How to sell 80 million books

Start off with a paragraph like this:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.

This is the opening of The Da Vinci Code. You may have heard of it. It’s sold more copies than Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which was released 105 years earlier and has been selling every year since. The Da Vinci Code is, in fact, the second best-selling book of English fiction ever. Why?

Is it because Dan Brown is a great writer? Is it his mastery of the simple sentence? Or is is it because he’s a Transformer of the literary world?

Does it bother me that some of the most popular things in entertainment are also some of the worst in terms of quality?

It does, actually, because it’s possible to entertain and be popular and not sacrifice your craft in the process. Die Hard is a smart, funny action movie. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is noisy, insultingly dumb, incoherent and borderline racist. And yet…$843 million grossed worldwide. The Da Vinci Code is the go-to book when one wants to point out the worst bestseller. But clearly writers like Brown and directors like Michael Bay have tapped into a formula that resonates with a lot of people, people who are unconcerned that what they are reading or viewing is the equivalent of junk food.

I’m not putting myself above the masses, either. I read Stephen King, I sat through Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I’m a fan of pop culture and fascinated by it at the same time. It just seems that we are in a downward spiral, where dumb just isn’t dumb enough anymore.

I expect the top-grossing movie in 2020 will be three hours of cars exploding. It will star Shia LaBeouf’s son. The bestselling book will be Dan Brown’s The Forgotten Clue, a collection of sentence fragments in pop-up format. The movie version, also starring Shia LaBeouf’s son, will gross $1.1 billion. Sure, ticket prices will be $50 each, but still.

CRTC to big telecom: Don’t worry, I won’t bite. I have no teeth!

Today the CRTC revealed its new framework in regards to Internet usage.

“Canada is the first country to develop and implement a comprehensive approach to internet traffic management practices” — CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein

Here are the dramatic changes the CRTC is putting in place to make sure those big ol’ ISPs like Rogers, Bell, Telus and Shaw keep in line:

  • 30 days notice required before any “network management changes”
  • traffic-shaping (throttling) only as a “last resort” – but still A-OK!
  • charging “consumers rates based on how much bandwidth they use each month, or offer discounts during off-peak hours”

The ISPs can pretty much do everything they have been doing and on top of that have now been given the green light to soak subscribers with even higher fees based on some undefined standard of usage. The notion that they would offer discounts for off-peak hours is, of course, laughable.

This has to be one of the mushiest, dunderheaded set of regulations I have ever seen. Not surprisingly, all of the major telecom companies are pretty much fine with it.

User comments: Halfway from coal, halfway to diamond

I first got online back in the late 1980s. I remember trying to play Populous over modem with a friend (we both had Amigas). Later I took my first tentative steps into the realm of BBSes and message boards, connecting through local ISPs and taking part in discussions via Fidonet. Conversations online back then were radically different than now, of course. You subscribed to topics that interested you and every few days you’d receive a new packet of messages. Using a message reader you’d sift through them, find ones you wanted to reply to and then upload your responses, which would also take several days to arrive to others. In a way, it was just a semi-automated version of writing letters. As such, posts tended to be longer and more thoughtful. You didn’t waste a reply with something terse or forgetful because it could be upwards of a week before you got anything back (it was truly a delight when new packets of messages would sometimes arrive the very next day!)

By the mid-90s computer magazines were going on about the two hot topics of the day: Windows 95 and the Internet. I was cruising along with a 14.4 modem and split my time between browsing my ISP’s file database (text-based UI only) and taking my first tentative steps on the World Wide Web using early versions of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. I was absolutely dazzled that you could do more than one thing at a time on this fancy web thing. I could view a site and download a file. Amazing! Slow, too, but compared to 300 baud modems that downloaded text slowly enough to read it on-the-fly, it seemed like the future had arrived.

BBSes began to die out as message boards started appearing and I stopped using Fidonet (I remember being subscribed to the Music category and reading insightful posts from someone named Patrick Goodman back around 1990 or 1991. He was a huge fan of Queen and I vividly recall his devastation at the death of Freddie Mercury). Like everyone else, I jumped over to message boards which allowed for very nearly instant communication (that was also available via numerous instant messenger clients like AIM, ICQ and others, all of which were built more around one on one conversations).

As the Internet became a larger presence in our lives, it has continued to evolve. Nowadays it is more the exception than the rule that a company has a website. Magazines and newspapers (especially) have sometimes struggled to stay relevant when information can be disseminated quickly and “free”. Myspace and Facebook has ushered in an era of so-called social networking and as news organizations beef up their online components, we have seen many include the ability for the general public — really, anyone with a computer/device that connects to the Internet — to post comments on news stories, giving non-scientific and not necessarily representative but immediate feedback on stories of the day.

I have posted several times here lamenting the state of the commentary made by Joe Public on various news sites. Admittedly, these posters are a self-selecting group, so one should always take their comments with the appropriate grains of salt. But when I reflect on how the public has acted overall, I admit I start to wonder. How intelligent, rational and logical is the average person? Why do I never see evidence of this in the things they say online? :P

All right, that’s unfair, there is obviously intelligent, rational and logical commentary out there but it amazes and depresses me how often it is drowned out by voices that demand they be heard, however irrelevant and stupid those voices might be. This long post is, I suppose, simply a further lamentation.

I read The Tyee, a website that describes itself in the masthead as “B.C.’s Home for Culture, News and Solutions”. It would be fair to describe its editorial slant as more left or center-left, which often puts it at odds with both the provincial and federal governments, not to mention the Canwest-dominated local media (in particular, the two Vancouver dailies). Yesterday they ran a piece by Geoff Meggs, a Vision Vancouver city councilor, calling for the dismantling of the Georgia viaduct, a legacy of the freeway that never was. A sidebar to another blog post goes into greater detail on how to remove and rebuild the area where the viaduct exists. It seems like a reasonable plan to me and one worthy of consideration and debate.

The comments on the story cover a range of quality but I’m going to highlight a few of the worst.

snert writes:

A silly idea.

Thought up by someone with not enough to do. Kinda like, Oh! Let’s change the corporate logo.

Well, why is it a silly idea? What is the purpose of posting such a comment? There is no insight here, nothing to be gleaned except “I don’t like it”. Well, hooray for you, snert, you’ve made your unsubstantiated opinion known. To what end?

Dr Alexander uses the common ploy of grinding his axe regardless of actual topic:

Instead of restricting access…..

to downtown Vancouver by tearing down viaducts (no thanks, I paid for them, keep them there)….

Perhaps we should restrict Gordo’s access to BC.

We would all be better off.

“I paid for them” is a rationale for keeping them? How about no, it isn’t? And then an unrelated swipe at Gordon Campbell just because. Brilliant.

To be fair, there are longer comments that address the pros and cons of the idea and I offer my thanks to those that contributed them. But it seems so often that people just post lazy, negative crap for its own sake. Am I some crazy intellectual elitist for wanting better? Hell, I wince at half of the posts I make on this site, so I’m hardly one to cast myself as a model to aspire to, but at least I try when I put it out there on a shared forum. I wish more people did.

UPDATE: Nic brought up a term that had eluded me until now that encapsulates this “cranky old guy” view of the Internet: Eternal September. Wikipedia describes it thusly:

The expression encapsulates the belief that an endless influx of new users (newbies) since that date has continuously degraded standards of discourse and behavior on Usenet and the wider Internet.

It is both comforting and disconcerting to see this idea codified in a formal way, such as it is.

Time to bash The Province again, whee!

While the Canwest media empire struggles to keep itself afloat amidst a huge load of debt, The Province continues to demonstrate why it was the newspaper I chose to mock back when I was studying journalism in college.

Today’s front page headline:

The story is about how Google Street Views has come to Vancouver (as I noted yesterday) and the front page tries to paint some scary picture of privacy being invaded. The Google images automatically blur license plates and faces, so the privacy concerns seem minimal at best. But that’s not something you put on the front page to evoke paranoia, is it? Anytime you get cash from an ATM, fill up your vehicle with gas, stroll though a mall, train station or airport, you are already being recorded, so the notion that you have any real privacy whilst out in public is unrealistic at best. It’s not news and hasn’t been for some time. Sure, there could be a thoughtful column pondering the increasing intrusion of cameras into public life but where’s the hysteria angle in that?

While grabbing a quick snack before attending a play last night, I picked up a copy of The Province that was handy and thumbed through it, finally landing on the op-ed pages. There was a signed editorial piece about how everyone loves Stephen Harper after his musical debut at a gala a few nights back. A pro-Harper editorial. Quite the shocker, it must be said. On the opposite page was the Letters to the Editor except it’s now called Backtalk (with the B cleverly reversed; alas, I cannot reproduce the effect here). Each letter, though given the brevity, it might be more accurate to call them letterettes, is presented under a sentence referencing the original story (ie. “Council plans to install nuclear warheads on city hall roof”) and is signed by, well, whatever the person wants. One letterling was signed by Joe the Plumber. There is no indication of location, so I’m not sure if Joe hails from Vancouver, Surrey or Madagascar.

In essence, The Province letters section, apparently culled from submissions to their website, amounts to anonymous soundbites of unknown origin. I remember some years ago I had several letters to The Vancouver Sun published, back when I was a regular reader. One of them was in response to a screed by their resident homophobe, Trevor Lautens. Lautens had written a typically despicable column and being full of youth and outrage, I penned an objection that they saw fit to put in the paper. They verified my name and address first. Yes, back then, The Sun not only put your name to what you wrote, but your actual street address (the last time I checked, they had modified that to simply your city). Today in The Province the reader comments are little more than worthless filler and even the page’s name — Backtalk — seems to acknowledge an expected tone of anger or dismissal because thoughtful responses that demonstrate an open mind and critical thinking are silly!

I am not hoping for a Canwest bailout that includes saving The Province.