Monthly Archives: August 2012

My Life in Titles, or The Title Game, or Adventures of a Title Maven, or Titles: The Writer’s Indispensable Tool, or What’s in a Title?, or…

Among the immortal literary classics to be found on the bookshelves of every civilized person are such books as Trimalchio in West Egg, My Valley, Pumphre, and Tom-All-Alone’s the Ruined House.

Do you mean to say you’ve never heard of them?

Actually, those were the titles before the author or publisher thought better of them. You undoubtedly know them as The Great Gatsby, East of Eden, Babbitt, and Bleak House. It’s hard to know whether they would have endured despite their dreadful original titles, but it does make us wonder. In fact, book editor and author Andre Bernard wondered so much about titles that he produced a whole book about them, Now All We Need Is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way.

The first problem most authors face when commencing a book or story is what to call it. Many writers cannot start writing until the question of title is settled, for among its many functions, the title helps an author focus on the point of his tale, its theme, mood, tone of voice, and the nature of the audience that will be reading it. Each version of the title of this article represents a different solution to the challenge of how to approach this subject. Do I play it straight or cute? Grimly academic, pedantically classical, or cleverly metaphorical? Luckily, for purposes of illustration, I was able to use all of them. I doubt if we shall see such an opportunity again in our lifetime.

I am a connoisseur of very few things, but I do consider myself one on the subject of book titles. It is certainly not a form of expertise I deliberately set out to develop. But even if you have a tin ear, over decades of immersion you do become something of a maven in this sub-sub-sub-species of literary endeavor.

There are worse things one could be. The first impression you form of a book is the one evoked by its title, and its impact on you is no less significant than the one you form upon first setting your eye on a stranger. Your bond with a book commences with its title: your mind and heart are subliminally conditioned by a title to anticipate the book’s message and respond to its contents.

The title of a book is its most important sales feature; you are often intrigued or put off by its title long before you see its cover, study its jacket blurbs, or browse through its contents to decide whether or not you want to purchase it. It is therefore not hyperbolic to suggest that many consumers make their decision to buy a book or pass it up on the strength or weakness of its title. Perhaps you can’t tell a book by its cover, but by its title? I think you can.

Little wonder, then, that authors, editors, and agents spend an inordinate time seeking les mots justes for the titles of their books. I keep a file of terrific titles for which no books have yet been written, and when a client complains about being stumped for one, I haul out my list and see if I can make a match. When I was a freelance writer, I collaborated with Elizabeth Hogan on a Doubleday book describing the dangers of nuclear power plants that were then beginning to proliferate in the United States. We took our title from Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”: Those Who Favor Fire. We thought it was a brilliant choice.

Doubleday’s sales reps didn’t. Every publishing company sales department has a Vice President in Charge of Rejecting Great Titles and Substituting Mediocre Ones, and that’s how our book ended up being called Perils of the Peaceful Atom.

The original title went into my Terrific Titles file, however, and when, years later, my client Marta Randall turned in an apocalyptic novel for which she lacked an appropriate title, I resuscitated Those Who Favor Fire and suggested it to her, and this time it passed muster.

Actually, it’s not fair to make fun of the sales reps, for it is they after all who have to go out and sell the book to the accounts. If a sales rep is not confident that your title makes an immediate and forceful impact on the buyers – which translates into lost commissions for him – he is going to lobby his publisher to get it changed.

And what for authors is an inspired title may be seen in a very different light by the sales grunts slugging it out on the front line. Among the most common complaints publishers hear from sales reps are vagueness (“What the hell does Attitudes mean”?), insipidness (“Alien Attackers sounds like a million other science fiction novels”), and inappropriateness (“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sounds like it should go in the how-to section of a bookstore”). Sales reps are therefore the conservative party in any publisher’s legislature, and they usually control a majority vote. But if I love a title enough I will fight like a devil for it, even with my own authors. In 1984 my clients psychiatrist Stanley Turecki, M.D. and co-author Leslie Tonner delivered to Bantam Books a contracted book advising parents how to understand and manage particularly difficult children. The authors and I had spent a long Saturday poring over Bibles, Bartlett’s, and other reference books, and had at last distilled a splendid title drop by drop: Parents Under Siege.

It did not pass muster with Bantam’s Vice President in Charge of Rejecting Great Titles, and we ended up with – well, what else? – The Difficult Child. Talk about difficult children, I was so bitterly disappointed I almost threw a tantrum. But the sales department felt that there are times when a title should simply state, without poetic flourish, what a book is about, and this was one of them. We ultimately acceded to this line of reasoning, and several dozen printings later I must grudgingly admit that Sales had a good point. (In the 1996 edition of my book How to Be Your Own Literary Agent, in which this essay was published, I wrote, “If you’ve written a book for which the title Parents Under Siege is appropriate, take it, it’s yours.” I don’t know if authors James Garbarino and Claire Bedard read this invitation, but in 2001 they brought out a book with that every title.)

Brilliant titles are not always desirable, however, and may actually hurt sales if they point the potential book buyer in the wrong direction. This is particularly true in genre fiction. Every category of books has what might be described as its own characteristic title “profile,” a word or phrase that blatantly declares the book’s genre. An obvious example is detective fiction, where you have The Case of the . . . or something with the words “murder” or “death” in it. Although these catch phrases have become clichés, they help everybody down the line, from editors to bookstore buyers to consumers, to immediately classify the book and make the selection process easier. The title, in other words, is a key element of the package, and guarantees the slot in which the book is to be displayed. A title that deviates too far from its appropriate genre can be a liability, no matter how clever or mellifluous it may be. If you don’t think you’ve been mentally conditioned to respond to titles, take any mainstream title and marry it to a genre formula one and you’ll see what I mean. Pretend you’re a bookstore clerk and determine in which department you would display the following:

The Valley of the Dolls Sanction The Dragons of Valley of the Dolls Dollsworld Showdown at Valley of the Dolls Mistress of Dollsvale Love’s Virginal Valley of the Dolls The Dollsdale Horror A Woman of Uncertain Valley of the Dolls Murder on the Rue Valley of the Dolls

It works for nonfiction, too:

The Valley of the Dolls Syndrome Tighten Up Your Valley of the Dolls The Thirty-Day Valley of the Dolls Slimdown

Even in mainstream literature, titles can give confusing and misleading impressions, and the results can be funny. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance really did get placed on how-to shelves, and the New York Times once ran an apology for referring to Evan Connell’s biography of Custer, Son of the Morning Star, as a novel. If you didn’t know better, you might very well place on the wrong shelves such ambiguously titled books as, Exit the Rainmaker, White Mischief, and The Dancing Wu Li Masters. It’s no laughing matter when these mix-ups cause lost sales, however.

Like everything else in modern culture, titles tend to go in and out of fashion. The revolutionary ’60s temporarily loosened strictures against long titles and book authors took their cue from the stage. Plays like Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, and The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the- Moon Marigolds had lengthy runs despite jawbreaking titles, and authors and publishers tried the same on books. Which is how we ended up with titles like, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. The problem with titles longer than five words, however, is that they crowd the cover and must be reduced to an unacceptably small typeface. The counterrevolution restored short titles, and many best-selling authors went on to employ one-word titles to good effect. There’s nothing like Jaws or Roots to instill confidence in succinct titles!

Juvenile and young adult titles have become particularly inventive in the last few years, and it seems that the wackier they are, the more the kids love them. No more Treasure Island and Little Women for today’s boys and girls. They want Jelly Belly, There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang, Hershell Cobwell and the Miraculous Tattoo, How to Eat Fried Worms, Wonder Kid Meets the Lunch Snatcher, Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?, The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial High School Handbook of Rules and Regulations, and the like.

Every publisher’s dream is to have a book that sells by the truckload on the strength of its title alone. Of course, it’s impossible to know with any accuracy what attracts buyers to a book. After reading The One Minute Manager or Swim with the Sharks, you may wonder whether the contents lived up to the brilliance of the titles. But you probably plunked money down at a bookstore to find out.

Most lucrative of all is the title that starts a copycat fad, such as 101 Uses for a Dead Cat, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche, and Thin Thighs in Thirty Days. For years after publication of those books, publishers brought out variants on the titles to take advantage of the public’s infatuation. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the ripoff titles merely fueled the success of the original ones. Patricia Matthews’s romance Love’s Avenging Heart launched a veritable flood of Love’s Something Somethings that did not subside for years.

Nonfiction writers are luckier than novelists because they often get a second chance in the form of a subtitle. If your title is a bit poetic or obscure, don’t worry, your subtitle will correct any ambiguities. What does Final Cut mean? It could signify anything until you couple it with author Steven Bach’s subtitle: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of “Heaven’s Gate.” Similarly, Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking doesn’t give one a clear idea of his book’s contents until you couple it with its subtitle, An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman. Note that after you read the subtitle, your attention returns to the basic title, and you are now able to understand and appreciate it much better.

For authors struggling to come up with a good title, I advise you to make a long list of words and phrases that have any bearing, however remote, on your story. Some of these may come from the text itself: a description of your hero or heroine, a reference to the plot, theme, or action. Mix and match words until you arrive at the precise formula. If your title doesn’t jump out at you, go through your thesaurus for related words that might be more felicitous than the ones on your list. Or use the index of your Bartlett’s to locate passages in classical literature that succinctly, cogently, and lyrically evoke the appropriate image of your book.

Titling is an essential element of the writer’s craft and requires as much thought as plotting and characterization. Some authors do have a special genius for it, however. I have, for instance, always admired Gregory Benford’s ability to select monumental titles that capture the stupendous profundity of his stories of time and space: In the Ocean of Night, Beyond the Sea of Suns, Timescape, Against Infinity. You read his titles and you know this writer is grappling with nothing less than imponderables, immutables, and ultimates. If you are a romance fan you may find Janelle Taylor’s titles fatally irresistible: First Love Wild Love, Whispered Kisses, Sweet Savage Heart, Passions Wild and Free. The titles of Father Andrew Greeley’s books guarantee that you will be witnessing the torments of sinners: Thy Brother’s Wife, Patience of a Saint, The Cardinal Sins. And John Saul’s titles portend suspenseful tales of creepy kids: Suffer the Children, The Unloved, The Unwanted, When the Wind Blows. Some authors get a lot of mileage out of a title. Lawrence Sanders went through all the deadly sins for his titles, James Patterson through nursery rhymes, and Harry Kemelman’s mystery titles lured readers from one day of the week to another, starting with Friday, the Rabbi Slept Late.

Our love of great books is often enhanced by the great titles that go with them. How Green Was My Valley, From Here to Eternity, East of Eden, Crime and Punishment, One Hundred Years of Solitude, King Solomon’s Mines, Forever Amber, The Magic Mountain, Lord of the Flies – how often are unforgettable titles married to unforgettable books!

If, try as you may, you simply can’t come up with an apt title for your book, don’t despair, you’re in good company. Margaret Mitchell had a hard time coming up with anything more engaging than Tomorrow Is Another Day for her novel of the Civil War. Luckily, a better one did occur to her before the book went into production.

– Richard Curtis

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It’s reprinted in How to be Your Own Literary Agent, published by Houghton Mifflin, Copyright © 1983, 1984, 1996, 2003 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

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A Nine Volume Biography of 20th Century America

No one has ever accused Robert Vaughan of thinking small. His American Chronicles tell the story of Twentieth Century United States in nine volumes starting 1904 and ending in the 1960s. Though each novel stands on its own, they are related and intertwined in countless ways, making the Chronicles far closer to a tapestry than to a series. For instance, in Flower Children, the ninth book, the rebellious heiress who drops out and tunes into the San Francisco’s 1960s Summer of Love is a descendant of the courageous Suffragist heroine of the first book, Dawn of the Century.

Vaughan’s saga is a panorama of the explosive economic, political and social forces of the last century that continue to shape us in the current one. Nine wonderful reads for historians and fiction lovers alike.

– Richard Curtis

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Do Amazon Reviews Count?

Has anybody seen an honest reviewer?

Has anybody seen an honest reviewer?

Five years ago we asked Do Amazon Reviews Count? Our answer was yes, they absolutely do, and we were surprised that few publishers quoted them to support the books they published.

Since then a surge of self-serving reviews, many of them covering self-published books, has cast a dark shadow on the honesty and credibility of Amazon reviewers. In 2009 we cast our spotlight on a website that promised “For just $15 U.S. you can get a completely ‘honest’ review of your book posted to Amazon in mere days!” (See If Amazon Reviews are Meaningless, Why Are Authors Paying to Have Them Written?)

The practice of buying good reviews has not only persisted but seems closer than ever to prevailing. In an article in the Sunday New York Times business section, David Streitfeld describes the methodical corruption of the Amazon review process by a businessman who literally churns out reviews by the gross. “At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99,” writes Streitfeld. “But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.”

The production of manufactured reviews now extends beyond books and into the complete gamut of products and services, from hardware to hotels, rendering it all but impossible for consumers to make informed decisions. “About one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake,” Streitfeld writes. “Yet it is all but impossible to tell when reviews were written by the marketers or retailers (or by the authors themselves under pseudonyms), by customers (who might get a deal from a merchant for giving a good score) or by a hired third-party service.” Enforcement of Federal Trade Commission guidelines has been ineffective, he adds.

The odds against informed decisions by consumers are approaching the point where nobody will be able to judge the merits of anything.

At the dawn of the Digital Era many of us recognized that the old gatekeepers would lose their standing as the process of viral, democratic tastemaking replaced the opinions of elite nabobs telling us what to buy. If the deterioration of honesty continues, we may well see consumers returning to the old gatekeeper system to help them make sound purchasing decisions. But that system depended on the impeccable integrity of its practitioners. Are there any left?

Below is our original article, Do Amazon Reviews Count? Five years after its publication it may seem hopelessly naive. Nevertheless I stand by the ideals expressed then and live in hope that Amazon will find a way to protect the integrity of its review system.
RC

This blog post was originally published in Digital Book World as Has Anybody Seen an Honest Reviewer?

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If you were browsing a book in a store and the jacket blurb said,

“This is one of the best books of the year!”
– amazon.com

…would you be inclined to buy it?

Before you say no, here’s something to think about.

Any author who wants to get published successfully must run a gauntlet of “gatekeepers” who judge whether the work has artistic and commercial merit. Among the Cerberuses guarding the franchise on taste are literary agents, editors, bookshop and chain store buyers, critics and reviewers. Today’s Big Publishing establishment is dominated by such gatekeepers. They also guard tradition and guard it fiercely, and who can blame them? If the gates are breached a way of life comes crashing down.

Like a walled city, the gates enclose a world of tangible books produced in physical offices and distributed to brick and mortar stores. Until recently there was no other world, and as stupid and clunky as it is, somehow we’ve all managed to find a way to make a living in it. But now the Digital Revolution is eroding that world, just as it has done to so many business models that depended on middle agencies for distribution of tangible products. Today’s publishing model is a virtual one, and can be reduced to a simple formula: A Writer, A Reader, A Server. Absent from this formula, you will readily note, is A Reviewer. The question arises, in a world where books are sold virtually, do we still need reviewers?

After all, one of the keystones (to use a tangible image for an intangible concept) of Internet marketing is the way that public opinion can be instantly and virally created and marshaled into an economic force. Do we need gatekeepers to help us judge whether we should buy or read a book?

I happen to think that not only do we need them, we really can’t exist without them. And the interesting news is, we are creating a new class of pundits. Though their taste, judgment and experience may be no better than yours, we listen to what they have to say and, like it or not, we’re influenced by them. In particular I’m referring to the people who review for Amazon.com.

The idea that your next-door neighbor’s opinion may affect your decision to buy or pass up a book seems unlikely. True, word of mouth has always been a factor in the fate of successful books, but usually the mouth that the words come from belongs to someone you know, not an anonymous name on a website. But wait — when you search your Zagat guide for a restaurant recommendation, do you know who has written the review? No, but in all likelihood it’s a restaurant patron with no more professional reviewing credentials than yourself. That doesn’t stop you from saying, “Let’s go here!” Some of your neighbors thought the food was good, the place clean, the atmosphere pleasant, the service excellent, and the prices right, and that’s good enough for you.

In short, we live in an age when peer review is meaningful if not significant, and Amazon.com has used this fact to create a cadre of reviewers who must be taken seriously. Go to Amazon, click on any recently published book and page down beyond the official reviews (Publishers Weekly, New York Times, etc.). You’ll find Customer Reviews, and note that many of the reviewers identify themselves as the authors of a number of reviews. If they regularly review or blog about specific genres you may in time come to the conclusion that this person’s judgment is reliable and enlightening. Thereafter, when you see his or her name next to a review of a new book, you may very well be motivated to buy it.

It’s worth your time to click on the link that says “See all my reviews”, or on the badge beneath the reviewers name. Amazon has created a badge system to help you identify the reviewers credentials and review-worthiness. Click here to see what the badges mean.

I haven’t seen too many traditional books with Amazon.com quotes blazed on the cover, but I won’t be surprised if that changes before long. The first time you see one, let me know, and remember you heard it here first.

– Richard Curtis

 

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A Girl and Her Darkbeast Defy the Inquisitors

We greet Morgan Keyes and Margaret K. McElderry Books on publication date of one of the best young adult fantasy adventure novels our agency has ever handled – Darkbeast.

In Keara’s world, every child has a darkbeast—a creature that takes dark emotions like anger, pride, and rebellion. Keara’s darkbeast is Caw, a raven, and Keara can be free of her worst feelings by transferring them to Caw. He is her constant companion, and they are magically bound to each other until Keara’s twelfth birthday. For on that day Keara must kill her darkbeast—that is the law. Refusing to kill a darkbeast is an offense to the gods, and such heresy is harshly punished by the feared Inquisitors.

But Keara cannot imagine life without Caw. And she finds herself drawn to the Travelers, actors who tour the country performing revels. Keara is fascinated by their hints of a grand life beyond her tiny village. As her birthday approaches, Keara readies herself to leave childhood—and Caw—behind forever. But when the time comes for the sacrifice, will she be able to kill the creature that is so close to her? And if she cannot, where will she turn, and how can she escape the Inquisitors?

“Challenges and adventures abound, but Keara is strong-willed and feisty. . . . Tightly woven and carefully constructed fantasy.”–Kirkus Reviews

A sequel, Darkbeast Rebellion, is on the way.

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Ereads Promotion: Doctor Rat by William Kotzwinkle

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Ereads Promotion: Doctor Rat by William Kotzwinkle

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The Dark Light Years

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The Dark Light Years

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Kiss the Cloud Goodbye. Future Books Stored on DNA

Just when you thought it was smart to save information in the cloud, scientists have created a storage medium that makes today’s computer farms look Uncle Max’s storage locker.

The technical name for it is deoxyribonucleic acid. You know it better as DNA. In terms of low cost and efficiency, it may be the quintessential data warehouse, and one day it will store books. Lots and lots of them.  Maybe all of them.  All that have ever been written or ever will be.

“DNA – the chemical that stores genetic instructions in almost all known organisms – has an impressive data capacity,” writes Geraint Jones in The Guardian. “One gram can store up to 455 billion gigabytes: the contents of more than 100 billion DVDs, making it the ultimate in compact storage media.”

The Harvard Medical School researchers pointed out how superior DNA is to any storage media humanity has come up with.   “It can be easily copied, and is often still readable after thousands of years in non-ideal conditions,” Jones reports. “Unlike ever-changing electronic storage formats such as magnetic tape and DVDs, the fundamental techniques required to read and write DNA information are as old as life on Earth.”

The Harvard team demonstrated the practicality of their discovery by uploading a 53,o00 word book into DNA.” Now the challenge is for us to download it. Obviously an e-book will not suffice. What a DNA-book will look like is anybody’s guess…

Details in Book written in DNA code

Richard Curtis

This blog post was originally published on Digital Book World as Bible Written on a Grain of Rice (3.658 Megs)? How about on a Gram of DNA (455 Gigs)?

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What Was The Colonel’s Mistake? Dan Mayland’s Debut Thriller Has the Answer

In The Colonel’s Mistake, Dan Mayland’s fast-paced and action-packed debut thriller released by Thomas and Mercer today, a former CIA station chief is yanked out of tranquility by both the assassination of a high-level American during an international oil conference and the arrest of CIA operations officer Daria Buckingham for the crime.

Sava knows the Iranian American Buckingham well — he personally trained her — and doesn’t believe she had anything to do with the murder, so he visits a CIA control center to discuss the situation with the new station chief. When no one answers the outside intercom, Sava overrides the security code and stumbles upon the grisliest scene of his career. Now, he can’t help but wonder if he really knows Buckingham as well as he thought…

Determined to find out, Sava soon finds himself and a partner caught in the middle of the new Great Game — a deadly intelligence war over oil that has Iran, China, and the United States clawing at each other’s throats. Meanwhile, Colonel Henry Amato, assistant to the US national security advisor, is keeping a close watch on the situation from Washington. His stake in the Great Game is high—and personal.

From the shadows of the world’s most volatile region to the highest levels of Washington politics, The Colonel’s Mistake takes readers on an unforgettable ride where the good, the bad, and the brutal play a deadly chess game of global espionage.

We welcome Dan Mayland on the threshold of a great career. More Mark Sava novels are in the pipeline from Thomas and Mercer.

“Sava’s transformation from complacent professor to hard-edged, combative spook is skillfully handled, and the explication of Azerbaijan’s importance in the geopolitics of oil recalls the knowing thrillers of David Ignatius. There’s also plenty of action, and a violent denouement. Espionage-thriller fans won’t want to miss this one.
Booklist

Mayland beautifully captures the high stakes games played in an increasingly complex world. The Colonel’s Mistake is a terrific ride. –Kyle Mills, New York Times Bestselling author of The Immortalists

“Dan Mayland tells a riveting spy story from the Caspian oil city of Baku. He vividly captures the mysterious, dangerous place that swarms with agents like Cold War Berlin in the 1960s.” Lutz Kleveman, author of The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia

“An outstanding debut…The Colonel’s Mistake has a fresh setting well off the beaten path of the run of the mill intelligence novel, and you’ll definitely be rewarded for making the trip…” –William Christie, author of The Warriors of God

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Apple Drowning in Money. Any to Spare for Small Fry?

It’s fun to fantasize about what you would do with a million dollars. Fantasizing about what you’d do with $117 billion is likely to induce paralysis.

Luckily it’s not your problem. That honor belongs to Tim Cook, the man who became CEO of Apple after Steve Jobs’ death. What’s even more amazing, if he spent every dime of it today, he’d have another billion on his hands the next week.  And the week after that.  And the week after that.

Though some of those billions are earmarked for dividends to reward investors for their investment in the firm’s expensive stock (trading at $615.70 at the end of trading the first week in August), there’s plenty left over to spend on acquisitions.  What should Cook buy?

Andrew Ross Sorkin, writing in DealBook, a financial news service of The New York Times, has a lot of ideas and they’re all brilliant.  But the firms he’s targeted, including such surprises as Sprint and Research in Motion, are all priced in the billions – totaling approximately $97 billion.

We wonder, though, if a macro spending spree is really the way to go. How about micro? Think of the thousands of startups – 117,000 to be precise – that might thrive and prosper with a “mere” million dollar stake. Surely enough of them would break out – you just need one or two of Facebook dimensions – to reward their patron with a dazzling profit and extend Apple’s hegemony to an even more mind-bending figure.

Which brings us back to that fantasy about what we’d do with a million dollars.

Read Sorkin’s picks for one of Apple’s $1 billion plus investments: Suggestions for an Apple Shopping List

Richard Curtis
This blog post was originally published in Digital Book World as What Should Apple Do with All That Cash?

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Greg Bear’s “Slant”, Sequel to “Queen of Angels”, Released in E-book

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Greg Bear’s “Slant”, Sequel to “Queen of Angels”, Released in E-book

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