Focusing on your own writer’s block

I was about to begin by writing, “we’ve all had writers block at one time or another,” and then I thought better. Besides being bad writing, reason enough to start over, that sentence presupposes that writer’s block is not supremely personal, a solitary experience that can’t be made relevant to any other’s malady. Anxiety attacks are likely a first cousin if not a sibling to that invisible barrier between the act of writing and the writer’s own psyche, and successfully grappling with one disorder can offer parallels in overcoming another.

That awful feeling of intense, yet vague dread, frequently with physical symptoms, quickly becomes self-perpetuating for either writer’s block or anxiety. When your work or studies depend upon your ability to produce written text, such as newspaper reporters or students attending an online university, this potentially debilitating disorder can spell disaster

As a college student in my mid-twenties, I began experiencing frequent, acute anxiety attacks. I was relatively happy, pursuing a bachelor’s degree and working in a job I enjoyed and had no more troubles than most, and in fact, relatively speaking, I had fewer problems than many. Again, none of that mattered to my unwelcomed guest.

Natures of the beasts

While anxiety and writer’s block have many similarities, knowing the features of these conditions that don’t overlap is instructive when considering ways to rise above either. Anxiety attacks stem from free-floating, often irrational fears that commonly defy attempts to articulate by a person experiencing symptoms. Writer’s block, on the other hand, is believed to stem from the ill effects of some inner critic developed from external sources from the person’s formative experiences. What is important to note, though, is the shared difficulty in both instances for the sufferer – and that’s truly an accurate term for anyone who has experienced either or both – of not being able to identify any one source of the problem. The good news is that overcoming either writer’s block or anxiety attacks don’t necessarily rely on knowing that source.

Turn and face the problem

For over a year, I would suddenly feel the onset of an attack. With no discernible trigger, I could feel the tingling announcing hyperventilation. At times, limbs would become weighty to the point I questioned their ability to function. Not surprisingly, I found that my schoolwork was becoming increasingly difficult to accomplish my written work. Quite by accident, though, I stumbled upon my own relief for both issues.

One morning, that familiar dread began again. In the past, my own fears fueled each attack, and presumably, every subsequent one. This time, however, my writer’s curiosity began to concentrate on each symptom. Over time, focusing on my anxiety with interest rather than distress had an unexpected, yet noticeable effect. By embracing the symptoms, my attacks became less frequent, less intense and then finally extinguished. I applied a similar bend to my writing block—again spurred on by that wonder of intrigue I suspect is fairly common among all writers.

I’ve since found articles that echo my own actions, but I’ll claim my own actions as independent at the time. Virtually unable to write my school papers at the time, I began simply journaling my own writer’s block. From free association to a stream of consciousness—I wrote, and I wrote. I wrote so much about my own writer’s block that I soon began to stray in my focus–to my coursework. Call it a trick, but the more I wrote about my writer’s block, the less frequently it occurred. While it became a standard pre-writing exercise to journal my block, after a few weeks my practice evolved into merely recalling the last time I experienced writer’s block, after which I wrote my assignments without fail.

Exorcising your doubts

Just as fear-based disorders are very personal, they all share the unwelcomed pairing of you and your symptoms. Trying to ignore or distance yourself from writer’s block tends to only stoke the problem. Using your skills as a writer, your innate wonder that makes you believe you have something worth saying in words, and your willingness to face your problem makes for a pretty potent remedy. Journaling about your writing blog may not work for everyone, but it’s a proactive means of taking charge of your issue.

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40 Rules of Love Review

The Forty Rules of Love
Elif Shafak

Paige’s Rating: (5) of 5
Recommended for: Love and Spirituality

Turkish author Elif Shafak unfolds two tantalizing parallel narratives- one contemporary and the other set in the thirteenth century, when Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, the whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz-that together incarnate the poet’s timeless message of love.
FABULOUS WONDERFUL SUPERB! I haven’t been this excited about a book in a long time, so let me share with you why this one has me momentarily typing in caps and adding random exclamation points!

First, the author weaves two stories together: one of a modern day housewife, getting back into the routine of work and finding that routine is the only thing that has kept her safe and… lonely. Then, the backdrop of that story is about Shams of Tabriz, a mystic who changes the world of a spiritual leader named Rumi. The story Shafak tells of Rumi and Shams is delightful and beautiful, creating a plot based on history, spirituality and love. It was absolutely fantastic, and done from the point-of-view of the different characters involved, each one telling his or her perspective in a diary-esque way. The story of the housewife and her secret lover is less interesting, in my opinion, and done in a third-person point-of-view.

The characters are well developed, although the two characters I enjoyed reading about the most were Rumi and Shams. Both characters are dynamic and appear to be complete opposites. Yet, each are on the same path and each desperately love and respect each other in a way that never comes off as sexual, but rather spiritual: and that was the point. The character of Shams dispenses forty different rules about love, each one deep in a way that causes the reader to stop and meditate.  For example,  “Do not fret about what your place in the universe should, could or might be. You contribute to the music of the universe by your very being. Your destiny is the level where you will play your tune. How well you play is entirely in your hands.”

Some people who have also written reviews about this book (yes, I checked), stated that the writing wasn’t very strong. I agree that the story between the housewife and her secret lover was rather dull and lacking that strong passion I have been looking for in books. The author is Turkish but I believe the book was written in English and so that could also explain a lack of desire between the two characters. However; the sub story is written beautifully and so I can’t discount that.

If you are looking for a light read, than I wouldn’t recommend this book. Rather, I would tell you that this is a book for those looking to look at themselves deeper, spiritually, and those who want to be reminded of just how lovely… well… love can be.

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NaNoWriMo 2011 Kickoff

Another October ends, another month of crazy writing starts.  Yep – it is time for NaNoWriMo!  Shane (the overachiever this week) already has a post up on this via Novelnaut, but wanted to get a post up myself.  As of starting this post – there is 7 hours till midnight!  My tradition is I stay up and write for a solid hour till 1am… and then since it is usually a work night, head to bed knowing I at least accomplished something for the first day.

This will be my fourth nano.  My first was 2008 and a spectacular fail… think I dropped after the first week.  2009 – now that was the year of my first nano victory and where I really found I loved this whole writing thing.  2010 was also a win, though less satisfied with the product of the month.  I think that novel is going to be perminantly relegated to truck status.  It was a good experience, but not worth investing further effort in at this point.  Perhaps I might canabalize charters or minor plot points from in the future.

This year, for NaNoWriMo 2011, I am going to take a different approach.  With work and life events, I view it as the most “high risk” nano since I started doing this annual adventure.  I have been wanting to work more on my short story form, so have decided to combine that with nano this year.  Still go for the 50k goal, but in the form of ten 5,000 word short stories.  This is technically not true nano form, but I go more by the spirit than the letter of the law here.  The whole purpose of NaNoWriMo is to inspire one to write, write regularly (and in volume) so that at the end of those 30 days you have a solid platform to work from.

In a way, this is achieving two things for me.  First, it makes it a bit more challenging as I am forcing myself to build 10 different plots, casts, and whatnot, all within the same month.  True, plotting out a 5,000 word short story is a bit different than a 50,000 novel – but still.  I am going for a few different genres, a couple of which I haven’t tried writing in before.  The second thing it achieves for me is – success in the event of failure.  With my serious doubts on my time availability this year, more so than any other year, by doing short stories instead of the single novel, if I say only end up with 30,000 words… that still gives me six short stories to revise and edit.

If you haven’t ever attempted NaNoWriMo or tried to write that sort of volume (or greater!) in a single 30 day period, and wish to give it a shot, by all means do so!  Go with the usual rules and hit that 50k mark.  You will learn a lot of things during your first nano or two.  (Well every time you try pushing yourself really.)  That is one of the reasons I am breaking the rules this year.  I KNOW I can write 50,000 in a month.  I have done it – twice now for nano alone.  Heck I know I can write well over 5,000 words in a single day… so I am giving myself a different challenge this year with the multiple short stories in multiple genre’s.

I am going to have a follow up post on this, but I use Scrivener to keep nano writing going and organized.  There is both a Mac and a Windows version – the windows version has just gone up for sale.  I highly recommend the software, so keep an eye out for my article soon on why.

If interested, you can follow my NaNo progress here, or Shane’s can be found here.

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Seven Houses Review

Seven Houses
By: Alev Lytle Croutier

Paige’s Rating: (4) of 5
Recommended for: Historic Fiction- Family Love

Seven Houses chronicles the lives of four generations of remarkable women, sweeping readers from the last days of the Ottoman monarchy to Turkey’s transformation into a republic and the present-day backlash.

After reading and rather enjoying Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, I thought I would try another Turkish author, Alev Croutier. Comparing both women as author’s I would have to say that Elif’s writing is more captivating but nevertheless, Alev puts up a good fight.

This book documents the lives of four generations of women through the last four ever-changing generations of Turkish history. The story is told by the point-of-view of the houses in which these women lived in and the behind-the-scenes events that unfolded within the walls. I think this works beautifully as this allows the women’s family history to be woven together. The setting is also rather perfect: the beginning of WWI and therefore, the end of the Ottoman Empire. As the women grow and one generation replaces another, the setting transitions to different cities in Turkey while still accurately detailing the history of the time.

The characters are also beautifully done as the women draw their personality and characteristics from the changing society around them. While all women are related to each other, the reader sees just how different these women are from each other due to very different situations which were presented to them in their lives. I think Alev does a fine job of making multi-dimensional characters.

The elements of omniscient narrators, dramatic history and strong, dynamic characters make Seven Houses a strong book and good read. However, I had to give it only 4 stars because some stories seemed unfinished or at least underdeveloped. There were a few instances where I had wished that the houses had said more of their inhabitants. On the other hand, there were also some stories that appeared to drag out more than necessary. Reading them, I wondered how the information was relevant to the rest of the story and in the end; I found out that some of it simply was not. Finally, some of the stories appeared more depressing than needed, but I guess that is also how life generally rolls.

Overall, this was a good book to read for the summer. It sort of reminded me of The Joy Luck Club, only a Turkish version. So if you like strong women characters and history, you can’t be disappointed.

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The Student Reader

In a month of big tech news, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made the biggest tech news on September 28th. Speculation about Amazon’s “iPad killer” tablet had been floating around for months, but what Bezos revealed was even bigger: a family of new Kindles with almost shockingly low prices. Leading the pack is the brand new Kindle Fire, and it’s like an e-reader on steroids: not only can Amazon customers read e-books in color, but they can buy and rent movies and TV shows, browse the web with a lightning-fast custom made browser, play games, communicate with friends via IM and e-mail, and much more.

Still, the “iPad killer” moniker doesn’t mean much when you look at each tablet’s specs, because the iPad 2 wins in almost every category. And when it comes to its uses in education, the iPad2 is the fastest, most comprehensive machine for the job. But the Kindle Fire and the iPad2 have two completely different roles: while the iPad2 is a tool, the Kindle Fire is a content delivery device. And that difference could at least cripple the iPad2 in the educational sector.


Form follows function

The iPad2’s success as an educational device has remained uncontested in part because of Apple’s history of catering to the educational market—from its inception, Apple has made an effort to offer quality hardware to teachers and students. iPad2’s are also popular in the classroom because they lend themselves to collaboration: with front- and rear-facing cameras, teachers and students enrolled in online education can communicate without a computer.

But for many consumers, including students, the cameras and other features are rarely used. A clear, bright screen, a wide-ranging selection of applications, and a size custom-made for portability are important factors for an educational device. The Kindle Fire’s screen is smaller, but its size makes it perfect for purses and small totes. If an electronic device is easier to hold and handle, it’s easier to use.

The price is right

The Fire is certainly impressive, but it’s simply not in the same category as the iPad2. And that’s why its price will give it an edge: even with a discount, schools are paying almost twice as much for iPad2’s as they will for Amazon Kindle Fires. For less than $200 per device, teachers and students will have access to thousands of free books, hundreds of thousands of reasonably-priced books and learning materials, and a whole collection of movies and videos that can be used for educational purposes.

Amazon’s Prime program is free for a month with new Fire purchases—an agreement Amazon is sure to modify for devices used in schools. But Amazon’s focus on content—not hardware—allows them to deliver a device that makes choosing and using content quick, easy and affordable. Until Apple makes content a top priority, they’ll be behind Amazon.

Teaching and learning in the cloud

Cloud computing has gotten mixed reviews, but as it improves and becomes more reliable, more people are using it for storage and easy access to data. Amazon’s Cloud Drive allows consumers to buy media and store it in the cloud—making a large hard drive superfluous. And since the Fire has a relatively small 8GB drive, users are encouraged to use the Amazon Cloud Drive for storage of large pieces of data. For teachers and students, storing assignments and projects in the cloud can make it easier to access them no matter where they are—a real benefit for students enrolled in online education. Apple’s iCloud purports to store data and push it to every Apple device—but it’s not up and running just yet. Amazon’s cloud drive isn’t as ambitious as Apple’s, but for regular consumers, teachers and students who use their tablets for basic schoolwork, it’s good enough.

Amazon’s new Kindle Fire is sure to be a blockbuster with consumers and schools. It won’t kill the iPad2, but that’s not the point; the Fire will serve as a basic, easy-to-use alternative to the iPad2. And until the Fire, an alternative like that didn’t exist. The Kindle Fire fills the void of an affordable tablet—and for millions of consumers, that’s the perfect alternative to an iPad2.

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Five Common Misconceptions of Tech Support

If you’ve ever worked in tech support, chances are you’ll often come across people seeking assistance with problems who will, when served by you or a colleague, act or treat you in a manner that indicates they’ve not got the slightest grasp of what it is you can do for them, whether remotely or in person. Here’s a few that crop up frequently:

1) They have often not tried the simplest solution: you’d be surprised at how often tech support staff have their education rendered completely pointless by the number of times they’ve said “turn it off, and turn it on again.” It’s worth noting that whether your internet is slow when you need your email or want to play Party Poker, or your phone is lagging badly, the device may just need to start up fresh.

2) They will often assume that you are being condescending: this really isn’t true! A lot of people enjoy working in tech support and like helping others – this is proven by them continuing to hold down their jobs. It’s baffling to realize how often people think the advice in #1 is an insult, when it’s simply just a tried-and-tested first solution.

3) They do not realize a lot of tech support staff must follow a script: at least at first, anyway. The reason we’re given a troubleshooting script when working at a lower level is because it’s easier to narrow down the problem by asking a set of pre-defined questions that can be displayed as a solution flow-chart. Faster for us, faster for you. Stick with it, we’re not being pedantic and annoying.

4) They are very impatient: we understand as well as you do that a tech problem that takes a while to solve can be really frustrating – it prevents you from doing what you’d rather be doing, and it also prevents us from moving on to the next person. We do enjoy solving problems, however, so please bear in mind that we’re working as hard and fast as we can.

5) They assume we’re thick-skinned: you have to be, in this job, but it wouldn’t kill some people to be a little more gentle. Swearing and interrupting doesn’t help us do our jobs, and it means we can’t actually solve the problem, because you’re providing profanity rather than the specifics of the problem you’re having.

We tech support experts are gentle folk, and whatever field I find myself working in, I’m always grateful I had roles in tech support to teach me problem-solving and communications skills, as well as how to keep cool under extreme pressure. Next time someone solves your router issue for you, surprise them – say thank you!

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Book Smarts

E-books still have a hard fight ahead of them before they overtake print books, but it’s a fight they might eventually win. With Internet retailer Amazon selling more e-books than print this year, there’s a clear sign that the demand for e-books is on the rise. But for college textbooks, the fight to switch to digital is a little more complicated. The textbook industry put up major numbers with their arguably inflated prices, and a change to the paradigm could revolutionize the business, for better or worse.

Still, there’s no way to ignore the benefits of e-books in college classrooms. From possible price drops to easy access and mobility, the time will come when colleges and universities must accept—and adapt to—the electronic books in the classroom. And as the Internet makes online school and distance learning  viable alternatives to attending a traditional “brick-and-mortar” program, e-books fit perfectly into the lives of college students on the go.

The almighty dollar

Every college student has experienced that sinking feeling after receiving a class textbook list: students spend hundreds, even thousands of dollars each semester for books they’ll use for just a few months. And the sell-back prices are often just a fraction of the new or used prices charged by bookstores. Electronic textbooks could be produced for much less than their print versions—but a quick click through Amazon’s relatively small Kindle selection of textbooks reveals that prices haven’t been affected all that much. Publishers have every incentive to keep prices high, and unless instructors, school administrators and students find a way to put pressure on textbook makers, the chances of cheap e-textbooks being reality are still slim.

The new classroom?

Despite prices still being high, e-textbooks have the potential to reshape the way teachers and students interact with their texts. The versatility of a text that can be shared on computers, e-readers and tablets could allow a level of interaction that’s impossible with traditional texts.

Still, the adoption of e-texts requires that every student have a device on which to read those texts, which could put already struggling schools and students at a financial disadvantage. Further, with the frequency that new editions of texts are published, keeping a current copy of a text could cost even more money—which would benefit only the publishers.

A textbook revolution might be in the future for higher education, but there’s a host of variables that need to change before e-books become the standard on college campuses. As the world moves away from print, education will have to adjust to a new kind of text. It’s a transition that appears to be inevitable, but academia must make that transition smooth for both teachers and students.

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Girl With Pearl Earring Review

Girl With a Pearl Earring
Tracy Chevalier

Paige’s Rating: (3) of 5
Recommended for: Historic Fiction

Girl with a Pearl Earring centers on Vermeer’s prosperous Delft household during the 1660s. When Griet, the novel’s quietly perceptive heroine, is hired as a servant, turmoil follows. First, the 16-year-old narrator becomes increasingly intimate with her master. Then Vermeer employs her as his assistant–and ultimately has Griet sit for him as a model. Chevalier vividly evokes the complex domestic tensions of the household, ruled over by the painter’s jealous, eternally pregnant wife and his taciturn mother-in-law.

This book was a completely in-the-middle-of-the-road read. I can’t say that I didn’t like it, because I did. But I can’t say that I liked it a lot, because I didn’t. Rather, it entertained.

The plot idea is creative in the fact that Chevalier attempts to build a story around the famous painting “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” by Vermeer, a painter and painting that historians really know very little about. Therefore, I do give her credit for taking a real piece of history and attempting to fashion a story to it. The author also does a fine job of describing the setting of the Netherlands in the 17th century.

However, the plot in and of itself is a bit bland. The story is told by a first person narrator called Griet, a young seventeen year old girl who becomes a maid for Vermeer’s wife. There is clearly conflict with Griet and Vermeer’s wife, a woman who wants to control her household, yet the real conflict to me seems to be the author’s ability to generate a believable romantic connection between Griet and Vermeer. I would have liked a little bit more scandal and a little bit more emotion and desire.

Which brings me to the next point: the characters were rather linear and undeveloped. Griet is young and naïve girl who falls in love with a quiet, brooding Vermeer. Yet, there is nothing about Griet’s character that helps me differentiate love for Vermeer or respect. Vermeer’s character is also really dry, and this may be caused by the lack of historical information on him. Overall, the characters felt really chilly throughout the book and their interactions were about as sexy as… slugs mating. Sorry, I had to say it again.

Like Vermeer, Chavalier can really paint a picture. Her images are wonderful but her storyline and characters lack raw human emotion. I wonder if maybe her audience is more of the young adult scene, not so much the almost-thirty-and-single-and-needing-to-read-about-love-because-its-dead-in-my-personal-life scene. Hmmm. If that’s the case, I say try it out. However, if you are looking for something that speaks a bit more to the adult side, dare I say passionate and raunchy side, definitely pass it.

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Super Sad Love Story Review

Super Sad True Love Story
Gary Shteyngart

Paige’s Rating: (4) of 5
Recommended for: Fiction- Futuristic Dystopian Demise Style

Super Sad True Love Story belies almost every word of its title, but it still plunges us into a satirical realm that we can recognize if we open our eyes widely. Restless, middle-aged, maladjusted Lenny Abramov and young Eunice Park, his somewhat reluctant old-fashioned love interest alternate as narrators, each of them projecting a slightly twisted view of an even more twisted reality.

This book was given to me by a friend who was a little hesitant to have me read it. “I know you hated ‘The Road’ and so I don’t know how much you will like this book.” Being that it was one of those dystopian themed books, I understood and shared in his skepticism. However, unlike ‘The Road’ which was merely a plot less pointless waste of time, this book had a lot of redeeming aspects that made me actually give it 4 of 5 stars.

The setting of this book is somewhere in the (hopefully not) near future, where America has been completely destroyed by its greedy corporations and China is bailing us out but ready to foreclose. In this America, everything is dominated by the Media and Retail, as these are the highly sought after jobs for people. The Media people spend time video blogging everything, checking their Global Teens account and my favorite, assessing their fuckability, personality and credit scores. The Retail people are sure to wear the latest fashion of see-though pants and nipple-less bras. Even though the future is designed around not so far-fetched ideas, I still give Shteyngart props for drawing in today’s social networking hype and exploiting it realistically.

The characters were, well, a different story. Lenny is a 40 year old man who is single and quite lonely. He is desperate to give love and be in love about as much as he is desperate to obtain high fuckability scores in the local bars. He is a fish out of water: a man who is financially responsible but socially childish. There could be a lot of redeeming qualities about him, but I just read about a very weak and pathetic man. And maybe that was Shteyngart’s goal. The female protagonist, Eunice, is 24 years old and is actually unconcerned about her fuckability. Rather, she seems to try to live her life according to the strict traditions of her family. She seems, ironically, more emotionally mature than Lenny but a financial train wreck. Thus, they both need each other for balance. Their personalities are interesting; however, I find them a bit difficult to relate to as they don’t seem like anyone I remotely know.

The plot is good. It starts out describing the relationship between Lenny and Eunice, but through this you see the state of America, crumbling. In this way, the book is hard to read because you know the climax is going to contain doom and gloom for America. Yet, you aren’t sure if Lenny and Eunice’s relationship will meet the same end. So you keep turning the pages.

I also liked how the book was written by the point-of-view of the two characters through their Global Teens account. This, I thought was a good way to present the book.

Overall, I would suggest “Super Sad True Love Story” if you are indeed, ready for just that.

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The Borders Question

Contributed by: Joseph Baker

Borders filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in February, and they recently announced that they are closing down their remaining 399 store locations. With the death of Borders book stores, many book lovers are wondering about the future of the medium. When Borders closes their stores, what will move in to fill that vacuum—other big box book stores like Barnes and Noble? Small independently-owned book stores? Nothing? Does Borders’ death represent a move away from book reading in general, or just a move away from stores like Borders?

The face of book sales in the US has been changing. Of course, with the economic troubles, book sales, like all luxury products, have been low in general. But how people are buying books has also changed significantly. For one thing, ereader sales have been increasing—an estimated 6.7 million ereaders were sold last year. Yet the ebook market is still just a fraction of the market for paper books. The more-profound change is how people have been buying paper books. Increasingly consumers are getting their books online rather than in brick-and-mortar stores.

Meanwhile Amazon has been doing fantastically well, watching their net sales grow by 51% since last year, despite the lagging economy. This is indicative of a general shift away from big box retail and towards online retail. Borders’ closing is not an isolated incident. Best Buy is also in dire straits, losing much of their business to Amazon as well. All across the board it seems that online retail is replacing the large brick-and-mortar stores.

While Barnes and Noble has not succumbed to this trend yet, if they do not reduce store sizes and increase their web presence, it seems like only a matter of time before they may have to.

Though death seems immanent for the largest book stores, there is no indication that the smaller book stores are on their way out yet. Small independent stores seem to be doing just fine. Though the profit margins for such businesses are small, savvy bookstore owners are keeping afloat.

What all this means is that people still want books (mostly physical), and people still want places to hang out. Borders’ closure doesn’t indicate that people have stopped buying books entirely; it just reflects a shift in the way people are getting their books.

Book stores need to compete with online retailers, which means having their own good online stores and/or having locations that are small and cherished enough that they can afford to keep the lights on. One way businesses are doing the former is using order fulfillment to help manage their online stores, while a way that business are doing the latter is by using social media to reach out to the community and put themselves on the map as a cultural haven.

With the coming changes in the way book stores do business, authors and publishers should take note as to how this will shift sales in the literary world. As online sales increase, sales of books that people usually look for directly via a search will likely increase, while sales of books that people usually pick up incidentally at a book store will likely decrease.

Accordingly, authors need to focus on writing books that people will seek out rather than expecting books to be able to promote themselves off of a shelf. Expect to see more in-depth specialty books pick up sales, while the lowest-common denominator, impulse buy books drop in sales. As consumers take an increasingly active role in their acquisition of media, producers of media should stop trying to reach such broad audiences and instead compete more ferociously for the attention of people in smaller sub-markets.

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