Monday, September 29, 2008

Morris is a maven and a mensch

The Yiddish word "maven" means an expert, but the term also implies that the expert has some enthusiasm for his subject and is eager to share his knowledge, and doesn't spend all of his time glued to his microscope or keyboard.

The Yiddish word "mensch" literally means a man, but it implies much more. A mensch is an upstanding person, a decent guy, someone who does the right thing, who does more than he has to, a man who is worthy of respect.

Morris Rosenthal is both. Morris is a writer and self-publisher who has become a maven on an important area of modern publishing. He's the author of "Print-On-Demand Book Publishing" and books on building and fixing computers, and the computer service business.

Morris' website supplements the books, and also offers advice in other areas as diverse as visiting Jerusalem, mortgage interest, car repair, and building a timber frame home.

Obviously Morris is one busy maven. So what makes him such a mensch?

Even though I bought exactly one book he wrote, with a cover price of $14.95 which probably only generated a few bucks of profit, Morris still found the time to respond to several emails quickly, courteously and completely. He amplified a topic in his book to help me in my own self-publishing effort.

There are many mavens out there, but very few are mensches like Morris Rosenthal. I highly recommend his book, and his way of life.

CLICK for Morris' website.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The em dash debate

The em dash often indicates a parenthetical thought — like this one — or some similar use.

Em dashes are not available with regular keyboards, so double hyphens (--) are used as a substitute. Em dashes can be generated with word processing software such as MS Word.

The term is derived from the width of "one em", which is a standard spacing in the typographical measurement "points" system that type font sizes are specified in.

Years ago, one "em" was the width of the letter "m" in some specific font. That letter m was as wide as it was tall. So, in 11-point type, an em dash is 11 points wide, and so on for other type sizes.

There is also a shorter "en dash." In theory, it's longer than a hyphen but shorter than the em, but few people will notice if you use a hyphen instead the en.

Many purists insist that the em dash should be attached to the letters before and after it, like—this, with no visible space. Those on that side of the argument include the Oxford University Press, the Chicago Manual of Style, and Aaron Shepard, author of several books on self-publishing.

On the other hand, the New York Times puts a space before and after each em dash.

I followed the Times style in several books I published. Without the space, it looked like the dash was connecting to a letter or a word; but with a little space, the dash appeared, more properly, to be connecting to an entire thought.

HOWEVER, in later books, I changed my mind and eliminated the adjacent spaces.

As long as I publish my own books, I can control my em dashes. So can you.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Breaking and starting traditions
Why my books look the way they do

Book chapters traditionally begin on right-hand pages (called “recto” in the book business); but unfortunately book chapters don’t always conveniently end on left-hand “verso” pages.

That’s why lots of books have blank left pages or left pages with just cute little pictures on them. That’s a waste of paper, trees, energy and money; so my books will book ignore that tradition.

Chapters start on the page after the previous chapter ends. Some start recto and some start verso, whatever comes naturally.

In my first book, we saved 38 pages this way. That could add up to a lot of paper, and maybe save a few trees. If other publishers would do this, they would probably save lots of trees, energy and money. With concern about the depletion of forests, and the high cost of energy, that’s more important than following tradition.

We’re also flouting publishing tradition in other ways.

Normally the first few pages of a book have no numbers printed on them, and then come pages with Roman numerals, and finally come the pages with standard “Arabic” numbers. This system has always seemed silly and unnecessarily complicated to me. Therefore, ►in my books, the first page has number 1 on it. It was much easier to put the books together this way, and I encourage others to follow the new tradition.

Finally, ► the type is set “flush left/ragged right” rather than “justified,” where most lines are the same length and they fill the space from left to right. Justified type, which is still the dominant format for book printing, can look beautiful, but takes a lot of time to do right; and a lot of sloppy justified type gets printed. The lines of type in my first book are like most websites and a growing number of magazines and books. Ragged right is much easier to produce, and people accept it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Journalism's silly secret

If your impression of how news reporters do their work was gained from watching TV programs like Superman and Lou Grant and the cop shows, you're mostly wrong.

Only a small percentage of reporting — in print, online or in broadcast media — actually comes from snooping around and digging up news.

When a reporter for the New York Times or Washington Post does get a legitimate scoop that's published in the morning, you can be sure that copycats at CNN, CNBC and the network news shows will quickly be spewing out the same story.

Investigative reporting remains the holy grail for reporters, the goal that wins praises, raises and Pulitzer prizes.

But in truth, most reporting is merely rehashing, replaying and relaying the manufactured news that is distributed by newsmakers who want publicity.

These newsmakers range from presidents, bureaucrats and generals who call press conferences or invite reporters to conduct interviews, to the makers of new gadgets who want the public to think that their stuff is wonderful and buy them, or to invest in their companies.

If you channel-surf between 6 and 7PM you might wonder how and why all of the TV news shows are reporting on the same events.

If the event is a war, forest fire, assassination or hurricane, it’s real news and the duplication makes sense.

But if the event is the announcement of a new Toyota, iPod, quarterback or movie deal, it’s more like free advertising than news. You’re seeing it all over because all of the news editors were fed the same press release, and all of the reporters were fed the same lunch.

There's an unfortunate trend in contemporary journalism, particularly in online journalism, to reporting by repetition and even reporting by robots.

Press releases are "read" by robots, that publish them for human beings and other robots to read.

Sometimes human beings do read the press releases, but they do little or none of the traditional fact checking that was once an important part of journalism. In many media outlets, there is an automatic assumption of accuracy and honesty that allows almost anything to get published and widely permeated.

If "news" arrives in the proper format, with authentic language, it is almost always believed and is not likely to be challenged by journalists who are in a hurry to publish faster than their peers.

Early on Thursday April 3, 2008 I launched a 90%-false press release as a joke, a test, and an example.

Within a few hours, it was picked up and published by websites around the world. Many news writers added original material to demonstrate their extensive knowledge of the subject. Some made silly mistakes that showed that they did not even read what what was in front of them. Only one called me to verify the story and I told him that the news was a spoof.

Most press releases include a quotation from an executive vice president or director of something. But 90% of the time, the important person who is quoted never said those pithy and powerful words. The quote is a phony, invented by the public relations person (“flack”) who wrote the press release, and is trying to flatter the exec by getting his or her name printed in newspapers and magazines, or into blogs, websites and search engines.

Some reporters and editors are both lazy and competitive.

My first job after college was as assistant editor of High Fidelity Trade News, a magazine that went to hi-fi stores. Our direct competitor, aimed at the same audience, was Audio Times. Both publications, and dozens of other media, received the same press releases about new products, with the same fabricated quotes.

A lot of my work involved re-writing press releases for publication. I was supposed to filter out the superlative adjectives and make the news sound more like news than like advertising. On one of my first days, my boss Bryan returned an article I had written with a quote crossed out and a big PR BS written on it. Bryan told me to assume that the quotes were bullshit, and that we never published them.

The other guys had lower standards and higher self-image. They enhanced every quote into something like “in an exclusive interview with Audio Times, Sony marketing director Fumio Watanabe explained that the company’s new XRT-707 would revolutionize the...”

So, you shouldn't believe everything you read. But, you should believe this page.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The difference between vanity press
& self publishing

When I tell people I'm "self publishing" my books, most of them don't understand what I'm talking about and some simply sneer.

There's a lot of confusion between self-publishing and "vanity" publishing.

Mark Twain and Ben Franklin were self-publishers, and they didn't deserve sneers. I hope I don't, either.

Vanity publishing companies exist to feed the egos and extract money from writers who have no chance of being a financial success, but are willing to pay money to have books printed with their names on the covers. Often their egos are much larger than their talents. They'll pay money even if it means that none of the books will ever be sold in stores and most of them will pile up in the garage rotting away with mildew until they are finally dumped when the author dies or the house is sold.

Self publishing, on the other hand, is usually done by authors who have some hope of financial success, and want more control of the final product, speed-to-market, and more profit than they would have if they worked through traditional publishers.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Doing it myself

Many writers have become publishers. Ben Franklin did it. Mark Twain did it. Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein did it. Jack Canfield, co-author of Chicken Soup for various things, also did it.

And so did I.

It's not usually an indication of failure or desperation.

Mark Twain became his own publisher because he felt another publisher cheated him.

I've had deals with three book publishers in the past.

♦ One cheated me.

♦ One tried to cheat me.

♦ One didn't cheat me, but the book that finally came out was so unlike what I had expected it to be, I was sorry I got involved. I also didn't make much money, and had to wait a long time for the little money that I did get.

♦ The one that did cheat me did such a bad job on the book that I refused to let him put my name on it.

Self-publishing is booming in the early 21st century, for several reasons:

♦ It's part of a general cultural and technical trend that removes middlemen between creative people and their audiences. Musicians bypass record companies and make CDs to sell at concerts, and put recordings online for downloading by fans. Bloggers reach readers without needing newspapers or magazines to publish their words. Videographers can reach a worldwide audience on YouTube. Thousands of people, businesses and organizations publish e-zines, websites, catalogs and newsletters without professional assistance.

♦ Because of consolidation in the publishing business, it has become much harder for a new author to get published. Book publishing is now dominated by the so-called “Gang of Six” publishers that publish about half of the dollar volume of American books, and dominate the shelf space in bookstores. Book publishers seldom take risks today; they like to be sure a book will sell well.

There are lots of reasons why writers want to be their own publishers. Here are some:

♦ Complete control: the author determines the title, the cover design, the page size, the number of pages, the price, the marketing plan, the publication date, everything.

♦ Personal attention: at a big publishing house, a new book from an unknown author may get little or no attention from the sales force that is responsible for dozens or hundreds of books. A self-publishing author can concentrate on one book, and can work as hard as she or he wants to in promoting the book to the public, booksellers, the media and book reviewers.

♦ Complete freedom: self-publishing allows authors to write about anything they want to, without needing approval from anyone.

♦ Speed: with conventional publishing, it can take years to find an agent and a publisher. With self-publishing, a book can be in stores a few weeks after it is written.

♦ Durability: the author determines how long a book remains on the market.

♦ Up-to-dateness: the author determines when a new edition should be published.

♦ Regular income: with conventional publishing, royalty checks (if there are any) arrive twice a year. With self-publishing, money can come in every day, week or month, depending on the sales channels.

♦ Higher income: most book royalties pay about 8% of the cover price. Self-published authors can make more money, even from books that sell for lower prices.

These are the main reasons I established Silver Sands Books to publish my own books.

As of September, 2008, I have started writing five books. Two are nearly completed.