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.