Friday, July 31, 2009

Do something you can't do or hate to do

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher was a miserable bitch -- hated by almost every kid in the class.

We were once assigned to write an essay about poetry. At the time, I pretty much hated poetry, except for funny stuff like one of the world's shortest poems, by Ogden Nash:

"The Bronx?
No thonx."

Basically my essay said something like I hated poetry because it is artificial and is much less efficient than prose for delivering a message.

I DESPISED faked/fudged/phony constructions like:

"My country 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty."

I got an "F" on the essay. Elliot, one of my classmates, got an "A" for a few pages of bullshit about poetry "opening a golden door into the soul of the poet."

I was sent to the guidance counselor for guidance and discipline.

I did not get any discipline but I got some valuable guidance: Give the bitch the same kind of bullshit that earned Elliot the "A."

In other words, if you want to succeed in life, give the audience what it wants, even if you have to lie or sell out.

I didn't think it was good advice then or now. An audience can usually determine if a performer's heart is not in a performance.

A few weeks later, we were assigned to write poems. That was even worse than having to write about poems.

Rhyming is probably a natural activity and source of amusement for every kid.

But going from "Roses are red, violets are blue. Sugar is sweet but I hate you" to something of homework quality would have been a major leap for me.

I was desperate to avoid a second flunk from the bitch, so with help from my father I did come up with something that I still think is pretty good. It was about a windshield wiper destroying rain drops. I don't remember it all, but it started with:

"Oh wiper, you viper,
You snake on the glass.
You strike hard and swiftly.
You kill with each pass."

I got an unexpected "A" on that one.

I also got an "A" on a second poem that involved some event in international relations in 1959 or '60. Apparently President Eisenhower was being pressured by the dreaded commies to give in on some diplomatic negotiating.

I need a word to rhyme with "now," and my father suggested the phrase "but Ike would not kowtow."

I had never heard "kowtow" before, and thought my father had made it up just for my poem. Pop explained that it came from a Chinese word meaning "submit" and I kept the word. The bitch knew what it meant and was impressed.

(Impressing teachers is not necessarily a major achievement. One time in college I used "lifestyle" in an essay and the professor put a note on the page about it being an excellent choice of words. In my mind I gave the professor a lower grade for being impressed by such routine terminology. Apparently "lifestyle" was a big deal in Bethlehem, PA in the 1960s.)

In high school I became a pretty good rhymer. I wrote some silly poems and songs about bad teachers.

I've never bought a poetry book, but I do have appreciation for rhyming lyrics, especially:

"Lady Madonna, baby at your breast
Wonders how you manage to feed the rest"
(Lennon & McCartney)


"When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I'll be gone"

I have no plans to write serious poetry, but being forced to succeed at something I hated has probably been useful to me as person and as a writer. I have gained appreciation for those who do write poems well, and I sometimes insert rhymes in my prose just for the fun of it.

However, today is probably the first time in 50 years that I used the word "kowtow."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bestselling what?

Lots of writers you probably never heard of describe themselves as bestselling authors.

Unlike the winners of Oscars, Emmys, Pulitzers and Nobels, there is often no official registry where you can check the validity of the claim. The variety of potential bestseller lists is endless, so unless a publisher provides a detail like “103 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list,” it will be hard to document or disprove the bestselling status.

The Times, of course, is the biggee. Other important lists are provided by USA Today,, IndieBound, Publishers Weekly, and Barnes & Noble.

Amazon sales rankings are updated hourly, and are subject to manipulation by organized swarms of order-placers who have been pushed to buy books with an email campaign that promises dubious freebies. A book could hit number 10 or even number 1 at 4 a.m. tomorrow, and be number 436,841 next week.

There is often disagreement among the bestseller lists and it may not be obvious how the lists are calculated. The Times apparently excludes sales from online booksellers and “big box” stores like Walmart — but that policy may change.

A book about flea removal from pregnant three-legged albino weimaraners could sell exactly one copy and still be the BESTSELLER in its field. There is no law that requires an explanation on the cover or a footnote inside the book.

Anyone can call any book a bestseller (or “best-seller”), and the label may help it to achieve more sales, deserved or not. Keep in mind that even if a book is on a legitimate list, the fact that lots of copies are sold does not necessarily mean it’s a good book, or even that book buyers read what they bought.

There are even fudged bestseller labels that are more the result of marketing than of statistics, such as “summertime bestseller," "top seller," "number 1 seller" or “underground bestseller.”

Brent Sampson, boss of my least-favorite vanity publisher Outskirts Press, claims to be a “bestselling author.” One of his books hit the #29 position on It may have been for one hour on one day. The New York Times didn’t notice it and I’m not impressed.

One of his books promises “Top-secret tips guaranteed to increase sales.” They are not secrets and they are not guaranteed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Out-of-date or timeless?

When writing a magazine or newspaper article or a scholarly document, it's common to include a lot of dates. Readers expect to know exactly when a politician made a speech, when a war ended, when a new car model was introduced or when a price was raised or lowered.

Writing a book is different, and writers who string words together for multiple media have to be aware of where those words are going.

If a book is published in August of 2009, and it refers to an event that happened in July of 2009, the first readers will be very impressed by how up-to-date their new books are.

But people who buy the book in 2012 may wonder how much had changed in three years.

If you're writing a book, other than a history book, try to minimize the number of dates you publish. Only a few dates are really significant. Many events and trends are significant regardless of exactly when they occurred.

With a book, timelessness is better than timeliness.

(Thanks very much to Morris Rosenthal, author of Print-On-Demand Book Publishing, for this important tip. I revised a book because of it.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Find & Replace Warning

I recently decided to change a real name to a fake name in my memoir, to avoid embarrassing someone who might not want to be written about.

I used Microsoft Word's Find and Replace feature, which quickly made about a dozen substitutions in a chapter.

But when I read through the chapter I was surprised to find a few instances of the old name, which had escaped the Find function.

It's important to do a manual verification, because Word might not notice hyphenated words, or words with apostrophes or in their plural form, as targets for replacement.

Friday, July 24, 2009

MS Word's hidden assets

If you are assembling a book with Microsoft Word, you should spend some time investigating the symbols section (within the “Insert” tab).

It has lots of useful decorations that can be used to dress up boring-looking text, as well as fractions, scientific and mathematical symbols and foreign punctuation marks to make your book more accurate and professional.

You’ll also find subscripts, superscripts, lots of arrows, little cartoons and much more. Make sure you look in the Wingdings collections.

This is also the place to find ligatures.

They’re combinations of consecutive letters that improve appearance and save a little bit of space. In normal text you can get away with “find” and “floor.” But in large type sizes, such as for a book cover or title page, the ligatures will provide much more attractive type.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Check everything in everything you write

My father is the source of my love of reading and my interests in business, building things, technology, travel, tropical fish, history, maps, food, collecting, cigars, pranks, photography, law, language and probably everything else I care about.

My father would frequently fall asleep at night leaning into a book. He accumulated tall towers of unread newspapers and magazines. I’m the same way.

Dad was one of the world’s funniest story-tellers and is a major influence on my writing. We both include lots of details.

Almost every sentence from the mouth of "Buddy" Marcus was part of a lesson. Dad was driven to explain things, but he was also driven to keep talking long after the point was made, received, understood, memorized and contemplated.

I’m the same way. I’m pedantic like my Pop. If I have plans to deliver a perfectly crafted lesson or explanation, I expect the audience to stay with me until the bitter end. I don’t like listeners or readers who cheat and figure out the ending before I perform the finale. (I know it's really not hard to figure it out. Maybe I just like my own words.)

My father died Tuesday night.

He had a very full life. It was so full, in fact, that by last Spring, after 87 years, Pop had done all that he had wanted to do. He had checked off every item on his “Honey Do” list and had simply run out of things to look forward to.

He had seen it all, done it all, heard it all and read it all. He probably even tasted it all.

Pop was tired, worn down and worn out. Life was seldom fun anymore, and he frequently upset those of us who love him, by telling us that he had lived long enough.

It was hard to argue with Dad about anything, and extremely hard to win an argument with him.

When I last visited my father in April, he asked what day it was. I said it was Saturday. Dad responded that Sunday would be a nice day to die. I couldn’t argue with that. Actually, I couldn't find any words to say to him.

We could not convince Dad to hang on a while longer for a miracle cure. A new pill or a new injection or new exercise wouldn’t help. There’s no miracle that could cure my father’s feeling that “enough is enough.”

In his jokes, Dad frequently spoke of “taking a dirt nap.” Tomorrow he gets to start his. And it’s exactly what he wants to do.

- - - - - -

So what does this have to do with writing, and the title of today's posting?

As the writer in the family, I was assigned to write the obituary for the newspaper.

There were endless emails and phone calls. I had to determine the proper hyphenations for some complex first and last names, and learn which female relatives prefer to use their fathers' last names instead of their husbands' last names, and to confirm that Danny would not want to be listed as Dan or Daniel.

I think I managed to get all of that stuff right. But an hour after I emailed the obit to the funeral director I realized that I said my father died when he was 86. A simple subtraction revealed that Pop was really 87. I didn't want to cheat him out of a year so I called the funeral home, and was relieved to learn that they had caught and fixed my flub.

Early this morning I looked at the newspaper's website. The New Haven Register is notorious for sloppiness. In one issue in my collection, they printed two different dates on two different pages, so I was anticipating at least a minor disaster.

Sure enough, the Register said that my father died on July 22nd, but he actually died on the night of the 21st -- 40 years and one day after Neil Armstrong first touched the moon.

I can't blame the paper for this one. When I wrote the obit I used the date of my writing, not the actual date of Dad's death.

Maybe I gave my old man an extra day, but I wish the funeral home had caught this error, too. It would have been even better if I caught it myself.

- - - - - -

UPDATE 7/25: In the obit, I wrote that my father graduated from college with honors at the young age of 20. He had skipped a grade while in public school. I got that age from my mother, whom I assume had reliable information. At the funeral I learned that Pop actually graduated college when he was just NINETEEN, because he was so smart he skipped TWO GRADES.

Apparently fact-checking by asking my own mother -- my father's wife of 65 years -- was insufficient research. Lesson for the future: you can't rely on any person's memory, especially during a tension-filled time.

Also, I had written that the funeral would be at a cemetery in New Haven. My know-it-all brother, the one who had corrected Dad's age at graduation, insisted that the cemetery is across the border in Hamden.

It turns out that Mr. Know-it-All did not know it all. Pop did graduate at 19, but yesterday he was buried in New Haven. I got that one right.

- - - - - -
UPDATE 7/30: I originally typed "June" instead of "July." I guess I didn't check everything I wrote. Thanks, Joe.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sum werdz too wotch four

Accommodate has a double “c” AND a double “m.”

A lot is two words, not one

Amateur has a French ending, and the word comes from the French word for “lover.” Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?

Argument does not have an “e” like “argue.”

Believe follows the old “i-before-e” rule. Believe it or not.

Bellwether has nothing to do with the weather. A wether is a castrated sheep or goat that wears a bell and leads a herd. The lack of cojones made it less likely that the leader of the pack would stray.

Cemetery does not end in “ary” or begin with “s.”

Changeable, unlike “argument,” retains its “e” so you know the “g” is soft, pronounced like “j.”

Collectible is not “able.” No rule applies here, just memory.

Drunkenness should have a double “n” when spelled by sober people.

Dumbbell has a double “b,” you dummy (not “dumby”).

Embarrass (ment) has a double “r” and a double “s.”

Exceed does not end with “cede.” Nothing exceeds like excess.

Existence does not have an “a.”

Flier is someone who flies (not “flys”). It’s also a leaflet, and a golf ball that goes too far. Delta and other airlines frequently say “frequent flyer.” They’re wrong.

Flyer can be part of a proper name for transportation (Radio Flyer, Flexible Flyer and Rocky Mountain Flyer) or a sports team (Philadelphia Fly¬ers and Dayton Flyers) or sneakers (PF Flyers).

Gauge is a verb or a noun that has a silent “u.” For the thickness of wire or metal, or the space between train rails, or the size of a shotgun, you can ditch the “u.”

Grateful has just one “e.” It’s not so great.

Guarantee does not end like “warranty” except in a proper name like Morgan Guaranty Trust.

Harass has just one set of double letters.

Inoculate has no double letters.

Jibe (not Jive) means to agree. Jibe also means to move a sail to change direction. Jibe and gibe mean to taunt.

Lightning is the spark in the sky, or part of the name of POD printer Lightning Source. Lightening removes weight.

Maintenance has just one “ain,” unlike “maintain.”

Maneuver is a French-ish word, that’s easier to spell than the British version: “manoeuvre.”

Medieval refers to the MIDdle Ages, but is spelled more like “medium.” Those wacky Brits use “mediaeval.”

Memento reminds you of a moment, but the first vowel is an “e” not an “a.” Don’t ask why; just remember it.

Millennium was spelled wrong millions of times back in 1999 and 2000. It still is. It gets a double “l” and a double “n.”

Minuscule means mini, but it’s spelled more like “minus.”

Misspell is frequently misspelled. It needs a double “s” and don’t hyphenate it.

Noticeable gets a silent “e” to keep the “c” from being pro-nounced like a “k.”

Occasionally gets double consonants up front and in the back.

Occurrence has two traps: the occurrence of double double consonants, and “ence” not “ance” at the end.

Possession possesses two double letters.

Principal and Principle sound alike but have different meanings. The first is a school’s boss. The second is a rule or an important point.

Privilege is not edgy. It has no “d.”

Relevant is not “revelant,” “revelent” or “relevent.”

Separate has an “a” as the second vowel.

Sergeant, unlike the affectionate “Sarge,” has no “a” up front, but it does get a silent “a” later on.

Supersede is not spelled like “succeed” or “precede” and may be the only “sede” word we have.

Threshold does not have a double “h.”

Until gets just one “l” even though it’s often a perfect substitute for “till.” Wilson Pickett sang, Wait Till the Midnight Hour or ‘Til the Midnight Hour, depending on who transcribed the lyrics. Both Peggy Lee and the Beatles performed Till There Was You.

Weird is weird because it breaks the “i before e” rule. Seize is a rule breaker, too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The worst ripoff in publishing?

Those who have been following this blog know that I am generally quite negative about the businesses practices of vanity presses (which now like to use names like "self-publishing" companies or "subsidy" presses or "indy" publishers).

The companies frequently publish ugly unedited books. They often overcharge for add-on services and promotional items such as postcards, business cards and postage stamps showing book covers.

There's another reason to hate them -- contract provisions that make it very hard to leave if you are not satisfied.

If iUniverse is your publisher and you decide to cancel your contract less than 18 months after initial publication, you will have to pay them an unconscionable FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS for PDF files of your book's cover and interior so you can submit them to another publisher or printer.

Bear in mind that an author/customer has already paid iUniverse as much as $2599 to publish a book, and that includes producing the PDF files that are needed for printing.

It takes approximately ten seconds and a few mouse clicks to email you the PDFs, and you can be sure that iUniverse is not going to have to order a copy of Adobe Acrobat just to make the files available to you.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Why and how to make your book shorter or longer

Your book can’t have just any number of pages you want it to have. One fundamental restriction is that the number must be even, even if one or more pages are blank.

Each sheet of paper in a book, called a leaf, has two sides (pages). If your book has 300 pages, it requires 150 leaves. If you have 301 pages, it requires 151 leaves and you'll have one blank page after page 301.

It’s pretty common for books to have more than one blank page at the end. Additionally, the signatures (large sheets of paper that are printed on before cutting and binding) may dictate that books be composed of multiples of specific numbers, such as 4, 8 or 16. If you come up short or long, you’ll need to write more words or stretch the book to fill up blank pages, or cut words or tighten-up to use one less signature.

You probably have a “target” length for your book, and maybe you’ve missed the target.

Perhaps you think that in order to justify your price, you should be providing at least 300 pages, but you only have 289. Maybe you think a 300-page book will overwhelm some people, but you’ve come up with 311. Maybe your printing budget and cover price will cover a 240-page book but not 250 pages. Maybe you want to offer more pages than a competitive book. Maybe you want a thicker book so the title printed on the spine will be bigger.

There are many ways to reduce the number of pages without cutting important words, and it’s also easy to increase the number of pages even if you have nothing more to say.

Some of the tricks for increasing or decreasing the page count can also improve the appearance of a book by eliminating orphans or other typographic misfortunes, such as two or three words that make a chapter take up an extra page.

Try saying things differently. If you wrote “increasing or decreasing,” space could be saved by substituting “altering” or “modifying” without significantly changing the meaning.

Take advantage of shorter words and contractions. “Pasta” takes up less space than “macaroni” or “spaghetti.” “Group” and “club” are shorter than “organization.” “Can’t” takes up less space than “can not.” Sometimes eliminating just one or two characters can eliminate a page.

Change to different margins. Even using 1/16 of an inch less can save many pages.

Use fewer or smaller illustrations, or pack you type closer to them.

Use smaller size type, either in the whole book or in sections like the table of contents or bibliography. Even a one-point difference can save a lot of pages if you make the change in the whole book. Be careful not to sacrifice readability.

Use a narrower typeface.

Make bulleted lists flush-left instead of indented.

Skip middle names.

It’s equally easy to pad or stretch the book to make it longer. Don’t be obvious if you have to do this. Don’t use 16-pt type instead of 11. It didn’t fool your history teacher who wanted 10 pages about Abe Lincoln and you only had enough words to fill nine pages with normal size letters. You won’t fool people who review or buy your book, either.

If you have to stretch, use a combination of techniques, in moderation. Don’t use one in excess. Try some of these:

Always start chapters on a recto page.

Put more white space around photos, charts, tables and illustrations.

If you just want a bigger spine to print your title on but don’t care about more pages, use thicker paper. Cream (a/k/a “crème”) is usually thicker than white.

Add more photos, charts, tables and illustrations.

Make photos, charts, tables and illustrations larger.

Start chapters in the middle of a page instead of at the top.

Put quotes or helpful hints on individual pages.

Break up paragraphs into smaller paragraphs.

Add some words.

Use longer words.

Define technical terms when you introduce them.

Have more front matter, but PLEASE don’t put a half-title page ahead of the title page. It’s a stupid waste of paper.

Use bulleted lists instead of paragraphs with many items separated by commas.

Increase the spacing between lines in a list.

Spell out some names instead of using initials or abbreviations: “John Pierpont Morgan” takes up more space than “J. P. Morgan.”

Include a summary at the beginning or end of chapters and sections.

Include a bibliography listing additional resources.

Put an order form in the back of the book.

Use pull-quotes (also known as a lift-quote or call-quote). They’re excerpts from the book printed in a larger typeface and inserted in the page, surrounded by white space, with the main text wrapped around it. It’s difficult to read a sentence that is broken by a text box or illustration, so keep it to one side. If you have two columns, it’s OK to center it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Microsoft Word can really mess up
hyphenated words.

Be aware that Word makes mistakes, particularly with hyphens.

Sometimes it seems to take a guess, or it follows a rule based on recognizable patterns rather than consult an internal dictionary.

It often makes bad guesses, such as “li-mited” instead of “lim-ited,” “upl-oad” instead of “up-load,” “identic-al” instead of "identi-cal,” “firs-thand” instead of “first-hand,” “fru-strating” instead of “”frus-trating,” whe-never” instead of “when-ever,” “books-tore” instead of “bookstore,” and “bet-ween” instead of “be-tween.”

"Therapist" might become "the-rapist."

Be prepared to do a bit of outside research and overrule Microsoft’s judgment.

Word often assumes that the letter “e” indicates the end of a syllable as in “be-come” and “cre-ate” and this results in errors like “se-ize,” “me-nu” and “cre-dit.”

Word recognizes that “par” is a common syllable, which causes it to make bizarre errors like “par-chment.”

“Of-fline” is one of my favorite abominates sanctioned by Microsoft. I also like “who-lesaler” and “apo-strophe.”

Maybe Bill Gates retired too soon. Someone needs to fix this stuff.

Words that can have two meanings and can be pronounced in two ways cause problems. Word can’t distinguish between “minute” (the noun) and “minute” (the adjective). It assumes you mean the noun, and will give you “min-ute” even when you want “mi-nute.”

You may get weird results if you rely on automatic hyphenation and have proper names. Word broke up “Panasonic” as “Pa-nasonic” instead of “pan-asonic” or “Pana-sonic.”

So now you have another reason to proofread very carefully, and never have complete faith in robots.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

If you need more convincing to become your own publisher, read what a lawyer has to say about the companies that want your business

Mark Levine is both a lawyer and a writer. His The Fine Print of Self-Publishing (now in its third edition) analyzes, ranks and criticizes the contracts and service of 45 vanity publishers.

The information is detailed and useful and apparently accurate, but the very title (and also its subtitle and words on many interior pages) can hurt prospective authors.

Mark unjustifiably kisses the asses of businesses like Lulu, Infinity, Outskirts and Xlibris by calling them “Self-Publishing Companies.”

That term is a misnomer.

By definition, self-publishing can’t be done for you by another company.

If you are not the publisher of your book, you are not self-publishing.

In his apparent eagerness to come up with a title that has an important phrase in it, Mark has become an unwitting ally of the enemies of real self-publishers.

In the one paragraph where he deals with real independent self-publishing, Mark sounds like a shill for the vanity presses (he is a part owner of one), using the same scare tactics that companies like Outskirts Press use to scare potential self-publishers to pay for their services.

Mark frets about the decision “to take on every step of the publishing process,” including finding a cover designer and printer, obtaining an ISBN and getting a book copyrighted.

Actually, none of that is a big deal. Many people have done it. I’ve done it. You can probably do it. And if you become a real self-publisher you’ll probably have a better book and make more money.

I have a few criticisms of the book’s design.

The header on each verso (left) page shows the author’s name. Each recto (right) header shows the book title. If I was on page 143 and had a sudden urge to learn the title or author of the book I've been reading, I could instantly flip to either the front or rear cover to find out. It would be more useful if one of the headers showed the chapter name and number. That would be a big help in finding a particular section after consulting the table of contents.

There is no easy way to find the report on a particular company. Mark does not provide readers with an alphabetical index in the back (which would only take up one page and there are four blank pages back there), and the table of contents shows the companies arranged alphabetically, but only within chapters. Until you determine that Mark rates Holy Fire Publishing as a publisher to avoid, or Wasteland Press as just OK, you won’t be able to find their pages.

And finally, this book is a perfect example of a subject where printed pages can’t compete with the Internet. At this time, the publishing business is fluid, or even chaotic. Prices and contracts and special deals and even company ownership change constantly. Some of the publishers Mark listed seem insignificant, but Wheatmark, apparently a player, was left out.

This book, like any book including my books, merely provides a look at the way things were on the day the author stopped writing. The results of Mark's studies must be regarded as probably accurate samples, but for the latest contract terms and charges you’ll have to do some of your own research.

If you read the book and do proper research, I hope you’ll realize that none of the companies listed are self-publishing companies, and that you may be better off becoming a REAL self-publisher. 

Monday, July 13, 2009

Watch out for absurdly high prices
and phony bargains

This posting is a warning more for readers than for writers, but self-publishers should be conscious of possibly dishonest online booksellers they may get involved with.

Your readers won’t be happy to discover that they’ve been overcharged.

Unfortunately, you can’t control who sells your books or what they charge, but if you find a bookseller is being dishonest, let the company know.

The top screenshot from HotBookSale, a company that promises “great discounts,” lies about the list price of one of my books (it’s really $29.95 not a stupid $36.54). It offers a phony 26% discount (which they strangely call 10%) if you join their BestBrandValues plan for about $240 per year. will sell it for even less ($26.95) without joining anything.

Be aware of wacky ripoff prices from independent booksellers on Amazon. Another one of my books has a list price of $15.95 and that's what Amazon itself sells it for. Strangely, other dealers sell it for as much as $49.18 -- more than THREE TIMES the normal price.

I can't imagine why anyone would buy from Booksbylab, or how they stay in business. These thieves even offer a used copy of the book shown above for $53.25. Amazon sells it new for about half of the used price.

Booksby lab is not even the worst of its breed. Woody's Books is offering a used copy for $72.02! That's almost enough money to pay for three new books.

I can understand why a used copy of a rare out-of-print book has a higher price than when the book sold for new, but it makes absolutely no sense for used versions of current books to be priced so high.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Is this something to brag about?

I just can't resist picking on vanity publishers. They are easy targets and there's a lot to pick on them for.

Infinity Publishing brags about its innovation and technology. They distribute a somewhat useful promotional and instructional book aimed at prospective customers that I discussed and slammed a few days ago.

It includes this pathetic picture. The caption says "Michelle Shane, sales administrator, is seen here receiving an order for a book. She will then oversee the invoicing and sale of the book as it makes its way through our system. It will be shipped in less than 48 hours!"

The ancient CRT monitor on the desk is not the worst lapse of technology.

Poor Michelle's left arm is twisted like a pretzel to hold her telephone handset against her right ear to free her right hand for writing.

She's not even taking advantage of the high-tech shoulder rest that someone stuck onto the handset.

Michelle should be using a HEADSET, not a handset, so both of her hands will be free to conduct business.

And why is she writing on a piece of paper instead of typing on a keyboard?

I suppose her method is better than using a quill on a sheet of parchment -- but just barely. I wonder if Infinity's books are printed on demand, as scrolls, by monks working by candlelight.

Also, the company can't accept uploaded manuscripts, but they will let authors send in a stack of floppy disks. Some computer users have never used a floppy disk, and floppy drives are seldom found in modern PCs.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What’s wrong with regular publishing?

For an author, the main advantage of traditional publishers is that they generally pay authors advance money up front and pay a royalty on the books they sell. They also have better distribution than self-publishers have, and are more likely to get books onto the shelves of bookstores. They have employees who know how to design, edit and promote. Their credibility makes it more likely that their books will be reviewed. The first two points are not necessarily advantages.

The system of paying advances and royalties works against new authors and authors writing for niche markets. Since publishers have money at risk, they prefer to invest in sure things.

Here’s what traditional publishers like to invest their time, money and resources in:

Authors like Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Ian Fleming or William Shakespeare who have sold well in the past

Celebrities with fame and followers, that can help sell a book about almost anything (Donald Trump’s Top Dish Washing Secrets, Oprah Talks About Clipping Hedges, Brittney Spears Reveals Intimate Potato Peeling Techniques, How Princess Di Washed her Hair)

Popular topics like getting rich, getting a better job, living longer, having better sex, giving up smoking, getting organized

In addition to the gates that are often closed to new authors, there are other problems with traditional publishing:

First is the use of offset printing presses. These behemoth machines produce books less expensively than the laser printers that are used for Print On Demand, but they are not economical for small print runs. Really low prices occur when 100,000 copies of a best-seller are churned out. If a new author somehow gets a contract, the initial press run is typically 5,000 books. If the publisher can’t reasonably expect to sell most of those 5,000 books, the author does not get a contract. Most books fail, but if the publisher could economically print a few hundred books the first time around for book reviews and test marketing, there would be much less risk and more authors could get deals. The advance against royalties would probably be lower (maybe even nothing), but the chance of getting published, with future rewards, would be higher.

If the first printing of 5,000 copies does sell out pretty quickly, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is obvious. The bad news is that the publisher has to decide how many more books to print. Should it another 5,000, 15,000, 150,000? Any number is a guess, and a gamble. If too many are printed in anticipation of big demand and most are unsold, the whole project could be a failure and lose money. If too few are printed, potential customers will be pissed-off and may not want to wait for additional copies to become available. They may spend their money on other books, or lose interest by the time the books become available. People at the publishing companies who guess right most of the time are worth a lot of money. Those who guess wrong too often lose their jobs.

The quantities involved in offset printing produce other problems and costs, such as climate-controlled warehousing, shipping to booksellers, lots of people handling each book, and dealing with unsold books.

The next big problem is convincing booksellers to take a chance on a new author or subject, when there are thousands of “sure things” competing for the inventory budget and shelf space. It can take a lot of work to sell those 5,000 copies into America’s bookstores, and there’s a good chance that the books won’t stay sold.
Even as we approach the second decade of the 21st century, the publishing industry is saddled with — and suffering because of — a distribution gimmick that was devised in and for the conditions of the Great Depression that started in 1929.

Sales of books, like other non-necessities, had dropped dramatically, and were even feeling the impact of “free” radio. The few bookstores that managed to stay in business had very limited funds to spend on inventory. Publishers offered books on consignment, with guaranteed sales. Retailers did not have to pay for books unless and until they were sold to the public, and books that did not sell within several months could be returned and not paid for. Sometimes even the return shipping was paid for by the publishers.

That may have been a good solution in 1929, but 80 years later it has become very expensive and wasteful. Few if any other retail products are sold that way. A Honda dealer can’t return unsold cars to Honda. A Sony dealer can’t return unsold TVs to Sony. A New Balance dealer can’t return unsold sneakers to New Balance.

If a bookstore operator knows that sales are guaranteed, there is a good chance that little thought will go into making a purchase. This can inflate the initial sales of a book, but the day of reckoning comes a few months later. If most of the copies of a new title are still sitting on the shelves, they go get sent back to the publisher where they are either remaindered and redistributed for the buck-a-book tables, or shredded and pulped to become the raw material for new books.

The urgency that store operators feel to return books before they have to be paid for shortens the time available for a book to build a market. It takes time for book promotion to have an effect and for word-of-mouth to build for a new author or niche subject. Nobody knows how many books are considered flops, that might have been successful with another month or two or three on display in the stores.

To add to the dismal news, book reading is not as important a form of recreation and cultural stimulation as it once was. Books compete with movies, iPods, the Internet, video games, email, 500-channel high-def TV, and even inexpensive international travel and walks in the park.

And despite more competition by non-books for the eyes and brains of the people of the world, each year more and more books are published, making it even harder for each book to become a best seller, or even to be popular, or profitable.

About the only good thing that can be said about the present situation in publishing is that regular, standard, traditional, old-fashioned publishing is not the only way.

Independent self-publishing with Print On Demand provides a low-risk way to reach those eyes and brains, where success depends more on talent, time, inspiration and dedication — not on policies of publishers and bookstores formed in the 1930s.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Infinity Publishing picked the wrong book
to show off with

Infinity Publishing calls itself an "independent (indie) book publisher," but since writers pay for Infinity to publish their books, I prefer to use the more traditional term: vanity press.

The company has published a small book called Become a Published Author! It's aimed at prospective author-customers and explains how the company operates. It also includes some useful information on preparing a manuscript for publication. The 90-page book has a phony cover price of $14.95 that no one ever pays. Infinity gives it away for free. Independent sellers on offer new copies for 50 cents, and used ones for a penny!

It also has another stated purpose, to provide a sample of a book that Infinity has published, to seduce customers.

Ironically and stupidly, the book is made very poorly. It's simply ugly.

The cover has very little contrast between text and a weird background illustration. The subtitle is A complete guide to Infinity Publishing's "just in Time" Book Publishing Method.

"Time Book Publishing Method" should not have initial capital letters. A publisher should know this. So should an editor.

In the past I've complained that companies such as Lulu never look at the books they churn out, assuming that if the author-customer approved it, it's good enough to print.

As despicable as that attitude is, what Infinity has done is even worse. They apparently did not take a good look at a book their own employees put together to represent the company's best work.

Inside the book, the margins on the pages are much smaller than on a standard commercial book, and the tops and bottoms of some facing pages are badly misaligned.

The book's size is just 5.5 x 8.5 inches, smaller than the standard 6 x 9 inch size for similar books. Strangely, Infinity can't even print 6 x 9 books. The company lies that "Most of our competitors can produce only 5.5" x 8.5" books." Infinity brags about being the only company that can print an 8 x 8 book. BFD! For most writers, 6 x 9 is much more important.

The book both uses and recommends Times New Roman and Arial typefaces. Those are Microsoft's default faces and are widely shunned by publishing experts.

Infinity brags about its "accomplished copyeditors" and that the editing service is "the best of its kind." They missed at least one silly typo.

If this book is an example of Infinity's best work -- the sample they use to attract new business -- imagine how crappy their regular books are.

The book says, "We only publish high quality books" and "As you hold this book in your hands, take note of the quality of the printing..." I did take note, and I almost barfed on the book.

To dig their burial hole even deeper, the book brags that Infinity has invested millions of dollars in its printing equipment. They say, "Most of our competitors...involve a third party to print and ship books, yielding lower quality and less reliable fulfillment."

That's a bunch of crap.

I -- like many independent self-publishers and most of Infinity's vanity press competitors, and many major traditional publishers -- use Lightning Source to Print On Demand and ship books to booksellers and readers. I've never encountered a problem with fulfillment, and my books look infinitely better than Infinity's.

The book was published in February 2009 and is badly out-of-date. It discusses saving files onto floppy discs or a Zip disc. It provides instructions on composing a book with the ancient year 2000 version of Microsoft Word. It says the company had published more than 5,500 titles since 1997. Even if we round that number up to get 6,000 titles in 12 years, it works out to less than 10 titles per week. It appears that Infinity is not a very busy publisher.

Competitor Author House claims to have released over 60,000 titles since 1997. I certainly don't think that bigger is better, and I have no love for Author House or any vanity press. But I have to think that Infinity's poor quality must affect its sales volume, and the success of its authors.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Getting old is probably better than dying young

As you write, be conscious of your habitual errors, which may increase as you get older.

I'm a proud member of the first cohort of the baby boom. I was born in 1946 along with Dolly Parton, Candy Bergen, Donny Trump, Billy Clinton, Georgie and Laura Bush, Cher, Linda Ronstadt, Lisa Minnelli, Patty Smith, Jimmy Buffet, Reggie Jackson, Ilie Nastase, Sly Stallone, Oliver Stone, Gianni Versace and Suzanne Somers.

In the new system, we are still middle-aged, and we will remain middle-aged until dirt is shoveled on top of us.

In the last few years I’ve frequently and stupidly held down the shift key as I pressed the key to insert an apostrophe, and ended up inserting a quote mark.

I also often type “i nthe” instead of “in the” and “fro ma” instead of “from a.” I also tap the Caps Lock key a lot by accident, and the semi-colon instead of the apostrophe next door.

While writing my most recent book, I started tapping the “Page Down” key instead of “delete.”

I've also degenerated from being the world's fasted six-finger typist to a pretty-good two-finger typist. (I actually have 10 fingers -- but I don't use them all for typing.)

If I live long enough I’ll probably develop even more bad habits that I can’t control. I hope sloppy typing is not an early sign of dementia.

I guess having to fix typos is better than dying young and perfect. When I start drooling on the keyboard, maybe I'll stop writing.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The disadvantage of Amazon Advantage’s Advantage program enables authors and publishers to list and sell their products on alongside products from the big brand names.

After you agree to Amazon’s terms and are accepted into the program, you ship inventory to an Amazon warehouse. Advantage is a consignment program, where you get paid after Amazon sells one of your books. Payment is transferred to your bank at the end of the second month following a sale. If a book is sold on January 7, Amazon should pay you at the end of February.

Amazon monitors sales and sends email when it's time for you to ship them more books. You pay for the shipping and insurance and have to follow their rules for packaging and labeling.

Now for the bad news. Amazon’s standard purchase discount is 55%. You get 45% of the List Price. That 55% may sound OK to you because it’s the same percentage you’d give to a distributor and bookstore.

With Advantage, if a book costs you $4 to print and Amazon sells it for $20, they pay you $9. After you deduct the cost of shipping and insurance, you are lucky to make $5 - $7 on a book.

On the other hand if you have Lightning Source print the book and ship it to Amazon’s customers as orders are placed, Amazon keeps just 20% ($4) and you keep $11 after the cost of printing and shipping. (Lightning's shipping expense is built into their printing price.)

Advantage may make sense if your sales are high enough to justify ordering large offset print-runs of your books which will cost less per-copy than POD digital printing.

However, most self-publishers are better off with POD and will have a big advantage if they don’t use Advantage.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Don't get ripped off when you buy copies
of your own book

Every author needs to have copies of her own book, to distribute to potential reviewers, to give to family and friends, to keep around the house, or maybe even to sell. This is one area where you can really get hurt if you are not a REAL self publisher.

The website of vanity press Wheatmark said, “You may purchase additional books at 40% off the retail price.”

That’s an unconscionable rip-off. Your discount should be based on the production cost. The retail price is irrelevant.

Xlibris has another strange pricing policy for authors’ copies of their own books. They offer discounts ranging from 30% to 60%, depending on the quantity ordered (not unusual), but the discount also varies with what seems to be a FIXED retail price based on the number of pages in a book. The author’s cost for a book with 108 pages can be $2.80 more than the cost of a book with 107 pages.

That makes absolutely no sense. The difference in the manufacturing cost is about a penny.

Outskirts Press, my traditional least-favorite of the vanity publishers, has its own strange system for pricing author copies. Like some of the others, the discount comes off the retail list price — which has nothing to do with the manufacturing cost and is largely a marketing decision — and the discount varies with which “publishing plan” you have chosen.

For a 300-page $14.95 book, the discounts range from 34% to 48% off the cover price. You get a bigger discount with the “diamond” package than with the “sapphire” package. However, since you’ll pay $300 more for the diamond deal, with Outskirts, you have to pay more in order to pay less.

In REAL self publishing, the price the author pays for books has NOTHING TO DO with the cover price. It just has to do with manufacturing and shipping costs.

If my POD printer charges about $5 to print and ship a 300-page book, I pay $5 whether the cover price is $8, $10, $14, $20 or $129. That's how it should be.