Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Worse to Worst



Serious effort in the humorous series is a good effort but hardly revelatory


BY RICHARD PACHTER

The Worst-Case Scenario Business Survival Guide: How to Survive the Recession, Handle Layoffs, Raise Emergency Cash, Thwart an Employee Coup, and Avoid Other Potential Disasters. David Borgenicht, Mark Joyner. Wiley. 208 pages


How about starting a new job and on the third day, you arrive at work to discover that the building is surrounded by police cars? Shocked, you wonder if the joint was robbed but soon learn from a stern cop that the company is accused of criminal activities. Or another gig where the owner ushers you into his office and asks you to accompany him to a business meeting with a competitor. On the car ride to their site, he announces that he’s going to pitch them on acquiring his company! Those are two screwy situations that yours truly encountered that may not be “worst-case” scenarios, but neither are most of the relatively typical business problems depicted in this short and amusing little book.
Previously, books in the “Worst-Case” series offered humorous and straight-faced advice for dealing with obviously over-the-top situations — how to jump from a bridge or a cliff into a river; how to survive if trapped in a lion’s cage; how to escape from a giant octopus — accompanied by retro-ish illustrations that evoked hokey how-to manuals from eras past.

It was a winning formula, apparently, as a stream of follow-ups and brand extensions appeared, including a TV special. I haven’t read every volume, but my sense is that each took a similarly light and frivolous approach to the issues, even if some weren’t very serious themselves, like surviving a zombie attack.

This new volume is VERY SERIOUS, however, and emphatically states so in both forwards by each of the authors of record. With no less than 25 “experts” weighing in with their advice, the pair, I’d guess, probably did the book’s outline and final rewrites. But this veritable Justice League Unlimited of kibitzers must’ve come up with a lot of stuff that was sliced, diced and concentrated to fit snugly into a book of just under 200 pages of text. But that’s still a lot of serious!

Regardless, the book is divided into five chapters of “emergencies”: Financial, HR, Productivity, Sales and Marketing, and Executive, with a “Basic Training” summation at the end of each chapter. The presentation is pleasant enough and the intermittent appearance of Colin Hayes’ beautifully deadpan line art will elicit a chuckle or two. The advice is solid, simple and un-surprising. If you possess a minimal amount of common sense, you’ll know this stuff cold. If you’re just starting out in the world, this might be a useful book to study or one to bequeath upon a clueless co-worker who aspires toward management. Please be careful; if you hand it to an actual manager they may be insulted — and you could be mortally wounded — or your career will be. But it’s immeasurably more constructive than any cheesy, rodent-infested pop parable or other well meaning but quintessentially vapid folderol. And if you need a stocking stuffer or a present for a holiday office gift exchange, you can pick up a copy for under 12 bucks on Amazon.com, which will undoubtedly aid in surviving, at the very least, that potential disaster.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Janis Joplin's Spirit Eludes Detailed Biography


http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00BY5XRHS/?tag=wordsonwords-20

SCARS OF SWEET PARADISE: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin. Alice Echols. Metropolitan Books.

By RICHARD PACHTER

The only Janis Joplin songs on the radio these days are Me and Bobby McGee, and maybe Piece Of My Heart. But her image — larger than life — endures. Alice Echols' new biography of Joplin thoroughly examines her life and image, but the result is wholly unsatisfying.

Born in 1943 and raised in claustrophobic Port Arthur, Texas, Joplin grew into an "ugly duckling" teen. A vivacious, outgoing child ostracized by her classmates, who cruelly voted her "Ugliest Man On Campus," the preternaturally bright young woman became a social outcast. Purposely cultivating an unsavory reputation, she pushed the limits of propriety and parental authority by hanging with the town's lowlifes and beatniks until she escaped to college.

A self-professed folkie who gravitated to the music of Odetta and Leadbelly, Joplin barely attended classes, devoting all of her time to nearly nonstop partying and sexual explorations. She began singing at clubs and coffeehouses and nurtured her growing talent, which was sometimes fueled by copious amounts of legal and illegal substances.

She dropped in and out of school, and attempted to live the conventional lifestyle of her parents a final time before abandoning any pretense of conformity. She explored Greenwich Village, but eventually settled in San Francisco just in time for the emergence of the hippies of Haight Ashbury.

In San Francisco, Joplin found a community that welcomed her as a kindred spirit. The burgeoning music scene was a hotbed of experimentation, socially, sexually and sometimes even musically. Bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Charlatans recognized Joplin's talent and outrageous character. She hung out — and coupled — with many of those involved. Country Joe McDonald had a relatively long-term relationship with her, and memorialized the singer in his song Janis, on his 1967 album Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die.

The Bay Area's "anything goes" attitude gave Joplin license to party even more. When she joined Big Brother and The Holding Company, a ragged hippie rock band, Joplin's astounding voice became its immediate focal point. Hailed as the Caucasian reincarnation of Bessie Smith and other black blues singers, Joplin and the band inked a typically exploitative contract with a smallish record label, quickly producing a low-fi album that was ignored by radio.

At the first (and only) Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967, a now-legendary appearance by the group and its fiery vocalist attracted rabid attention from the music business. Bob Dylan's manager quickly displaced Big Brother's home-grown handler, and the rest of the band faded into the background, forever relegated to the role of Janis Joplin's first backup band. Columbia Records bought out their recording contract, and Big Brother made its real debut album under the tutelage of producer John Simon and engineer Elliot Mazer.

Though the album, dubbed Cheap Thrills, seemed like a live recording, all but one track — Ball and Chain — were cut in the studio. Simon and Mazer figured that the band's ragged playing would be more palatable if presented in a concert context, so they added fake audience tape-loops and canned applause, crafting a simulated live album.

Though the LP sold a million copies in its first month of release, Joplin was urged to abandon Big Brother by her manager, her record company and others. Subsequent musical accompaniment inarguably served her prodigious talents better. Big Brother recorded one album following her departure, before becoming a music history footnote.

Joplin's newfound celebrity and fortune enabled the acceleration of a Sybaritic lifestyle, as she made up for lost time. Her casual pansexual couplings, drug addictions, alcoholism and other passions undercut potential artistic and career growth. Echols lists many of Joplin's lovers, including Jets quarterback Joe Namath and musician Kris Kristofferson, who composed her posthumous hit, Me and Bobby McGee. But Janis felt lonely and unloved, despite the seemingly endless parade of short-term companions.

In October 1970, at the age of 27, she was found dead after an overdose of heroin, forming an immortal triumvirate of prematurely departed rock icons. Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix — Echols says Joplin had brief affairs with both — were dead within months of her.

Her enduring image as a red-hot mama and rock archetype inspired Bette Midler's film The Rose, which was originally touted as a Joplin biopic. Another Joplinesque movie is said to be under consideration, this one supposedly starring Melissa Etheridge, who says she draws inspiration from the late singer's bold life. Other women artists similarly express solidarity with Joplin's sexuality and legacy .

Echols' book is a sympathetic but nearly clinical exploration of Joplin's life. With ample research, including scores of interviews with friends, lovers and associates, it's clear that much earnest work went into this project, but the result is a scholarly tome, contrasting wildly with the subject's flamboyant life and work. The ferocious power of Janis Joplin hinted at here may be impossible to authentically convey in any non-aural medium.

Originally published on March 14, 1999 in the Sun-Sentinel

Friday, June 20, 2014

FAs without the Qs

Back when I reviewed biz books for the Miami Herald, I'd get — as you'd imagine — numerous inquiries from publishers, authors, publicists and others who wanted me to review their books.

Some were quite professional, generally because they were from professionals, but others were a bit ham-handed and many asked my help to "promote their book in the Miami Herald"(!)

Rather than respond to each entreaty, I put together a kind of boilerplate response, which I honed and revised many times, as needed.

I've never shared this online, but was thinking about it today and thought, why not?

So, here it is.

FAQ for Publicists, Publishers and Authors

Thanks for your e-mail about your book.

Here are a few things you might find helpful.

First of all, I review business books usually intended for a general business audience. I avoid technical volumes, most business-to-business books, self-help, diets, pop psychology, inspirational, religious, spiritual, sports, celebrity bios, novels, fables, humor, parables and such. (There are exceptions, but not often!) CEO memoirs and the like are iffy, but not entirely out of the question.

I love books and language, and am endlessly interested in all forms of business, as it's a vital aspect of human culture.

That's why I review business books.

If you want your book considered for review, you need not ask me before sending a copy. It's an extra and unnecessary step.

I receive many books every day — more than I can possibly review — so if you think yours is a candidate, just send it. My address is below.

If you are not sure if the book is right, please take a moment to scan my previous reviews. The links are below. The Miami Herald site requires registration. My own (admittedly incomplete) sites, http://www.wordsonwords.com and http://www.richardpachter.com do not.

I like books offering fresh ideas that can be applied to a variety of businesses and situations.

Your book must be new, and available in bookstores and from normal online merchants (Amazon.com, BN.com etc.) and not just through your own web site or 800 number. 

I'll sometimes review a book AND the CD audio version. Feel free to send both, if you like.

I don't (can't) return phone calls. You may always follow up with me by e-mail. I try to respond promptly, but this is not my full-time gig, unfortunately, and my "real" job takes up the majority of my time and attention.

I don't review unpublished manuscripts or provide my "professional opinion" about something I'm not reviewing, and can offer no advice on agents, publishers, editors etc.

I rarely do author interviews unless there are strong local South Florida connections, and even that's no guarantee.

I don't need any canned reviews, have no say about anything else in the paper and think that poetry is a huge scam, so don't send me any poems (pretty please!)

I also review graphic novels on a monthly basis for The Herald. From time to time, I write about other stuff, but it's not worth pitching me on anything, since I have more ideas than time to execute them.

Thanks for reading. (Any implied grouchiness herein is certainly not directed at you! I promise.)


xxx
rap
Richard Pachter
----

This FAQ is covered by a Creative Commons license.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Fiona Apple’s original (and still-unreleased) "Extraordinary Machine”

Note: In 2005, I was intrigued by the Free Fiona fan campaign, so I pitched and wrote this for The Miami Herald. It was picked up by a few other papers, running in a severely edited form. The version that the Herald published was also edited for space, so here's the full original piece I'd submitted. Also, a completely reworked version of Apple's album was subsequently released by the record company. A comparison of each version is here.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B000B0WOEO/?tag=wordsonwords-20
The extraordinary release of Fiona Apple’s new album
BY RICHARD PACHTER

Fiona Apple’s new album wasn’t released. It escaped.


The third collection of songs from the waifish looking but throaty-voiced singer/songwriter reportedly was handed into Sony/Epic, her label, in May 2003. Her previous album, the one with a 57 word title (popularly know as "When the Pawn … ") was released in 1999 and fans wondered what had become of Ms. Apple since then.

Sessions for the third collection began with Jon Brion, a quirky but meticulous musician who played guitar on the first album and produced the second one, at the helm and the results were eagerly awaited. But that’s where the story gets murky. It’s been speculated that Epic didn’t hear a single on the album and refused to release it.

That was nearly two years ago. Not a note was heard until last August, when the title song of the new set, “Extraordinary Machine,” appeared (where else?) on the Internet.

Like a modern rearrangement of a long-forgotten show tune, “Extraordinary Machine” seemed a bit out of context. Apple’s lyrics and singing were slightly mannered, but just as knowing and self-aware as her previous work, with an unexpected pinch of humor added to the mix. Brion’s production and (presumable) arrangement was jazzy, but also reminiscent of Beatlesque art rock, with strings and horns. (Paul McCartney ought to look him up.)

Shortly thereafter, producer Brion announced the track listing and expressed his confidence that the long-delayed album would soon be released, but that was it; nothing from Fiona: No tour. No statements. Few sightings and no other new music.

Until a few weeks ago.

The entire 11 song “Extraordinary Machine” album appeared on one fan site, then several, in nearly CD-quality .mp3 files for download. Which it promptly — and repeatedly — was.

This is not the first time an unreleased album by a successful artist reached the public before the record company intended. Bob Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” was bootlegged as “The Great White Wonder” in 1969. “Get Back” by The Beatles was widely available before a remixed and rearranged version by producer Phil Spector morphed into “Let It Be” a year later. In 2000, The Dave Matthews Band’s final sessions with incumbent producer Steve Lillywhite were rejected by Matthews and RCA, after which most tracks were leaked to the public. They were later re-recorded and “officially” issued. And Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was rejected by Reprise, then streamed on the net from the band’s web site before its subsequent release by Nonesuch, a corporate sibling of original label Reprise. Other albums appear on peer-to-peer networks and fan sites prior to their official release (and until cease and desist notices arrive from the RIAA), despite (or possibly because of) the best efforts of their record companies and managers. Most recently, the current U2 album, “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb” was in fans’ hands (and their ipods and hard drives) a week before it hit the stores.

Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine,” however, may mark the first time an album that was supposedly rejected by the label (and possibly approved by the artist) became available to the public in this manner.

Its release has not gone unnoticed. A “Free Fiona” web site organized an in-person (as opposed to online) demonstration, so fans picketed the record company’s offices and were encouraged to send apples to Sony Music president Andy Lack in protest. The company issued a terse statement: "We join music lovers everywhere in eagerly anticipating her next release," which said everything — and nothing.

The Herald reached one senior Epic executive by telephone who declined to discuss Fiona Apple on or off the record, refusing to even allow an attributed quote of “No comment.” Epic president Steve Barnett, when asked by a Herald writer about the status of the Fiona Apple album, affably responded with “That’s sensitive,“ and promptly transferred the telephone call to Epic Senior VP of Publicity Lois Najarian. She allowed that the company was working with the artist’s management to resolve various issues, and refused to provide substantive details of the negotiations, which she called “proprietary,” but added, “We want to continue to be in business with Fiona Apple.”

A source familiar with the situation hinted strongly that Brion may have been behind much of the high-tech agitation. Rather than handing the album in to the label in 2003, the source suggested that Epic had received it piecemeal from Brion, with songs in various stages of completion, and not as a finished work. There may have been subsequent discussions of bringing in another producer to either rework some or all of the existing tracks, or record one or more new songs that were more likely, in Epic’s opinion, to receive commercial radio airplay. Whether or not Brion was the source of the leaked tracks (which he strongly denied in an interview with Newsweek’s Lorraine Ali), it put the company in an awkward position, especially since Apple remained mum and didn’t offer a public opinion either way. Some have speculated that she agrees with Epic and doesn’t like her new album or considers it to be unfinished. Her management may not be helping the press or Epic by maintaining its silence, but they undoubtedly know that the growing interest and mystique ensures increased attention when the finished product is ultimately and officially released.

The tracks have been downloaded extensively and also are available on various peer-to-peer networks, but the excitement isn’t limited to fans. Highly favorable reviews were published and posted in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, MTV, Salon.com and Newsweek among other media. A Seattle radio station bravely aired several songs before Epic stepped in with its inevitable cease and desist order.

In any case, the songs that have surfaced are compelling and quite entertaining, revealing a new maturity both in Apple’s lyrics and vocals. Brion’s clever and complex production and arrangements serve the mostly jazzy pop tunes quite well.

The future of “Extraordinary Machine” may not be clear but one thing is. Accidentally or on purpose, whenever or whatever Fiona Apple does next — officially or not — people will be watching, listening and probably downloading. (Note: a rerecorded version of “Extraordinary Machine” was subsequently released. The "bootleg" has never been officially and legally available.)

Friday, August 31, 2012

Comic Wars

Comic Wars: How Two Tycoons Battled Over The Marvel Comics Empire — And Both Lost. Dan Raviv. Broadway Books. 320 pages.

By Richard Pachter

The business of comic books is a fascinating one, in many ways a microcosm of American industry. It all began in the early part of the last century as a means of using otherwise idle color presses. Its original "content" was compilations of previously published newspaper cartoons. But when these compilations sold well, a new industry quickly formed, and original material was required.

With the success of its first genuine star, Superman (whose strip was a cut-and-paste job originally intended for newspaper syndication), the need for new strips exploded. Scores of new publishers seemed to appear overnight. Assembly-line principles produced thousands of pages of comics by editors, writers, pencil artists, ink embellishers and colorists in "bullpens" based mainly in New York City, the center of the American publishing industry.

Fast forward. By the late '40s and early '50s, this once-thriving business hit on hard times. The number of publishers were down to a handful, decimated by wartime paper shortages, then a politically motivated attempt to tie comics to a rising youth crime rate — as if "juvenile delinquents" were avid readers! The growing popularity of television didn't help sales either. By the 1960s, most of the survivors sold out to larger corporations. And as consolidation continued, one of the largest remaining comics companies, Marvel, was a ripe target.

The scene is then set as Dan Raviv's book, due out next week (on the eve of the release of the Spider-Man movie), opens:

"Ronald O. Perelman — America's richest short, bald, forty-six-year-old chain-cigar-chomper — seemed to have a delicious deal when he bought Marvel Entertainment Group in January 1989. This was not a hostile takeover. It was simply a matter of negotiating a fair price for a property that seemed to have untapped potential.

The owner dumping Marvel was New World Entertainment, a Hollywood production company that garnered very limited payoffs from made-for-television movies featuring the Incredible Hulk and other Marvel comics superheroes. New World had gone flat and wanted to pump itself up with new genres of TV and movies. So Marvel was on the auction block, and when Perelman saw that half a dozen companies were making bids he hardly needed to check his credit line. He simply outbid the others at $82.5 million. The delicious part was what Wall Street calls leverage: He had to put up only a small percentage of the money. All the rest was somebody else's."

It's an interesting account — up to a point. The problem is, the book is about deals. Raviv relishes the subject, but most of the, well, color of the comics business is essentially missing. The various wheelers and dealers (Ronald Perelman, Carl Icahn, Isaac Perlmutter and Avi Arad) are a bunch of rich guys playing with bonds, zero coupons and leverage: boring stuff irrespective of the specifics of the business.

Raviv, a distinguished journalist whose distinctive — and breathless — reports for CBS Radio are always sharp, unfortunately fails to elicit much interest from the reader as he describes interminable exchanges of faxes, attorneys' letters, impromptu meetings and the like. Also absent is any real knowledge of comics on the part of the author. For example, not even journeyman artist Sal Buscema's mother would call him "one of the great Marvel artists" as Raviv apparently does.

Similar errors appear throughout, but that's not the big problem with Comic Wars. Although a current Marvel exec recently confided that he's having a lot of fun with the book, the rest of us will have to look elsewhere for tales to astonish. 

Originally published in The Miami Herald

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Guides for word nerds and language wranglers

Words to live and write by

BY RICHARD PACHTER

Word nerds (like me) usually look askance at most tomes on writing and language. After all, pedantic autodidacts and over-educated sesquipedalians already know how to wrangle language and massage messages. Oh, occasionally something like the bestselling Eats Shoots and Leaves catches our collective fancy, but that was merely an amusement, a momentary distraction. Genuine lingo gringos unfailingly poo-poo prosaic word books as beneath them (or us). Unless it's our Bible — not the Pentateuch, but the Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style (according to your faith) — why bother?

Here's a look at the latest edition of the holy word and a recent would-be contender.
http://www.amazon.com/dp/0465021875/?tag=wordsonwords-20

Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. Associated Press/BasicBooks. 465 pages. (Also available by online subscription and as an app for mobile devices.)

I've never heard it called by its proper name, but the "AP Style Guide'' is used by businesses and publications throughout the country. This new version caused a bit of a buzz when it was announced that "Website'' would no longer be capitalized. Trust me, this was a very big deal, though "Internet'' inexplicably remains capitalized. (Huh?) But a technical writer of my acquaintance was VERY excited about this quantum leap, as if her world was now a brighter and happier place. Such is the power of this humble volume!

This resource is used in newspapers throughout the English-speaking world as an authority on usage, punctuation, abbreviation and more. It's also a fixture in the dens and cubicles of Anglophone business writers and other scribblers throughout the planet seeking authoritative guidance in their use of language for legal writing, ads and marketing communications material.

This new edition of the Stylebook is also available online (by subscription, with site licenses and individual deals, too.) In addition, an app (a recent addition to the Stylebook, apparently) for iPhones, iPads and iPods is also offered. These electronic versions afford immediate access to updates, so if the AP ever decides to allow "Internet'' in lowercase, subscribers will be the first to know.
The Yahoo! Style Guide: Writing and Editing for the Web. Chris Barr. St.Martin's Press. 528 pages.

Though Google rules search, Yahoo's strategy of providing actual content as part of their soufflĂ© of search and aggregation is still in place. As such, they've become a bit of an authority on content creation, and their style guide is a very nice grab bag of tools, ideas and instructions. A lot of it is Copywriting 101-level fare; a far cry from AP's no-nonsense journalism, but even the most recalcitrant news-o will admit that writing for the Web requires a sharp, punchy prose style that's more tabloid than "Times,'' though accuracy and clarity still reign. It might be less hyperbolic than copywriting, but it still needs to sell — itself, at the very least.

For many writers, this style guide won't be anything new and it's certainly no replacement for AP's collection of golden standards, but for neophytes and others, this is a fine course.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Thursday, April 26, 2012

For Freelancers, One Simple, Powerful Question

"What can I help you with RIGHT NOW?"

"Is there a project that you're working on that I can help you complete? Something to write, proofread, edit, design (etc)?"

Instead of waiting for an assignment, a creative brief, a return phone call, email or whatever after your meeting, ask and you'll increase your chances of going home with a gig immediately. No waiting!