Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A small victory

The infringing document (see previous post) has been removed from the server, as of today. The link returns a 404 error. Chalk one up for persistent whining.

Friday, December 03, 2010

I'm sorry you feel that way

Editor’s note
A few years ago, when I was trying to be diligent about posting regularly to this blog, I tossed off a Seinfeld-style observation about something of no particular import. No, I’m not going to link to it in this post, for reasons that may become clear as you read on.

Unbeknown to me, it turns out that the title I chose for the post is actually a phrase people search on with some frequency. As luck would have it, my post floated to the top of the search listings for that phrase, was then scraped for a while by some miscreant in the Philippines (outside the reach of U.S. law), thus further raising the visibility in search listings of the original post. The way major search engines work, the higher something is in the listing, the more likely it is to be clicked, and the more often it is clicked, the higher it goes in the listing. So here we are, more than three years later, and a little squib I tossed off is still high on search listings.

A couple of weeks ago, in a moment of idle procrastination, I searched for the first sentence of that post. And there it was: my blog post, yes; but also a link to a newsletter published by a small rural public school in an English-speaking country. I clicked the link, and a Microsoft Word document file opened. There was my blog post, presented as the school principal’s letter at the top of the newsletter, over the principal’s signature, with no acknowledgment that the words were not his own.

And thus begins the tale…
Dear [redacted],

The Principal’s Message in your school’s newsletter, [redacted], over your signature, is directly taken from a blog post I wrote on [redacted]. My blog is copyright, with notice of copyright given in the footer of every page. Your newsletter column gave no indication that the words were not your own and in particular gave no credit to me.

I do understand that my article has been posted without my permission on other sites from time to time and that you may have copied the text from someplace other than my blog. Nonetheless, you, or whoever “wrote” the column in your newsletter, knew or should have known that taking someone else’s words and passing them off as yours is both illegal and a violation of one of the fundamental tenets of scholarship.

Whether or not the copyright infringement and plagiarism were the result of your own actions or those of a subordinate to whom you delegated the writing of the column, I think this was a poor example to set for your school’s students. I believe you owe them—and me—a public apology, in language that shows you accept responsibility for this serious infraction.

Thank you for your attention.

The principal replied:
I am very sorry that your article was used in our Newsletter without your permission or acknowledging your work.

I will ensure that this never happens again and an apology will apear in our next edition.

That didn’t sit well with me.
Thank you for writing back to me.

Let me try this again.

[Your country], like the United States, is party to the Berne Convention. Copyright infringement is a serious violation of [your country’s] law just as it is a serious violation of U.S. law, and enforcement is international.

More important—in this case much more important—you are the principal of a school. Plagiarism, which has become rampant in higher education to the point that it threatens the integrity of the whole system (see starts with a presumption on students’ parts that it doesn’t matter. If you, in your role as an adult model for young children, engage in plagiarism, then you are essentially condoning their cheating in their own studies; and that’s a despicable thing to do to them.

Moreover, the public actually takes this issue seriously in many cases: politicians’ careers have been damaged or have ended entirely because of disclosures of plagiarized speeches. Senior scientists have been professionally disgraced and have lost their jobs over this issue.

Now I can see from your photos on the Web that you are a young [person]. And you are further handicapped by being an educator. So I am not particularly surprised at the inadequacy of your apology. Therefore, I’ll offer you another chance, with some friendly editorial coaching.

Let’s look at your first sentence: “I am very sorry that your article was used in our Newsletter….” I don’t doubt that you are sorry (or will be, eventually). However, your use of the passive voice (“your article was used”) serves only to deflect responsibility to some unknown agent. That’s one of the main uses of the passive voice—deflecting agency to an unknown actor. So this is the form people use when they want to issue a non-apology. I’m sure you’ve heard many people say things like “I’m sorry you feel that way [but by implication it’s not my fault]” or “I’m sorry your dog was killed [but the fact I ran her over isn’t my responsibility].” That’s a non-apology, as was yours. An actual apology begins with the words “I’m sorry I,” as in “I’m sorry I killed your dog.”

My work did not appear in your newsletter by magic. Someone put it there. It appears over your signature. So I expect an apology that begins with the words “I’m sorry I” followed by an action verb that tells me what you did.

Now let’s look at your second sentence: “I will ensure that this never happens again and an apology will appear in our next edition.” The first clause promises something quite outside your control to make it happen. The most you can ensure is that you will never engage in this activity again, and I would like to hear that from you. The second clause promises that an apology will magically appear, but it does not say that you will be the one apologizing. I would like to hear that from you as well.

So let’s look at what an appropriate remedy would be at this point.

1. It is absolutely necessary that you remove the contraband newsletter from the server where it resides. There should be no way for a search engine to locate that document on the Internet. It is up to you whether a link returns a 404-not found error or redirects to a substitute document. My preference would be that it redirects to a substitute document that explains why the original newsletter was removed (referencing this incident).

2. I expect a rewritten apology that takes into account the editorial advice above.

3. I want to see and approve in advance the apology you will issue to your community. And I want you to send me directly (by email) a copy of the newsletter in which it appears.

4. I would like to be invited to address a school assembly on the subject of cheating (in an age-appropriate way), specifically with regard to plagiarism and copyright infringement, at your personal expense (rather than out of the school’s budget). I will be in [your area] in May 2011 and could speak at your school the afternoon of 10 May. My fee for this engagement will be US$___ plus round trip travel between [large city] and [your town].

My hope is that this will become a learning experience for you and that you will rise to my challenge to take this incident as seriously as I do.

When nothing further came my way, I wrote to the head of the regional education department. After a bit of bureaucratic buck-passing, I received a letter last night from the principal’s boss and responded as below (italics are what I wrote).
Dear Mr Margulis

I refer to your previous emails to [redacted] (“School”) regarding the use of some material posted on your website in the School Newsletter, the [redacted].

Thank you for responding.

As it appears that you have not fully accepted [the principal’s] apology, [she/he] has asked me to respond as School Education Director for the [redacted] area.

Here we differ. I do not accept that [the principal’s] response was an apology. As [she/he] never offered an apology, there was nothing for me to accept. This is a point of some importance in public life, and it’s worth dwelling on for a moment. As I tried to convey to [the principal], the essence of apology is the acknowledgment of responsibility. The basic form of an apology is “I’m sorry I did that.” That implies remorse for having done something injurious to another. The form [the principal] used, “I am very sorry that your article was used,” lacks any acknowledgment of responsibility. I am very sorry that tyrants kidnap children and turn them into soldiers in Africa; I am very sorry the world’s economy is in recession and that a great many people are unemployed; I am very sorry that tuberculosis still kills millions of people. None of those statements implies remorse for my responsibility in causing any of those terrible conditions to exist. “I’m sorry I stepped on your toe” is an apology. “I’m sorry your toe hurts” is a non-apology. [the principal] offered a non-apology.

See, for example, for analysis of this point by a world-renown linguist.

[The principal] has advised me that [she/he] does not remember the website where [she/he] accessed the material, however [she/he] has provided an apology to you on the 22 November 2010 for any inadvertent use of your material without receiving your permission. In addition, I understand that the Newsletter was removed from the School’s website on 1 December 2010.

Your understanding is incorrect. The following link still retrieves the document(I just checked). Hence it is still available on the World Wide Web and is available on a Web search, which is how I found it in the first place.

[link redacted]

You have a legal obligation to remove the document from the server where it resides. I’m reasonably certain that there are enforceable statutory penalties for leaving it up there and that such penalties accrue daily. I’m not the sort of nasty person who goes around launching international lawsuits over such matters, but someday you may run into someone who is. As I said in my email of 22 November, “It is up to you whether a link returns a 404-not found error or redirects to a substitute document. My preference would be that it redirects to a substitute document that explains why the original newsletter was removed (referencing this incident).”

In any case, “provided an apology…for any inadvertent use” doesn’t come close to acceptance of responsibility.

[The principal] has learned a valuable lesson from this matter and the importance of respecting an author’s copyright. [She/he] has assured me that [she/he] will make every effort to comply with copyright requirements in the future and has again expressed [his/her] sincere apology to you for [his/her] actions. As previously advised a formal public apology will be made in the next School Newsletter which will be sent to you.

It’s nice to hear from you that [the principal] has learned a lesson. It is completely opaque to me why [she/he] wasn’t able to write back to me asserting as much for [him/her]self, thus saving you a great deal of time and trouble. But I will take you at your word on that point, as I imagine the cost in administrative and legal time [she/he] has caused the department has been impressed upon [him/her] to [her/his] everlasting regret (if not, please don’t disabuse me of my fantasy).

The [redacted] (“Department”) does not consider that it would be appropriate for you to address the school on plagiarism and copyright infringement. The Department has a Copyright Unit which provides a broad range of information and advice to staff on these issues. In addition there are learning programs for students in the Kindergarten to Year 6 range which includes an awareness that deliberately copying the work of others and claiming ownership is plagiarism.

Well, that’s a bit of a disappointment for me, because I think it would have been a fun presentation for me and for the students, as well as an opportunity for [the principal] to appear contrite in a constructive way. However, I’m glad that you do teach young children that cheating is wrong, as it’s a fundamental lesson.

I have asked that all staff at the school include a component on copyright and plagiarism in their next Staff Development Day.

These are two separate concepts, and I hope the teaching component clarifies the distinction. Copyright infringement injures me. Plagiarism corrupts the institution. The first consists of taking property that is not yours. It is a commercial tort, and yet we make fair use exceptions so that teachers can often get away with wholesale copying—of almost anything but a textbook—for educational purposes, without threat of penalty (so long as they acknowledge their sources). The second consists of claiming credit for someone else’s work. This is a critical concept in all academic settings, and those charged with the education of children should understand it in their bones. We, as a society, entrust educational institutions to award diplomas and degrees to people based on the work those people do. We expect those institutions to police their students with regard to plagiarism; to the extent that they fail to do so, their integrity—and our trust in them—is undermined.

On behalf of the [Department], I offer a further apology for the use of your copyright material without first obtaining permission.

Permission would have freely been offered had it been sought. And, frankly, if [the principal] had merely cited [her/his] source, I’d have been happy to be quoted even if permission had not been sought. I will gladly accept the department’s institutional apology once the document is removed from the web server. I don’t see how it substitutes for a simple and direct apology from [the principal], though.

Yours sincerely

Please let me know when the department’s IT administrator has successfully quarantined the contraband document against public access over the Internet. And I would still appreciate a simple and direct apology from [the principal], as evidence of lesson learned. I know some people are constitutionally incapable of remorse, but I should hope that’s not the sort of person you would place in charge of schoolchildren.

If you feel I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, well, I’m sorry you feel that way.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Too much information

Damn this new technology anyway!

Thanks to Brian Dana Akers for the link to an excellent article in the Globe.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Payback: a little self-publishing math

A client reports that in the first two months after delivery, about 700 books have sold. While most of these were sold “at the back of the room” (the client is a speaker), let’s value those sales at the wholesale (discounted) price. The reason for this is that any margin between the wholesale price and the retail price really belongs to the retailer, even if that retailer is the speaker. (There are costs associated with shlepping books around, setting up a table, staffing the table, etc.; and those costs are paid by the author-as-retailer, not by the author-as-publisher.)

At a wholesale value of $15 a book, that means that the publisher has recouped $10,500 in two months. The total cost of producing the book (except for the author’s time writing it) and printing 1,600 copies was about $11,000. So at this point, my client has 900 books in inventory and has recovered all but about $500 of the original investment. If those 900 books sell in the next six months (as is likely), my client will be $13,000 ahead. That’s still not much compensation for writing the book, but it represents a doubling of the original investment in less than a year. And the client expects to order more printings and continue selling the book for several more years, with no further outlay except manufacturing costs of less than $3.00 a book. In addition, the client reports that the presence of the book on the sales table (where it is the high-price item at $25) has significantly boosted the sales of older items that were already in inventory and that can also be reprinted cheaply.

Is it a living? No. It is rare for a single book to be anyone’s sole source of income. But if a single book can add ten or fifteen or twenty thousand dollars a year to a speaker’s income, don’t you think it’s worth the effort?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Nice piece on letterpress nouveau

Thanks to Mike Starr for the link to this encouraging article on Boing Boing.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The cookies next time

The block I live on gets light trick-or-treat traffic of mostly neighborhood children. This is a neighborhood that still supports a traditional mix of store-bought and homemade costumes. In these respects, it is not very different from the neighborhood where I grew up several decades ago.

What has changed is the nature of the treats handed out. Beginning in the mid-1960s, according to Snopes, rumors about razor blades in apples began to circulate (some suspect with help from the candy manufacturing industry), leading to police warnings, hospitals offering to x-ray kids’ hauls, and a complete shift toward individually wrapped commercial candy. No more homemade cookies. No more apples. No more anything that didn’t come out of a candy factory.

Well, that’s two generations of children experiencing a debased, corrupt, commercialized Halloween. And two generations of baseless paranoia is enough, sez I.

So I tried an experiment. In one bowl I offered candy. In a second bowl I offered beautiful, polished apples that we bought yesterday from the grower at our local farmers’ market. Of the dozen or so kids who came by last night, I’m happy to report that three chose apples. (One little girl, grabbing a handful of candy as her younger brother chose an apple, said, “He’s the smart one.”) Clearly the sample was too small to have any statistical significance, but I count as a small victory the fact that their hovering parents allowed these children to accept unwrapped apples.

Maybe next year you’ll try something similar. And the year after that your neighbors might. In Arlo Guthrie’s immortal words, “And, friends, they may thinks it’s a movement.”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How to sell $15,000 worth of books in three hours

Last Thursday the psychiatry department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, medical school held its sixtieth anniversary banquet. This is the sort of “development” (read: fund-raising) event that large institutions host several times a year. Ho-hum. Knock yourselves out. The university development people did not expect the psychiatry department to attract more than about 200 people. Instead, they had to start turning people away after reaching the fire marshall’s limit of 480 guests, as additional people tried to get in without having made reservations.

What happened?
What happened was that the department chair had the foresight a few years ago to commission a book about the department’s history. One thing led to another, and Pat McNees was selected to write the book. What was originally going to be a fairly modest project grew and grew as Pat delved into not only the department’s sixty-year history but also the hundred-year history of psychiatry in Maryland. She conducted multiple interviews each with some of the more connected informants and dozens of additional interviews and email exchanges with many more people who have at one time or another been connected with the department.

Unfortunately, the scope creep also pushed the completion date for the book. Pat had approached me in February about editing and designing it, and I had suggested mid-April as the deadline for the last of the manuscript pages, with an allowance for photos to straggle in for a month or so after. That schedule would have comfortably allowed for time to lay out the book, have it proofread, have it printed on a normal schedule and shipped in time for the banquet.

In the event, the book was put to bed on July 28.
It was 584 pages (seven by ten inches), with 175 photos.* The cover price for the softcover book was set at $49.95 and for the hardcover at $59.95. By that time, I could find no U.S. plant that would guarantee delivery in time for the September 16 banquet and was also willing to set up for binding just one hundred hardcovers out of a print run of 1,700. We ended up with a printer in Korea. Great quality. Great price. No problem with the hardcovers. The only catch? To get 350 books to Baltimore in time for the banquet, they had to be sent overnight by air, at a cost of $3,400. (The total was still cheaper than printing in the United States.)

All of Pat’s interviews and requests for photos over the last couple of years generated a lot of buzz about the forthcoming book, and that’s what boosted the attendance at the banquet to what appears to be a school record. Tickets were $250 for a couple, with one copy of the book included, or $150 for an individual, with one copy of the book included. If you do the math, that’s $100 for the banquet itself and $50 (the cover price) for the book. Of the 350 shipped in advance, a few were used as complimentary copies for various people, most were sold as part of the banquet ticket price, and the rest were sold to people who could not get into the banquet or who wanted an additional copy for someone else. The total comes to something over $15,000 worth of books during the event. And so far the responses have been enthusiastically positive.

Did this cover the full cost of writing, producing, printing, and shipping the book? No. It was a bigger project than that. But it covered a good chunk. And when the rest of the books arrive by slow boat, a good many of them will have been sold already. The initial plan was to have books in inventory for a few years to use as recruiting enticements for faculty and students. So it was not expected that the book would turn a cash profit. Now it seems that it might.
* Production note: this large and heavy a softcover book should not be perfectbound, as there are potential issues with pages pulling out. Instead, the book was Smyth-sewn (as a good hardcover book is), and the cover was drawn on. Some book manufacturers are smart enough to recognize the problem and suggest this solution. Others are not. So designers should be aware of the technique.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Visual thinkers. And others.

Client 1
My client sent me a book she likes the look of and said she wanted her book to be approximately the same format. She sent me a photograph she already owned the rights to and asked me to use it for the cover. From beginning to end, she was with me at every turn, considering the alternatives I offered, choosing decisively, suggesting improvements, reacting to my suggestions. The book came out both beautiful and completely appropriate to its subject and audience. If I were the sort of person who entered design contests, I’d consider entering this book.

Client 2
Given the subject of my client’s book, I wasn’t sure which of two general approaches was going to be more to his liking. I sent two very different trial designs, one that I described to him as quite stiff and formal, the other that I described to him as very casual and friendly. I made it clear that I was just looking for a quick reaction, that we could then refine either design to get it just the way he wanted it. Basing his choice entirely on my description in the cover email and not on looking at the samples, he chose one of the two designs. He allowed as how really didn’t have the vocabulary to discuss design further and would leave the rest up to me. That book will come out looking pretty good, too.

I try to involve clients in design choices, because I’m creating their books, not my own. I’ve begun sending every new design client a copy of Michael Brady’s Thinking Like a Designer: How to save money by being a smart client. My hope is that they’ll read it and be able to interact more productively with me. Some clients are visual thinkers. Some have a little bit of visual sense but know their limitations. Some are completely oblivious and realize it. I’m happy to work with any of them, and I try to do good work for all of them, whether I think they’ll understand the subtleties or not.

The people I feel sorry for are those who delude themselves into thinking design doesn’t matter to anyone and just send their unformatted Word document to a vanity press, hoping for the best. Design matters to readers, even if it doesn’t matter to you. If you understand that much, it makes no difference whether you think visually or don’t.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A bizarre disconnect

I use a virtual company to manufacture some books. My direct contact is with a U.S. firm that consists of a sales office, a customer service office, and a warehouse where they receive books from printing plants and ship them on to publishers. A second U.S.-based company consists of a prepress studio, where technicians review customer files for flaws before releasing them to the company in Asia that does the actual printing. At the printing company, another prepress office processes the files to prepare them for the machines that produce the printing plates.

This is akin to the game of telephone you may have played as a child. As a result, sometimes the publisher’s and designer’s intent is not translated perfectly into finished product. Frankly, it’s amazing the system works as well as it does most of the time.

End sheets
The odd thing that happened yesterday was a message from the U.S. prepress company telling me that I needed to make some technical corrections in the files I had submitted. These were all minor and consisted of changing some parameters related to ink color and, in one case, the location of some printer’s marks. Ten minutes work altogether. Not a problem.

But the final request puzzled me.

I should say, as an aside, that I don’t often work on books with printed end sheets.

The end sheet is the stiff paper that is glued to the inside of the case on a hardcover book, where it conceals the edges of the cover material, and to the first page or last page of the book block (the sewn signatures of printed pages), thus helping hold the cover onto the book.

Most of the hardcover books I work on call for plain end sheets or perhaps end sheets printed in a solid color or made from solid-colored paper. However, the book I uploaded yesterday called for illustrated end sheets, the first time I had done them with this particular printer. Because the end sheet is a single piece of paper the size of two book pages, that’s how I laid it out—one landscape page twice the size of a book page, with the illustration placed on it.

The message instructed me that the end sheet should be laid out as two pages rather than as a single wide page. This struck me as so strange that I called the prepress guy who sent the email. He told me, yep, the plant printed the end sheet as two separate pages. I suggested he actually open up a hardcover book and look at it—that the end sheet had to be printed as a single sheet; otherwise it would not serve the purpose of holding the cover onto the book. Nope, he said, two pages. He was sure this plant printed end sheets that way, and that’s how I was to submit the file.

In the end, I submitted the file that way, and no harm done. It will print fine—as a single sheet of paper.

But the disconnect that stunned me is that I was talking to someone who went to school to master the arcane details of prepress work (a highly skilled trade requiring intelligence, talent, and training) but who had perhaps never been inside a book bindery or even thought about how a book is assembled from its parts. He knew only that the printing plant we were dealing with wanted the files formatted a particular way and made no connection between that and the actual printing of the end sheet or gluing up of the book.

The digitization of the printing industry has created a situation where the person preparing matter to be printed on a press and bound into a book need have no firsthand knowledge of any of the physical processes involved. I’m flabbergasted that the process works at all.

Page sizes. In case you wondered.

Folio, quarto, octavo, 16mo, 32mo, and 64mo explained. Nicely. Thanks to Brian Dana Akers for the link.

Saturday, July 31, 2010


Wednesday afternoon I sent a book to a printer. The book in question is 584 pages and includes 192 images, many of which are bleeds; and numerous tint blocks, some with special visual effects. The book will be printed in softcover and lithowrap hardcover with dust jacket, so there were three separate covers in the package. The cover design incorporates white text dropped out of a background, colored text on a tinted background, and other effects.

Friday at 6:15 am, FedEx picked up the proofs for the book from the printer. The entire job, in other words, went from submitted files to completed proofs in about a day and a half.

When I heard from the printer that the proofs had shipped, I thought back to my days working for a book printer in the early 1980s.

To begin with, manuscripts came to us as typewritten pages with handwritten editorial redaction. These typewritten pages may have been produced on a word processor rather than on a conventional typewriter, but we were not yet at the stage where publishers could reliably send manuscripts electronically. Initially, we relied on accurate markup by editors and the knowledge and training of our keyboard operators to correctly translate the author’s raw, unmarked typescript into all the right fonts and line lengths and indents and spacing. Later we introduced a modern, computer-mediated system for which a couple of us received training in the special markup codes the system required. The keyboard operators just typed those codes, and the computer took care of the fonts and spacing. But every character still required a keystroke.

The output of the typesetting system was a light-tight cartridge of exposed, photosensitive paper that had then to be carried to the darkroom and run through a film processor. The processed galleys were proofread, and new galleys were processed again and delivered to me. I cut them apart, ran them through a waxer (a machine that spread a thin coating of melted wax on the back), and pasted up pages.

Meanwhile, photographs came as glossy photo prints. Each one had to be measured with a densitometer to determine the correct exposure needed on the copy camera (a Brobdingnagian version of the type of camera you might envision Matthew Brady using). I then had to determine what percentage to enlarge or reduce the image, make a number of camera settings, place the image on the copy board, go into the darkroom (the back of the camera), cut a piece of film the right size, load the film, load the halftone screen in front of the film, expose it, expose it again to make the dots the right size, and run the film through the film processor. It was hard to make more than ten or a a dozen good halftones an hour. Each had to then be printed on photo paper to create a low-quality print to be waxed and positioned on the page.

The complex sort of pages involved in the book I just sent off to the printer would have taken about fifteen minutes each to paste up, once I had the corrected galleys and the photo prints in hand. So if you’re keeping a running tally, that’s roughly nine weeks of typesetting, two days of making halftones, and three weeks, with overtime, of paste-up. But let’s not count the typesetting or the paste-up, because, after all, I did send made-up pages to the printer. We have to count the two days in the darkroom, though.

Next, once all the pasted up pages were proofread in house, copies of them were sent to the customer for checking, and corrections were made (figure two or three days altogether), I took the pasted up pages and went back to the copy camera, this time making large negatives of four pages each. Two more days.

With the page negatives and the halftones in hand, I then had to carefully position them on large sheets of mylar (one sheet for the page negatives, another for the halftones) over a ruled master that I had spent an hour or so creating. For each sheet of mylar (holding 16 pages), I had to cut a vinyl mask so that only the correct content would be exposed (text from the page negatives, and just the correctly cropped area from each halftone). Pages with screen tints required additional steps, including complicated multiple exposures in the darkroom. Altogether another week and a half of work. Two more days just to expose the proofing material and cut and fold the proofs.

And after all of that, all I would have to show for my efforts would be a proof of the black-and-white pages. I would not have begun to work on the covers yet.

The small company I worked for did not do its own color separations. I would have spent at least a day, perhaps two, doing the multilayer comprehensives for the covers, but then they would have gone out to a color shop, at a cost of several hundred dollars, to prepare the color separation negatives that would come back to me for stripping. I would have then gone into the darkroom with the color separations and made duplicates so we could print the covers two-up. That, plus stripping three different cover forms and proofing them, would have occupied another couple of days.

Are you keeping track? That’s close to three weeks of work, in the early 1980s, to get from camera-ready pages to proofs ready to send the customer. Instead of the day and a half it takes now.

But the work I did back then as an offset lithographer was comparably fast and efficient in relation to what would have been done thirty years earlier, in a letterpress plant.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

796 acres of data

I just bought a new computer (haven’t had a chance to open the box yet, actually). As an accessory, I got a backup disk drive, a device about the size of your average hardcover novel. This drive cost less than $200 and hold 2TB of data. That two terabytes. Two trillion bytes.

So I thought about the first disk drive, the IBM 350, which held five million 7-bit characters and was able to access any record in an average of 800 ms (that’s eight tenths of a second, which is longer than it takes some people to tie their shoes).

The 350, as you can see from the Wikipedia picture, was the size of a side-by-side refrigerator and needed five feet of clear floor space around it. If you were to arrange units in a rectangular grid, I figure each unit would occupy about 65 square feet. It would take 533 IBM 350s to hold 2TB of data, and that means you would need close to thirty-five million square feet of space, about 796 acres of air-conditioned floor space. I suppose you could house them in, say, forty-story buildings, reducing the footprint from 796 acres to about forty acres (buildings need space around them). Then there’s the power requirement. And then there’s the question of how much longer than 800 ms it would take to retrieve the data.

Okay, that’s unfair
Let’s skip ahead to the first IBM disk unit I actually saw, in 1962. That was an IBM 1301. The model 2 stored fifty-six million characters and had slightly faster access times (100 to 800ms). But it had the same footprint as the 350, so now we’re down to seventy-two acres.

And what did that seventy-two acres of data cost?
You could have leased it all (exclusive of the real estate and without accounting for the cost of electricity to run and cool the units) a mere $168,000 a month. Or you could have bought the ball of wax for $8.9 million.

Now let’s talk about how the cost of doing business has risen.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Print pricing 101

It never ceases to amaze me how many people make it through life with apparent financial success and yet cannot do basic arithmetic. I wonder, sometimes, how they have managed to stay out of jail and out of bankruptcy. And yet there they are. And a lot of the people who so amaze me are salespeople. In particular, they are printing salespeople, because I buy printing services on behalf of my publishing clients.

The basics
For the sake of simplicity, I am discussing only book manufacturing in this post. Book manufacturing consist of printing either digitally or by offset and binding the book with a soft or hard cover. There are further divisions within those categories, but we don’t need to concern ourselves with them for this exercise.

In digital printing, a company may have some administrative costs for setting up a new customer and for uploading and checking files, but these costs are modest and may or may not be itemized on a customer bill. Once the files for a book are loaded onto a server, every copy costs the same amount to produce, from the first to the millionth. The printer may offer some volume discounts as incentives, but the price per copy does not drop rapidly. If you’re going to save money, it will be in ordering quantities that are efficient to ship. The printing and binding costs don’t change much, if at all.

In offset printing, on the other hand, the cost to set up the job is significant, whereas the cost to produce each additional copy of the book is quite low. As more and more of the prepress tasks are automated, the setup costs keep coming down, but they are still important in pricing.

That’s where your trusty calculator comes in
When you get printing quotes, typically you will ask for pricing on two or three different quantities. A given printer may suggest that the lowest quantity might work out better printed digitally and the higher quantities should be printed offset, but you can get all quantities quoted both ways if you want to and if the job could go either way. Some books can only be printed offset, for a variety of reasons.

But now you’re looking at the quotes. You can see that the digital prices don’t change much, if at all, with quantity. That’s as it should be. But then you look at the offset prices and you see this:
  500    $9.20/copy
1,000 $5.05/copy
1,500 $4.27/copy
What can you learn from that?

The first step is to multiply out the totals:
  500 @ $9.20/copy = $4,600
1,000 @ $5.05/copy = $5,050
1,500 @ $4.27/copy = $6,405
The next step is to subtract to find the differences between totals:
  500 @ $9.20/copy = $4,600
1,000 @ $5.05/copy = $5,050 = $4,600 + $450
1,500 @ $4.27/copy = $6,405 = $5,050 + $1,355
What do those numbers tell us?

The difference in cost between 500 copies and 1,000 copies is $450. If we divide $450 by 500, we see that the second 500 copies cost $0.90 each.

The difference in cost between 1,000 copies and 1,500 copies is $1,355. If we divide $1,355 by 500, we see that the third 500 copies cost us $2.71 each.

Now this makes no sense, because once the job is running, every new copy should cost the same. Certainly we don’t expect the cost per copy to jump up! What’s going on here?

What’s going on is that the person who did the pricing is either working from bad source documents (charts, tables, or incorrect software) or else just made a mistake.

But suppose it really does cost $1,355 to produce 500 books. Then the cost for the first 500 should be no more than $3,695 ($5,050 - $1,355), not $4,600.

Or suppose that it really costs $450 to produce 500 books. Then the cost for 1,500 should be no higher than $5,500 ($5,050 + $450), not $6,405.

The numbers I started with are from a real quote from a real printer. I didn’t make them up as a fake example that would never really happen. In this case, the printer will fix the numbers or I’ll use someone else.

The point is that you always have to check the numbers a salesperson gives you. Not checking them can be expensive.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The do-it-yourself picture book. Or not.

Got a call yesterday. Printing rep I’ve done business with. (He’s an American who represents a printer in Asia, and he’s a straight shooter.) Wanted my advice on a job.

He had been sent a book to quote on, a do-it-yourself job on which the “yourself” who did it was a clueless amateur. The printer in Asia had raised an alarm that the files would not result in a high-quality book. The printer was loath to take on a job that the customer might complain about after the fact. What did I think?

I asked him to send me a few pages so I could see what was what.

The book consisted of separate one-page PDF files, all of which had been prepared using Photoshop. Each page was a montage of photographs (of a deceased pop icon) with cutlines. Now it’s true that Photoshop files can include a text layer consisting of font outlines, and in a few instances the author took advantage of this. But most of the type was rendered as part of the composite image. Type rendered that way (as a raster image) does not print with sharp, clean outlines. The edges of the letters are either fuzzy or jagged (a choice available to the designer). This guy chose jagged (probably unintentionally), but neither of those choices is really the right one. The right choice is to use Photoshop for optimizing photographs and to build pages in a page layout application, such as InDesign.

There were other problems too. The photographs were a long way from being optimized for printing. Colors were not corrected, black and white photos did not have their tones adjusted. Scanned newspaper halftones were not descreened. And in any case, it was not at all clear that the author had the rights to reproduce all of these images (perhaps he did, but if not, this could have exposed the printer to a lawsuit).

I said I thought the book could be redone by a professional, using the existing files as a design dummy, for something in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars, maybe more.

My advice was to recommend redoing the book to the author. The second choice would be to collect prepayment in full for the printing and get an ironclad, lawsuit-proof contract stating that any quality problems resulting from printing the files as furnished were the author’s fault, not the printer’s fault. But because we all know there is no such thing as a lawsuit-proof contract and because the author already had a bid from a U.S. printer who saw no problems with the files, my buddy decided he didn’t need the money enough to risk bidding the job. He passed.

In the end, the author will get his books. But he’ll pay through the nose for them and the quality will still be terrible. All because he figured he could save money by doing the work himself. My guess? He would have been both time and money ahead had he hired a professional book designer in the first place.

Self-publishing is not the same as do-it-yourself publishing.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

It's about time

I’ve been so busy of late that I have of necessity neglected the blog. As a quick update, I finally got around to adding a few books to the sidebar that I should have added months ago. RSS subscribers will have to click through to see them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Battle of Black and Dogs at Yale Rep

Pointless. Dated. Gratuitous in more ways than I care to describe. Go out to dinner instead.

Should I mention that the actors did a great job with awful material or that the lighting and set were fully up to Yale Rep standards? All that’s true, but there is still no reason to subject yourself to this black dog of a play.

What is this font good for?

People who notice for the first time that they have at their disposal a great many fonts they’ve never used remind me of a three-year-old who can just reach the dessert tray at a buffet and decides to lick them all to see which one she likes.

Ooh! Isn’t this one pretty? I wonder what I can use it for.

It seems to me that the right question to ask is this: How can I solve my design problem? In answering that question, I’m sure I’ll find an appropriate font, but font selection is the output of the design analysis, not the input.

Fonts are like buttons in your grandmother’s button box. The reason she kept a box full of buttons was that it increased her chances of finding the button she needed when she needed a button. She didn’t stare at the box wondering what she could use them for. Ooh! Isn’t this one pretty? I wonder what I can use it for. No. If a garment turned up in the laundry missing a button, she could then go to the button box and look for a suitable replacement. She began with the design problem and went to the button box to solve it, not the other way around.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The age of bloviation

I’m editing an organizational history of an educational institution (for an upcoming major anniversary/fund-raising opportunity). It’s organized chronologically and contains a great many quotations from people active in the respective decades, gleaned either from their published writings or from author interviews.

The chapters have been coming to me in order, and I’ve noticed something.

The early chapters are fascinating. The people being quoted are long retired and have polished their anecdotes through frequent retelling. (In fact, some are deceased and the anecdotes are secondhand, retold by their adult children.) The stories are tight, pointed, and interesting.

But the most recent chapter I’ve received concerns the early careers of people nearing retirement age who are still working, still attending conferences, still schmoozing their colleagues, still getting grants, still asking favors. Their interview quotes are boring as hell. They pepper their answers with lists of names of people they want to be sure to flatter; they summarize their career accomplishments (or at least the stuff they’ve done that they’re proudest of, even if it’s not interesting to anyone else or relevant to the subject of the book); they pull their punches on any anecdote that might be amusing if you knew who it was about. The whole chapter is leaden.

This is not an editing problem. The author and I will tighten it up as much as organizational politics permit, and life will go on. I just think it’s fascinating how people in a given stage of their careers exhibit such a consistent response, in the way they write, to the external pressures that come to bear at that stage.

This is similar to the phenomenon that middle managers in hierarchical organizations have enough similarities in their behavior that Dilbert—along with countless sitcoms—resonates with nearly everyone who has ever worked in a cubicle farm. They’re not evil people, even if the way they behave, driven by the organizational structure, makes them seem that way.

We think we’re in control of our own actions, but quite often we’re deluding ourselves.

Friday, April 09, 2010

A step in my spring

Garden diary department

[Spring blooming in my yard for the last three years summarized here]

Step 1. Here it is April 9. Andromeda, weeping cherry, Bradford pear, early azalea (that one cerise or magenta variety that used to be the only one you could get in the Northeast, not the more modern ones), and the forsythia are all more or less in peak bloom. The magnolia, which only fully opened yesterday has begun to drop petals already. This is the earliest any of these have bloomed since I have kept these notes.

Step 2. The remainder of the azaleas, the rhododendrons, and the wisteria are not even hinting any awareness of spring. Perhaps the winter was not kind to them this year. But last year it was the third week of May before they were fully involved; so there is time yet.

I post these notes for myself. If other gardeners are interested, so be it. For the rest of you, move along. Nothing happening here.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sharp marketing takes a dull edge

Over the decades, I’ve generally been impressed with the product designs introduced by Sharp Electronics. If I wanted some gadget or other to fill a particular function, it was often the Sharp offering that I ended up buying. It had the features I was looking for or was more stylish than a competing brand at the same price. I can’t say a lot about the durability of their products. All of them bit the dust at some point, except our microwave oven, which groans as if it is dying every time we turn it on.

So I guess I have to conclude that what has always attracted me to Sharp is their product design, rather than their engineering quality.

But I just saw a banner ad for what Sharp has branded “Quattron quad pixel Technology” (complete with random capitalization), and I have to say this is one of the dumbest, least sharp ideas I’ve ever seen.

The new technology adds a yellow (Y) channel to the existing red (R), green (G), and blue (B) transmissive primaries.

First of all, the claimed product benefit is richer, more vibrant colors on an LCD television screen. I don’t see a lot of benefit there. Aren’t the colors on television garish enough already?

Second, the RGB gamut encompasses Y. In terms of the physics, no new colors are being added to the gamut.

The signal sent to the television is an RGB signal. Processing it to subtract out the Y algebraically and send it to the new Y channel may or may not decrease the overall power consumption of the set at a given brightness. If it does decrease power consumption, maybe this was the reason for developing the technology. In that case, it’s a real consumer benefit and should be the one Sharp is promoting instead of the “more colors” voodoo science they’re touting.

The blurb copy on the page I linked to above is another matter altogether:
Sharp once again demonstrates its leadership in LED LCD TVs [LEDs provide the backlighting; LCDs define the colors. I had to figure this out myself after first wondering if the copywriter had any idea that these are two distinct technologies used in quite different kinds of displays. A link to an explanation would have helped.] with its groundbreaking [mind-boggling?] Quattron quad pixel Technology. For the very first time [Delete “very,” a weak modifier that adds nothing to “first,” which is an absolute.], yellow has been added to the conventional red, green and blue color filter, enabling more colors to be displayed [Not really, as explained above.]. Introducing never-before-seen colors [Never-before-seen colors? Really? Do tell.] to LCD TVs, like sparkling golds, Caribbean blues and sunflower yellows without overdriving the panel [Oh, you had a problem with the panel, whatever that is, being overdriven, whatever that means. If this knowledge is of benefit to the consumer, because, for example, it reduces power consumption (if that’s the case), then explain the benefit to the consumer. Otherwise, you’re just parroting back what some engineer told you and you don’t understand it any more than I do. In any case, it casts doubt on your selling proposition. So just delete the phrase.]. Sharp is redefining the way we see LED LCD TV.
Maybe you’ve seen the cubicle placard that reads “If you can’t dazzle ’em with your brilliance, baffle ’em with your bullshit.”

Honesty matters. Honest. It does.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

All that jazz

For what it’s worth department
There are world travelers and there are world travelers. I did not travel much outside the U.S. when I was young, but in the last few years I’ve had occasion to visit a number of countries in various parts of the world. My wife and I typically stay in brand-name hotels that cater to American business tourists, either in major cities or in tourism-focused towns; and aside from eating street food while walking around, we are likely to be found eating in establishments where an English menu is available. In other words, you would do well to question the authenticity of our experience.

Nonetheless, it has struck us that no matter where we are in the world, the background music in restaurants and stores, the tunes playing on a taxi radio, the songs sung on street corners, are all likely to be American jazz, usually sung in English. I don’t think this is entirely because it is assumed the American tourist clientele will enjoy it; rather, it seems to be ubiquitous and to be ubiquitously enjoyed. We hear rock and hip-hop and other kinds of music, too. But the predominance of jazz and the genuine affection people hold for it is far more obvious outside the U.S. than inside.

Last week we were at a pre-conference banquet in a historic Polish town. The conference attendees were mostly from Europe, with just a few Americans present. The hosts had arranged for a feast of traditional Polish food and had hired a Polish band—a polka band, as a matter of fact.The band played American standards for the most part, arranged as polkas. There were no obviously Polish pieces at all (nor did we have to suffer through the “Beer Barrel Polka,” thankfully).

“American food,” in many parts of the world, is represented by McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, and Subway. But “American culture” is represented by jazz.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Servant of Two Masters at Yale Rep

How do you get away with staging an eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte farce in twenty-first century America?

Apparently, if you’re Yale Rep, you get away with it quite well.

Great adaptation. Great cast. Excellent music (and musicians). And, as usual (with one recent exception), a wonderful set. Speaking of the contrast with that exception, as plodding and pedestrian as the marionette work was in Compulsion, The Servant of Two Masters included charming, magical puppetry of another sort, first with fireflies, later with butterflies, that were just bits of stage business handled deftly by the ensemble, with no special program credits and no awkward self-consciousness.

What a delightful evening! Life got you down? Go. Enjoy. Forget your troubles.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Trust but verify: the problem of knowledge entropy

NPR has a photo essay, “The Jobs Of Yesteryear: Obsolete Occupations.” The story was researched and produced by Carolyn Beeler and edited by Tanya Ballard Brown of NPR, and it’s a lovely reminiscence for those of us old enough to have seen people doing these jobs.

However, the story exemplifies a problem with the transmittal of knowledge across decades and centuries. Knowledge degrades. There’s noise in the signal.

The NPR essay includes an entry for typesetters (click the arrow to the right of the photo until you get to it). Now that’s something I know about with a degree of intimacy that I would not expect from a photo archivist or a journalist. So it’s obvious to me that the descriptive paragraphs are full of misunderstandings and misstatements (never mind what they are, as the details are irrelevant to the point I’m making). Perhaps there are similar kinds of errors in the other descriptions, regarding occupations I know less about.

This is not a new phenomenon. I’ve been involved in events that were reported on the next day in a newspaper or the next week in a newsmagazine, and I’ve frequently had the experience, as you may have, of finding many factual errors and gross misinterpretations of events in the news story. I have no reason to think this discrepancy between fact and the reporting of the fact is larger or smaller today than it was a hundred or five hundred or a thousand or thirty thousand years ago. Surely you’ve read about psychological experiments involving the accuracy (or lack thereof) in eyewitness accounts of staged events. We’re not wired for reporting facts; we’re wired for remembering emotional states and rationalizing them by attributing them to things we think we saw.

I think this idea has begun to seep into the public consciousness, at least to the extent that literary critics now talk about the unreliable narrator as a feature not only of fiction, where it is an intentional device, but also of biography, autobiography, and memoir, where it is often not intentional at all.

However, I’m not sure the idea has fully penetrated to the extent that everything becomes suspect.

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman writes often about bad science journalism, in which journalists jump to conclusions completely unsupported by the research they are reporting on. This is just one more area where we should question what we hear and see in the news (irrespective of how reputable a media outlet is or what political slant we believe it has).

But what about books? Books are edited, researched, fact-checked…some of the time. But there are also an overwhelming number of bad books, as there have always been (even before Gutenberg). And even in the most carefully done books, less-than-omniscient authors (all of them, in other words) write things they do not know from personal experience but read about or heard about somewhere else.

Well then, what about primary sources, the documents historians put so much trust in? Those, too, reflect a human interpretation and are subject to error.

What all this comes down to is the idea that maybe we shouldn’t be too sure we know what we think we know; we should be tolerant of others’ differing understandings (unless they’re total lunatics, of course). And just because we heard it on NPR doesn’t always mean it’s true.

Monday, February 22, 2010

If you don't like it, change it

The New York Times reports that the formerly respected publisher Macmillan is introducing a system that allows college instructors to change the content of the books they assign to their classes (delivered to the students as e-books), down to the sentence level, without notifying the publisher or author.

Technically, there is no review mechanism to detect whether an instructor introduces errors or adds material that the author whose name is on the cover would find unacceptable. The system is completely under the control of the individual instructor.

Were there a wiki-based approach that allowed a community of similarly situated instructors to revise and improve the text, with the author being able to accept or reject such changes, this would be a way to keep scientific texts, for example, up to date with the latest research. But under the system as Macmillan has designed it, students will soon be subjected to freshman biology texts that replace the Theory of Evolution with Intelligent Design or some such.

This is more than a bad idea (and thanks to Brian Akers for bringing it to my attention). This represents a total abdication of any duty on Macmillan’s part to control the quality of the books they publish. But this is not an entirely new phenomenon. Ever since publishers started to be acquired by conglomerates in, what, the 1980s?, MBAization of their management has turned them away from any sense of social or cultural responsibility. This is just one more (and one very disturbing) step in that process.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

One size fits . . . some

Have you been trying to follow any of the many recent discussions about e-books and e-readers, about access to knowledge and protecting authors’ rights, about book scanning and copyright? Are you confused? Me too.

What confuses me is that putatively smart people are making such simplistic prognostications and arguments. End of the book as we know it indeed! Please. I don’t think so.

The rhetorical problem, it seems to me, is that we have a word, book, that represents not one category but many categories of objects, both concrete and abstract, both physical and virtual. Most people who work with books of one sort see their grove of trees as the whole forest. This is an easy trap to fall into: if you spend your life in the world of genre fiction, then books means genre fiction. If you spend your life in research libraries studying the history of fruit fly research, then books means obscure, long-forgotten monographs in danger of being deaccessioned and lost to history.

So here is an incomplete list of kinds of books and what the current swirl of debates might say about them.

Genre fiction
This is the category that is most in flux and where the current debates are actually meaningful. The mass market paperback sold in grocery stores, discount stores, and airport newsstands is vulnerable. If enough consumers are eventually attracted to an e-reader (one that is better designed, more readable, and less expensive than the generation now on the market), a lot of trees will be saved. For the most part, these books are not designed, in the sense of there being a book designer making decisions about individual books. They are text poured into an innocuous template and printed very very cheaply. The only design money involved goes into often lurid covers, and there will continue to be covers designed, for online marketing purposes, even if these books go all-e.

Literary fiction
Technically, there is no reason serious fiction can’t go the same way genre fiction does. However, there continues to be a social meme that associates reading literature with sophistication and status. People like to have the physical books—well-designed, well-manufactured hardcovers—on display in their homes to impress their friends. I suppose this meme could become extinct in another few decades, and in any case we’re talking about a small portion of the reading public. But for as long as it’s around, there will be printed books in the category. Many will prefer to read these as e-books, of course.

Biography, autobiography, memoir, history, government, politics
This is a mixed bag, but all of these categories share with fiction that they are predominantly straight text. Oh, there might be a few photographs here and there, but even today’s generation of e-readers can handle this sort of material well enough.

There are books in these categories that are the result of decades of research and are meant to stand the test of time. There are others that are more ephemeral, dealing, say, with the current or just-ended political season. The latter will migrate quickly to mostly-e. The former will parallel the fate of literary fiction, with at least some copies printed for the foreseeable future.

Many of vanity press books in this group (memoir, for the most part) will, as people come to understand what a bad idea vanity publishing is, start to be produced as e-books from the get-go—or as blogs, which is what most of them should be now.

Self-help, travel, gardening, cooking, health
Books with charts, graphs, color photos, diagrams, and other graphical information that doesn’t work well with the current e-readers will undoubtedly be accommodated by future devices. Why wouldn’t you rather carry a bunch of travel guides in one lightweight device than lug around a stack of books? For now, though, the devices are either not up to the job or are too expensive for most people or both. So we’re going to be seeing these books printed for the most part for a while yet.

The self-published books in these categories, particularly those sold at the back of the room, may continue to be printed. What is it that you would hand someone in exchange for their twenty bucks at a show booth or a card table if not for the physical book—a gift card? A password? I suppose someone will solve the technical challenge, but from a sales psychology standpoint, I think people will still feel they want a physical object to carry home, for a good while, at least.

Coffee table books, gift books, journals
The same drive for technological innovation that is leading to the virtualization of some kinds of books is also dramatically reducing the costs associated with luxury printing and binding. The book as an art object to savor in one’s lap is going to be with us a long time, I think. At the same time, a lot of the creative energy that goes into these books is beginning to flow toward multimedia extravaganzas that are as likely to be delivered online as through printed, bound books. So the coffee table category may shrink. Gift books will stick around, as will blank journals. There will always be romantics.

Children’s books
Speaking of multimedia extravaganzas, from Beatrix Potter to Pat the Bunny to pop-up books to talking books to interactive books on the iPod Touch, parents have been happy to give kids the latest, busiest books to try to hold their attention. Grandparents will continue to buy printed books, but I suspect they’ll be read less and less by the youngest readers.

For older children, e-books will capture a lot of the market, particularly in school.

A huge amount of inertia—from teachers’ unions, from school administrators, from elected school boards, from schools of education, from state politicians—has kept the process of educating our children mired in nineteenth-century technology despite all the well-meaning efforts to modernize it. Yes, some textbook publishers are embracing e-books as a way to lower costs for schools. But until the whole concept of a standard textbook is seen as hopelessly obsolete, we’ll continue to have printed textbooks, both in K-12 and in college. There will be erosion (e-rosion?), but the hundred-dollar chemistry text will be with us for a while.

Scholarly works
A lot of scholarly work has already moved online. The information gets out there faster and cheaper, and scholarly publishing has never been about profiting from sales.

As I said, this is a partial list. What does it mean overall? Just that you have to look at each category by itself and judge what it means in terms of the businesses of printing, distributing, and selling printed books. Publishing will be with us forever: a publisher is in the business of disseminating information for profit, regardless of the medium. The physical book may become less prominent over time, but it’s not going to disappear soon.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Compulsion at Yale Rep

NOTE: This is a review of a play that officially opens tomorrow. The play, a co-production of the Yale Repertory Theatre, the Public Theater (in New York), and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is scheduled to tour nationally. Because the performance I attended was technically a preview of the show’s world premiere run, it is possible—likely—that changes will be made (gawd, I hope so) before tomorrow’s opening or at least before it reaches a stage near you, wherever you are.

Oy! Where to begin
Okay, I may as well tell you what the play is about, first. Meyer Levin’s book, Compulsion, the title of which was borrowed for this unrelated play, was the first nonfiction true crime novel (about the Leopold and Loeb murder case), the precursor to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, according to the Wikipedia article on Levin.

Levin was a journalist and a prolific writer. One of the defining moments of his life was his witnessing, as a war correspondent, the liberation of concentration camps in Europe at the end of the Second World War. Today we would say that the behavior portrayed in the play was the manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder, but that diagnosis wasn’t around in the 1950s.

The doppelgänger Levin created for himself in his writing was Sid Silver. The playwright, Rinne Groff, collated a set of events in Levin’s life, as recounted in books by Levin; by Levin’s wife, Tereska Torres; by Lawrence Graver; and by Ralph Melnick (see the Wikipedia link), and gave them to the character Sid Silver. So the play is ostensibly a dramatization of the nonfiction novel (form invented by Levin) of Levin’s life, told through the alter ego Levin invented, using a title Levin applied to a book about something else altogether. Nicely recursive, don’t you think? Derivative, too.

The outline
The play is about Levin’s obsession (not really a compulsion, I think) to bring The Diary of Anne Frank to the United States, first as a book and then as a drama. Anne Frank became the medium through which he understood his purpose in the world. Because of ideological and artistic differences with others (Otto Frank among them), he entered into a series of legal battles the narration of which constitutes the heart of the play. Well, what’s wrong with that? I’m not saying there wasn’t conflict or dramatic tension, but I am saying the play consisted almost entirely of exposition. Levin’s story—Groff’s synthesis of Levin’s story—would have made an interesting magazine article. In a good piece of journalism in the New Yorker or Harper’s, I expect exposition. In a play I want more.

The production
Three actors cover seven main and a few incidental roles. In addition, a crew of three puppeteers handle the ghosts of Anne Frank, Otto Frank, and Miep Gies, as well as the play-within-a-play roles consisting of an assortment of actors playing Anne Frank, Otto Frank, and Miep Gies. There’s that recursion thing again, a trick Groff seems fond of.

The play dragged. A third to a half of the scenes could be cut. In particular, the last three scenes were merely maudlin and added nothing to the play—not even a graceful denouement. If the playwright and director have any mercy, these scenes will be gone before the New Haven run is over. But the script has other problems aside from length. At the start of the second act, we’re treated to one of the characters entering the set, walking to the front of the stage to face the audience, and addressing the audience directly with superfluous narration of biographical details we don’t need to know. The whole show is so ponderously expository that it’s a wonder the actors could spit out the lines most of the time.

Moving on…
Hannah Cabell, as the publisher Miss Mermin and as Sid Silver’s wife (based on Levin’s wife, Tereska Torres) was superb.

Stephen Barker Turner, playing a variety of publishing executives and lawyers, who somehow all looked and acted alike, as well as Silver’s friend Mr. Matzliach, did the best he could. Mr. Thomas, Mr. Harris, and Mr. Ferris were all stereotyped WASPs, and Turner played them all pretty much the same way—as flat as they were written. I wasn’t the only one who was confused. At one point Silver called Ferris Harris and was corrected, garnering a chuckle from the audience. I honestly couldn’t tell if the error and correction were in the script or a fluffed line and an quick save.

Mandy Patinkin played Levin aka Silver. I always liked Patinkin in Chicago Hope. And the choice to play the Silver character is completely consistent with everything else I’ve seen him do. But…I dunno. Maybe he was just having a bad night. Or maybe the script, staging, and direction were really that bad. At best, I’d characterize his performance as uneven. He was on stage for nearly the entire play, and that’s a lot of material to master. Still, um, well, he’s a professional actor and I’m an amateur reviewer; so maybe he was just coming from somewhere I don’t understand at all. Or maybe he rose from his sick bed to be a trouper. Or something.

There were moments when I couldn’t tell if Patinkin was pausing for effect or had gone up on his line. If the pause was for effect, the effect wasn’t one I could identify. His rants, his moments of contrition, even his amorous moments with his wife (everyone keeps their clothes on in this one, for a change) all seemed rote, formulaic, phoned in. But I readily acknowledge that Patinkin may have signed on to the project despite a weak script and that he may be making the best of a bad situation. So I don’t want to lay the blame on him.

The puppeteers did everything that was asked of them and did so pretty well. This was straightforward marionette work consistent with the plodding expository nature of the script. No imagination was called for or in evidence.

The set is worth noting. I’ve seen great plays, okay plays, and stinkers at Yale Rep; but one saving grace of even the worst of them has always been the set design. With the resources of the Yale School of Drama, Yale School of Architecture, and Yale School of Art to draw on, the Rep is a showcase for brilliant, imaginative designers. As noted above, though, Compulsion is a co-production of three theaters, with a name star. I suspect this had something to do with the choice of Eugene Lee as the scenic designer. Lee “has been the production designer at Saturday Night Live since 1974,” according to the program notes, and “was recently inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in New York.” Uh-huh. Yawn. I think the set was a castoff from SNL, or else it was sketched on a napkin and faxed in. Blecch.

Don’t feel compelled to see this one. But read other reviews after the show actually opens. Maybe it will get better.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sending a query to a literary agent?

  1. Ensure that the agent you are querying is legitimate. The Preditors & Editors site should be one place you check. It is not a comprehensive list of all legitimate agents, but it is a valuable resource for information on the snakes in the grass pretending they are agents.

    The main rule to keep in mind is that if the supposed agent asks you for money, directly or indirectly, you should run the other direction.

  2. Take a look at this great checklist from agent Janet Reid.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Typesetting myths you should have gotten over by now

Having worked with and studied type for half a century, I have seen fads come and go. I have seen a lot of badly designed experiments by psychology undergraduates passed off as “research” into type readability. And I have seen a lot of opinion on the part of graphic design instructors passed off as fact.

But in the Dark Ages of my youth, type was set by compositors. Since the advent of desktop publishing thirty-odd years ago, people with no training in typography have been putting themselves out as experts. And that has caused the sewers to overflow, releasing all sorts of stuff into the mainstream. With the more recent advent of digital book printing, all sorts of people are typesetting their own books—or trying to. And when they dip their nets into that mainstream looking for tips on how to do the job right, they often come up with—well, you get the idea.

Naturally, I’d much rather see self-publishing authors avail themselves of my services or those of another professional compositor than do it themselves. But if you are a diehard DIYer, here are a few suggestions from a grumpy old typesetter on Internet myths you should ignore:
  • Don’t hyphenate; it slows reading and reduces comprehension.

    FALSE. If you are publishing an edition specifically for groups with impaired reading ability, you should avoid hyphenation. For normal readers (the large majority of the reading public for trade fiction and nonfiction alike), a moderate amount of hyphenation improves readability when compared with the alternative of having letters and words badly and unevenly spaced. You do want to avoid having more than two consecutive hyphens or, in narrow columns, three consecutive hyphens, but there is no reason to turn hyphenation off altogether.

  • Don’t justify text; it forces uneven word spacing.

    FALSE. Using modern page layout software such as InDesign, you can keep word spacing within an acceptable range, minimize (but not necessarily eliminate) hyphenation, and retain conventional justified text. Readability research confirms that normal readers continue reading longer and retain more of what they read when text is justified normally than when it is set ragged right.

    But note: Hyphenation is not available in HTML, so justified text looks terrible on the Web. For online use, such as here, stick with ragged right.

  • Tight type looks better than loose type.

    FALSE. Tight type increases reader fatigue and slows reading. If you look at books set on Linotype (hot metal) machines from half a century ago, you’ll see that the standard setting (governed by the mechanical limitations of the technology) was considerably more open than the default kerning values for modern digital fonts. Stay with the default or, if you want to be kind to your readers (especially at smaller point sizes), open the type up by a fraction. This is a good trick for situations where an old-fashioned appearance is desirable too.

  • You can typeset a perfectly fine book using Microsoft Word.

    FALSE. You can reproduce the Sistine Chapel using a paint-by-numbers kit, but it’s going to take a long time and you’re not going to fool anyone. Word is a word processing program, not a typesetting program.

  • All you have to do is import your Word document into InDesign and you’re done.

    FALSE. Composition remains an art that requires human intervention to produce good results. Learn to look at a page critically and to apply adjustments that improve the reader’s experience. Watch for ladders, rivers, pigeonholes, tight and loose lines, bad breaks, widows, orphans, and unbalanced spreads. Eliminating all of those at the same time is what separates the pros from the wannabes.