Friday, June 30, 2006
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Hunka hunka burnin' hate
I recently edited a professional memoir for a retired teacher, and she tried to sneak in a couple of anecdotes that made my antennae quiver. I told her that her options were to delete the material or pay an attorney to vet the manuscript; any thoughtful editor would have done the same.
Part of the problem is that people read show business or political memoirs that are full of kiss-and-tell and derogatory opinion involving public personages, and they think they can sling the same sort of mud about the private individuals who figure in their own lives and get away with it. Umm, no. That’s not a wise thing to do.
A word to the wise, and all that.
Saturday, June 24, 2006
O vanity! O authors!
I am not the first person to try to explain the concept of vanity publishing, and I won’t be the last, I’m sure; but here’s what I wrote in an attempt to steer my correspondent away from the precipice:
Please do not be deceived by vanity presses that talk about self-publishing. They are intentionally misrepresenting themselves and trying to confuse you.I hasten to add that there are many fine POD vendors that provide good, honest service. There are even a few vanity presses that are straightforward in the dealings and provide a valuable service for noncommercial publishing ventures (family memoirs, company commemoratives, abstruse academic monographs). However, the companies that say signing up with them will result in getting your books sold in major bookstores are stretching the truth to the breaking point.
You are a self-publishing author if you publish the book under your imprint, with an ISBN that you own. Period. You can choose to self-publish your book using offset technology or print-on-demand technology (POD). In either case, you can get quotations from printers who provide those services.
The vanity presses talk about publishing, but they are lying. The vast bulk of the books they print (generally fewer than 100 copies per title) are sold directly to the authors for free distribution to friends and relatives. Only a minuscule number of the titles they handle ever reach a bookstore. They promise all sorts of help—editing, design, marketing—that they either fail to deliver or outsource to the lowest bidder. This is a well reported scam; I’m not making any of this up. In addition to confusing customers with talk of self-publishing, they also try to make vanity publishing synonymous with POD, which is merely a printing technology they take advantage of.
So, back to your case. If you are ready to be a true self-publishing author, then you need to find a printer (offset for long run, POD for short run). There are lots of good vendors of both types, and selecting the right one depends on a number of specific factors. Your best bet is to look for book printers on the Web and get quotes. When you find prices you can live with, ask for printed samples to verify that their work meets your standards.
If you are not ready to be a self-publishing author and you want to pursue vanity publishing, I cannot recommend any because I don’t think any of them are truthful with their customers.
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
A dim bulb
In her day job, Ivy works for a video production company in Beijing. About twenty-five people turn out three half-hour programs a week. The twenty-five people include writers, production people, and on-camera talent. That’s a pretty efficient operation, it seems to me.
But here she is, visiting the US, working with borrowed and rented equipment, shuttling from my wife’s office, for the candid footage, to our living room, for the more formal interview footage.
My wife, who can speak extemporaneously and cogently for hours on end, on her feet, is now constrained to working from a script and in a seated position (no jokes about the location of her brain, please). Even though she wrote her own script, she finds it hard to relax and speak naturally to the camera. And I can’t say I would do any better under the circumstance. This discomfort is hard to overcome for a lot of people. The CEO of a company I worked for, a man who had majored in broadcast journalism in college and had worked in radio as a younger man, was another natural and comfortable speaker in front of a group. He, too, had a lot of trouble taping a promotional video, especially using a TelePrompter.
If you are an author whose book starts to attract attention, you might find yourself doing a series of radio interviews comfortably enough and then receive that first invitation to be interviewed on television. Easy enough, you think. But what you should take away from this is that it’s a good idea for your first few television interviews to be on small, local programs that get broadcast at four o’clock Sunday morning. Save the Today show for after you’ve warmed to the cool medium.
Oh, about the title of this post: Ivy is shooting the living room interview after dark, to avoid unwanted sunlight. She has her own out-of-frame lights to get the level she wants; but there is also a lamp beside my wife that is in the frame. Ivy asked me last night if I had a twenty-watt bulb for it (no, but we improvised). As I said, today’s cameras are remarkably different from television cameras of yesteryear.
Covering the object
It may be true that you cannot judge a book by its cover. That doesn’t stop people from trying, though. A cover that doesn’t work can lead your target reader to pass your book by and pick up the next book on the shelf—a book that is, of course, not nearly so insightful and transformative as your own. In other words, the cover is a wide stave in the barrel and it behooves you to consider it with some care.
You’ve written a book. You’ve had a professional editor’s help in perfecting the text. You’ve either hired a book designer or studied enough about book design and typography to turn out competent pages. And now you need a cover design. Is this something you, an author, should do yourself? Possibly, if you have a strong design sense and your marketing plans do not involve bookstores.
Selling in stores?
If your book is a specialized academic monograph and you already know the twenty people in the world who are going to have to buy it, the cover is not crucial. It should be presentable and should follow the conventions in your field. You can stop reading now. If your book is going to be a required text in a graduate course, similarly, cover design is not so crucial.
If you plan to market your book at the back of the room where you are speaking, your cover needs to be pleasant and attractive, but it doesn’t need to compete against nearby books on the same subject.
In the above cases, you may indeed be able to design a workable cover. Doing so requires that you have and learn how to use appropriate graphics software, and you need to be able to follow the printer’s specifications meticulously. But you do not need a wealth of experience in the book business.
However, if you plan to market your book through bookstores, supermarkets, gift shops, discount stores, or other competitive venues, selecting the wrong designer for your cover (that would be you, in most cases), can drastically reduce your chance of success.
To give you an idea, the publisher of a mass market paperback (the sort of novel you might pick up at a supermarket) might spend five thousand dollars for the painting used to illustrate the cover, another couple of thousand for the cover designer to put together an integrated cover design, and thousands more to have the covers printed with embossed metallic type for the title.
You don’t have that kind of budget. What should you expect to pay to have an eye-catching cover that will draw bookstore or gift shop browsers to pick up your book in the first place? If your cover is going to have an illustration, you will have to commission an artist to create it or you will have to purchase rights to a stock photograph. The range here may be anywhere from a few hundred to over a thousand dollars, depending on the illustration. In addition, you have to pay an experienced cover designer, either to come up with the cover concept from scratch and execute it or to adapt the concept and sketch you’ve come up with. This service can cost from several hundred to a couple of thousand dollars. But at this stage, price is not as important a consideration as the designer’s experience with books in the same genre as yours.
Any designer should be glad to hear your ideas for a cover. But don’t be surprised if the designer explains why your ideas won’t serve your needs as well as you think they will. You need to find someone you can trust and whose prior work you like. After that, the designer should take the lead role in putting together your cover.
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
If you are subscribing to these musings through an RSS feed, I apologize for any garbled posts. If you see a sentence in the feed that makes no sense whatever, go ahead and click through to the blogspot page. There seems to be a technical glitch that arises whenever I type a typographer's apostrophe or quotation mark (the curly kind) instead of the straight typewriter apostrophe I just used earlier in this sentence or the straight typewriter "quotation mark." There's a technical solution, but I can't implement it until after the feed techies confirm that they see the problem and have logged the bug, er, feature.
Meanwhile, I’m testing one possible solution in this sentence. There’s nothing else happening here. “This is a test.” If this had been an actual emergency, you would have heard the president pronouncing nuclear correctly.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
Only a few Father's Days left
One of my earliest memories of my dad centers on wordplay. “Why did the moron put the television on the stove? He wanted to watch Milton boil.”
Dad was a bright kid. He kept, into adulthood, a savant-like ability to retain huge lists of numbers—phone numbers, baseball statistics, stock prices—and until perhaps a decade ago he could add columns of numbers in his head faster than an accountant can add them on a calculator.
Now he’s fading. He remembers being smarter than most people—at least in the ways that he was smarter than most people—and he tells people he still is (he used to be a gracious and modest person who would never be so rude). This does not go over too well in the assisted living facility where he resides, but most of the other residents eventually forgive him or, more likely, forget his little outbursts.
Alzheimer’s disease does not run in our family. Neither does cancer. We tend to be cardiac patients. My dad had a CABG some years ago, and it is common for CABG patients of that era to develop a type of vascular dementia that cardiac surgeons call pump head. My sister and I suspect that’s what is going on with our dad. This reassures us in the sense that we don’t think it’s genetic, but it really makes no difference to Dad. In terms of his decline, dementia is dementia.
Father’s Day, though, is a chance to focus on the good memories, not dwell on the prognosis. And it’s a chance to say thank you, too, for sparking my interest in words and numbers and for modeling behaviors, both good and bad, in ways that taught me how to be in the world. I have tried to adopt the good ones and avoid the bad ones, but it is up to others to decide if I have been successful in that endeavor.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad!
Saturday, June 17, 2006
Looking out for the little guy
So I’m slowing down to take a left into my driveway and I see, at the end of the block, a beat-up yellow van of some sort go by, with “LITTLE GUY DISCOUNT RENT-A-CAR” in large black letters on the side … wait for it … being pulled by a tow truck. The law of unintended consequences bites ’em in the butt every time.
Friday, June 16, 2006
Something for the non-reader in your life
—David Brooks, “The Gender Gap At School”
in The New York Times, June 11, 2006
I would like to draw your attention today to the promotional blurb in the sidebar column (if you are reading this on an RSS feed, do yourself a favor and click over to the Blogger interface instead).
The Beast Bowl, a book I copyedited and designed for In Touch Books, is a dramatic adventure story built around a football game. But it’s more than that, too. Without being preachy and didactic, it weaves in the story of habitat destruction and species extinction at the hand of humankind, through two central characters.
Sammy, a chimpanzee, and Carl, an African bull elephant, best friends and teammates, set out on a perilous journey into the heart of the civilized world to find a human to coach their football team in the annual Beast Bowl game. The game itself, like the wild animals that play in it, is in danger of disappearing because of humanity’s unrelenting lust for control of the planet. Sammy, obsessed with keeping the game he loves alive, and Carl, motivated by loyalty to his friend, risk their lives and, more important to them both, their freedom, on their quest. Throughout the story, right up to the dramatic last play of the climactic game, values of teamwork, diligence, loyalty, respect and justice stand in contrast to selfishness, dishonesty, bigotry and hatred.
I would like to see every parent, aunt, uncle, teacher, coach, and librarian in the country know about The Beast Bowl so they can get the book into the hands of the kids for whom it will make a real difference.
The author, Tom Chaikin, is a freelance writer in the Washington DC area. He has a longstanding interest in wildlife preservation issues, and enough football experience to make the story realistic and compelling, too.
The Beast Bowl, fresh from the printer today, is scheduled for publication June 30. Take advantage of the prepublication discount to save a few bucks. Check out the cool poster, too. Shop now for birthdays and the holidays, or get the book into that boy’s hands before football practice starts again.
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
The Chicago Manual of Style, which is not the only style manual in the world but is a standard one that many editors refer to on such matters, has a clear and unambiguous instruction for capitalizing words in titles. The Chicago rule is consistent with what I learned in elementary school and so I assume it is not radically different from longstanding traditional practice. I quote it here, from the fourteenth edition of the manual (because I like that one better than the current, fifteenth, edition):
“In regular title capitalization, also known as headline style, the first and last words and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that, etc.) are capitalized. Articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor), and prepositions, regardless of length, are lowercased unless they are the first or last word of the title or subtitle. The to in infinitives is also lowercased.…”
That is not a particularly hard rule to remember; however, for those who find it difficult, the option of LOOKING IT UP remains available.
Note in particular the phrase “and prepositions, regardless of length.”
[By the way, I have chosen to use what editors call downstyle and what Microsoft Word calls sentence case in this blog, which means that I capitalize only the first word of headings. That’s just a choice I made; I have nothing against title case in principle and I use it often in work for my clients.]
Okay, back to my fulmination. The newspaper of record, the Gray Lady herself, the [cough] infallible New York Times routinely prints headlines that look like this:
Taking to the Streets,I do not mean to suggest that the paper does this consistently. They also use downstyle heads and correctly title cased heads. They have no consistent style at all, in other words. I have been noticing this for a while.
For Parents’ Sake
The Gender Gap
Here, see for yourself, in a front page from a few years ago.
Now—and this is what prompts the present rant—I am sitting here reading William Safire’s “On Language” column from Sunday; and he-of-all-people quotes (accurately?) a headline from another paper altogether, the Washington Times: “Olmert Asks for a Word With Bush…”
As I said, this should not be hard. If Microsoft wanted to, they could even make it automatic when someone selects title case in Word (instead of capitalizing every word, as is currently the result of making that selection). In other words, there is no reason that a newspaper typesetting system cannot automatically set headlines according to a consistent style. This is not rocket science. Maybe it is brain surgery, though, involving heads as it does.
Sometimes it’s hard to just sit down and read the paper for pleasure, y’know what I mean?
Sunday, June 11, 2006
The trouble with satire
In 1965, give or take a year—at a time in our country’s history, children, when the cafeteria food served at colleges and universities was actually prepared and served by employees of the institution, if you can believe that—I was an undergraduate at Cornell. The Cornell Daily Sun was full of articles about some sort of financial shortfall at the university and the inevitability of a tuition increase or a cut in services. I wrote a letter to the editor containing a modest proposal to the effect that, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, the university should have McDonald's take over the food service in exchange for a fat fee.
This was understood, by the paper’s editors and readers, as satire. One of the editors, in fact, wrote a letter in response, taking on the persona of and signing the letter as an elderly alumnus (class of aught-eight, if I recall correctly), outraged at the very thought of sullying the pristine reputation yada yada yada. All in good fun. Now, of course, it is routine for corporate food service operations and name-brand franchises to set up shop on college and even high school campuses and exploit the semi-captive students to the benefit of the stockholders. Hooray for capitalism.
What reminded me of this long-ago incident was an article I just read in today’s New York Times. Couples are now, and have been for a few years, selling advertising and promotional opportunities involving their weddings, in order to defray the cost of an obscenely expensive shindig. Perhaps you are a hip and in-the-know person to whom this is not news. But to me it sounds like something that must have originated as a social satire in Mad or The Onion, only to have a pair of young MBAs happen upon the article and muse “Hmmm, this could work.”
So let this be a lesson to you: Don’t suggest in satirical jest a concept that you do not want to see transpire in real life. Because if you write it, apparently, some idiot will go out and do it.
Now, for bonus points, how many satirical books can you name, the premises of which have been implemented by real-life businesspeople or politicians? I’ll start: Wag the Dog.
Friday, June 09, 2006
Prove it yourself!
The senior teller handed the trainee a wrapper and said, “Make sure there are a hundred ones here.”
The trainee carefully slipped the wrapper off and started counting: “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.” Then she stopped, rewrapped the bills and handed them back to the senior teller, saying, “It looks good so far.”
It’s tempting to treat page proofs that way, too. And it’s just as dumb. Don’t do it. Check every page.
But if you’ve never been asked to check page proofs before—whether by a compositor getting ready to send pages to the printer or by the printer getting ready to put your book on the press—you may not have a good idea of what to look out for. Here is a list to get you thinking. Not everything on this list applies to every book, and some books contain features that go beyond what I’ve listed here. I originally jotted this down in response to a question from a self-publishing author who had designed and typeset her own math book; so some of these points pertain specifically to books with equations. You can skip those parts if they don’t apply to you.
- RIP issues (uncommon these days, but possible)
The raster image processor (RIP) is the program that turns a PDF file into a visible image, on your monitor, in your desktop printer, and, most important, in the printing company’s filmsetter.
- The PDF should have had all fonts embedded, but verify this by looking closely at the pages. Sometimes a font refuses to be embedded, and you can’t know this until you look at the pages and find missing or wrong-font characters. Are you seeing what you expect to see? Are there any missing special characters or symbols in equations? Does the body text look, on close inspection, like the font you think it was set in or has a default font been substituted?
- Does the tracking and kerning look right? Do the justified margins line up straight?
- Are graphic curves smooth or are they noticeably faceted (approximated with a series of straight segments)?
- Images (halftones)
- With most presses, the image you see on the proof will be a little lighter than what prints. Is that how the images look? Can you see small halftone dots in the lightest areas (using a magnifier)? Can you see small white dots in the darkest areas? Does the picture look bright and clear rather than muddy and dark? If not, talk with the printer before going to press.
- Is the line screen what you expect? Are there moirés? Are all images visible, correctly positioned, correctly scaled, and with clean edges? I don’t think there’s much hand stripping going on these days, so I wouldn’t expect problems; but you do need to look.
Here you are looking for your own oversights, of which there may be none, but don’t bet on that.
- Are running heads/running feet/folios both present on every page where you expect them and correct? (Read them.) Check that fonts are consistent; if you have old style (hanging) figures on the chapter pages, do you also have them on the other pages? If you have small caps running heads, do you have them on every chapter?
- Are all pages present and accounted for, odd pages recto, blank pages where you expect them, correct total number of pages, including frontmatter, backmatter, and blanks? Does the first blank page count as page i? Are folios visible on pages where you expect blind folios?
- Do the table of contents entries have the correct page numbers, especially for the frontmatter? In the table of contents, are there still bogus numbers (zeroes) for the appendix and index?
- If something is supposed to be masked out, is the mask still there and covering as much as it’s supposed to or is there a tell-tale corner showing?
- Do facing pages balance? That is, are they the same depth?
- Are the margins consistent? Do bleeds actually bleed (you’ll need to check the PDF file to ensure there is a full eight of an inch available for every bleed).
- Do all paragraphs conform to the style you planned for them? Are most of the lists justified but somehow this one slipped by ragged right? Is there a paragraph that never got a style applied to it, leaving it in the wrong font, size, or leading? Are paragraph indents consistent with the design (lede paragraphs are usually flush, not indented).
- Are equation numbers present where you expect them and equations positioned consistently (horizontally)?
- Are figure legends spaced consistently from figures; credit lines positioned consistently?
- Glaring typos that you can’t believe you missed before
- Check the cover, title page, and copyright page thoroughly, word for word. This is when you're going to discover that the title or author is misspelled.
- Reread the acknowledgments (and ensure you spelled acknowledgments correctly). It is rude to thank someone profusely but call them Jean instead of Joan.
- Make sure running heads are the right ones for the chapters they’re in (yes, I’m repeating myself, but do it again anyway).
- Check every heading to ensure it is consistent with the spec for case—all caps, small caps, caps and lowercase (“title case”), initial cap only (“sentence case”). Check that, if title case is used, the correct words are capped.
- Skim every page for words that jump out at you—pubic for public, loose for lose, etc. It's not too late to do a complete proofreading if you find an unacceptable number of these on a quick skim.
- Check for straight quotes and straight apostrophes that never got converted to the typographic glyphs. Check for double hyphens or spaced single hyphens that were supposed to be converted to en or em dashes.
- If this is the first time you are seeing the index, proofread it thoroughly, verifying every page number and checking that the indexer included tables and figures.
- Turn the proof upside-down and go through the pages one more time. You will be amazed at how many errors leap off the page at you when you are reading upside-down.
- Stray marks
- With today’s digital technology, it is unlikely that small stray marks you see on the proof will actually print; they’re probably artifacts of the proofing process. Nonetheless, circle any marks you see, including white scratches across type. If you received a digital proof (looks like it came off a laser printer), don’t even bother with this. If you received a blueline (funky paper with the type in blue), then you should do this step.
- On the other hand, printers’ gremlins pad about at night. So do keep an eye out for strange blocks of type popping up in unexpected places, otherwise unexplained gaps in text, parts of an email you wrote to your mother some months back mysteriously interwoven with your narrative text, and other gremlin droppings.
Write your corrections legibly on the pages, in the color you’ve been asked to write in. If this means you have to run out to the drugstore for a red pen, do it. In fact, follow all of the directions that came with the proofs, especially the one that says when they’re due back. If you are responsible for providing a file with corrected pages, do so.
One more thing: Be nice. Whether you made the mistakes in the first place or someone else introduced them subsequently, nobody did so intentionally and nobody is out to make you look bad. Errors happen. The purpose of proofing is to find them so they can be corrected, not to point accusatory fingers. And if you’re unsure whether something is right or wrong, ask; don’t guess and don’t assume.
Thursday, June 08, 2006
Publishers and “content creators” (otherwise known as writers and artists) have been skirmishing over copyright lately, and at least part of the controversy stems from changes to US copyright law that came about as a result of lobbying by Disney. The company wanted essentially perpetual rights to exploit the value of its “intellectual property,” specifically anything and everything having to do with Mickey Mouse. This is, of course, a perversion of the purpose of copyright as originally conceived by the Founding Fathers. The law as it stands gives all the rights and power to corporations to protect their rights but does little or nothing to protect the rights of the individual human beings who create new works in the first place and completely subverts the rights of the public (that’s you and I) to deconstruct and reuse work imaginatively after a decent interval.
As a consequence, clips from Fantasia will not be seen on newscasts today. The irony, of course, is that Disney, in this case as in so many others, exploited material on which copyright had expired (the Dukas music and the Goethe poem) so as not to have to pay royalties. Had the current copyright law been in effect when Fantasia was made, I wonder whether old Walt could have gotten permission to use the material the way he did.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
The architect of the page
“Form follows function.” This principle drives much design and did so long before it was articulated so succinctly. We associate the quote primarily with architecture, but it applies equally to industrial design and to graphic arts, particularly to typography.
The typographer is the architect of the page and should try to design the page to serve its function—or rather its functions. What are those functions?
- Readability. The typographer’s first obligation is to the reader. Readability is both biologically bound and culturally bound. That is, there are physiological and psychological components to reading that we share across cultures; and there are cultural norms that affect our expectations. The typographer tries to stay within those cultural norms so the reader is not distracted by something that looks odd, even if that something would be completely unremarkable in another country. A simple example: British spelling and punctuation look odd to US readers and vice versa. The physiological and psychological aspects of typography have to do with line length, line spacing, point size, and some of the more arcane details of composition.
- Connotation. As readers since early childhood, we have grown up immersed in conventions we do not think about. We are not supposed to think about them in the left-brained, verbal, analytical sense. However, we have absorbed them, in a right-brained, intuitive, experiential sense. Let me try something obvious here:Which of those three fonts would you be most likely to see used for headings in a physics textbook?
Connotation extends to the look and feel of the page, as well. How ample are the margins? How traditional is the layout vs. how modern-looking? When you look at the page, are you transported to a cathedral or to a schoolbus or to a tent in the woods? Book design encompasses more than just typography. The designer has to consider the nature of the paper surface and the way the book will be printed, as well; and both of these factors affect choices the typographer makes.
- Cost. A book is a product. That is, you are going to pay for it to be manufactured and then you are going to sell it to a reader, and you hope to make a buck in the process. Therefore, you have to consider the cost of manufacturing as it relates to the price you want to sell the book for. The typographer has to take cost into consideration when designing the book, just as any other product designer—or architect—has to consider cost. In terms of book design, cost shows up in the form of page size and page count, factors that interact with readability and connotation at the boundaries of margin size, font choice, font size, and line spacing.
- Aesthetics. The typographer’s job is to create an appealing, inviting page that helps the reader stay focused on the content that the author is trying to convey. At the same time, if the page is so luxurious that it distracts the reader from the content, then the typography is not serving its primary purpose. (The exception is in the field of business documents, such as annual reports, where the purpose of the design often is to distract the reader from the content.)
Does all of this sound like something that you, as a self-publishing author, want to tackle for yourself? If so, I encourage you to try. Look at the books on your own shelf with a fresh eye. Visit the library and the bookstore to look at other books and see how well their designers produced forms that followed function. Read books about typography. Try some small projects for practice. Then tackle your own book. If you get stuck, ask questions. I’ll do my best to answer.
Saturday, June 03, 2006
Three out of five ain't bad
There are others who are much better at this sort of thing than I am. There is a fellow in New Paltz, New York, who seems to have a letter in one section or another of the paper, often the Magazine, about six or eight times a year. And while I have, over the years, gotten letters into a variety of magazines and newspapers, always employing the same strategy (outlined below), I have yet to break into National Public Radio.
The benefits of seeing one’s letter published are obvious: It is a nice ego boost (not that I need that, I hear someone shouting from the gallery); and it costs nothing.
I will tell you how I go about composing a letter for publication. There are lessons here, too, that apply to the writing of effective letters in general, whether you are applying for a job or submitting a manuscript to an agent (see Miss Snark, the literary agent and Evil editor for a great deal more on the latter topic).
The first and most obvious requirement is that you RTFM. Examine the Letters page of the publication for instructions and follow those instructions to the letter.
The second requirement is that you read the letters the editor has selected for publication. Find what they have in common and emulate it. Does the publication favor letters with a clever turn of phrase? Does it publish letters that discuss a whole issue rather than a specific article? Does it favor letters that flatter the editor rather than serve the reader? Does it feature letters that tack an obscure fact or aside onto an article? Does it feature letters that brutally attack an author or that whine in defense of someone attacked by an author? If your goal is to get your views on some topic in front of the readership, you have to couch them in a letter that appeals to the editor’s personal taste.
The third requirement is that you not aim above your station—or above your stationery. If you are the US ambassador to France, go ahead and pontificate for five hundred words on the globalization of American culture and how this offends the people of France. If you are a schoolteacher in Sheboygan, your views on that topic may be of less interest to the editor; but your recipe for blueberry cobbler may be just the ticket. I can blather on here about any topic that suits my fancy; but when I write to an editor I speak to my direct experience and do not try to compete with experts in fields where I have only lay understanding.
Fourth, pay attention to and follow the form used in the publication. Minimize the amount of editing required. This means that you need to observe the style of salutation, the style in which articles are cited, and all the little things, too: Is it US or U.S.? Are states abbreviated or spelled out? Are numbers over ten rendered as numerals? How is Khaddafi’s name spelled? And so forth. Given the choice, most editors will select letters that require less work on their part. And if you are printing and mailing a letter on paper (does anyone do that anymore?), please double space and leave wide margins.
Fifth, if the publication contacts you prior to publication and is courteous enough to show you how they have edited your letter for length and request your approval, do not whine about the cuts. If the edit results from a serious misunderstanding of your point and results in something that will mislead readers, you should certainly say so. But if the editor just eliminated one of your pet phrases and dropped your first and third points in favor of your second, your only appropriate response is “Thank you. Edits approved.”
* Parlor trick: An expression so common and well understood in the pre-television era that lexicographers have apparently always overlooked it. I cannot find it in any of the American dictionaries I checked, new or old, nor in any online reference, and my eyes cannot focus at this hour of the morning on the Compact OED, even with the magnifier. The expression shows up in a Google search about 90,000 times, which really is not very many. In any case, a parlor trick is literally something one does to amuse friends gathered in a parlor. By extension, it is any amusing but unimportant and generally non-income-producing talent.
Friday, June 02, 2006
Growing up is hard to do
The reason I bring all this up is to talk about the relationship between consultant (me) and client (you). Actually, that isn’t true. I’m addressing this post to other freelance professionals who have troubled relationships with their clients. I generally do okay in this regard, although I admit it took me a long time to grow up. But I see, from what other freelances post on mailing lists, that a lot of them, especially the younger ones, could do with a bit of gentle coaching.
The specific incident leading to this essay is an exchange on such a mailing list. Here is the question that arose, stripped to its essentials: The client engages the freelance to do a job. Both parties assume at the outset that their respective computers can communicate with each other for the exchange of files. Once the job begins, it becomes apparent that, to facilitate file exchange, the client should download and install a free software utility. The question raised is whether this is an unfair imposition on the client.
One poster, imagining herself in the role of the client, said, “Still, if I were hiring someone to do editing for me, I wouldn’t want to have to make the effort of downloading software. If the freelancer downloaded it, put it on a disk, and sent it to me, I might be willing to install it. I think it’s fine to ask the freelancer to install some software if they want the job. I just felt it wasn’t right to expect the client to install them.”
Here is how I responded:
Perhaps you would like the freelance to fly to your city, rent a car, drive to your house, and install it for you, as well, all at no cost to you. I’m sorry, but the relationship between editor and client is a business relationship. Both parties are interested in getting the job done; both parties have some responsibility to overcome random obstacles. I don’t think asking a client to follow a simple procedure to download and install a free utility is overly burdensome.What do you think? Am I being too harsh on my fellow freelances? Am I shattering the preconceptions of my potential clients? Do you feel entitled, as a potential client, to treat consultants as servants? If you are the sort of person who yells humiliating insults at servers in restaurants, I really would rather not work with you. If that is a problem for you, the help you need is well beyond what my credentials allow me to provide. Harrumph!
As freelance consultants we are not servants to our clients. If you put yourself in that position relative to your client, the client will devalue your services, impose on your time for favors, pay slowly or short, and generally treat you like a bathmat. Make it an adult–adult relationship, not a parent–child relationship. In an adult–adult relationship, you, as the freelance, are empowered to help the client behave in a less entitled manner. Try it. You’ll like it.