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!

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


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.”


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.