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Friday, January 29, 2010

iWipe

Immediately after Apple's recent announcement about their new iPad product, the jokes began to fly about how it sounded like a feminine hygiene product.

My friend Cataldo, who regularly makes hilarious and astute observations, updated his Facebook status to "Apple could release toilet paper (the iWipe or something more crass), and people will still go nuts over it."

Cat, of course, inspired some deeper thought in me with that one.

I mean, just imagine it. It WOULD be the world's best toilet paper, wouldn't it? Just look at all the other great novelty toilet paper that's already available. Here's a new market Apple could revolutionize.

Have you ever been stuck in the washroom for long periods of time without anything to read? The iWipe could solve those problems, using e-ink technologies built into soft and fluffy toilet paper, you could either read a book, or perhaps watch a movie without having to leave the john.

Or, if you had to run to the washroom while in the middle of watching a television program, you could simply start watching a live television stream of the show on your iWipe.

Of course, if the book, movie or program you're watching is substandard in any way, you'd have no reservations about wiping your butt with it . . . (and, of course, offering Apple another great way of generating more revenue with their built in "user rating" system that they'd sell to the folks at Neilsen)


(* Novelty toilet paper image is from www.justtoiletpaper.com)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Mark Radio

The Mark Radio's pilot episode, featuring host Chris Mitchell, talks with Shelley Hornstein about the decade's best buildings, Tyler Levine about the decades best movies and me about the decade's best books (well, the best of each according to the 3 of us)

One of the things Chris asked me about was my vision of whether or not books would be around in fifty years. I had a fun conversation with him (this took place back in the last week of December 2009 I believe) and sections of our conversation appear in the last third of this podcast, which you can listen to online.

The Mark Radio is part of The Mark News, where I write the occasional article about books and publishing.

HNT - Hunting Through Memories

My cousin Vicki is the inspiration behind this week's HNT post. She recently posted some old pictures of our fathers on a hunting trip many years ago on Facebook (possibly when our fathers where about the same age we are now -- how frightening is that?)

Uncle Leslie, Mr. Armstrong, Gerry Mallow, Uncle Pete, Dad


Seeing pictures of my Dad out hunting reminds me of one of the last hunting trips I went on with him.

He and my cousin Rodney were in a cabin on Manitoulin Island for deer hunting one November. I joined them for several days as I wanted to get away and focus on working on the latest draft of my novel. Yes, while they went out during the day with their guns hunting deer, I stayed in the cabin and hunted for the right words to finish work on my book.

It was a great time, and one of the last good times I had with my Dad before he died.

One of the things that was particularly special was the one morning where I shared part of the novel MORNING SON, that I'd been working on, with my dad. It was a scene I'd written based on his own experience of having almost died in his early twenties in a pretty frightening motorcycle accident. When I read the scene to him, (because I wanted some feedback on whether or not I had properly captured the essence of that moment -- I'd read the old court transcripts in which the accident and details were described rather clearly), he had tears in his eyes and told me he was very proud of me.

Even if my novel MORNING SON never gets published, I have this great moment of sharing part of it with my Dad that I'll always cherish.

So for HNT this week, here's a picture my Dad took of me that morning when we'd shared "his story" together.

Then, as you can likely see from this picture, we shared a beer.

God, what I wouldn't give to be able to have just one more beer with my Dad.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

iSpeculate

CBC's The National did a short bit on the speculation surrounding the much anticipated Apple tablet computer which is going to be announced tomorrow.

They popped by Titles Bookstore at McMaster University today to talk with me about the speculation of what this new device might mean in terms of revolutionizing reading.

While on campus at McMaster, they also interviewed new media maven Wayne MacPhail, who lives in the neighbourhood. It was great to briefly chat with Wayne about the speculation and hype surrounding this new product. I always learn something extremely interesting when chatting with or listening to him.

It's an interesting story. If it's still online, you can watch the full 2:40 minute clip here.

Then we can all get back to the hype. Of course, I love Mitch Joel's take on it all.

Kindle Your Chills

In October of 2009, I edited a wonderful anthology of 13 tales of terror set on campuses across Canada and featuring some of the finest writers I've ever had the pleasure of working with. It's called Campus Chills.

The book, produced by the McMaster University, University of Waterloo and University of Alberta bookstores was initially launched on the Espresso Book Machines at these three locations and also made available through a handful of selected retailers across Canada.

And the book continues to sell well at all three locations. But there have been many requests from readers far and wide who are interested in reading this book. And, since the book contains stories by Kelley Armstrong, Julie E. Czerneda, Kimberly Foottit, James Alan Gardner, Sephera Giron, Michael Kelly, Nancy Kilpatrick, Susie Moloney, Douglas Smith, Brit Trogen, Edo van Belkom, Steve Vernon and Carol Weekes, who can blame them.

(And yes, I might be a little biased, by these authors pulled out all the stops when writing tales for this anthology and I am truly impressed with the wonderful diversity and storytelling skill they show in these creepy campus stories -- I'm honoured to be "hanging out" with them by having my name attached to this book.

Thus, the ebook is now available at Amazon in a Kindle version.

And it's DRM-free.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

HNT - Mii Fit

So for Christmas, Santa Claus got me a Wii. (I have a strong suspicion, though, that Francine helped him with picking it out) It has been fun for the whole family to play.

Last week, we purchased the Wii Fit Plus software plus balance board, which comes with a whole slew of fun new activities and games which allow you to measure your weight/BMI, set a workout schedule and track progress towards certain goals.

The Wii Fit is fun and certainly creates a whole new element of motivation -- one of which is the fact that, when you set up a profile, you can pull in your Mii (Nintendo's verson of your own personal digital avatar). Once your Mii is puled in, you answer some basic questions about your height and age, then step onto the balance board and it calculates your weight and BMI.

Of course, your Mii then changes it's breadth to match if you're underweight or overweight.

Here's my plump little guy . . .


Sigh . . . talk about motivation to lose about 20 pounds.

Well, the weight thing might not be flattering, but you have to admit, that wonderful full head of hair on the Mark Mii looks pretty darned good. (Fortunately, there's no way for the system to measure the shine of light off my forehead or the bald spot in back -- whew!)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sigler Does It Again

There he goes, leading the pack when it comes to trying new things. Okay, I'll admit, just because I'm not aware of any other author applications out there (ie, applications that allow a fan to "keep up to date" about a particular writer), doesn't mean they don't exist.

Photo of Scott Sigler by Amy Davis Roth - liberated from Scott's bio page

But, as has often been the case, Scott Sigler is one of the very first, if not the first author out there to have had an iPhone application developed allowing fans to instantly and easily keep track of updates from him. (And again, I should point out that I didn't research this fact very well, but given his track record as a pioneer*, I wouldn't doubt if he's the first author to do this)

Sigler's iPhone Application, which you can find through the iPhone App store, or by clicking here, allows you access to:

1. Automatic updates any time Scott posts a new podcast or video
2. Play them right from your phone or iPod Touch
3. The entire back catalog of Scott Sigler books from Podiobooks.com
4. All the FDO™'s brilliant tweets
5. See all Tweets about the FDO™, no matter who tweets them


You have to admit, it's a pretty cool application for fans.

Going to show you that Sigler is, again, on the cutting edge.

* Yes, let's sum up some of the pioneering trends Sigler was on top of:

Sigler practically re-invented book publishing when, frustrated with being unable to break into publishing the traditional way, he decided to pave his own path. He released his novel EarthCore in 2005 as the world's first "podcast-only" novel in 20 weekly episodes. He continued recording and giving away his unique brand of science-fiction horror thrillers until he amassed a following of thousands of listeners from around the world. (EarthCore apparently had over 10,000 followers and that number continued to grow as each new book was released)

His giant fan base eventually garnered the attention of a smaller Canadian publishing house (Dragon Moon Press) and, using social media to help boost sales of Ancestor (by using his fan base to all buy one of his books at the same day, hitting #2 on Amazon's bestseller list -- Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallow was at #1 at the time -- little chance of ANYONE beating that one at the time) -- Sigler proved you can sky-rocket the Amazon sales listings. Activities like this ended up getting Scott attention in various media outlets, which caught the attention of a New York publishing house, and Crown Publishing released Sigler's hardcover novel Infected, in 2008. The sequel, Contagious, also in hardcover, was released in 2009.

Sigler continued to give away his novels for free, releasing the book in audio podcast form while the hardcover books (along with hard copy audio versions of the book by Crown Publishing) were available for sale. His legion of fans continued to support him by purchasing the hard copies of the books.

Sigler is proof that a lot of hard work, talent, and having the balls to take unique and interesting risks and try new things, can actually pay off.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

They're Doing The Hot Dog Dance!

Whenever Alexander is watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on the Disney Channel, there are two things he tends to scream out when he's watching each episode.

The first is:

"Do you want to say the magic words?"

And the second is:

"They're doing the hot dog dance!!!"

At the opening of each episode, Mickey invites the viewer to come inside his clubhouse. To make the clubhouse appear, you need to say the magic words. ("Meeska Mooska Mickey Mouse!") Mickey invites you to say them with him.

And, at the close of each episode, when the riddles or problems are all solved, Mickey and his friends to the "Hot Dog!" dance.

It's the "Hot Dog!" dance that Alexander gets most excited about. Because to him, it's not just about him participating along with Mickey and the gang, it's about everyone in the house participating. Actually, not everyone. Mostly Mom.

You see, I could be sitting beside Alexander and watching the show with him, but that doesn't matter. I'm not the optimum "Hot Dog!" dancer. Francine is. When Alexander yells out that they're doing the Hot Dog Dance he usually adds "Mom!" onto the end, because Mom is his favourite person to do the "Hot Dog!" dance with.

We all have our different dances (I do the Goofy dance -- well, most of it at least, since I haven't figured out how to pop my hat up in the air about 3 feet like Goofy does) and Francine does the Minnie Mouse dance. Alexander, of course, does the Mickey dance.

But again, it doesn't matter if I'm already dancing along with him. When they song starts, Alexander yells out "They're doing the Hot Dog Dance!" at the top of his lungs in the hope that Francine joins in. And, if she's within earshot (and his call has quite the range), she joins in.

I'm not sad to be left out. It's simply a preference Alexander has for this particular activity. Francine is his "Hot Dog Dance!" buddy. I suppose I'm his "Wall-E Video Game" buddy, since he prefers playing that computer game with me.

It's interesting how, at even such a young age, there are preferences for certain people matched up to certain activities. We all have our "Hot Dog!" like preferences, now, don't we. This type of habit is something that remains our entire lives. Think about certain activities you do with different types of friends. Aren't most of them typically slotted into nicely defined "holes?" How much cross-over is there?

IE, when there's a particular activity do you usually do them with a certain set of people? IE, you might have your preferred "drinking" buddies, your "games" buddies, your "philosophical debate" buddies, your "lunch" buddies, your "talk shop" buddies and your "gossip" buddies.

What other kinds of "buddies" do you have that you associate with a particular task or activity? Personal social context, it seems, plays a large role in our lives.

If you opened up your mind to include others who aren't normally associated with a particular task or activity, what would that look like? Would the experience be given a new layer of complexity and become better because of a new perspective the new person brings to it? Would it evolve? Or would it devolve?

Maybe in some cases it would be better, but in others it might be worse. How do we decide?

Certainly something to think about.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

You Can Help By Staying Out Of My Way

Despite the nasty head cold that has hit me, I still thought it was a good idea to climb onto the roof today to take down the Christmas decorations. The temperature was, after all, above seasonal, and there was no snow on the roof, so what better time to get the job done? (I mean, what better time than waiting until spring, that is...)

As always, Alexander was helping me out. When I began preparing for the job, Francine reminded me of the time Alexander was 2 years old and helped me with the same task. Fran was at the hospital visiting her mom, and Alexander and I were home by ourselves. I went out onto the roof, and was handing things through the window to my son who was watching me from inside. I passed Alexander the mini Santa Sleigh and two reindeer through the window, and, amazingly, the little guy was carefully placing them on a towel I'd laid out in the hallway.

This afternoon, after he helped me get things off the roof (again, receiving items through the window while I passed them to him), we moved on to the garage where we were packing the lights and rooftop decorations away.

He started off by announcing he was going to be the "tester" and insisted on testing each and every plug in item to ensure it was still working properly before we packed it away.

Once the testing was complete, he said. "How can I help, Dad?"

And, in a sudden flashback to my own childhood I could hear my own father's voice: You can help by staying out of my way.

To hear my father's words stated so bluntly, I know it sounds harsh; but my Dad really was a great guy. I know he loved me and loved doing things with me and I couldn't have loved him more than I did as a child. There were plenty of times that we worked on things together, but almost as often, there were certain tasks that were better off as solo efforts. I think it might have been the simple fact that there were some tasks in which I wasn't strong enough or tall enough or coordinated enough to properly help out, and he didn't know quite how to incorporate my eager yearnings to be a part of it. Thus the "stay clear" advice. I actually hold no grudge about it -- in fact, I've joked about it for years, at how good I was at helping around the house by staying out of the way.

So, when my son asked me the same question, because I wasn't feeling well and all I wanted to do was get back inside the house so I could be comfortable and warm again, my father's words rang in my head. After all, most of the work I had to do was pretty simple and a one-person job. It would take me longer to instruct him in a task than it would just to do it myself.

Then I thought about how that might make my son feel.

Devastated.

It would likely be the same way he reacted the other day when he wanted to come in to work with me, but, instead, had to go to school. He was truly crushed.

So then I thought back to the time he was 2 years old and I was passing him things through the window. I thought back to the proud smile on his face, the wonderful sense of accomplishment he must have had knowing he was helping Daddy, and I seriously considered what needed to be done.

Then I thought back to all the times when my own father accepted my willingness to help with a smile and encouraging words, and how wonderful it felt to be doing something alongside him. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve working hand in hand with my Dad.

"Well," I said. "You can start by helping me take all the clips off these three light strings. Then, when we're done that, let's see if you can get the little Santa into this box, and these wreaths into that box. Sound good?"

"That sounds great!" he said (Actually, he said That sounds gwate! in that cute manner of speaking which I know I'm going to miss when he gets older and begins pronouncing his "R's" more clearly)

And the coolest thing about that exchange wasn't that I felt I was giving my son a little boost of self-confidence or achievement.

No, I was giving myself that little boost.

And, despite the nasty head-cold that was getting worse as the day went on, I can honestly say that I never felt better.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Rush Night In Canada

It has been a long time (more than 15 years), since I've regularly watched hockey. In fact, I can likely count, on one hand, the number of times in the past 10 years when I've watched a full NHL game. It's not that I don't like hockey, it's that I've moved away from the habit of following a few different teams, or actually being able to sit in front of a television for several hours straight.

I can imagine when Alexander gets a bit older, I'd love to take him to a real live game.

But when I was younger, CBC's Hockey Night in Canada was one of my favourite things to watch, and the theme music (The Hockey Theme) is something that still gets my blood pumping at full throttle. From the broadcast's opening with the phenomenal music, to Coach's Corner, with Don Cherry and Ron MacLean, Hockey Night in Canada has long been a staple of Canadian culture, like Tim Horton's.

Interestingly, this theme, often referred to as Canada's 2nd National Anthem, is likely one of the most recognizable songs across our country. When legal issues regarding the licensing of the song meant it had to come off the air in 2008, there was quite the uproar about it. I wonder if people would have been as passionate if they tried removing our actual National Anthem (O Canada).

All you have to do is quickly mention the music from Hockey Night in Canada and people can immediately start humming the music from it. You only need to hear a few bars to immediately recognize it and get that all consuming feeling through to your bones. Talk about a powerful song.

In fact, when The Hockey Theme written by Dolores Claman, was substituted, even though the new music used was perfectly fine, it still didn't get my heart racing the way the original theme did.

Last night, The Hockey Theme, as recorded by Neil Peart (drummer and lyricist for Rush) debuted. You can read a bit more about it here and here.

The drum set Neil used when performing/recording the song was decked out with the logo's of 30 NHL teams. He was also wearing a custom hockey jersey (RUSH 3).

How wonderful that my favourite musician now has a part of the re-boot of one of my favourite pieces of music.

Here's a video clip of the song from TSN -- a wonderful segment featuring Neil as well as action shots of hockey and its fans.

Ahh! There's that wonderful Rush I used to get when I tuned in to CBC's Hockey Night in Canada. I can't wait to share this new song with my son, who is already a fan of Rush (the opening from 2112 being one of his favourite pieces of music).

Thanks, Neil.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

HNT - Campus Committee

The fun and informative days spent in October 2009 in Montreal at the Campus Stores Canada 2009 Symposium seem like a distant memory, but I'm still referring to notes made during the fantastic presentations and meetings that took place.

Of course, much of the greatness is due to my wonderful colleagues from the CSC Education Committee, and that's where the "nekkid" element of this week's photo comes in. This picture is a bit of a look at the people behind the education session programming.

Here's a picture of the group that was taken near the end of CSC 2009.

Carol Tyre, Michael Zybala (Co-chair), Gail Murray, Mark Lefebvre,
Penny Draper, Brian Vincent, Maddona Day, Mary Andraza,
Paul Wilde (Chair). (Not pictured are Craig Fleming & Wayne Amundson)


What a darned good looking bunch of campus folks, eh? They're smart, too.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Radio Nowhere

Douglas Smith recently posted the full story "Radio Nowhere" online on his website. It's an incredible speculative tale.

Of course, I might be a bit biased since Doug wrote the tale for me when I was editing Campus Chills, an anthology of horror stories set on campuses across Canada.

Doug's story "Radio Nowhere" (yes, the title is borrowed from a Bruce Springsteen song) takes place at Doug's Alma Mater, University of Waterloo and is a very fine and moving tale.

Part science-fiction, part Twilight Zone, this story is a wonderful example of what good horror can be -- quiet, slightly disturbing and about true human foibles and frailties. The "horror" in the tale is more about the internal feelings of loss and despair, the tail-spin a person can find themselves in when unable to move on after the loss of a dear loved-one, and the depths a person might go to in order to reclaim that loved-one. (IE, the true horror in Stephen King's Pet Semetary wasn't the cat or child coming back after having been buried in the special "resurrecting" earth of an ancient Micmac burial ground, but in the decisions Louis Creed makes in the depths of his overwhelming loss and grief) The same thing is true in Doug's very fine and moving tale.

The story opens with the following text. Hopefully this teaser will make you want to read the full story.

"On the anniversary of the worst night of his life, Liam stood outside the darkened control room of the campus radio station. Over the speakers, the Tragically Hip's "Boots and Hearts" was just winding down. Behind the glass in the studio, Ziggy's small triangular face glowed like some night angel, lit from below by her laptop screen. She looked up, her eyes finding Liam's in the darkness. Smiling, she wrinkled her nose at him. His own smile slid away, falling into the dark place inside him, the place that was always darker on this night.

Ziggy turned back to the mike as the song ended. "I'm closing with a request from an old friend, to an old friend. This one's for Jackie, from Liam. A hurtin' song, cuz he's still hurtin'. Fifteen years ago tonight . . ." She looked at him through the glass.

Fifteen years. He closed his eyes. Fifteen years and it still hurt this much."

- Excerpt from "Radio Nowhere" copyright 2009 by Douglas Smith. Originally appeared in Campus Chills (October 2009)

Should you read the full story, (and how could you not after that incredible opening?) feel free to nominate Doug's tale for an Aurora Award for Best Short-Form Work. The ballot for nomination is online and anyone who is a Canadian citizen can nominate a work for the Auroras. (Also feel free to nominate Campus Chills in the category of Other Works)

And just a quick note about Campus Chills, since I can't resist a chance to talk about cool projects I was recently a part of) -- Campus Chills was an anthology put together by University of Waterloo, University of Alberta and McMaster bookstores. The three stores pooled funding together to produce an anthology on the Espresso Book Machines that each of these three stores own and they paid professional rates to 13 contributors for original stories of horror set on campuses across Canada. The book features fantastic fiction from some of Canada's top authors of speculative fiction. I had the very fine honour of selecting and editing the work of these fine writers.

The book was launched simultaneously on October 22, 2009 at McMaster, University of Waterloo, University of Alberta and Dalhousie University bookstores as well as at the Algonquin College Bookstore. (Within a week all 13 contributors appeared at 5 different bookstores in 3 different provinces)

Below are a couple of shots of Doug from the Waterloo launch, hosted by the University of Waterloo bookstore.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Pursued From Out Of The Night

I recently recorded and posted my entire story "From Out of the Night" on my Prelude To A Scream Podcast.

It's a dark humour tale of a panicked woman whose only desire is to save her family from the flesh-eating/blood-thirsty creatures stalking around in the night outside their home.

You can listen to the full story online or download it from the podcast's website here.

Pardon me for taking a few moments to pat myself on the back, but here are a few interesting things about this tale that struck me.

First, there's a phrase I wrote into the tale that I still love after all these years (could it possibly be as long as two decades now) since I first wrote them.

We are pursued from out of the night by dreams of the unknown and visions of the unexplainable.

I quite like that. Not sure why, but it jumps out at me now. Every once in a while something I wrote ages ago does that to me. I'm pretty sure it jumped out at me back then when I decided to use that sentence for the title of the story.

The second in my back-patting exercise is how truly realized the characters in the tale are. And while I'd like to pat myself on the back for that, I know that much of this is thanks to some great suggestions from an editor.

Working with an editor, I managed to take a tale that I had originally crafted in a quick afternoon and polish it into something a little stronger and better. And this was back in the day when editors and writer's main "conversation" wasn't as quick and immediate as a simple email. This was back in the day when good old fashioned letters and manuscripts were exchanged via Canada Post/US Mail.

I had previously sent the story to 6 other markets before it crossed the desk of Stephanie Connolly, editor of The Darker Woods magazine. She wrote back saying she liked the tale and suggested a re-write in which I should expand upon the relationship between the two main characters as well as explore a bit of the "back story" behind Mary's fears. She said if I'd sent the re-write back to her, she'd consider publishing it in her magazine.

I took her advice, dove back into the story, and, using her guidance, questions and suggestions, discovered further buried details about the characters and further strengthened the tale. She accepted the tale and it was published the following year in The Darker Woods #2.

And though, when this story was first published, she decided to "cut" the very final scene from my story, feeling it didn't add to the tale, I put it back in when it was re-printed in One Hand Screaming. Ironically, I put it back in specifically because, in my mind, the actions of the very final paragraph speak to the relationship between the two main characters in a way I believe the editor had intended when offering me the great suggestions she did.

This illustrates, to me, the critical importance of listening to an editor's suggestions in your writing. But also, the fact that, while you should always take what an editor says very seriously, don't completely abandon something that you personally feel rather strongly about. I've had friends who have completely re-written their novels to suit an editor's tastes after a first reading, only to have the same editor completely brush them off after weeks of hard work and revisions. Then, when they've tried the re-written novel with editor 2, that editor makes suggestions that sound more like the author's original work.

Why does this happen? Because every reader, including editors, have their own personal preferences and tastes. What editor 1 loves, editor 2 finds it flat and boring. What editor 1 hates, editor 2 believes is the best thing they've read in years.

In my own experience of writing and working with editors, I've found that it's critically important to listen closely to what an editor is suggesting. And crucial to take everything they suggest quite seriously. Many of my stories have been revised following an editor's suggestion and advice and have come out to be far better than the original. Sometimes it's a simple matter of tweaking one small thing, and other times it's more detailed revisions.

So, an editor's advice is critically important. But it's also critically important that you don't just blindly follow the advice, but rather consider what the advice might mean to your story.

Ultimately, there's no winning if ALL you're trying to do is please a single editor.

Ultimately, you must take the editor's advice and see how it fits (if it fits) in with the "truth" you're trying to get across in your story.

When an editor makes suggestions or offers advice, YOUR key as a writer, is to seriously consider the advice, then re-read your story with that advice or those suggestions in mind. And if you're able to spot ways in which you can incorporate the advice, without losing the original intent of the story, or without losing part of what drove you to create the tale, characters and situation in the first place, then chances are, you'll come out ahead of the game.

The trick is figuring out where exactly to compromise without compromising your integrity as a storyteller. If my goal in writing a tale was to convey the importance of a husband's devotion to his wife, anything I do that takes away from that conveyance doesn't help the tale, nor me as a writer.

Sounds hard?

It is.

Writing is hard, though very satisfying work. This is yet another one of those challenges that a writer must face. Because, when you face it, and it works, you come out much stronger and your writing wins.

Friday, January 08, 2010

VistaPrint Making It Right

Just a few hours after I posted an open letter to VistaPrint, I heard from a representative at VistaPrint.

This person very politely thanked me for the kind words about their services and products and then offered me a quick and easy link to where I could modify my "promo email" settings to one per week -- a spot in my VistaPrint account that I hadn't been previously aware of. Though I'd prefer one per month, one per week is definitely better than the almost daily ones I've been receiving. So I'm quite satisfied that will stop.

This person also wondered if some of my extra emails might be coming from affiliates who weren't supposed to be sending emails to existing VistaPrint customers and offered to look at any of the ones I received in excess of my account-setting limit by having me forward them so they could be investigated further.

THIS is an example of two really cool things, IMHO.

1) A company using social media to check out customer feedback (obviously some sort of auto-scan bot must have found my mention of their company) and actually listen to customer feedback and commentary.

2) A company that takes the time not only to listen but to engage, communicate and respond to customers in a proactive and constructive way. This makes the company "real" and "human" to me as a consumer and not just a "corporate" entity.

Colour me impressed.

I had an issue, I raised the issue (not even with the company, I was just randomly ranting on my blog to try to show an example of something that some companies do that annoy me), a representative from the company in question was listening AND they took appropriate and reasonable action to help me resolve my issue. I started out annoyed and angry and ended up a satisfied customer. And it didn't cost the company much more than a caring employee taking a few moments out of their day.

So, in celebration of that, here's my new and updated open letter to VistaPrint:

- - - - -

Dear VistaPrint Canada:

Thanks for listening, thanks for being proactive. Thanks for responding, thanks for helping me with my issue. I'm now doubly impressed with your service and integrity. Your company employs really good people. Thank you for that. I will continue to use and suggest your services to friends and colleagues.

Sincerely,

An Impressed Customer

Thursday, January 07, 2010

HNT - Lotsa Books

I've recently posted a Top 10 list for books I read in 2009 here on this blog as well as my favourite books from the past 10 years on The Mark News.

So to celebrate the fact that I regularly have my nose in a book (or on a book as one picture shows), here's a collage of pictures I've taken in the past few years of me doing what I do often . . . reading. Okay, I'll be honest, in these pics I was pretending to read or just hamming for the camera . . .
(And I'll throw in a bonus -- the first person who can name all the books I'm reading (or being hit by) -- both the author/editor and the title of the book, will be sent a prize. Leave your guesses in the comment field or email me. Here's a hint for those with the patience to search -- most of these pictures (or similar versions) appeared in my blog previously, usually during HNT, so you should be able to find out the titles via some quick investigative reading of my archives . . . I mean, if anyone DARES waste their time like that)


Happy HNT!

An Open Letter To Vistaprint

I'm far from an expert on marketing and social media. But I am a consumer. And a damn fine one, since I've had decades of experience not only purchasing things, but deciding which things I like to purchase and basing my decision on a combination of factors -- my need or desire for a product or service, the quality and reliability, my satisfaction and my overall perception of a company.

So, in the interest of helping out a company that I want to keep liking, and perhaps help other companies considering doing the same sort of things, I post this open letter to the good people at Vistaprint.

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Dear VistaPrint Canada:

First of all, I want to tell you that I have found great value in your products and services. Several months ago, I spotted an online link to one of your online ads (I honestly can't remember where it was, most likely on some website for writers or perhaps even in a Google search result ad link) and checked out your "free business card" offer.

In a matter of minutes, I was able to create a pretty decent looking business card and order it. I opted for the $1 custom update to the free cards, allowing me to put my own website on the back of the card (because by default the free cards carry the vistaprint website url on it, which is pretty fine, especially for a free custom business card), and know I had to pay for shipping, which was a bit steep so must be part of where you actually make your money. But that's fine -- I recognize the need of a business to make money and the time saving and the cost were definitely worthwhile to me.

On my way to the checkout, I spotted an interesting "add on" option to have sticky notes created with a logo/look matching my cards. For a few extra dollars I ordered them, too. After that, the multi-repeated "would you like fries with that?" experience of checkout was a bit much -- ie, there were TOO MANY offers (it was more like: "Do you want fries? How about a larger coke? What about extra deluxe napkins? Or filtered water? Some ice cream? A hot dog? Or perhaps a muffin? A cookie? No, then what about this waiver thin mint?) -- but the experience was still manageable despite the "endless" nature of it.

A few weeks later, my 250 business cards and sticky notes arrived -- they were truly top quality products that I'm proud of. [An image of my business cards, sans my phone number and address appear below]

I know, based on my experience, that I WILL order custom stationery and business card products from you again. I have also already suggested you to several other writers that I know and believe they have also ordered from you. I realize that I'm doing both THEM and YOU a favour, and I'm happy to do so. Because as a consumer, if I have a good experience with a company or service, I LIKE telling others about it so that THEY can also benefit from the great value offered.

But here's where you not only continue to fail to impress me, but where you're making me reconsider doing business with you again.

Though I have already deleted most of them, I still have hundreds of emails in my inbox from your company telling me about great promotions or products. And I only started dealing with you the last week of August 2009. These emails are all virtually the same offer. Something cool for free or discounted significantly.

The thing is, I ALREADY know that you have great products for a great price. You don't need to repeatedly tell me. You don't need to preach to the choir here.

Second, every single extra spam email I get from you (and that's honestly what this excess of promotional emails feels like, even though I know I opted in when I bought something) makes me LESS and LESS likely to return business to you. Why? Because simply, they are annoying.

Again, don't get me wrong. Your company offers great services at a great value.

But you sincerely run the risk of pissing me off so much with a plethora of emails that aren't really telling me anything new such that I DON'T want to buy from you.

Really, when I see these emails I think of an annoying person yelling "look at me, look at me!" then pausing a few minutes and then screaming: "No, really, look over here -- look what I'm doing!" And then, when nobody looks, they start throwing things to try to get attention. The bottom line is the blatant annoying nature of the behaviour.

Please, for the love of the customers like me who are satisfied with your services and are planning on coming back, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, limit your promotional emails to one per month -- unless of course there is truly some COMPLETELY DIFFERENT or UNIQUE offer or limited promotion.

I honestly like your products and service, the price is right, the ease of use on your website is great, and the reliability is there too. Just please reconsider your "in your face" email promotions and rely on the customers you have satisfied to help spread the word. Otherwise, your over-the-top blanketing of web-blast emails (which remind me of the endless porn, Viagra and "increase your manhood size" type emails that fill my inbox daily) will likely serve to have a negative effect on returning customers and a negative effect on my desire to refer your business to others. I know they'll get value, but I don't want my friends to have to be subjected to such "spammy" behaviour.

And since I value your services, I really don't want to see that happen. I DO want to continue to like you.

Sincerely,

A Satisfied Customer (who becomes a bit less satisfied with every additional excess email I receive from you)




UPDATE: Within hours of posting this, a representative at VistaPrint contacted me and helped me modify my account settings (which I wasn't aware of) to change the frequency of emails I received from them. Read this updated post entitled VistaPrint Making It Right for more details.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Top Ten Books Of Past Decade

The editors at The Mark News asked me to compile a list of my favourite 10 books from the past decade.

A challenging task -- after all, I think that there were easily hundreds of books published in the past ten years worthy of a truckload of praise and attention -- but I did spend a great deal of time mulling over the many books I read in the previous ten years (as well as realizing ALL of the great books that I didn't read)

The article is accompanied by a 9 minute audio interview in which editor Chris Mitchell interviews me about books as well as the future of reading.

I tried to focus, for this list, not just on 10 books that left a powerful impression on me, but also books that I felt would be great jumping-off points for readers to perhaps discover an author or style of book worthy of checking out if they weren't already familiar with them.

And though I didn't purposely select books that you likely would not see on any major "Oprah" or "Globe & Mail" or "Heather's Picks" type list, for the most part, I selected my own personal favourites, most of which are slightly off the beaten path.

Yes, I'm sure most readers have heard of Stephen King, Malcolm Gladwell, J.K. Rowling and Michael Connelly, but I'm willing to bet the other books and authors I have featured are going to be "new" to a lot of folks -- and therein lies the joy of sharing the love of books -- helping a reader discover a new read and a new author.

I mean, honestly, should I have focused on spewing out the same old same old highly touted literary triumphs that everyone else is listing? Or should I, instead, have focused on titles that have a meaningful personal impact on me?

What do you think? And what would YOU pick?

Mulit-Tool

One of the best Christmas gifts I received this past year was something my five year old son picked out on his own. (Yes, he was with Francine, but the gift was entirely HIS idea -- he's more observant than most give him credit for and he's quite thoughtful and generous, just like his mother)

A few months ago when I was flying to Montreal, I ended up losing a great multi-tool that I often carried around in my laptop bag. (It's one of those folding plyers with jackknife-type screwdrivers, tools and knives all in one) Normally, before I fly, I remove it -- but this last time I forgot and ended up losing a great multi-tool at the airport. (Of course, though sad to lose the tool, I also was glad to lose it too, because there's quite the jack-knife blade on it -- it's good to know the airport screening was working, just not so good that in my oversight I completely forgot I had it in my bag)

In any case, Alexander was quite concerned over me losing this tool.

So before Christmas, when he and Francine were in a store, he spotted a near cash-desk display of a DOCKER wallet that came with a mini multi-tool. He insisted that he wanted to by it for Dad for Christmas because he knew I needed to have a handy knife with me at work in January (part of how much he pays attention to small things he overhears in our discussions)


What a great gift.

I haven't yet converted the contents of my wallet from the old worn one to the cool new one, but I HAVE consistently used the tool every day since back at work on Jan 4th. It's "January Rush" time, with skids of textbooks piled high, and I use the tool to crack open and break down boxes every 15 minutes or so throughout the day.

This particular replacement multi-tool isn't full size -- the old one I wore in a holder on my belt -- this one is mini, and thus slips into my pocket quite easily.

It has proven to be extremely useful, and every time I use it (about 30 to 40 times per day this time of year), I think of my son and how thoughtful he is.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Favourite Books Read in 2009

For the past couple of years I have summed up my personal top 10 list of books read in previous years. If you're curious, here are my 2007 and 2008 blog posts on this subject.

In 2009 I managed to read 43 books -- no, it's not a lot, but I'm a pretty slow reader so hitting 40 is a pretty decent attempt for me. Of course, there's always a giant "to read" pile to tackle, so I'm forever trying to increase the number of books I read.

Here's my list of the top 10 books I read in 2008. (Disclaimer -- the books didn't have to come out in 2008, I just had to have read them in that year for them to make my top 10 list)

Nine Dragons - (Michael Connelly)

The latest Harry Bosch novel, as always, offers a tightly written story, great plot twists and a life-altering change to Bosch's life. I'd actually read 3 of Connelly's books in 2009 and was tempted to put at least one more here (The Scarecrow), but instead stuck with the last one I finished.



The Tipping Point - (Malcolm Gladwell)

I read Gladwell's Outliers this year, which I loved and which inspired me to pick up this earlier and equally compelling Gladwell book, which beautifully illustrates his ability to bring together facts in an interesting and intriging way. Not surprising that this book has been on and off bestseller lists for years.


Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince - (J.K. Rowling)

Finally got to this 6th book in the series so now I can see the movie. This one, more than the previous books in the series (which, though I liked, weren't as unique as this) kept me on the edge of my seat. It's the best book in the series so far, and I'm about the start the 7th which I suspect is as fun and suspenseful.


Trust Agents - (Chris Brogan & Julien Smith)

Brogan and Smith offer an excellent approach for marketing and establishing your business or services within the social networking space; it's not about blanketing these platforms with "sales pitches" but about offering value and becoming an agent of trust. Insightful and inspiring.


Crush It! - (Gary Vaynerchuk)

With a passion for his job and career that is absolutely contagious (it practically leaps off the page when you're reading it), Vaynerchuk sets a new example of the old maxim "do what you love and the money will follow." This seems to me to be a great book to put into the hands of a young person finishing school who isn't quite sure what path to take, or perhaps an older person who is bitter and hates their job and career.



Six Pixels of Separation - (Mitch Joel)

Joel's ability to convey to the layperson the social media landscape and what it has to offer for marketing at many levels is not only a fantastic introduction to social networking, but also a refresher in personal branding and connectedness. His style and ability to stick to the basics is as smooth and straightforward as his adaptation of the "six degrees of separation" concept into the digital realm.


Fear the Worst - (Linwood Barclay)

Barclay takes a common everyday fear of parents (in this case a missing child) and masterfully turns it into a very readable, compelling and thrilling story. Barclay has been on my "buy at first site" list for years for very good reason. Similar to my feelings about Michael Connelly, I also read another Barclay novel this year (Too Close To Home) and was tempted to include THAT here too.


Permission Marketing - (Seth Godin)

Ten years after it was first published, this book still hits home beautifully and illustrate's Godin's incredible ability to be thinking into the future and be where we'll all eventually get to. After reading this, I read Tribes (also a good book) then made a list of all his other books which I'll be reading.


The Book of Negroes - (Lawrence Hill)

This is not only a phenomenally touching and heart-wrenching story of a woman's life and struggles surviving the slave trade, but also illustrates Hill's incredibly fine ability to craft words. Hill grabbed me on the first page and wouldn't let go until the end. (FYI, in the US, this same novel is published as Someone Knows My Name)


Me Minus 173: From 328 Pounds to the Boston Marathon - (Alicia Snell)

Snell's incredible story is matched only by her enthusiasm, utter honesty and ability to inspire others. Here's a great example of the fact that, though I'm not a fan of reading biographies, this one grabbed me and held me spellbound. Snell proves that, if at age 40, she can turn her life around dramatically by making two simple changes, if you want to change things and improve yourself, then YOU can do it too.


Whittling my list down to 10 was difficult, especially because I quite enjoyed so many more books than are on this list. So, that being said, here are 4 more contenders who almost made the list.


Non-Fiction Contenders:

Pow! Right Between the Eyes: Profiting from the Power of Surprise - (Andy Nulman)

Not only a unique and interesting approach to marketing, and quite unlike any other business book I've ever read, but this book literally offers an incredible "three-dimensional" interaction with the author that does hit you between the eyes.


Free: The Future of a Radical Price - (Chris Anderson)

An intriguing and in-depth look at various different models of "Free" and how, over the decades, they have served business needs and led, sometimes intuitively, to great income opportunities.


Fiction Contenders:

The Gargoyle - (Andrew Davidson)

Davidson's compelling prose moved me through a story that normally wouldn't interest me and held me captive to the end. He hooked me on inspirational stories of love through the ages and ultimately moved me with his unique sense of dark humour and tale of tragic love.


Red Snow - (Michael Slade)

Slade writes with a relentless cut-throat approach and virtually no sense of character preservation. This heart-stopping thriller brings back a major recurring foe of the Special X team and concerns a "terrorist" attack taking place just before the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. The book seems well researched and certainly kept this read on the edge of his seat.



Well here's an interesting discovery I made about myself upon quick reflection about this list -- for the longest time, at least as far back as I can remember, I've ALWAYS been a fiction afictionado -- why, then, are 6 of my top 10 selections non-fiction books?

Am I possibly expanding what I'm reading?

Not necessarily.

I just went back and did a quick summary. Of the 43 books I read in 2009, 30 of them were fiction. I suppose it was just that the non-fiction titles I read this past year seemed to have had a greater effect on inspiring me.

What books that you read in 2009 had that effect on you?