Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A plan comes together

I was approached at the beginning of December by the author of a first fantasy novel who, after considering all the options, decided he wants to self-publish it. I expressed my reservations about self-publishing fiction, but he insisted he knows how to market the book once it’s done. I also expressed my reservation about editing fantasy fiction, as I’m unfamiliar with its conventions. He said he’d worry about the conventions of the genre if I could help him with the mechanics of writing. Deal.

So I took a look at his 300,000-word manuscript (about four times as long as anyone’s first novel ought to be) and saw that there was plenty of fat to cut. But the cost to the author for me to do the work was going to be high. Instead, I did a sample edit of less than a page to show him what I had in mind, and I sent him away, after some additional conversation, to cut out the excess verbiage himself. All it would cost him is his time.

Today he sent me the first few chapters he had reworked according to my suggestions. The length of these chapters was down from 45,000 words to 10,000 words. And instead of slogging through the molasses of overwrought, florid descriptions, I’m breezing right along, watching the characters and the plot develop apace. He’s doing such a good job of self-editing that I’ll be charging him my very lowest page rate for light copyediting. Easy work for me, lower cost for him. Everyone’s happy.

I love it when a plan comes together.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

It's not all doom and gloom

Publishers Weekly (not my fault they don’t have an apostrophe in there) has an article about self-publishing success stories. Check it out.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Plus ça change

The world is going to hell in a handbasket. Books aren’t what they used to be. Publishers have cut way back on editing and the quality of books is suffering as a consequence. Why when I was a youngster…

Or maybe not.

A book emerged in the living room the other day, one that I think was actually a gift to me from my wife last Christmas, in a stack of other books, and that I lost track of. It was something she picked up in a used book store. Or maybe it was something I picked up myself in a used book store and forgot about. In any case, as our cat had an accident yesterday, I needed to take the bedspread to the laundromat today, and I grabbed the book to have something to read there. The book is The Old Post Road: The Story of the Boston Post Road, by Stewart H. Holbrook, published in 1962 by McGraw-Hill as part of “The American Trails Series Edited by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.” Its point of interest in this household is that it’s local history. Neither of us grew up here, so we didn’t learn the local history in school.

The book is well made, as befits the product of a major publisher, but it is badly written and badly edited. If I’d been A.B. Guthrie, Jr., I’m not sure I’d have wanted my name on the cover. In just the first few chapters the author repeats anecdotes and phrases conspicuously enough that a competent editor should have noticed. He wanders back and forth in time with no obvious plan, returning to a period he’s already covered to relate an afterthought, for example, then jumping ahead a century, then back again, all the while jumping from one end of the road to the other to points in between. My head is spinning.

What’s my point? Publishers were making sausage then, too. Most books have always been bad books. Good books are a rarity to be treasured.

Make good books. I try to do that; you should too.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Publishing your photography book

The question came to me secondhand, from an artist who wanted to know how to go about getting a book of her photographs published by a mainstream publishing house. I don’t know anything about the artist.

Here’s the advice I offered, which is generic for anyone in the same situation:
Your photography book will undoubtedly be beautiful and a joy to have and hold. Just like a thousand other photography books, most of which you can find on the remainder table at your local Barnes & Noble. (Being on the remainder table means that the publisher took a bath on the book and sold the bulk of the printing to a remainder specialist at ten cents on the dollar or less.)

There are lots of great books of all kinds that never succeed in the market—that never see the light of day, for that matter. As publishers have tightened their belts over the last several years, they have become extremely demanding in their acquisition process, and the one thing they all insist on now is that the author have what they call platform. Having platform means that the author is already a known public personage in some context. That doesn’t mean you have to be a television celebrity or even a frequent guest on talk shows. It may mean you are on the lecture circuit or that you are well known in your field.

In your case as an artist, what it means is that your first book should be published by the museum that organizes your first touring show and should be assembled and written by the curator. That book, selling in museum shops, will be your ticket to attracting a publisher for your own book later. But right now, put your energy into getting yourself shown in galleries and getting yourself known nationally or internationally in the art world. Work toward the show, and the book will follow.

Now I say this even though my principal income derives from providing services to self-publishing authors, and I believe in self-publishing. If you feel you can sell the book yourself—at showings and lectures and fairs—in quantities that make self-publishing a paying proposition, that’s fine. I’ll be glad to help. But if you really want a mainstream publisher to take you seriously, you have to become famous first. Get yourself noticed.

If you’re already famous, then never mind all the above. Getting an agent should be straightforward.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Attention Comcast subscribers: Is your email getting through?

Comcast blocks outgoing email based on content
Know that Comcast denies this, but it’s true. If Comcast is your ISP, their new email system is reading your outgoing mail and deciding which of your messages are acceptable to send.

Comcast recently consolidated its mail operations to a center in Pennsylvania, near its Philadelphia headquarters. You may have noticed, in late October and early November, that you were getting frequent error messages when sending mail. That was a load-balancing problem on the new servers that Comcast seems to have resolved fairly well.

The new Web interface is called SmartZone, and Comcast really really wants its customers to use that interface for sending and receiving mail, despite its many usability shortcomings. (Hint to Comcast subscribers: If you haven’t logged into the SmartZone interface, do so. You may find mail in your spam folder that isn’t spam. No, you cannot turn off the built-in spam filtering, despite the controls that say you can. This is a known issue. It’s unclear whether they’re working on fixing it.)

But whether you use the SmartZone interface or prefer, as I do, a traditional POP mail client like Mozilla Thunderbird, as a Comcast subscriber, you send your outgoing mail through their server (smtp.comcast.net), even if your return address is some other domain you control.

So here’s what happens: If the message body of your outgoing message contains a forbidden string of characters, the message disappears. You do not get an error message saying it could not be sent. You do not get a bounceback message from the server saying it was blocked. It just disappears. In my case, the exact content of the forbidden string has varied somewhat. Initially, it was the full URL of this blog, http://ampersandvirgule.blogspot.com/, but if I left off the http:// part, the message went out. Then it was either version, but other blogspot addresses were okay. In testing yesterday, all it took was “.blogspot.com” by itself to cause the message to fail.

Throughout these tribulations over the last month or so, Comcast engineers have repeatedly sworn to me that they do not filter outgoing message content and that what I reported to them is impossible. I’m sure they thought they were speaking truthfully, but the facts stood in opposition.

In the last go-round, yesterday, after I called the office set up at corporate headquarters to handle irate customers (that would be me)—which you can reach by asking for the president’s office at 215-665-1700—all of my blocked test messages from earlier in the day suddenly appeared in my inbox. When I called back today to ask whether anyone had noted in the case file what they had actually done to solve the problem, the customer service rep said no. The only note was that someone (unsigned) had “temporarily” fixed the problem but that it would return. There was no indication of what the temporary fix actually was.

Now I cannot pretend to know whether this problem affects other accounts besides mine or whether the forbidden string is the same for everyone. All I know is that you should do your own testing, check your SmartZone spam folder regularly, and BCC yourself on every message that goes out through Comcast’s servers.

I’d rail about free speech and invasion of privacy, but as whatever is happening seems to be mediated by some daemon that nobody at Comcast believes exists, it hardly seems intentional. Maybe this is the hand of Homeland Security at work, and it’s beyond Comcast’s control. Maybe it’s just a random artifact of the complexity of modern software. I’m unhappy about it, and I’m complaining about it, but I’ll leave the First Amendment issues for another day. I’m not even going to piss and moan about the travesty that passes for customer service at Comcast. That can wait, too. I mostly just wanted to alert Comcast subscribers to keep track of your email and not assume that it’s all getting through—in either direction.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Not so rough crossing at Yale Rep

If you’re up for light entertainment, Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing, opening Thursday at Yale Rep, may be just the froth you’re looking for.

Or not.

First, count me among those who never knew that Tom Stoppard dabbled in musical farce. Second, while the program notes make this particular play out to be of some historical interest because of its pedigree, and while a score by André Previn ought to have given us some catchy tunes to whistle on the way out of the theater, alas, there is just no there there. Did I say froth? Well, the motif is nautical, so perhaps I should have said foam. But there’s really more substance to the head on a glass of Guinness than there is to this entertainment.

Which is fine, as I said, if you’re up for a brief interlude of light entertainment (and after seeing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas last week, I was certainly in the mood for light entertainment myself).

The set and the staging are flawless and delightful. The script is witty, if weightless, and the cast is excellent. A few lines were swallowed and a few were stepped on, but overall the timing was sharp, which is important with broad physical comedy.

Worth a special trip to New Haven? Maybe. Depends how much cheering up you need and how far you have to travel. Will your life be significantly diminished if you miss the show? Nah.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Magic search words for jobs, scholarships, and health

Paul Krupin, who contributed a guest post the other day, asked me to plug an offer he has posted for some ebooks he’s selling for a buck apiece. Consider it plugged.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for an economical holiday gift that will be warmly appreciated by that hard-to-shop-for special someone, you could do worse than selecting a book from among those at the right. These are all books I’ve done for clients. They get the money; I don’t. They don’t pay me to showcase their books here, either. I just like to help out my clients.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Happy Turkey Day!
NPR, this morning, broadcast a piece by Robert Krulwich on why we call the American bird a turkey, which is only tenuously related to why we call a third-rate Broadway production a turkey.

This brought to mind the more general problem of linguistic change. Historically, languages have diverged as populations have diverged and become isolated; and languages have expanded as populations have later encountered each other. Riding atop this current is the surface drift of random error—misheard and misunderstood words acquired by one generation from that which preceded or by one neighbor from another. Historical linguists, etymologists, and lexicographers have studied all this in great detail and they tell fascinating stories about where our words come from.

The open question is how the random slurrings of parents and mishearings of their children converge, however briefly and imprecisely, on a consensus as to what a word is, what it sounds like, what it means, and how it is used. How do we manage to maintain language, that is, rather than dissolving into the entropy of Babel? How does one person’s usage reinforce another’s to latch onto one variant and discard the rest?

Meanwhile, back at the ant farm…
Biologists, not very many years ago (here’s a paper from 1994, for example), learned of the mechanism by which ants communicate the location of a food source. Briefly, scouts wander about quite randomly, but keeping track of their distance from the ant colony. When one encounters some food, she (or is it he in the case of ants—I’m not sure) heads back, leaving behind a trail of chemical scent (a pheromone). When other wandering minstrels encounter this trail, they tend to follow it, reinforcing the scent. So long as this is working—that is, so long as it is leading ants to food—the trail is continuously reinforced. But each ant’s individual trail has a defined half-life. It fades over time. So false trails (in the first place) or those where the food has all been consumed fade into oblivion.

This phenomenon was noticed by computer scientists, who reasoned that the same mechanism could be used to find the most efficient path across the Internet or the most efficient algorithm to solve complicated problems of other sorts; and they have been merrily applying this methodology with good results.

Pheromones on steroids
In the Internet Age, of course, linguistic innovation is not limited to the kids in the neighborhood. Instead we have neologisms rocketing up from every subculture and exploding across the sky like a fireworks display (wrong holiday, I know). But I cannot help wondering whether the mathematics of ant trails would not be a useful tool with which to model linguistic change. For one thing, it could easily account for technological advances in communication reach and speed just by tweaking a parameter here and there.

Just some noncaloric food to chew on. Perhaps something to expand the mind rather than the waist.

Happy Thanksgiving! And if you’re not in the US, have a good day anyway.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The unbearable paralysis of being

You know this person. Maybe you are this person. She has a well-rehearsed critique of American society as too materialist, too consumerist, too rushed, too focused on Doing. We have to put time and energy into our relationships, into Being with our families and life partners, into thinking about our effect on the world and how we simply Are in the world. We have to contemplate the way we reach decisions and the values embodied in them. And so, to help keep this group functional, we need to spend time talking about Process.

Okay, you say, I can see that. We don’t want to be arguing with each other all the time, because we’ll never get anything done that way. Sure, let’s talk about process. Or Process, as you call it.

And then, imperceptibly at first, but more and more each meeting, she comes to dominate the agenda with her insistence that, no, we haven’t perfected our Process yet. We really really really need to devote more time to talking about Process.

And that’s the point at which progress on the group’s original mission grinds to a halt.

I think what’s going on here is that the person who insists Being is more important than Doing is afraid of Doing—for whatever underlying reason. Psychologists probably have a name for this condition. It is probably identified in DSM. And there’s probably an effective therapy, should its sufferers seek treatment. In any case, she sets Being in opposition to Doing, and we buy into that false dichotomy. We become frustrated victims of this particular form of passive aggression and get caught up in the paralysis ourselves.

But we’re wrong if we do that. The point is to Be while Doing. The admonition to be a mensch carries with it the unspoken admonition not to be a nebbish.

A set of blocks
One way this paralysis expresses itself—and this does not require a group context—is procrastination about writing. Another is procrastination about publishing that which is already written. Another—the way I run into this phenomenon most often—is finding excuses for missing a deadline. The idea that the stars must be in a perfect syzygy and the writer must be in harmony with the Universe before committing to action becomes the insurmountable barrier that prevents accomplishing the worthy goal of setting out one’s ideas on paper. There is always time for one more Yoga class, but somehow there is not enough time to write the next chapter.

Being while Doing is the key. Integrate those two concepts with each other and those blocks will melt into the pavement before your eyes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Your book is done when...

Paul Krupin is a professional book publicist of long experience. In a discussion on a publishing list today that concerned how to advise the author of a memoir to think realistically about the number of books he might actually be able to sell, Paul posted his views, which he has generously permitted me to share with you here.

I encounter this with authors all the time. It goes with the territory. It could be a truly remarkable memoir. It might contain experiences that can make people smile, cry, and laugh as they read. But then again, he may not yet have gotten any meaningful feedback from people, or the feedback he has received may be designed to make him feel good and to congratulate him on his effort and accomplishment with having written a book.

I wrote an article to try to get people to grasp the significance of their dream and what it means to them if they really want to see other people appreciate their writing, especially if they really intend to now use that writing to achieve fame and financial success.

I work with hundreds of authors and publishing companies each year and, really and truly, very few of them have created a book that is good enough to achieve fame, glory, and financial success for the author. Most are labors of love. There’s a sizable financial investment and personal emotional investment that’s required to go from “author” to “bestselling author,” and few really have what it takes to make it through the gauntlet of the marketplace.

What I recommend people do is go slow. Show and tell one on one. It’s possible to learn how to sell. That’s the miracle of the microcosm. If you learn what you need to say to people in your little neck of the woods, chances are you can then say the same thing anywhere and everywhere you go and you’ll be equally successful selling your products wherever you go.

But you need to learn those magic words first.

You have to write to sell, and the job of writing isn’t done until the book sells. This is where most self-publishers go astray. They publish their book without verifying it was really ready for market.

You have to test your ideas and test your product and test your mar-com (marketing communications) on real live people. You need to identify your end users and the people who will buy the book for your users. Then you need to learn what to say to get these people to take the action you want.

Write to sell and test, test, test. Do this in small doses till you get the right buy signals. Reliably. Not just once or twice, but repeatedly and reliably.

Do 25 to 50 POD copies and test it with these important people.

You’ll know by their behavior and response whether you are really ready to publish the book.

If you can’t get people to even look at it, then you’re not done.

If they look at it and put it down, then you still have work to do.

If people look at it and grab it, you might be done. It depends what happens when they then pick it up and peruse it. If they put it down, then you’re not done.

You may have to redesign and rewrite it till you know you are done. You have to work with your prospective audience to get real feedback, and you must listen to what people say and address the issues you receive.

This may take a lot of reiterations.

But one thing is for certain, there is a point that you will reach when you know that you are done. It’s a wonderful thing when you get to this point and know it.

Here’s what I’ve observed and experienced.

You know you are done when…
  • People look at it, grab it, look at it and head to the cashier.
  • You show your book someone and they hold it close and won’t give it back freely.
  • You show them the book and they reach for their wallet.
  • They pick up one book, look at it, and grab four or five of them and head to the cashier.
  • One person picks up the book, grabs it and heads to find and show his or her friend the book, and they both grab one for themselves and buy it.
You know that you have something when kids pull it off the shelf and haul it over to their mothers and fathers with a look of desire and wanting and excitement in their eyes that says please????!!!!

I call this the hoarding syndrome. When people clearly indicate to you that the book has such inherent value and importance that they are willing to pay for it. They know it and you know it instantly.

Other people here have no doubt experienced this in a variety of ways. It would be very cool to hear from people about when they knew that they were done.

I work with a lot of authors and publishers, and I see success a lot less frequently than I wish I would see. I attribute this to people rushing through to publishing their books without making sure they have created a product that people will actually buy.

So this is my bottom line advice:

Write to sell. Don’t stop writing and rewriting till you know it sells, and sells easily and continuously.

Prove it with small test POD numbers. Use the technology that is available to all of us wisely. Then move it up through the publishing and promotion chain level by level.

Maybe you think the book should excite and grab people. But it isn’t happening.

To me, that means you still have work to do. But you can’t speculate about what’s wrong; you need real data.

So ask your candidate customers. Ask until you are blue in the face and get the hard, difficult data and feedback you need to redesign and redo this project.

I had a publisher come to me recently with a book that presented his ideas on how to have a successful marriage by using a marriage contract.

Myself, I’m a former attorney and I would not pick up a book that had a marriage contract in it.

Do people want to run their marriage off of a contract? Like it’s a job or a construction project? Do they want to reduce communications and relationships to policies and procedures?

When we looked at our marriage vows, my wife said “strike the obey” and I said “and add in this here dispute resolution clause.”

And that’s what the minister did, and we still live by those words.

And that was the oral vows.

Put it in writing? Something doesn’t fit in the picture. Like what’s love got to do with it?

This is the type of process most people go through when they contemplate buying a book.

Do I want to get married to this person and his or her ideas? Even if I can get divorced from it later?

You are not done until people fall in love with your creation. You’ll know it only when it happens.
© 2008 Paul J. Krupin

Thursday, November 20, 2008

US Customs Service threatens liquidation. No action required.

Effective communication department, your government at work division
So I grab the mail, and here’s a notice from Department of the Treasury, U.S. Customs Service, USCBP, Area Director, Newark NJ. Official Business. It’s one of those dealies printed on a carbon paper form by a high-speed impact printer where you tear off the perfed edge to reveal the barely legible secret decoder message inside.

Huh? What do the Customs and Border Patrol people want with me?

Oh, it’s a “COURTESY NOTICE” and “THIS IS NOT A BILL - NO ACTION REQUIRED.” Well, that’s a relief. But, um, why is the “importer number” my Social Security Number? And why is $30.71 “scheduled to liquidate”? And what “goods” entered at New York on January 8? And why is the return address the Department of the Treasury instead of the Department of Homeland Security? Who ARE these people and what do they want with me and is that my thirty bucks they’re going to liquidate? Do I need a lawyer?

Well, a bit of digging on Web reveals that this bit of paperwork is entirely without meaning or importance of any sort, which leads to an obvious question: why send it out at all? What possible good can it do to send out such a notice with no explanation of its weird technical vocabulary to random people who happened to purchase something from overseas at some point in the previous year?

If the law requires that the notice be sent, then a proper notice should be sent, with an explanation of what this liquidation is all about. I have to wonder how much anxiety this has caused among people who didn’t have the wherewithal to research the question online (you cannot contact the agency by phone; the recording just says to call back later, with no option to leave a message; so that option is out). I wondered whether something I had ordered was sitting in a port, scheduled to be destroyed because of an unpaid duty I didn’t know about. I wondered if something I had shipped was sitting in a port, scheduled to be destroyed because I had filled out a Customs form improperly. I wondered all manner of things, and I assume I’m not the first person to do so. How much easier for everyone if some bureaucrat had merely taken a bit of time to add some explanatory verbiage to the form. Maybe when they run out of the current batch and replace the form with one from the Department of Homeland Security, someone will go to the effort. Yeah, right.

Thinking about the audience matters.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Thinking about cover design

An interesting post over at Reading the Past gives you an opportunity to sharpen your eye for cover design. Take a look.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Copy-protected books

Suppose you’ve published a book—or perhaps several books—that are of particular use in a certain niche that has an ongoing demand. To take the example that was presented yesterday on a publishing list, your customers might be doctors in a specialty who provide your books to their new patients. And there are always new patients, so there is a steady demand for your books.

Now suppose—continuing with yesterday’s example—that you send out a promotional mailing to your customers advising them that they can stock up on your books at a substantial discount for a limited time. Easy decision for your customer, right? The orders should roll right in.

But suppose the orders don’t roll in. You investigate a bit and hear from customers who say, yes, they love your books and they hand out copies—photocopies, that is—of certain chapters to their patients all the time.

Okay, doctors are well enough educated that they should know such copying is illegal. But apparently a lot of people don’t have any sense of guilt or shame about stealing from you. And you don’t want to engender hard feelings in your customer base by siccing your lawyers on the offenders. Not to mention that it would be hard to discover who all of them are.

Well, I had an idea this morning. Yes, that happens occasionally.

Try scanning a $100 bill—okay, a $20 bill—and opening the image in Photoshop. In theory you won’t be able to. (Yes, a sufficiently devious criminal or the government of North Korea can do so, but this post is about people who see themselves as law-abiding citizens and who just have a blind spot about copying books. Locks are only intended to keep honest people out, as my mother used to say.) The reason is that the Secret Service, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, scanner manufacturers, and software vendors got together and implemented a technology that allows systems to recognize currency automatically.

I think a derivative of this technology can be designed to prevent wholesale copying of book pages on typical office copiers and scanners. Apply the appropriate digital signature to your pages in Acrobat if you choose to do so; print the book, either offset or digitally; and when a secretary puts the book on the copier and presses Start, blank sheets come out. The concept is proven; all that’s required is development.

Sure, it would take two or three years to develop the technology and another six to ten years to deploy it to offices everywhere as copiers cycle out of service. But why not start now? Publishers unite! You have nothing to lose but your shirts.

And remember you read it here first.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Guest post: The Whole Dirty Story

Twenty years ago, fellow book designer Steve Tiano declared, “I am not a novelist” and never again intentionally wrote a line of fiction. I invited him to write a guest post, and here it is.

When I was thirteen years old I wrote a short, short story—barely a thousand words about mortality and Coney Island in winter. For some reason I submitted it to a magazine my mother read. The form rejection slip contained a handwritten message that said, “This is very well-written, but there is not enough of it.”

Over the next twenty-two years I reworked that story a number of times. It grew to be part of the core of my first novel, for which I received enough publishers’ rejection slips to wallpaper a small room. In 1976, I drove my first cross-country trip with a buddy of mine. During the trip I kept a journal, which became the basis for my second, bad, and unpublishable novel.

I started a third at some point. This one I alternately described to myself as “a story about ambivalent people behaving ambivalently toward other ambivalent people” and “an ontological detective story; sort of a missing person story, where the missing person is God.”

I carted these manuscripts with me when I moved out of my parents’ and in with a woman I met while working as a fortuneteller. I think I read myself into her cards and life. When I moved back to my parents’ after a short stay and a break-up. I, of course, took the manuscripts. Three years later, I reconciled with that woman, a music teacher fiver years older than I. Pretty heady stuff for me when I was 29. When, after a little over three years, we split up again, I placed the now-finished manuscripts in the trunk of my new car and left them there.

In November of 1988, just about twenty years ago today, I bought another new car, a Nissan Pulsar. It was sporty, effectively a two-seater, with a T-top and a lawnmowerlike engine. When I went about dumping the stuff in the old car’s trunk, including the manuscripts, I decided to retire my old Smith Corona portable electric typewriter, as I had gotten my first computer three years before but had not used it for any of the novels.

I also threw the manuscripts in the trash. And I never looked back until now.

The last few days I’ve had the same song playing in my head, over and over: “Dreamline,” by Rush. Classic.

I was reminded of the new car and the manuscripts this morning, reading the blog of a literary agent. Although I was done wandering the country by car in 1988, it was only today I wondered what my words might have been worth if a real editor had gotten a look.
* * *
Three months after throwing out the manuscripts, on St. Patrick’s Day of 1989, I learned that my immortality had expired. Out at lunch with pretty much the entire local court system—my day job—I drank a half dozen rusty nails (scotch, Drambuie, and ice) in less than two hours. Returning to my office, I became fairly sick and one of my many younger sisters came to pick me up in her new car, the old one I’d given her when I got the new Pulsar. My new car remained in the parking lot at work for the weekend.

When I started to care about drinking to excess I fully embraced the idea that I was no longer young or immortal. And that’s when it hit me that I’d thrown my novels-in-progress away.
© 2008 Steve Tiano

Weeding the blogroll

I have neglected the housekeeping for a while. However, I have now weeded out, from the Blogs I Like listing to the right, defunct blogs and those that have drifted far from my interests, corrected the addresses of some that moved, and added the blog of literary agent Nathan Branford, which I recommend to anyone interested in traditional publishing of fiction (and thanks to Shel Horowitz for the tip).

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The enormity of the task that lies ahead

Barack Obama is a great writer, and he chooses his words carefully. In last night’s victory speech, I was struck by this sentence, which is problematic: “You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead.”

What’s the problem? The problem is the word enormity, which has a primary sense of monstrosity or outrage. Most careful writers avoid using it to mean immensity (see usage notes here and here), although it is that sense (a common one where unselfconscious and less-skilled writers are involved) that I think Obama intended.

Then again, maybe he looked at the ugliness of the current financial and economic crisis and decided that enormity was le mot juste after all.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Google book search settlement

Start here for information about the proposed settlement in the lawsuit brought against Google for wholesale copyright violation in the scanning of in-copyright books.

A couple of notes:
  • The proposed settlement has no bearing on the copyright held by artists in book illustrations or covers. It applies only to publishers, authors, and their heirs and assigns. If your copyright illustrations are scanned in the course of scanning a book, take the issue up with the book’s copyright holder, because Google doesn’t want to hear from you.
  • The propose settlement appears to weaken the protection of copyright law for the creators of works, because copyright holders must positively reassert the rights they already have—by opting in to the settlement or by registering their works with the yet-to-be-formed Book Rights Registry—in order to retain those rights. Otherwise, the way I read the settlement, they in effect forfeit those rights to Google.
This is another situation where the courts have confused copyright owners (mostly publicly held corporations) with the content creators (individual writers and artists) the copyright laws were initially designed to protect.

In other words, what else is new?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It's good to know the Secretary of the Treasury can count

“Regulation is not a four-letter word.”
—Henry Paulson
testifying in a House Financial Services
Committee hearing yesterday

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I'm from the government and I'm here to help

Let’s hear it for protecting the rights of content creators. Gimme an I. Gimme a P. Gimme a C. Gimme a Z. Gimme an A. Gimme an R. What does it spell? IP czar.

Except for one thing. The corporations whose intellectual property this newly created post will protect are not content creators. They are the media conglomerates who strong-arm content creators and extort, er, make that extract from them the legal ownership of anything and everything those individuals create.

But the historical rationale for copyright, until the passage of the Sonny Bono Act, was, in the words of the US Constitution, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

In other words, writers and artists will not be helped by this new law. In fact, because the law strengthens the bullies in the film and music industries, it will further diminish support for a free, open marketplace in arts and letters. A few celebrities will do well. Most creators will keep their day jobs and retreat to their garrets at night to commune with their muses. Others will give up. Others will starve.

The new law is bad for everyone, including the stockholders of the companies it is intended to benefit. Only they are too blinded by greed to understand that.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play at Yale Rep

I am not a trained drama critic. I am a theatergoer. I do not go to be assaulted with the pseudointellectual whining of a narcissist treating the audience like his therapist. I go to be entertained, to exercise the flaccid muscles of my long-ago liberal education, and to feel uplifted and enlightened. For my money, Sarah Ruhl is the most talented playwright working today, and she has won my brand loyalty to her work.

Although Passion Play is billed as three one-act plays, it is an integrated whole. The dominant motif is the medieval passion play, which forms the play within a play of each of the three pieces. Yet the passions that rule Ruhl’s drama are those of the players—sexual, spiritual, political—set against the period tableaux, first of Elizabethan England; second of 1934 Oberammergau; and last of Spearfish, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, in 1969, 1984, and today.

Ruhl calls upon theatrical traditions from the Greek chorus to the fool of Restoration comedy to the conceits of the passion play itself, while weaving a thoroughly modern dramatic evening.

The cast was superb, with no detectable weaknesses. Felix Solis, as Pontius the fish-gutter; Polly Noonan as the village idiot; and Kathleen Chalfant, as Queen Elizabeth, Adolf Hitler, and Ronald Reagan stood out.

The staging and production design, as always with Yale Rep, were imaginative and well executed. I wish there were a tradition of the director and the design team joining the players for bows at the end.

Passion Play opens tonight at Yale Rep and runs through October 11. If you are anywhere within the sound of my voice, hie thee to New Haven for a theatrical treat. Caveats: While auditorium ventilation is excellent, you should know that tobacco is smoked onstage once or twice and the aroma is detectable. Also, parents might wish to know that adult themes predominate (not obnoxiously by any means, but different families have different sensibilities).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


The season which began yesterday is called fall because autumn is when leaves fall in temperate climes. But leaves are not falling. Stock prices are. In observance of current events, I thought I’d go over some vocabulary items that are or will shortly be in the news.

English has two distinct words bail. One is rooted in Old Icelandic and refers to the curved handle of a pail and similar objects (the bail of a Conestoga wagon or of a fishing reel, for example). The word bow is related.

The other word bail comes from a Latin word for carrier or porter and refers to the bucket the curved handle is attached to, but don’t let that confuse you (although it always confused me until I looked the word up today). This is the bail of bailing water out of a boat, bailing out of a burning plane, abandoning an enterprise, bailing a company or person out of a predicament, and bailing an investment banker out of jail.

business and finance
We’re so used to seeing and hearing business and finance as a news category that it’s easy to forget they’re two different things. The trope heard most often these days to distinguish them is “Main Street” and “Wall Street,” and that’s as good a way as any to think of them. Finance refers to renting out money for interest, the object of which is to end up with more money than you started with. Business generally refers to providing goods or services, presumably at a profit, an activity that depends on the ready availability of money, which is often borrowed from financiers.

the real economy
Here’s another phrase being trotted out by current commentators, reporters, and news analysts. On the radio, you can almost hear the air quotes. The real economy encompasses all levels of business, including agriculture and mining, manufacturing, distribution, wholesale and retail trade, and services. It also includes the status of individuals in terms of their employment, healthcare, insurance costs, and taxes. That’s a much broader sweep than just business, which encompasses the condition of companies more than that of the people who work at those companies.

investors and traders
We often lump together everyone who owns shares in at least one company or mutual fund, but we shouldn’t. Traders focus on short-term ups and downs of stock prices, irrespective of the nature or condition of the companies whose stocks they are trading. Investors focus on the long-term profit potential of the companies whose stocks they buy. An individual can both invest and trade, of course.

Leverage is trading with borrowed money. This takes place entirely within the financial world, not the business world. If I have one dollar, I might be pretty sure I can make a trade that will net me a five-cent profit. On the strength of my good name and reputation, I can borrow thirty dollars, meaning that I stand to make a buck-fifty, minus the interest I have to pay on the thirty dollars. Obviously, if all I have to my name is one dollar, I’d rather make a buck-fifty with it than a nickel. So I’ll take the risk of borrowing the thirty dollars. But if instead of making money I lose a buck-fifty, all of a sudden I owe more than I have. That’s the downside of leverage.

Ponzi scheme
A Ponzi scheme, named for Charles Ponzi, who pulled it off around 1920, is a financial pyramid in which funds from new investors are used to pay profits to prior investors. There is no money left to pay off the last investors in, and they lose their money, unless, of course, the last investors in are able to print money at will, in which case the losers are the holders of the currency whose value is thus diluted.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Word salad

I joined the CELery after More Food for Thought was already well under way and did not contribute to it. I’m just spreading the word on what looks like an interesting cookbook for a good cause. My online pal Katharine O’Moore-Klopf was the production editor, and I’ll let her tell you all about it.

Political ambiguity

According to the Associated Press, “Wall Street turmoil underscores the need to overhaul ‘the outdated and ineffective patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight in Washington,’ Republican presidential contender John McCain said Monday.”

Given McCain’s staunch support for deregulation of markets over the last decades, the question arises as to what sort of overhaul he has in mind. Those in favor of greater regulatory control can see “overhaul” or “reform” as meaning changes to bring about more and better regulation. Those opposed to any regulatory control can see “overhaul” or “reform” to mean abolition of all regulation.

On the face of it, the statement can mean either. This is certainly an efficient way to tell everyone what they want to hear. It’s a technique writers interested in clarity should not emulate.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A shipwreck at sea can ruin your whole day

Way, way down at the bottom of this blog is a little green and white icon that looks something like the Brooklyn Bridge (except that is not what it is meant to look like). That’s an indicator that I use a free service, called SiteMeter, to keep track of how many people visit the blog.

The free version of SiteMeter is what you might call web analytics lite. It isn’t robust enough to service the needs of a large ecommerce company, but it gives me interesting information and, more important, yet another way to waste time during the day, checking on my site stats.

SiteMeter makes their money from paid subscribers, of course; and it gives them more data than it gives me. That’s fine, and more power to them.

Well, for the last several months, SiteMeter has been promising a spiffy new user interface, and this weekend was when they decided they were ready to roll it out. Unfortunately, although the company’s management may have been ready to roll out the new software, the new software wasn’t ready to be rolled out. It has, um, performance issues, sort of the software equivalent of erectile dysfunction. It can’t stay up, in other words.

So now SiteMeter is rolling the interface back to the old software, which worked fine. I have no inside information on whether they’re going to try to repair the new software or abandon it and start over. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that this was a really, really bad idea. Instead of continuing to serve data as HTML and just spiffing up the presentation, they got all artsy-fartsy and implemented the interface in Flash. This led to three completely predictable problems:
  1. Graphic artists got hold of the process and introduced all kinds of pretty but completely illegible presentation formats.
  2. Because the presentation is controlled by Flash, the browser cannot reach in and make the fonts larger (more legible)—and the design does not include Flash buttons to do the same thing.
  3. Accessing the data and refreshing the display take way too long.
What makes software companies do this?
Why do companies invest months of expensive development time in a bad idea and then roll it out when they should already know it cannot possibly work? It seems to me that this is consistent with the magical thinking school of management: Logic be damned! If I keep saying something will happen, and I say it enthusiastically enough, by golly it will happen. “Magic words of poof, poof, piffles, make me just as small as Sniffles!”

Clear thinking matters.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Listen up, hockey moms

The question of residual errors crops up from time to time, and I give a convoluted explanation involving math, which generally causes people’s eyes to glaze over. Fellow copyeditor Lloyd Davis, a hockey fan, offers this, which I quote with permission:
Copyeditors are like goalies. We prevent a lot from getting past us, but even the best one has an off night, or just gets fooled by a shot that he would otherwise stop easily.

Fox News gets the led out

By the time I clicked it, they had fixed the hed. Fox News headline

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sometimes it's the little things

apostrophe vs. open single quote McCain Palin convention banner ... and then there’s this, about which the less said the better: CNN Race 08 graphic

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The ear of a speechwriter

If you’ve been listening to the two political conventions, maybe you’ve noticed an interesting distinction.

At both conventions, there have been a number of warm-up speeches each night followed by one or two major speeches.

The majority of the warm-up speeches at the DNC shared a number of stock phrases—platform or campaign bullet points, basically—verbatim. This suggests (and one commentator I heard confirmed this) that these speeches were professionally written by a small group of speechwriters. While it was a bit boring to hear the same arguments repeated by every speaker, there was a cohesiveness to the presentation that got the message across.

In contrast, listening to the RNC, it’s pretty clear that all the warm-up speakers are responsible for their own speechwriting. That is, if they have help, it’s from someone on their own payroll, not from a speechwriting shop hired by the party. (That, or the party speechwriters are just not very good, but that seems doubtful.) The speeches are all over the lot in terms of content, emphasis, and points made; and they’re tremendously variable in terms of the writing craft—some are truly abysmal. The variety makes these speeches a bit more interesting, but the opportunity for really bad political gaffes is magnified tremendously. To me it seems like a tactical mistake—one I wouldn’t want a client of mine to make.

Both of these are essentially four-day infomercials, as many commentators have noted. As such, it seems to me they should have the best production values money can buy, and that includes professional writing.

Craft matters.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Selling the sizzle

A theme I keep returning to is the necessity to think of a book as a product and to build an integrated marketing campaign for that product if you want to be financially successful with it (even then, it’s a crapshoot). One of the elements of marketing a book is publicity.

Enter the book publicist
Different book publicists offer different services. The key function they perform, though, is to secure author appearances in the media. They work hard to do this, and they get paid well for this service. But it’s vital to the author (whether you are self-published or published by a major house) to understand where the publicist’s job starts and ends: a list of dates, times, and places where you are scheduled to appear.

That’s not enough. I mean, sure, it’s plenty from the point of view of the publicist who sweated bullets to get you those appearances and put the list together. But it’s not enough for you to think your marketing problems are solved. The reason it’s not enough is that the fact of having interviews does not guarantee book sales. It’s what you do in the course of your interviews that motivates listeners or viewers or readers to go out and buy your book.

Talk about the subject, not about the book
If you’re a novelist, this means you talk about the characters as if they are real people with lives outside the narrow slice you documented in your story. Or it means you talk about wartime Austria, if that’s where your story is set. Or it means you talk about the historical figures you based your characters on. You don’t just summarize the plot of your novel.

If you’re a nonfiction author, it means you talk about your field of expertise or about the context in which your book has application and meaning. You don’t recap the table of contents.

Know your material
Some interviewers may lead you into a discussion of the book itself, even if that’s not a great idea. Review your own book before the interview. Reread it if necessary. If the host asks you about page 57, you’d best be able to get to page 57 pronto and be familiar with what’s there as soon as see it.

Learn how to speak on the radio
If you’re uncomfortable as a speaker, the audience will know it immediately. Get coaching (see if someone in the drama department of a local college is available as a private tutor, or join Toastmasters, or join a community theater troupe). If you’re subject to stage fright, ask your physician to prescribe a beta blocker to take before interviews (only if it’s safe for you, of course).

Speaking on the radio, speaking on television, speaking on a podium, and answering a print reporter’s questions all have different dynamics. If you don’t have a good intuitive grasp of how to handle these different situations in a way that keeps the audience engaged, be sure to address this issue with your coach, too.

Don’t forget to plug the book
Your host should do this for you, of course. But if not, get the title and author into the conversation at least three times in the course of the interview. And if you have an in-person interview, remember to take a few copies of the book with you. You never know who might be happy to buy one from you.

Above all, enjoy yourself
No matter how shy and introverted you think you are, you can learn to enjoy sharing your ideas with an audience in an engaging way. Don’t focus on your fear; focus on the opportunity to reach others who share your interests. People will respond to your enjoyment and positive attitude. If you can’t convey those, you’re unlikely to turn that hard-won and expensive publicity opportunity into book sales.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Screw 'em all

The washer saga continues. The service tech showed up Thursday as scheduled. Yep. Needs parts. Nope. Parts are not on the truck. Parts are due to arrive September 5. So I called Whirlpool and expressed my wish to have the defective washer replaced immediately. “We can’t do that. Your warranty covers repair, not replacement. All I can do for you is extend your manufacturer’s warranty for a year.”

“But I already bought an extended warranty. Your extension will overlap it, and I don’t gain anything.”

“That’s right. As you bought an extended warranty, there’s nothing we can do for you.”

Bzzzt. Wrong answer.

I called the dealer and told him to take his new washer back, reinstall the old one that his crew couldn’t figure out how to get up the stairs anyway, give me a full refund for the transaction, and let me worry about fixing the old one. Then I called the credit card company to ensure that the entire transaction would be credited back to my account as if I had never walked into the appliance store.

This morning, I went to the local appliance parts store, bought a valve, came home, removed a few screws, disconnected the old valve, installed the new valve, replaced the screws, and I’m good to go as soon as the delivery goons show up and do their thing. The appliance service guy who recommended the appliance store in question, which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, doesn’t get my money this time. And when another appliance breaks, as surely it will, he won’t get my business. The appliance store is stuck with what is now a scratch-and-dent lemon of washer. And I’m out thirty-nine bucks for a part instead of nine hundred for a high-tech, computerized, extended-warranteed piece of junk. Whatever I’d have allegedly saved in future energy costs to operate the new washer doesn’t come close to the energy cost of manufacturing a new one and recycling an old one. So I did myself and the environment a favor.

That’ll teach ’em.

Okay, time to get back to earning a living.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cone of appliance malfunction

It started with the dryer. I thought nothing of it. Old—very old—dryer. Not worth fixing. Bought a new one. That was nearly three years ago. The dryer would be as energy-efficient as the label said if it actually dried clothes in the amount of time it says it’s going to take instead of two or three times as long. But I really can’t complain.

The microwave needed some work, but that was minor. Of course the same problem recurred right away, but we decided to live with the noise, which is just a bad fan bearing, rather than keep paying to have it not repaired.

Then it was the coffeemaker, a little over a year ago. (Follow-up on that story: the replacement coffeemaker turned out to be terrible, a dead loss; so I had to get another almost immediately. So much for a free replacement.)

In January the twenty-year-old water heater bit the dust.

Since the beginning of July, though, it’s been a circus around here. It was time to order a new furnace (really, it was). About the time the deposit for that showed up on my credit card, the refrigerator stopped refrigerating—a month after its five-year extended warranty expired. While the service guy was working on the fridge, the garbage disposer died. That was under warranty, but the same guy did a lousy job setting the new one and it leaks a little (not enough to put up with his coming back, but enough that I’m thinking of fixing it myself). Oh, about the new furnace? Well, that necessitated getting a new flue liner for the water heater, because the furnace would no longer be connected to the chimney. Chimney guy shows up to do the estimate and tells me maybe it would be cheaper to get a different kind of new water heater. Um, no thanks, as it’s brand new. But I think maybe he was right about the cost. Last week the washer quit. Thirty years old. Repair or replace? No-brainer. New washer delivered yesterday by guys who kept telling me all the things they don’t do, won’t do, and can’t do (like figuring out how to get the old washer up the cellar stairs). New washer doesn’t work today. Service call scheduled. Might send the new washer back and get the old one fixed after all.

Next week the new furnace gets installed and I get to pay for the second half. Can’t wait for the surprise extra expenses that’s going to entail.

I’m sure glad the lull is over and I’ve got work in front of me to pay for all this.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Plant a tree? Maybe not.

As in a lot of industries, many people involved in publishing are thinking green these days, and the focus of their thinking is on the trees that get pulped to make paper for books. (Somehow they don’t usually think about the transportation component—moving trees, moving pulp, moving paper, moving books—which can also be significant.)

Realistically, if unappealingly, the greenest way to publish a book is electronically, of course. But as a designer of printed books, I don’t like to think about that. The next best choice is digital printing, particularly print-on-demand, because it consumes only the paper needed for copies people are actually planning to read, not the excess paper needed for books that will sit unread in a garage or warehouse.

But emotionally, publishers are frequently drawn to the idea of offsetting their carbon footprints, particularly their vicarious destruction of tropical rainforests for pulp, by just as vicariously planting trees. They do this by contributing funds to any of several organizations that plant trees—trees that will grow up to sequester carbon, presumably.

Here’s the rub:

Most people whose understanding of the outdoors extends as far as their front lawn (which means the majority of Americans) think of planting a tree as a transaction that involves a nursery, a large hole, a specimen that costs anywhere from thirty to a few hundred dollars, and a lot of water. So the idea of donating three or five dollars to some organization per tree planted sounds like a heck of a deal.

However, anyone who has ever done any conservation tree planting or reforestation work knows that planting a tree actually consists of swinging a mattock (once!) to bury the head in the earth, pulling back on it slightly to open a slit, peeling a tree seedling from a bundle of 50 or 100 that you can easily carry in one hand, dropping the seedling in the slit, stepping on it with your boot heel to close the slit, taking one pace forward, and repeating the procedure. Total elapsed time less than ten seconds. The seedlings, depending on species, are available from state-run nurseries for prices in the range of ten cents to thirty cents. So if the “charity” is getting three dollars and the state is getting a dime, and the Americorps kid doing the planting is getting another dime (unlikely), you do the math.

If you want to plant trees to offset your carbon footprint, skip going to the gym or golf course one Saturday and go out and plant 1,000 trees yourself. Contact your state forester for a location where your volunteer labor will be put to good use. You’ll be out the cost of a good pair of lightweight work boots (not construction boots, which are too hot and heavy, but something more on the order of hiking boots) and you might have to buy your own mattock (thirty bucks or so at Home Depot). But you won’t have spent $3,000 on tree seedlings worth $100.

I hasten to add that I’m sure many tree planting programs are legitimate efforts run by reputable nonprofits that make excellent use of all donated funds. I’m pretty sure, though, that there are also a lot of scams out there. If you want to make a difference, it makes a difference where you send your money.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Author and pilot Bob Kline on the Jim Bohannon Show

Audio here of nationwide radio show interview from last night. (The attribution of his book to author “Bill Kurtis” on the page is an error that may be corrected by the time you read this.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Building a book bottom-up

When someone approaches me about producing a book, we engage in a dance in which we determine whether we’re going to be able to work together successfully. Usually, this takes no more than a couple of emails or a single phone call. Sometimes—as in a recent case—it takes a little longer to get to the crux of the matter. But in replaying this recent exchange in my mind, I think I’ve hit upon a key factor that I hadn’t considered before.

There’s a certain pragmatic way of looking at the world based on the assumption that what I want to do is the right thing to do and that all I have to worry about is finding people to carry out my wishes. This is the top-down approach taken by many of the gurus of success. Don’t bother me with the details, ’cuz I’m a big picture thinker. Just tell me the bottom line and maybe three bullet points, and you take care of the little stuff. And be quick about it. I want it yesterday. The typical grumble from the subordinates of a manager with that attitude is: “There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it over.”

Frankly, that approach does work for a lot of people and in a lot of situations. However, publishing your first book that way takes deep pockets, because it inevitably leads to failure on the first go-around.

I’m a bottom-up sort of person, though. I like to understand the fundamental principles of a discipline and then build on those principles with practice until I develop a level of expertise that enables me to confidently market my services. Admittedly, this takes patience. And I’m a patient guy.

But I’m not a doormat. And when someone with a top-down mindset comes to me and tells me what I’m going to do for them and what they intend to pay me, then refuses to provide the basic information I need to do my job to the standards I’ve set for myself, I tend to get my back up. The customer may always be right, but not everyone is destined to be my customer. The ones who are destined to be my clients are people who share my bottom-up, craft-based view—authors who have developed their own expertise in the same way I’ve acquired mine and who are willing to learn about how publishing works so they can improve their chances of success the first time around.

Attitude matters.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A little font humor

Maybe that should be a very little font humor. Thanks to colleague Geoff Hart for the link.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Author Bob Kline on Radio America today at 3:30 ET

Never mind. Apparently the interview was yesterday.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

To the bottle quickly

An author’s take on the book publishing process, with this memorable line: “Copy editors check each and every little fact, and whatever they come across the make a note that the authors have to respond to. Going through a copy-edited manuscript will send one to the bottle quickly.”

In all the old movies it was the editor who had the bottle and two glasses in a desk drawer, not the author. And there are days when I understand why. It’s nice to know the feeling is mutual.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Giving a fig, or life beyond the reach of the Internet

Editors do not live by bagels alone. There’s babka*, too.

We used to have a bakery in the neighborhood that made an excellent babka. They even set up a mail order babka business and a website. Alas, they closed their doors last year. I mostly managed to avoid indulging in their babkas, as they would have been the ruin of me. So I don’t particularly miss them.

Last week, though, someone sent my wife a thank you gift for her office consisting of eight babkas, two each of four different fillings. It was decided (passive voice to protect the identity of the decider) that one of these had to come home, and the one my wife picked out had a wonderful fig filling. This is something I had not encountered before, and search engines confirm that it is not a traditional filling.

I thought, well, this bakery must have a website. But no, Google can’t find that, either, beyond a directory listing (if I guessed correctly at the name of the bakery).

Anyway, if you’re anywhere within an easy drive of Newton, Massachusetts, check out Blacker’s Bake Shop, 551 Commonwealth Avenue. The chocolate babka is just so-so, but the fig is to die for. In addition, the woman who asked a relative to buy and ship the gift to my wife was distraught to learn that the package had not included any apricot-almond babkas, suggesting that might be a winner, too.

And if you go there, ask them why they don’t have a website.

* There are several sweet goods called babka, but I’m referring specifically to the fairly dry but rich sweet dough with a rolled-in filling and a streusel topping, made up as a high, rectangular or round loaf, found in Jewish bakeries. Common flavors are chocolate and cinnamon.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Editing the garden

I just stepped outside to take a break and enjoy the cool back yard after a rain. I found myself stooping to pull the occasional weed, and the parallels between gardening and editing suddenly struck me. (Why this never occurred to me before I have no idea.) I’m not quite sure where this is going, but indulge me for a few moments and maybe something will strike you as instructive.

A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds.
I get manuscripts in all conditions. One might have just a handful of errors, like a well-tended garden with just the occasional small weed that managed to escape the gardener’s eye. Another may look more like an abandoned yard, with weeds everywhere and just a hint of what was once cultivated there.

In the former situation, a visitor with a practiced eye can stroll through the garden and stoop occasionally to remove the offending plant. In the latter, it may be necessary to destroy the garden in order to save it. And even then, “one year’s seeding is seven years’ weeding”: it will take many passes over a long period to make the plot manageable.

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing in my kitchen, drinking a glass of water, when there was an enormous flash and simultaneous crack of thunder. I knew something had been hit, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I saw the damage. A large tree in our yard had exploded (there was no charring; the lightning had apparently superheated the water inside the trunk). Clearly, the tree had to come down. However, the bones of the garden were so well planned (several owners ago), that after the tree’s removal, the structure of the garden remains. The gap is not even noticeable, as the adjacent trees still define the wall of that particular room.

There are times when a book suffers a corresponding injury: A passage the author wanted to quote has to be eliminated because the rights are not available or affordable; events overtake the book and the thesis of a chapter or section turns out to be unsupportable; a co-author’s contribution fails to materialize. And, as in the case of the well-architected garden, the well-structured book survives the excision.

Choosing plants
The skillful gardener has a theme in mind to apply to each room—perhaps it’s a succession of bloom in a single color; perhaps it’s a riot of nighttime fragrance; perhaps it’s a colorful hodgepodge designed to attract hummingbirds; and so forth. Plants that are tried but don’t work to advance the theme are ruthlessly extirpated.

Similarly, the editor is on the lookout for sudden and awkward shifts in tone or mood that bring the reader up short.

Cultivation and fertilization
Gardening is a dirty business. Spading, fertilizing, planting, watering, hoeing. Wear old clothes and leave time for a shower before you show off your handiwork.

Producing a book can be just as messy. The art is in producing a finished work that doesn’t show where you ripped out and reset a brick path or where you uprooted a large rhododendron. The goal is to have the reader marvel at how easy it must have been to edit such a well-put-together finished book.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

You would know all this if you had been a contemporary of Shakespeare

A virtual acquaintance of mine, a long-time denizen of a couple of mailing lists I’ve been on, turns out also to be a big shot in the world of Renaissance Faires and Elizabethan-era re-enactors. For a number of years Maggie Secara has been the proprietress of the elizabethan.org website, where she gradually accumulated hundreds of little tidbits that help lend authenticity to the speech and actions of re-enactors. A few months ago, Maggie approached me about printing her Compendium of Common Knowledge 1558–1603 as a book. A Compendium of Common Knowledge The book is out and available. I learned all sorts of fascinating details while I was working on it, and if you’re as enamored of trivia as I am, you’ll enjoy it too. And it’s a perfect gift for a history buff. Maggie that document Maggie is also the eponym of the ultimate corrupted Microsoft Word document rescue technique that has come to be known as maggieing the document. Or maggying the document. Nobody really knows how to spell the gerund. Nonetheless, if your Word document starts to behave badly and you’re afraid it may be irretrievably corrupted, you should maggie the document. (This applies to version of Word up through Word 2003; Word 2007 documents are constructed quite differently and should not become corrupt in the same ways older documents can.) Here’s how you maggie a document.
  1. Open a new blank document.
  2. In the problem document, ensure that the show/hide ¶ button is turned on so that you can see paragraph marks. Track Changes should be off.
  3. For each section in the document (it may only have one section, which is fine), select all of the text except the final ¶.
  4. Copy to the clipboard (Ctrl+C).
  5. Switch to the new document and paste (Ctrl+V).
  6. In the new document, recreate section breaks as needed and recreate all headers and footers, which will not have transferred over.
  7. Save the new document with a new name and close the old one.
Note that you would not have known this procedure had you been a contemporary of Shakespeare. I just thought I’d toss this in as a bonus so that you could puzzle over the sort of mind that can repair Word documents Monday through Friday and transform itself into the countess of Southampton on weekends.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Verizon's designs on me

My cell phone died. I could place and receive calls; the display worked fine; but I could not hear anyone and no one could hear me. Kaput. No point asking about repair, because repair consists of tossing in the scrap pile and replacing with a new phone. Except phone models are obsolete about five minutes after they’re introduced, so replace means upgrade. Lamentable as this state of affairs may be, it is not news and it is not what this post is about.

No, this post is about the design of Verizon stores and the design of their entire customer-facing operation.

Let’s start with the stores
I purchased my now-defunct phone nineteen months ago and the store has been remodeled since then. So I assume my local store is up to date in terms of Verizon’s corporate design standard. Understand that I’m over sixty and a very light telephone user, not the heart of Verizon’s target market. Nonetheless, cell phones are pretty much a necessity these days, and I think a company of Verizon’s size ought to be able to serve a broad market, not just twenty-three-year-olds.

Here’s how I experienced the store. Initially I felt as if I were walking onto the set of a dystopian futuristic movie. Cold. Black. Evil. A small display opposite the front door invited me to put my own name on a waiting list. However, my eye went first to a human face behind what appeared to be a service counter, and I did not notice the check-in stand until later. The young man I spoke with, to his credit, put my name into the queue rather than telling me to go back to the entrance and type it in myself. He then told me I’d be called from the technical service counter at the back of the store.

The store is vast, with a large amount of open floor space. I assume that on weekends, the place fills up with customers waiting (futilely, for the most part) for service. On a weekday morning, it’s suitable for getting some exercise running laps. The people who think this is a good idea are mostly under five, and they quickly find that there are numerous gadgets within easy reach, leading to a lot of yelling by parents to “leave that alone” and “put that back.” Between the shouting, the elevator music a tad too loud, and the constant ringing of phones, all bouncing off hard surfaces, hearing a clerk call your name is a challenge.

Arrayed around the store are identical-looking displays that probably have different groups of products—or maybe not. It was hard to tell. Nothing told me how one item was different from another except as to price. And the posted prices seemed to have little to do with what one actually pays. It was all very confusing, to be sure. The other visual features consisted of signs listing services but pointing nowhere and counters with personnel sitting behind them, apparently engaged in something not involving customers at all.

So here are some design tips for Verizon, if they’re listening, which we all know they’re not:
  • Warm the place up (introduce some colors other black, gray, and red).
  • Quiet the place down (use softer, more sound-absorbent materials; lower the ceiling).
  • Use signs to direct people to what they need and to identify the different sections of the store. And put them where people can see them without craning their necks.
  • Kidproof the store.
  • Don’t seat employees behind what look like service counters if they’re not there to provide service.
Now about that customer service…
I have no inside information on how Verizon trains their customer-facing employees. I only know that as a customer I feel ill-treated, ill-informed, and disrespected. The friendly and extremely helpful technician who eventually called me over and looked at my phone was quite knowledgeable. But she was not empowered to complete a transaction with me; she had to send me back to the sales vultures at the front of the store. The technician explained to me, later, when I returned to her to upload my contact list to the new phone, that the technicians take pride in their personal integrity and try not to swindle customers, but the reason is that they don’t work on commission.

All I can say about the sales staff is that they do not smile, do not answer questions, do not explain the features or benefits of one model versus another, assume that the customer knows as much about the many choices on offer as they do, and withhold as much critical information as they legally can, in order to induce customers to make bad decisions. Whether they come by these traits naturally or have to be motivated to express them, I have to blame the company, not the individual salespeople, because my experience has been the same on every visit to the store, and I’ve never seen the same person twice.

Here are my customer service training tips for Verizon, again offered in full knowledge that nobody who can do anything about them is reading this blog:
  • When a customer walks into the store, someone should approach and say, “Welcome to the Verizon Wireless store. How may I assist you today?” They should be smiling, warm, and genuinely interested in hearing the answer to that question. They should then walk with the customer to the correct destination and hand the customer off to someone who can directly assist the person.
  • At no time—ever—should there be both an unassisted customer wandering the store and an employee visible behind a counter and not waiting on a customer. Employees should be trained to set aside what they are working on and offer assistance.
  • Employees should be cross-trained in store operations so that any employee can complete a transaction once it begins.
  • Deceiving customers or withholding information to get them to buy more than they asked for should be cause for dismissal on the spot. Bait and switch is illegal.
What’s it to you?
Design encompasses more than great graphics. And design matters. How do people of different ages experience your store? How well do your employees treat your customers?

Monday, June 16, 2008


I’ve been traveling the last few days, and I was rewarded with a bit of entertainment at the security checkpoints, both outbound and homebound. I find security procedures as frustrating, ill-conceived, bureaucratic, and annoying as anyone. But I figure the people who work for TSA are doing the best they can in the jobs they have and deserve as much courtesy and respect as anyone.

On the outbound trip, I overheard one TSA employee telling the party behind me about his recent experience patrolling the passenger pickup area. He saw a woman park her car and get out of it to walk into the terminal (not allowed). He approached her to tell her she had to move the car, and she laid into him. “No rent-a-cop is going to tell me what to do.”

“Ma’am, whatever your experiences may have been in the past with contractors working airport security, I’m a federal agent and I’m ordering you to move your car.”

“Well, I pay your salary, and you can’t make me move my car.”

“No, ma’am, I can’t.”

At that point he wrote her a citation and had the car towed and impounded while she fumed. She continued her tantrum to the effect that she makes two hundred thousand dollars a year and won’t be treated like this.

“Oh,” the agent replied (in his retelling), “I didn’t know the street corner was that lucrative.”

The woman stormed off, and the crowd that had gathered by that point applauded spontaneously.

Okay, he’s probably told the story a few times and buffed it a bit. On the return trip, though, I was a first-hand witness.

The players: A pleasantly pretty TSA agent with a low-maintenance hairstyle and a friendly mien, the sort of person you might run into at a neighbor’s barbecue, with kids in tow, and with whom you’d easily strike up a conversation; and a nineteen-year-old (or thereabouts) looker with straight, shoulder-length, perfectly trimmed platinum hair.

The scene: The passenger had passed through the metal detector and her bag had gone through the X-ray scanner. The TSA agent was holding a bottle—of perhaps five- or six-ounce capacity—of some sort of spray.

The line overheard as I walked by: “No, miss, a hair product is never a medical necessity.”

Novelists, dramatists, and short story writers fill notebooks and journals with snippets of conversation they hear when they are out and about in the world. Careful observation of real interactions seen in the wild informs and enriches fictional dialogue and description. Writing naturally is built on such artifice.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Max Palacios on Voice of America

Novelist Max Palacios will be interviewed Tuesday by Rod Murray, on Voice of America, about his latest novel, Nikola’s Predicament, a great summer read. The interview will be at 9:05 am PDT, 12:05 pm EDT.

If Max keeps getting great interviews like this, I won’t actually have to think of something original to post about for quite a while. Way to go, Max!

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Max Palacios on Jordan Rich

Novelist Max Palacios will be interviewed Friday night (or Saturday morning, depending where you live) by Jordan Rich, WBZ, Boston, about his latest novel, Nikola’s Predicament, a great summer read. Listen live online if you’re up that late. The interview is scheduled for 11 pm Friday PDT, 2 am Saturday EDT.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Kinky corporate logic strikes again

Great news for Sir Speedy and AlphaGraphics!
Kinko’s, a household name (or whatever the cubicle farm equivalent of household name is) was bought by FedEx a few years ago and has been operating under the FedEx Kinko’s name since then. If you type www.kinkos.com in your browser, you’ll be redirected to the FedEx site, but the Kinko’s brand name is still displayed prominently.

Today, FedEx announced they’ll be dropping the Kinko’s name in favor of FedEx Office. Uh huh. Brilliant move. Store closings to follow.

File under: Peter Principle

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Every Good Bird Does Fly

There are memoirs and there are memoirs. These days, the word is usually associated with what are called literary memoirs, generally angst-ridden confessions of youthful transgressions seen from the mature side of the statute of limitations. And of course there are political memoirs (tell-alls like Scott McClellan’s new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception as well as quieter reflections on recent history). And then there are the puff pieces of retired corporate chieftains, successful trial lawyers, and other masters of spin. But there is an older tradition, still very much alive, of professional memoirs—personal explorations of a particular craft by a master practitioner. One such master is Bob Kline. Bob was a pilot for four decades, for the Air Force and for TWA. Bob’s book, Fasten Your Seatbelt: A Pilot’s Memoir, is chock full of great stories sure to delight anyone who ever harbored the fantasy of flying big birds. It’s a fast-paced book where you’ll learn a lot about flying at the same time you’re reliving scenes with Bob that range from the terrifying to the side-splitting.
Bob came to me for editing (he’s a good writer and didn’t need much of that) and design, as well as a website for the book, which just went live a few days ago. He’s about to launch a publicity campaign, but meanwhile the book has been selling well through word of mouth. With the price of airline tickets going up daily, reading Fasten Your Seatbelt may be the only flight you take this summer.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Language Log moves

Announcing the renaming of PMA to IBPA a week ahead of time does not make up for being six weeks late to announce Language Log’s move. Truth be told, I’m not sure Language Log announced the new URL before two days ago.

In April, their old server gave up the ghost. Posts accumulated, and if you want to start reading (as I do) with the first cached post from six weeks ago, start here. The main page is here.

I’ve updated the link in the sidebar.

PMA is dead. Long live the IBPA

PMA, the Publishers Marketing Association, is officially changing its name to IBPA, the Independent Book Publishers Association. If you are reading in the blog archives and come across references to PMA, you will henceforth make the mental substitution and access the organization under its new name. Yes, you will. That is an order.

The official switchover takes place in another week. But I got a postcard about it today, so it’s not a secret. The new URL is www.ibpa-online.org (still showing the PMA logo until the switchover, though).

Name changes are always problematic, whether for corporations, brands, or nonprofits. Old friends can’t find you anymore. People are confused as to whether there are now two entities where there used to be one. What feels to the insiders involved like a statement of a clear new vision can seem like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to everyone else, though.

A fault of editors

By which I mean to suggest a term of venery for our august profession, not to point out any particular flaw that we share.

We tend to be a solitary lot, more so in this day of independent freelance editing and telecommuting (saves gas, for one thing). So it is always a particular pleasure when we gather face to face.

Yesterday, half a dozen of us gathered for dinner and conversation in New York, on the flimsy excuse of showing hospitality to a Californian in town to give a workshop. New York City is quite capable of keeping a visiting Californian entertained without such a pretense, but we all agreed how nice it is to be able to put a face with a name and have a real person to conjure when one of us contributes a post to an email list.

What I found fascinating was the wide variety that we described, particularly in such a small and random group, of types of editing, categories of clients, methods of managing our one-person businesses, and methods of doing the work itself. In a very real way, it became obvious that we do not compete with each other. This is not because we conspire to avoid competition. It is rather because no two of us do quite the same thing.

What does this mean to the potential client in need of an editor? It means that finding the right editor for a given situation is more complicated than sending off a bunch of emails and requesting a price quote. Matching the editor’s skills to the job at hand is a subtle task, one made easier when a fault of editors gather and learn enough about each other that they can make appropriate referrals.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Friday, May 09, 2008

Weak link

I’m casting about for a printer to handle a particular book. Because of the nature of the job, I may end up using a printer I haven’t used before, and so I’ve sent off requests for quotations to several companies. One that I contacted because they came recommended by people on a publishing list came back with an attractive price quote. So I followed up by requesting they send a sample of a similar book.

The sample arrived today.

The question I have for you is this: If someone—a sales prospect to whom you had gone to the trouble of quoting a price—were to ask you for a sample, would you make an effort to send a sample of your best work, or would you take a piece from the reject pile, rescuing it before it went to the shredder?

I’ve got to think you’d send a sample that at least met your minimum quality standard. Maybe you’d go out of your way to send your best work.

So I’m always mystified when I receive a sample such as the one I got today. I assume the person who packed it thought it was a good enough example of the company’s work. But if that’s the case, does that mean their customers accept shoddy goods without complaint? And why was the company recommended to me? Does that mean there are large numbers of people in the publishing business who are incapable of judging well made books from badly made books?

Problems vary. But in the case of today’s sample, the book was actually printed quite well (there were several problems with the design, but I can’t blame the printer for those). The weak link was the bindery. In the first place, the perfect binding equipment, which glues the cover to the book block, was out of adjustment. As a result, there was barely enough glue on the spine to hold the cover on, but there were great gobs of glue squeezed up between the cover and book block, front and back, top and bottom (but not in the middle). In the second place, while the book was trimmed square (as opposed to being trimmed askew), the dimensions were not what they were intended to be. I’m really not sure what they were intended to be, but I’m quite certain that 5 9/32 × 8 3/8 is not right.

I’m glad I requested the sample. I won’t be ordering from that printer, now or in the future.

Price matters, but not as much as quality.