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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Spelunking Moaning Cavern: A Wild Adventure With My Son (Part 1)

[Click on the photos for an enlarged view.]
A few weeks ago my son Demetrious (DT) and I did something truly awesome.

I took him a couple years ago to Shiloh for a book signing, and we did a side trip to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. We both loved it. I promised to take him to some of the many pretty cool caves in northern California. Time passed, and we never made it.

My wife, bless her, called me at the office one day and asked whether I wanted to take him to Moaning Caverns for their 3-hour Adventure Tour.

"Sure," I answered. "That sounds great." Little did I know . . .

The night before I found a video made by the adventure channel guy who visited the same cave for the same thing a short time ago. I nearly freaked. "I am going to do that? With my son?" Gulp.

A couple days later we drove to Moaning Cavern, about 1.5 hours away in Gold Country, and met up with the rest of our group for the 11:00 a.m. tour. A mother-son team (Tracy and Ollie) parked next to us. We got on right away. The rest of "team" was a five-person group from Silicon Valley (Sean, Bella, Tatyana, Donna, and one more lady whose name I cannot recall).

[Right: The Silicon Valley Group]

We began with elbow and knee pads, helmets with a light, and stood at the precipice of a yawning tear in the ground. The only way down now is to rappel. DT wanted to go first, but when the time came he quietly suggested otherwise. When no one else spoke up quickly, I volunteered. After all, a dad can't chicken out with his 13-year-old son there, right? My mouth was dry and I had to take a deep breath. Our guide, Melissa, hooked me up (a single nylon line about as thick as your thumb), told me to straddle the other ropes, follow them down, patted my helmet, and wished me luck.

[Right: Tatyana leaving the small room on the way into the main chamber.]

The first ten feet are difficult--a bumpy adjustment period. The rock face is maybe 70 degrees or so. And then without warning I was standing in a small room. Huh? Behind me was a small hole down which the ropes disappeared. Go down there? Since there was no other way, I turned around, stuck out my butt (you have to lean back when you rappel, which in itself is a real leap of faith), and started my descent.

This was bumpy too, but I was getting the hang of it now. After maybe 20 feet or so I could hear some distant voices below me and see some light. I realized I was dropping into the main cavern. A giant smooth rock lip jutted out. I leaned back, slipped over without too much difficulty (they call the kissing rock) and was suddenly dangling over . . .nothing.

[Below, right: Me having cleared the Kissing Rock, hanging 12 stories up. Below, left: Beginning the slow journey down after calming my nerves; Below: Approaching the bottom. Whew.]

I swung around and took in what I can only describe as a giant rock cathedral tall enough to hold the Statue of Liberty plus ten feet (something like 165 feet) or 12 or so stories. (Picture hanging off the side of a 12-story building downtown on a single rope, and you will have some idea of what I was thinking.) Once I realized what I was doing I found it terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

I took about 20 minutes, dangling, moving slowly, and watching a tour group below. At first they looked like ants, looking up at me. A metal winding staircase was about 30 feet to my right. People walking down were snapping photos of me (including a guide who had one of our cameras).

Once I was down, the testosterone high was simply incredible. (I used to play in a fairly successful Midwest rock band, and the only thing I can compare the feeling to was standing on stage with a wild audience screaming in front of you. It was like that.)

But the scariest thing was what followed. I waited about ten minutes, and then watched as my son DT appeared. He had some difficulty at the Kissing Rock. I told him to push off with one hand, but he was too worried about letting go, so he spent a minute or two adjusting himself so he could use his elbow instead.

[Below, two pictures of my son DT, one with him getting squished against the rock, and the other maneuvering to push off with an elbow--"No way was I going to release one hand!" he told me later.]

And then he was over the rock, hanging there above a solid rock floor. My only son. I paid for this. My wife arranged this. Were we nuts?! For a second I was sure he was going to fall. When he started hooting and hollering, enjoying the experience, I exhaled slowly, smiled, and felt proud. He was afraid up top, but he mustered his will and DID IT. Ollie came down after DT, and for a time they were rappelling together. A 20-year old and 13-year old. It was great to see.

[Below: DT with Ollie above him near the top of the chamber, and DT near the bottom, ready to be reeled in, and Ollie's mom Tracy, rappelling after her son.]

Part two of this post will talk about the second and longest part of "Adventure tour"-- bending, twisting, crawling, on your back, side, and front, through some incredibly tight spots. And that was just the beginning. The guide kept saying it is going to get tighter. I could not imagine it. But . . . she wasn't kidding.

[Pops and DT, after the rappel. If we can do that, we thought, we can handle 2.5 hours inside tight spaces . . . Right?. Stay tuned.]

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Classification of Titles: Midlist

This is the third and last post in this series. The first two concerned frontlist titles and backlist titles. This much more succinct post, covers midlist titles.
Many people outside the book industry have heard the terms "frontlist" and "backlist," but I guarantee you few will be familiar with the word "midlist." To be honest, we rarely use the term, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard it mentioned at the dozens of conferences and books shows I have attended over the years. I guess it is popular in certain cocktail circles, but since I don't usually stray into those lion's dens, I don't hear it too often.

Basically, midlist means books that sell well enough to justify publishing them (so they are not bestsellers and are not projected to be.) If you find an author who can produce a book that sells decently well, pays for itself, makes a profit for the company, etc., it is sometimes referred to as "midlist" book. Some publishers call these authors "midlist authors."

(And by bestsellers, I am referring to the genre. I am unsure whether the NY Establishment would agree with me.)

I have debated this point with others, but midlist is not really anything like backlist or frontlist (which largely refers to a title's classification vis a vis its release date. By far, most titles are technically considered "midlist."

Why is this important for you? If you produce a "midlist" book for a company, it usually means the same publisher will contract another book from you because of your following, your name, and because the new title will help move your other books.

Sometimes authors get disappointed by sales during the first 60 or 90 days and stop working. Enthusiasm drains away, book signings drop off, that website he was meaning to put up never goes live, and so on. I have a name for that: shortsighted.

Even if your book is not a bestseller in its genre or selling as well as you would like or had hoped, that is not a reason to lay back and stop working. Why? Because of the magic formula I just developed in my head while typing this blog post:

Continued hard work = sales, and consistent sales = midlist ranking, and a midlist ranking = another contract for your next book.

This is not rocket science. (And if it was, I would not be typing this post.)

I hope this series has been helpful.


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Classification of Titles: Backlist

In the last related post, we discussed "Frontlist" titles. Today's post explains what "backlist" is, and why it is important to authors and publishers. (There is an important message in this post for authors, so read on even if you think you know what "backlist" means.)

The most basic definition of "backlist" is: older books still available from a publisher (i.e., older books still in print).

Compiling a robust backlist is the best way for a publishing company to build a valuable company. Why? Because by the time a book is "older," say more than one year from the date of publication, the cost of each book has been amortized across many units. When a book is reprinted and is on the backlist, that means steady orders are coming in for the book with little or no marketing effort. As each book is sold, the most expensive aspects of book production cost (original design, editing, formatting, printing, et. al.) has already been paid. The only primary expense left is reprinting. This results in a steady stream of revenue for the company.

It also means that it creates a steady stream of income for the author, whose hundreds of hours, initial research costs, etc. are long ago paid. (More on why this is important later in this post.)

How the term "backlist" originated is tied to the presentation publishers use in their catalogs. As I have noted before, there are two publishing seasons each year: Spring (January to June) and Fall (July to December). Publishers who issue catalogs used to (and usually still do) offer them twice a year to match the publishing seasons. The new titles were listed in front of the catalog ("frontist"), and older books were listed in the rear of the catalog ("backlist").

Obviously not all books (or even most books) obtain "backlist" status. Why? They don't sell well enough to remain in print. The books that sell steadily in non-fiction tend to be reference titles (like our Ultimate Guide to Basic Training), foundational monographs on a particular topic (like our Shioh and the Western Campaign of 1862), and books that have a lasting message that resonates with a wide number of people (like our Playing with the Enemy, which Penguin is reprinting in paperback for the fourth time already.)

None of these books would be in print today were it not for the cooperative formed by the publisher and author. The former produced a professional quality product, introduced it into the stream of commerce (bookstores, Amazon, wholesalers, etc.) and the author worked tirelessly with the publisher to drive people into the stores, create a demand, and then worked HARDER to create a wider foundation of readers for a LASTING demand.

Astute readers of this blog will already recognize that the efforts put forth by the author while his or her book is a frontlist title will create the success necessary to keep the book in print as a backlist title.

This is why we work so hard to get authors to understand that there is only so much a publisher can do for each book. No one will sell a book more forcefully, more aggressively, and more passionately than its author. So it never ceases to amaze me when some authors push back to ideas that are designed to help him make more money and sell more books.

To me, it is the same thing as telling the publisher, "Look, I wrote the book, you take the risk, and I don't really care if it makes money." Lasting revenue--$100 a month, or thousands of dollars each year--is sitting on the table, and this horse won't put his head down to drink! The excuses we hear, day in and day out, used to make me angry. Now they make me laugh, shake my head with a smile--AND MOVE ON to the next author who wants to earn permanent backlist status.

Today, with social networking, it is not too difficult to achieve the same thing in your pajamas that used to require a 10-city book speaking tour. Hard work now--focused, dedicated, prioritized--can fund your IRA for years or indefinitely. Get up 15 minutes earlier each day; stay up 15 minutes later; skip the TV show and head to the computer. As the saying goes, "just do it."

The moral to this story is a simple one. If you want to get to backlist status, work with your publisher while your book is still a frontlist title. There is no magic to the equation. Hard work early, often, and daily might not make your book a backlist title, but I can guarantee you that sitting on your hind end will make sure it goes out of print--quickly.

Next post on this topic will discuss midlist titles.

Be well.