it to eMatter.
Two weeks later, my book had sold exactly one copy.
Undeterred, I sent out an e-mail announcement to several hundred friends and former colleagues, plus several dozen people I hardly knew, and waited for word to reach Oprah.
She didn't get in touch, but lots of other people did. They had tried to buy my book but couldn't find it. Or found it but couldn't download it. Or downloaded it but couldn't open it. Some hadn't read the fine print that said eMatter's software did not yet work with Apple or UNIX systems. Soon I was in much closer touch with the technical staff at eMatter than with my nascent readership.
With new glitches turning up almost daily, I was completely surprised when I found How to Have a Baby at No. 8 on eMatter's bestseller list. I called a friend to tell him the good news.
"How do they calculate bestsellers?" he asked. "Hourly, daily, weekly?" I e-mailed eMatter. "Daily," the answer came back. In other words, my No. 8 bestseller was No. 8 for a day. That day.
Two months later, eMatter selected How to Have a Baby as its "editor's pick." My book then captured the top spot on eMatter's recommended list. Still, sales stagnated. A mention of eMatter in the New York Times didn't blip my book at all. Two five-star reviews did nothing. It dropped to No. 11.
Still, I had great hopes for the following month. EMatter, now called MightyWords, was running large ads in national newspapers and publications like the New Yorker. My book was featured on MightyWords' parenting page along with "an exclusive interview with author Robert L. Strauss." Also three feature stories of mine were to run in quick succession in the San Francisco Examiner Magazine, each with a blurb for the book. I expected to sell several hundred copies. Then Stephen King stole my thunder.
When King released Riding the Bullet over the web, he cause parts of the Internet to freeze as hundreds of thousands attempted to download his book. The same month, my book had been mentioned three times in one of the country's most widely read newspapers.
I sold one copy.
More than ever, I was determined to get How to Have a Baby to No. 1. I not only wanted to unseat Solo Explorations in Male Masturbation by Will Stark; I wanted to surpass Nine Things to Know About Permission Marketing on the Net by Seth Godin, the marketing guru and a graduate school classmate. Seth was a born go-getter who'd already sold his company to Yahoo! for $60 million. His wife, no doubt, already had her ring.
Frenzied by this rediscovered sense of competition, I sent a new e-mail to everyone whose address had ever slipped into my computer. All those endlessly forwarded Internet jokes? I'd been hoarding the recipients' e-mail addresses for weeks, including those of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm.
The responses came fast and furious. More than a few went something like, "I don't know who you are, but you're a jerk for invading my privacy and wasting my time." This is how I discovered an Internet rule of thumb. For every profane, irate message I received, I sold a book. The ratio was exactly one to one.
Still, seven days later, Seth's book was No. 3 and mine was No. 23. Soon, it sank beneath the horizon, never to reappear.
A year to the day after I gave Nina the original copy of How to Have a Baby, I received my first royalty check.
"How much is it for?" she asked.
"One hundred four dollars and 25 cents," I told her.
"Oh, that'll get me a ring," she said. "From a vending machine."
According to the anniversary list we use, our 75th will be "diamond." I have asked her to be patient.
The very next day I received an e-mail from my brother-in-law. Did I know about Xlibris.com? he asked. They publish real books, on paper, one at a time, on demand. They list their titles with Amazon. All I had to do was upload my manuscript. Within days I received galleys for proofing. Xlibris had prepared the layout and a very attractive four-color cover, and gotten me an ISBN number. For free. Incredible.
The timing couldn't have been better. I had another feature coming out in the Examiner Magazine. My editor again agreed to blurb my book. Certainly if people could buy How to Have a Baby in paperback, that would make all the difference. Sure. Maybe. Someday.
Until then, I'll have to live with what I've learned from my plunge into the world of digital self-publishing. That readers are not yet confusing me with Stephen King. That while people might love to read things on the net for free, they rarely "click through" when asked to pay. I've come to understand that maybe writing should be left to writers and publishing to publishers. And why publicists go to self-humiliating lengths to get a client on Oprah or Charlie Rose.
I originally called the book To My Child Unborn. When readers told me that was too serious, I changed titles. Now, having sold all of 43 copies, I think maybe that first title was right. As I said, I never intended to write a bestseller.
A version of this story first appeared in the September/October 2000 edition of Stanford magazine.
Friday, August 26, 2011
It was another one of those endless meetings. That it was in French only made it more insufferable. As my francophone colleagues blathered on, I made sure to make empathetic eye contact and nod my head appreciatively—even though at least half the conversation was as indecipherable to me as if it had been in a language spoken only by an undiscovered Amazonian tribe. Nevertheless, I was sure that my practiced bobble-heading would convince everyone that I was not only fully absorbed in the discussion but worth whatever outlandish consulting fee I was charging. That was until someone mentioned mis à jour.
Mis à jour, mis à jour what the hell does mis à jour mean? Soup du jour throws me for no loops, but about mis à jour—suddenly the main item on the menu of discussion—I had no idea.
"Don't you agree, RO-bear, that the mis à jour should be our top priority?" the boss asked.
"Oui, oui. Bien sûr," I said, while casually trying to look up mis à jour on my mobile phone French-English dictionary, which appeared to have been last updated shortly before Robespierre was led to the guillotine.
When I think of the attributes that have led to whatever success I may have had, pretending to know what I'm talking about figures very high on the list. The times I have only just escaped must number in the hundreds. I'm still astounded that no one has ever looked me dead in the eye and said, "You have no idea what you're talking about, do you?"
Faking it was also a key ingredient in my premarital social life. Arriving at Stanford nearly 30 years ago, I quickly scoped out my grad school classmates and invited one of the cutest over for a home-cooked dinner. Not only was she just adorable, but she was witty and smart, having studied math before going to work on Wall Street where—she told me—she used to make models.
Despite having an undergraduate degree in economics, I had no idea why models were needed on Wall Street. As a child, I had been a complete flop at them, forever gumming up my fingers and the little plastic pieces of whatever tank or aircraft carrier I was trying to assemble. As for applying the cellophane-like decals—there I was completely hopeless.
She, however, had been building models to Wall Street's satisfaction and, though we had only just met, already I could see her assembling complicated plastic replicas of multi-engine World War II bombers with our enthralled son. Or, rather, our twin sons. It was love.
Months later, in an introductory finance class, I realized to my great disappointment that the models she knew how to build had as their ingredients dry facts and figures gleaned from SEC filings and not from the boxes of the Revell company.
Still, it was while at Stanford that I set my personal record—21 months—for pretending I knew what people were talking about when I had absolutely no idea. Much like mis à jour, the term that I didn't understand seemed to be fundamental to modern business practices and well established in everyone else's vocabulary.
It's been said there's nothing stupid about a question except not asking it. Experience has taught me otherwise. Indeed, asking about this particular mot inconnu seemed to me akin to asking where the sun rose—and would certainly have had the admissions office reassessing my status.
Whenever a professor or classmate mentioned it, my hand did not bolt up to ask what they were talking about. In those days before the Internet, my research led nowhere. Maps were as clueless as I was. Asking a librarian for help would have presented me with the same acute embarrassment I had felt as a teenager asking a pharmacist for condoms.
Of course, just as I eventually learned what mis à jour means, I now know where to find Silicon Valley. After all, it's right there on Google Earth.
A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2011 edition of Stanford magazine.