Thursday, December 28, 2006

So are you left-brained or right-brained?

You are both and you are neither, of course.

I sometimes refer to big-right-brain graphic artists, people whose creativity and visual sense I much admire but with whom I sometimes have trouble communicating verbally. But even those folks function well enough in the verbal and computational world to conduct their day-to-day business.

In any case, the problem is not that the world is full of different and interesting sorts of people. That’s a good thing. The problem is with the expressions “right-brain” and “left-brain” in the first place.

The subject came up on a mailing list a couple of weeks ago. Here’s what I contributed to the thread:
Just a general caution on this whole right-brain/left-brain thing.

These phrases entered the language because of the title of a single book (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain). The same thing occurred with Catch-22. But there is a significant difference. The phrase catch-22 is a literary allusion and is an arbitrary, otherwise meaningless, string of words. There is no twenty-twoness to a catch-22.

There is, though, an implied biological basis to the leftness of left-brain activities and an implied biological basis to the rightness of right-brain activities. And therein lies a danger—dare I say a catch-22?—that the much more complicated true biology of what goes on where in the brain will run smack up against the more general concept that is being adduced.

In a business book, where deep, accurate, scientific thinking is probably not what readers are looking for, this may not matter. But I would caution editors to be careful of these phrases in more scholarly contexts. Yes, we all understand that the brain has a mode that involves intuitive, experiential, subliminal learning and information exchange, wherever in the brain this actually takes place, and that we call this right-brain activity. And we all understand that the brain has a mode that involves linear, rule-based, putatively rational, conscious thought that we call left-brain activity. But we need to be clear that the physiology doesn’t reflect the labels and perhaps we also need to be on the lookout for better labels to use in the future.
Words matter.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A revisionist view

My paternal grandmother was a wise, warm, intelligent person. She read voraciously in English, not her native language, into her eighties. She and my grandfather had an active social life. She kept up with politics and world affairs. She read two or three papers every day. So it seemed odd to me, as a kid, that she was addicted to soap operas. Every day she had to get home from her canasta or mahjongg game in time to see her “stories,” as she called them. When I challenged her (brat that I was), she always said, in amazement, “They’re so true to life.” But I loved my grandmother and was happy to make allowances for what I saw as her one peccadillo.

Now, though, some three decades after her passing, I’m reconsidering.

In the news lately, we’ve had the affair, the affair, the Judith Regan affair, and some sort of basketball brouhaha involving multimillionaires brawling in public.

Within the last week or so, acquaintances—upstanding middle-class people about whom one would never think such a thing possible—had their own Jerry Springer moment (the police were considerate and professional).

In fact, the more I look back, as an adult, at my own family’s history, the more I find myself coming around to my grandmother’s point of view. Some of those soaps really were true to life.

When I edit fiction, I try to help the author maintain a certain level of plausibility. After the last couple of months, I’ve revised my definition of plausibility—downward.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The P word

Pop quiz:

1. What does the abbreviation POD stand for?

That’s it. Just one question.

If you answered “print-on-demand,” you are excused from class today. Enjoy.

If you answered “publish-on-demand,” stick around for the review, please.

Print-on-demand is a digital printing technology available to all publishers. It competes with offset printing. Frankly, the technology has gotten good enough in the last couple of years that it can be hard to distinguish digital from offset printing. There are financial considerations that would lead a publisher to choose one or the other. There are no moral considerations. There are plenty of reputable companies where you can buy digital printing.

Publish-on-demand is a phrase introduced by vanity presses to disguise the nature and purpose of their business and to confuse and mislead authors. I’ve said it before, as have many others, and I’ll say it again. Vanity publishing is not self-publishing. You’re the publisher if you own the ISBN. Otherwise, someone else is the publisher. Don’t let the fancy Web sites with the carefully crafted blather persuade you otherwise.

But if you want to deal with a vanity press, at least know what you’re getting yourself into.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The economics of literary novels

Isabelle Allende on Studio 360: “I did not quit my day job until I had three books published in several languages.”

Monday, December 04, 2006

Making books

I gladly admit my strong preference for printed books over ebooks. I’m sure there are people for whom ebooks are a great convenience, just as there are people for whom using an automatic breadmaker is preferable to kneading dough by hand. I’m not one of those people.

Words matter, as I endlessly remind myself and you; but the physical substantiation of words matters, too. At least it does to me.

So it is always a pleasure to get out from behind the keyboard and run my hands over books, all kinds of books, and examine them as made objects, as expressions of craft. Saturday I caught a train to New York and walked a couple of blocks to the Small Press Center for the Nineteenth Annual Independent and Small Press Book Fair, where several dozen small publishers displayed their wares in their own booths. The publishers ran the gamut (I love the ) from self-publishing authors with a single title to established presses with a dozen or more current titles. Many were houses that specialize in a particular field or genre or viewpoint.

Let me focus on the books themselves, though. On the ridiculous end were those of an author for whom writing is therapy and book sales are irrelevant. She is cognizant of only the words she writes and she is interested only in readers who share her disdain for the physical world. She has, she told me, had her “books” produced by the same copy shop for the last three decades; never mind any advances is technology over that time. These books consisted of copies, for which the author pays three cents a page, on letter-size paper, of whatever randomly formatted, word-processor-generated pages she happens to come up with, affixed to each other with some sort of desktop tape-binding machine. Okay, it’s good to have a baseline for comparison, although this baseline was quite a bit lower than what any sane person would expect to find at a book fair.

Moving right along, I encountered some self-published books that slavishly followed Dan Poynter’s guidelines and others that would have been greatly improved had they done so.

(Stay with me. This gets better.)

At the next rung were small publishers who had perhaps designed their first books themselves or perhaps paid for a book to be designed once and had then stayed with the same design through several more books. I understand that this is an economical approach, and I don’t want to discount it entirely. However, what drew my attention was the amateurishness and ungainliness of these designs and their inappropriateness to the books’ contents.

And then there were the publishers who have some respect for the aesthetic sensibilities of the reader. They showed books that were obviously designed by professionals and printed by quality book printers. Yes! There are still bibliophiles in the publishing business. That’s good news, and I celebrate it.

Finally, there were two publisher-craftsmen who manufacture (manus = hand; facere = make) books. And these were the only two exhibitors from whom I purchased anything—because I was incapable of not purchasing anything from them.

Ed Rayher runs Swamp Press, in Northfield, Massachusetts. He is one of a handful of craft printers producing letterpress books in the United States. Ed is a young man, which suggests that he may continue to refine his craft for some decades to come. That would be a good thing, as it would be a shame for the technologies he exploits to disappear altogether. His operation is exciting and yet, to me, a bit disappointing, too. Ed casts type, for his own use and for sale to other letterpress printers, using a Monotype machine. This is not quite the same as recreating the technology of traditional type foundries, but it may be as close as a modern craftsman can come and still make a living. Monotype sorts are quite similar to foundry sorts, and the differences are of vanishingly small importance.

Ed also engraves his own matrices on occasion, for the casting of special sorts. I don’t think he starts the process by cutting a steel punch, but nobody has done that commercially in quite some time. So we can’t fault him for that.

He prints on elderly letterpress equipment. Let’s call it obsolete but not antique, although Ed might quibble with me on both counts. But these are mechanical (that is, motor-driven), commercial, twentieth-century presses that are a far cry from the hand press you may have encountered while touring Colonial Williamsburg or Old Sturbridge Village.

Under the Swamp Press imprint as well as for other clients, Ed typesets, prints, and hand binds beautiful little books. He chooses papers that enhance the three-dimensional quality of metal type. Books this exquisite, though, deserve to be meticulously edited and proofread. Alas, they are not. When printers and publishers were one and the same, it was easy to assign blame. But when publishing and printing evolved into separate functions, the rule of thumb was that the publisher controlled the content and the printer produced what the publisher asked for. In a small press operation like Ed’s, I think it makes sense for the printer to revert at least partially to the older model and reassert his role in the editorial transaction. As I said before, Ed is young. I expect that as he and his press mature, the quality of the books will continue to improve from their already near-perfect state.

Malachi McCormick
is a writer, translator, calligrapher, and maker of books. He is Irish, by way of Staten Island, and I don’t know whether the charming brogue in which he converses with strangers at book fairs is his everyday idiolect, but it is delightful nonetheless.

Malachi cannot be bothered with typography at all. His work is all in his own calligraphic hand, a traditional Irish script that we usually call uncial, and features covers and slipcases of handmade paper. These small books are not nearly so well constructed as Ed Rayher’s are, but they are much livelier and quite beautiful in their own, more primitive, way.

Beautiful objects inspire us to create other beautiful objects. That alone is reason enough to own them.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Nineteenth Annual Independent and Small Press Book Fair

See you in New York this weekend, December 2 and 3. Details at the Small Press Center site.

I'm not hiring, but if I were...

…I’d put Miss Snark’s ten criteria on a poster on the employment office door. Warning: Put down that coffee mug!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

As heard on The Writing Show

Author and blogger Paula Berinstein interviewed me for The Writing Show last month and has posted an MP3 that you can download to your MP3 player or listen to on your computer (click the subhead that reads, “Download and Listen to Dick Margulis MP3 Here”).

We spent about half of the hour and twenty-two mintues on editing and about half on book design, focusing on what the self-publishing author needs to know about those topics. In listening to the interview, I now know that I say “y’know” way too often. I’ll have to work on that. I also apparently can’t recall the difference between Flip Wilson and Lily Tomlin. But I digress. Overall, I think the interview went well and anyone who listens will learn something from it—if only what I sound like.

The above link includes a photo (I was in a good mood, as the picture was taken at my wedding—after I took off my jacket but before I ditched the tie; so, yes, that’s what passes for a smile); Paula is a lot better looking than I am, though.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Like two, make that six, metaphors that pass in the land of the noonday sun

Geoffrey K. Pullum, over on Language Log (a great blog that should be on your list to read every day, as it is mine), quotes a paragraph from Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins [inserted reference numbers are mine]:
Bush and Blair are men in a hurry, and such men lose wars. If there is a game plan [1a] in Tehran it will be to play Iraq long [1b]. Why stop the Great Satan when he is driving himself to hell in a handcart[2]? If London and Washington really want help in this part of the world they must start from diplomatic ground zero[3]. They will have to stop the holier-than-thou[4] name-calling and the pretence that they hold any cards[5]. They will have to realise that this war has lost them all leverage[6] in the region. They can insult and sanction and threaten. But there is nothing left for them to “do” but leave. They are no longer the subject of that mighty verb, only its painful object.
(Pullum’s particular interest in the passage is different from mine, although I agree with his conclusion that “perhaps Simon Jenkins needs a little rest from writing columns to deadline.”)

Let us count the mixed metaphors:

[1] I have no idea what game it is where the plan might include playing the opponent long; I am familiar with games in which that is a specific tactic applied situationally or against a particular individual player (moving the outfielders out in baseball against a long ball hitter, for example). But I don’t think of such specific tactics as constituting a game plan.

[2] A handbasket is a vertical conveyance for getting miners down to the working face in a mine; it’s a hand-operated elevator, in other words. One might conceive of descending to hell in one. A handcar is a horizontal conveyance that runs on railroad tracks. It would seem that driving to hell horizontally would make the trip quite a bit longer. A handcart, on the other hand, is something one pushes while walking. One does not drive it.

[3] Ground zero is the centerpoint of nuclear destruction. One might start from (or with) nothing, but starting from ground zero strikes me as problematic.

[4] and [5] Is it an issue if the holier-than-thou are pretending to hold cards in the first place?

[6] Nothing wrong with the metaphor of a lever, other than its triteness; but mixed with all the others it just adds to the comedy.

My all-time favorite mixed metaphor—stop me if I’ve told you this before—was an ad lib remark by an MIT student guide on a campus tour in the spring of 1963. The day was blustery and raw, and as we entered one of the athletic buildings our guide suggested that we take a break to warm up; he would answer any questions. We were at ground level, at the top of the spectator stands above the pool.

One of the mothers in the group asked whether MIT had guidance counselors. Our guide glanced at the pool, then back toward the woman who had asked the question, a look of sudden literary inspiration in his eyes, and he said, “At MIT no one leads you around by a ring through your nose. You have to sink or swim on your own two feet.”

Friday, November 10, 2006

Here's a writing assignment for you

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to the cinema to take in The Queen.

Helen Mirren channels ERII in a well-made film. We laughed. We cried.

But enough of the movie review. Here we were in a perfectly civilized theater, one that caters to adults and takes film seriously. Half or more of the audience were Yale students, who one would presume were brought up with some sort of indoctrination into behaving in a civilized manner in a public venue.

The first assault was the stinky sneakers of the guy one row back and one seat over, interjected between two seats onto the armrest next to me. The second assault was the ringing of a cell phone one row ahead of me about two minutes before the end of the movie. Embarrassed fumbling to silence the phone? Don’t be silly. The guy answered it. The third assault was a young woman a few rows up flipping her phone open and punching in a number about a minute later.

So here’s your assignment: Write a script for a thirty-second trailer to play in the theater before the movie. It has to convey, in a humorous but effective way, the basics of being part of an audience of strangers.

Don’t send me the script, as I have no power to get it produced. You’re on your own for selling it to theater chains. I’m just suggesting the concept.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election cake

In our corner of Connecticut, election cake has evolved into a PTA-sponsored bake sale at the local elementary school where we vote. This sale has a reputation to uphold, and so a lot of the baked goods are not homemade but are, instead, purchased from (or perhaps donated by) bakeries.

This morning I skipped my usual breakfast at home, in anticipation of buying breakfast at the polling place. I spied a large assortment of bagels and, bagel provenance being of some importance to me, I asked where they were from. “Autobahn pane” was the answer. I took this to be the speaker’s best rendition of “Au Bon Pain” [“oh bawn panh” is the best I can do in rendering the French pronunciation for people who never took French; those who did will have to forgive me for that transcription] and found something different to eat.

I mentioned the “autobahn pane” to my wife, who had not overheard it; this reminded her of a local hospital where the coffeeshop concessionnaire is Au Bon Pain. What happens when a distraught family (one unfamiliar with French pronunciation) walks into the hospital to visit a sick relative and encounters a coffee shop that uses the word pain in its name?

Words matter.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Those pricey textbooks

Are you outraged at what your kids have to pay for their college textbooks? Do you feel as if the publishers are price-gouging? Do you rant about all those expensive add-ons and gewgaws that drive up the price but don't add value? Does it make you nuts that a new edition comes out every two years, even though ninety-eight percent of the material is historical and unchanging?

At lunch in St. Louis Saturday, the organizers had labeled the tables with a suggested topic of discussion. I sat at the "design" table (trolling for clients, of course, and there wasn't an "editing" table). The gentleman sitting next to me is a PMA board member and a publisher of over a hundred books a year. In the course of the discussion, he said he might contact me to bid on doing the design and layout for a textbook. This will be an expensive book (we didn't get into numbers, but I got the feeling it will be at the price level that people tend to complain about). I did not ask what field the book is in, but here are the salient facts:
  • The author of the text teaches 300 students a year.
  • There is no reason to suppose a priori that any other professor in the country will choose to adopt this particular book.
  • The book has massive amounts of text.
  • By two years after its introduction, most students will have sold their copies to one of the major national used-textbook dealers, thus reducing the opportunity to sell new copies in the out years.
What do we learn from these facts?
  • The print run will be 1,000 books. This allows for selling 300 copies a year to the people taking the author's course, for two years, with enough additional books for contingencies (sending samples to other professors, allowing for increased demand or the chance that a new edition won't be ready in year three).
  • The layout will be complex and expensive (roughly six to ten times as expensive as producing a novel of the same length) because breaking up the dense, lengthy text into digestible chunks has been shown to be a necessity for such textbooks and because charts, tables, graphs, and images are expensive to produce.
When you hold a textbook in your hands and see how slick and professional a production it is, your assumption is that the production expense was amortized over many thousands of copies. But as you can see from this example, production costs can actually represent a significant fraction of the retail price of the book. Add in the author's desire to be compensated for the time spent developing the book and the publisher's understandable desire to remain in the black, and you can easily see what goes into the retail price of the book.

Sure. If the book under discussion is a freshman survey text that is adopted at twenty or thirty large universities and is used by twenty thousand students a year, the production costs are not as big a price driver. But most textbooks don't have that kind of print run.

So dial down the outrage.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Count me in

I am a non-joiner. Here’s how much of a non-joiner I am: I was once elected to the board of an organization I refused to be a member of. However, I am enthusiastically joining PMA, The Independent Book Publishers Association, and if you are even thinking about self-publishing your own book, you should join, too.

I just returned from attending a one-day mini-university conducted by the PMA board, and the program was great. The event was hosted by a regional affiliate of PMA, the St. Louis Publishers Association (I was there as a vendor). Until now I’ve been neutral on the question of whether a client ought to join. But now that I understand the benefits you can derive from joining PMA, I’m going to push all of my self-publishing clients to sign up and to attend PMA events in their area.

Don’t be intimidated by the name. While the PMA includes members who publish over a hundred titles a year, the majority of the people I met have published one book or are in the process of publishing their first book. You’ll fit right in, and the member benefits are worth much more than the modest price of membership. You will have access to a number of valuable programs, discounts (some of them deep) on services and subscriptions, and a ready-made network of helpful contacts.

I’m an idiot for not having joined before this, and you’d be an idiot not to join now. Do it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Amsterdam vacation III: If it's Saturday, this must be Belgium

If you are not particularly interested in the history of the printed word, you may never have learned more than the schoolbook one-liner, “Gutenberg invented printing in 1454,” or perhaps “Gutenberg invented printing with movable type.”

If you have an interest in the field, though, you undoubtedly know that neither of the above statements is true. Movable type was in use in Korea as early as the twelfth century. Printing is older than that. What invented was a way to cast any number of copies of a single, hand-cut punch. His principal invention, the hand mold, was responsible for the development of the commercial printing industry. Within a few short years, printing establishments sprang up all over Europe, producing books that ordinary folks could afford, pushing literacy ahead of the wave of production. Printing was the fifteenth century’s version of the dot com boom. Anybody interested in making a buck got into the biz. We can look at the history of the alphabet and writing styles and typefaces and the art of the book, but a full understanding has to include the history of the business, too.

By a century later, with the expansion of printing still in full swing, the Rupert Murdoch of the day, one Christopher Plantin, was a young Frenchman who had moved with his bride to Antwerp, a major printing center by then. He was a bookbinder, but he lost the use of one arm in a mugging and had to find another way to earn a living. He took up printing in 1555. He had some successes and some failures. Mostly successes. In 1576 he moved his business to a new facility, where his descendants ran the business until 1876—300 years in one location. By 1876, they were essentially living on interest and rents; they still loved printing but were no longer relying on it for income. They donated the premises and its contents intact to become a museum. The city of Antwerp owns and manages the museum today and they do so magnificently.

The Museum Plantin-Moretus (Moretus was Plantin’s son-in-law) houses the oldest extant printing press (amid several other presses that are not much newer), punches cut by Claude Garamond himself, over six hundred manuscripts dating back to the ninth century, the company’s nearly complete business archives, and other treasures that earned the museum the designation of a world heritage site.

For any student of printing, of type, of the history of technology or of business, of the Renaissance, of Humanism, of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, of architecture, of art, this is an institution that must be seen. The few hours we spent there were not nearly enough, and I would gladly go back as a mere tourist. But it is also a scholarly resource of immense importance, the heritage of the world, but also the heritage of one visionary businessman who established his own success principally by sucking up to rich customers whose views he detested (namely the Spanish Catholic church) and who ensured the continuity of the firm with a single brilliant insight that he decreed to be a principle of family tradition—that the business should pass not to the eldest son or the eldest child but rather to the most able. Thus this father of daughters passed it to the most able of his sons-in-law and it then passed down through the generations according to the same principle, bringing in daughters or nephews when sons were not up to the task.

There’s probably a lesson there for some of our contemporary institutions.

If you visit, enjoy a great lunch at reasonable prices at the small restaurant nearest the museum’s door. English is accepted, but credit cards are not. Real Belgian food. Real Belgian beer. Avoid eating in the tacky tourist areas you will pass through on your way to the museum.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Amsterdam vacation II: So many museums, so little time

Prior to last week, my wife and I were probably the oldest living, college-educated, middle-class Americans never to have been to Europe; so my observations about the experience may be a big yawn to sophisticated you. I persevere with blogging about them, though, to preserve the memories for my own sake. Feel free to eavesdrop.

They were right

The “they” in question are all those people who have said that traveling to a place (actually putting your body there) is different from reading about it or watching an IMAX movie. Some random observations:
  • It pays to know where the nearest encashinator is, as American credit cards are not accepted everywhere. The rail system, for example, requires cash or a specific European credit card. Many restaurants expect cash.
  • Speaking of restaurants, a nominal tip is appreciated but not expected. Basically, round up the bill. And ask for the check or you may wait a long time for it.
  • Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Well, that isn’t entirely true. Pedestrians theoretically have the right of way over cars, if you really want to press your luck. But bicycles outnumber cars about 17.36 gazillion to one; so it’s the bikes you have to worry about. Trust me; cyclists are not concerned about damaging their bikes, which have an average depreciated value of about twenty euros; nor are they concerned about damaging your person. Stay alert and stay out of the way—which is not easy, because the sidewalks are narrow and tend to be obstructed by delivery vehicles, café tables, and dog droppings. And do wait for the Walk signal.
  • Next to the central train station is a three-level parking garage for bicycles. There are more bicycles there, by at least an order of magnitude, than I had seen in my entire life up to the point when I walked past—and that includes the totality of bicycles I’ve seen on streets and sidewalks, on television reports about bicycle races, in stores, in movies….
  • Citizens behave like adults and the honor system prevails: Half of the bikes parked on the street are not locked. Trolley passengers and short-haul train passengers are presumed to have paid their fare. It’s refreshing to encounter a government that can compare the cost of hiring a bunch of enforcement personnel to the limited amount it loses to dishonesty and make a rational choice.
  • Everyone understands English and speaks it fluently. Any given commercial sign or advertisement is as likely to be in English as in Dutch, and many draw from both languages equally. And even if you don’t speak a word of Dutch now, by the time you’ve been in Amsterdam for two or three days you’ll have a reading lexicon of dozens of handy words, even if you’re not quite sure how to pronounce some of them.

Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals

We went to the current exhibit (“The Masterpieces”) at Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Here’s the thing. If you walk into the Met in New York or into any major American art museum, you’ll see a Rembrandt that the museum paid a fortune for and that sits off by itself or in a room full of other European art of the same period. Or you might see a traveling collection of nothing but Rembrandts. Same for Vermeer, Hals, or any other Dutch painter. What a genius! Isn’t this painting remarkable? It’s so different from everything around it! The man was sui generis!

But in the Rijksmuseum I got a real sense of what made these individuals geniuses. All of them painted very much in the style of their contemporaries. They have in common a particular use of light and dark to focus the viewer’s attention as well as a particular palette. For subjects, they painted the people they were commissioned to paint. There were no portrait photographers; there were portrait painters. And a realistic representation was a desirable thing. But each of these guys defined “realistic” in a different way, so that instead of a static image of a posed subject with a carefully chosen, stiffly held, cosmetically enhanced facial mask, their paintings variously captured realistic and lively expressions and complexions, natural gestures and interactions, the dynamic interplay of light with moving objects. Seen in context, each of these painters is actually much more remarkable than when seen in isolation.

And the rest

Anne Frank Huis is worth the visit. Experience it for yourself. I would have liked to make it to the Van Gogh Museum and several others, too, but there wasn’t time. We did make it down to Antwerp; I’ll tell you about the museum there in the next post.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Amsterdam vacation I: Milking the experience

My gustatory impression of Amsterdam, in a word, is grass.

No, actually there was not much grass of the lawn variety to be seen, except growing atop houseboats as a living roof. That’s not the sort of grass I had in mind. I am referring to three specific types of grass, all ingested in one way or another by humans.

The first type is cereal grass—the grains from which beer and bread are made.

Netherlands cuisine seems to be the geographic average of the cuisines of other countries in the region. It’s somewhere between French and English, somewhere between German and Scandinavian. It is as if all those other countries’ styles rolled downhill into the Low Countries and blended smoothly together. I find it hard to point to any one dish I tasted that I couldn’t connect to an antecedent elsewhere.

Amsterdam, of course, has been a trading center for centuries. So the cuisines of the country’s former colonies and current trading partners are everywhere to be seen. But those are distinctly not Dutch.

In any case, getting back to the cereal grasses: Beer good! Bread, um, not so much. I tried several varieties of each, and the beer was better in every case. The bread, when I could choke it down, detracted from the appeal of whatever it touched.


The second type is forage grass
—the raw materials from which ruminants make milk.

The same Dutch soils and climate that produce poor grains for bread produce magnificent dairy products. The Dutch cheeses we can buy in the US are pale shadows of the cheeses I tasted in Amsterdam. Regardless of type—aged, soft-ripened, semisoft, fresh, chevre—they were remarkably sweet, rich, and buttery. I do not mean they all taste the same—far from it. I mean only that each was distinctive in its class and executed to perfection.

But set aside the cheeses. The butter was unlike any I’ve ever tasted, including European-style butters made in the US, imported Danish butter, or Australian butter eaten in Australia. Given the several miles a day we walked, I didn’t even feel guilty eating it; the only hard part was pretending I was eating it with bread.

The third type of grass is in an unrelated botanical family and is illegal in the US.

The coffee shops where it is sold and consumed often have their doors open to the sidewalk. These shops are scattered throughout the old city, and we inhaled enough just walking by that we didn’t feel the need to enter.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Going Dutch

Blogging will resume when I return from Amsterdam.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A way of thinking about typography

I’m working through the design of a book in which the author combines prose and poetry. She requested that most of the poems be set with all lines centered. I advised her that this is rather an old-fashioned approach and that she might consider a more up-to-date design. We went back and forth a bit; then she tested three design options with a focus group. The answer came back loud and clear: The panel much preferred the author’s original choice of all lines centered.

In the course of reporting these results to me, she made this point about the book: “Another thing I am trying to accomplish is balancing right brain communication (poetry) with left brain communication (analysis, rules). The structure helps distinguish the form of communication.”

Here is how I responded to that. I think it might be of interest to others, as well:

You probably realize you are not the first person to consider the relationship between the way words are arranged on the page and the way the mind processes those words. A lot of consideration has gone into the topic at least since the early Medieval period—some of it science-based but mostly introspection-based, followed by market testing.

In recent decades, people have tried to construct a theoretical framework in which to consider such questions. One of the concepts that has emerged is that of “marking.” This refers to any device that creates a visual distinction between elements. For example, a paragraph indent marks the beginning of a new thought. A space between paragraphs does the same thing. Most practitioners have come to believe that double marking is both unnecessary and intrusive. So a well designed page will generally employ either an indent to mark a paragraph or a break to mark a paragraph, but not both. (The two marks can be mixed on the page and be used in slightly different contexts; I’m not saying a book can only employ one or the other; just that we don’t indent a paragraph following a break.)

, broadening this notion, has suggested that a criterion for good graphic communication is employing what he calls the “least perceptible difference,” for example between line weights in a diagram, to indicate semantic distinctions.

With that theoretical framework superimposed on the traditional craft of book design, it is easy to understand the right-brain choices typographers use to evoke a subliminal response in the reader without beating people over the head. Typography has always been a connotative art, in other words. And subtle choices are the hallmark of fine typography. The reader is not supposed to notice (by which I mean that the reader’s analytical left brain is not supposed to be aware of) the connotation that the designer is trying to evoke. The reader is simply supposed to be suffused with the desired feelings.

So, yes, the structure helps distinguish the form of communication, as you say; but the goal is to make this distinction below the level of the reader’s conscious thought and to do it as subtly as possible without losing the effect altogether.

For more on this, see an earlier post on this blog, The architect of the page.

Friday, October 13, 2006

One of the joys of editing ...

… is finding a real howler in a venue where excellent editing is the rule.

By that I mean that it’s just tedious to slog through badly written, badly edited prose that you are nonetheless required to read for some bureaucratic or civic reason but that you have no control over.

And there is surely a sense of pride in turning a sow’s ear of a manuscript into a silk purse of a finished book.

But there is real glee, for me at least, in finally, after a long and busy week, stealing a few minutes with The New Yorker—certainly one of the best edited weeklies around—and coming to this sentence in a piece by Malcom Gladwell: “A woman has fled an abusive relationship with her infant son and is now living in a port town.” (He’s describing a film plot; these are not real people. Relax.)

Well, I’m easily amused, I guess. Correcting the above sentence is left as an exercise for the reader.

Friday, October 06, 2006

And now a word from . . .

… whoever coins a good one.

Periodically—okay, almost every day—I come across a discussion in one online forum or another in which a participant fulminates about the latest abomination some miscreant is trying to add to the English language and how they can’t do that because that just “isn’t a word.”

Invariably, someone with a cooler head (not necessarily me) points out that if English couldn’t accommodate new words, Beowulf would be a lot easier for us to read. So new words are a way of life for English-speakers. Nonetheless, not all neologisms survive. Editors, as a group, have a certain amount of influence; if a strong consensus develops among editors that a word is not a useful or entertaining addition to the language, the word tends not to appear in print very much; and without the reinforcement of print citations, it may quietly fade from use. If the consensus among editors tends to favor a new word, it is likely to persist. There is, in other words, at least some coupling between the language (what we speak) and the writing system (what we publish). And that loose coupling is, to some extent, mediated by editors.

Enough thumbsucking. What prompts this post is a discussion thread yesterday on the tech writers’ mailing list I belong to, basically a bitch session about words people hear at work but hate. I didn’t hate all the ones people offered. In fact, I rather liked a few.
  • updation—Yvette Denoga reported this one from the world of geekdom. She hates it. I think it has legs.
  • destinated—Keri Morgret reports this one from amateur radio (“ham radio”) jargon, and I see shows the term. “I’ve destinated” means I reached my destination. In the right context, it works.
  • encashinator—Sarah Bouchier claims coinage of this synonym for ATM. No hits on Google or Urban Dictionary yet; so props to Sarah.
  • incent—This comes to us from business jargon and has been around for a while. The American Heritage Usage Panel strongly discourages its use. I think it’s with us to stay, though; and I think it serves a purpose. You may disagree, of course.
Comments?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Eurydice at the Yale Rep

An elementary school classmate of my father, a woman in her mid-eighties who travels anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat and continues to sit on the boards of various public bodies—and who still has thick black hair to the waist of her four-foot-ten-inch frame, runs around in heels, and drives like a bat out of hell—has long been a film buff. She has not only seen far more movies in her life than you have, she has probably seen more movies in the last week than you have. If she can’t persuade one of her daughters to go with her (What? Did you think she was going to go with a contemporary? They’re all dead or in dementia units.), she goes by herself. This is a woman who weeps easily and she has always rated movies by the number of hankies she soaks, a system I am borrowing for the moment.

Eurydice, a modern take on the ancient myth, written by Sarah Ruhl, is in previews at the Yale Repertory Theatre, in New Haven. The opening is tomorrow, September 28, and the show runs through October 22. For my wife, this was a three-handkerchief evening; and for any daughter who mourns her father, for any parent or spouse or lover who mourns another, it well should be a three-hanky evening.

Eurydice, in case you were not in class that day, was the young wife of Orpheus. Details vary, depending on the author; but, short story short, Eurydice dies early in the tale and is transported to the underworld. Orpheus, a great musician, play a tune so mournful that the spirits relent and allow him to lead Eurydice back to the world of the living. The condition, though, is that he must not look back during the journey, else Eurydice will die a second time and forever. Of course, he does look back, and thus endeth the tragedy.

The tale was always told from Orpheus’s perspective. Orpheus’s tragic flaw was that he loved Eurydice too much. What Ruhl has done is reimagine the story from Eurydice’s point of view. She has also transposed the plot forward a couple of dozen centuries, added some wickedly funny foils, and, most important from a dramatic standpoint, introduced Eurydice’s father as a central character.

The staging is imaginative and effective. The Rep kicks off their season with a great night of theater (they spell it their way, I spell it my way). The show is ninety minutes without intermission, and there is running water involved. So pee first. If you have never been to the Rep, as I had not, I assure you the seats are comfortably wide, with plenty of knee room, something that cannot be said for other New Haven theaters I’ve been in.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Fun for wordnerds

Thanks to Philadelphia Inquirer book editor Frank Wilson for a link to Etymologic! If you fancy yourself an etymology buff, you’ll enjoy playing along. I beat Frank’s seven out of ten; I aced the test.

Perfect Score

Here’s the list of words and phrases the site gave me:
  • sea butterfly
  • coco
  • soteriology
  • boondocks
  • bootleg
  • gaffer
  • pencil
  • chocolate
  • curfew
  • get a bead on
I admit I had to guess at a couple of them.

Well, I'll be darned

In a largely vain ploy to increase the number of people who visit this blog each day and to convey the illusion that I update the content more often than I actually do, I early on decided to incorporate the daily features visible in the sidebar—the Quotation of the Day, Today’s Birthday, and the Word of the Day.

Meanwhile, in tracking what people search the blog for, using the Google Search tool at the top of the blog, I’ve noticed that several folks have searched in vain for a definition of virgule. (Never mind that the Online Reference block in the sidebar lets you just type it in and look it up.)

Well, imagine my surprise to find that the Word of the Day for today, September 20 is virgule, which is, I admit, a fairly obscure term. So, for those of you paying attention today, consider yourself informed. For the rest of you, go ahead and type it into the Online Reference block.

As to why the word occurs in the name of the blog, that’s another matter altogether.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The spice of life

I like juggling a variety of projects, but there’s variety and then there’s variety. It just occurred to me that I haven’t posted to the blog in nearly a week and I’m going to have to hand in my bloggers’ union card if I don’t write something. Then I thought about the reason and realized it’s because in the last week I’ve:
  • Drafted a user guide for a medical device

  • Started writing a book proposal (for a client) for an inspirational memoir (and ghostwriting the sample pages)

  • Closed a deal to design a book to be privately printed for a wedding (I’ll also be doing the composition)

  • Closed a deal to design an InDesign XML-import template for a product catalog

  • Designed two small Web sites

  • Written blurbs and shipped sample books for a couple of regional book trade shows

  • Scheduled a television interview for October

  • Written some thumbsuckers for various online fora

  • Gotten out of the house a few times, too

  • And I have a feeling I’m forgetting a couple of things
No wonder I’m tired.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

If you write, you must read this

If you are reading this on Sunday September 10, stop what you are doing, go immediately to the nearest newsstand or store that sells The New York Times, and buy a copy of today’s paper. Go now. I’ll wait.

If you are reading this on another day and no longer have access to the Magazine, you may need to pay for a subscription to TimesSelect to read the cover article, On Self, which consists of excerpts from Susan Sontag’s notebooks and diaries.

Reading these few pages may profit you more than would spending the next several months taking yet another creative writing workshop. Don’t miss this.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Turkey shoot

Thanks to Kristen King for having the patience to dig through Miss Snark's recent spate of Crapometer postings to find this gem, which I've added to the Articles links in the sidebar.

The Turkey City Lexicon gathers in one place descriptions of a lot of common writing errors that a good editor will point out. Even experienced writers would benefit from a quick perusal.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Abandoned is the new lost

department …

Maybe the 1970s was the golden age of journalism and we have no right to expect that same level of commitment, integrity, and perceptiveness today. Maybe elevating the superstars of Vietnam-era journalists to celebrity icons is what led, ultimately, to our current nadir. Perhaps young people started going into the field to become stars instead of to uncover the truth about the way the world works. In any case, we’ve come to a fine pass, haven’t we? It’s one thing for a small-town paper or television station to pass off a news release they receive from a corporate or government source as actual news; it’s quite another, I think, for a serious newspaper like The New York Times to do so.

Today’s Times (Sunday) has a major article about screening technology at US airports (link may not work if you are not a subscriber). I’m sure the paper’s own staff are responsible for the reporting, graphics, and photography. Nonetheless, I can hear the government spinner talking in the cutline to this picture. It reads, “At the Transportation Security Laboratory outside Atlantic City, scientists and technicians build bombs with various explosives and stuff them into abandoned pieces of luggage purchased by the federal government to see if their cutting-edge equipment can detect the bombs.”

Excuse me, but abandoned!?!?! Surely they jest. Or, in this instance, . The fact that airlines lose huge numbers of bags does not mean that their rightful owners ever abandoned them. Please!

I’ve got to wonder how much other government guff the reporter swallowed. And I have to wonder whether journalism schools are even training reporters and editors to be skeptical these days.

Meanwhile, if you recognize your own luggage in the photo, at least now you know who ya’ gonna call.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Close enough for gummint work

Someone raised the issue the other day, over on the comp.fonts news group, of optical size of type, and another poster asked for an explanation. If the finer points of typography are something you’re interested in, here’s an edited version of the explanation I posted:

If you’ve looked into how digital fonts are constructed, you may think of a font in terms of a single set of outlines for some number of glyphs. If you want to set 1 pt type, you render the outlines at size 1. If you want to set 72 pt type, you scale up the same outlines to size 72. Ta da. You’re done.

However, this really doesn’t work, in terms of the way we perceive letter shapes.

If we go back in history to when artisans cut each punch by hand, we can see immediately that a character of, say, around 6 pt (this was before the invention of the point system) and a character cut by the same punchcutter of, say, around 36 pt are quite different. And the difference is not because of human error or imprecision in wielding the gravers and counterpunches. No, the difference is systematic across the font. The punchcutter’s intimate knowledge of the way type impresses ink into the surface of paper taught him to make the counters (the open spaces such as the middle of a letter o) proportionally larger in smaller sizes and to make stems proportionally thinner, etc. Visually, the range of sizes represented an integrated design, within the limits of human ability to cut consistently. However, optically magnifying the 6 pt type to the size of the 36 pt type would make them look like entirely different typefaces to the naive observer.

Jump ahead to the nineteenth century. Now we have a point system, but we’ve graduated from hand cutting each punch to mechanical punchcutting, using a pantograph. The typeface designer works with pencil on paper at a large scale (varying by designer, but often ten times the target size), then inks the drawings. A craftsman transfers the the pen sketch to a brass template, which is then screwed to a block. A pantograph traces the brass template and cuts a punch at the desired small size. Now this is an industrial process, with expensive labor and machinery. So the designer cheats the system a bit and draws perhaps three versions of the font, an A size, a B size, and a C size. The A templates are converted by the pantograph to punches in the 6 pt to 8 pt range. The B size template becomes the 9 to 12 pt punches. The C size is used for 14 to 24, perhaps. That sort of thing. The visual principle is the same as before, but there are fewer gradations. Still, if the mechanical craftspeople are particularly skilled and attuned to the problem, they can make vernier adjustments to the pantograph and other adjustments to the casting moulds so that there is a somewhat smoother gradation among sizes than you would at first suspect from having just three models.

Now we jump ahead to the mechanical typecasting machines (Monotype, Linotype, Intertype, Ludlow). These have severe limitations in terms of permissible character widths. The best that can be said is that the cost of typesetting was greatly reduced. The spirit was willing in the matrix manufacturing companies, but the technology was weak. The quality was just barely close enough for government work. We enter a dark period in design when a very few excellent craftspeople push the limits of what the machines permit, but there’s a lot of just awful type produced that mostly drowns out the good stuff. However, even in this environment, the concept of A, B, and C master designs persists, as it does into the era of phototype masters (Linofilm, for example). Meanwhile, we’ve moved from metal pressing into the surface of paper to offset technology, where a clean shape is laid on top of the paper surface. This completely changes the relationship of glyph shape (as cut) with its visual rendition (as printed). The old type designs were cut slighter than the desired impression, to allow for the three-dimensional impression and the spread of ink under pressure. The same designs, used for offset, produce a wan, weak character on the paper.

One last jump. Digital type, as outlines (there were other technologies, but nowadays we deal with outlines). What has been lost?

That’s what the thoughtful criticism of specific fonts and specific font companies is about; and, in particular, that’s what the discussion of scaling is about.

Early versions of digital fonts were an amazing improvement over what a secretary could accomplish with a Selectric typewriter. But they were a poor imitation of real commercial typography. Today, though, after the same font names have been attached to several revisions of those first outlines, and after the technical standards for font outlines have been revised a few times, and after rendering engines have gone through several generations of improvement, the basic font outlines are, in some cases, quite good.

We still have the scaling problem, though. The fonts that take this problem into account are expensive. Adobe has lately issued a few; and other font companies—I hesitate to call them foundries, as there is no metal being cast—have also addressed this issue. When you pay a professional typographer to design and produce your book, you have every right to expect that the highest quality fonts be used. These are not the fonts that came with your computer or with your version of Microsoft Office. They’re professional tools for professional use.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Ya' learn something old every day

For dinner tonight I decided to make something I haven’t made in, oh, fifteen or twenty years, a Welsh rabbit. In that I haven’t made one in a long time, I looked up a recipe. Did I reach for any of the dozens of cookbooks in the house? Of course not, I googled for it, and the first hit I got looked good enough. (Both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster have, to Google’s dismay, pronounced google to be a perfectly good verb, lowercased; who am I to argue?) Dinner was delicious.

Cleaning up the kitchen I noticed that the recipe I printed out was titled Welsh Rarebit. I thought I had googled for Welsh rabbit, and I remarked at how clever Google was to know that the two terms are synonymous. (It turns out I had typed rarebit after all, and Google merely returned what I had asked for. Oh well.) My wife said she was sure she had never heard anyone call the dish rabbit and had only heard rarebit. A trip to Google Fight showed that both terms are in current use. Dictionaries treat rarebit as a variant of rabbit. (The history of the term is interesting; it’s a precursor of our modern battles over politically correct speech.)

Anyway, I continued to explore and happened upon this page, where I learned a couple of interesting old facts. The first is that the modern American version of the dish is rather sissified, a cheese-flavored cream sauce with a few other ingredients tossed in for flavor. The rightpondian original was pretty much melted cheese softened with a bit of ale and some seasoning. I’ll have to try it that way next time.

The second old thing I learned was that in the days before stoves, when cooking was done on the hearth, the implement used for broiling the top of something like a Welsh rabbit was a salamander, so called because it rather looks like one (as you can see on the page linked above).

Why is this interesting? It’s interesting because the commercial broiler used in restaurant kitchens is also called a salamander, a name that never made any sense at all to me until I went googling down the rabbit hole this evening.

Ya’ learn something old every day.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

My Very Emaciated Mother Just Served Us Nothing

You heard it here first, unless you also heard on NPR a few minutes ago. Pluto is going to be voted off the Island of the Planets.

Monday, August 21, 2006

High-traffic site

The normally quiet residential street where I live is, beginning today and for most of the next week and a half, the detour of choice for city buses, delivery trucks, and commuters. The thoroughfare a couple of blocks from here is closed so that a production company can film scenes for a feature film starring and directed by .

We are advised that there will be actors dressed as policemen who will have fake guns on the set and we should not be alarmed. Okay. Color me not alarmed. I do not expect to encounter them.

I learned as a child that people whose names you see in the paper are, for the most part, hard-working, capable human beings who put their pants on one leg at a time just as you and I do. If you happen to meet one of them, you look them in the eye and shake hands as you would anyone else. They appreciate being respected for their work more than being gushed over. At least most of them do. I enjoy watching Thurman act on screen. I don’t need an autograph. I’ve seen movies being made before, and I prefer the finished product.

I’ll be at my desk, ignoring the traffic outside.

Friday, August 18, 2006

e's are on sale this month

Whither -or? First it was adviser. Then it was protester. Then it was imposter. Then it was vender (a few weeks ago in The New Yorker). Now, in this post on Critical Mass we have translater. Al Gore is right: The werld is ending.

Monday, August 14, 2006

I dunno about these doctors who think they can write

Maybe some day I’ll find out, but so far I can’t tell.

Don’t get me wrong. There are doctors who write beautifully. What has me puzzled at the moment are the last two doctors who contacted me about editing their novels.

The first of them, a podiatrist, sent me a few pages to look at. When I asked to see the rest of the manuscript so that I could provide a price quote for editing it, he expressed concern that I might steal it from him. I explained about copyright and then I offered to sign a nondisclosure agreement. He was going to email one to me and I would sign it and fax it back. A few days went by and I asked what was up. He said he’d selected another editor—based on price. This was a bit of a surprise as I had not quoted a price yet; he’d never sent me the manuscript.

The second doctor, a vascular surgeon, sent me a one-line email last night saying that his publicist (a woman I’ve never heard of), recommended me to edit his book and could I please call him? As it was dinnertime on Sunday in his area code, I wrote back asking when would be a good time to call. I had gotten no response by this morning, so I phoned. Oh, never mind, he found an editor already. Huh?

Now as it turns out, my plate is fairly full at the moment. While it might have been fun to edit a medical thriller, I don’t exactly need the work right now. But if you’ll pardon my ranting a bit, what kind of decision-making process do these doctors go through in their professional lives? The first guy wanted a price from me without showing me the manuscript. I wonder if he diagnoses his patients without examining them. The second guy sent out some unknown number of emails to a list of editors and picked the first one who was rude enough to call him Sunday night, without considering any alternatives. Is that how he evaluates treatment options for his surgery patients—first salesman in the operating room wins?

Weird. Gives me a whole new perspective on guys in white coats.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Jazz in Ecuador, Butch's BBQ, and books

This post is about selling it.

My excuse for being in Asheville was that my niece and her family, who live in Ecuador, were visiting my sister. My niece gave a benefit jazz recital to a sold-out crowd at my sister’s house on the same night that Tony Bennett was performing at a somewhat larger venue in Asheville. She’s coming along as a performer and the crowd was receptive to her familiar American Song Book repertoire. The pickup band who accompanied her are familiar with the music, too. In Quito, however, there are challenges. My niece sings in English, for the most part, and introduces each song with a lengthy explanation in Spanish. Still, this is unfamiliar foreign music to her audiences there. She has to put in long hours of rehearsal with the few musicians she has found who have any notion of American jazz at all. And even though some of them are students in an extension program of Berklee School of Music, the notion that some jazz can include vocals is totally unfamiliar to them. They have heard of but not heard Luis, er, Louis Armstrong and Eja, er, Ella Fitzgerald. That’s it.

Now put yourself in the position of an Ecuadoran listening to my niece. This is foreign music with lyrics in a foreign language (difficult to comprehend even if you speak the foreign language fluently) that tell the stories of a foreign culture. It is an experience similar to attending a concert in the US of a touring group from, say, South Africa. The music is lively and catchy and entertaining, but its foreignness is at the core of your experience. You do not relate to it the same way you relate to the familiar music of your own culture. Once the group has gone back to South Africa and the tour publicity has ceased, what do you retain from the experience? There is no empathic relationship built up between that touring group and you. My niece has that problem selling herself to the public in Ecuador, and for the same reason.

Pulled pork

On the way to Asheville, and again on the way back, my wife and I stopped along the road for lunch. Both times we chose a local barbecue place in North Carolina. (On both trips we also carefully avoided eating anywhere in Pennsylvania; experience is a great teacher.)

On the southbound trip, stopping for gas, we spotted a place at the top of the hill. One store promised “scenic souvenirs,” which we somehow managed to avoid, but the barbecue place next door looked clean and reasonable. It had the expected kitschy gewgaws on the wall, along with a number of posters of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts for some reason we did not inquire about. The menu was unexceptional; the service was prompt and friendly, if somewhat impersonal; the food was far better than we had any right to expect. And yet the place was sufficiently unmemorable that I cannot tell you its name or its location along I-77. I’d be hard pressed to find it again unless I happened to need gas at the same point on the next trip down.

On the trip home, though, our experience was different. We knew we wanted to eat somewhere west of Statesville, where I-40 and I-77 cross, because that area is saturated with franchise restaurants. Even if there is some local gem hidden there, we would not have been able to find it. On the tourism informational panel listing restaurants at Exit 103, we saw a promising-looking sign for Butch’s BBQ. Okay, let’s try it. From the outside, the building was nothing special. With different signage it could have been a Dairy Queen or a KFC or a dry cleaner. But in the parking lot we noticed three or four catering trucks. Clearly, the place had a local reputation sufficient to keep those trucks busy on weekends. That was a good sign.

Inside, the place was clean and neat, not laden with quaint decorations. We ordered at the counter, where a middle-aged man in a Butch’s BBQ tee shirt took our order, talking us through the choices of sides. He volunteered, “Now if you try something and don’t like it, just bring it back and we’ll give you something else. You can taste anything you like right now.”

He seemed a little too enthusiastic to be someone who took the job after getting laid off from a software company. So my wife asked, “Are you Butch, by any chance?”

“Yes, I am,” he said. And he continued with his spiel as he rang us up.

A couple of minutes later, after we’d picked up our order and were beginning to eat, Butch was working the room. After a minute or so he was at our table, talking about the food. I had ordered a smoked chicken salad sandwich. Before I got to my second bite, Butch informed me that it was made with chicken breasts he smokes himself. He gave us the recipes for both his white slaw and his red slaw (same as the white slaw but with cayenne pepper added). He offered that the hush puppies on my wife’s barbecue plate were all-you-can-eat. “Just come back and ask for more. We’ll give ‘em to you.” Yes, he makes all five barbecue sauces himself and bottles them. “Taste that bun. It’s homemade. I refresh the sourdough starter every three days, the old-fashioned way. Well, actually, my wife does.”

He gave us a card and continued around the room, pausing to take a call on his cell phone (when we noticed that the back of his shirt listed three locations), chatting up other customers, and then returning to the counter to wait on some more new customers.

Butch and his wife, we learned, started the business thirty-two years ago. And yet here he was, as enthusiastic to talk about food, smile at customers, and act as a role model for his employees as any newly promoted store manager trying to prove his worth to the boss.

I should mention that the food really wasn’t as good as that first place we’d stopped on Saturday. But it’s Butch’s we remember, because the retail transaction is about more than the actual goods exchanged. That’s true when you shop, too, isn’t it?

It’s true for the book-buying public, too.

Whether you self-publish or get a deal with Random House, selling books doesn’t end with creating a marketing plan. The actual selling—making the empathic connection with the purchaser—is your responsibility as an author. Whether you like selling or not, whether you are a natural salesperson or not, no matter how introverted you may be in real life, you have to stand up and smile and shake hands with people and pretend you enjoy signing autographs and expressing your heartfelt best wishes for cousin Jimmy’s wedding and say howyadoin’ like you really mean it. Moreover, no matter if it is all an act, you have to be convincing at it. Shirley has to go home from your reading and tell her friends the story of how you and she really connected, if only for a moment. She has to tell that story for years. So don’t give her a perfunctory brush-off when she dawdles at the signing table to ask about your dog, okay? Because she’ll tell the story of your rude brush-off for years, too.

You can’t sell books sitting on your ass, even if you have to write them that way. That’s what Butch understands. You have to understand it, too.

Consider the crime writer

Consider the cop, too.

This last sunny Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were strolling, window shopping, actually, in the yuppified part of downtown Asheville, North Carolina. A street musician sat with his back to the sole of a giant black flatiron, a public sculpture across the way from an old flatiron building. The street scene included a number of pedestrians and, within a couple of blocks, numerous charming boutiques and cafés.

As we were walking away from the corner where the guitarist sat, I heard a bottle break, then some shouting, then some thuds. I turned to see a man on the ground being kicked in the side. Within a few seconds, several participants in the melee had scattered, some around the corner, some past where we stood. The victim of the beating, with the assistance of a friend, hobbled past us, holding a shirt to the back of his head, which was bleeding from where an assailant had broken the bottle over it.

When we reached the corner where the musician still sat, we and other tourists conferred and concluded that we could not piece the event together well enough to make a credible police report. Hence, we were all non-witnesses to an unreported crime. To be sure, I tried to ask the participants I encountered what had happened, particularly when some of them returned from around the corner to see where the beatee had gone. But the more I learned, the less I knew. Had any of us called 911 and waited for a cop to take our statements, we would have contributed nothing to the pursuit of justice.

There was one person I think I might be able to pick out of a lineup, although I don’t know the person’s role in the events. Yet I would swear this was a slight young man of the sort one might call pretty and my wife insists it was a rather unfeminine young woman. Some lineup that would be!

I’ve watched my share of police dramas and read my share of crime descriptions in novels and stories. And I’ve also read reports of experiments designed to assess the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. I’ve thought about how I might do as an eyewitness to a crime, and I’ve had the sort of practice that most of us get with the occasional traffic accident. I fancy myself a fairly observant person, too. But in the real event, with non-actors attacking a flesh-and-blood person on the street, I batted zero. We all batted zero. So my hat is off to the real cops and prosecutors who piece together the events of crimes, to the witnesses who stay collected enough to remember what they see, and the writers who can imagine violent crimes and write about them in a way that evokes reality. Fictional crime is certainly better organized than real crime.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Getting a self-published book reviewed where it counts

Join this discussion on Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle board of directors. The question on the table is how to bring independently published books to the attention of major book critics. I’ve thrown in my tuppence-worth. It would be good to see other points of view, and Critical Mass seems like the right venue to raise the issue.

Friday, July 28, 2006

I love it when a plan comes together

Editor’s note: If you are just joining us, this post is part of an intermittent series (indexed here), addressed primarily to the self-publishing author, in which I use an old conceit [3a], that of a wooden barrel as a metaphor for a process dependent on many inputs, to describe book publishing, with the volume of water in the barrel representing sales. The notion is that the level of the water is limited by the shortest stave.

So far I’ve touched on the major inputs involved in producing a book as an object. But if a book sits in your garage and nobody reads it, does it make any noise? No. And that means that the book is not a product. If it is not a product, you have nothing to sell and thus no expectation of recouping your costs, let alone reimbursing your time in writing the book.

What distinguishes a product from an object is, in the case of books, the business of publishing. Publishing—literally making public—means exposing the book to public view. This involves marketing the book: getting it reviewed, promoting it, advertising it, telling people about it any way you can.

Doing this requires a plan.

Okay, I know you just shuddered. Marketing is not something that a thoughtful, sensitive, introspective person like you is attracted to. You would much rather just put that beautiful object on your coffee table and admire it, pat yourself on the back for having produced it, wouldn’t you? If you are independently wealthy or someone else is paying your bills, you can indulge that fantasy. Otherwise, you need to draw up a marketing plan.

When? That depends. If you have spent the last decade and a half crafting the Great American Novel, it would not be reasonable to suggest that you should have planned the marketing before you started writing. For nonfiction, though, it often makes sense to have a marketing plan in place and underway before you write the first word of the book.

A marketing plan addresses a number of points:
  • Who is the book written for?

  • How large is the potential audience?

  • What is special about the book that will make it appeal to this audience?

  • What price will the audience accept for the book before they start to resist purchasing it and choose a competing book instead?

  • What influencers does the audience respond to?

  • What is the best way to activate those influencers?

  • What kinds of marketing activities make sense for the book?

  • When should those activities be scheduled?

  • How much time and money should be budgeted for those activities?
As I said, these are questions most authors would rather not have to deal with. Nonetheless, whether you write the marketing plan yourself or hire a consultant to develop the plan for you, the person who is going to drive the execution of the plan is you, the author. This is true whether you are self-publishing or working with a traditional royalties-paying publisher. It’s your butt that’s going to be in that car, shlepping from book signing to book signing, from local tv studio to local tv studio. If you’re not willing or able to devote the necessary time to readings, signings, and interviews, then your barrel doesn’t just have a short stave, it has a missing stave.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

For professionals' eyes only

Thanks to Geoff Hart for posting a link to The Saints of Communication today (note option to turn off sound in lower right corner of page). It is new to me although it may not be new to you.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Well, well, well-

A fellow copyeditor (one word, please) wrote to me a few minutes ago to point something out in my own writing that I was not conscious of. She noted that I had written about “well written and well edited texts from earlier centuries” and inquired as to why I had not hyphenated well written and well edited.

I replied:
It appears to be a habit I picked up along the way and misattributed to The Chicago Manual of Style. On looking it up just now, it seems that Chicago still wants those phrases to be hyphenated. I personally think, as someone posted a few weeks ago, that you have a lifetime quota of hyphens and should use them only when necessary. I don’t find any potential for ambiguity with “well” phrases, and so I’ve taken to treating them like “-ly” phrases—keeping them open except under conditions of potential ambiguity. But clearly I’m well out in front of Chicago on the point and perhaps I should reconsider.
So I’m reconsidering. I haven’t changed my mind yet, but I’m willing to listen to what others have to say. Feel free to comment.

Even editors need editors.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Break's over, back on your barrelheads

I began a couple of months ago to build a metaphorical barrel that represents the various inputs to successfully publishing a book. I got about halfway around the barrel and then took a break. The barrel holds no water yet (being only half built), and I will continue the construction soon enough.

This post is for the benefit of newcomers and is an index to the posts in the barrel series to date.

On Monday, July 24, barring unforeseen circumstances, Jeannette Cezanne will interview me live on the Web, at 8:00 pm Eastern Time. I anticipate a fair number of listeners will pop over here to the blog, and it is those folks I have in mind in posting this index.

Note: all of these will open in the current window; if you want to open them in a new window, you can do so manually:

Gardening, garage software, and garage books
A fool for a client
The opposable thumbsucker
Rolling your own
The architect of the page
Covering the object

Other posts (see the list in the sidebar) are also of interest to self-publishing authors. The archives (see sidebar) include additional posts of interest to writers and editors; but in the archives the posts are simply chronological and not sorted according to topic.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Nothing on but the radio

Usually I walk to the post office, but I had a large parcel to mail today and, in this heat, decided to drive. On my way home, I caught a radio commercial (no, my radio is not always tuned to NPR), the first sentence of which was:
Before you go house shopping, get your mortgage pre-approved first.
How is that redundant? Let me count the ways. On second thought, I think it makes a splendid exercise for the reader.

Everybody needs an editor.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Gutenberg quandary

The man we call Gutenberg did not invent the printing press. He did not invent movable type. What he invented, with the help of some others, was a method of casting type. The story is told well in a number of places. (In particular, I enjoyed Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words, by John Man.)

But Gutenberg had a problem. The system he devised for assembling type into a page required that lines be of even length. That is, he had to set what we now call justified type. If you look at images of Medieval illuminated manuscripts, the high art of the monastic scribes, you can see that lines end where they end, roughly in even columns, but not precisely so. But the simple fact of placing metal blocks into a frame and locking them in place for printing requires justification (occasionally Gutenberg used a spacing quad at the end of a line, too, something we would not generally do today in justified text).

Breaking words at syllable boundaries was not something that necessarily occurred to Gutenberg. It was more important, with the textura letter style in which his first fonts were cut, that word spaces be consistent, so as to give the page what typographers call an even color. (Textura is so called because the page resembles woven textile. The words texture and text come from the same root.) Yet he did want to indicate somehow that words had been broken. To do so, he used a quill pen to make a hyphen to the right of any broken word. The calligraphic hyphen in use by scribes of the day was a pair of slanted short lines. You can zoom in on this image to see the variation from line to line, evidence that these hyphens were rendered by hand. Considering the many hours of hand illumination that went into each page of the Mainz 42-line Bible after it was printed, a few seconds to toss in the hyphens was not a major expense.

[An aside: Those illuminations were based on the manuscript known as the Göttingen Model Book, which provides step-by-step instructions for rendering them.]

Now if you look at the images of the 42-line Bible, you can see that the hyphens are not actually within the justified type column. Of necessity, they hang to the right of the column. It’s my hypothesis that it is precisely this practice, Gutenberg’s practical accommodation to the quandary of word division, that is the historical basis of the “hanging punctuation” that has been a desideratum of fine typography for at least the last hundred or so years.

Gutenberg’s slanted textura hyphen has also survived to this day as the standard proofreader’s mark for a hyphen to be inserted in composed text.

But you already knew all that, right?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Staff walks out; NLRB does not intervene

My entire staff walked out last Friday. This was mystifying to me, as we had a conflict-free relationship until then. But suddenly I was faced with slowdowns, work stoppages, corruption, vandalized files, theft of services. I could go on, but it’s just too painful.

It is astounding to me, even though I realize I’m in front of my laptop approximately fourteen hours a day, the extent to which my business is dependent on the good graces of the machine I am again typing on. Without it, there is very little I can accomplish in terms of my business. Oh, to be sure, I did finish up some gardening chores. And I walked to the farmers’ market on Sunday and got the first really tasty tomatoes I’ve had in a long time. But work? Not so much. Blogging? Not at all.

After many excruciating hours of telephone calls to Dell, Symantec, and Adobe, plus lengthy and complex correspondence with Microsoft, plus additional long hours of uninstalling software and reinstalling most of it, all my troubles were traced to, of all things, a hardware failure. We see them so rarely these days that the presumption is always user error, and so the troubleshooting guides always start with uninstalling and reinstalling software, putting the burden on us users. In fact, the test to check the hardware could have been done on my first call to Dell, would have taken less than five minutes (as it eventually took), and would have gotten my machine up and running four days earlier and in better condition than it is now. I am not happy about this (can you tell?).

The good news is that I do back up client files. No work was lost. The bad news is that the major corporations we depend on to get through the computing day do not put enough thought into the design of fault trees. The result is untold millions of dollars of cost imposed on their customers—a real drag on the economy—that could be prevented easily enough with a simple change in attitude on the part of customer service managers.

Given the opportunity, technical writers are glad to work with technical support analysts to design fault trees from the user’s point of view. Clearly, though, they are not given the opportunity. Instead, troubleshooting systems always give the highest priority to shortening the phone call, not to solving the customer’s problem.

It’s a shame.

And my laptop? It still has scars and will until I decide to take three days to reformat the hard drive, reinstall all my software, apply a gazillion updates to all that software, and reload all my files from backup. Chances are I’ll procrastinate about that until push comes to shove.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

If u cn rd ths

Wired News is carrying an Associated Press story about yet another attempt at “reforming” English spelling, by which the proponents mean turning a perfectly reasonable orthographic system on its head and turning the writing system into gibberish.

Ho-hum. Again, huh? Will they ever learn?

There have been successful spelling reforms (in , in , and in , for example). There have also been failed spelling reforms, in most recently.

The last successful spelling reform in English was promulgated by a certain , of Massachusetts, although many, on both sides of the pond, have tried repeatedly since.

What the successful attempts have in common is that they preserve the information contained in the original orthography. Changes are small and subtle and do not discard etymological clues. What the crackpot schemes have in common is precisely that they discard all etymological coding in favor of phonological coding.

Some people spell well. Some people don’t. Part of it is early training. Part of it, I’m convinced, is genetic. But throwing out the baby with the bathwater is not going to help anyone spell better. Have trouble spelling? Learn to use a dictionary. Harrumph!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Benjamin Franklin on the editing process

In honor of the holiday, this passage from a letter wrote to , 4 December 1818:

When the Declaration of Independence was under the consideration of Congress, there were two or three unlucky expressions in it which gave offence to some members. The words “Scotch and other foreign auxiliaries” excited the ire of a gentleman or two of that country. Severe strictures on the conduct of the British king, in negotiating our repeated repeals of the law which permitted the importation of slaves, were disapproved by some Southern gentlemen, whose reflections were not yet matured to the full abhorrence of that traffic. Although the offensive expressions were immediately yielded these gentlemen continued their depredations on other parts of the instrument. I was sitting by Dr. Franklin, who perceived that I was not insensible to these mutilations. “I have made it a rule,” said he, “whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, ‘John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,’ with a figure of a hat subjoined; but he thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments. The first he showed it to thought the word ‘Hatter’ tautologous, because followed by the words ‘makes hats,’ which show he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word ‘makes’ might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy, by whomsoever made. He struck it out. A third said he thought the words ‘for ready money’ were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, ‘John Thompson sells hats.’ ‘Sells hats!’ says his next friend. Why nobody will expect you to give them away, what then is the use of that word? It was stricken out, and ‘hats’ followed it, the rather as there was one painted on the board. So the inscription was reduced ultimately to ‘John Thompson’ with the figure of a hat subjoined.”

Friday, June 30, 2006

Put your coffee down

You do not want a mouth full of liquid when you read this post by PODdy Mouth.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Hunka hunka burnin' hate

A memoir is not a place to settle old scores. You still hate your ex? I’m sorry to hear that. Does writing down all the things your ex did to you that gave rise to your hatred make you feel better? Great! Write them all down. Have a ceremony. Burn the document. Reformat your hard drive. Do what you need to do; just don’t seek revenge through publication. Doing so will enrich attorneys but will ruin you.

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!

A few days ago I received an email inquiry from someone who was looking for a publisher for her book. Well, that’s what she thought she was looking for, anyway. But from the questions she posed, it was clear she had been gulled by the currently trolling the Web (this is not a new phenomenon; vanity presses predate the Web by decades).

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.

You are a self-publishing author if you publish the book under your imprint, with an 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.
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.