Saturday, May 03, 2008

The Foodie Election

Latest Newpaper Column:

Has there ever been an election in which the press was so fixated on food?

It seems like every day there's some new kerfluffle arising out of some candidate's visit to a restaurant, and deep, allegedly serious analysis by the chattering class over the burning questions raised by what said candidate did or did not do in said eating establishment.

First, of course, there was "Tip-gate," where the press was all atwitter for days over whether Sen. Hillary Clinton had tipped her waitress at one of those "loose-meat" places for which the Midwest is dubiously famous. Until it turned out that her campaign staff didn't just tip, but that they may have actually overtipped, at which point the discussion became about whether Clinton was out of touch with working people because of that.

Then there was the whole idiocy over Sen. Barack Obama and cheesesteak (that's a sandwich) in Pennsylvania. Why didn't he order a cheesesteak? Is he too good for cheesesteak? Is he thumbing his nose at Pennsylvanians because he decided one day to not order a cheesesteak?

Hey, I sometimes
go three, even four days without ordering a bloomin' cheesesteak. And some of my best friends live in Philly. Get over it already.

The whole food fixation reached its nadir the moment that Obama was dissected on the Chris Matthews trivia show "Hardball" over the fact that he ordered -- are you ready for this?

Orange juice.

After briefly noting that Obama, while campaigning in Indiana, had appeared at a "raucous" political rally in front of an enthusiastic crowd, during which rally he addressed the economy and the housing crisis, Matthews blew past his sidekick David Shuster's attempt to actually talk about what Obama had said, and focused in on the real issue Americans should be concerned about: how well Obama "handles himself" in a diner.

After being gently redirected a couple of times by the Big Man, Shuster realized what his master wanted, and delivered the goods: "Well," he said, "here's the other thing that we saw on the tape, Chris, is that, when Obama went in, he was offered coffee, and he said, 'I'll have orange juice.'"

"No!" a clearly horrified Matthews said.

I know, I know, I was as shocked as you, but not as shocked as Chris Matthews. I mean, no one can ever be as shocked as Matthews when it comes to candidates' gustatory habits, so long as that candidate's a Democrat. What kind of American, offered coffee, asks for orange juice instead?

Oh, wait. I've done that.

Look, as anyone who's seen me in the morning with my coffee cup seemingly glued to my hand can attest, I love me a hot cup of java. But if I've already had my third one, or if it's a warm day, or for any number of other reasons, I might very well tell the nice ladies at Mac's Breakfast Anytime, "No thanks on the coffee, but I could really use some OJ right now." It doesn't make me a bad American. There are plenty of other things that do that -- right, y'all?

Now, when it comes to Sen. John McCain, the food obsession takes on a different slant, thanks in large part to the press' ongoing man-crush on Big John. McCain, ever the canny politician, invited members of the press to a barbecue at his "rustic Arizona home," where he wowed them by appearing "tongs in hand, on the deck of his ranch house," and cooking "baby back ribs and grilled chicken."

I suppose after such generosity, it would be mean-spirited to note that the "rustic Arizona home" is worth over a million dollars and that it's one of multiple high-dollar properties in the name of McCain's wife Cindy. After all, John Edwards and Al Gore, who were castigated for their own luxurious digs, never fed the press ribs and grilled chicken, so they're fair game.

What is the deal? Is the press just not getting enough to eat on the road and that's why they're so fixated on what the candidates are eating and so willing to kiss the barbecue-sauce-stained ring of anyone who feeds them? I take a look at the figures of some of the people I see on the TV talk shows, and I find this explanation a little doubtful.

I swear, one of these days we're going to turn on the TV and see that Katie Couric has been replaced by the Food Channel's Rachael Ray, Emeril is hosting "Hardball," and Bill O'Reilly has been replaced by that crazy chef from the "Hell's Kitchen" show.

Actually, come to think of it, those may actually be improvements.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Where do people find the time?" and The Art of Marketing Without Marketing

Making Light links to a fascinating (and short) lecture on, among other things, the "cognitive surplus" (i.e. available brainpower) that's been eaten up by TV and that's now being freed up, if you know how:

Transcript here. But it's funnier and more engaging on video.

One of the questions I get asked a lot is "where do you find time to write, what with a full time job and a family?" Part of my answer is always "I don't watch a lot of TV." I've never seen "24." I've never seen "Heroes". I've never seen "Survivor," "The Biggest Loser," Or "Deal or No Deal." I've never seen "The Unit." I watch the first 2 episodes of "American Idol," the ones where the really untalented ones crash and burn in comical ways. I usually don't miss "My Name is Earl," "The Office" or "The Daily Show," but that's about it.

You'd be amazed at how much time and "cognitive surplus" that frees up.

But there's more to the piece. Lots more. It's also about how, while 20th century media was about "we produce, you consume," media in the 21st century is more about "three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share." And this is the part that intrigues me as as a writer trying to carve a niche for himself in a competitive market.

We spend a lot of hours and blog-time--a lot of our own cognitive surplus-- talking about how to connect with and reach potential readers. We talk newsletters, websites, appearances, etc. But more and more, I'm thinking, the way to do it is to engage readers and to bring them into the discussion, sometimes even into the creative process itself.

Am I suggesting that readers tell authors how to write the books? No. If a reader feels strongly about how books need to be written, they need to write a book themselves. Hell, that's why I got into the game.

But there are lots of ways to make getting the word out about your books more of an interactive process, to make the potential reader a participant rather than a passive recipient of news and information. To give just one example, I recently did an experiment on the blog and on my Facebook group, JD. Rhoades' Gang of Hellions. My current WIP is about people trapped on an island in a hurricane. I was Googling like mad, looking for hurricane stories and information, when it occurred to me: I've got a lot of friends out there on the Internet who I'll bet have stories to tell about their own hurricane experiences. I put the word out, and they came, with fascinating stories that added to my knowledge and understanding about what it's like to go through a hurricane and its aftermath. (Thanks again, y'all.)

Now, will these people buy STORM SURGE when (and if) it comes out? Will they buy BREAKING COVER when it releases in July? Maybe, maybe not. But you know what? They'll definitely know about it and about me. I realized, after the survey was done, that it could be considered marketing, because it got my name and the knowledge of the book out. But that wasn't the purpose. It didn't feel like marketing. It felt like a conversation.

And it was fun.

My good friend Stacey Cochran has recently been running a highly successful series of panel discussions at various North Carolina bookstores featuring a number of writers, including Alex Sokoloff and Yours Truly. One of the things that's worked very well about these events is that we're not reading at the audience or giving them a formal lecture. Once Stacey primes the pump with a few interview questions, the audience can't wait to jump in and ask their own. Once they do, we're off to the races. The hour (or more) flies by. I've met some new and interesting people, I've had fun, and I've sold quite a few books (thanks again for the opportunity, Stacey). back to me. Writers, let's kick around ideas about how we can get away from the idea of 'marketing' as it's been done, i.e., talking at readers, and instead make this more of an interactive event. Readers, chime in. What do you want to say to writers you read in terms of interaction? What do you want to see more of? What would you just as well do without? And not just people you're already a fan of, but people who you might be interested in?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

As a Matter of Fact, I DO Take Requests.

Okay, looks like everybody and his cousin Ben is doing that podcasting thing these days. So I downloaded this program called Audacity to the laptop, and I've been messing about with it, trying to learn how it works. I even figured out how to put podcasts on the blog. I think.

So what about it, Hellions? What's the first thing you want to hear from the golden voice of your Humble Blogger? Submit your suggestions here or at the Gang of Hellions group on Facebook. Requests should be something that will run from one to five minutes and that do not involve me declaring my undying love for boy bands or the Bush Administration. Everything else is pretty much fair game. I'll pick the one I like best and run it up the flagpole here.

Decisions of the judge are final.

The winning selection wins a copy of my buddy Julia Spencer-Fleming's upcoming novel, I SHALL NOT WANT, before it becomes available in stores! Now how do you turn THAT deal down?

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Missing Piece, or Inside the "Mind" of an NRO Blogger

Kathryn Jean Lopez, writing in National Review Online:

Barack Obama's autobiography makes the "African-American" section in the Barnes & Noble on M Street in Georgetown. Clarence Thomas's autobiography does not. Wonder how that decision was made.

See, here's one of the things that sets wingnuts apart from, how shall I put this.... sane people. Some of us might see Barack Obama's "The Audacity of Hope" shelved in a place that we find a little puzzling. And some of us might have a brief flash of "this may be the product of a left-wing (or right-wing) conspiracy."

But then, for most of us, a still small voice speaks up in our head that says "naw, that's crazy." (Yes, my still small voice does, in fact, have a Southern accent).

But for people like Kathryn Jean Lopez, that still small voice is missing, replaced by an urgently babbling voice that says "Quick! to the Internet! We must warn everyone right away!"

I wonder what it's like to live your life inside this bubble of fear and paranoia, where even the shelving of books has a dark, scary significance. Brrrr....

(Hat tip to Sadly, No!)