A Horatio (St.) Alger Story


Horatio Alger

Horatio Alger

A few weeks ago we arrived back at our NYC apartment on Horatio St. after a night of music at City Winery (great show by the folk super group Red Horse with Lucy Kaplansky, John Gorka, and Eliza Gilkyson) and a couple who are neighbors from the fourth floor exited the elevator freaked out about the smell of smoke in their hallway wondering what they should do. I became concerned too of course, and went back with them to their apartment to see if I could help.

After confirming the strong smell of smoke I immediately called the building superintendent but since it was a Saturday night he was away and couldn’t personally investigate. He advised me to walk the halls to see if I could locate the origin of the smell and if warranted, call the Fire Department. In doing so I ran into other neighbors who smelled smoke and were equally concerned.

I quickly identified the source to be on the second floor where a small party was under way. They had a fire going in a poorly drawing fireplace and to prevent asphyxiation the owners left the door to the hallway partially ajar. This allowed the smoke to enter the hall and since the apartment was near the elevator shaft and stairwell it quickly spread to other floors, causing the smell that triggered the concern of many of the building occupants. I knocked on their door but with the noise of the party I had to let myself in to get their attention. I quickly introduced myself and explained the purpose of my visit.

The hosts Arnie and Sally were most apologetic – on further investigation, it turns out the flue was not completely opened so it was a quick fix to get the fireplace working properly. After fully opening the windows for a few minutes we were able to clear the air and the “crisis” was pronounced officially over. I was invited to stay for a few beers but felt obliged to report back to the couple from the elevator what I’d found and to let them know there was no need for concern. Arnie and Sallie graciously extended the invitation for them to join too.

Raymond and Steve were relieved of course, and to show there were no hard feelings the three of us marched downstairs to join the now smoke-free festivities. It was a crowded, noisy affair – not surprising when you cram about 25 people into a small one bedroom NYC apartment.

Apple Store, West Village, NYC

Apple Store, West Village, NYC

After a while I struck up a conversation with Raymond whose day job is Chief Geekster behind the Genius Bar in the West Village Apple store. You’d never guess that this mild-mannered technology whiz can’t wait until closing time when he goes home, kicks off his canvas sneakers, puts on some hot Latin dance tunes through his top-of-the-line Sennheiser HD 598 headphones and busts out…bopping in his electronics lab inventing cool electronic wizardry. OK, not exactly Clark Kent but a very interesting guy nonetheless. He’s got 18 patents on stuff you’ve never heard of and frankly I couldn’t fully appreciate the applications of a lithium ion reversible flow nano-film micro capacitor among other various and sundry esoteric electronic gadgets…until he told me about his latest invention.

signingThis invention is still very much based in the high-tech world but has its roots in a much more down to earth application. For as long as books have been published authors have used book signings to personally meet their readers, provide insights into their writing and market their work. While autographing their book is not strictly necessary to accomplish these goals, it does give the author the opportunity to make the experience more personal and thus more significant to the reader. Book signings are in fact, on the rise. Jon Howells, of Waterstones, a large British publishing firm said the company holds hundreds of book signings every year.

e-book2“The interest in signings has certainly risen and risen over the past decade, with figures famous on the world stage joining more traditional authors in putting themselves in front of readers,” he says.

With the advent of e-books and the real possibility that actual hard and soft covered books printed on paper may soon face extinction, Raymond realized the time honored tradition of book signings is in jeopardy. So he came up with a way to keep the tradition very much alive and even expand it with his E-book Signature Process (EbSP©). It is designed to either work with existing e-readers by modifying the book files using an external electronic stylus device and replacing the title page with a personalized version and/or to enable the e-Reader itself to be equipped with an electronic stylus that, with appropriate software would allow you to modify the file directly. The latter is appealing in that it closely replicates the look and feel of a traditional book signing.

But the external stylus feature opens up a whole new world of book signing possibilities by allowing the process to be conducted virtually, i.e., author and reader don’t have to be in the bookstore together – in fact, using the specially designed Skype app they don’t even have to be in the same state. Rather than stand in line for hours in a crowded book store, while your fellow signees go on and on telling the author how their book has changed their life yada yada, you can be relaxing at home with a Mojito. You don’t even need to sit in front of your computer because the autoqueue feature can notify you as the line progresses: “Excuse me, there are currently 75 customers ahead of you…” When your turn arrives you will be on camera with the author for your 15 sec chance to explain how you lost 50 lbs and met your new wife after reading his masterpiece. If you sit right in front of your computer camera you can even come to the book signing in your pajamas Imagine that.

After receiving five separate patents related to his EbSP©, Raymond approached the sales and product development honchos at Apple but was met with little enthusiasm. The corporate culture at Apple suffers from extensive inbreeding and even though he is an Apple employee, the product was not an official Apple idea so they barely returned his emails. Since Apple already offers a stylus for their iPad, they didn’t see the EbSP© as being a valuable addition. What Apple neglected to consider however, is that Raymond’s patents give him intellectual property protection for the idea of electronic book signing so Apple will be frozen out of the market. Raymond was not entirely surprised however, and had steeled himself for this outcome.

Undeterred, he moved on to Amazon.com where the reception was quite a bit warmer and he received immediate and considerable interest for his invention beginning with a first class flight to Seattle to pitch the idea in person. Amazon also has a stylus option for its Kindle Fire tablet and was eager to adopt the software for book signing applications. But according to Jeffrey Blackburn Vice President for Business Development, it was the remote book signing application that interested Amazon the most:

Amazon is proud to have pioneered the advent of e-books and is always looking for new ways to enhance the reader’s experience. We see the opportunity of bringing authors and readers together for personal interaction via today’s remote telecommunications capabilities as a natural progression and innovative approach.

His attorney negotiated and signed an exclusive marketing license with Amazon.com. I couldn’t help ask what an exclusive contract with a mega company like Amazon would net but Raymond was not interested in boasting. When I suggested six figures he just smiled. The hardware and software is in the final stages of development and beta testing and Amazon hopes to have it commercially available in time for the Christmas shopping season. Blackburn said they are already lining up authors for their first series of virtual book tours that would be scheduled for January 2014.

Horatio Alger was also an inventor of sorts, whose contributions made a huge mark on the publishing world of his time. In the 1860s he invented a new genre of “dime novel stories for boys” in which poor urban street kids pulled themselves up through hard work and fortitude to become wealthy industrial barons. The modern day version of his famous rags to riches stories are being played out in Silicon Valley where the Raymonds of the world emerge from their urban electronics lab or suburban garage workshop to gain a good deal of wealth and fame. The main difference this time around is that the meteoric rise from obscurity to power is driven by intellectual and technical innovation and not merely sweat and dedication. While I don’t expect Raymond to be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page or Jeffrey Bezos I suspect he and Steve may soon be putting their one bedroom Horatio St apartment on the market in search of more fashionable digs.



Published in: on May 13, 2013 at 10:06 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nice story! I like that you met them by walking into their party.

    Editor’s response: thanks Amy…but while it’s true that where there’s smoke, there’s fire it’s also true that sometimes fiction is stranger than fact



    Tonight I am going to a reading at Brookline Booksmith by Jane Gardam, amazing author of “Old Filth” . To attend, I will be missing a visit to my very own library by Andres Dubus III, author of “Townies” and “House of Sand and Fog”. On my Author’s Wall here at work, I have pictures of me with Roz Chast, Moira Kallman, Tom Perotta, Larry McMurtry, Andy Borowitz, Ron Rash, Walter Mosely, Lynda Barry, Russell Banks, Dave Barry, Elinor Lipman, Jane Smiley, David Rees, and Eric Kraft. If your guy’s idea comes to fruition, when will I ever get to meet and talk to these people who have provided me with so many hours of pleasure? Ron Rash even remembered me from the last time he swung by the Harvard Bookstore and said, “Oh yeah, you asked great questions both times.”

    My last author encounter, justly undocumented, was at a local library with Marge Piercy, author of my most beloved “Small Changes”. She read some piercing poems about women aging and then refused my request to have her picture taken with me (” I never allow photos”) and was such a mean bitch. Without meeting her, how could I possibly have known that? What a loss for readers. I cannot abide.

    Editor’s response: Well, I seem to have inadvertently touched a raw nerve here… actually I think “Raymond’s” invention will not spell the end of the interaction between author and reader but will in fact democratize the process by allowing those outside of the major metropolitan areas to participate. True you won’t have the celebrity photo op for your office wall but the advent of real-time audio-visual communication, once a Jules Vernian fantasy from the AT&T pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair has in fact, become reality. While you can’t shake hands, hug, or have a Kodak moment, you are still free to exchange ideas and ask great questions.

    But I think the question goes beyond book signings to the much larger issue of ebooks in general. Reading between the lines (electronic ones I might add), I’m guessing you’re not a fan… Barbara Kingsolver one of my favorite authors doesn’t allow her books to be epublished and while I still enjoy holding a hardcover book in hand, I am thoroughly sold on the benefits of ebooks. What say you on this?


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