All Posts By Michael Kahn

Upcoming Appearance at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival

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I am pleased to announce that I will be one of the featured speakers at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, November 12th at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, held each year at the Jewish Community Center on 2 Millstone Campus Drive in St. Louis, MO 63146. I will part of the annual “Missouri’s Own!” panel of four speakers.

I will be discussing The Art of Conflict: Tales of the Courtroom, which, as the Festival program describes:

“pairs each of five previously published articles on practical lawyering advice by an esteemed trial lawyer with a fictional short story by an award-winning author-attorney on the same theme as that article. * * * For fans of legal thrillers, this book offers a unique and compelling mixture of fiction and reality, written by a trial lawyer by day and award-winning author by night.”

Alan C. Kohn

What will add a deep element of  poignancy to this event is that my co-author Alan C. Kohn passed away just two months ago at the age of 87. Alan was a legendary member of the local and national trial bar, admired by attorneys and judges and, of course, his clients. The Art of Conflict was his dream project.

Alan was struggling with congestive heart failure when we started working on the book. I was so honored to be able to get the book in print while he was still alive and able to take pride in it. He was absolutely thrilled by the rave review of the book by the Honorable Michael A. Wolf, the retired Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and Dean and Professor Emeritus at St. Louis University Law School. So much so, in fact, that Judge Wolf’s full review is printed on the book jacket.

I hope to be able to share some of my memories of Alan at the event.

You can find out more about that event and the rest of this year’s Book Festival here.

Life Lessons from My Dog

Nearly a decade has passed since our beloved dog Kirby died. Just the other day, as I was searching through some old files, I came across a column I wrote on Kirby that was published 20 years ago in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Those lessons he taught me back then remain as true and important today–for me and for you. Thus I wanted to share them with you. I hope you enjoy them–and perhaps learn something special:

 You Can Learn a Lot By Paying Attention to Your Dog
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 16, 2019)

In 1993, Robert Fulghum published the bestseller, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Those lessons include “Play fair,” “Don’t take things that aren’t yours,” “Flush,” and “Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.”

I learned a few things in kindergarten, too, but I’ve learned more from my dog Kirby. He joined our family five years ago when my children selected him from the APA. Kirby is a mutt—my one precondition. After all, who wants a pet with a better bloodline than your own? Plus, mutts tend to be healthier and more easygoing than their pedigreed cousins.
Kirby’s mother was a registered collie who escaped for a night of what Ricky Martin would call la vida loca. The result was a motley litter of seven that had little in common, including fathers. Kirby’s dad had enough German shepherd in him to give his son one upright ear to go with the elegantly curved one inherited from his mom. With his golden coat and widow’s peak,

Kirby is actually a handsome mutt. Indeed, other dog owners occasionally ask me what breed he is.

Kirby as a puppy

“A Polish wolfhound,” I answer casually adding, “They’re quite rare in this country.” I don’t tell them the origin of the name: “Polish” in honor of my in-laws, both from Poland; “wolf” because we thought Kirby would feel more a member of our family with a Jewish-sounding name; and “hound” because, well, that’s what he is.

What he isn’t is the smartest dog on the block. We pretty much keep mum when friends brag about the tricks their dogs can perform. Ours doesn’t do tricks. Indeed, ours still hasn’t gotten the hang of playing fetch. Oh, he’ll gladly chase the ball but some of the subtleties of the game—such as returning the ball—seem beyond his grasp. Then again, it’s possible that I’m the one who hasn’t grasped his version of fetch, which is more a hybrid of tug-of-war and keep-away-from-master. But regardless of his class rank, Kirby has taught me things we never learned in kindergarten, including:

Nothing is more important than your family.
• The size of your heart counts more than the size of your brain.
• Greet friends and family with enthusiasm.
• It’s nice to go for a walk with someone you love.
• Loyalty comes first.
• Listen carefully.
• True love is unconditional, even when they forget you outside during a storm or lock you in the basement during a dinner party.
• Be grateful for even the smallest presents.
• Never complain and never hold a grudge.
• A pat on the head is always welcome.
• There’s nothing worth watching on TV.
• Naps are wonderful.
• It’s good to snuggle, especially at night.
• Accept responsibility for your mistakes and show that you’re sorry.
• Bodily functions are perfectly natural; so don’t be embarrassed.
• Don’t get antsy when you have some free time. Relax and enjoy it.
• Remember to stop and smell the roses, and all the other good things out there.
• Who you are is far more important than where you came from.

I learned from Kirby that there is something essentially and wonderfully American about a mutt. We are a mix of peoples

Athletes from the United States march into the Olympic Stadium during opening ceremonies for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

and creeds and religions from every corner of the planet. No nation has come close to our level of diversity, and it’s surely no coincidence that none has come close to matching our achievements. Our special glory is on display during the opening ceremonies of every Olympics, as we watch one “purebred” team after another parade past until we reach Team USA with its cheerful medley of blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, Christians, Moslems, Hindus and Jews. Surely our remarkable diversity is at the core of our remarkable strength and resilience. We are, in short, the mutts of the world.

Thank you, Professor Kirby.



5 Essential Habits of Successful Writers — A Guest Post

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Our guest blogger today is Daniela McVicker, a freelance writers and a contributor to RatedByStudents. Daniela has a master’s degree in English Literature and is truly passionate about  teaching. She works with students to help them reveal their writing talents and find one true calling. So join me as we learn more from Daniela. I’ll add a few of my own observations at the conclusion of her post.

Writing pretty words doesn’t make you a successful writer. It doesn’t matter if you’re able to craft sentences with obscure words to describe everyday feelings and emotions. People who use words like that are the worst writers. Success in writing is about delivering your intended message and influencing other people.

Some authors manage to find massive success, while others remain anonymous. And it’s incredibly frustrating. Well, if you want to make 6 figures as a freelancer and win the most coveted literary prizes, it’s time to make a change. Successful writers have developed certain habits that set them apart from the crowd.

To get started, imitate the habits of highly successful authors. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, just learn from the best. These are some of the things the most successful writers do. You too will become successful by copying these idiosyncrasies.

1.      They Write Every Day of Their Lives

Spare a few moments to do a little bit of writing every day. Writers are supposed to write. Stephen King tries to get about 6 pages a day. The award-winning writer sets a goal for 2000 words a day and tries to get them fairly clean. Ernest Hemingway wrote somewhere between 500 and 1000 words a day. It’s impressive to see how some authors succeed in getting so much work done.

Try starting higher than you think you can do. You’ll be surprised to see how much you accomplish. If you schedule your time properly, say no to social events, and go to a quieter location, you have whatever it takes to create great work. Don’t wait for the right time to write because there’s never a right time to take action.

Practice makes perfect. Truer words have never been spoken. Keep an unpublishable, private journal where you can scribble your thoughts. Write down what you think about life, things, etc. If you want to be a successful writer, you must establish a writing routine. This may seem monotonous, but it’ll completely transform your work. 

2.      They Practice Being Physically Healthy

Men and women who’ve been blessed with the ability to write great literary pieces look after their health. Why? Because they know that writing is unhealthy. Wait … what??? Yes, when you set off to write a novel or a play you sit at the desk for hours at an end. Lying down for too long increases your risk of developing heart disease. What’s more, too much sitting is bad for your mental health. That’s what science says. Undesired harmful effects include:

  • Weakening or thinning of the memory-focused part of the brain
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Unpleasant feelings or emotions, like sadness, fear, vulnerability

There’s nothing more important than staying healthy. Besides minimizing the time spent sitting, you’ll want to:

  • Pay attention to your posture
  • Give your eyes a break
  • Stretch to eliminate the damage of sitting

Famous writers wrote while lying down. One writer that reminds us of their lengthy and involuntary stays in bed is James Joyce. He used to write stretching across a bed, always wearing a white coat. Truman Capote is another horizontal author. He also practiced writing stretched in the bed. Of course, you can come up with your own interesting habits.

3.      They Connect with Readers

One of the things that set professional writers apart from amateurs is the strong connection that they build with the audience. They understand just how important it is to connect with their readers. People buy from who they trust. Even if what you’re trying to sell is what people need, if they don’t trust you, they won’t take action. Don’t leave it up to the publishers or publicists. Take matters into your own hands, otherwise, no one will read your content.

Engage Your Audience Directly

For communication to take place, someone needs to start talking. Why don’t you take the initiative? Get out of your bubble and hit social media. Social media is an incredible tool in helping you better communicate with your readers. People will provide you feedback on your writing. Talk to readers as if they were sitting right across the table.

Build an Email List

If you have an email list of friends or family who opted in, you might better use it. the question now is: What should you put in your emails? Well, you can share interesting stories. You can’t write a novel in one day, but you certainly can come up with a captivating story about, say, a physical scar. Keep your emails short and pay attention to what readers like and don’t like.

Spend More Time on Your Blog

You’d think that writers aren’t supposed to blog in 2019. Well, they do. Blogging establishes writing discipline, but that’s not what’s important. What matters is that blogging can help you establish expertise in your area and build connections. When you blog, you make yourself available to others. Share content, write guest posts, and offer your support.

4.      They Don’t Write for The Money

As an author, you can make a lot of money. Nevertheless, money isn’t the goal. What is then? Impacting people with your words. Successful writers want to release their complex thoughts and create relationships with the people around. They couldn’t care less about making a profit. Franz Kafka or Marcel Proust never made a dime. Maybe so, but that didn’t stop them from creating literary masterpieces.

You shouldn’t write for money. Successful writers work tirelessly to make a name for themselves. They love writing and wouldn’t do anything else. George Orwell, for example, was driven by sheer egoism. To be more precise, he wanted to be recognized as being intelligent, to be talked about, and, most importantly, be remembered in a positive light after his death.

Sure, you can make cash publishing books for money. However, you won’t thrive if you don’t enjoy what you do. Practice writing for pleasure. Don’t write for your friends, parents or teachers. It’s important to find some kind of pleasure in the process.

5.      They Don’t Wait for Inspiration to Strike

If you’re waiting for inspiration to write, you might as well give it up. You’ll miss a bunch of writing time. Only amateurs sit around and wait for inspiration. Successful authors just put their thoughts into words. They’ve stopped believing in magic a long time ago. As you write, you’ll get your creativity back.

So, what if you scribble a bad word, sentence, or paragraph? You can always come back to what you’ve written and make changes. The only way you can get your creative juices flowing is writing. If you persist, something good will come out of your writing. You’ve got nothing better to do than to take inspiration into your own hands and force something to come onto the page.

To conclude, you have what it takes to become a successful writer. By having these habits, you’re guaranteed to achieve your goals. Emulate the habits of successful authors and become one yourself.

Reality Check for an Aging “Hipster”

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{Originally published in the St. Louis Jewish Light.}

This happened several years ago: I was gripping the phone, trying to come to come to terms with what I had just heard and, even worse, what it meant. The man on the other end of the phone–a financial officer on the cusp of retirement–had shattered my illusions. A 68-year-old man had just exposed as myth my proud self-image as Mr. Hipster.

He chuckled. “It’s the truth, Mike.”

Before we face that truth, let’s understand how we got here. The answer is twofold: demographics and music.

The demographics are obvious. We are part of the Baby Boomer generation. As far back as 1974, New York Times columnist Russell Baker predicted that our generation would “continue to dominate society as it passes through the decades like a pig through a python.” And to the utter exasperation of the generations that have followed us, that pig–now more than two-thirds of the way through the python–is just as big and undigested and irritatingly dominant as ever. It’s simple economics: our whims are society’s musts, even as we age. When recently asked for the secret of his successful marriage to the much younger Catherine Zeta-Jones, elder Boomer Michael Douglas gave a shout out to Viagra. Yes, we have no shame or, apparently, bananas.

Even more to blame than then the numbers, however, is the music. Rock n’ roll created the great divide between the Baby Boomers and our parents. That crack began to widen in February of 1964 with three performances by the Beatles on consecutive Ed Sullivan shows. Then came The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton and Cream. By 1969–the year of Woodstock, Abbey Road and Led Zeppelin–the disconnect was complete. Our parents had Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Nat King Cole. We had Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and James Brown.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock Festival (1969)

The problem for us, though, is that there has been no similar great divide for the generations that followed. The music of our youth remains popular today. Steve Miller is a quintessential Boomer musician. My wife Margi and I took our son Zack to a Steve Miller Band concert at Riverport several years ago when he was home from college that summer. (Yes, we Boomers still call it Riverport.) As we sat out on the lawn that night, I counted far more people Zack’s age than our age.

So, too, the music of our youth has had such an influence on musicians of today that we can still relate to it. You’ll find us in decent numbers at Wilco and Dave Matthews concerts. Try to imagine your mom and her Hadassah friends at a Grateful Dead concert. Or your dad in the shower playing air guitar and singing to the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.”

The demographics and the music thus combined to create the myth that we Baby Boomers are hip. We have gone from Dr. Kildare to Dr. Dre, from a dog named Lassie to a Dogg named Snoop. Yes, we’re the ones who turned the Electric Slide into the dance of our people, dashing out of our chairs at bar mitzvah parties and wedding receptions to form dance lines that squeeze everyone younger off the dance floor. Wazzup, my homies? WTF. LOL.

Until . . . That Phone Call.

I was doing a product review for an apparel company, examining a new baseball-style hat for intellectual property issues. The tag described it as a “stash hat.” It was a clever design with a small Velcro pocket on the inside of the front panel of the hat. I could imagine a jogger, such as myself, “stashing” his house key in that pocket before setting off on a run. Clever.

But there was one odd feature: the number. While many baseball-style hats I’d reviewed had a number on the front – typical baseball player numbers, such as 7 or 21 – every sample of the “stash hat” had the same number: 420. Because I’d never seen a ballplayer with a three-digit number, I mentioned it to the elderly CFO when I called to discuss the results of my product review.

“That’s not a sports number,” he said with a chuckle.

“Then what is it?” I asked.



“Four-twenty, Mike. It’s the symbol for marijuana.”

“For who?”

“For everyone, I guess,” he said. “Especially young people. I never saw that Pulp Fiction movie, but I understand all the clocks in the movie are set to 4:20.”

My memory gets a little fuzzy here. I somehow ended the call. I sat alone in my office trying to come to grasp the implications. Could I really be so out of it? Such a dork?

In disbelief, I finally tapped out an email to my five children, who at the time ranged in age from 19 to 27. “Hey, guys,” I wrote. “Did you know that 420 is the symbol for marijuana?”

The responses ranged from “Well, duh!” to my daughter Hanna, who replied, “Dad, why did you think they paid me overtime at Wild Oats to work on April 20th?”

Sigh. So here we are, edging toward the lower intestine of that bulging python but immune to whatever societal Ex-Lax our country may dream up to flush us out of the social security system, still wearing faded jeans on weekends, still listening to “Gimme Shelter” on our iPod, still trying to avoid dealing with the possibility that we aren’t as cool as we thought we were.

But then again, we’re Boomers. Like Michael Douglas, we’ll find a way.

Wait. What’s that on the radio? “Nothing But a G Thang.” Sweet. Give me the mike. Altogether now:

One, two three and to the fo’

Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre is at the do’

Ready to make an entrance, so back on up

‘Cause you know about to rip shit up.

And if you’d like to own one of those 420 hats, you can find them at Positive Party on

Awesome Role Models for Rachel Gold–and All Women

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As I would imagine is true for most authors, by the time we write that very first paragraph of our very first novel, our brains have absorbed massive amounts of fiction in the form of novels, comic books, fairy tales, short stories, motion pictures, and television shows. And this huge warehouse of information will impact our own works in ways we that may never fully–or even partially–understand.

Back when I wrote Grave Designs, my first Rachel Gold mystery, if you would have asked me how I created that savvy young female attorney, I would have shrugged and told you I didn’t know. And I certainly wouldn’t have known the origins of her unflappable persona, as best exemplified by a favorite scene early in that novel. It takes place while she and a female colleague are waiting for the subway train late at night in downtown Chicago. They are approached on the platform by two drunk college guys, and the following encounter takes place:

The one in front grinned, raised his can of beer, and belched.
“Good evening, girls. How are we tonight?”
“Take a hike, you clowns,” Cindi said.
The guy in front winked and turned back toward his buddy.
“Sure, girls. But first we’d like you to meet Red. Go ahead, Pete.
Let these girls meet him.”
Pete stepped out from behind his buddy, wagging his half-erect
penis in his right fist. “Say hello to Red, girls.”
“Ignore these bozos,” Cindi mumbled as she grasped my
elbow to pull me away.
I didn’t budge. Instead, I stared at Pete’s crotch, and then
glanced at Cindi. “Look at that,” I said to her, nodding at the
display. “It looks just like a penis, only smaller.”
Pete’s face dropped, followed by his penis. He looked down
at his crotch, then back at me, then back at his crotch.

Well, thanks to a wonderful post by Hannah Chamberlain (on entitled “12 Female Literary Characters Who Are Total Role Model Material,” I have at last discovered at least part of the origin story for Rachel Gold–and no doubt for many other formidable female characters in modern fiction. As Ms. Chamberlain writes in her introduction, “Check out these kickass female characters and the important lessons they have to teach us.”

Which is precisely what I did–and you should as well. These are twelve remarkable women–role models for fictional characters and, frankly, for the rest of us.

Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) in Much Ado About Nothing

So spend some time with Ms. Chamberlain’s piece and see which of those dozen fictional character resonate the most with you. And see if you can spot any traces of those characters in some of your favorite contemporary stories. Enjoy!

As for Rachel Gold, yes, there’s a little Scarlett O’Hara in her. Some Elizabeth Bennett, too. And, as I discovered, a few dashes of one of my favorite literary characters of all time: Beatrice from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

Just Published: My Latest Book

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I am delighted to announce that my latest book, The Art of Conflict: Tales from the Courtroom, has now been published.

Co-authored with Alan C. Kohn, the godfather of St. Louis litigators and the veteran of more than 100 trials, our book provides a unique set of perspectives on the trials and tribulations of the courtroom lawyer. It does so by pairing each of five of my courtroom stories with one of Alan’s essays on legal advice on the same topic.

What are the magical powers of the courtroom clerk? Is the “ethical lawyer” an oxymoron. What’s the real art of cross-examination? These are just some of the topics covered by the book.

As the Honorable Michael Wolf, retired Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court and Dean of the St. Louis University Law School, writes in his review of the book:

Alan Kohn’s exemplary life as a lawyer shines through every other chapter of this fine book, with helpful insights on how law is and should be practiced, and a marvelous memoir of his days as a law clerk in the late 1950s at the United States Supreme Court, the highest honor a young lawyer can get. Every other chapter?  Yes, because the book has a clever twist —  Alan’s musings, instructions, and inspirations are interspersed with chapters of fiction by Michael Kahn, the remarkable lawyer-by-day, novelist-by-night (or vice versa), whose fictional lawyer Rachel Gold makes guest appearances in some of her best roles and, as a prelude to Alan’s essay on judicial activism, a chapter on the fictional Judge Howard Flinch, the worst judge in the history of Missouri (remember it’s fiction) and title character of The Flinch Factor, one of Kahn’s 12 excellent mystery novels.  This book is an enjoyable and enlightening read.

Fellow lawyer Mitch Margo, author of the brilliant historical legal thriller Black Hearts White Minds, wrote the following:

The Art of Conflict is a lively dance of legal dramas told in alternating fictional and non-fiction vignettes between lawyer/novelist Michael Kahn and trial attorney Alan Kohn. You don’t need to be a lawyer to love these reminisces (mostly Kohn’s) and legal page-turners (mostly Kahn’s). You can read this book in an afternoon, and you’ll want to do just that.

Hope you enjoy the book!

Most Important Books of All Time? Let the Debate Begin!

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Last summer I wrote a post about a cool web page that had created road maps for your favorite road-trip novels, from Jack Kerouac’s cross-country trip in On the Road to The Cruise of the Rolling Junk, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of the journey he took with his wife Zelda from Connecticut to Alabama in a old automobile he called the “Rolling Junk.”

Keilah Keiser, one of the creators of that post, teamed up with Jennifer Jones to put together another blog post on an equally alluring website, As its name indicates, that website curates lists of anything and everything that could be labeled “largest,” from the largest baseball stadiums to, I swear, “the 7 largest catfish ever caught.”

But in addition to the largest pzzas ever made (and largest toy museums and largest sinkholes), Keilah, Jennifer, and the website team have compiled a list of 25 of what they claim to be “The Books that Made the Largest Impact in the World.” As the creators explained to me:

“Books will continue to introduce everyone to fresh and revolutionary ideas, as they’ve done throughout the past. Only a select few titles are held up around the world as international staples — most of which are known for going against the grain. Each masterpiece exposes a writer’s thoughts through their words.”

That list of 25 begins more than 1,000 B.C.E. with the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), includes other great religious works (such as the King James Bible and the Qu’ran), and several significant pre-20th-century works that range from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species to The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

But where the list (and the reactions) get interesting–and controversial–is when we enter the 20th Century. More than half of the books on the list were published after 1900, and the final one, published in 2003, is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

I confess that I did the reader’s version of a spit-take when I saw that book on the list. Huh?? Dan Brown’s potboiler on the same shelf as the King James Bible and The Origin of the Species? To their credit, the website creators offer the following justification for ending their list with The Da Vinci Code:

It made a huge impact on the world, because it was strongly criticized by the Christian faith, and more specifically by the Roman Catholic Church, for its implications that the original story of Jesus Christ was mistold. However, many readers became enthralled in the story, and it sold 80 million copies worldwide. It was also translated into 44 languages and adapted into a motion picture film.

Well, maybe.

I can think of at least three other books I’d add to that list–four if you could include Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but that masterpiece, as vibrant as ever and performed every year in scores of venues around the world, is a play, not a book. In chronological order, my three additions are:

  • The Odyssey. by Homer. This epic poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon. It mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home following the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War. In his absence, it is assumed he has died, and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus must deal with a group of unruly suitors. The cultural impact of this epic is widespread in both time and place, ranging from a key scene in Dante’s Inferno to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” to the Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother Where Art Thou? (which even inspired a flash card comparison of the movie to the original).
  • Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, was published in two parts (part 1, 1605, and part 2, 1615). The novel is one of the most widely read and widely celebrated classics of Western literature. By way of example, The Guardian placed it #1 on its list of the greatest novels of all time.
  • War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Epic in scale, this novel delineates in graphic detail events leading up to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, and the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist society, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. It is regarded as a central work of world literature and one of Tolstoy’s finest literary achievements
Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

So read though that list of 25 on Is there a book you think should be included? If so, let me know.

A Tip of the Hat to the Genius of Parody Romance Novel Covers

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My last post opened with a discussion of the evolution of romance novel covers from the chaste era of the 1950s to the soft-core porn covers of later decades. But as I moved on to the more general topic of the history of all book covers, I became so focused on their role–from the original 1884 cover of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to more contemporary examples such as Jurassic Park–that I left no space for a salute to Mark Longmire.

Who, you may ask, is Mark Longmire and why is he relevant? Longmore is a brilliant and witty graphic artist whose  quirky website–The Wonderful World of Longmire–includes a clever and funny group of his creations. My favorite is the display of his collection of parody romance novel covers, which include the one at the top of this post and the one to the right of this paragraph.

Warning: Do NOT click on this link to Mark’s website until and unless you are prepared to get lost in there, to wander around like a giggly kid at an amusement park, and to emerge far later than you had imagined you would when you entered. Enjoy!

Maybe You Can’t Tell a Book by Its Cover, But You Can Sure Sell It That Way

I read a fascinating post on the Jezebel website by Kelly Faircloth  in which she recounted the history–or, per the title of her post, the “steaming, throbbing history”–of the covers of romance novels, from the sweet innocent covers of the 1950s to the soft-porn bodice-rippers of later decades, many of which featured the male model Fabio, such as the cover shown on the right for Johanna Lindsay’s Gentle Rogue. Some of those later covers edged even closer to hard-core porn, including the one at the top of this post for Tender is the Storm, which, as Ms. Faircloth writes, “features a frankly shocking amount of naked, manly haunch and appears to depict a man outright thrusting his penis between a woman’s abundant breasts.”

And thus while many of us invoke that old platitude that you can’t tell a book by its cover, those in the marketing departments of the major publishers roll their eyes and chuckle at our naiveté. And those marketing department chucklers, along with their insights, far predate the romance novel era of the final decades of the 20th century. Many of the most strikingly original covers date back to novels published before World War II–novels that can be found today not in the Romance section of your local bookstore but in the snootier Literature section.

For example, one of my favorite covers is, not coincidentally, the cover of one of my favorite novels, The Great Gatsby, which was published more than a half-century before Fabio and his ilk starting ripping bodices off of pretty young women.

Or let us go back a full century before Gentle Rogue to the top contender for the title of the Great American Novel, the first edition of which had a cover that was not too shabby.

To browse through a striking collection of book covers from that earlier era, check out “The Art of Book Covers (1820-1914) at the Public Domain Review, which includes these beauties:


And while design fashions change over time, a simple image is often the most powerful one to reel in your potential reader, as the covers of these two two mega-bestseller show:


My own novels have had a wide variety of covers, but the most interesting contrast is between the original hardback version of my first novel, published under the title The Canaan Legacy, and the paperback edition published under the title Grave Designs. (The change in title is a subject for another post.) At the heart of the novel is a mystery over the contents of a grave at a pet cemetery–and thus each of the designers chose to depict that mystery on the cover in their own way, as shown below:

So what’s my favorite cover? I confess my aesthetics may have been influenced by reading aloud a particular story dozens and dozens of times to each of my five children and now to several of my grandchildren. It also happens to be the cover of one of my favorite books as well. And for those of you with children or who have fond memories of your own childhood, you may have already guessed the title and the cover. If not, here it is:

Now We Can All Take That Road Not Taken! The Copyright Freeze Has Melted

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Once again my dual lives as a lawyer by day and an author at night have intersected in what is unquestionably a happy new year for all of us–including even Mickey Mouse. Two decades ago the Congress passed an amendment to the Copyright Act that added an additional twenty years to lives of the copyrights in all original works created on and after 1923. Had Congress not acted, hundreds of original works–books, songs, plays, photographs, paintings, poems, and the like–would have fallen into the public domain on January 1, 1999.

And once a work falls into the public domain, it is free for you to use anyway you want. You can make copies (and even sell copies), create derivative works (such as a movie from the novel), market t-shirts with your favorite lines from a poem, or otherwise exploit a work that, if still under copyright, would constitute infringement and expose you to the risk of a lawsuit and financial loss. For example, William Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen’s novels and Mark Twain’s novels are all in the public domain. And that means that you don’t need to pay anyone for the right to stage “Hamlet” (or make a movie version) or to download a free copy of Huckleberry Finn or to add zombies to your sequel to Pride and Prejudice.

The copyright laws, which date back to the enactment of the U.S. Constitution, are premised on the belief that you will enrich the culture if you give creators a financial incentive, and that incentive would be a monopoly over all rights in their creations for a limited time. Back then, that limited time was 28 years after creation. By 1978, that “limited time” had grown to the life of the author plus 50 years or 75 years total for a work of corporate authorship (such as a motion picture). And then, in 1998, pursuant to “The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act” (also derisively labeled “The Mickey Mouse Protection Act” by critics who viewed the extension as a money-grubbing attempt by The Walt Disney Company to maintain their monopoly over Mickey Mouse), Congress added another 20-year term to all works made during or after 1923. In other words, copyrighted works created in 1923, which would have fallen into the public domain on January 1, 1999, would now remain under copyright until January 1, 2019.

But now the freeze has ended. If you’d like to see the lists of creative works that fell into the public domain shortly after we all uncorked champagne bottles on New Year’s Eve, you can go here or here. And if you’d like to read my legal blog post on the topic, you can go here.

As for the title of this post, many (or perhaps all) of you recognize that line from one of Robert Frost’s most powerful poems. That particular poem had actually fallen into the public domain seven years before the 1998 extension. But another powerful–indeed, magical–Frost poem is among the hundred of works that fell into the public domain, free to all, on January 1, 2019. If you’d like to put that poem on t-shirts or greeting cards or use it as lyrics for a song, go for it. And, if like me, you love that poem so much that you want to end your blog post with it, have at it! Enjoy:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

By Robert Frost
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.