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.