Thursday, December 17, 2009

Finding a printer

Full disclosure
I purchase printing and binding services as an agent for my clients. I pass through the exact amount I am charged. I do not charge a markup or receive a commission. This is just a service I provide, at no cost, to help ensure that my publishing clients receive finished goods whose quality reflects all the hard work that went into designing them and get them at a fair price. So what follows does not reflect any financial interest on my part.

What is a high-quality book?
In discussions on various LinkedIn groups (and in other venues as well), I regularly see people with a variety of backgrounds endorsing the “high quality” of books produced by one printer or another, one subsidy press or another. These statements don’t mean a lot to me, because I don’t know how knowledgeable these individuals are about printing and binding production values.

I’ve had printing company reps proud of their companies’ work send me sample books that ranged from bad to godawful. So I have reason to suspect the judgment of authors who tout the great quality they got from a vendor.

I’m picky. Here are some of the things I look for.
  • I expect good backup. What does that mean? It means that if I hold a leaf of the book up to a light, the type on the back of the leaf should align with the type on the front. The left and right margins should be exactly even and the top line of type should be exactly even. I should not see the type on the back misaligned from the type on the front by even a millimeter.

  • I expect black ink to be black, not gray, and I expect it to be that same black throughout the book. The type should not vary in density from page to page or from the front of the book to the back. There should not be reflective glare from the type (seen when toner is applied improperly in digital printing).

  • If there are halftones, I expect good tonal range and contrast. If there is line art, I expect good sharpness.

  • I expect precise folding. What does that mean? It means that if I riffle the pages (like an animator’s flip book or like a deck of cards), the top margin should not waver up and down but should remain constant throughout the book. I’m not talking about pages where the margin is designed to be different, such as chapter pages. I’m just talking about the work of the folder operator.

  • I expect the book to be trimmed square and to size. The dimensions of the front cover should match the dimensions of the back cover and both should be within a very close tolerance of the design size.

  • I expect the cover (for a perfect bound book) to be properly aligned, with the spine centered, all live copy within the safety margin, and bleeds intact (no white showing).

  • I expect the cover to be glued properly, with no excess glue squeezed out and with the cover glued evenly onto the edge of the first and last pages. Looking at the top and bottom of the spine, I expect the glue layer to be even from the front to the back of the book and the top to the bottom.

  • I expect coatings and laminations to be applied properly, with no peeling or curling.

  • I expect a printer that services small publishers to screen submitted files for suitability and to advise customers when the files have significant problems (such as poorly prepared images or low-quality typesetting). “We print whatever the client sends us” is not an appropriate policy for companies serving the self-publishing market.

Four tiers of printers
There are roughly four tiers, in my mind, of book manufacturing:
  1. Non-specialists. These are printers for whom book manufacturing is an occasional job. The category includes the local Docutech center, accustomed to printing and binding documents that businesses distribute internally or to customers. It includes local job printers who send the printed pages out to a local custom bindery. It includes larger commercial printers who do that or perhaps have a small finishing department. It includes printers who solicit book business to fill holes in their schedule but really aren’t equipped for it; the shoddiness of their books is obvious.

  2. POD. The major players in the print-on-demand market are like talking dogs: it isn’t that they’re good at it; the remarkable thing is that they do it at all. For the most part, their employees do not come from the book manufacturing industry; they are trained on the job, and they measure their success by how fast and cheaply they can fill an order for a single book. Book quality is passable, and it meets the needs of the POD market.

  3. “Good” book manufacturers. This group includes many companies whose names are bandied about, with enthusiastic recommendations, on self-publishing mailing lists and websites. These are good, solid printers who produce acceptable books you might find on the shelves of any bookstore. Most people will be insensitive to defects. Problems I’ve seen include less-than-perfect backup, mediocre folding, some quality control issues in cover application, and—probably the biggest problem—a willingness to print completely unacceptable files. They are within ethical boundaries to simply print what’s sent to them. Nonetheless, if they are going to cater to amateurs, I think they should either push back when they receive garbage or they should fix the problems and charge for the service. At the very least, they should flag such jobs internally so that when someone like me asks for samples they refrain from sending out those books.

    Another feature of this group is that their digital short-run books and their offset books are easily told apart.

  4. “Excellent” book manufacturers. This group includes some of the largest book manufacturers in the country (as well as some smaller ones and some that are not in the country). While their bread-and-butter customers are large publishers, they are efficient enough that they can also happily serve the independent designer market (not sure how well they handle amateurs, though). Quality ranges from perfect to near-perfect, and only a technical examination can distinguish their offset work from their digital work. In my experience, prices in this category are actually lower than in the “good” category (I don’t know why, but I also don’t ask why).
That said, were I to have a job very different from past jobs, in terms of paper, page size, binding type, or quantity, I would certainly get bids from printers in both the “good” and “excellent” categories. It may be that one of the “good” printers has a sweet spot that enables it to come in with a low price. So far that hasn’t happened, but I’m not oblivious to the possibility.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Interesting software QA test case

Hold those cynical thoughts for a minute. There really is such a thing as software quality assurance testing, an activity that employs a great many skilled and intelligent people. Despite the annoying flaws we users complain about in commercial software, it wouldn’t be on the market at all without the diligent and unsung work of QA departments everywhere.

Part of what QA departments do is a type of automated testing in which a script runs a piece of software through its paces, entering all sorts of rule-breaking text strings in input fields and seeing whether the software handles the rule-breaking gracefully. These test strings comprise all the weird cases analysts can think of—trying to type 100 characters into a field that is 30 characters long, using non-Latin characters into a field that expects Latin characters, typing letters into a number field, and so forth.

My serendipitous test case
My post yesterday is titled “<Redacted>.” Note that it begins and ends with angle brackets. Angle brackets have a special status in markup languages that derive from SGML, such as HTML, XHTML, and the others that the Web is built on. Angle brackets signal to the markup language interpreter that what is between them is a tag, information the software uses to decide, at the simplest level, how to display what follows (until a closing tag is encountered).

As a consequence of this special status, if I want you to see an angle bracket in the displayed text, I have to use a workaround. The workaround is to put in a character code (called an HTML entity) that will be interpreted as a mathematical less than or greater than symbol. Knowing this, what I typed into the Title field for yesterday’s post was &lt;Redacted&gt; (and I just applied a similar trick to make that come out right). So far so good.

But as you know, a blog post is more than a simple HTML web page. When I click the Publish Post button, my browser sends information to a server that triggers software to assign a URL-friendly name to the post and store what I’ve typed in a database. That database has rules for how text is stored. Other software extracts text from the database and sends an HTML page to your browser so you can read the post. Other software extracts the information in another way to supply your RSS feed reader. When you view my post, either as a web page on my domain or in your feed reader or in your email or…wherever, other software has intervened to process the text.

So there are lots of places where my angle brackets have to be interpreted and processed.

Complicating matters is that a lot of low-level text processing takes place inside software modules that are freely distributed to programmers. These modules may be written in a programming language different from that of the surrounding program, and the programmer who uses them may not fully understand all that goes on inside them. For example, if I want to build a web form that asks for a phone number, I may search around for a Javascript program that validates entries to assure they are legitimate phone numbers. I don’t have to know how that works; I only need to know how to use it.

Back to <Redacted>
Typically, Blogger creates a URL for blog posts based on the post title. It strips out punctuation and words such as a, an, the, and a few others. For example, my post titled “Do you have the willies?” became For yesterday’s post, though, Blogger looked at the post title and threw up its hands (wise move), basing the post URL on the first line of the post body, instead: So far so good.

But the post title gets reported in many other interfaces. It has variously shown up as:
  • <Redacted> [correct]
  • &lt;Redacted&gt; [user-unfriendly but not wrong]
  • Untitled Entry [uninformative, but a sign of recognition there was a problem]
  • [blank]
My humble suggestion to software QA professionals everywhere is that this is a test case they may want to add to their battery.

Friday, December 11, 2009


You may have seen the story the other day about the US Transportation Security Administration manual that was posted on the agency’s website several months ago. It was a PDF in which sensitive material was blocked out with black rectangles placed over the text. If one has only a user’s eye view of software (if you’re a manager, in other words) and can’t be bothered learning anything about what the software does and how it works, this may seem like a reasonable way to secure the information. You can’t see it, so it isn’t there, right?

As Alexander Pope put it, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

The fact, as anyone who has bothered to learn anything about PDFs knows, is that the text was always there, merely covered, and the simple expedient of choosing the text selection tool in the Acrobat or Adobe Reader toolbar allowed any user to select and copy the full text of the document. Oops!

A couple of months ago, before this news story surfaced, I was typesetting a manuscript in which the author attacked an advertisement for a weight-loss remedy. To dramatize the fact that he was saying some rather nasty things about the advertised product, he chose to use black rectangles to block out the product’s name (rather than use a more traditional editorial device such as underscored spaces: _______). But, as with the TSA functionaries, the author had left the product name in the manuscript and applied a black highlight, rendering the name invisible to the eye but not to the cursor.

When I typeset the passage, I used a similar technique (applying a character style that rendered the word as a solid black rectangle). But before doing so, I replaced the product name with “<redacted>.” This text is not visible in the printed book. But should the author decide to produce an e-book later, in PDF or any other format, the product name will not be inadvertently revealed.

This is not rocket science. It’s just responsible tool use. Top-down management often presumes that anything a manager doesn’t already know isn’t important for anyone else to know either and that therefore training for subordinates is unnecessary. The TSA is disciplining five people who believed that.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

If one of those bottles should happen to fall...

According to Poynter Online, Nielsen is shutting down Kirkus Reviews and Editor & Publisher. Kirkus Reviews was one of the very few remaining pre-publication book review journals and was one of two or three relied on by librarians in planning their new book purchases.

The rationale for producing bound galleys or advance reading copies (ARCs) of books, with its built-in delay of four months before publishing the finished book, is looking weaker by the day.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Do you have the willies?

I’ll tell you a story. I’ll tell you no lies.
Grammatically, there isn’t a blessed thing wrong with using will as a verb auxiliary. If you look it up, you will find that I’m correct. If you enter a signed comment and satisfactorily respond to the Captcha challenge, your comment will appear. So don’t get me wrong here. I will not tell you that using will is grammatically wrong.

But in technical writing, particularly in American English (British English tech writing has different conventions), the best practice is to avoid the use of will unless you are talking about a future event. Enter your street address and city. The software looks up (not “will look up”) your zip code.

Why did this become a rule? Simple. Technical documents are written for a broad audience that may include a significant number of people for whom English is not the first language. Different languages have different arrays of tenses and different ways of indicating them. For a software user who is not a native speaker of English, will may always trigger the assumption that the writer is discussing a future event, even though that’s not always what the word means to a native speaker. The sentence then becomes ambiguous: The software looks up my zip code as soon as I tab over to the next field, the software will look up my zip code tonight, during a batch process, or the software will look up my zip code when the next version is released? I can’t answer that question with any confidence until I run a test case, and my boss told me not to run test cases because they will corrupt the database. So I’m confused; and if I’m confused, that means the technical writer let me down.

Where there’s a will, there’s a potential for confusion. If you are trying to communicate unambiguously in a context where you do not know the linguistic capabilities of your audience, don’t have the willies.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

POP! at Yale Rep

Props to my much better half for her one-liner on the way home tonight: “Reminds me of the Shakespeare play.” Wait for it. “Much ado about nothing.”

Don’t take that as a dig at POP! though. Yale Rep has mounted the world premiere of a rollicking musical about Andy Warhol, and it is Warhol who extolled Nothing.

The strength of musical theater, as of the operetta it derives from, is rarely the plot. Oh, there have been exceptions, but POP! isn’t one of them, and if that’s going to spoil your fun, stay home and read a mystery. POP! is an As you know, Bob, that consists of character sketches—and I do mean character—of a handful of the Factory regulars back in 1968. In structure, it is reminiscent of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile (maybe it should have been called Who Shot Andy Rabbit?).

The play unfolds—no, it exfoliates—in one long act (1:40). The sets and staging are at the same brilliant level we’ve come to expect from Yale Rep. Casting, acting, and singing were all superb. I especially appreciated the sound work, as I heard every lyric clearly, something I no longer expect but want to applaud when I get it.

The action—er, exposition—takes place on June 3, 1968. Bonus points and a discount blog subscription to the first commenter who names two other events, both fictional, memorialized in songs centered on June 3.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A typographer's Twitter tip

Updated with contributions from anonymous and parkrrrr

I’m becoming accustomed to the 140-character limit on Twitter posts, and I’m abbreviating (2 for “to,” 4 for “for,” and so forth) when I have to. But I also see an opportunity for character-shaving that most others are not using, perhaps because of inconvenience. So, as a public service, here are some one-character punctuation marks for you to copy and paste, together with the Windows keyboard shortcuts and Mac keyboard shortcuts (last column, submitted by an anonymous commenter) if you’d rather type them yourself.

Replace "..." with ellipsis … Alt+0133 Opt+;
Replace "--" with em dash — Alt+0151 Opt+Shift+-
Replace " - " with en dash – Alt+0150 Opt+-
Replace " + " with bullet • Alt+0149 Opt+8
Replace " | " with pilcrow ¶ Alt+0182 Opt+7
Replace "ae" with ligature æ Alt+0230
Replace "oe" with ligature œ Alt+0156
The following have no shortcuts, but you can copy and paste.

Replace RT with ℞ but cpdavey suggests recycling symbol, ♺
Replace !? with ‽
Replace fi with fi
Replace fl with fl
Replace No with №

Do you have others you would like me to add?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bragging on behalf of a client

A client I helped with his first novel wrote another and asked me to give it a quick once-over. He now reports that he has signed a representation agreement with a literary agent and hopes to report back in due time that he has a publisher as well. Way to go, S.H.!

Monday, November 02, 2009

Buy me a copy for Christmas

Here is a video that demonstrates a lot of old crafts and technologies in book production. Bibliophiles must watch this. People who think a font is a computer file ought to watch this. Enjoy. Thanks to Beth Burke for bringing this to my attention.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Novelists: read this!

Here’s a bright idea. The author is a project management pro in his day job, so maybe this is easier for him than it is for you. Nonetheless…

“My writing is carefully planned, and a spreadsheet collects my scene-by-scene word count and provides a projection of overall word count based on average words per scene so far. Thus, I could quickly realize if, for example, I was headed for an impractical word count of 30,000 words or 250,000 words.”
—novelist David Chesworth

Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Times more" and "times less"—a contrarian view

As someone who gravitated toward math in school, I fully support, at the gut level, the proscription of the construction “A is three times more than B” and the construction “A is three times less than B.” Neither makes any logical or mathematical sense, as so ably explained by Bill Walsh on his blog, The Slot. This is not an argument about grammar; it’s about the semantic content of these expressions. Logically they have none, and yet people continue to use them and have meaning in mind when they do so.

And now I’ve come around to a view of the matter that goes against logic and against my gut preference. I think I now know how to understand where these constructions come from and why people use them.

Bear with me as I set forth a couple of vaguely analogous realities.

Retail markup
When calculating price markups, a manufacturer, distributor, or wholesaler divides the selling price by the cost. So if it costs me $1.00 to manufacture a good (would that we could manufacture good that cheaply in the world, eh?) and I sell it for $1.50, I have marked it up 50%.

However, a retailer does not calculate markup the same way. A retailer divides the selling price by the margin to calculate markup. If a retailer buys a good for $1.00 and sells it for $2.00, the margin is $1.00, and that is 50% of the selling price. So the retailer is applying a 50% markup. The same two prices, seen by the wholesaler, would result in a calculated markup of 100%.

In shoe retailing, to take an example, the standard markup is 66.7%. That means that a pair of shoes the store buys for $10 has a retail price of $30. A “50% off” sale leaves the retailer with a margin of $5, which is 33.3% of the selling price and 16.67% of the original price but 50% of the cost. To the wholesaler this looks like a 50% markup, but not to the retailer.

People who think mathematically find retail arithmetic illogical verging on deceptive. But it’s a natural way of thinking for retailers.

Baker’s percentage
Bakers have an even more bizarre approach to calculation. All ingredients are expressed as a percentage of the weight of the flour. Thus a formula for French bread (pain ordinaire) is 100% Type 55 flour, 60% water, 2% salt, 2% yeast. That adds up to 164%, which is absurd on the face of it. Yet it makes perfect sense to bakers.

Now to our quandaries …

Times more than
The positive integers (1, 2, 3, … ) are called the natural numbers. This makes sense. These are the first numbers we learn, because we can put them in one-to-one correspondence with out fingers, at least to begin with. We, along with some other species, are adept at comparing quantities, as well. We know that this pile has more sugar cubes than that pile. So understanding “more than” is a fairly primitive ability that requires no training in mathematics.

If we stay with natural numbers and never extend the number line to the left (even to zero!), we can nonetheless develop the ability to do simple multiplication (the times table). When we do that, all results are more than the multiplicand. Three times any other natural number is more than the number we multiplied by three.

Yes, “times more than” is an imprecise and logically ambiguous use of language, but it’s easy enough to see how someone who does not think about the world in numerical or mathematical terms can be perfectly comfortable with it. How important is it, in the grand scheme of things, if “four times more than” means four times as much or five times as much? All we need to know for the purpose of getting past this sentence to the more interesting parts of the article is that it’s a lot bigger. One, two, three, many.

Times less than
Still positing that we’re inside the mind of the bright, highly literate but innumerate reader who tuned out math class starting sometime around third grade, we recall that division is somehow the inverse of multiplication, whatever that means, and we know instinctively that “less than” is the inverse of “more than.” So it is intuitively obvious that “times less than” must be the inverse of “times more than.” If we multiply by 4 to get four times more than, then we divide by 4 to get four times less than. What could be simpler?

The fact that it makes no sense to those of us who were actually interested in math is irrelevant to the person who knows what it means and doesn’t care about calculating an actual number. “Four times less than” is smaller, and “a thousand times less than” is a lot smaller, and “a million times less than” is a whole lot smaller, and what more do we really need to know?

So the crux of my argument is that “times more than” and “times less than,” while they drive some of us (including me) nuts, just represent an alternative calculation system analogous to retail markup and baker’s percentage, and we should relax and let people say imprecise, ambiguous stuff if they want to, so long as the actual numbers don’t matter too much.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Be the publisher

I find myself constantly having to explain to people that self-publishing is publishing and they should think of themselves as publishers. Antipodean colleague Gordon Woolf says it better in an ezine article, “What is a Self-Publisher and Why You Should Aim Higher.”

The short version? When you walk into a room to greet readers, you’re a published author, not a self-published author. When you walk into a room to sell books, you’re a publisher, not a self-publisher. Identifying yourself as a self-publisher in any context is bush league.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

You should know this about book publishing

Steven Piersanti, president of Berrett-Koehler Publishers wrote The 10 Awful Truths about Publishing. Worth reading. Thanks to Amy Einsohn for the link.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Book publication timeline

Here’s a real-life timeline for a mainstream, agented book (thanks to @KOKEdit by way of @krishvenkatesh for the link).

In my experience, self-publishing is a more compressed process. It typically takes about six months from the time I receive a draft manuscript from an author until ARCs are printed (if the marketing plan for the book includes ARCs) or until finished books are printed. Some books go faster than that. Some go slower. The variable is usually the author’s turnaround time on revisions. The reason I can turn out a book faster than the traditional trade publishing industry is that I can focus on just a few projects at a time rather than having to fill a pipeline with dozens or hundreds of titles. Their process takes as long as it takes. For particularly time-critical books (occasioned by the death of a celebrity, for example), a large publisher can put a team together and knock out a book in three days. That’s not a process I can compete with.

Many first-time authors have unrealistic expectations about how long it takes to publish a book. Go ahead and click the link.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Wax on. Wax off.

Earlier today, on an editing list, Odile Sullivan-Tarazi posed an interesting question. She wrote in part (and gave me permission to post here):
A terminology question for those of you working with software applications or websites.

Our group is looking at these sets of terms:

log on / log off

log in / log out


sign on / sign off

sign in / sign out

From your point of view, is this a valid distinction? Does it matter whether a user is working in an application that resides on her local machine, a company server, or on the Internet?

What distinction, if any, do you make between these two sets of terms, or do you see in your work being made between these two terms? Then when it comes to log on or log in, which do you think is more correct, more standard? And with sign on, sign in?
Here’s my two cents’ worth on the subject. See if you concur.

First, I vote for consistency across a company’s public interface (packaged software or Web presence). Either choose log in / log out or sign in / sign out and stick with it. (I’m not fond of the on/off variants, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.) And drum into the interface designers and software developers that you log in at the login prompt. Login is not a verb. If you can accomplish just that, you’ve performed a feat.

Second, I think the choice depends on which metaphor the anticipated audience is going to find more comfortable. Log is short for logbook. Logbooks are used by navigators and commanders of vessels (sea or air); by police department property clerks; and so forth. There’s something a little stiff, professional, technical, bureaucratic about logging in and logging out. This will be part of your permanent record, as they used to tell us in elementary school. Signing in is something you do when you visit a building, go to your doctor’s office, attend a funeral. It has more of a social, personal connotation. Your counterpart wants to remember who was there that day, and maybe the record will be put in a filing cabinet somewhere, but it’s a process accessible to anyone, not just the officially designated keeper of the logbook. And finally, signing on and signing off are what broadcasters do at the beginning and end of the broadcast day. So that just seems like the wrong model altogether.

In practical terms, logging in to a network and signing in to a network are identical. But in connotative terms, I think they’re subtly different. And that’s the basis on which I’d choose. Log in to a database administration interface; sign in to a social network.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The secrets to publishing success

Jane Friedman’s 2009 Tough Love Guide is an index to lots of solid articles on the Writer’s Digest blog. Plenty to read there. What I’ve sampled so far has all been excellent. Thanks to Joel Friedlander for the link.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

And as long as I'm being grumpy

The New Yorker, October 5 issue, page 25 (“The Talk of the Town”). Four-count-‘em-four editing errors on a single page. Possibly a new record for the magazine that used to pride themselves on the excellence of their copyediting and fact checking.
  1. carat instead of karat
  2. Hooters (capped) instead of hooters
  3. “hot-air balloon—you need the helium to get it up…” Okay, this was in a direct quote and Madeleine Albright should know better, but unless the point is to mock Albright’s unfamiliarity with how balloons work, the quote should not have been used.
  4. “Smokey-the-Bear” instead of “Smokey Bear”
And I don’t know that a ranger’s hat is necessarily made by Stetson, although perhaps it is. So that might be five.

The storm is over, 'kay?

I’ve had it with “it was a perfect storm.”

Great book. Great movie. Great coinage. But it was about a storm. You know—one of those rainy, windy thingamabobs?

Just because conditions converged that made an event in your life likelier, that does not mean you experienced a perfect storm.

So stop already. Storm’s over. Sun’s out. Get used to it.


NPR interview editors take note.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Believing the hype

So simple anyone can do it.
That’s the promise of today’s communication tools. You don’t need to know anything about all that messy HTML coding or what “plain text” means or what ASCII stands for or the difference between an email client and a web browser or how to keep your computer secure or how to wipe your—oh, wait, where was I? Right. All you need is to buy our whatever and all your problems are solved.

Managers—and this seems to apply to more of them the higher you go—buy into this hype and assume they can hire unschooled, unskilled subordinates to carry out their firms’ communication tasks.

The only trouble with this is that it isn’t true. If you rely entirely on software you don’t understand to encase your message in the fragile shell of a computer language you don’t understand, something is going to break and you will end up with egg on your face.

The solution? If you’re the subordinate, go out and educate yourself about your tools. If you’re the manager, empower your subordinate to get the needed education. Or hire someone who already understand the technology better than you do.

This message brought to you by an email my wife received this morning, purportedly from a competently managed conference services provider about an upcoming conference, but you wouldn’t know that from trying to decipher it. Broken doesn’t begin to describe it.

Competence matters.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

When is a prune not a prune?

This is both a language question and a horticulture question. The language question is one you are probably familiar with: the people who market the crop decided at some point that enough people have negative associations with the word prune that they would be able sell more of them as “dried plums.” This euphemism extends to the marketing of prune juice as dried plum juice. Meanwhile, lots of people, myself included, actually like prunes. So Trader Joe’s, for example, sells a product labeled “Pitted Prunes” on the front of the bag and “Pitted California dried plums” in the fine type of the ingredient list. Whatever.

The horticultural question is more interesting. To a grower, a prune is any variety of plum with a high enough sugar content that it can be successfully dried with the pit still in it. Granted that prunes are all pitted these days, the definition remains. The main (perhaps only) variety grown in the Northeast that meets this criterion is called, unsurprisingly, the Italian Prune Plum. It is a dusky purple, oval fruit, about two inches long and an inch and a quarter or an inch and a half in diameter.

This year, though, the rainy summer in Connecticut has resulted in low sugar content in all manner of crops. The tomatoes—the ones that survived the Late Blight blanketing the region—have been less flavorful than in other years. And the stone fruit has been mediocre at best. This includes the Italian Prune Plums from my favorite local fruit grower. So they’re Prune Plums, but, with their low sugar content, I’m not sure they’re prune plums.

I hope next summer is sunnier.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

New York Times "On Language" columnist William Safire dies at 79

Not a linguist, just a philologist, Safire got the answer wrong, at least part of the time, according to the folks over at Language Log. But he brought thinking about words and language to the fore of popular culture for decades. He will be missed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A good news communication story

Have you ever been called by a polling organization to answer a survey?

My typical experience is that some well-meaning but semi-literate work-at-home type promises the survey will take “just a few minutes” (invariably when I’m trying to listen to This American Life). Twenty minutes of page turning and “let’s see; oh, okay, here’s the next question” later, the call mercifully ends.

So imagine my surprise the other day when I received a robocall from Rasmussen (an organization whose name is only vaguely familiar), asking me to press 1 if I was willing to answer a few questions. Despite my general antipathy toward voice systems—because of the execrable scripting and condescending tone of voice most of them embody—I gamely pressed 1.

This was polling as it should be done.

A pleasant, professional voice read carefully written questions (not leading at all, so far as I could tell); gave predictable prompts (so I knew before I was told that 1 was Yes and 2 was No and was therefore able to speed the process along); followed the predetermined branching logic of the poll without hesitation or page turning (obviously); and asked no questions I couldn’t answer quickly and without qualification.

I imagine this system was expensive to implement and requires some skill to set up for each new poll. On the other hand, the operating costs have to be less than the cost of halfway training unskilled drones. The results have to be more reliable too.

Maybe other polling organizations have switched over to this system, but if so I’m unaware of it. In any case, kudos to Rasmussen.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cutty Sark

A colleague asked rhetorically this morning, “why we italicize the names of ships.”

Indeed, why italicize anything? All such choices are conventions. Conventions change, and in any case a given writer or editor is free to thumb her or his nose at convention. Will the average reader notice? Probably not. Will there occasionally be a reader who notices? Maybe. Will other writers and editors pick up the baton and run with it, or will them fumble and drop it, or will they consider your approaching from behind with a baton a threat to their personal well-being, given they did not know they were standing on a track?

Writing and editing that flout convention just for the sake of flouting convention tend to draw the reader’s attention away from the content and to the writer and editor. That can be quite satisfying for the young, insecure, narcissistic writer trying to draw attention, but it does little for the reader and nothing for the editor.

Many editors tend to be conservative about retaining conventions long past the point that they even make sense. Others are more open to gradual change, adapting to the usage and vocabulary of new generations. Gradually, conventions morph.

With respect to italicization, the underlying rationale is reduce ambiguity. Queen Elizabeth II was a ship. Queen Elizabeth II is not. The common practice of italicizing foreign words may be related to the similar practice of italicizing any unfamiliar term when introducing and defining it. Once something is generally accepted by dictionaries as an English word or phrase, it is no longer italicized. But in the meantime the italics signal to the reader that a foreign lexicon is in play. Many style guides enforce this standard; some do not. C’est la vie.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

What every editor needs to know about self-publishing and custom publishing

Join me in Rochester, New York, 25–26 September 2009, at Communication Central.

I’ll be speaking on:

Self-publishing as Part of a Marketing Plan

Marketing as Part of a Self-Publishing Plan

I hope to see you there! Click the link above to register.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Your mother was right. Cartoons will mess you up.

Frank Wilson is doing a good job of gathering links to coverage of the Yale University Press debacle here and here. For the record, I think Donatich made the wrong decision. I hope I would have made the right one had I been in his position.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Who is responsible for manuscript markup

On a mailing list yesterday, a couple of editors expressed their preference for doing “actual” editing rather than doing the more menial (I guess) task of marking up the manuscript for composition. (Markup is what tells the compositor how to treat different bits of text—this is a bulleted list; this is a level 1 subhead; this is an extract; and so forth.)

I responded with a question, and I’d be interested in hearing the views of others, so please comment.

Here’s what I wrote:
Most but not all of my work consists of dealing with self-publishing clients from draft ms. through to printed books. So the decision as to who is responsible for preparing the ms. for composition is moot in my case. I’m responsible for it, whether I do it as part of editing or part of composition; and that’s fine with me.

But looking at the publication process as a whole, you raise an interesting point. In the past, when a typed ms. went from author to publisher to compositor, the compositor’s job was to rekey what was presented, according to the markup showing on the ms. In the bad old days, the redaction was explicit, with the diaskeuast responsible for specifying font, point size, and style for everything. Somewhere along the way, that was simplified so that a specification sheet held the details, which could be input once to a typesetting system (or, before that, the compositor’s brain), and the diaskeuast had only to provide abbreviations (codes) for the different styles and then mark overrides for specific words or phrases treated differently, mark dashes, and so forth, on the copyedited typescript. In any case, typesetting in recent centuries was reduced to see-an-A-type-an-A. It was a hard and fast rule in the industry that your job was to set exactly what was given to you to set. Compositors who used their brains were generally fired, because their initiative (in correcting a misspelling, for example, or setting what was intended rather than what was marked) represented lost AA income. The job of redacting the ms. fell to someone on the publisher’s side of the transaction.

In other words, up to the point just before the electronic transmission of text from publisher to compositor became common (in the late 1970s or early 1980s), the publisher was responsible for all markup, and that meant that an editor of some sort did the marking up. Surely it was not the acquisitions editor, whose job was to woo authors, or the development editor, who focused on content, tone, and organization. No, it was the copyeditor, unless there was a separate markup pass by a dedicated diaskeuast.

So, traditionally, coding for composition was very much within the realm of copyediting.

Your comments seem to suggest that you now believe it to be someone else’s responsibility (or that it somehow happens by magic). And you’re apparently not alone, because I receive what are supposedly professionally edited mss. that I’m expect to dump directly into a page layout program and turn out a finished book. Well, I don’t mind stripping out the extra spaces and running spell check, but there’s more to manuscript preparation than that. So I now have to include in my price quotes the condition I expect to receive the manuscript in and what I’ll charge for putting it in that condition if it doesn’t arrive that way. I’m comfortable doing that because I’m also an editor. But if I were sending a job out for composition, I would not trust the average compositor to guess correctly at the author’s and editor’s intent; what a mess I’d get back if I did that!

I have assumed up till now that the reason I have to offer this markup service is simple ignorance on the part of inexperienced publishers and editors. But your comments lead me to ask whether it’s something more akin to contempt—that somehow it’s beneath your dignity to provide explicit instructions as to what’s going on in the text. How, to take a simple example, is the compositor to know what’s a level 1 heading and what’s a level 2 heading if you don’t provide some sort of markup?

Or are you just saying that in addition to paying you for your developmental editing and copyediting, the publisher should also pay a second editor to do the markup? Where do you see this step being done, in other words, and why don’t you consider it to be part of the editing task?
Okay, perhaps I was being a bit grumpy, but the question is a serious one. Where should this task fall these days?


Saturday, August 08, 2009

Earth-shattering news. Continent cracks apart.

Annals of corporate communication department
According to United Airlines, Mexico is no longer part of North America. (This matters if you’re trying to book a flight using frequent flier miles.) I know it’s a small thing. But when I get on a plane I like to think the pilot knows what continent we’re flying over. Maybe someone should have consulted a reference before making that decision.

Cutting corners by not checking facts is an easy way to lose the confidence of the buying public.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Old World

The old Old World
The Great Wall (the actual wall, not the restaurant named for it) is impressively large, to be sure. But it is not particularly old. The partially restored wall seen today is the one that dates from the Ming Dynasty, not the far older original. In other words, it was built beginning in the seventeenth century. Standing structures in Europe date from a millennium or more earlier.

So it’s fair, I think—or at least interesting—to note that the Great Wall is a pretty crude affair, in terms of architecture and workmanship, in comparison with Roman ruins of nearly two thousand years earlier, let alone the contemporaneous structures throughout Europe, many of which have been continuously occupied since before the Great Wall was begun.

By the same token, the palaces and shrines we saw in China, impressive as they are, differ from European buildings of a similar age in more than their design aesthetic. They are in many ways less: less modern in function; less ambitious in design; less refined in execution. Oh, there is spectacular artistry to be sure. And some of the difference stems from a different philosophical worldview. But there is still something that says maybe the Chinese did invent paper, fireworks, and pasta; maybe their written history goes back further than Europe’s; but somewhere along the way—centuries before 1949—they began to follow a lower, slower road. Feudalism loosed its grip on Europe long before it did so in Asia. And you can see that just by looking at artifacts.

The new Old World
Today, though, China is in a headlong rush to its version of modernity. In Beijing, the sort-of-old hutongs continue to be demolished in favor of modern high-rises.

Having seen smatterings of what passes for a traditional lifestyle in the hutongs, I must conclude that this process, though painful, is necessary. It’s clear there is little place in modern Beijing for the poor. They are so ill-accommodated, so marginal in their existence in the old hovels (once proud homes of the middle class but now, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, hardly livable at all) that it would be a service to them to move them into decent, subsidized housing and finish the demolition job that time and poverty have begun. Usually I’m on the side of preservationists, but not this time.

When China decided to embrace capitalism and build a modern city, they had two ways to go. They could have gone the cheap knock-off route (in the way that the Joseon Dynasty palaces in Korea were cheap knock-offs of the Ming palaces in China). But instead they chose to leapfrog the West with even more gratuitous excess. We stayed in a deluxe hotel room (at an affordable, discounted price) that could have been a movie set for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I’ve lived in smaller apartments. Much smaller apartments. Throughout the city there are architectural wonders beyond those built for the Olympics. Modern luxury apartments are spacious, air conditioned, comfortable, and beautifully landscaped. In fact the whole city is beautifully landscaped (amazing what you can do when you have dollars to burn and labor is cheap), with an expanding network of modern roads (many of which are, in the Chinese tradition, unnamed, and none of which have stop signs) that can almost accommodate the ever-increasing traffic congestion.

My Cold War–era social studies textbooks…
didn’t convey what China was. And televised Olympics coverage didn’t really convey what China is. Nor do I think that a week in one city gave me any sort of comprehensive overview. I saw what I saw. I know there’s much more I did not see.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Come to the supermarket in old Beijing

We ate like royalty in Japan, in Nagoya, Kyoto, and Tokyo. We were treated to “course meals”—banquets, really—seemingly endless processions of tiny, exquisite dishes that nonetheless tested the capacity of this wide-body American. The subtlety, variety, and artistry were wonders to behold. In comparison, even very good Japanese restaurants in the US now seem merely pedestrian. And in between course meals, the cheap meals from any of the ubiquitous convenience stores in Japan were pretty darn good.

In Seoul, street food was more uneven, and the best meal we had was in a Chinese restaurant. We enjoyed some good Korean meals as well, but I’m home not writing about them, so I guess they were nothing to write home about. The tastiest Korean meals we had were served to us by Korea-based Asiana Airlines.

And then there’s Beijing. Cole Porter’s lyrics still ring true. Food there is incredibly cheap (and so is most everything else, which is why we took taxis everywhere instead of exploring the subway). One night we went with a friend (fifteen years there, fluent in Chinese) to what is considered the best Peking [sic] Duck place in Beijing. Big, crowded (forty-five-minute wait), top-notch service, top-notch chef, inventive, elegant dishes (we had braised cabbage [baby bok choy] and chestnuts in a saffron sauce that was to die for as our side dish with the duck), and the bill came to about $50 for the three of us, which is considered a very expensive meal in Beijing. We walked into a McDonald’s just to see what they were selling, only to discover that the menu is virtually identical to the US and a Big Mac meal (sandwich, fries, soft drink) is about three bucks, regular price.

On the other hand, street food is scary—and not just in terms of health. We decided to brave street food in Beijing for lunch one day. Several of the stalls in Wangfujing street were offering skewers of various meats, grilled to order. Pick out your skewers and hand them to the proprietor, who will then cook them. The selections included fairly benign-looking (if unrefrigerated) beef, lamb (mutton, described euphemistically), chicken, and so forth. But there were several stalls with skewers featuring live scorpions writhing on skewers. There were also starfish (dead, I suppose), seahorses (certainly dead—endangered, too, but that’s of no concern in PRC), and silkworm larvae (apparently dead). Not to mention all manner of whole squid, eel, crab, and various unidentifiable kinds of seafood. Even dumplings were a crapshoot. The locals were lapping this stuff up, but if you didn’t grow up thinking of scorpions as food, watching people eat them won’t necessarily convince you to try, even if someone tells you they taste like lobster. We settled for meatballs and corn on the cob.

On our last day, our friend took us to the neighborhood wet market. This is a stall market, open every day, where vendors display all manner of mostly fresh foods (there was a general merchandise alcove and there were a few vendors with dried spices, medicinal herbs, teas, and the like). Some of the vegetables were unfamiliar, but a vegetable stall is a vegetable stall is a vegetable stall, worldwide. Even if it includes various types of fungus. Other stalls offered freshly hand-cut noodles; steamed buns; hot bread; poultry, pork, and beef (none of it still alive, although some of the poultry vendors left the heads on); and several kinds of fish and seafood. Most of the latter were swimming in tanks, although the majority of at least one species were, um, sleeping. Yeah, that’s it. Sleeping. Belly up. Nobody seemed to mind. The meat vendors displayed their wares on open counters. Some meat was in display cases; a quick touch convinced me that the cases provided light but not refrigeration. The meat looked good, though. Not to worry; you were going to cook it anyway, right?

Pravda, PRC-style

Three weeks in Asia. I’ll have more to say about that. But the reason the blog went dark for the last week is that I was in Beijing, where Blogger (among many blog-related sites) is currently blocked. I also got the distinct impression that email traffic takes a detour through Chinese filters. So I spent yesterday soaking my laptop in Clorox, as it were, in the hopes of removing any spyware that may have been installed.

The newspaper delivered to our hotel room was the English-language China Daily. While the paper comes closer than it once did to the ideal of an independent journalistic enterprise, a close reading brings to mind the Soviet-era Pravda. During the Cold War, it was said that ordinary Russians were adept at reading between the lines to divine the actual news (as opposed to what was printed in the paper).

China Daily, because it is printed in English, is not accessible to most Chinese. But for those who do read English, reading it between the lines might shed more light on current events than would otherwise be visible.

Sometimes you can convey more by what you don’t say than by what you do say.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The printing and publishing scene in Japan

I had dinner last night with an Internet acquaintance who is knowledgeable about the printing industry here in Japan, with its reputation for high quality and high prices. I though I’d share some items from our dinner conversation.
  • A few weeks ago, we decided to have some flyers printed in the US and shipped to Japan rather than pay three times as much to have them printed here. Yes, Japan also has companies specializing in cheap color sheets, but the conference organizers did not know how to access any of them, because most business here is still based on personal introductions.
  • Japanese printers are required by law to print their names in books they print (perhaps on other goods, too—I didn’t ask). Therefore, they take an active interest in the quality of the work and will turn down jobs they feel would represent them poorly. Alternatively, they will advise or assist customers with design and other technical aspects to make the job right. Errors are still the customer’s responsibility, as in the US, but the relationship is less hands-off than in the US, where printers typically refrain from criticizing the files submitted by customers (well, they criticize them amongst themselves, but they don’t generally complain to their customers).
  • Digital printing, particularly print-on-demand (POD), is not used for books here. The technology is available, but nobody is set up to do books with it. As a consequence, digital book orders go to the US for fulfillment. My accquaintance needs advance reading copies (ARCs) of a textbook he has written; and he’ll be ordering them from an American book manufacturer for export to Japan. He has seen samples from one American POD company and decided not to go with POD, as the quality would not pass muster with the school buyers he wants to approach. He was glad to learn that he could get short-run, high-quality digital printing in the US.
  • The maximum textbook allowance for any college course (total for all required texts) is about $45. A big, full-color biology text with mylar overlays, CD, and the works might run about $30. The same book in the US would fetch up to $150. Most textbooks in Japan are under $10. The schools tell the publishers what they’re willing to pay, and the publishers like it or lump it. What the publishers do in return is book all orders for the following school year in November and print the exact number of books ordered. You snooze, you lose.


It is our lot in life that as we age we become the people we mocked in our youth, a process the more painful for our awareness of it. The circumstances of my life were such that I did not do any significant travel outside the United States until the last few years, and now I find myself the stuff of cartoons—an out-of-shape, overweight, monoglot American in a flowered shirt and baggy shorts, staying in expensive American chain hotels, occasionally thinking, y’know, a tour bus doesn’t sound like all that bad an idea.

When we traveled in Europe a few months ago, I had a general sense of familiarity with Germanic and Romance languages. Not only did virtually everyone we encountered in Europe speak passable English (or better) but also we were able to read street signs and menus and pick up a few words—enough to get by comfortably. Now, though, we are in Asia. After planes and trains, with transit points in Seoul and Tokyo, we are in Nagoya. English instruction is not strong in Japan (nor is Japanese instruction strong in the US, so this should be understood as a judgment-free description, not a complaint). Staff in the hotel where we are staying do pretty well. Dealing with shop clerks or asking directions on the street, though, involves much pantomime and a great deal more smiling and bowing than actual information exchange. I cannot read street signs or menus. We have a phrase book, but we really have not progressed beyond good afternoon and thank you. I suddenly have the linguistic sophistication of a six-month-old. I find myself pointing a lot.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Despite the title...

Worthy advice to writers of all ages. (The link may not age well, so read this now. If the link breaks, let me know and I’ll try to track down the updated URL.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I make buggy whips, and business is fine

Thanks for asking.

There has been much in the press lately about how e-books are coming of age with the Kindle. Oh, there will be shakeouts and Kindle may or may not be the default reader of choice when all is said and done, but that’s not the question. The question is about the viability of books on paper and whether the craftspeople who make them have obsolete skills. As one of those craftspeople, I’m interested.

So here’s what I think. I think the book buying public consists of two groups, in the main.

One group—possibly the larger group—is interested in the words and unconcerned with the format. Before Gutenberg, they gathered in the town square to hear what the crier had to say or they waited for Sunday to hear what their pastor had to say or they gathered in a theater or a tavern for the storytelling. After Gutenberg they bought books and newspapers. Today, a lot of the same people get their news and stories from television, radio, the Web. The books they read are likely to be mass market paperbacks, the sort of books you see in grocery and discount stores. They are delighted with the idea of carrying around a lightweight device that can provide enormous quantities of words at the right price, and when the price drops below what they’re paying now, they’ll gladly buy a Kindle or some other reader.

The other group buys books because they like the look and feel and smell of a book. They experience a book visually and viscerally as well as intellectually. An e-book, at least as we currently understand where the technology is going, does not provide a satisfactory experience for this group.

This difference in the way these two groups appreciate books represents a real and fundamental psychological difference between what we shorthand as left-brain and right-brain activities. And as long as there are people who want to keep both sides of their brains activated when they read, I’ll still be able to earn a chunk of my living designing books. Editing is necessary regardless of medium. So that’s not going away anytime soon, either.

Business is good.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The big switcheroo

Musings as I’m listening to the running commentary on the switch from analog to digital television…

It seems there are people living in low-income communities who have not managed to make the switch yet. I understand that. People who have chaotic lives or limited skill sets often end up living in low-income areas. So those are the areas where you would expect this problem to arise. And I even understand the comments from social workers who non-judgmentally observe that many families in these areas have their televisions on for many hours each day and are going to have their lifestyle severely disrupted until they can get their converter boxes.

What I don’t understand is the idea that if someone is temporarily without television service they will not be able to hear important emergency broadcasts. There are two problems with this assertion. In the first place, anybody—anybody—can afford a radio. In the second place, when there is severe weather, digital television signals are disrupted anyway. So there is no earthly reason for anyone to rely on television for those announcements.

Less is more
Our television is in the basement, which is in serious need of remodeling before it becomes a comfortable place to sit and watch television. I’ve gotten out of the habit of watching, and I have to admit, as people told me for years, my life has improved as a result. But I’m not preaching that you or anyone else should stop watching. I’m just suggesting that it is really not—not—a necessity of modern life.

The switch to digital television means that signal breakup will become a regular occurrence for many people, and that may lead them to turn off the set in frustration. Maybe they’ll do something else in their spare time. Read a book, perhaps?

Buggy whips
Nobody ever argued that getting around by automobile was an improvement on traveling by horse and buggy in the sense of being more pleasant or better for the environment.

In our time, we now have three examples of the same transition, and all have to do with digital communication:
  1. First we’ve experienced the massive adoption of cell phones. That’s all well and good. The convenience of cell phones is wonderful. But we’ve traded down on the quality of voice communication. When was the last time you had a call between two landlines on which the other person’s voice dropped out or the call was dropped and you had to redial two or three times before giving up? And family calls that were once shared by picking up another extension are now private conversations with one household member who then has to pass the phone around or summarize the call after it’s over. That changes social relationships in a subtle way.
  2. Out with CRT displays, in with LCD displays. The switch to LCD monitors is saving a tremendous amount of energy, house by house and office by office. The difference is noticeable on electric bills. New hotel rooms can be designed two feet shorter because of flat televisions. Great. But for computer users there’s a subtle loss. An LCD monitor has a fixed native resolution, unlike the analog CRT. Changing the resolution to accommodate a visual problem doesn’t really work (although there are other strategies). And some users are not happy with the image quality, particularly in situations where color matching is critical.
  3. And now we have broadcast digital television. When the signal drops because of cloudy weather or wind causing a tree to sway, the program is gone. With analog television, a weak signal was still a signal. With digital television, it’s there or it’s not. There’s no such thing as poor but intelligible reception.
In all of these cases, we gave something up when we abandoned the older technology. There’s no going back. You can still buy a handmade buggy whip. But to the best of my knowledge you cannot buy a CRT monitor or television made with a mouth-blown picture tube.

At least books will never be obsolete, he said, whistling past the graveyard.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Not dead yet . . .

Just too busy to post. Hmmm. Deadlines as a sign of life. Whaddaya know?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

I know this person . . .

A snarky but very funny take on the vendor–client relationship. Not my clients, mind you. Mine are the salt of the earth. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had close calls.

Friday, May 29, 2009

All the tea in China

You can’t make this stuff up department
The Marketplace Morning Report radio program this morning included a story about product placement on the Chinese version of the Ugly Betty television sitcom. The products featured? Dove soap. Okay. And Lipton tea. Lipton tea?!?!? As a consumer product in China?!?!? What am I missing?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Past Performance is No Guarantee of Future Results

Fact-checking department
…or why gardeners keep diaries. Two years ago, pretty much my entire yard was in full bloom on May 1. Last year, everything again bloomed in unison, but a week earlier. Surely we’re approaching the End Times, right? Next thing you know, Long Island Sound will have swallowed New Haven.

Not so fast. This year, spring has slowed to a more moderate pace. The Andromeda was blooming when we left for Europe on April 15. The magnolia, the Bradford pear, the quince, and the weeping cherry went from start to finish before we returned on May 8. But the Wisteria was only starting to bloom on that date and is still on the upswing. The Azaleas didn’t start until some days later and are in full bloom now. The Rhododendrons just began to open Wednesday, May 20.

We had a much snowier winter this year than in recent memory, which likely has something to do with the more leisurely pace of spring.

But now it is Memorial Day weekend and time to get some work done around the yard. That’s a constant from year to year, no matter the weather, no matter what date the holiday falls on, and no matter the rise in ocean levels.

Nature (or what passes for nature in the artifice that is the home garden) beckons. Paying work will have to wait a couple of days.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

B is for business bromide

B is for banal.
O is for overused.
R is for ridiculous.
I is for inspiration-free.
N is for non-original.
G is for going to retch if I ever see or hear another.

I sat through a commencement speech at a business school last night. Names are withheld to protect innocent and guilty alike. Enough said.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Things have names department
On a mailing list this morning, someone asked what to call the typographic device that sometimes appears between sections of text. As I explained in response, embedded in this question are really three questions:

Q. What is the functional significance of a break in text?

A. From a discussion of this point on another list, some rhetoricians refer to it as a hiatus, although I don’t know that there is any standard term. In fiction, it may also be called a scene break. From the point of view of an editor, the question is whether the break in flow is enough different from a paragraph break to warrant its use. Was this intentional on the author’s part or is it an artifact of bad typing or misuse of Word?

Q. What is the name of a break in text?

A. I’ve always called it a text break. (I’ve been involved with typesetting in one way or another since about 1960 and don’t recall where I learned this term.) I’m not aware of any other name for it, and if I ever was, I’ve forgotten it. From the point of view of an editor marking up text, it’s a text break, and you can safely call it that. Design is irrelevant.

Q. What is the design element used to represent a break in text?

A. The book designer (typographer) may specify a simple space, such as a one-line space between paragraphs, generally followed by an unindented paragraph. Other choices are a space followed by a drop cap paragraph, something unobtrusive such as a single large bullet or a row of three asterisks, or any sort of ornament (dingbat in compositor’s argot) such as fleurons, tailpieces, and so forth. The designer should be sensitive to the look and feel of the overall book: if the chapter openings are modest, it would be silly to have elaborate and decorative text breaks. From the editor’s standpoint, though, once the design choice is made and approved, the only concern is the proofreader’s interest in seeing that they are implemented as planned.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Not invented here

We do some things spectacularly well in the United States. And we do some things incredibly badly. Two of the latter are lunch and mass transit.

Street food
You can go out of your way in the United States to have a great lunch. And if you are in midtown Manhattan at lunchtime, you can probably get a good sandwich within a block or two or something hot and tasty from a street vendor. But outside of Manhattan, if you are where you are and it’s lunchtime, your choices are generally limited. If you’re driving, there are the fast food chains. If you are flying, there are the airport concourse MBA-ified sandwich-and-salad stands. If you are on a train or walking…no, wait, you’re in the U.S., so it’s absurd to think you’re on a train or walking.

In the parts of Europe I’ve been to, you would have to go quite a bit out of your way to have a bad lunch on the street. I suppose you could get fish and chips in England that’s merely ordinary, but almost everywhere you have choices of real food freshly and often imaginatively made, of good, fresh ingredients, many of them local, at affordable prices. The least interesting choices were American fast-food chains, which survive, I suppose, on their novelty value to populations bored with fabulous local food and on their familiarity to tourists immune to fabulous local food.

In nearly every town there are local market gardeners selling their own produce at stalls and markets. We have mostly lost the idea of buying produce from market gardeners in the U.S. Local farmers’ markets, in the places where we’ve brought them back, are tentative, partially subsidized in many cases, iffy things populated mostly by urban refugees who have learned organic gardening from books and patronized by well-off foodies who equate expensive with tasty. In Europe, the markets are part of the historic fabric of society, places where families have brought produce for generations and ordinary people shop on their way home from work. Yes, there are supermarkets. Yes, people have refrigerators. But fresh food tastes better than shipped-in food.

The difference is apparent from the air. The European landscape consists of population centers surrounded by farmland and forests. The American landscape consists of continuous sprawl in the main population corridors and vast expanses of farmland in areas with virtually no local population. It’s only the eccentric treehugger who thinks it sensible to eat locally in the U.S. We’ve paved all the good agricultural land near cities, because our money-based society deems the “highest use” of land to be that which brings the most dollars in a real estate market, not that which provides the best quality of life for the population.

Getting there
Similarly, private profit and socialized cost has driven the design of our transportation system. Trains don’t work, for the most part, because American politicians believe that trains don’t work. We need to send our local, regional, and national politicians and planners on an all-expense-paid junket to Europe. Let them go where they will and do what they want, with only a single rule: no automobiles allowed. Make them travel around by train rather than motorcade. After a day they’ll know that trains can indeed work. After a week, they’ll figure out how to make them work in the U.S. Maybe then we’ll begin moving in the right direction and by the right means.

I suppose…
I should relate all this to books and editing somehow, in furtherance of the plan of this blog. Okay, try this: The same ignorance, hubris, and narcissism that makes Americans think we know best and the rest of the world lags behind also gets in the way of authors who think they know best and don’t need the help of professionals to make their books the best they can be. A stretch? Maybe. But I don’t think so.

Rome ruins vacation

What others have said is true: travel is broadening. You can read about every place we’ve traveled to on Wikipedia or in books, magazines, and newspaper travel sections. You can see all these places in movies and videos. Being there is different.

While the Roman ruins unearthed in England or Germany are treated with a certain respect and presented with a curatorial pride, those in Rome seem largely to be neglected and abused, more obstacles to progress and efficient travel—or rich sources of tourist dollars—than parts of a living heritage. The vastness of old stuff—very old stuff—in Rome is daunting. I can see how Italians might decide it is not possible to maintain all sites and that some can be left to crumble. But even the popular attractions for which tourists pay admission are poorly maintained, with weeds rooting in millennia-old brick walls, slowly dissolving the ancient mortar.

I question too the intellectual integrity of the sites. Archaeological standards and practices have evolved since the Napoleon-era excavations, but no guidebook, map, or (infrequent) descriptive sign made clear what is original, what is repaired, what is reconstructed, what is remodeled and repurposed. I had the sense that there was something not quite honest, something cynical about much of what we saw. Even at the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel had a Barnumesque, this-way-to-the-egress (by way of the gift shop) air.

Perhaps my impression was colored by cultural differences. The , ever vigilant in the persons of opera buffa–costumed but well-armed police, seem mostly to be interested in standing around, as professional criminals extract what they can from American tourists. There are con artists, pickpockets, beggars, and thieves everywhere you turn, many of them well-dressed and well-spoken, some of them serving in their official capacity as ticket sellers. The economy of Rome seems dependent on American aid. Or on Americans’ personal aid. This kind of dependency breeds resentment and contempt, which may explain the generally unsmiling and surly service from people presumably in the hospitality business. Or perhaps it’s just visitor fatigue: When will all these stupid foreigners leave?

Everywhere we went in Rome there was evidence of poverty—not grinding, abject poverty, but clearly a stratification of society (as is typical in American cities) that was not at all evident in Germany. At least in the Rhine Valley, Germany seemed virtually classless. The streets were safe and free from beggars, spruikers, and hustlers. Having read of the two-class system that separates those of German blood (citizens) from those, such as the descendants of Turkish gastarbeiters, of non-Aryan heritage (noncitizens), I expected to see evidence of serious social tension. I did not. There were political demonstrations (it was May Day), but there was no anger. It was only in Rome, rife with cynicism and negativity, that I sensed fear, anger, and social tension.

The editor in me says that you should be careful of stereotypes. The traveler in me says that you should be careful of overly friendly strangers no matter where you are but that you are more likely to encounter them in Rome than in other places we visited.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Time and place

Before the sojourn in Stratford-upon-Avon, we spent some time in London and in Leicester. In London, I had a delightful tour guide for a day, a reader of this blog who volunteered to lead me to places I had not seen. The highlight of the day was the Greenwich Observatory, where it is not only possible—nay, obligatory—to stand with a foot in each hemisphere but also fun to explore the museum, which does a good job of capturing the history of mankind’s thinking about and measuring of time, particularly the importance of time measurement to navigation.

John Harrison’s chronometers are there, as are many ancient and modern artifacts. Time well spent, as it were.

Leicester is not featured in any guidebooks. We were there on business. Still, we were there. So we visited the ruins of the Roman baths. Next to the ruins is an unpretentious museum, the sort you might find in any American city, narrating the history of the place. Except that the history of a place like Leicester, with a continuous narration, illustrated by a rich assortment of artifacts archeological and paleontological, that begins in the late Stone Age and continues through the various civilizations that existed in the English Midlands over the millennia is a lot more impressive than the Indians-Columbus-Pilgrims-Slavery-Civil War-here-we-are story that most small American cities seem to settle for. An hour in the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester provided a sense of a specific place over a long time, offering a nice symmetry to Greenwich’s specific time over all places.

More on the Gutenberg Museum

I hope you’ll excuse the random order of these travel notes. Internet access has been catch-as-catch-can, and I’m just writing up recollections as they come to me.

One display in particular at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz perturbed me. I’m quite certain it is wrong. The display shows a form of locked-up type that purports to be a modern recreation of one of the pages of the 42-line Bible printed in Mainz. Next to it is a proof drawn from the form. Only the person who created this display has made a horrible mistake. As I explained nearly three years ago, a cursory inspection of the printed page of the real Gutenberg Bible (and the museum has a couple of spectacular specimens on display) shows that the end-of-line hyphens showing that a word is divided were added by hand, with quill and ink; they were not printed from cast type.

The person who composed the alleged recreation, though, made a hyphen mold, cast some hyphens, and set the page using hanging punctuation. I don’t think there is any evidence that Gutenberg did such a thing, and I hope the display is eventually corrected. But I’m not holding my breath.

Okay, I'm impressed

Last week we were in Stratford-upon-Avon (well, it’s spelled that way officially, but the natives pronounce it Stratford-on-Avon), coincidentally on the day they were celebrating the asparagus harvest with some festivities downtown. Not blanched. Impressively thick by American standards but not nearly the size of the German asparagus. Before these festivities began, I was sitting on a bench, facing a pedestrian plaza, while my wife was browsing in a clothing store (yep, I’m one of those guys you see sitting on the bench at the mall). A chauffeured sedan with a coat of arms on the front bumper and flags on the fenders pulled up a couple of yards from where I sat. A distinguished-looking gentleman emerged from one door, and the chauffeur opened the opposite door for a well-dressed woman. Between the two of them, they had what looked to be about fifteen or twenty pounds of high-karat gold around their necks, including impressive, fist-sized medallions. I thought, hmm, this is England…coat of arms, flags, medallions…minor royalty, perhaps? So I nonchalantly strolled across the street to a couple of shopkeepers who were standing in front of their stores chatting. I begged their pardon and admitted to being just a stupid American, but who are those people? “Oh,” one replied, “that’s the mayoress and the mayor.”

Friendly folks, dressed up for the occasion of the asparagus festival, wearing the city’s official medallions, et al., and just there for the photo op, which included posing with a man dressed as a stalk of asparagus, something that a member of the Royal Family might have eschewed, I suppose.

That capped off a couple of days of going to the various properties maintained by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife, and at the farm where she was born we happened upon a group of American high school students just beginning a tour. So we joined them as the docent began his spiel. He asked the kids when America was discovered. Turned out he was looking for 1492 as the answer, whether it’s correct or not. His reason for asking was that the part of the house we were standing in was already a few decades old in 1492 and had been continuously occupied, mostly by Hathaways and their heirs, until the trust bought the farm in the latter part of the twentieth century.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of As You Like It was a bonus.

I understand why we introduce Shakespeare in high school, but my memory of As You Like It in high school was struggling through the strange language and not getting the jokes. Seeing the show done right, when an adult, makes all the difference. Shakespeare remains a living part of our literary heritage. And the jokes still work. Maybe we should give high school students a coupon, redeemable twenty or thirty years later, to see a performance of the works we force them to read.

Mainly I do like Mainz

Your peripatetic editor finds himself, for a few days, in the city where Gutenberg was born. This is not accidental.

The old city of Mainz is a pleasant place to walk around. Street food is mediocre by German standards; restaurant food can be very good. This is the height of asparagus season, and every chef in Germany is taking full advantage. There are a couple of varieties grown (one with the purplish tip seen in the US—similar to Martha Washington—and one with an unpigmented tip that is just a whitish green. In the market stalls and stores there is little green asparagus to be had, though. The bulk of what is grown and sold here is white asparagus. This is, I assume, the light-tipped variety that is blanched.

If you are a gardener, you understand blanching: keep the light off the developing vegetable to eliminate the bitter chlorophyll note. Celery is blanched by laying boards up against both sides of the row to shade the bottom of the stalk as it matures—or perhaps the dirt is mounded against it instead in some locales. The curd of cauliflower is kept snowy white by tying the outer leaves together to form a little light-tight tent over the developing head. Belgian endive is blanched by a somewhat more complicated technique. I don’t know that it’s still done this way commercially, but the traditional method is to dig the plants at a certain stage and bury them in layers of clean, damp sand so that they can head up in total darkness. But asparagus is different. A mature asparagus plant can be five feet in diameter, and the stalks can emerge from anywhere in that circle. My understanding is that the German growers mound about eight inches or so of soil over the entire row, so that the crown, instead of being just below the surface of the soil, is now much deeper. Then, when the harvester sees the tiniest tip emerged above the surface of the mounded soil, she plunges the knife at just the right angle to cut and lift the white stalk at perfect maturity. And everywhere we walk, someone is selling boxes and boxes and boxes of white asparagus in diameters up to an inch and a quarter or more (as well as whatever other size you might prefer).

(Spring is also rhubarb season, as gardeners and cooks know; and on the train from Köln—take the guided tour of the Dom—to Mainz we passed several fields of rhubarb of a hectare—2.5 acres—or more. By American standards, that’s a helluva lot of rhubarb.)

But I didn’t come to Mainz for the food. I came for Gutenberg. And I was disappointed. The Gutenberg Museum houses a magnificent collection of objects, to be sure. And there were some worthwhile and interesting displays (including quite a lot of Asian material printed from moveable type in the centuries before Gutenberg). But overall, the curatorial approach seems to miss the mark. There are stories to be told with the collection—the story of the development of the technology, the story of the rapid spread of the technology in a few decades after its invention, the story of the Renaissance—that are only alluded to in the most off-hand and random ways. To be sure, many of the descriptive placards were in German only, but the main exhibits were described in German and English. So I don’t think my lack of German was the main issue. I just felt the Museum Plantin-Moretus, in Antwerp—even though it made hardly any effort to present information in English—did a much better job of telling stories. The Mainz museum was more of a static catalog of artifacts, artifacts that were not even arranged according to any obvious system or criteria. And what emphasis there was was on printing presses; there was hardly anything said about the development of letterforms into typefaces through the mediation of the punchcutter. And the uninitiated visitor—apparently the intended audience—cannot piece together either the historical progression from monastic scribes to modern printing or the production progression from manuscript to finished book by walking through the museum exhibits.

Color me disappointed, but don’t color me blue yet. Mainz has other attractions. The oldest parts of the Dom are a thousand years old, and the Dom Museum does house some remarkable objects. But the most spectacular and sacred space (not a description you hear often from an atheist) is St. Stephan’s. This is a church that was bombed in World War Two and then restored over the ensuing decades, ending with a commission to Marc Chagall to create the stained glass windows. Chagall was getting on in years, but he completed the main windows that he agreed to do, and the collaborator with whom he had worked on his stained glass projects for many years, Charles Marq, did nearly all of the remaining windows in the church, in his own style but very much in keeping with the feeling and mood established by the Chagall windows. The experience of walking into such an old building and finding it filled with a cerulean glow of clearly modern windows is breathtaking. Now you can color me blue. But a peaceful, happy blue.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Annals of customer service: a shame for the neighbors

United Airlines to Paris. Lufthansa to London. Shall we compare and contrast?

United Airlines
We took a short connecting flight from Hartford and left the country from Dulles, headed for Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Announcements on the ground and in flight were mostly in English, with some eventually repeated in French. A minority of the cabin crew sported flag pins indicating they could speak French if pressed. No other languages were available, apparently.

The food was about the worst the United States has to offer. The dinner entree was a nondescript chicken dish with rice, palatable but dull. It was accompanied by a bowl of iceberg lettuce and a container of gloppy ranch dressing, a roll that had been kept at the same cold temperature as the salad, rendering it inedible, brick-hard butter, some sort of plastic-wrapped brownie-like confection for dessert. The breakfast-time “snack” consisted of a sealed plastic pouch that held a container of flavored yogurt and a so-called pastry (held at the same cold temperature as the yogurt, of course) that was as inedible as the previous night’s dinner roll—and tasted even worse.

For the sake of the French nationals on board, I was embarrassed to be an American.

From Charles de Gaulle, we proceeded by two short-hop flights to London on Lufthansa. Both of these flights were on full Boeing 737s, with flight times of about forty-five minutes each. Neither was at mealtime. Snacks only. Instead of soft drinks and peanuts or pretzels, as we would have been lucky to get in the United States, we were given freshly made sandwiches. One was an interesting, multi-grain, seeded bread, cream cheese, cucumber, lettuce, and tomato, all crisp. The other was a different interesting bread with a good German cheese, crisp lettuce, and a mayonnaise-based spread. Sandwiches, choice of beverages. (Just coffee? Would you like something else—water, perhaps? Still or sparkling? With ice?) All of this was done efficiently, without hurrying, and with a smile, by cabin crew fluent in a minimum of three languages.

Draw your own conclusions about the value of training, customer service, and customer communication.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Newsletter No. 1

I was reminded the other day of the half-dozen or more times in my career that I have been involved in the creation of a newsletter (print or electronic) that never saw its first anniversary. Most, in fact, lasted but a single issue.

In all cases the newsletter was the brainchild of a marketing manager (or a business owner wearing the marketing manager hat for the moment), perhaps inspired by an article in a trade magazine about what a great idea it is to have a newsletter to keep your company’s name in front of customers and prospects. Well, yes, that’s true, if you can sustain the effort.

And in all cases my role was confined to editing and designing the publication, not managing the flow of new articles. That was the job of the marketing person. So I’m not the one who dropped the ball.

In the end, I don’t know that any of these efforts did damage. I don’t think they were tested fairly to see if they provided a benefit, though. If a company wants to know whether a newsletter brings in more business, they have to stick with it for at least a year or two. Some marketing managers have a short attention span and are ever on to the next thing. They want some new initiative to highlight in their quarterly report to the CEO. And if the CEO doesn’t ask, “Hey, how’s that newsletter going? I haven’t seen a new issue lately,” the newsletter is going to cease to exist.

Which is a shame. Because the first issue is the expensive one.

So if there isn’t going to be a No. 5, you probably shouldn’t go to the effort of a No. 1.

Just saying.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Copyright and the big lie

The mainstream media are still trying to digest the proposed Google Books settlement. Of late, some of them have come to understand that one-sided news releases from Google’s lawyers might not be the full story.

There has been a gradual acknowledgment that Google is trying to rewrite copyright law to equate out-of-print with out-of-copyright. That is, just because a copyright owner chooses to take a book out of print does not mean the book is an orphan work. As long as the owner remains listed in the Copyright Office database with current contact information, it’s disingenuous to say the work has been abandoned.

But I have still not seen anyone with a large megaphone (unlike this little blog) address the central problem with all modern US copyright law, a problem created by Congress and the courts: The original purpose of copyright law is to encourage creation, not to provide annuities to corporations. Until we get back to that core principle, that it is the creator of a work that should benefit from copyright—not the corporation that strong-armed the rights away from that creator—people are going to remain confused about the correct moral course to navigate through these legal shoals.

What most people in the arts have in mind when they think about copyright is the right of the creator of a work to profit from it. What the publishers, entertainment conglomerates, and politicians have in mind when they think about copyright is the power of a corporation to coerce the creator to give up the right to profit in the long run in exchange for enough money to eat today, along with the resulting financial security for the corporation’s stockholders, who did nothing whatsoever to create the work in the first place.

So when we’re watching these debates in which people in expensive suits talk about their rights, they are talking about legal rights wrested from the grasp of the true possessors of the moral rights inherent in the act of creation.

European copyright law gets this. American copyright law doesn’t. Here, a corporation is a legal person with pretty much the same rights as a natural person—more rights in some instances.

I don’t know how much damage will transpire before politicians sit up and take notice. Time will tell.