Sunday, September 25, 2016

Book Signing Success!

Well, Saturday's book signing at B&N SouthPointe was by all accounts a great success: Lots of people showed up (including my longtime buddies, Bert and Sarah, who flew all the way from Sacramento! [Knowing Bert as I do, this is the point at which he would insert, "And boy, were our arms tired!" Thank you, Bert. You may sit down now.]), many books were sold, most of the people laughed at most of the jokes, andvery importantlyno babies cried or threw up on their parents. (Or if they did, they did it very quietly, which I'm sure we all appreciated.)

I saw several people I hadn't seen for ages, some neighbors that I figured would have had better things to do on a football Saturday (admittedly, the gamesorry, The Gamewasn't until later that day), and a bunch of great folks from work who ventured out on a rainy day. Thank you all.

Again, I have to thank Jen Jackson, B&N's Community Business Development Manager. She works tirelessly on behalf of all the authors she hosts, making sure that there are plenty of books, signage, media coverage, and the whole bit. And that's just one of her many jobs! (In my case, she and my wife and the café staff also made sure we had plenty of cookieswhich we all know is what really convinced people to come out. As I told them during the Q&A, I've now learned two things: The first is that it pays to bribe people to come out, and the second is that my friends apparently bribe pretty cheaply. Always good to know that about one's friends.)

Of course, in addition to Jen and all of people who showed up for the signing, I also have to thank Lesley, my wife and one-woman marketing department. Her support has been and continues to be awesomeand she's so much better at that marketing stuff than I am. Also, she's much better looking. 

I'm not going to list all of the attendees here, but please know that I truly appreciate your coming out and spending a chunk of your Saturday afternoon with me. And I also appreciate your buying all of those books! (You should keep doing that. The holiday season is coming up, after all; you'll probably want a case or twoI'm sure they'll make great gifts.)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Book Signings: Not For The Faint Of Heart

I'm about to do a book signing for Leveling the Playing Field (why, yes, you're invited!), so I've been doing some thinking about book signings in general.

First, they're risky. Especially if you're the only author at the signing (sometimes multiple authors will set up at a bookstore for a "local authors" signing), it can be very embarrassing (not to mention boring) if no one shows up and you're just sitting there, all by yourself at your little table, surrounded by stacks of the book on which you've labored so hard and for so long. There you are, sitting with your lonely, pitiful piles of books, listening to the sound of crickets. Occasionally a tumbleweed rolls by. A rusted metal sign hangs by one corner, rattling and clanking, swinging in the cold wind that sweeps down the muddy street. No, wait! That was a movie I saw a few years ago. Still, you get the idea. It's no fun having quite literally put yourself out there, only to find out that no one cares.

That's actually only happened to me once, and I wasn't alone. Ted Kooser and I did a signing back in 2009. I was hawking a book I had recently annotated, Sailing Alone Around the World, and Ted, naturally enough, was promoting a new book of his beautiful poetry. (Yes, you should check out Ted's poetry. He's awesome! There's a reason he became Poet Laureate of the United States.) The thing is, neither one of us was attracting much attention. I might have spoken to two or three people and signed perhaps one book. Ted spoke to five or six or so, and sold a couple of books. Mainly, we stood around for two hours and drank coffee while Ted told jokes, several of which were what would have been described in a more genteel time as "slightly off color." 

In the end, though, Ted got to go home and relax in a nice leather chair and look at his Pulitzer Prize on the mantle. I went home and sat on the floor with the dog and looked at my 8th-grade dodgeball trophy. I'm sure the experience was essentially the same for both of us, and I happen to know that the dog was quite impressed with my dodgeball trophy.

Now, the first signing I did for Sailing Alone was actually quite well attended, partly because it was a "local authors" event, so there were several of us there. We all sat at little tables arranged in a line that stretched from me at the front to Tosca Lee at the rear. (Tosca was signing copies of Havah, I think.) Many of the people who walked past me were on their way to see Tosca, for several excellent reasons: First, Tosca is truly a wonderful writer, a NYT bestselling author who weaves historical thrillers that are almost magical in their ability to transport a reader to another place and time. Also, she happens to be much better looking than I. And finally, she had brought cookies to the signing. Cookies!! Why didn't I think of that?! I like to think it was the cookies that attracted so many people to her table. Still, in order to get to Tosca's table, they had to walk past mine! So, marketing/sales whiz that I am, as every single person passed, I stiffened my resolve, locked eyes with the floor, and mumbled, "So, you probably don't want one of these books, do you? No, I didn't think so, OK, thanks anyway. Yes <sigh>, Tosca is back this way, behind that crowd of milling people and the heaping mounds of cookies." Nonetheless, I sold and signed a lot of books that day, so I'm not complaining. Also, I got a cookie.

People have the wrong idea about what goes into a signing and how much help writers get from their publishers, so I'll tell you: very little. Unless you're a big-time author, the publisher doesn't help muchand really doesn't look at a signing as a terribly effective marketing tool. So, not much assistance there. If you're lucky, the publisher will send some extra books, maybe print off some flyers for you, and possibly note the signing on their Facebook wall or website. So when you see authors doing a signing, unless they're big names, they're pretty much there on their own; if they traveled to get to the signing, they probably did so on their own dime.

Now, the person who really does help at a bookstore signing is the store's Community Business Development Manager. At the SouthPointe Barnes & Noble, that's Jennifer Jackson, and she works incredibly hard to arrange, organize, and put on book signings, plus she works with educators, libraries, media, and more. Writers who do signings owe Jen and her counterparts at other stores a huge debt of gratitude. Without them, we'd be itinerant booksellers, pushing little carts around downtown, hawking books at passersby. Like those corner hot dog carts we love, but not nearly as tasty. (And with ours, instead of condiments, you'd get little packets of metaphor.)

So, in the end, a signing is a scary beast. The writers are out there naked to the world. (Not literally. It's a metaphor; I got it from one of those packets.) Whatever we've createda novel, a children's book, a biography, or whateveris sitting out there on that little table, ready to be judged by . . . well, everyone who walks past. (And the fact that they walk past is in itself a form of judgment.) One of the reasons that's scary is that I really think that most writers are somewhat introverted, and many of us are uncomfortable with self-promotion; we're good writersor so we hopebut most of us are not terribly good salespeople. In fact, I think I was brought up to believe that self-promotion was somehow . . . unseemly, that it was not the gentlemanly thing to do. Luckily I'm friends with a large number of exceedingly ungentlemanly people who are quite good at helping me sell my books, and very effective at encouraging me to take on those marketing tasks with which I am somewhat uncomfortable.

The bottom line is that we love it when people stop by a book signing, even if they don't plan to buy a book or even if they already have a signed book. So if you have a chance, do drop by the signing next Saturday, September 24th, at the SouthPointe Barnes and Noble, at 2:00 p.m. (That's the same day as the Lincoln Arts Festival, so come earlyor stay late and make an afternoon of it!) I'll do a short Q&A or reading, and then I'll sign books or newsletters or pamphletsbasically, whatever you hand me, I'll sign. Yes, there will be cookies.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Internet: Making Smart People Do Stupid Things Since 1590

Let me tell you a very sad story. (You'll probably need some tissues. I can wait while you get some.... Ready? OK.)

Nichol, a Frenchman stuck in a Spanish prison, has very little time left. He is dying, and the bad food and damp, dank air in the prison are contributing to his ill health and hastening his impending end. He knows he will soon die, but he has something very important to do: He must save his daughter. With Nichol gone, sweet, innocent Mary, only 17 years old, will be destitute. But Nichol has a trick up his ragged sleeve: He has bribed a jailer to deliver a letter to Mr. Fitch, a man of wealth and power who lives in America. The letter notes that Nichol has access to vast sums of money, or would if he were free. The money is in fact hidden not far from where Fitch resides, because Nichol himself, on a previous visit to America, buried the funds in a forest near Fitch's home town. He can direct Mr. Fitch to the money if Fitch will pay Mary's passage to America and then agree to raise the young woman as his ward. Nichol may well die, but at least his fortune and his daughter will be safe.

A real news report about an actual airline disaster, which
a scammer will now attempt to use as part of an advance
fee fraud.
Of course, the saddest thing about this story is the fact that so many people believed it and sent money to Spain so that Mary could live happy and free(And so that they could pocket Nichol's fortune after his demise.) In other words, it was a con. A fraud. A swindle. 

If the con sounds familiar, it's because there truly is nothing new under the sun. This is called an "advance fee" fraud, because the victim is asked to pay a relatively small fee in advance of receiving a much larger payment. Of course, that larger payment never shows up.

This is perhaps the most direct ancestor of such modern advance fee frauds as the so-called Nigerian scam: swindles in which a mark is persuaded to pay various "fees," "insurance," or "taxes" ahead of receiving his share of some enormous fortune. Some versions of the scam may involve checks being delivered to the victim, out of which he is supposed to pay certain fees, taxes, or shipping costs by forwarding a percentage of the received monies to a "government official" or "shipping" company. Of course, the check is bogus; the "shipping company" is in fact the scammer himself, and when all is said and done, the victim is on the hook to the bank, having deposited a bad check into his account and sent his own money to the scammer.

I received this excellent example of an advance fee
fraud attempt on the very day I was writing this post.
Note that the fraudster directs the recipient to a report
of an actual airliner crash (see image above) as a way
of adding a touch of verisimilitude.
There is almost no end to the types of advance fee frauds one might encounter: work-at-home schemes, model and escort agency dodges, employment frauds, cash handling (read: money laundering) cons, lottery scams, and Craigslist ruses in which someone selling legitimate goods is sent a fake check for more than the selling price, with the extra to be wired to a third party. (Once again, the check is bad, and the seller is on the hook for the check and any "purchased" goods he may have already shipped to the scammer.)

There's also almost no end to how much the scammer will attempt to bleed the mark. Once you pay the initial fees, you've established yourself as the type of person a scammer loves most: gullible and affluent. The next step, of course, is to inform you that more fees are due or that some other issue has arisen that requires more funds. This will continue until the mark is bled dry or finally realizes that he's being scammed.

But let's not blame the Internet, because all of this really has little to do with technology, and much to do with the nature of people. We're greedy, and we like to think that we can get something for nothing. We can't. But we never stop trying: This sort of fraud (known during the 19th century as "the Spanish prisoner con") has been going on since the 16th century, and there's no reason to believe that it will ever stop. 

Still, the Internet does help the scammer: Digital communications make it much easier to scam more people more quickly. (Let's hear it for efficiency!) After all, it costs the scammer almost nothing to send out hundreds of scam emails. If the return is very, very small, it doesn't matter, because it didn't really cost him anything. 

Not only that, but the scam quickly becomes self-selecting: The scammers want the smart people, the ones who are a bit wary, to pass on the scam as quickly as possible, because those are the people who would wise up before the scam was successful. The scammers would end up wasting time trying to convince someone who is already wise to the con, so they'd just as soon those people immediately delete the initial scam emails. What's left? Gullible people. Greedy people. Folks who are desperate to make a quick fortune. Those are the ones they can string along for weeks or months, the whole time siphoning off funds that the victims probably can't afford to lose.

And, believe it or not, advance fee scammers do make money. A lot of money: According to Ultrascan, a group of Dutch fraud investigators, $12.3 billion was lost to the con globally in 2013. This is, after all, why the scam is still with us: Dating back to the late 1500s, it's almost literally "the oldest trick in the book," but it still works.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Yep, Your Mom Was Right. Again.

A while back I received a nice, chatty Facebook message from my good friend LaWanda, to whom I’ve not actually spoken face-to-face in several years. (I've changed the name to protect the innocentalso because I really like the name LaWanda.) I worked with the woman a few years back, and we've stayed in touch, more or less, via FB. I get to hear all about (and see photos of) her kids and grandkids and granddogs and new bathroom tile and incredibly intelligent houseplants and the like, and she gets to hear all about . . . well, mostly about my book and occasionally about my incredibly intelligent granddaughter. (But, see, my granddaughter really is incredibly intelligent. And beautiful. Also, if she’s reading this, she should CLEAN HER ROOM!)

Anyway, LaWanda was just "checking in" to see how I was doing. And I thought, "Well, how nice!! This woman not only remembers me, but actually cares how I'm doing. Man, I must be a whole lot more personable than I thought!"

But it turns out that I'm not personable at all. My “friend” jumped right from "checking in" into wanting to know if I'd heard her good newswhich turned out to be that she had won some sort of multi-thousand dollar lottery prize, using secrets that she was willing to share with me. Because I'm just so damned personable.

So, you know where this is going . . . .  When I received the second message, I realized that someone was trying to scam me. And I also remembered that a few weeks before this, I had accepted a "friend" request from LaWanda, even though we were already friends. I would like to say that I accepted the duplicate request because I had thought about it and assumed that for some reason she had had to start a new FB account, but in truth, I'm just old and forgetful, and I can barely remember the name of my dog. (It's "Annie,” OK? The dog's name is "Annie." I'm just making a point here; work with me, alright?) Basically, I was on automatic pilot and didn't give it much thought; I knew LaWanda, and that was good enough for me. Click.

Annie, protecting us from the evil squirrels.
Dumb. But smart enough not to let it go any further, and awake enough to warn the other people (there were only a few, which was a giveaway in itself) on the fake LaWanda's "friends" list that they (and I) had "friended" a fake LaWanda.

This sort of fakery (I almost typed something else there) has been going on for a while now. Facebook is terrible at policing itself and watching for this sort of thing. There are tons of scams littering everyone's favorite social network. Almost any time you see something like, "How many likes can we get for poor Fred here?" it's a scam of some sort. Poor Fred is almost certainly not stuck in some cancer or burn ward in a faraway hospital. (And if he were, your "likes" wouldn't help him. Also, his name's probably not Fred.) And you’re not going to get cheap Ray-Ban sunglasses, either. (You'll get cheesy knockoffs, if you get anything.) You’re also not going to win a red or blue Camaro, a Land Rover or Land Cruiser (not that I can ever remember which is which), an all-expenses paid 3-day trip to a tropical (or any) island, a classic 1970 Dodge Charger (though I would really, really like one of those), or a fancy motorhome. Nor are you going to win that free cross country flight on South West Airlines; the airline does not spell its name that way and its website is not at or, or any of a dozen other almost correct URLs.

Most of these things are either like-farming or survey scams. In a like-farming scam, the crook really just wants to collect as many "likes" and "shares" as he can, so that he can turn around and sell his “high volume” page to other scammers who will use it to do even worse things. 

Yeah, you're not gonna win this (or any) Dodge
Charger. Sorry. Image courtesy of Brett
One of those “worse things” is a survey scam. This is a swindle in which you’re offered something very, very cool (a free MacBook, for instance, or a nice camera) and All you have to do is Like and Share our page!! Except that, really, you’re just going to get sucked into a series of online “confirmation forms” and surveys, and when you get finished there will not be a free MacBook waiting for you. Get it? There is NEVER going to be a free MacBook. Or a free anything, even after you jump through all the hoops. The scammer is trying to collect as much info about you as he can so that he can sell that data to other scammers (or possibly use it himself to steal your identity), and while he’s at it, he gets paid for every dumb “survey” you fill out. (You might also find out that you’ve just signed up for expensive messaging services, etc.)

In other words, the Internet is full of lies. And liars. Which is too bad, because there really is some kid in a burn ward or cancer ward somewhere, and that kid really does deserve our "likes" and maybe even our money, but it's almost impossible to figure out which one of the FB posts about him is legit.

All of this boils down to, “Mom was right.” If something sounds too good to be true, guess what? It’s not true. (Mom is almost always right. She’s the mom, after all.)

Trust Mom. (And also and 

NEXT WEEK: The Internet: Making smart people do stupid things since 1590.