Friday, December 28, 2007

Kid in an eye candy store

Managing Design and Construction
I meet interesting people in this business. Steph Slater is one of those interesting people. Steph’s genius expresses itself in his visual sense and his sense of space. This led him naturally enough toward the study of architecture. But rather than pursuing a career directly in that field, he became a construction consultant and primarily works as an owner’s representative.

Steph came to me with an idea for a book, a guide for project owners—typically board members of nonprofits, Steph’s usual clients—to help them understand how a large project gets designed and built and to help them understand their own roles and those of the other players in the process. But Steph also wanted the book to be a rich visual experience for the reader with some instructive illustrations but also with inspiring images of great architectural examples.

Serendipitously, Steph had access to the images at Shutterstock, and he took full advantage of it, selecting lots of great eye candy for the book.

Because of Steph’s strong visual sense, working with him on the design of the book was a great collaboration. He didn’t come to the project with a visual vocabulary related to books, but he learned quickly as we went along and was ready with immediate and specific feedback as the design took shape. He also trusted me with the editing, because, as with a lot of strongly visual people, the details of grammar and spelling sort of sail below his radar.

And then there was the website
[Note that I’ve given up on “Web site” and have made the transition to solid, lowercase website. Language marches on.]

Turnberry Planning Incorporated


We had started out with a straightforward design for a static HTML website for Steph’s consulting business and to promote the book. Blecch! It was duller than the roof of the used GMC van I once owned. So Steph rooted around at Shutterstock and came up with the image he wanted to use for the site background.

Only there were a couple of problems. First, the laptop screen was not exactly vertical and rectangular. It was tilted toward the viewer and trapezoidal. Okay, Photoshop to the rescue on that one. I isolated that part of the image, distorted it to make it rectangular, and then did some other Photoshoppy things to fill in the skinny blank triangles that maneuver created on the sides of the screen. No big deal.

The second problem was that I had to accommodate the wide range of browser resolutions people use. I did not want anyone to have to scroll down to find the menu buttons or scroll across to find the page contents. And if I made the image small enough to accommodate the smallest browser, the contents would be unreadable on a high-resolution browser. That meant I had to figure out how to scale the background image to the browser size.

In the end, the site turned into the biggest JavaScript project I’ve done, and I leaned on the expertise of a number of other people who got me out of one jam after another. The site is not for everyone: It requires that you permit JavaScript and it really requires a high-speed connection, because otherwise you’ll be able to cook breakfast while the site loads. But visually, I think the site came out looking good. And for Steph’s potential clientele, all of whom can be presumed to have the latest and greatest laptop and a high-speed connection, the technical requirements won’t be impediments.

Anyway, I beat the deadline (books should be on hand any day now) even if I never got a chance to go Christmas shopping. And I learned a ton of JavaScript. I also learned a lot about developing a construction project, which will come in handy in real life.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Typographic notes from all over IV: About that gift card...

Okay, I wasn’t going to take the time, but this is seasonal.

Have you ordered any holiday gifts on the Web to be shipped to friends and relatives with an enclosed gift card? Have you received any such gifts?

What is wrong with these people? The merchants, I mean. “We’ll enclose your personalized note.” I guess I’d rather have a personal note, but I’ll settle for personalized. What I won’t settle for is a personalized note limited to 100 characters (including spaces) and printed on 20 lb. copier paper in 10 pt. Arial bold, all caps. Is that as personalized as these people are capable of?

Oh, it isn’t every catalog. The ones that are primarily in the gift business, rather than just running a little gift sideline at this time of year, put in a little more effort. Maybe they choose a slightly friendlier font and go to the trouble of printing on an attractive card. But they still limit the length of the message ridiculously and they still print it out in all caps.

Here’s a clue: Computers have been able to print lowercase letters since 1963.

We are experiencing particularly heavy call volume

Please call back at another time. Meanwhile, enjoy the holiday season. I will return to blogging after I get caught up on pressing deadlines. Ho! Ho! Ho! and all that.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Blog news: feed subscribers can now access comments

Back in October, I asked for some feedback on the blog, and Doug Geiger pointed out that people who read the blog through an RSS feed cannot easily click a link to add comments to a post.

I looked into it a bit and found a short script to enable that, but when I tried to upload it to the blog, the feed service objected (even though I obtained it from their own catalog).

Well, over the weekend, I had a bit of a blog template disaster (it was just a stupid-human trick, nothing to get excited about) and had to rebuild the template from scratch. Then today, I decided to check into the comments problem again, and I discovered that the same problem was occurring. So I looked at it a little harder and found the problem—a missing space in one line of code. I fixed that and uploaded the patch. The upshot is that for those of you using a feed reader, you should now see a Comments link at the foot of every post and you should be able to click it to access the comments, where you can then add a comment and, if you so choose, subscribe to the comment stream for that single post (that part seems silly to me, but it’s part of the deal). All this works in theory. If the stars are properly aligned.

Feel free to write back if you find it doesn’t work as advertised.

Monday, December 03, 2007

No statistical difference

NPR reporter David Greene, in a report this morning on the run-up to the Iowa presidential caucuses, called the race for the Democratic nomination a three-way “statistical dead heat” and, within the same sentence, commented on the interesting fact that Obama is edging out Clinton. He said it twice, actually, in different words.

Um, no. If there is no statistical difference, then there is no statistical difference. Nobody is edging out anybody. If you’re going to report on statistical results of polls, you should understand at least that much about poll results. Attaching political significance to statistically insignificant differences is irresponsible journalism, and claiming you weren’t a math major is no excuse. Shame on you, David Greene!

Numeracy matters.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Kith 'n Kindle

By now you’re probably heard or read about Amazon’s new e-book reader, Kindle. In its current incarnation, while it has many attractive features, it also has some unattractive ones, notably its price. Let’s assume, though, that given Amazon’s marketing clout and the tight integration with Amazon’s core business of books, the Kindle is an ugly duckling on its way to being a swan.

Does this finally augur the end of the printed book? I hardly think so.

Over on one of the tech writing lists, there’s a current thread about how end-user software documentation is delivered. Several participants in the thread note that it’s been quite a while since their employers sprung for a bound book. One person said the last time she had to get a manual printed was 1997. The last one I sent to a printer was in 1993.

What does this mean? First of all, understand the motivation. Software companies recognize revenue when they ship product, and they want to ship product about five minutes after QA certifies the release. That means they don’t want to wait for the doc team to catch up with the final changes in the product, proofread the pages, and send it out for printing. It also means they want to shift the cost of printing to the customer, even though the cost of printing it out on the customer’s office laser printer is about six times the unit cost (SWAG) of the manufacturer having it printed and bound commercially.

But from our point of view, the real question is whether customers accept the situation as it is. And the answer is that customers do accept soft delivery of documentation for the most part. They can look stuff up with a search field instead of thumbing through what is typically a very bad index if there’s an index at all. (Tech writers who index generally do it automatically rather than manually, resulting in something that resembles a concordance more than an index.)

In addition, a lot of software manufacturers have long since moved past a PDF of a manual they were too cheap to print and on to HTML help systems. Now the more progressive companies are going straight to XML-based systems, with content stored in a database and automatically transformed into appropriate output formats to meet customer needs. Customers seem to have accommodated to this paperless, artless, design-free, Kindle-friendly regime well enough.

The discussions about whether the book is doomed seem misplaced. It makes more sense to look at content, audience, payment model, and delivery medium as axes in an analytical space and then determine the optimal vehicle for any given work rather than assuming a one-fate-fits-all future for the printed book.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Designer breaks arm patting self on back. Film at eleven.

When I’ve put a lot of time and effort into a book for a client, I take a certain amount of parental pride in it. Even after the book is launched and my final invoice is paid, I check in now and then to find how the book is doing.

Fixing American Healthcare recently garnered its first reader review on Amazon, and the reviewer, Richard R. Blake included this unsolicited compliment for the design: “I found the graphics and the highlighted sidebars, consistent throughout the book, to be extremely helpful to my understanding of the quadrants of the decision-making process in healthcare today.”

Thanks, Richard!

Take a look inside the book yourself, to see what he’s referring to.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all Americans and everyone else, too. There is much to be thankful for and much more to be thoughtful about. After cooking and donating a turkey yesterday to a local group that feeds Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless, today we join friends across town for a joint effort with adult children. On other holidays the menu is often up for grabs. On Thanksgiving, we hew close to the traditional line. There is comfort in knowing that nearly everyone else in the country is doing the same thing. It’s nice to feel like a conformist one day a year.

Menu

Garlicky Fresh Kitchen-Windowsill Basil and Almost-Last-of-the-Garden
Tomatoes Mince on a Bed of Parsley, Served on a Bagel Crisp

Chestnut Soup with Cayenne and Cinnamon Roasted Pecans

Roast Turkey with Great-Grandmother Friedman’s Bread Stuffing
(fat chance I’ll link to that recipe) and Homemade Pan Gravy

French-cut Fresh Green Beans Amandine

Mashed Potatoes à la Cholesterol

Sweet-Potato-Apple-Pear Casserole Ad Lib

Cranberry-Orange Relish

Homemade Apple and Pumpkin Pies

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Who needs designers?

Thanks to John Hedtke for this mood enhancer (safe for office viewing, but finish swallowing that mouthful of coffee first).

Frankly, Adobe doesn't give a damn

I promised an update on my current woes with Adobe, and here it is: They told me to go jump in a lake. They don’t need my business. At this point, I’m inclined to give them what they wish for and advise everyone else to join me.

I feel like a jilted lover. For a couple of decades, I’ve talked up their applications, defending them in public venues from unwarranted prejudice against their products. I’ve spent many hours providing free assistance on the Internet to Pagemaker users and Acrobat users. At one point I diagnosed a long-standing critical bug in Pagemaker and gave Adobe the information they needed to finally fix it in the final release of Pagemaker.

And in return for my loyalty? Nothing. A thank you? No. A postcard? No. A freebie? Don’t make me laugh.

When I had my recent disastrous experience with an upgrade and requested some consideration, after many more phone calls, I finally discovered that Adobe had agreed to give me a font package. They offered me three choices, and I picked one, a font family worth $149. Seemed fair to me. But this would have to be escalated and I should call back in a few days. I called back yesterday, and Customer Service had no record of it. So I hung up and called headquarters in San Jose. I was finally connected to Erik S. in the Adobe Customer Care department (you can’t call him directly; don’t even try).

Erik reviewed the case notes and told me he’d email me the font within four hours.

Here is the email.
Thank you for contacting Adobe Customer Service.

In regard to the font that was offered, Below is the zip file of Stone® Serif.

Attached Fonts:
Stone® Serif

Customer ID number:  XXXXXXXXX

Customer Service Case: XXXXXXXXX

For more information on Adobe® products or services please visit us at:  http://www.adobe.com or contact Adobe customer services at 1 (800) 833-6687. Customer Service Representatives are available 6:00am-8:00pm PT, 7 days a week.

Best Regards,

Erik S.
Adobe Customer Care
Attached was a single font, a a single twenty-nine dollar font, the medium roman. Not the font package with all weights and both roman and italic, which might actually be a useful thing to own.

Well, perhaps there was a misunderstanding, right? Okay. Could be. So I wrote back:
Wait a minute. My understanding was that I was to receive the $149 Stone Serif package, not a single weight worth $29. Tell me this was a mistake.
This morning I got my response:
Hello Dick,

Thank you for contacting Adobe Customer Service.

For your records, your customer ID number is XXXXXXXXX. The customer ID number is the easiest way for us to access your account in our database. In the future, please provide this number when you contact Adobe.

Dick, I understand that you have received Stone Serif worth $29 while you were suppose to receive the software worth $149.

With regards to your query, I need to inform you that this issue cannot be resolved via e-mail. Our Customer Service department will be able to provide you with the best solution on this particular issue. Please contact an Adobe Customer Service representative at the number listed below.

We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

The Web Support Portal Representatives are available from Monday to Friday. For your convenience, on weekends we have a dedicated phone support for Customer Service related queries. Please feel free to contact our phone support at 1 (800) 833-6687 from 6:00am-8:00pm PST, 7 days a week.

Best Regards,

Micheal P.
Adobe Customer Service
I’m done.

I will not spend another hour working through the Adobe phone tree to get back to “Customer Care” for the simple reason that Adobe doesn’t care about customers.

They’ve turned a friend into an enemy. They’ve moved from my not-too-bad-to-do-business-with list to my top-three-worst-companies-to-deal-with list (along with Microsoft and Symantec).

Your mileage may vary.

Will I ever buy from them again? Too soon to tell.

Tomorrow is another day.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sufferin’ succotash!

. Today is November 13. Having lived in the Northeast virtually my entire life and in Connecticut for the last few years, I do not expect to look out the window in the middle of November and see sugar maples at peak color, copper beech just beginning to go from green to copper here and there, cherries about a third yellow and having lost perhaps five percent of their leaves, the Bradford pear still solid green, and the grass still growing (my neighbor mowed on Sunday and I should have but didn’t have the time).

Fall is a full month—perhaps five or six weeks, actually, depending on the species—behind what we natives have learned to expect. In fact, the normal course of events is that weather drives most of the deciduous species to deciduate in unison—Whomp! The ground is covered in leaves. But the lack of cold weather has left every species to define its own schedule this year. My lawn would typically be inches deep in copper beech leaves from my neighbor’s tree by now, the magnolia leaves would have been raked into the compost pile weeks ago, and I’d be expecting to do my last lawn cleanup just before the first real snowfall. This year, I expect to be raking the lawn in January, if not February.

We’ve had only one sharp freeze sufficient to wilt tomatoes, a week or so ago. Having paid attention to the weather forecast the previous morning, I went out and picked the last of the mature green tomatoes, and we’ll be enjoying our own garden tomatoes at Thanksgiving dinner. A couple might even make it to Christmas. If you live in a warmer part of the world, that might not sound impressive, but it isn’t something I’ve experienced before.

I won’t try to connect this with the large issue of climate change, because this is liable to be a freak occurrence (time will tell). I’m just looking forward to using less fossil fuel for heating this winter. I’ll probably spend as much or more, given the rapid rise in energy prices, but consuming less is good, anyway.

What does this have to do with the subject of this blog? Not a damn thing.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

I hope you're out of the theater a half hour Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

A friend called yesterday and asked if my wife and I wanted to go see a movie with her that she wanted to see because it had gotten good reviews—Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

We went to a funky, bedraggled, four-screen theater owned by a film buff and generally patronized by film buffs. When we saw the early show crowd streaming out while the credits were still rolling, we clucked that we always stay till the end of the film. Little did we know.

If you like on-screen sex, you’ll love the first five minutes: Marisa Tomei, very naked, very hot (requires willing suspension of disbelief that she’d be caught dead in bed with Mr. Marshmallow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, though).

Otherwise, save your money. The movie goes downhill fast and never gets better. The smartest people in the theater last night were the couple who gave up and left before the end. When the lights came on, the rest of us (total of six: three middle-aged adults and three Yale Law students) spontaneously struck up a conversation about how we all wished we had bailed, too.

We were unanimous that this is a truly awful movie, and I posted an online review to that effect.

Then I started to read other people’s reviews, both on Yahoo! and on nytimes.com.

Hmmm. Half the people hated the film as much as we did. Half loved it. Hardly anyone gave it a middling score. Reading the positive reviews, I’m mystified as to whether these people saw the same movie. Apparently they did not. In any case, I can’t make head nor tail out of their rationales for praising it.

It turns out the movie is another litmus test along the lines of the dispute over the 2000 presidential election results in Florida: How you react to the situation is based not on objective reality (as if there were such a thing) but on how your brain is wired or conditioned. This is always a valuable lesson to keep in mind when you’re shaping words for an audience: all you can do is try to avoid ambiguity and seek clarity; there’s nothing you can do to guarantee that outcome.

Writing is a dialogue with an unknown and unknowable reader. What you write matters. But the writing isn’t complete until it is read, and you have no control over how or where that happens or over how the reader will react.

Words matter. Story matters. Editing helps. Not taking criticism personally helps, too.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Handling the slow-pay client

Deep, cleansing breaths. Visualize a beach. You know the routine.

Freelance professionals, for the most part, like to have corporate clients. Even a small corporation, unlike an individual client, can generate a fair amount of repeat business if they like your work. The downside of being a tiny little vendor to a corporation is that you’re at the bottom of the pile when it’s time for them to pay their bills. Payroll comes first. Then the suppliers of their raw materials. The bank comes next. Then the landlord. Then the utilities, UPS, and FedEx. And finally all the little guys—including you. If the company runs into a cash flow crunch, no matter how loudly you squeak, you may not be greased. At least not right away.

So, your net 30 invoice has not been paid after 45 days. Time to panic? Time to call the lawyer?

Too soon by far for that. Herewith the hard-won advice I gave someone on the Freelance mailing list the other day:

Don’t make it personal. I’ve been in the position of ordering goods, in good faith, on behalf of my employer and then being the person in the middle when the invoice I submitted wasn’t paid. All I could do was confront the accounts payable person and push for payment. I couldn’t cut the check myself. When your client contact, the person who assigned you the job, says that she’s done all she can, chances are that’s true. She cannot personally cut you a check, so don’t make her feel worse than she already does about your slow payment.

Call the company switchboard (not your client contact but the company she works for or whatever company is ultimately responsible for payment). Ask to speak with accounts payable.

Pay attention to what happens next. If the operator or receptionist or whatever offers to take a message or asks you who you are and when your invoice was mailed, then that’s the person who has been given the dirty job of fending off vendors. If that happens, make a dated note of what she says and thank her for her time. Get what information you can, but remain calm and polite. It’s not her fault.

If she says, “let me put you through to their voice mail” without even checking to see if the person is at their desk, that means you’re not the only one standing in line for payment.

Whether you next are speaking to a person or a voice mailbox, calmly introduce yourself, provide the invoice date, invoice number, invoice amount, due date, and the terms included in your agreement or printed on the invoice (you do have those, don’t you?); and ask when you can expect a check to go out.

If you’re speaking to a person, the words you hear next are particularly critical. Write them down exactly as they come out of the person’s mouth.

If they say they already mailed a check, get the check number, check date, address they mailed it to, and date mailed. Write it all down.

If they say they have cut a check and it will go out on X, verify the check number, the check date, the address they plan to mail it to, and the date they plan to mail it.

If they say they will be cutting checks on X, say that you will call back on X to get the check number and mailing details.

If they say they usually pay on time but right now they’re running 60 days (or 90 days), tell them you would like a letter promising payment by date certain and acknowledging that they will be paying the finance charges in accordance with the terms in your agreement.

Throughout, remain calm and businesslike. Nobody likes to be a late payer, but sometimes cash flow sucks. The person handling accounts payable is stuck in an unenviable position, and you want to make it as easy as possible for that person to be truthful. That means no threats, no emotional outbursts, just calm inquiry and a cheerful thank you for the update at the end of the call.

That’s why you call AP and calmly, politely, collect information on when to expect payment. Then give the information you collected to your lawyer if the money doesn’t come through on the promised date.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Seven and a half hours

Seven and a half freakin’ hours to install an update to Adobe Creative Suite. This is on top of the hour I spent the other day just getting to the point of deciding to buy the update. FedEx dropped off the package late yesterday afternoon.
  1. Reboot. Open package. Look for installation instructions (none). Open DVD case. Look for installation instructions (none). Pop the unnumbered DVD labeled “Application” into the drive. Wait for the autorun popup. Click Install. Watch progress bar. Wait one hour.
  2. Acrobat 8 failed to install. Cross fingers and try installing again. Wait another hour. Same failure.
We’re up to two hours now. But Adobe Technical Support wouldn’t be open until 9 a.m. my time today, so get some sleep.
  1. Call Adobe Technical Support at 9:01. Get right through. That Chris, he’s a helluva guy. Two hours on the phone with Chris because you cannot simply uninstall Acrobat like any normal program by clicking a button. No. After clicking the button, you have to dig through approximately seventy gazillion folders to delete individual files, some of which refuse to be deleted, even after rebooting in a special mode that’s supposed to let you; and then you have to dig through the registry, deleting many, many keys scattered throughout.
  2. Bye, Chris (11 a.m.). Try installing Creative Suite 3 again. One hour. Successful install.
  3. Start one of the updated applications. Check adobe.com for updates. Download and install updates. One hour and thirty-nine minutes.
  4. Call Adobe Customer Support and raise holy hell. Demand compensation in the form of free fonts or free software. Speak with three people who swear they can’t do that and a fourth who offers me a book on getting started with Adobe applications (after I told her I’ve been using their software for over twenty years) and then reconsiders when my pitch rises. She thinks maybe she can send me some fonts I want. Fifty-one minutes.
Total: Seven and a half hours. We’ll see if the freebie materializes (I’ll let you know).

This is not the first time. It is, instead, fairly typical.

Most software companies take responsibility for their own errors and offer some sort of maintenance plan that, in exchange for a modest annual fee, entitles the customer to free updates. Adobe takes the approach that anything that goes wrong is the customer’s fault and if Adobe makes a mistake, the customer has to pay for it.

That’s not a long-term strategy for customer satisfaction.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Okay, this is just bizarre

A minute ago, on NPR news, it was reported that in one of the areas hit by wildfires—an area where utilities have not yet been restored but where residents were permitted to return—law enforcement officers were called upon by a supermarket manager to stop the “looting” of bottled water.

Um, wouldn’t a half-conscious manager be out in front of the store with a team of volunteers handing out the water instead of calling the cops on his customers?

The mind boggles.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Without wasting a minute of your time

So I tried to update my version of Acrobat Professional from 7.0.8 to 7.0.9, something that should have happened automatically without my being aware of it but for some reason did not. It seems there is a critical security issue Adobe recently became aware of and they will be releasing a patch to fix 7.0.9 in the next days. I wanted to be ready for it.

I downloaded the update file and attempted to install it, whereupon I got a cryptic error message from the Microsoft installer.

So I called Adobe support and was quickly connected to “Samson,” a gentleman who speaks impeccable English but with an unmistakable Indian accent. He worked through his script, incessantly repeating my name, the product name, and the reason for the call; and when he got to the end of the script he informed me that my problem was one that would have to be handled by the technical support team dedicated to my product.

He then quickly connected me (really, I have no complaints about long waits on hold) to “Thomas,” who had me go through all the same information that I had just given to “Samson” (customer ID, serial number, product, nature of the problem), repeated it all back to me several times, and then said, still reading from a script, “Without wasting a minute of your time, I will connect you to a support technician who can help you with that problem.” This was now approximately ten minutes into the call, all ten of which had already been wasted, because I had not yet spoken to anyone qualified to resolve a technical issue.

After some buzzes, hearing-damage-inducing whistles, and clicks, I was speaking with someone in the United States who had me repeat all the same identifying information yet again (don’t these people have computers?) to ensure that I wasn’t trying to steal services from Adobe. Then, after listening carefully, he told me that for $39.95 he could initiate a support call and try to solve the problem. A problem caused by a bug in their software. Their software that has a critical security flaw that could enable a sufficiently malevolent soul to inhabit and destroy my computer. $39.95 for that. For an attempt to solve the problem. No promises. Or I could search the knowledge base for the error message, which I did to no avail. Or I could buy the upgrade to Creative Suite 3 for $600. Which is what I ended up doing, even though the product line has proliferated in such a way that I can’t actually upgrade all the software I bought from Adobe less than two years ago for $2,000 unless I want to spend $2,000 again and get a bunch of stuff for making movies that I’ll never use.

And we wonder why people complain about the customer experience with companies like that.

No, not a minute of my time was wasted. More like an hour. And until the new software is delivered (I opted for physical media rather than a download, because I’ve been down that road before), my computer is still as vulnerable as it was before I started this sorry adventure.

MBAs. Can’t live with ’em. Can live without ’em.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Check-in time

I know you’re out there. Say something.

This blog is fun to write. But the idea was to generate some conversation, not just to carry on an extended monologue. A bit of audience feedback, by way of comments on posts or just an email will help me come up with posts about subjects that interest you. That, and your ideas are just as worthwhile to read as mine are.

Or you can sit there quietly and wait for my random drivel.

So, here are some questions for you. They’re all optional, but I’d be interested and my guess is that others would be, too:
  1. What’s your name?
  2. Where are you?
  3. What do you do?
  4. What topics (of those I cover) do you want to see more of?
Come on, don’t be shy. Tell me what’s on your mind.

And this does mean you. Don’t worry about overwhelming me with comments to respond to. There aren’t all that many of you who read this blog on a regular basis—just a hundred or so altogether. When NPR does their fundraising, they tell us that only ten percent of listeners contribute money. I’m not asking for money, so maybe more than ten percent of you will drop a line.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

True stories

A couple of conversations in the past week reminded me of the value of a well-told story.

In the first, someone in an online discussion group expressed an interest in learning about how crafts used to be done, “eons ago without modern technology,” preferably by watching something on public television.

I responded:
The history of craft is the history of technology. MANU+FACTURE = HAND+MAKE.

PBS did have some series in the last several years where they took a group of people and placed them in a period environment (various periods) with appropriate tools and training in techniques. So if you watch those series, you get a flavor of the development of various technologies. Also, there’s the classic Jacob Bronowski series, The Ascent of Man, which touches on a lot of what you’re asking about.

But mainly, if you spend time with working craftspeople in various media, some of them are quite knowledgeable about the history of their specific craft. Next opportunity you have, go to juried traditional crafts fair. Or go to one of the many historical recreations (Old Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation, The Farmers’ Museum, etc.) around the country, where there are generally collections of tools and docents or recreators who can explain their use in a historical context.

My issue, though, is that it’s a mistake to romanticize the techniques of the past. Throughout history, craftspeople have sought to improve their techniques and tools. They’ve been the innovators, the leading-edge, bleeding-edge, state-of-the-art, high-tech people, trying to develop the breakthrough tool (remember, Gutenberg was a goldsmith). They’ve been the early adopters of every new advance they could get their hands on.

So there’s no reason to attribute greater authenticity or value to an object made (today) the same way the Neanderthals made it than one made by machinery in a factory, if the objects are identical (not that they would be, of course). To take a specific example, I knew a guy who prided himself on making Windsor-style chairs without the use of any power tools. I think he even cut the trees, hauled them to his shop, and split them into boards by hand, if I recall correctly. Needless to say, his chairs cost ten times what the same chair would cost if made to the exact same design and with the exact same materials and care but with the judicious use of power equipment. When all was said and done, his chairs were just as precise and perfect as those made with modern methods. The only difference that would persuade a consumer to pay ten times as much was the story behind the chair. But the story as I perceived it was that the guy was not working in the craft tradition at all; he was just an atavist who had found a way to indulge his neurosis by telling a good story.

Bottom line: Judge craft on the quality of the product, not on the story.
The second conversation is one I’m engaging in with a manuscript I’m editing.

The author is relating anecdotes, but he is presenting them as training units. The rule in training is “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said.” That’s a lousy way to tell a story, though: “I’m going to tell you an amusing story. Here are the things that happened. Here is how those things played out in the rest of my life, long after the things that happened happened. Here is why the story was amusing. I’m amused. Aren’t you?” Umm, no, I’m not amused. You are telegraphing your punchlines, and I’m going to put a stop to it.
Storytelling is
an art, not a procedure.
Hence, red pixels flow.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Morlocks unite!

I am a craftsman. I make things—mostly books; I pay attention to the details; and I take pride in the quality of my work.

What prompts this post is that I live where the new sidewalk ends. Here in the Northeast, concrete sidewalks do not last forever, and the State of Connecticut is replacing the sidewalk in front of my home today, at least up to the point where another section was replaced a few years ago by the City of New Haven. As a typical American sidewalk superintendent, I took a break to watch the men as they worked. These guys work for a local contractor, and they are good at what they do. They’re craftsmen, too: they make things; they pay attention to details; and they take pride in the quality of their work.

Books and sidewalks are very different things. And maybe the level of education of people who make books is, on average, different from that of people who make sidewalks. But I often feel a greater sense of camaraderie with sidewalk makers than I do with, say, the average person walking down a sidewalk or driving down the street, to whom a sidewalk—or a book, for that matter—is beneath contemplation as a made object, to whom such objects merely exist as facts with prices but do not represent the labor or skill that went into making them facts in the first place.

To me, life is richer for the appreciation of the craft of others, be they the people who make sidewalks or the people who grow food or the people who build cars or the people who turn my PDF files into printed and bound books. I find myself disappointed that so many people can’t or won’t take a moment to consider the makers of things. I find myself pitying those people, too, sometimes.

The world is a richer place for its artists, whose vision and imagination help shape culture. But the world also needs craftspeople—lots of them—to turn vision into practical reality.

Craft matters.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The newspaper of the future

In 1969, before there was the Internet, let alone the World Wide Web, before The New York Times had thought about printing in color, back when Life magazine was still a weekly, I was working in my first permanent job, at the J. Walter Thompson Company in New York.

The vice president who had been responsible for hiring me the previous year, Colin Campbell Dawkins, had drawn an assignment for an interesting special project. By then it was blindingly obvious that I knew less than nothing about selling Ford automobiles to American consumers, so my copy chief had no objection when Colin delegated the special project to me. At the time, I was 22; Colin was 46, which sounded much older to me then than it does now.

The publisher of the Peoria Journal Star, Henry Slane, was frustrated. He wanted to break out of the stodgy, traditional rut that newspapers were in. He had gone to one of the major consulting outfits and asked them to look forward five, ten, fifteen years at what newspapers could and should become. They sent him off to a different company that did quite a bit of newspaper work. The result of the exercise (and the large expenditure) was some suggestions for font changes and a new layout for page one. As I said, Henry was frustrated. That's why he had come to JWT, where he figured he might find a more creative answer; and that's how I ended up with the assignment.

Earlier this week, I had occasion to be in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and I stopped in at Duke University, where one of the libraries houses J. Walter Thompson Company's historical archives. I dug out the papers I wrote for the newspaper project. They hold up pretty well. Almost forty years on, today's online newspapers still haven't achieved the degree of personalization I envisioned, but feed aggregators like Google News are a pretty good match for the model I described back then.

Hey, Google. I think you owe me royalties!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Making lemonade

One of my editing clients, a few days ago, dubbed me Scissor Man when he saw how much I’d snipped from from one of his chapters. I think he was a bit miffed, actually, but I decided to take it as a compliment. So I commissioned a caricature. See what you think.


©2007 Alan J. Lewis

I’m not sure why it looks like my eyes are closed. Maybe the artist is in cahoots with my client and is trying to send me a subtle message that we editors snip blindly. Oh well, can’t please everybody. I just aim to please the audience.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Another voice: Advice on self-publishing from J.B. Howick

On a publishing list I subscribe to, an author posted something suggesting that self-publishing consists of getting the book printed, listing it on a Web site or two, and moving on to the next project.

This drew a particularly articulate response from the always articulate J.B. Howick, which he has graciously given me permission to post here.
Marketing is a cold, hard world—so with an apology, let me be blunt.
  1. If your self-publishing goal is to “get onto the next book,” you’re going to lose your shirt self-publishing. Please do not be fooled—self-publishing is a business and you need to be ready to run the whole thing from your home. Some people do it and make millions. On the flip side, the average self-published author royalty a few years ago was $50/year. I want you to think about how many authors earned $0 to get an average of $50 when some of the authors made millions.

  2. Many authors don’t realize that their goals as authors are usually at odds with the publisher’s goals. Nine times out of ten this is because the author is looking at the situation from an artist’s point of view (book is perfect, everyone will love it, just publish it!) rather than a business point of view (book needs a team of professionals to make it perfect, if there’s such a thing as a perfect book, and only a few people will love it, and that only after a ton of marketing and promotion, is it worth publishing?). It’s common to meet an author with the goal of writing their next great novel—but their goal should be to get their current novel to sell tens of thousands of copies, because that’s what publishers want to see when they’re considering the author’s next book.
Here is my advice:
  1. Write a dang good book. Spend the time identifying your specific target audience (even fiction has a target audience), have test readers review the book, make adjustments, have someone help you with editing, etc. Get peer reviews. Above all, get completely honest feedback. Listen to both their praise and their complaints and fix your book if it needs it (you’d be surprised how many authors refuse to do this, blaming the quality of their audience instead [emphasis mine—DM]). The story needs to be perfect in the eyes of just about everyone else but the author, and perfection almost always requires a team of people.

  2. Next, ask a few of your local newspaper or city magazine book reviewers if they would review your book. This is not only a great source for your early endorsements, but it’s a great way to get credible people to approve the book. (There are a lot of people who can do this, the point is credibility, your friends won’t be able to help unless they have something attributable to the content. That is, if you’re writing romance and your friend isn’t Joan Collins, your friend’s opinion won’t be worth much—a noted reviewer, or a librarian, or a romance-oriented bookstore owner, on the other hand….)

  3. Take the time to create a good marketing package before presenting to agents and publishers. You don’t want to be too verbose, but you need to have enough information in your marketing packet to titillate the agent or publisher. Bear in mind that agents and publishers are your first target audience (after that comes book buyers and reviewers, and then the end consumer—they’re all critically important!) and you need to keep them in mind as you write your book and prepare your kit. This kit isn’t to sell the book to the public, but to sell it to agents and publishers.

  4. Finally, set reasonable expectations. I’ve yet to meet an author who wouldn’t prefer to have a bestseller of a first book published by Random House or Harper Collins. The truth is, large companies rarely publish first-time authors and those few who are tapped rarely have best-selling first books. You could spend years hoping to convice a large publisher or an agent or you could work with a small publisher to get your first book to market much sooner. Your royalties will be smaller and you won’t be able to quit your day job (which you shouldn’t expect to do anyway) but you will be much better situated to get your second book into a big house—and that’s worth a lot.
If it isn’t obvious, I’m a big believer in managing your career to achieve success and hold one-shot instant fame in low regard.

—J.B. Howick
That highlighted sentence rings true for me. My editing clients come to me because they want honesty. But I’ve met many a self-published or vanity-published author who dismiss any suggestion for an improvement in their book as an attack on the purity of their mother.

Thanks to J.B. for the wise words!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A real trooper

has gotten the message.

In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, a few minutes ago, General Petraeus referred to “our troopers and Iraqi troopers.” Not “troops.” This is a good thing. Maybe it signals the beginning of the end of the ambiguous use of troop to refer to an individual member of the armed services.

Language Log has covered the topic well.

This has no bearing on the content of the general’s testimony, of course, but I’m glad to applaud his care with the English language.

Words matter, particularly when they show respect for individuals.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A rose by another name

Some years ago, in the midst of a corporate reshuffling, the arm of Kodak that manufactured machines Kodak would sell or lease to customers (copiers, I think, but maybe film processors, too) was renamed the United States Equipment Division. Everything went as planned, with new stationery, new marketing brochures, and a new sign for the building all ready for the day when the new name would take effect. On that day, the sign out front was undraped, and there it was, in all its glory: USED.

That may have been the shortest-lived corporate identity project in history, as the name change was rescinded almost immediately.

What brought this to mind was the automatic software update from Microsoft this morning. I don't know why I never noticed this before, but the periodic update was for the Malicious Software Removal Tool. Hmm. MSRT. MS = Malicious Software? MS = Microsoft?

No comment.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

FOG and SMOG

A few weeks ago, I went to Men’s Wearhouse, as instructed by my son, to rent a tux for his wedding. A slender, attractive, young woman greeted me and said, “How tall are you?”

I straightened up a bit and lied. A little.

Then she said, “And how much do you weigh?”

I sucked in my gut and lied again. A little more.

We sat down at a wide table and she proceeded to fill out a rental form. I noticed that in one box she had written, in large capital letters, “F O G.”

“Um, in the online groups where I hang out, FOG stands for fat, old guy. I mean, maybe it’s true, but do you have to write it on the form?”

“Actually, it stands for father of the groom.”

“Oh.”

At the wedding last weekend, I sat between my wife—the SMOG—who accompanied me down the aisle, and my ex-wife, the MOG, who followed us down the aisle accompanied by my younger son, the best man and BOG.

The day, despite all the inauspicious acronyms, was sunny, dry, and delightful. The following morning, however, the B and G left for Greece, where smoke, if not fog and smog, awaited them.

Meanwhile, the following question arose: The SMOG, upon being reminded that the wedding was at four o’clock, remarked that she was taught as a child that weddings should always be at an hour divisible by four. Neither of us could find any confirmation of the existence of this custom, though, despite some creative searching. When I asked the wedding planner, she confirmed that my wife was correct; however, all of her books are packed, awaiting a move of her office that is to take place after she returns from an out-of-state wedding next weekend. It may be some time before she can dig out the reference. So, if you have heard of such a custom and can point to a resource (I’ve already checked Emily Post), please post a comment. Editors around the world are waiting with bated breath for the answer.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Those were the days, my friend; I thought they'd never end

I have received word that the dot-com I worked for a few years back has finally breathed its last.

Those were heady days. The company had substance—a product that, put to good and widespread use, could have made a real difference in the way businesses operate. The tragic flaw was that using it effectively required companies and individuals to commit to using it diligently. And diligence is not a widely or consistently practiced virtue in Corporate America anymore.

I got in on the ground floor and wore many hats there. I helped craft the initial business plan and investor pitch. I prototyped the initial user interface. I was the first—and for a while the only—tech writer. I designed the company’s logo. I designed and wrote the marketing materials. I bought the artwork to decorate the offices (the investors commanded us to spend, and I spent). I designed the Web site—at least a couple of iterations of it—and managed it. I built the intranet site.

IDe logo

And I lapped up the Kool-Aid, exercising my stock options because I was certain the company would go public the next quarter. The next quarter. The next quarter.

The next quarter never came. My shares are worth bupkus.

But I learned a lot, worked with some great folks (and some others), and had a lot of fun.

Now the doors are closed; the artwork and furnishings are dispersed. The website is still live because the hosting provider was paid, but soon that will vanish, too.

R.I.P. IDe

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Breakers or better

The last time I ate a tomato from my own garden—until this past week, that is—was in 1993. After that, I wandered, apartment to apartment, in the desert of contract jobs for a decade before settling in 2004 in my current abode. But the landscaping here is mature and complex, and there was no obvious place to put in a garden. Well, after a few years of contemplating that puzzle, I found a way to incorporate half a dozen tomato plants this year. And now I am reminded once again why I don’t buy tomatoes in January.

But I am also reminded of the centrality of jargon to most fields of endeavor. In particular, the produce business has a language of its own.

One of the terms of art in the growing and selling of tomatoes is vine-ripe or vine-ripened. To the uninitiated, a vine-ripe tomato is one that has turned red on the vine and is therefore inherently better than one picked green and ripened artificially. For many years, at least in the eastern half of the United States, vine-ripe tomatoes came exclusively from Mexico, whereas Florida tomatoes were known to have been picked green and gassed. (This is an oversimplification, and I’ll be glad to add all the necessary qualifications and details if anyone is curious enough to post a question in the commments.) Nowadays, vine-ripe tomatoes are imported from a few countries. The flavor, though, is uneven.

Why?

Well, as I said, the above definition of vine-ripe is assumed to be correct by people—including lexicographers, by the way—who have never been in the produce business.

In the trade, though, vine-ripe has two different meanings. For greenhouse tomatoes, it means red. End of story. A vine-ripe greenhouse tomato is as good as a greenhouse tomato is ever going to get. For field-grown tomatoes, though, a “vine-ripe” tomato is one that is picked “breakers or better.”

I was surprised to find that Google could not come up with a single instance of the phrase in association with tomatoes (there will be just this one after I post this). And yet “breakers or better” has been the standard for many decades. There’s a good reason for this. A tomato picked as a breaker and allowed to ripen naturally, it turns out, matures with superior flavor to one picked red ripe. (This does not apply in the greenhouse, apparently.) From that point on, the tomato takes up water faster than it builds sugars and solids. So a tomato picked red ripe in the field ends up heavier but less tasty than if it had been picked earlier.

This is, of course, news to gardeners. So when I go to my local farmers’ market, where several organic gardeners have booths offering the heirloom tomato varieties they have come to put so much faith in, I find tomatoes picked too late and consequently scarred and lacking in flavor.

For myself, I’ll take a modern hybrid variety picked as a breaker over any of the heirlooms picked red ripe. If you’re a gardener, you either know I’m right or you just learned something that you can still test before fall comes.

Words matter. But knowing what they mean matters more.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Nicely said, Mayapriya

“There are no right or wrong answers, but there are well-advised and ill-advised decisions for most situations in book design and production.”
—fellow book designer Mayapriya Long

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A couple of exemplary self-publishing authors

I’ve been too busy to breathe lately, let alone show off recent work, but it’s time to take a moment to applaud a couple of clients for their understanding of what it means to self-publish.
Shift: Change Your Words, Change Your World
Janet Smith Warfield came to me several months back with a partially designed, partially typeset book, after the first designer she worked with had an accident and had to shed some clients to cut back on his workload. I’ll claim partial credit on this one, as the work really wasn’t far along and there was a lot yet to do.

The book came out in June, and Janet has been assiduous in her marketing efforts, contracting with publicists, sending out timely review copies (both pre- and post-publication), reading self-publishing guides, listening to advice from experts and from a focus group she assembled herself, putting out flyers and news releases, negotiation trade distribution deals, and generally pestering as many people as possible to take a look at her excellent book.

She told me before I agreed to take her on as a client that she was going to make this book successful, and I have every reason to believe that she will. Meanwhile, she is living in Panama, building a new house there (a challenge, considering that she is learning Spanish “on the job”), and managing her virtual publishing company in the US long-distance. Takes guts!
Fixing American Healthcare: Wonkonians, Gekkonians, and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare
Taking a completely different approach, Rich Fogoros is not trying to sell into the bookstore trade immediately. The approach he is taking is to market his book virally, generate lots of buzz, and then pitch the already-successful book to a major trade publisher to reissue it commercially.

Dr. Fogoros is a long-time professional blogger (as “DrRich”) and already has what publishers call a platform. That is, a whole lot of people know who he is and read one or more of his blogs. He has also authored technical books in his medical field, so he is not a first-time author.

His strategy with Fixing American Healthcare was to get the book out as quickly as possible, with the hope that it might attract some attention before next year’s presidential election. With his blogs, his frequent speaking appearances, and his connections in medicine, government, politics, and the patient advocacy community, he’ll be seeding a lot of communities of interest with the book, and I think his strategy is going to do exactly what he expects it to do.

The book will be available October 1. I’m proud of what I contributed to it in terms of editing, design, and production; and I think the book has a lot to say to all Americans who are interested in helping us get out of the mess we’re in. Of course there’s a bit of mutual backscratching here. Dr. Fogoros and I developed a close working relationship, even if we come from very different parts of the political spectrum. Here’s what he said about me in the acknowledgments (you should pardon me if I kvell once in a while):
And I would especially like to thank my editor, Dick Margulis, whose astounding breadth of knowledge on diverse subjects (including healthcare, economics, religion, algebra, ethics, politics, the history of Western civilization, and pop culture from at least the 1950s), kept me honest in what I was saying; whose knowledge of good writing helped me say it much more clearly than I otherwise could have managed; and whose sense of humor kept my spirits up despite the quarts of red pixels he expended (each drop of which might otherwise have been as painful as if it had been my own blood).
Okay, I’ll stop now.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Business communications 101

I shouldn’t have to say this. But recent events compel me to.
  1. If you want me to sign and fax back a contract so you can charge my credit card for the deposit on the banquet facility in your major brand name hotel, a transaction you engage in many times a week, then please include the fax number on your major brand name hotel letterhead that you print the contract on.
  2. If you’re not going to do that and instead you post your fax number on your major brand name hotel Web site, along with your phone number and your 800 number, take a moment to verify that you’ve actually posted the correct 800 number on your site and not some special, protected 800 number that asks me to enter an access code before completing the call.
  3. If you decide to save money by setting up a customer service call center in a country where English is not the primary language, remember that workers have to be tested on both their ability to communicate in English and their ability to solve customer problems. Having one without the other is not saving the company money.
  4. In general, try to ensure that your customer service representatives and your sales representatives know at least as much about your products and services as your customers know.
  5. If you send out monthly statements to thousands of customers, make some effort to design the statement so customers can easily figure out how much they owe you and when it’s due.
I won’t bore you with the details.

But I have a point. Most businesses live in a competitive environment. And in a competitive environment, being careless or cheap about customer communications and customer service, while it may lower short-term costs, is going to kill you in the end.

I am constantly astounded at how large—and even not so large—companies can keep going on the strength of their brand identities for year after year before inertia is suddenly not enough to sustain them anymore and they crash and burn. Meanwhile, they see hiring communications professionals (I’m talking about rubber-meets-the-road writers, editors, and training designers, not vice presidents of corporate communications) as an expense they cannot afford.

Not all industries follow that pattern. When I call a book manufacturer about a printing job, I invariably reach a knowledgeable customer service rep who can solve any problem I throw at her. Printers know the competitive landscape and they know that customer service is key to their profits. Sadly, most of the other industries I come in contact with, both in my business life and in my life as an ordinary consumer, don’t understand that.

Words matter. Accuracy matters. Knowledge matters. Attention must be paid or the piper will be.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Single ISBNs now available to self-publishers

News for self-publishing authors
You can now buy a single ISBN directly from Bowker, in your own name. That is, you are not conspiring with the owner of a block of ISBNs to illegally sell you one, and you are not stuck with some vanity press being the publisher of record of your book.

The bad news is that a single ISBN costs $125, compared to $275 for a block of ten. Still, if you’re not planning on publishing more than two books for the rest of your life, this is a pretty good deal.

According to the isbn.org site, the way to obtain your single ISBN is to send an email inquiry to isbn-san@bowker.com.

One of my current clients is someone who is never going to publish a second book. So he’s a great candidate for this service. Consequently, I wrote to the address above a couple of days ago, and I just received a response. I can confirm the following details:
  • This service is so new that Bowker does not have any way to apply online. Instead they will send you a Word document to print out and complete by hand, then fax or mail to them.
  • After you get your ISBN, you still need to set up and pay for a Bowker account so that you can enter the Books In Print record for your book. But you’d have had to do that anyway.
News for book packagers
The person who responded to my email was someone I met in the Bowker booth at BEA. At that time, I whined to her that I’d received a renewal notice for a Bowker account, but the notice had given no indication of which of my clients’ accounts was expiring. I also suggested that there should be a way for someone like me to have a single login account with Bowker and then be able to click through to any of my clients’ accounts, rather than have to have separate logins and passwords for each of them.

In her email today, she told me that as a result of our conversation, they are going to implement such a system and they should be ready to announce it by the end of 2007, along with online application for single ISBNs.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Of the 270,000 people who died yesterday...

…approximately 3,300 died in traffic accidents. Of those, perhaps 125 died in the US. Of those, as many as 30, according to the Associated Press, may have died in the bridge collapse incident in Minneapolis (as I write this, it’s too early to know the death toll).

Meanwhile, according to the World Health Organization, almost 45,000 people died of heart disease and stroke yesterday; nearly 15,000 died of pneumonia and tuberculosis; about the same number died of various cancers; about 7,500 died of AIDS; nearly 5,000 died of diarrheal diseases; another 5,000 died of measles and other childhood diseases; nearly 3,500 died of malaria; 2,500 died of non-traffic-related accidents; and over 2,000 people committed suicide. Yesterday. Just like every day.

It is certainly newsworthy that a major bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed and that several people died. I know people in the Minneapolis area and am probably no more than three degrees of separation from at least one of the victims. It’s a sad day, and my heart goes out to the survivors of those victims.

Nonetheless, when editors and reporters fall into the “if it bleeds it leads” mentality of sensational journalism, doing their best to raise levels of fear and paranoia in the populace, so that the innumerate among us live their lives in a constant state of panic that a piano will fall on them or they’ll be struck by lightning or killed by a terrorist or plunged unceremoniously into the ocean deep, I fantasize that news reports of mayhem and tragedy would start with the lede, “Of the 270,000 people who died yesterday….”

Numbers matter. Numeracy matters. Perspective matters. Editing matters.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bulwer-Lytton winners announced

The 2007 Bulwer-Lytton Awards. All in good fun, of course. I see sentences worse than these in real life all the time, sad to say.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The impotence of poofreading

Beverage alert
Thanks to India Amos at India, Ink. for finding this gem. You will want to wear headphones if you are in an office environment, although the downside of that is that your coworkers may think you have finally gone round the bend.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mine and thine

I’ve run into a number of situations lately where otherwise honest, competent, and intelligent adults—people who know the difference between right and wrong and who try to conduct their lives accordingly—have been ready and willing to steal something belonging to someone else.

In all of these cases, the problem was confusion over the nature of intellectual property.

I’m not going to try to give you a primer on copyright law. I’ll leave that to the lawyers. And I’m not going to get into a philosophical discourse on whether or not copyright protection benefits society. What I’m going to do here is put up some Dangerous Curves signs so you at least slow down enough to avoid skidding over a cliff.

Published versus public domain
“I found it on the Web” means that the material–article or image–is published. Someone owns it, whether or not there is a copyright notice attached to it. It may not be immediately apparent who owns it, because the site where you found it may have stolen it from someone else who stole it from someone else who…. But it isn’t yours, in any case, and you can’t use it without obtaining permission (which is not automatic) and, often, paying a fee.

The exception is when a creator explicitly states that the work is to be considered in the public domain and is free for anyone to use for either noncommercial or commercial purposes. Even then, you should look for restrictions, such as a requirement that you credit the creator.

Typically, the only way material enters the public domain—meaning anyone can use it without paying for the privilege—is by aging into it. Deciding whether something is actually in the public domain may require consultation with an attorney, even if you’re almost sure you’re right.

What about fair use?
The doctrine of fair use says there are certain circumstances when you can use someone else’s work. Unfortunately, the exact rules for fair use are only determined as the result of lawsuits. So you don’t want to claim fair use in any commercial context (meaning in any book you plan to publish and sell) without consulting an attorney, because you cannot afford to be sued.

Dos and don’ts
Do obtain permission to use other people’s work. Do get the permission in writing. Do understand exactly what you have permission to do, what rights you are buying, and what restrictions apply. (A freelance permissions editor can save you a lot of time and worry.)

Do not copy passages you find in books or on the Internet, either verbatim or with minimal text changes, whether you credit them or not, without permission. Do not copy images you find in books or on the Internet, even if they are images of very old paintings and even if you want to apply visual filters to them and incorporate them in a larger work. Do not copy or quote song lyrics—even a single line—ever, in a book or article for publication. Do not quote correspondence you receive from other individuals without their written permission.

Bottom line
If someone else published it, then someone else owns it. If you cannot determine who owns it, you cannot use it. If you are able to determine who owns it, then you have to obtain (and often pay for) permission to use it. And that permission may come with restrictions.

The above paragraph is your get out of jail free card. Print it out. Stick it on your wall. Link to it if you wish. Just don’t republish it as your own. I would not find that amusing.

Monday, July 09, 2007

News flash: widows are older than orphans

I got into an interesting discussion the other day about a nicety of composition. Publishers get to make choices when they are buying typesetting. The more criteria they specify, the more labor is required and the higher the price (no secret there). One of the criteria publishers often include in their specifications is “no widows or orphans.”

This raises a couple of questions, and in the course of the discussion, we resolved one of them. The original meaning of widow (in the typesetting context) is the last line of a paragraph carried over to the top of a page. An orphan is the opposite—the first line of a paragraph stranded at the bottom of the page. This is the general consensus among old-time compositors.

However, the Gregg Reference Manual, which has been the standard secretarial handbook for decades, got the definitions reversed. This led to Microsoft getting the definitions backwards in Microsoft Word. As a result, a lot more people have the definitions wrong way round than have them in the traditional order. (The latest edition of Gregg, locking the barn door after the horse is gone, has reversed course and made the correction.)

But the more interesting question that arose is this: When did the term orphan first enter typesetting argot? A few of us have been looking, and so far, we’ve found widow defined in references from before 1980, but we’ve found no references to orphan that old. In theory, those of us involved in this discussion are old enough to remember when we first heard the term, but we’re also old enough to imagine we heard it many years earlier than we actually heard it.

Further, looking at examples of fine printing from before 1970, pages may be devoid of widows but there seems to have been no effort to eliminate orphans, suggesting that nobody gave the notion much thought before the advent of computerized page makeup.

So here’s your challenge: If you can find a printed definition of or reference to orphans in a typographic context from before 1990, respond in the comments with the citation. There are at least three people who are wasting time on this question, and we’d all like to be doing something more productive. Earliest citation wins a lifetime half-price subscription to this blog. (That’s lifetime of the blog, just to be clear.)

Friday, July 06, 2007

Sometimes it quacks like a duck but isn't one

“I’ve written a book.”

That’s usually the way the email begins.

It then goes on to describe something the author is calling a novel. In this so-called novel, fictional characters “based on” people the author knows or has known or is related to play out the drama that has been tormenting the author, probably festering for years. The story chronicles thinly disguised real events or it assassinates the characters of thinly disguised real people. Or it explicates some complex theory the author cherishes. Or it shows us how we can save the world if we only just believe.

What’s missing from all of these scenarios is anything that would interest a reader. And that’s a problem, isn’t it?

When you pick up a book that is labeled as a novel, you expect to read a story. The story may be set in a real or imagined past, in a real or parallel present, in a plausible or implausible future, on Earth or elsewhere, with characters human or otherwise. But it is a story. It is in some way the product of the author’s imagination. Yes, the characters may share traits with real people the author has encountered—novelists freely steal details from the lives of people they have met, and the better they are at doing that the greater the verisimilitude of their characters. But a novel is not a biography of the people the author has known or an exposé of their lives or a lecture on how we can become better as individuals; it is a story in which characters do imagined things that, in the best instances, reveal deep truths about us all.

I understand the confusion that can arise. After all, there is such a thing as the roman à clef, in which the characters do represent real people and the novelist purports to tell us true anecdotes about them, from behind the legal scrim that this is fiction and author doesn’t have to prove the stories are true. But this only works if the (wink, wink) characters are celebrities or politicos whose faces show up in People on a regular basis. Unless your obnoxious neighbors happen also to be on the Billboard charts or the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list, it’s unlikely you’re going to find a wide audience interested in a book about them—even if you regularly regale the gals at the kaffee klatch with stories.

I am not saying there is no way you can tell your story—and by that I mean the true story about your life that you want to share with the world. You can write an inspirational book, a self-help book, a how-to book. Perhaps, under extraordinary circumstances, there might be a market for a memoir (but probably not). You can write magazine articles. You can lecture to sympathetic groups. You can write a learned dissertation on your favorite subject and illustrate it with anecdotes drawn from your experience. And I’m sure there are many other ways to translate your experiences, theories, observations, and personal angst into words on paper. And if you really are a novelist, then drawing on your experiences in and observations about the world is completely normal. But if you are not a novelist and have decided to present your story in the form of a novel anyway, it’s time to revisit that decision.

If this news comes to you after you’ve struggled for four years to craft your masterpiece, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Think of the act of writing it down as your therapy, if that helps you justify the time you spent; but now it’s time to start over, using a more appropriate form. Or it’s time to conclude that you are healed through that therapy and you can let the project go, burn the manuscript, reformat your hard drive, and start living again. But don’t embarrass yourself by persisting in the delusion that calling it a novel makes it one.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Sometimes those spam subject lines are true...

Just deleted one that offered “very discrete shipping and billing.” Right. Shipping and billing are discrete acts: the billing happens but the shipping doesn’t.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Typo: The Last American Typesetter

In my senior year at Cornell, I suffered a classic adolescent identity crisis that, striking, as it did, a few years later than it does most people, caught me at a bad time. I found myself confused, dazed, depressed. My mind raced in what some have described as a fugue state. The doc at the mental health clinic said it was time for me to take a leave of absence. My parents were called. My father dropped everything and drove straight to Ithaca from Cleveland to help me pack up and to get me back home.

The school administration put their machinery into motion, and I was summoned to the office of an assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The purpose of this visit was to ensure that I did nothing to harm myself while my father was coming for me.

So I was sitting in the dean’s office. The dean was, I would guess, in his mid-thirties, a humanities professor but not what you’d call a good schmoozer. He was at a loss for what to talk about, but he poked and prodded a bit to hear what I thought the reason was for my present crisis. I explained to him my understanding of my condition, which was a severe case of unrequited love (I know better now, but that’s what I thought it was then). He allowed as how getting drunk was probably a better treatment for that than dropping out of school, and then, in a dramatically unsuccessful effort to keep the conversation going, he blurted, “You Jews don’t drink much, do you?” It was an awkward moment.

But he had a point. Some years later, I married the daughter of an alcoholic. I found that I lacked the intuition for knowing when someone had been drinking or knowing that someone I encountered sober was nonetheless a drunk, whereas my wife could walk into a room and know those facts instantly about anyone present. I still lack that intuition.

So does David Silverman.

I promised a review of Silverman’s new book, and I’m a man of my word—which is more than can be claimed by the assorted scoundrels Silverman portrays in the book.

The problem with being an idealist—someone who believes in honest dealings in business; respect for employees, customers, and competitors; giving good value for money; an American meritocracy; personal integrity—is that a skilled liar will con you every time. And there are those people who have honed their skill on the practical necessity of hiding the fact that they are drunk. Silverman was an idealist, and he got conned big time. He believed too easily and he got played. I sympathize. Been there, done that, still have the expensive knit shirts with the logo I designed. Luckily, I didn’t end up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and creditors chasing me. Unluckily, Silverman did.

To his credit, he tells an honest story and tells it well. This is the entertainingly written tale of trying to hang on to a vestige of a once-great industry that technology killed. Is it a new story? Not really. The phrase “buggy whip makers” covers the basic plot outline in three words. But Silverman keeps the story moving along, teaches the reader who might be interested in the way books are made something interesting about the realities of typesetting (and the technology), and fulfills the promise of the book’s long subtitle, “The Last American Typesetter, or How I Made and Lost $4 Million (An Entrepreneur’s Education).” If you’re thinking about changing careers and finally getting that MBA, read this book before you apply to B-school. The way you respond to it will tell you if you have what it takes. If you sympathize with the author, you’re not going to make it in business. If you sympathize with the people who killed his company, maybe you’ve got what it takes. We can’t all be tycoons.

The book itself, as an object, is another matter altogether. I like the cover (where the unofficial title is rendered much more gracefully than the official title on the title page, which ought to have been changed to match); but that’s where my like ends. True to its title, the book is chock full of typos—and I’m pretty sure this is not the result of postmodern ironic self-mockery. The copyediting, if there was any, is atrocious. The interior book design has a number of flaws. Some of the pages spent on Silverman’s appendix about typesetting could have been used for an index, which the book sorely needs. That appendix is full of factual errors and fails to cover some of the technologies that are referred to in the text of the book by name or abbreviation only, with no explanation anywhere. All of these shortcomings are the fault of the publishers, who should have done better. They would have done better if they’d called me, of course; but this isn’t about sour grapes. It’s about being ashamed that the publishing industry has sunk to such low standards that this level of quality is considered acceptable.

Anyway, it’s a good read, especially if you’ve had enough to drink that you don’t care about the typos.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Thank you for the new coffeemaker

A week or so ago, our coffeemaker went on the fritz (we’ve been having a bad month with appliances). It failed in an odd sort of way that involved remaining on even after we switched it off and the power indicator light went off. This struck me as a potential fire hazard (although I’m not an electrical engineer and don’t know whether there’s really a risk). It therefore occurred to me to report the problem both to Underwriters Laboratories (their seal is on the coffeemaker) and to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Surprisingly, I received email responses from both organizations. UL asked me to retain the coffeemaker and await instructions to send it to them if they decide they need it. However, I received a signed email from an individual at CPSC that included the following: “If you have not yet replaced the incident coffee maker, I would like to collect it from you so that CPSC Engineers can examine and test the unit. I can reimburse you your purchase price and would request that you do not dispose of the unit or return it to the manufacturer until we have had an opportunity to speak.” She had me at “reimburse.”

How cool is that? We get a friendly visit from a federal agent, plus we get a new coffeemaker and the taxpayer buys it for us.

So thank you very much.

And next time one of your appliances does something unexpected, don’t just toss it out and buy a new one. You’re a writer, right? So write—to CPSC. Maybe I’ll get to foot the bill for your replacement unit.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Wish I'd said that

David Silverman sent me a review copy of his new book, Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost $4 Million, and I’ll review it soon enough. But thumbing through it, I came to his quirky, not to say Quarky, “Glossary and Compendium of Typesetting Miscellany” at the back of the book, where I ran across this gem:

“A manuscript is the thing that the author thinks is a book, but isn’t yet.”

Wish I’d said that.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Service interruption

The company that hosts my business domain has been undergoing a distributed denial of service attack for the last two days. If you do not see an image in the About Me space in the blog sidebar, that's a good indication the site is down. As a result, I am intermittently without email service, incoming or outgoing, and a great many messages are simply being lost.

If you have emailed me and not received a response, please try again after the smoke clears. The hosting company is doing their best in a difficult situation, and there is nothing else to be done but wait for the attack to stop.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

It's not what you know, it's who you know

For the last couple of days, I took part in a mock jury exercise. I’m talking about the sort of thing that do to help law firms shape trial strategy in high-stakes cases.

Make no mistake about it: this is expensive stuff. Thirty-six research subjects participated. We were all paid for our time and fed pricey hotel food. Half a dozen lawyers, at high hourly rates, were present for the duration, as were another half a dozen employees of the research firm. My back-of-the-envelope guesstimate is that the client is going to be billed about $150,000 for the two days of work. But compared to the amount at stake in the lawsuit we were looking at, this is a small price to pay if it makes the difference between winning and losing the case.

We sat through a day and a half of videotaped depositions, presentations by attorneys, and quizzes, recording our responses on questionnaires and by clicking numbers on a remote-control-like unit every few seconds. Based on our individual responses, matched to our individual demographic profiles, we were then sorted into three jury rooms to discuss the case for the last half-day session.

What I learned on my summer vacation

Although this was very much a mock jury, not a real one, the experience was fascinating.

From fairly early in the case presentation, I was convinced to a moral certainty that the plaintiff was a predatory company trying to exploit a legal technicality to steal a business from the defendant. It was as clear to me as black type on white paper, and I could not understand how such a case would ever make it to trial. Judge Judy would have thrown the case out rather than hearing it. Every word that the plaintiff’s witnesses or attorneys said seemed like another nail in their own coffin. Every word that the defendant’s witnesses or attorneys said seemed to further vindicate their position.

When our mock jury began to consider the case, though, I learned that I was pretty much alone in the room in my conviction and that several others were just as firmly convinced that the defendant was a snake who deserved to lose not only the case but also his home, his car, and the shirt off his back. Huh? What’s going on here?

Well, we did the jury thing, and eventually I persuaded a few of the less firmly decided members to lean my way. In the end, we were pretty evenly split. This was fine from the researchers’ point of view; that is, they were not pushing us toward a unanimous verdict.

But I’ve been thinking about how people could come to such divergent and strongly held opinions after looking at the same facts. I’m reminded of the dispute over the Florida vote count in the 2000 presidential election. The country was divided between people who saw how obvious it was that the election was stolen from Gore and people who saw how obvious it was that Gore was trying to steal the election from Bush. There was no common ground at all, despite everyone’s having the same facts in front of their noses.

Brain researchers have started to tease out the process by which we quickly shift from having an open mind about an issue to forming an emotional attachment to one side or the other. After we make that switch, it takes a lot to persuade us to change our minds. And that’s the phenomenon I saw played out in the jury room. It’s actually a wonder that any jury ever reaches a verdict in any case whatsoever, when you think about it.

But what made me decide so quickly in favor of the defendant and what made others decide so quickly in favor of the plaintiff? I think it’s the sum of our life experiences. When I watched the videotaped depositions, I saw each of the witnesses as matching an archetype that represented people I’ve encountered in my own life. I have opinions of those people’s character based on working closely with them—positive opinions or negative opinions—and I transferred those opinions to the witnesses in the case. Other jurors may have encountered similar personality types in their lives and reacted to them differently. Or they may have had the kinds of life experiences that did not include working with such people at all and may therefore have been more open-minded toward them.

Had an attorney called me in as a consultant and presented the case, I’d have charged a lot less than $150,000 for my opinion that it was a slam dunk for the defendant. But I’d have been wrong. The market research firm conducting the jury study is going to return a report that aligns demographics (profession, income, education, age, sex, race) with which way people tended to see the case. Facts, in other words, that the attorneys can use to shape their case, choose their witnesses, and budget their peremptory jury challenges.

Facts matter

When you think about the audience for your book, you can rely on your own opinions about that audience. Or you can rely on my opinions about that audience. Or you can spend the time to do some research on the audience. The choice depends on how serious you are about wanting your book to succeed commercially.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The self-editing question

Last weekend I was invited to participate in an online colloquy of writers and editors. These were writers of fiction–genre fiction, for the most part, in genres I know nothing about. So these were not potential clients and therefore the conversation was not tainted by any suspicion that I was selling anything.

The moderator kicked things off with a question that comes up a lot with novelists, especially first-time novelists with no cash to invest in their work: The publisher is going to hire an editor to edit my work; why should I self-edit beforehand?

I wrote:
The Why is easy. If you don’t, your manuscript is likely to be rejected. If you are self-publishing and you plan to pay an editor, the better the manuscript is going in, the less the editor is going to charge you to improve it and the better the end product will be.

The How is more interesting.

Self-editing requires a mind shift that some writers find difficult.

When you are writing—especially when you are writing fiction—you are “in the flow,” (the sports cliché is “in the zone”). This is a phenomenon that has been described for centuries by writers writing self-reflectively on the writing process. Today we tend to call this right-brain activity, thanks to the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Neuroscientists tell us that the right–left paradigm doesn’t reflect the physiological reality, but it works well enough for our purposes in an informal discussion like this.

When you start editing, you need to get into your left brain. That’s easier for some people than for others. That’s why you frequently see the advice to set the manuscript aside for a week or a month or six months and then come back to it with fresh eyes, as a reader. Some people can just stop writing and start editing after a coffee break or a night’s sleep. The people who have the hardest time making the switch need longer.

Another technique that can help the big-right-brain creative writer to start self-editing effectively is to join a writing group (you may have to look around to find one you’re comfortable with) that does a good job of peer editing. You can get a feel for the way other members read and criticize each other’s work and then learn, by watching, how to take criticism of your own work. The hard part can be switching from the writerly point of view that you’ve poured your soul onto the paper and any little comment is a dagger to your heart to the publisher’s point of view that you’re dealing with the words on the paper and your job is to polish them the best you can.

Once you’ve got your head in the right place–or the left place, I suppose—learning to edit well is just a matter of practice, reading, and conversation with other editors. Sure, you should study a style manual and maybe brush up on your basic grammar; but what you’ll find is that few rules are hard and fast. A good editor (and a good self-editor) doesn’t lest fusty old prescriptive rules stand in the way of communication between writer and reader. So you’ll learn much more by asking questions on an editing list than by memorizing a grammar textbook.