The book object

Although I enjoy and appreciate modern technology and love the immediacy of browsing and communicating online, I admit I’m apprehensive about the trend away from print and paper publishing. Even now there is a feeling of inevitability about the process. Online publications are common, and the world of fiction seems destined for cyberspace.

I read The New York Times online every day. I like the immediacy of online news published, as the stories unfold, ’8 minutes ago’ or ‘57 minutes ago.’ But I also enjoy holding a Sunday issue in my hands, pulling it apart section by section, and paging through the Book Review, the op-eds, and the entertainment sections.

When I’m reading a book, however, I don’t want the timely. I want the total sensory experience of the book object. I want to hold it in my hands and feel the weight of it as I turn over the pages. I want the conscious or unconscious awareness of the cover design, the paper stock, the type font and size, the page design, and the section and chapter breaks. I want to smell the paper and the inks, and savor the book’s newness, or its musty age.

All of these sensory elements make the reading more pleasurable for me. The thought of curling up on the couch with a Kindle or a Sony Reader is not my idea of pleasure and relaxation. I don’t anticipate ‘losing myself’ within the flickering confines of a digitized page.

In an interview in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers, a group of agents and editors cite technology as “simultaneously constructive and destructive” for the publishing industry. Now that we can download a book digitally, and read it electronically, publishing is less about guesswork and more about delivering a product when and as needed.

If, as the article contends, the book as an object is going the way of vinyl records, I know I can’t reverse the tide. But no matter how advanced our technology, I hope that I still have ample access to the inviting look and feel of folio sheets glued or perfect bound within the confines of a hard or soft cellulose cover.

Inspiration redux. Round three.

Any decent kind of world, you wouldn’t need all these rules.
‘Rabbit Redux’
John Updike

In marketing there are rules for everything. Scratch a marketing article or book and chances are you will uncover a set of do’s and don’ts punctuated by bullets or numbers.

But novels seem to have an organic growth of their own, and they grow differently in every writer’s soil. As W. Somerset Maugham said, famously, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

So recently, because I haven’t been progressing as I should with my novel, and because the early part of the draft is fading from my memory, I decided to break one of my own non-rules and re-read what I had written so far. My practice is to plow through to the end of a first draft without looking back. But here was an auspicious time to make an exception and to hope, superstitiously, that my story wouldn’t turn to stone because I looked back at it.

It was with surprise and pleasure that I discovered I enjoyed reading the story. I even had the thought – this is a good story. And if this is a good story, then it’s worth writing. And if it’s worth writing, then it’s worth plowing on to the finish.

It gave me a jolt of pleasure to consider that my story might elicit a positive response from future readers. In fact, I would be happy if the pleasure I give a reader is a more modest glow of warmth and recognition rather than an electrifying jolt.

At some unspecified time in the uncertain future, I will be reaching out to a few known and many unknown readers who will turn the pages of my novel and perhaps think, with a warm glow of pleasure, “This is a good story.”

That’s writing inspiration enough to keep me going for now.

Ding! Round over.

Identity theft

This week’s New Yorker magazine cover, called ‘The Politics of Fear,’ with a triumphant Barack and Michelle Obama standing in the Oval Office dressed up in and surrounded by the accoutrements of extreme right-wing fear and terrorism is, to put it mildly, tasteless.

I choose to put it mildly because its irony is so extreme that it is hard for me to moderate my reaction to it. In my opinion it goes so far that it turns around on itself and attacks its own tail.

There was a time when the New Yorker was, for me, unassailable. With its unique format, its superb fiction, poetry, cartoons, and reviews (think Pauline Kael), its elegant typography and meticulous editing, it was all of a piece – including its ads, which resided side by side with content in understated compatibility.

Then it was swallowed up by S.I. Newhouse and Conde Nast Publications and began its gradual and inevitable physical transformation into a clone of every other popular magazine, initially in its ads, and eventually in the overall look and feel. Editor Tina Brown completed the demolition during her tenure in the 90s, which is when I left it behind.

What it seemed to me to retain, when I returned to it infrequently, were the sublime and utterly unique humor of its cover art, its witty and on-the-nose cartoons, its excellent (though not as plentiful) fiction, and its intelligent and principled editorial choices. Which is why I decided to welcome it into my home again.

Now I wonder what part of its anatomy will be sacrificed next to some under-considered mandate to vanquish with shock and awe. Times change. Magazines change with the times. And the New Yorker – this icon of taste, humor, and irony – is yet another victim of identity theft.

The apotheosis of branding

For me, the marketing that surrounds Apple products has a magnetic appeal. It seems to emerge from a magician’s hat, and the magic never palls.

The current television ad for MacBook Air has the usual mesmerizing effect on me. The first time I saw it, and heard it, I simultaneously wanted the product and envied the marketing genius behind it. It appealed to all of my senses, especially my sense of desire. There’s the laptop itself being lifted out of its interdepartmental envelope and opened up. There’s the entrancing song by Yael Naim. There’s the absolutely clean and unobstructed visual purity of the message. There’s the ravishingly simple logo image that invites us to take a bite out of life.

I have seen Apple marketing in media ranging from multiple-story billboards to email and I’m always struck by the consistency, familiarity, freshness, and impact of its messaging. It’s never the same but it is always the same. It’s the apotheosis of branding.

I keep watching the magician, hoping that if I look closely enough I’ll figure out just how it’s done.

“I don’t know who you are.”

A stern-looking executive with a receding hairline is seated in a swivel chair with his elbows on the arms of the chair, his fingers intertwined, his feet set well apart, and his bow tie precisely aligned below his double chin. He says to me:

“I don’t know who you are.
I don’t know your company.
I don’t know your company’s product.
I don’t know what your company stands for.
I don’t know your company’s customers.
I don’t know your company’s record.
I don’t know your company’s reputation.
Now – what was it you wanted to sell me?”

This is copy from an ad that I came across many years ago in ‘Ogilvy on Advertising.’ I marked the page and have kept it close ever since. This unnamed, no-nonsense executive is my marketing guru.

I have only to look at this ad and read the words to discard all of the layers of marketingese that I keep accumulating in the course of many years in the field. I can forget those dense, abstract definitions: ‘Marketing is an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating and delivering value to customers.’ I can ignore those numbered formulas: ‘The four P’s of marketing are product, pricing, positioning, and placement.’

I simply go back to what is for me the essence of business-to-business communication.

Marketing is a hard-nosed executive with a lot of priorities, very little time, and even less patience.