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.


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.