People often e-mail me to point out that some scary-ass marketing technique I dreamt up for Syrup or Jennifer Government has actually come true. No matter how shameless, ludicrous, or extreme I get, some novelty-tie-wearing marketer eventually gets the same idea. Notable examples so far include Dunlop-Tire paying people to take its name and Dunkin’ Donuts convincing people to tattoo its logo on their foreheads. The latter is really something; follow the link for a pic of grinning, tattooed college students. I want to call them corporate prostitutes, but not all of them were paid: some apparently got tattoos just for the sheer joy of turning their faces into billboards. Which raises the question: which is less moral, taking money from a corporation to rent your face, or letting them do it for free? It’s a toughie.
Now I’ve got an e-mail from Nathan who says my Why Copyright is Doomed essay is coming true, too. Just in case you don’t feel like digesting 1,800 words right now, the short version is that I think advertising is going to creep into novels. Not just in relatively subtle The Bulgari Connection ways, but big, bright, honking, dancing, in-your-face-just-the-way-you-don’t-like-it ways. Real advertising.
And here it is. Matthew Reilly, a fellow Aussie, has a new novel out next week, Hover Car Racer. And it’s to be published on the web alongside ads for United Pictures films and Canon products.
I’ve met Matt a few times. He’s a terrific guy, even though his books sell better than mine. If you like big blockbuster action novels, he’s your man, and if Ice Station in particular never makes it to the screen, it’s a crime. I don’t blame him for letting ads snuggle up to his fiction. I think it’s inevitable; eventually, all novels will be like this. But can’t help but cringe. I wish I could have stayed ahead of the marketers a little longer this time.
Once every few months, I have lunch with a bunch of ex-Hewlett-Packard employees. Unlike me, most of these guys have real jobs, so they’re still in that bizarre business world I’m no longer a part of. This makes the lunches a little like anthropological surveys for me; I get to peek in and see what’s happening. And what’s happening, apparently, is that everybody’s “adding value.”
I know this phrase is not new. But last time I checked, it was mostly in annual reports and speeches by incoming General Managers. Now it’s everywhere. A business failed because “it wasn’t adding value;” a woman’s job is to “add value to the channel;” one man offered to help me with my new novel by “adding value to your sales and marketing strategies.”
Now, okay, value is important. You gotta have the value. But “add value” as a phrase has clearly reached the point where it’s no longer conveying any useful information. It’s adding no value. It’s so broad you can use it in any situation. Here, watch. My job as a writer is to “add value to letters.” My pajamas, which I’m wearing right now, are “adding value to my legs.” I married Jen because she “adds value to my daily living experience.” I saw Tomb Raider 2 on the plane, but it “added no value to excrement.”
The only way to rid the world of this expression is to overuse it so grossly that everyone gets sick of it. So if you’re at work today, really pack it in to your conversations. There’s no reason why every sentence coming out of your mouth can’t include “add value.” If people start to look at you funny, that just means it’s working. And if they nod their heads wisely and talk about strategic vision, it’s time to look for another job.
I know what you’re thinking. “Sure, Max’s web site is kind of neat and all, but I don’t want to have to keep checking it for updates. I have better things to do with my time, like browse for naked pictures of John Ashcroft. Can’t I just get Max’s posts in my e-mail?”
Yes! You can! After spending a few days slaving over a hot command prompt, I managed to add a membership list, so you can now join my site. It’s a bit like being in a cult, only you don’t have to shave your head, mail me checks, or commit ritual suicide. I think you’ll agree that’s a plus.
Today I received a Syrup royalty statement. This is usually a depressing event, because it reveals either that vast numbers of people are not buying Syrup, or, worse, that the book isn’t for sale any more. This statement, which is the first since Viking brought Syrup back into print, is not quite so heinous. People are buying it. This is a relief not because I get 75c from every copy—well, not just because of that—but because nothing is quite as awful as watching your novel slowly sink into oblivion. Once I got a royalty statement that had negative net sales. I didn’t even know that was possible.
(It’s because bookstores can return unsold stock to the publisher for credit. Even on the royalty statement I’m looking at right now, one bookstore—just one!—returned one copy of the Syrup hardcover, almost five years after it was published. They make me pay back my 75c for that.)
It seems that people are split pretty evenly over whether they prefer Syrup or Jennifer Government, so I cling to the hope that one day the former will be read by as many people as the latter. It still seems possible.
Except in Canada. Now, Canada and Syrup have long had a strained relationship. It has always sold abysmally there, although I have no idea why. I like Canada. I used to work with a Canadian at Hewlett-Packard, Mike, and we got on fine; I don’t think he phoned home to say, “Quick, tell everyone not to buy Max’s novel.” But this latest royalty statement makes the situation truly bizarre. In the last six months of 2003, Canadian Syrup sales were: 6.
Now, serendipitous references to the character in the novel aside, what the hell is with that? Six!? I’ve bought more copies than that! If it was zero, I’d think maybe the book wasn’t available at all, but six—six! It’s enough to make me want to catch a plane to Vancouver and buy an armload full of copies, just to treble national sales. Or maybe I’ll track down Mike and kick his butt.
Jennifer Government has been beaten for the Borders Original Voices in Fiction 2003 Award by Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. I haven’t read this, but according to the blurb it’s “an unforgettable, heartbreaking story of blah blah blah.”
Pfff, as if there weren’t enough unforgettable, heartbreaking stories already. I mean, really.
Apparently this was announced a couple of weeks ago, but I only found out today, when I thought, “Hey, I wonder if they’ve announced who won that Borders award yet? I should find out.” This is one of the problems with being an author: no-one gives you bad news. Or maybe it’s just me. My author pic is kind of scary.
People kept telling me that turning 31 is harder than 30. From a psychological perspective, that is. Because physically, neither is exactly a struggle. You just keep doing what you’re doing and the birthdays organize themselves. But the thought of being 31 years old was, according to these people, more of a shock than the thought of turning 30.
Now I’m 31, I can say for sure: that’s a load of crap. Thirty-one has nothing on 30. When I turned 30, my body discovered age overnight. I swear, it was like while I was sleeping someone had broken into my body and taken it for a joyride. The vehicle was clearly no longer in showroom condition. There were scuff marks and discolorations. The radio was missing. My analogies had stopped making sense. And just to rub it in, everyone kept calling me up and saying, “Ho ho ho, the big three-oh!”
But 31, so far, has been fine. I’ve checked and everything seems to still be in working order. Nobody has tried to mock me with numbers. It’s a good day.
Okay, this will be of zero interest to just about everybody, but I need to announce it somewhere. I wrote a plugin for Blosxom that allows a blogger to preview their posts before they become available to the world at large. The advantage over existing plugins is that if everything looks right, you don’t need to do anything.
If you want it for your site, download autopreview here.
One of the cool things about having a web site is seeing what people typed into search engines to bring them here. “Jennifer Government,” is, as you might expect, the runaway winner here (43%). But there are also some truly bizarre phrases. My all-time favorite is “coke fuck shoes”. But this month’s winner is:
let me try on your lingerie and high heels
It’s hard to imagine exactly what this person was looking for. In fact, it’s probably better not to. But it really does match a page on my site*.
The other fun thing is seeing which sites link to mine. Because occasionally—just occasionally—there’s one that makes no apparent sense and has as its logo a guy blowing bubbles out of his pipe. Don’t tell me what it’s about. I like it better not knowing.
* [Update: Well, it used to. Google now seems to be rebuilding its index of my site. For the record, the match is this page.]
I don’t talk about books I’m working on. This is because I once posted a diary on this site about a book I was working on, Girl Makes Headlines, and it turned out to be a baaaaaad novel, very bad, and when it became clear that I shouldn’t even attempt to get it published, I had to quickly pretend it never existed. Talking about future books, I realized, is begging the publishing gods to smite you down. So now I don’t do it.
Until, that is, I sell them to a publisher. And that’s what’s just happened: Doubleday has ponied up for Company. It will be published in hardcover sometime next year.
I wasn’t sure exactly what I should say about the book at this stage, but fortunately I received an e-mail from a guy called Luke who is very sure what he wanted to know. Luke has 18 questions for me. They start out about my novels, then get into NationStates territory, so I’ll just take the first ten.
1. Is “Company” going to be unique and insightful like the first two books, or is it going to be meant solely to be painfully funny to people in offices, sort of like a Dilbert in writing?
I’m not sure those things are mutually exclusive. I love Dilbert. I’d be very happy if people thought I had written the Dilbert of novels. But I think you’ll find Company to be very recognizably a Max Barry book. I haven’t changed much since I wrote Jennifer Government.
2. Have you finished it and your publishers are just making us wait, or are you still working on it?
I’ve finished the latest draft. My editor is writing up his thoughts on what I should do for the next draft, which, if all goes well, will then be pretty close to the published version. This editing process will probably go for two or three months. The rest of the time is the publisher fooling around with cover designs, sucking up to bookstores, and trying to arrange all the fiddly little die stamp letters in the printing press into the right order.
3. Do you plan on writing more books afterwards?
4. If so will they be coming out more or less frequently than your first books?
It depends. It was three and a half years between Syrup and Jennifer Government, and will be roughly two years between Jennifer Government and Company. I’d like to have books published more regularly than that, but only good books. I’m not sure how long I’ll take to write my next good one.
5. If answer to #3 is yes you expect your quality of writing to increase or decrease?
I expect my writing quality to increase as I get more experienced, then taper off sharply once I get rich and famous, descend into a incoherent lifestyle of drunken debauchery, and start pulling out old, rejected manuscripts to meet publishing deadlines. You’ll know this has happened when you see Girl Makes Headlines on the shelves.
6. How many books do you think that you could write before runing out of original ideas?
Forty-two. No, actually, that’s a fair question. John Grisham has just published his—what—17th legal thriller? And apparently it’s good. I really don’t know how you find anything new to say in your 17th genre novel. But I’m only up to book three. I have plenty more stories.
7. Will you be doing any more IRC sessions do you think?
8. Will you be doing any more book tours?
If the publishing gods smile, yes.
9. If you will, do you think that you could persuade your demographically blind publishers to make a few more east coast stops?
I can ask them. I may not be able to persuade them. How this works (I think) is that the publisher lets bookstores know that they’ve got a particular author on tour soon, and any stores that want to host him/her put up their hands. So the best way of getting me to tour your city may be to find the bookstore that does the most author events near you and say, “Me and all my friends want you to host Max Barry.”
10. What about Western Massachusetts? I think if you could publicize it, our being a large chunk of land out of touch with reality would cause a book tour to be very succesful. ;p
I tell you what, I’ll mention it on my web site.
People are mailing me strange things. A couple of weeks ago I got an envelope that had nothing inside but a small card with “THANK YOU” printed on the front and “Jennifer Government #75” hand-written on the back.
Now, it’s nice to be thanked. People should thank me more often. But—wha-huh? What’s it for? For writing the novel? Who’s it from? And what does the #75 mean? Did I miss the first 74 notes? Is it a series of clues? Is it someone who writes thank you notes to all the authors they like, and I’m the 75th?
Then a few days ago I checked my mail box and inside is a DVD of the movie Office Space. Everybody’s been telling me I have to see this film, but I’ve never gotten around to it. Now somebody anonymously mailed it to me. Who? God?
I’ve heard that the best thing about being famous is that you get a lot of free stuff. This I can believe. But I’m quasi-famous, at best. And not many people know my postal address.
Nothing inflames hatred of Microsoft quite like redesigning your web site. Except, I guess, having your innovative internet business crushed through monopolistic abuse of market power. Yeah, that’s probably worse. But designing your web site means having thoughts like this: “Okay, I can work around Internet Explorer 6’s float bug using absolute positioning, but that means I run into IE5’s positioning bug—which I guess I could fix by exploiting its CSS bug—” And so on.
I tell you, if everybody didn’t use Internet Explorer as their browser, nobody would use it.
When Doubleday asked me for an author photo for Jennifer Government, I e-mailed them a whole bunch of snaps. Most were of me looking like I thought authors were meant to look like: serious, thoughtful, smoking a pipe and rubbing my tweed elbow patches, that kind of thing. But one was this one I took of myself with my tongue poking out—which, of course Doubleday chose for the book jacket.
Now that’s okay—people get the impression that I like smashing up hotel rooms, but that’s actually kind of cool—but the problem is I’m sitting in front of a standard Windows desktop. I can protest that I dual-boot Linux all I like; it makes no difference. In the eyes of geeks around the world, I am forever shamed.