Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Here's some important advice—from a pro—for all you amateur writers who want your FB posts and messages to be read.

I majored in journalism in college and have been writing professionally for 48 years. I have no intention of trying to teach you to become a pro and won't deal with grammar, sentence structure or plot development. I won't tell you how to publish a book or sell a movie script.

I want to pass on two very basic bits that relate to the _physical appearance_ of text ...that apply to everything from Facebook and Twitter posts to a 600-page novel.

(1) Break up your text into paragraphs of one to four sentences, separated with blank lines (online) on with blanks or indents (on paper).

Every day I see—and ignore—FB posts and personal messages with one loooooooooooong paragraph. This structure creates an uninviting, impenetrable gray wall. Human eyes and brains need occasional rest stops.

(2) DO NOT TYPE IN ALL-CAPS ("UPPERCASE"), for two important reasons:

(2a) In the online world, limited use of all-caps is good for emphasis, but LOTS OF IT IMPLIES SHOUTING. If you are not pissed off, use a normal mix of uppercase and lowercase letters.

(2b) ALL-CAPS are harder to read and take longer to read than a normal mix of letter heights. We read by recognizing the shapes of words, not just by analyzing the sequence of individual letters. A word with only UPPERCASE LETTERS looks like a block—not a word—barely distinguishable from another block.

Several people have stated that they have vision problems and all-caps are easier to read because the words are "bigger."

That's a lame excuse!

All-cap words are _not_ bigger. The letters have uniform height, but the maximum height is unchanged. The use of all-caps online is unnecessary, unproductive and antisocial.

Even if the process somehow does help you to read your own words, it does nothing to help you to read the billions of words written by others.

There is a simple and no-cost solution. Your computer, phone, tablet, e-reader and web browser should allow you to easily increase text size. I normally use 125% or 133%.
Try it—even if you are merely "of a certain age" and don't have vision trouble.

If you find this useful, please share it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Indents, Outdents, Pilcrows, WTF?

[above] Half-inch indents are a holdover from 1960s-era typing classes, when kids were instructed to indent five spaces. They’re OK in a letter, but generally look bad in a book. Half-inch is Word’s default. The ‘proper’ indent is an aesthetic decision, and varies with typeface, type size, page size, margins and more. I generally use .3-inch for books with 12-point type.

Back when type was set from pieces of lead, an em quad was used to insert a blank space of the same width as an uppercase “M.” A one-em indent is generally safe for book text, but as far as I know an em indent is not an easy option if you are formatting with Word.

[above]  Missing tooth? Most paragraphs in most books will be indented, but I don’t indent a paragraph that starts parallel to the top of a graphic element, or the first line at the beginning of a chapter or section, or after a large white space, a chart, a diagram or a photograph. These are aspects of personal style, and can change from book to book. Do some experimenting, look at lots of books, and maybe ask for advice or hire a designer.
Keep in mind, however, that paragraph’s indent signals the beginning of the paragraph, so if the beginning is obvious without the indent, there is no need to indent.

A new paragraph can be introduced by a skipped line, an indent, an outdent, an initial cap or a symbol such as the pilcrow [above]. Although there is generally no need to use more than one indication, it is sometimes necessary to use a skipped line to provide space for an initial cap (which I'll discuss in a future blog) or a  decorative symbol.

Today's material is updated from my wonderful ebook, Typography for Independent Publishers

Friday, January 20, 2017

An easy, effective alternative to celebrity blurbs

Every author dreams of having cover blurbs (endorsements) from famous people who'll say nice things which may entice other people to buy books.

Often, especially for a new author with a new book, it's just not possible to get the attention of a a superstar or an expert who will add authority to yours.

That doesn't mean your book has to be blurbless.

There's nothing wrong with asking for and printing blurbs from friends and family, if it's appropriate to your book. Later on, if Trump's doctor Harold Bornstein or another celeb falls in love with your words, you can revise the cover to incorporate the new comments.

My first self-published book I Only Flunk My Brightest Students: stories from school and real life, deals with my life. So it made perfect sense to use blurbs from people who know me, rather than some distant Nobel Prize winner.

The book is funny. Identifying Howard Krosnick, the source of my front cover blurb as "author's classmate since first grade" is almost a parody of the traditional stuffy IDs ("professor of Indo-Eurasion folk medicine at the University of Guatemala), and reinforces the mood of the book.

Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults) is an updated replacement for the flunk book. It has a fantastic cover blurb which says, "This book is so funny that I nearly peed in my pants. My girlfriend didn't think it was funny, so I got a new girlfriend."

The blurber, Nicholas Santiago, is someone I know through business. His words are sufficient. I see no need to explain who he is, and I doubt that Oprah could have written a better recommendation. I received "five stars" and some nice words from the Midwest Book Review -- but those words are not as funny as Nick's words.

There's nothing wrong with your acting as a writing coach for your blurbers. You can even write a complete blurb and ask someone to "adopt" it.

If you’ve written a how-to book, the best blurbs will come from people who have actually been helped by it.

A good way to find “amateur” blurbers who might write sincere comments about actually benefiting from your book is to observe online communities that are concerned with your subject. If you find articulate people with problems your book solves, offer to send them free advance copies (even PDFs if bound copies or ebooks are not yet available) in exchange for their comments. You can say that you’d like to know if the book was helpful and how it can be improved. Mention that you might like to quote their comments, but don’t guarantee it.

Here's a great blurb, from a new author, for one of my books about publishing: "Michael Marcus’s book on self-publishing was detailed, complete and easy to read. It is the best I have read on the subject. It was very helpful. I do highly recommend this instructive book to anyone who wants the complete instruction guide to getting your written works out there.—Charles Eastland, author of  The Fire Poems"
  • If you get a good blurb, identify the blurber in some way that may help her or him. In an ebook or online, provide a link. Like it or not, blurbing is often mutual ass-kissing. Play the game if you want the benefits.
  • If you have a connection to a real celeb it may be tempting to ask for a favor -- but make sure the fame is relevant to your book. If your college roommate lives next door to super-chef Mario Batali, Batali's comments about your book about bicycle repair probably won't mean much. 
  • Beware of self-serving blurbs that say more about the blurber than the book, or blurbs that were obviously written without reading the book.

James & Geoff. Which one did I sit next to on a plane?

Don’t be too timid to approach famous authors, politicians, business leaders and celebrities, especially if you have something in common which can create a bond. You might be pleasantly surprised. Write a good letter and explain how you think the book relates to the prospective blurber. Find a reason to compliment the candidate. If possible, refer to a time when you were in the same place, perhaps during a speech or a book signing or on an airplane. (I once sat next to James Earl Jones. Hmm. Actually, it may have been Geoffrey Holder.)

Short blurbs are usually better than long blurbs. Humorous blurbs (if appropriate) are often better than serious blurbs.

Request blurbs as long in advance as possible -- as soon as you have a draft of your book that is good enough to show. The book does not have to be complete. You can probably get by with an introduction, a table of contents, and a few chapters sent as a PDF. If you want a blurb from someone famous, it’s probably better to send an ARC (Advance Review Copy) than a PDF.

Incorporate good “early” blurbs into your back cover and first page as soon as possible. If other blurbers read them, they may be more likely to write similarly positive comments.

left-click to enlarge for easier reading

Monday, January 9, 2017

If you make your book bigger, will it be better? Probably not

The bigger the book, the longer it takes to finish writing, editing and formatting it, the more it costs to produce and purchase, the more errors it will have, and maybe the fewer people who will buy it.

I almost never go to movies that are longer than two hours, because I know the movie will become a $12 nap. I am similarly reluctant to buy books with more than about 350 pages, because I doubt they will keep me interested.

In an online forum for authors, a newbie discussed his debut novel -- which was planned to have more than 800 pages.
  • It will be extremely difficult to persuade people to buy a huge and expensive book written by someone they've never heard of.
Maybe that book should become three books, or should be drastically cut.
  • Almost any page can sacrifice a sentence or two without suffering. 
  • Most sentences can shed a word or two, and no reader will miss them.
The maxi­­mum number of pages for a book is determined by print­ing and binding equip­ment (if the book is printed) and what people are willing to pay, carry and read.

One the other hand, the United Nations’  Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organ­iz­a­tion declared 49 pages to be the min­imum length for a book. A publication with fewer pages can be a leaflet, pamphlet, booklet or brochure. Call it a book, and you risk offending nearly 200 nations.

Despite the UNESCO decree, no printed book has 49 pages. Pbooks have an even number of pages even if some pages don’t have numbers on them. An individual piece of paper in a book is called a leaf. Each leaf has two sides, called pages. A 100-page book contains 50 leaves. Or leafs.

Publishers don’t have to obey the United Nations. Outskirts Press can make “books” with as few as 18 pages, the minimum from Create­Space is 24 pages, and Lulu can do 32 pages.

Most printers can produce books with as many as 800 to
1,000 pages, but books with more than 500 pages are unusual. With nonfiction, you need to have enough pages to cover your topic adequately. Don’t skimp, or pad.
  • The book should not be so big that it will be priced a lot higher than its competitors or seem like “too much to read.”
  • It should not be so short that it seems incomplete, or doesn’t offer value for its cost.

The form of a book affects the acceptability of its size. A printed book with 600 pages could be heavy to carry and difficult to lay flat (and expensive to print and ship). 

The cost of each additional page printed is insignificant. The cost of each e-page is zero. There is a prejudice against very thin books, so try for a minimum of about 120 pages. Thin books just don’t seem like real books, and the printing on the book’s spine will be tiny.

Novels can be much longer than nonfiction. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is about 1,300 pages long, and some of Rowling’s Harry Potter books have over 700 pages.

A book’s page count is not final until it is ready to be printed. Many factors determine how many words fit on a page, including page size, type size, line spacing, margins, headers, number and size of illustrations, front and back matter, etc.

An 8.5-by-11-inch manuscript page holds about twice as many words as a common 6-by-9-inch book page. A 200-page manuscript can yield a 400-page book (with no graphics), and have about 100,000 words.

Most ebooks don’t have real pages. I know of one ebook with just nine “pages” and one with 1,594 -- unless the person reading makes an adjustment which changes the total.

With most ebooks, the readers can adjust typeface, type size and vertical/horizontal orientation. That changes the number of apparent pages. A hundred people could read a particular ebook, but they’re not necessarily reading the same book. 

Publishers Weekly analyzed data from Amazon.com and declared that the median average "word count" for books is 64,531 words, which translates to about 290 paper pages. While a mean average might be more useful than the median (half of the books have more words, half have fewer), the number from PW is still useful. It’s probably best for new writers not to stray too far from the average.

It’s normal for writers to love their words -- but readers may not share the love. Some writers who love their words recognize that there are just too many words. I voluntarily cut a book I wrote from 518 pages to 432 pages, and it’s better because of the cuts. It may have been even better at 396.