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.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Who you gonna call?

The appliance repair business is opaque to me. I have no way, just opening the Yellow Pages (paper or virtual), to determine who is a good mechanic, who will show up when he promises (haven’t encountered a she yet in that business), or who will charge a fair price. So how do I choose someone? Certainly not by the size of his ad budget. Instead, I look for a recommendation. I know from experience that asking a few neighbors on the block for recommendations is not a reliable method. Each of them may have experience with only one or two people for scattered incidents over a number of years. Statistically, that’s meaningless data. So my solution, last week when our nearly new dishwasher burned out, was to call a parts store where I’ve gotten good service myself on do-it-yourself projects. Without hesitation, when I said “dishwasher,” the counterman at the parts store gave me one name to call. It turned out that when I called that repairman, his phone message said he was out of town but I should call a second person. I followed that secondhand recommendation to a friendly competitor of the first guy, and I’m entirely satisfied with the result. The method worked.

And what does dishwasher repair have to do with publishing, you ask

Glad you asked.

One of the sessions I participated in at the PMA Publishing University a week ago was on the topic of how a publisher (small publisher, self-publisher, any publisher) could find freelances to work with–people like me, in other words, independent consultants who provide services to publishers.

As with appliance service technicians, a recommendation from a reputable source might be a good idea. But who is a reputable source? In a discussion that is currently simmering politely on one of the lists I participate in, the point has been made that some of the most reputable people in the business covertly accept fees from the people they recommend. Their doing so is covert because their lists of recommended vendors are not labeled as paid advertising. Others list anyone who asks to be included on their lists. This seems ethical enough, but there is no screening; so the implied recommendation doesn’t carry much weight. We might as well throw plain old advertising into this spectrum as well. For example, I pay for Google ads and people come to my site by clicking those ads. Even though Google scrupulously includes “ads by Google,” it is not at all obvious to me that casual users of the search engine realize some listings are paid and others are not.

I am not outraged by any of this. It’s business, after all, and companies, mine included, have to be able to get their messages out to their potential clients somehow. It would be nice to think that we can all survive on word of mouth, but as a practical matter, that’s not possible, especially for someone trying to break into the field. (I’ve been doing this kind of work for decades but only began my independent consulting business a few short years ago, and I don’t have thousands or even hundreds of satisfied customers to rely on for repeat business. In fact, most of my clients will never publish a second book.) It would be grossly unfair to freeze a newcomer out of all directories just because the directory owners hadn’t personally worked with that person already.

Still, the situation as it stands presents a problem for the publisher: How do you make a good decision based on information of unknown reliability? When I called the appliance parts place, was I getting an unbiased recommendation based on knowledge of the local repair trade or was I getting a plug based on a consideration paid to the owner of the parts store? I have no way of knowing, but I figured the odds were against the store recommending someone whose poor performance would reflect badly on the store over the long run. I took my chance and the results were satisfactory. The publisher also has to take some chances. Would someone with a reputation to protect recommend a vendor who provides unprofessional service, whether the recommendation was paid or free? Maybe once, but not after getting a complaint. Can you tell whether a particular list is vetted for quality? Maybe not. You might know that the restaurant listings in your weekly shopper are paid ads. You might not know that. Either way, you might decide to try a new restaurant based on what the listing says.

It’s certainly a postmodern dilemma that faces the publisher in this situation, akin to that faced by the reader of a novel with an unreliable narrator. Without having decades in the business, during which you’ve worked with hundreds of people and formed opinions based on seeing their work, how do you really know who can do the job for you? You don’t. But you can interview people, see what they have to say for themselves, ask for references, ask for samples, and ask a trusted friend to help you sort out the various proposals. Then go with your gut and hope you’ve made the right decision.

Ronald Reagan often referred to what he called an old Russian proverb: Trust but verify. That seems apt here.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

BookExpo America at the Javits Center

It is what it is. But maybe it’s something different for everyone who attends.

I spent most of the day yesterday walking the aisles of the impressively large BookExpo America. But while a great many attendees were standing in line for authors’ autographs or collecting as many advance reading copies (ARCs) as they could from the booths (packing and shipping show booty was a major activity with its own dedicated area), I bypassed all of that greed-driven hubbub. My weight management strategy was to turn down all the bookmarks and blads (book prospectuses) and gimcracks and gewgaws that were proffered. I carried around a large bag, but all I had in it was the show directory, itself a fairly heavy book. The deal I made with vendors was that I’d only take their business card if they’d take mine, so I had no net gain in the weight I had to carry around.

As I said, I bypassed all the big publishers, even the ones that are already my clients. The show was not the place to talk that kind of business in their booths. Instead, I concentrated on meeting representatives of companies I have only anonymous contact with–book wholesalers and distributors, review journals, book manufacturers, infrastructure companies–and these contacts will enable me to improve the service I provide my individual self-publishing clients. I’m excited about being able to smooth their way into the book distribution chain from now on.

The other group of booths I stopped at were those where a single author had made the enormous and risky investment of renting a show booth to pitch one or a few books they had written.

I found several who had approached self-publishing the right way: They had had their manuscripts edited professionally; they had hired a professional designer for both the cover and the interior; they had formed their own publishing imprint; and they were approaching publishing as a business. I wished those folks well and moved on.

I also found several who had fallen into the trap of thinking that self-publishing is synonymous with do-it-yourself publishing. They may or may not have hired an editor (it was obvious either way). They may or may not have hired a cover designer (it was obvious either way). But they certainly did not hire a typographer for the book’s interior, which invariably looked like a badly formatted Microsoft Word document. Most of these individuals were receptive to my comments and were happy to take a card. If they get to the point where they want to raise the book to a commercial level, they will call me or they will call someone else who can help them. At least they know what mistake they made and will solve it the next time they travel this road.

There were also a sad few who, having drunk the vanity press Kool-Aid, still believed themselves to be self-publishers. They sat there with their books–pretty enough, but full of glaring errors and with a vanity house imprint on the title page–and smiled, hoping to attract buyers. I wished them well, too, but I know they will leave the show the poorer for the experience. And until they awaken from their stupor and realize they’ve been had, there is not much to be done to help them. I gave them cards, too. But I think most of them found my analysis of their plight somehow insulting. It’s unlikely I’ll even hear from them, and I don’t doubt they’ll tell all their friends and listmates what an evil guy I am. That’s the curse of curmudgeonliness, of course. But I’ll live.

BEA continues through tomorrow at the Javits Center. It is open to the trade only, which means you need some sort of affiliation with the book business in order to be admitted. BEA is in Los Angeles next year and back at the Javits in 2009.