Book Giveaway to My Wonderful Blog Readers!

No Bad Language Book GiveawayUPDATE: Thank you to all the entrants! The giveaway is now officially closed. Winners and their prizes will be announced soon. 

In appreciation for your kind support during my reading challenge last year, I’m giving away 2 novels and 4 nonfiction books from my Best of 2012 list (and one from my 2011 list) to lucky readers.

Here’s what you have a chance to win:



How to Enter

In the Leave a Reply/Comment section of this post, please tell me:

  • your favorite book of 2012, and
  • which category you’d prefer to win in: fiction or nonfiction

Please include a valid email address or Twitter handle. (These are only so I can contact you if you win. I never use or spam email. If you’re nervous about this, please feel free to connect with me on Facebook, where you can use private email.)


I wish I could include everyone in this giveaway, but:

  • you must be a U.S. resident to enter
  • you must be 18 years of age or older

One entry per person please.

Deadline to Enter

Noon on Monday, January 28, 2013

Details, Details…and Disclaimer

The winners in each category will be selected at random from all valid comments via

A valid comment includes answers to both questions, a way to contact the commenter via email or Twitter, and belongs to a U.S. resident who is 18 or older.

No Bad Language will pay all costs associated with shipping and handling. Books will be dispatched to winners via the U.S. Postal Service at book rate, which may take up to 5 weeks for delivery.

Copies of Power Questions were kindly donated by one of the authors and his publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. The rest of these books were purchased by me as a way to say “Thank You” to you. There is no cost to you; the prize value of each is approximately $15 plus shipping and handling, all paid for by No Bad Language.

Standard disclaimer: Some of these books may contain concepts, descriptions and/or language that could be considered mature in nature. All contents are the creation of the authors; this blog and its owner are not responsible for the material or points of view presented in these books.

If you have questions, please leave a reply below, and I’ll respond as quickly as possible.

Best of luck! Tell your friends!

How to Build a Corporate Culture that Keeps Customers and Employees Smiling

Zappos Shoe Boxes

Zappos shoe boxes. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Say you’re visiting Las Vegas…what’s top of your list of Fun Things To Do?

Mine was: Tour the corporate headquarters of a successful company and learn how it translates its values into exceptional customer service and employee culture.

Okay, so my priorities may be a bit different than yours, but when the company is Internet shoe and fashion sensation Zappos, I leapt at the chance. A couple years ago, I read Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. It was interesting to understand his perspective about why a culture, created by employees, works better and has such a strong effect on the bottom line compared to cultures imposed from the top-down.

Zappos Values

Photo by Vickie Bates.

This is a photo-heavy post of our tour, led by the awesome Valerie of the Zappos Insights team, whose motto is “Engage Employees. Wow Customers.”

As you can imagine, I was on board from the get-go, especially when I saw this sign (click on any photo to enlarge), taped to an employee’s cubicle. How great that employees feel so strongly about Zappos Values that they display them.

FYI – here are Zappos’ 10 “Family Core Values”:

  1. Deliver WOW through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun and a Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open, Honest Relationships with Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More with Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

You’ll see most of these Values crop up throughout this post.

The tour focused on customer service and marketing with plenty of culture thrown in for good measure. It’s impossible to separate culture from almost anything Zapponian, as we quickly found out.

The walls, the stairwells, the cubicle jungles (everyone – and I mean everyone – works in a cubicle, as you’ll see) are all painted and decorated by employees. There’s no dress code. There are no rules about personal items on your desk.

Food and drinks are free – and given gratis to thirsty tour-group members – with the exception of certain vending machines, like the Red Bull dispenser, though the money collected through these goes to Operation Smile, a nonprofit that helps children born with cleft lips and cleft palates.

Zappos Hall of Fame

That’s our guide, Valerie, in the Zappos Hall of Fame. Photo by Vickie Bates.

At right, you can see our intrepid guide, the vivacious Valerie, at the start of our tour, in a sort of “hall of fame,” with framed T-shirts that were given to employees when Zappos hit certain milestones. For example, in his book, Hsieh mentions that Zappos had a goal of reaching $1 billion in gross merchandise sales by 2010. They zoomed past the mark in 2008. Hsieh comments:

“Looking back, a big reason we hit our goal early was that we decided to invest our time, money, and resources into three key areas: customer service (which would build our brand and drive word of mouth), culture (which would lead to the formation of our core values), and employee training and development (which would eventually lead to the creation of our Pipeline Team).”

About that customer service…

While there’s a goal of trying to respond to calls within 20 seconds (no one likes to hear endless ringing), there are no requirements about how long customer service reps can talk to callers. That’s right – and the longest call so far? Ten-and-a-half hours, according to Valerie.

Zappos Rrrrr Desk

Problems walk the plank in this department. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Most calls are handled by the regular customer service team members. They’re empowered to make magic happen for customers on the spot without having to escalate the call to someone more senior. Really difficult calls that require research or calming down the rare irate customer go to the “Rrrrrrrrr Desk.” This section is tricked out in pirate booty.

Zappos customer service team members are given time before their lunch breaks to write thank you notes to people they’ve talked to that morning. There are no set talking points, nothing they’re required to say, and they can decorate the cards any way they want. Talk about trust. And what happens when companies trust employees? That’s right: You boost engagement, morale and productivity.

Teams consist of about 12 employees, and they switch teams every six months in an effort to build team and family spirit, said Valerie.

In terms of “walking the talk,” I found it interesting that the white board Zappos uses to record each week’s call totals (see below) also features totals for thank-you cards sent and employee growth and learning classes. I’ve always believed that when you support employees with training, education and skill-building, you help them achieve their own goals, as well as the company’s, and you engage them at the same time. It’s win-win-win.

Zappos Continuous Learning

Zappos call count board and much, much more. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Zappos even offers employees sessions with a certified life coach to establish goals – personal or professional – create a plan for achieving them and receive support and encouragement along the way.

Zappos Coaching

Writing on the wall. Zappos employees express their joy over meeting goals. Photo by Vickie Bates.

One of the moving sights on the tour was this stairwell, where employees shared the goals they’ve achieved and everything they surmounted to get there. Some were about losing weight, gaining confidence, learning new skills. A graffito that really made me say, “Wow!,” mentioned creating an anti-bullying campaign at a child’s school.

I mean, Wow! What a great personal goal, and how cool that a company would care enough to support an employee in its success.

Zappos Monkey Row

Monkey Row at Zappos. Where the senior leaders sit. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Welcome to “Monkey Row,” where the guys who normally wear the monkey suits in a typical corporation sit. No one really dons formal-wear at Zappos, and even the CEO shares cubicle space with the rest of the gang. You can see the red and white “Tony Hsieh” sign in the center of the photograph, behind Valerie.

With something like three tours a day moving through the Zappos hallways, it was amazing at how generous everyone was. Employees twirled noisemakers as we walked through their workspace, cheered, said “Hello,” and basically made us feel warmly welcomed. They answered all questions, were happy to have us take photos, and then gave everyone on the tour a free copy of the beautiful Zappos 2011 Culture Book.

Zappos Culture Book

Yours truly with complimentary copy of the 2011 Zappos Culture Book. Photo by Rochelle Kanoff.

(Get your own free copy here.)

Beyond the daily free tours, Zappos Insights also offers one-on-ones for a small fee, deeper dives at a higher rate, and multi-day boot camps. Why is Zappos so intent on giving away the “secret sauce,” you may ask?

Hsieh discusses that in his book. He says, “Our belief is that our Brand, our Culture, and our Pipeline…are the only competitive advantages that we will have in the long run.”

“Everything else can and will eventually be copied.”

Basically, he’s happy to share, but he also knows that driving and implementing significant change in corporate culture is not the easiest thing to do. Hsieh believes that “although change can and will come from all directions, it’s important that most of the changes in the company are driven from the bottom up – from the people who are on the front lines, closer to the customers and/or issues.”

Not every company is willing to let that happen.

Zappos Name Tag

Zappos tour name tag. Photo by Vickie Bates.

If you’d like to learn more about the free tours or deeper dives, visit the Zappos Insights website or follow Zappos Insights on Twitter.

A big “thank you” to the Insights Team and Valerie for the fascinating look inside the unique Zappos culture.

Everything You Need to Know about Awards, But Were Afraid to Ask…

Early-bird deadlines for several major PR, marketing and communications award programs are looming.

Give your work a fighting chance. Make sure you’re ready to write the best entry possible, with all of the supporting materials necessary to make it awardable.

To get yourself going, check out these helpful, tip-heavy posts written by someone who has both judged PR, marketing and communications awards programs and received awards from some of the major programs. I recommend reading these in the order presented here:

Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work

Getting yourself prepared, reviewing award-worthy work, filling in missing metrics and feedback, and taking a hard look at whether your program stands a chance.

Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season

Section-by-section view of standard entry forms, guiding you through the information you need to include to support your program effectively. Includes a FREE worksheet to help you organize your entry, enabling you to show the judges what they want: clear connections between research, objectives, tactics and results. This is a long post, best read as you tackle each section on your entry.

AVEs and AVE Nots: Major PR Awards Programs Will Reject Entries Using Questionable Measurement Practice
If you think I’m a stickler about meaningful measurement, it’s worth noting that many of the prestigious awards programs (i.e. the awards that actually mean something in the industry and on your resume) no longer accept shaky measurement practices like AVEs.

And for writers:

Writing Your Writing Award Entry
Making the most of your writing talent to highlight the key program areas judges want to see in your entry.

Additional Resources

The IABC Gold Quill Awards website offers you tips for writing an effective entry, shares the judging score sheet and provides a download of their webinar, “The Midas Touch,” with advice on completing an effective entry.

Early deadline for the Gold Quill Awards is Jan. 31, with final deadline March 5, 2013.

The PRSA Silver and Bronze Anvil Awards site provides the excellent “Anvil Thinking” video, featuring judges discussing what it takes to win one of these prestigious awards.

Early deadline for the Silver Anvil Awards is Feb. 8, with final deadline Feb. 22, 2013.

Short Lists Announced for Asian and Arabic Literary Prizes

It’s an exciting day for world literature, as short lists for both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the International Prize for Arabic Fiction were announced today. The judges’ selections include novels from Tunisia, Malaysia, Iraq and Pakistan.

According to the Man Asian Literary Prize website, this year’s short list, winnowed from a pool of 15, “champions a debut novelist alongside a Nobel laureate, translated work as well as original writing in English, and includes smaller regional publishers as well as larger international houses.”

The five short-listed novels are:

Between Clay and Dust by Musharraf Ali Farooqi (Pakistan)
The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami (Japan)
Silent House by Orhan Pamuk (Turkey)
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia)
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil (India)

Visit the Man Asian Literary Prize website for descriptions of each novel.

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction is sponsored by the Booker Prize Foundation and aims “to reward excellence in contemporary Arabic creative writing and to encourage the readership of high quality Arabic literature internationally through the translation and publication of winning and shortlisted novels in other major languages.”

A long list of 16 was announced in December. The six novels chosen for the short list are:

Ave Maria by Sinan Antoon (Iraq)
I, She and Other Women by Jana Elhassan (Lebanon)
The Beaver by Mohammed Hassan Alwan (Saudi Arabia)
Our Master by Ibrahim Issa (Egypt)
The Bamboo Stick by Saud Alsanousi (Kuwait)
His Excellency the Minister by Hussein Al-Wad (Tunisia)

You’ll find descriptions of each book on the International Prize for Arabic Fiction website.

Winners will be announced on March 14 and April 23 respectively.

I already have The Garden of the Evening Mists on my nightstand, and I’m looking forward to reading more from both of these lists.

How about you? Which of these honored books might make it onto your reading list this year?

What I Learned from Reading 55 Books in 52 Weeks

My original goal was to read 52 books in 52 weeks last year. By the numbers – here are the results of my 2012 reading challenge:

2012 Reading Challenge Summary

I’d completed smaller reading challenges before – finishing John Updike’s Rabbit series in the course of a summer, reading a book I didn’t like by a certain deadline – but never so many over such a long period of time.

Chris Lam’s blog, What I Run Into, made me consider it; bumping into Chris at BlogWorld and hearing her enthusiasm for the endeavor gave me the encouragement (and some of the finer details) I needed.

So, 2012 became my year of reading in new, richer and more diverse ways. In large part, it was because I’d made a public declaration of the whole thing on my blog and, with other people’s interests in mind, I didn’t simply reach for books that matched my own tastes or do as much re-reading. And that was a good thing; it pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me more about character, plotting and critiquing in fiction and why it’s important not to meander and include every last detail when writing a nonfiction book or memoir.

Some things had to happen to accommodate my year of reading differently:

  • Fairly early, I recognized that my interest in older books didn’t necessarily translate; I began making an effort to incorporate at least one recently published book into my challenge each month, so my reviews reflected what you might find in bookstores.
  • I cancelled Netflix, and I don’t see it coming back in the future.
  • I joined Amazon Prime, which cost $79/year, but gave me free shipping on virtually everything I ordered and free streaming videos. (This is not an endorsement; I’m just reporting on a personal choice I made to facilitate faster reading.)
  • Magazine reading suffered significantly in 2012; I’m particularly looking forward to becoming reacquainted with my love of The Economist in ’13.
  • TV-watching diminished accordingly – I quite happily gave up vegging in front of shows I didn’t really care about, just to occupy my time. I had a schedule to stick to, so the TV got turned off and I read a lot more. (This is a habit I hope to keep in the new year!)
  • I deliberately didn’t read certain books this year. Right before I started the challenge, I’d completed the almost-1,000-page 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. There was no way I’d choose a book even half that length in 2012, which left out a lot of great books I was interested in reading.
  • Likewise, there were reference books and a couple of textbooks I wanted to read to refresh my skills, and I had no time for them.
  • I finally, finally, learned to set aside a book if it wasn’t a good read (those are the two unfinished books you see on the chart above; they aren’t included in the total of 55). I can walk out of a bad movie, I’ll pounce on the radio dial when I don’t want to listen to a song, but I’ve always given books the benefit of the doubt and kept plugging away at ‘em, no matter how many years it took or how miserable it made me. Critic Joe Queenan apparently is the same way: He says he once started a book in 1978 and finished it 34 years later “without enjoying a single minute of the enterprise.”

My Best of 2012 List

When you read 55 books in a year, some stand (way) out. Here are the ones that made the best impression on me in 2012:


Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin
Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares
How It All Began by Penelope Lively


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Allison Bechdel
Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie


The Social Media Strategist: Build a Successful Program from the Inside Out by Christopher Barger
Power Questions: Build Relationships, Win New Business, and Influence Others by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas
The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

I’ll admit there were points along the way when I felt not that I couldn’t accomplish this challenge, but that 55 seemed like a low number. I’m a slow reader. I spend a good deal of time making sure what I’m reading really registers. I haven’t ever been able to scan.

Queenan, it turns out, is on board with this. In his charming essay, “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” he observes, “I do not speed-read books; it seems to defeat the whole purpose of the exercise, much like speed-eating a Porterhouse steak or applying the two-minute drill to sex.”

Like Queenan, I plan to continue to be part of the “slow reading movement,” taking maximum enjoyment from the things I read, even if it means my book-completion totals for the year remain down in the double-digits.

The thing I learned that will be most helpful to me in the future is the practice of reading one book at a time – especially if I’m on deadline to write a review, for example – because that focus is what kept me on track and ensured the completion not just of my weekly selection but of the entire year’s challenge.

Am I taking a vacation from reading?, you may wonder. Nope. I finished my 55th book of 2012 at 11:38 p.m. on Dec. 31. It was the harrowing The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. I didn’t want to go to sleep with those images in my head, so I grabbed the most lighthearted, fun book I had, Jennifer Weiner’s The Next Best Thing, and dove in, reading well past the changeover to the new year and into early morning.

I plan to keep going, minus imposed deadlines. This year, I’m mulling over a more personal challenge around my journal writing. This is writing I do just for me. I’ll let you know when I define that pursuit more clearly, but I won’t be publishing what I’m doing this time.

How about you? Are you planning a reading or writing challenge in 2013? What are you most looking forward to? What are you dreading?

Check back! Book Giveaway: starting Jan. 17, 2013 – As an appreciation for my readers who put up with this year-long reading challenge, I’m going to give away selections from my 2012 favorites list.

Listening and reading that inspired me this week:

NPR’s “Monkey See” gang discuss their reading, listening and TV- and movie-viewing resolutions for 2013 on the latest edition of their “Pop Culture Happy Hour” podcast.

One of the BlogHer bloggers offers a fantastic round-up of different types of reading challenges – from all-novels to getting through serializations – in this post. Beware! It may set you off on a reading challenge this year.

December’s Dyspeptic Dystopias, Plus the Search for the El Dorado of the Amazon

Photo by Vickie Bates.

December’s reading. Photo by Vickie Bates.

We’ve reached the end, Dear Readers, and I’m thrilled to tell you that I achieved my 2012 reading challenge – finishing at least 52 books in 52 weeks! Thank you for taking this journey with me.

I’ll save the musings on What I Learned from Reading 52 Books in 52 Weeks for a later post. Though the book-lovers among you might want to note that when it does appear, that post will involve a reader giveaway of some of my favorite books of 2012.

I would like to thank the amazing Chris Lam, the woman behind the terrific What I Run Into blog, who introduced me to annual reading challenges in the first place and provided long-term inspiration. Chris recently completed her own challenge, reading 50 in 2012. Go, Chris!!

Standard disclosure: I bought the Meek book, borrowed The Flame Alphabet from my local library, and received the other two as gifts. All four are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.


4 down, 52 + 3 completed!


The Heart Broke In by James Meek
A novel about rock ‘n’ roll and science? You’d think I’d be in geek heaven. Except rarely have musician characters been done so wrong – these are the rockers who should hope to die before they get old.

The scientists hardly fare better. As with the ludicrous plot of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder and the recent movie “Contagion,” we get another piece of popular culture depicting researchers who test vaccines on themselves.

It’s beyond absurd for any number of reasons. I’ll list just three:

  1. It doesn’t translate that a vaccine that’s safe and works in one person will ever work for another human being (that’s why regulatory agencies mandate clinical trials).
  2. Even if you were going to test a vaccine on yourself, you’d try it on mice first to make sure it was safe because…
  3. You don’t want your lead researcher, who’s trying to stop a deadly contagion, to die suddenly, taking all her knowledge with her and setting back progress by months if not years.

The novel suffers from being in the heads of too many characters. We’re not with the main characters long enough to get close to them. After darting from perspective to perspective, the reader finds herself in the head of a peripheral character – the mother of one of the scientists – on page 231. In a 401-page novel. This is too late to introduce a new point of view, which is dropped anyway, just as suddenly as it appeared.

Bec, the valiant malaria researcher, is given a variety of motivations for everything she does yet none are believable. She discovers a parasite that may or may not guard against malaria, but the side effects bring on sudden blindness. She names the parasite after her father, a hero soldier, and deliberately infects herself with it. Her admiration for her dead father – and her inability to let go of the living parasite that now bears his name – is supposed to be her rationale for not taking medicine to kill the parasite, which is causing said blindness, so that she almost kills Alex, the man she loves, in a car accident. She continues to refuse to take the medicine, even when Alex asks her to, even when they try to get pregnant. Right. Because that would happen.

Alex, meanwhile, is the unlikely scientist and former drummer for a ‘70s-style band, led by Bec’s brother, Ritchie, and his wife Karin. Ritchie is the target of a labored blackmail scheme by a tabloid editor who used to be in love with Bec. While Bec’s parasite drama unfolds, we get chapter after chapter of Ritchie sweating it out as he waits to see his name smeared in the Fleet Street rags. One reason this never happens is because the blackmailer at first gives him a year to cough up something nasty about his sister to save his own reputation. When that time runs out, the blackmailer gives him several more months. A daily tabloid?! Never in a million years.

Okay, but is fiction supposed to be realistic? Don’t we read to escape ordinary life? And don’t we want authors to create never-before-realized new worlds for us to explore? Yes, yes and yes. Fiction doesn’t always have to be about real life, but when a writer devises a story, he must choose to set it in the world we live in (realism) or some other world (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). Whichever he chooses, the bargain he makes with the reader is to establish the rules of that world. That’s the fourth wall Meek keeps breaking. We’re in our present, everyday world and characters need to act and react in ways that make sense for their own motivation and for the world; they can’t do things just because it’s convenient for the author. For example, the only reason Ritchie has more than 12 months to deal with his blackmailer is because the author has nothing else for the character to do while he plays out Bec and Alex’s love story.

I read this novel back-to-back with The Flame Alphabet (reviewed below) which offers a world like ours, perhaps slightly in the future or diverted a bit from history as we know it. It was difficult to read because the author places us so firmly in that world that he never breaks the fourth wall – we’re there, the world is different in small ways all around us, and we’re never jerked back to our own world for a little respite or explanation. We have to figure it out as we go along. That is the best kind of reading, tough though it may be, because it assumes the reader has the intelligence to understand what’s going on. Meek is trying so hard to push us along the tracks that he doesn’t recognize the train is derailed.

Supremely Successful Selling by Jerold Panas
(I received a free review copy of this book from the author. Opinions my own.)

You’ve heard of the Horse Whisperer? Jerold Panas is the Customer Whisperer.

Don’t let the title of this book fool you. In Supremely Successful Selling, Panas has written a guide for anyone, in any role or industry (and those trying to land a job), who wants to engage effectively with stakeholders or needs to make the case for a product, service or initiative.

In his 14th book, Panas outlines the key attributes of a successful salesperson, features lessons from the Great Ones – among them Mary Kay, Stanley Marcus (Neiman-Marcus) and Melanie Sabelhaus (who went from IBM to second-in-command at the Small Business Administration) – and provides proven techniques from a lifetime spent “making the sale.”

Panas probably would dismiss that nickname, Customer Whisperer, because he firmly believes the role of a salesperson is to listen, rather than talk.

“You’ve heard about salespeople who talk too much,” he writes. “But you have never heard about a salesman who listens too much.”

Listening creates rapport, according to Panas, and it’s only when a salesperson strikes up an honest and long-term relationship with a potential buyer that she or he can learn what the customer really needs.

“In order to listen the sale, you talk during the presentation for 25 percent of the time. The likely buyer talks for the balance, 75 percent of the time,” he notes.

Throughout, Panas reminds the reader that selling isn’t an end unto itself: “Your job is not to make a sale. It is to make a friend and a life-long customer.”

He dedicates several chapters to nurturing good customer relationships – “stewardship” – and focuses on the critical role of ethics in selling. “Integrity isn’t important – it is everything,” he insists.

“It can’t be just a win for you…That’s not integrity selling. It must be a win-win,” he writes.

With short, focused chapters, lively writing, and excellent case studies from companies of all sizes, Supremely Successful Selling inspires while presenting a detailed path to follow in your own work.

The appendix includes a list of 12 objections to getting a visit with a potential buyer and how to overcome them, as well as a variety of sample letters requesting a visit.

Throughout, Panas is clear that a primary success factor for any salesperson is doing your homework. I can’t think of a better way to get started than to add this book to your required reading list.

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
You generally know when you’re in the presence of an original mind, and that is the case with Ben Marcus, who has written a post-apocalyptic horror story about a contagion that makes children’s voices fatal to adults.

The narrator, Sam, struggles with his love for his wife, Claire, wasting away before the onslaught of their daughter Esther’s words; wrestles with his limited understanding of the toxicity and clings to a desperate hope that science, medicine, the authorities, someone, will figure out a cure.

“All the guidance I knew was written for unexceptional times,” he admits.

Most of all, Sam struggles with faith: “One’s faith was meant to yield actionable material at times like this, I always thought, when one’s own imagination had failed, when nothing seemed possible. Wasn’t this why we accommodated an otherwise highly irrational set of beliefs?”

Horror begets tragedy as dying parents begin abandoning their toxic offspring, who seem to be “launching ammunition” from their faces. Tragedy begets more horror as children are first “voluntarily quarantined” and, later, branded “medical waste,” rounded up and imprisoned, until adolescence makes them susceptible to the voices of the young, too. And there is still more horror to come.

Reading this story is, as a friend once said about Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “unrelenting.” Yet there’s beauty in the writing and twisted insight in the creation of this world and the enormity of the loss – of loved ones, knowledge, sharing, thought – that it endures.

“It was early December. Year of the sewn-up mouth. The last December of speech. If you were not a child, safely blanketed in quarantine, bleating poison from your little red mouth, you were one of us. But to be one of us was to be something so small and quiet, you may as well have been nothing. If we had last messages, we’d crafted them already, stuffed them in bottles, shoes, shot them out to sea. Words written for no one, never to be read.”

“This is a plague among cavemen,” another character warns Sam, “and soon we’ll only be grunting to each other about it.”

I felt a bit of a caveman reading this. Whether it was my lack of knowledge about the Bible and religious practices and stories or the author’s vagueness about this world that seems a lot like ours yet veers slightly from our present-day experience. Some scenes repeat, sections go on longer than they need to, there seems to be a Chuck Palahnuik-like need to design technological objects with flesh-and-blood components – it is not an easy read. I’ll warn you: I like dystopias, but I’m not a fan of horror, and this novel, with its allusions to pogroms and concentration camps and its direct use of the Jewish faith, driven underground and blamed for the outbreak, made me queasy.

But on the whole, it is, as Michael Chabon says in his book jacket blurb, “something new and unheard of.” If you’re looking for a challenging read, Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet is it.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
How fitting to end my reading challenge as it began: with a book recommended by my Brazilian friends. And The Lost City of Z was equally as exciting as Equator.

How did I not know this astounding tale of adventurer Percy Fawcett?

Fawcett is to the Amazon what T.E. Lawrence was to the desert peoples of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. He is largely responsible, in his work for the Royal Geographic Society at the turn of the last century, for mapping the territory between Bolivia and Brazil and presenting a more up-to-date view of the Amazon, its indigenous people and its ecosystem.

View of Amazon basin forest north of Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Phil P. Harris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

View of Amazon basin forest north of Manaus, Brazil. Photo by Phil P. Harris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the early 1900s, the prevailing view of the Amazon was that small tribes clustered around the Amazon River and its tributaries, relying on it for food and supplies from colonial outposts. Fawcett believed a once-great civilization had populated the interior, away from the rivers. He wove tales akin to those about El Dorado, painting a picture of a city dripping with gold, abundant in food, rich in culture. Most people thought he was nuts.

Scraping by – funds for exploration were far easier to put together for the more romantic Antarctic explorations of the era – Fawcett still managed six expeditions before his final, fatal one.

One of his best attributes was a willingness to learn as much of the Amazon Indians’ dialect – and inquire about the languages used deeper in the rainforest, in areas he wanted to venture – and a fierce moral code that made him insist upon meeting new tribes without his weapons (at a time when most white Amazon explorers turned guns on the Indians as a show of force).

As a result, Fawcett trekked farther into the Amazon than any explorer before, mapping the landscape and bringing back scientific knowledge to a world eager to learn about this wild land with 20-foot snakes, crocodiles and strangling vines.

“Fawcett’s ability to succeed where so many others failed contributed to a growing myth of his invincibility, which he himself began to believe,” author David Grann notes.

Fawcett and his eldest son disappeared on a 1925 trek into the heart of darkness, leaving his widow and their two younger children in poverty. Yet the mystery – the Fawcett party’s remains have never been located – sparked a century-long quest by thrill-seekers (known as “Fawcett freaks”) determined to find out what happened and locate Fawcett’s so-called Lost City of Z.

“Despite the passage of time and the diminished likelihood of finding him, some people seemed to grow more rather than less fanatical,” Grann writes. “For decades, they had pestered the Society for information, concocting their own bizarre theories, before setting out into the wilderness to effectively commit suicide.”

Grann is one of those drawn to retracing Fawcett’s final steps, despite the fact that he estimates almost 100 explorers have lost their lives over the years.

I won’t spoil the ending for you because Grann’s journey is as thrillingly recounted as the best adventure stories, like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm. Along the way, he discusses both the history and the current state of the precarious Amazon territory. He also restores Fawcett’s rightful position as a modern-day Byrd, Livingstone and Shackleton.

It’s a hard irony that Fawcett’s vanishing may have done more to revive interest – scientific, ecological, anthropological – in the Amazon than his mapping expeditions. Late in the story, a scientist tells Grann that, “like the theory of who first populated the Americas, all the traditional paradigms had to be reevaluated,” including whether a wondrous ancient city like Z might once have thrived deep in the jungle.

A fantastic adventure, made all the more thrilling for being true.

Happy 2013!

Dressed up for the holidays: Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Dressed up for the holidays: Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Photo by Vickie Bates.

A hearty Thank You to everyone who visited this blog in 2012 – your comments, emails and encouragement have made this a joyous conversation.

Wishing you all good things in the new year, especially with your writing. I hope you enjoy 12 inspired months that make your heart soar.

Lest you think 2013 is a harbinger of bad luck, consider all the wonderful books published in 1913, including:

  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • In Search of Lost Time, Vol. 1 by Marcel Proust
  • O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
  • Roughing It by Mark Twain
  • The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

If I were undertaking a reading challenge in the new year, that might be a great list to start with, along with 1913 poetry collections by Wordsworth and Shelley and adventure stories from the pens of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and L. Frank Baum.

Also appearing 100 years ago were two Bobbsey Twins’ Mysteries and even an account by a Titanic survivor. (If you’re curious, check out a list of 200 books published in 1913 on Goodreads.)

May 2013 be just as prodigious for 21st century authors.

Happy New Year!

Tis the Season to Plan Your Awards Submissions

Dear fellow communicators, PR people and marketers:

I’m sure visions of a holiday break are dancing in your head right about now. You’re swamped with year-end reviews, next year’s budget, holiday parties, and what to give your administrative assistant so she or he will put up with you for the next 365 days.

If you’re feeling especially spent, perhaps it’s because you did such stellar work in 2012. That means now is exactly the right time to start thinking about how those programs might be recognized by the industry.

Give your work a fighting chance. Make sure you’ve got all the supporting materials your entry needs to make it awardable by checking out these helpful, tip-heavy posts.

To get yourself going, I highly recommend reading them in the order presented here:

Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work
Getting yourself prepared, reviewing award-worthy work, filling in missing metrics and feedback, taking a hard look at whether your program stands a chance.

Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season
Writing tips and a section-by-section view of standard entry forms, guiding you on what you need to write to support your program effectively. Includes link for a FREE worksheet to help you organize your entry, showing the judges clear connections between research, objectives, tactics and results.

And for writers:

Writing Your Writing Award Entry
Make the most of your writing talents to highlight the key program areas judges want to see in your entry.

Additional Resources

IABC Gold Quill Awards offers you tips for writing an effective entry, shares the judging score sheet and provides a download of their webinar, “The Midas Touch,” with advice on completing an effective entry.

Early deadline for the Gold Quill Awards is Jan. 31, with final deadline March 5, 2013.

PRSA Silver and Bronze Anvil Awards provides the excellent “Anvil Thinking” video, featuring judges discussing what it takes to win one of these prestigious awards.

Early deadline for the Silver Anvil Awards is Feb. 8, with final deadline Feb. 22, 2013.

The Print-Digital Divide, Part Two


Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” a book with heft. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Two friends walk into a bookstore. One clutches a digital reader to his chest and rhapsodizes that it’s changed the way he reads forever. His buddy ignores the techno-wizardry on display and heads straight for the shelves, breathing in the intoxicating combination of paper and ink, cracking the spine, and enjoying the heft of a printed book in his hands.

They might as well be carrying different banners – Romulan versus Federation, House Stark instead of House Lannister, Red Sox versus Yankees, Beatles or Rolling Stones, Ahab and the White Whale.

Sterile vs. Visceral

In Part One of this discussion of ebooks vs. print books, I mentioned I’d laughed when a digital advocate derided book-lovers for going on and on and on about the smell of books. I get the joke. The smell isn’t really what makes a book a book or what gives us joy from books. And when we print fans talk like that we have a tendency to sound as tweedy as Giles when he asks Willow to “wrest some information from that dreaded machine.” (Although he does make an excellent case that “if it’s to last, the getting of knowledge should be smelly.”)

Critic and essayist Joe Queenan counts himself among the book-sniffers. In a beautiful paean to the printed word, “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” Queenan argues, “People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel.”

“My philosophy is simple,” he continues. “Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.”

I find Queenan’s essay eloquent, but I also can’t disagree with “The Medium Is the Message,” a recent article in Poets & Writers, which notes that “for the past five hundred years or so we’ve generally accepted a single version of what a book is, what it looks like, and how it is consumed.”

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, we read scrolls, painted on cave walls and told stories around the fire. Technology has always transformed human stories. Ebooks are just the latest blip on the continuum of our history as story-consumers.


This is where ebooks have print books beat hands-down. Virtually all of the digital publishers are undercutting the pricing of new hardcovers and eating into the market for new-release paperbacks, too.

All well and good, you may think. But the cost of books isn’t entirely the result of the real-world materials that go into creating them. It covers marketing, certainly, but also the salaries of editors and other staff at the publishing house who nurture manuscripts and authors alike as a book goes through months of edits and rewrites.

“We’re not talking about that anymore,” noted Samantha Dunn, one of the writers on the Digital Publishing panel at the WeHo Book Fair. “Those traditional hurdles to publishing: getting an agent to fall in love with you and your book. Finding an editor to work with.”

Carolyn Kellogg, Samantha Dunn, Anna David and Dan Smetanka speak at the Digital Publishing panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair.

What she’s referencing is the price of quality. Editors push writers in ways writers can’t push themselves – editors are there to spot plot holes, poorly written sections, superficial characters, and they help writers clean up those problems to achieve more masterful prose.

With 211,000 self-published titles in 2011 (and just as many print books published through traditional means), how do you find books that are well-written, well-edited and worth your time?

Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times was very clear during that panel discussion that traditional critics won’t touch self-published books – there are too many and critics don’t have time. So who helps you sort the great from the dreck?

Now your mileage may vary, but my personal choice is to rely on traditional publishing houses, traditional marketing and the critical review process. My time is valuable. I don’t have hours to dedicate to poring over hundreds of thousands of links in an electronic database, trying to figure out what might have the potential to be decent. And when I do have a spare moment to read, I want to spend it on the good stuff, not mentally copyediting and grammar-checking sloppy prose. I do enough of that at work.


There are very cool things happening in ebooks. Because devices connect to the Internet, readers can follow links from the text, hear a song that a character is listening to in a story, play with interactive treasure maps, or engage in social reading by viewing the parts of a story that other readers have already highlighted.

In that P&W article, Di Blasi talks about the fact that Jaded Ibis “publishes each of its titles in four editions: as an e-book, a black-and-white paperback, a full-color paperback, and a special edition, which can range in form from a snow globe filled with the words of a novel to a book including a page of sealed mud to…clay tablets.”

She predicts gaming-based novels will supersede literary fiction, noting that her company already publishes an app-novel that looks different each time it loads.

“The probability of coming across a page illustrated in the same way you’ve seen before is close to one in 350 million,” she claims.

That’s great news for people who want those experiences – all of which sound fantastically fun and interactive. But, let’s be clear about our terms: these aren’t books, they’re book art and they’re book apps.

And there is a difference.

Neuroscientists are starting to explore the way the brain experiences reading. Early experiments show profound differences between deep and distracted reading. There’s no two ways about it, when you click a link and leave the story, when you allow technology to play a song rather than using your imagination to bring it to life, you’re engaged in distracted reading.

One study suggests that deep reading activates the brain more globally and involves the regions responsible for “movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.”

If you’re an avid book reader, you have no trouble recognizing this state of mind – it’s enchantment. You’re literally held in a trance by story because you’re so deeply engaged.

I think understanding these differences is important because it allows you to choose the kind of experience you want, or even need, to have. If you’re reading something that involves a lot of new vocabulary or industry jargon, it’s immensely helpful to be able to tap a word and be taken to a definition – the speed of ebooks enables this quickly, so you can incorporate what you’ve learned back into the flow of the paragraph.

If you’ve just bought the latest Nick Harkaway novel, you may prefer enchantment, as the author creates a vivid and fantastical world for you to get lost in.

More important, to my mind, than which medium you choose is the fact that you have choices.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Publisher Dan Smetanka made the point during the WeHo Book Fair that different people read for very different reasons, and they also have differing preferences for the form that reading takes. Smetanka said he believed all sorts of media should be available to meet everyone’s needs.

Marc Hirsh’s excellent essay, “The Critical Tyranny of ‘You’re Doing It Wrong,’” on NPR’s Monkey See blog, strikes a similar vein.

“The reason You’re Doing It Wrong is troublesome,” writes Hirsh, “lies in its tyrannical underpinning, dictating the way popular culture must be consumed, often for no reason beyond a belief that the writer is the only one enjoying an experience properly (or even at all)…There’s no acknowledgement that different consumers might have different needs and responses.”

“One important distinction,” Hirsh adds. “You’re Doing It Wrong is different from The Way You’re Doing It Has Consequences. When book-sniffers worry that the medium and experience they love is being threatened with extinction by the advent of e-readers, that’s perfectly valid.”

That’s pretty much where I net out. Even though my personal choice remains old-fashioned print books, I’m perfectly happy if you love your Kindle/iPad/Nook/Surface/Tricorder. The advent (and the advocates) of ebooks shouldn’t demand the extinction of print books. Ebooks and print books are not the same thing – the new version doesn’t preclude the existence of the old one, the way advances in microchips make old processers obsolete.

So let’s agree to get along and not knock anyone who’s enjoying the wonders of reading, no matter how they do it. There are bigger battles to focus our collective energy on – literacy and supporting libraries (whether electronic or brick) and fighting censorship – than what or how people are reading.

Related posts:

The Print-Digital Divide: Are You Taking a Side? (Part One of this series)
Is Digital the Future of Publishing?

The Print-Digital Divide: Are You Choosing a Side?

What is it about ebooks that’s so contentious? How can they send some people into rhapsodies that used to be reserved for TiVo, while others claim they’re a sign of the impending apocalypse?

Whether you’re an avid reader or a writer, you surely know this battleground, perhaps have claimed one camp over the other. Maybe you’re with the guy who said his brain would explode if he had to listen to book-lovers extol the smell of musty old tomes one more time. (Which cracked me up despite the fact that I’ve made that argument more than once or thrice.)

Superhero Vela Kurv. Image by Victor Ishimura. All rights owned by Riley Rose.

At the West Hollywood Book Fair, I sat next to a good friend at the Digital Publishing panel, and the two of us couldn’t have been further apart. Riley Rose owns several e-readers, loves them, and has published her own series of sci-fi, action-adventure ebooks, Vela Kurv, on Amazon’s Createspace, Smashwords and Lulu. Rose could anchor a panel on ebook publishing, navigating the myriad options and publishers, and how to handle the technical aspects, including promotion. She practically did after the panel, when she was deluged with questions from the audience.

Thinking about our divided opinions made me want to explore both sides further. What I discovered – after a lot of reading and research – is that the pros and the cons of ebooks are not nearly as easily defined as each side would like to think.

Small Presses & Self-publication

The head of Jaded Ibis publishing, Debra Di Blasi, in the latest issue of Poets & Writers, says she founded her company because books by innovative writers “were deemed unmarketable” by traditional houses.

Note she’s not talking about books that aren’t good. What she’s lamenting is that many traditional publishers, operating on slim margins, find it next to impossible to take on books that appeal to smaller, or niche, audiences.

Di Blasi is able to pay her authors a percentage that’s far higher than most big publishing companies: “at least 40 percent of net royalties,” according to Poets & Writers.

For both these reasons – the ability to tell different kinds of stories with unique characters and the potential for greater control and returns – many authors are choosing to self-publish rather than engage even the boutique publishing firms.

Like my friend, Riley Rose, who created a nontraditional sci-fi heroine – Vela Kurv is a woman of color of Amazonian proportions – tens of thousands of authors took to self-publishing their books last year.

Ebooks offer these writers far more options at better margins than going the print-self-publishing route. Plus, the technology allows unique ways to market these books to audiences that might never come across them otherwise. In the past, Rose has been able to provide potential readers with a free download sample of her Vela Kurv series. Through Dec. 31, 2012, she’s offering a coupon for a discount at purchase from Smashwords, which I’m pleased to pass along to you:

Vela Kurv Legacy Series, Part I (Smashwords BYCAB Edition – The Scintillate Seed to Vela Kurv) Your coupon code is NL99M (not case-sensitive).

Vela Kurv Legacy Series, Part II (Smashword BYCAB Edition – The Wiles of Vela Kurv) Your coupon code is XA58Q (not case-sensitive).

(Per the FTC, this is not a paid endorsement. It’s a friend-endorsement.)

Try arranging something like this with a print book, print sample chapter and a printed coupon in a bookstore…

What’s lovely about the existence of ebook publishing is that it makes the storytelling community more vital for everyone – readers and writers, alike – simply by offering more options.


This one’s a no-brainer – you can add more books without lugging around more weight. This is why ebook readers are great for commuters, travelers and parents of cranky toddlers. Forgot to bring a book? Just download one.

A device would’ve come in handy when I was touring the Greek islands a couple of years ago. I finished the books I’d packed long before we reached our final destination of Santorini. Once you’re ferrying between islands on the Aegean Sea, there aren’t a lot of shops that carry English-language books – and the ones that do charge a hefty price in euros. I think I wound up paying €17 for a paperback of Dexter by Design.

There’s just one tiny, little problem (which, admittedly, only happens occasionally)…


Sunset over Santorini in the Aegean Sea. Photo by Vickie Bates.

If you can’t power your device or find network access, then you are truly stuck. Not only do you not have something to read, all those apps and games and emails you planned to have fun with? It’s Game Over there, too. You’ll be just like me, wandering around Santorini, willing to pay anything for something to read.

On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than wanting to read a new book right now and having to wait for a bookstore or library to open and then discovering they don’t have it.

With ebooks, if you devoured The Hunger Games and love-love-loved it, you can download Catching Fire and dive right back in to the world and characters created by author Suzanne Collins. You just finished Pride and Prejudice and you’re wondering why it took you so long to discover Jane Austen? Click on Sense and Sensibility or Emma or check out her unfinished works, and you’ll be transported back to her world within seconds.


I feel like Bill Maher saying this, but: Stop pretending a downside is a feature, people!

At the end of the day, an e-reader is yet another screen glaring back at you – just like your computer, laptop, tablet, phone and TV. Don’t you get enough of this? When you go to bed at night and close your eyes, what image does your retina retain on the inside of your eyelids? Let me guess: It’s a dark rectangle with a glowing screen in the middle.

Books don’t need special backlights. You can read them in the sun, you can read them indoors, you can read them at night, you can read them under a lamp, by candle or flashlight. Five hundred years of engineering has gone into optimizing the perfect “device” for reading: It’s called a book.

Early Adoption

The thrill of early adoption is that you get your hands on new stuff that (you hope) does new things in a new way. The downside is that you wind up like a TiVo fanatic: you pay an exorbitant fee for something – like a DVR – that now comes free or at greatly reduced cost. (And in order to justify the expensive outlay, you wind up blathering about it to all and sundry, like a walking advertisement.)

Getting too attached to the latest whiz-bang, backlit reading device comes with a downside. It may not be around for long.

It took 20 years to get from the “Star Trek” tricorder to the first commercial tablets; another 10 for Apple to introduce the Newton; and 14 more for the first Kindle to arrive. All sorts of advances in technology may change ebooks and the digital reading experience in ways even Gene Roddenberry couldn’t have dreamed of.

Google already is working on creating the smartphone/tablet experience in glasses – maybe you’ll be reading novels that way in the not-so-distant future. Or, better yet, perhaps there’ll be a 4D experience that takes anything you want to consume – TV show, movie, concert, class, book – and projects it precisely where you want it to be, at any distance or angle that you desire, while you do the dishes, tuck in a child at night, or lounge in bed. Perhaps it’ll even flip pages or channels based on your eye movements.

– – – –

When I started writing this piece, I honestly thought I knew how it would end, that my arguments for print books would win out over ebooks. But, in researching the subject, I find it more nuanced than good/bad or new/old. It’s turned into more of an exploration than a debate, for me. And it’s grown much longer than I expected. In Part Two, I’ll look at pricing, multimedia, deep versus distracted reading, and more.

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think about ebooks and print books, which reader you prefer (or not), and what you predict the future of reading might hold.