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.