Monday, May 20, 2019

Some unpleasant facts of life for self-publishing authors



You’ll probably see ads proclaiming “FREE PUBLISHING” and you’ll also encounter publishing packages priced under $200. Here’s the truth: (1) No self-publishing company will print and deliver a book for free. (2) Unless you are prepared to spend $1,000 or more ($3,000 or more would be better), you probably won’t get a high-quality book and will not be able to tell many potential readers that the book exists and convince them to buy it.

Writing your book is just your first assignment as an author. Unless you are prepared to make a major effort to publicize your book, few people will know about it or read it.

Most books lose money—even those published by media giants with huge staffs of highly paid and experienced experts. Million-sellers are very rare in the book business. In self-publishing, thousand-sellers are very rare.

Most writers love to write but few people get rich from writing (or from poker, painting or singing). Learn as much as you can about writing and publishing, and work as hard as you can to produce a fine book. But don’t quit your day job and don’t remortgage your house to finance your publishing.

Although a first book can be profitable, don’t assume that your first will be profitable. Write your first book for the joy of it, or to impress your friends and family, or to change some minds, or as a learning experience or a business builder. Over months and years, as you improve your writing skills and learn more about the publishing business, the profits may come. If writing is not either fun or profitable or both—stop writing.

There’s nothing wrong with publishing for pleasure. The cost of publishing a book may be much less than the cost of a boat, a vacation or even a pool tableand nobody expects them to show a profit. If you can afford to publish for fun, do it. If you can make money while having fun, that’s even better.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Go back, go back. Time travel is possible for writers.

My career as a writer started in fourth or fifth grade, back when Barney roamed the earth.

My friend Alan and I wrote articles about the other kids in our school, and his father's secretary typed them up and printed our "newspaper" on a mimeograph machine. We priced the paper at a nickel. I don't think we sold many, and may have published only two issues.

I have no copies of our short-lived paper, and don't even remember its name. The name was probably lame and my writing probably sucked and would embarrass me today.

Later, I was a journalism major at Lehigh University and wrote for the student newspaper, the Brown and White (named for the school's horridly dull colors which only a coprophile could be enthusiastic about). I probably saved most of my "clips" from those days, but all but one of them—a major opus—disappeared years ago.

After college I wrote for lots of magazines and some newspapers. At first I saved everything that was published. After a while, seeing my byline in print was no big deal, so I stopped clipping and saving. At one time I had bound volumes of Rolling Stone which included my columns. I think the huge books are in my attic, but I haven't seen them in decades. My decedents can decide what to do with them.

I sometimes fantasize about time travel (and space travel, unassisted flight, X-ray vision and feet that don't hurt).

One recurring fantasy involves the adult-me encountering the child-me. Would adult-me warn the child-me not to make the stupid mistakes up ahead? Would the adult-me like the child-me? Would the child-me be afraid of the adult-me, or think he's an asshole? (I wrote a book about advising myself.)

With current technology, time travel has to exist in the mind only.

But even without a time machine or a clipping file, there is a way for writers to go back to an earlier era and evaluate their youthful output. We can determine if indeed "the child is father to the man," or if adulthood strayed far from childhood and young adulthood.

The Lehigh student paper has been scanned back as far as 1894, and the issues are online and searchable!

Traditionally, newspapers have had "morgues," where back issues become yellow and moldy, and sometimes crumble.

I know that the New York Times has digitized archives online, but I had no idea that the concept had reached college papers. I suppose that I shouldn't be surprised that Lehigh—a school known for educating engineers—would have a digital, online morgue.

Articles and ads going back over a century have been preserved—perhaps for future centuries.

I was somewhat apprehensive about reading what I had written in the mid 1960s. Would I recognize my writing as "my" writing? How badly was my work butchered by editors? Was I any good then? Was I an asshole?

In one of the Back to the Future movies, Marty McFly wonders if his future kids will think he's an asshole. I understand his fear.

Researching and writing my recent memoir stirred up some long-buried emotions that probably should have stayed underground, and I was initially reluctant to type my name into the search window on the Lehigh website.

I could not resist for long. I typed in "Michael N. Marcus," and found my name listed as a "reporter" in a 1965-66 staff list. Strangely, I found no links for anything I had written.

I then typed my name without my middle initial, and my monitor revealed the good, the bad and the ugly.

Apparently I had not yet started using my middle initial in my byline (probably because I despised my middle name until later in my life, when I also realized that there are many other Michael Marcuses and I needed to make my byline distinctive).

I did not find all of the pieces I remember writing, and found some I did not remember. Subjects ranged from mundane (a $50,000 allocation to improve campus safety that few read in 1966 and I did not read in the 21st century) to politics and reviews. I found a mildly critical review I wrote of a jazz concert, and a scathing review of a live electronic music concert performed by ME, that I might wish was not preserved for posterity.

After months of wandering through Antarctic blizzards, female Emperor Penguins return home and are able to identify their mates from among thousands of apparently identical males.

I'm amazed that my writing "voice" in 1965 is not even remotely recognizable to me as me.

If I did not see my byline, I could not have identified my words—and that was very, very weird. My word sequences were not even as distinct as the feathers on a damn penguin!

The 19-year-old Michael Marcus does not sound at all like the 73-year-old Michael N. Marcus. In 1965, I had not yet developed an identifiable style.

The young-me was a decent journalist, and his writing style is much more serious than the old-me. At least he doesn't seem like an asshole.

I'm sure there are people who think the old-me is an asshole. At age 73, I don't care.

(Barney pic may be from PBS. Photo of Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly is from Universal Pictures. Photo of penguins is from Southern California Public Radio.)

Friday, May 3, 2019

These books may have the worst indexes in the world. Authors: keep your books off my next list.


I previously declared that the world's worst index was in Best in Self-Publishing & Print-On-Demand by David Rising, a charter member of the Self-Publishing Hall of Shame.

The index was apparently assembled by a robot and never checked by a homo sapiens. A smart orangutan or lemur might have made a better index.

(above) In the index, before the “A” topics, we have topics beginning with $, 3 and 7. The index typography is a strange mix of standard, boldface and underlined text, has no system for capitalization and uses different typefaces. Even email addresses appear in the index. There are terms that no one would ever look for, like "hobby" and "private." Some terms are listed twice. Do we really need 72 DPI as well as 72 DPI. with a period after it? (Both are on the same page, BTW.)

Expected terms and names are left out. The front cover screams, “How to Get Published Free.” The word “free” is not indexed, and I couldn’t find anything about free book publishing inside the book.


Helen Gallagher wrote an ugly, sloppy, padded, inaccurate and poorly edited book titled Release Your Writing: Book Publishing, Your Way!


(above) Helen produced the second-worst index I've ever seen. Readers really don't need separate listings for both "distributors" and "Distributors," or "marketing" and "Marketing," or "publishers" and "Publishers," or "small press," "small presses" and "Small Presses."

Most nonfiction pbooks need an index. Microsoft Word can produce an index, but it will be ugly and confusing without proper setup—and intervention.

Some important tips:
  1. Remove duplicate listings. The same word shown in both roman and italic type, or with and without Initial Uppercase Letters, or in singular and plural form does not deserve two listings.
  2. Don't include any terms that nobody would look for.
  3. If you add or remove pages, update the index so page numbers will be accurate.
  4. Make sure that you include important terms, especially if they are on your cover or in your promotional material.
  5. Names should be listed under the last name.
  6. Check spelling.
Even some good books have bad indexes. All books don't need indexes. If you are sure you need to have an index, be prepared to invest a lot of time in it (when you might rather be doing something else) or maybe invest money to have someone else do it. There are professional indexers in the UK and in the USA who can do quality work without complaining.

I now have the distinct displeasure to announce a tie for "World's Worst Index," in The Great Black Hope by Constance Kluesener Gorman.



The book is a confusing mix of sports and spirituality. The author claims to be a Christian Mystic "favored with the gifts of prophecy, healing, miracles and private revelation from God."  It would be better if she had the gift of proper indexing.

On an online authors' forum she complained about poor sales despite extensive publicity.

There are many reasons why a book may not sell well. It's important to keep in mind that nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising

Book previews on websites plus downloadable free samples can make potential purchasers aware of problems which keep them from buying the book.

The author's website, Amazon description and book badly need editing. Obvious errors in grammar and typography scream AMATEUR.

The index should be severely edited, or just deleted.

Who is going to try to find a page about "birthday" or "Mike?" Why does Lawrence Taylor have one citation under "LT" but eleven without the "LT?" Why is Mentor in boldface and  gunfire in italics? There seems to be no system for uppercasing, italicizing and boldfacing. The index lists both depression and Depression. Levi Jones is listed twice. People are listed under first names, not last. "Kroger's.," should be "Kroger,"

Did anyone look at this stinking mess before I did?


Monday, April 29, 2019

Legibility is much more important than looking cool/hip/exciting/glamorous etc.



The plain old basic black-on-white is obviously much easier to read than black or red on royal blue.

I'll never understand why people who put great effort into their words make it so hard for people to read them. This happens with books, websites, magazine articles, advertising, store signs, menus, catalogs, maps, graffiti. . . any appearance of text.

People shouldn't have to squint, magnify, adjust, or solve a puzzle to read what you wrote.

If you have an unstoppable urge to use reverse type (light text on a dark background) limit it to a small block of type, such as a headline, but NEVER put an entire page in reverse. And if you do use a dark background, provide a lot of contrast. White on black or yellow on navy blue are OK. Red on purple sucks. A web page or book cover is NOT a Day-Glo concert poster.


And don't use a decorative typeface that looks like it was attacked by bacteria, or those annoying distorted letter sequences you have to retype to prove that you're a human being and not a robot in order to subscribe to a blog.

And choose a type size that's big enough to be read without a microscope. A book or a website has more space than the back of a credit card. I have several books that I just can't read. This is a frustrating and unnecessary waste of money.


(above) The text on this cover is much too hard to read.

(above) The third word in the title is "key." It looks like "hey." FAIL.

Don't let your medium hide, harm or destroy your message.

Eschew obfuscation and espouse elucidation, in content AND in form.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Authors & Designers: errors can hide anywhere, even on a book cover




No matter how many times you read, re-read and re-re-read, you're bound to find mistakes in anything you've written or designed. It's best to find them before the book is published.

Back in 2009, just minutes before I had planned to send a book to the printer, I decided to check my table of contents. I had a feeling that as I changed the length of some chapters, a page number might have changed.

I actually found three wrong page numbers, and two chapters were missing from the table.

Apparently, I didn't learn the lesson well enough. Another time I was trying to find a chapter in one of my books that has many chapters. I couldn't find it by flipping through the pages, and I couldn't find it by studiously scanning the table of contents.

When I looked even more carefully, I realized that the last entry at the bottom of one page of the TOC was Chapter 51, but the first entry on the top of the next page was Chapter 53.

There was no listing for Chapter 52.

I feel like a blind idiot.

A while ago I uploaded the first version of my new Typography for Independent Publishers for sale on Amazon. The next day I realized that it had the wrong version of the cover, with a missing word and an ugly empty space—a dreadful error for a book about typography.


++++++

IMPORTANT WARNING: Any time you fix an error in a book, you may create more errors.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Important point for writers to ponder: how long will your writing be readable?




Writers who produce ebooks only should think about future readability.

JERUSALEM (AP) - Archaeologists say a newly discovered clay fragment from the 14th century B.C. is the oldest example of writing ever found in antiquity-rich Jerusalem.

Dig director Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University says the 2-centimeter (0.8-inch) long fragment bears an ancient form of writing known as Akkadian wedge script.

The fragment includes a partial text including the words "you," "them," and "later."

It predates the next-oldest example of writing found in Jerusalem by 600 years, and dates roughly four centuries before the Bible says King David ruled a Jewish kingdom from the city.

Mazar said Monday that the fragment likely came from a royal court and suggested more could be found in the most ancient part of Jerusalem, located in the city's predominantly Palestinian eastern sector.

If there are still people on the planet 3,500 years from now, will they be able to read your ebook?

What about 350 years, or 35 years?


Have you tried to find a device to play Laserdiscs (approx. 1978 - 2002), Elcasets (approx. 1976 - 1980) or quadraphonic 8-track tapes (approx. 1970 - 1975)?

Friday, April 19, 2019

Authors: Bad news may be good news for your book sales


Victor Hugo's 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame reached the top of Amazon's bestseller lists this week in France and elsewhere following the devastating fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Hugo, however, will not earn any royalties from the sales boom.

Sales of the French translation of Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of Paris, A Moveable Feast, rose after 2015 terrorist attacks in the Paris area when at least 129 people died. Hemingway, like Hugo, collected nothing.


You've probably heard that "It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good." It's an ancient proverb that has come to mean that a wind that is bad for many people, can be good for others.
  • The same windstorm that drives a boat off its course and onto the rocks might also help a becalmed sailing ship to reach home swiftly and safely—and can power the windmills on the land.
  • A wind that is no good for someone is unusual and ill indeed. 
  • Probably nothing is bad for everyone.
When I was in college in the 60s, I operated a slightly profitable business distributing anti-war pins. One said, "War is Good Business. Invest Your Son." Apparently 58,212 Americans were killed and 153,452 were wounded in the War in Vietnam—plus about 2 million Vietnamese. Nevertheless, the war was good for arms makers, and for college kids who sold anti-war pins and bumper stickers.
 
When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs died in 2011, The Associated Press said, "As macabre as it might seem, Jobs' death Wednesday will only add to the Apple mystique - and profit." The iPhone, iPad, iPod and Mac likely got short-term sales boosts as consumers paid the ultimate tribute to Jobs. It's a commercial phenomenon that also occurred when Michael Jackson's album and song sales rocketed after he died in 2009.
Simon & Schuster moved up the publication date of its biography, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson from November 21 to October 24. Even before publication, the book was ranked #1 on Amazon's overall bestseller list and #1 on three other Amazon bestseller lists, because of pre-orders (including my order).


In my Independent Self-Publishing: The Complete Guide, I wrote, "Remember that the mere publication of your book is not usually sufficiently newsworthy to impress editors and writers. Only the most desperate small-town weekly would publish an article with the headline: 'Local Woman Writes Book.' Your news release needs a news hook. The hook is the main point of your release. It can be a theme, state­ment, trend or event on which you “hang” your news release.  If an important person just got married, promoted, fired, elected or killed, a book about that person should be newsworthy . . . ."

I certainly don't recommend that you murder someone you wrote about. But, if that person should die without your intervention, if there's a revolution in a country you wrote about, or if a company you wrote about goes bankrupt or is sued for something terrible, be prepared to take advantage of the promotional possibilities. Step up your publicity, make phones calls. Send out emails and press releases. Biographer Walter Isaacson was interviewed a great many times about Steve Jobs, and Simon & Schuster sold a great many books.

(Fire photo from Ian Langsdon, EPA-EFE). Second photo from "Gilligan's Island" TV show.)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Self-publishing companies don't have to publish crappy books, but most are perfectly happy to do so

Self-publishing companies (also known as vanity publishers, subsidy publishers, author mills and book whores) make most of their money by selling services and products to authors—not by selling books to readers.

Because of this, they're generally perfectly happy to publish any book submitted (unless it is obscene or libelous). If they refuse to publish a bookbecause it is obscene, libelous or merely terriblethey make no money.

Therefore, they publish many crappy books.

With most of these companies, editing is an extra-cost option usually costing $300 to $1,000, which many ignorant, egomaniacal or impoverished authors decide to skip.


I previously blogged about the problem created by Xlibris's not insisting on editing.

Xlibris says, "One of our founding principles, dating back to when we were newly incorporated and making books out of a basement office, is that authors should have control over their work."

That's not necessarily a good thing. If an author has bad ideas for a book's design, or is simply a bad writer, shit gets published. The "proficient team" and "best editors" don't control the quality of what gets published with an Xlibris label on it.


One of the best examples (i.e., one of the worst books) that shows the failure of Xlibris is the awkwardly named, physically ugly, poorly written, unedited and overpriced The Truth and the Corruption of the American System by Eunice Owusu.

The author has some important things to say, but her message is diluted and distorted by bad presentation, and lack of help from Xlibris. The company wanted to collect money for the publishing package they sold her, but made no effort to improve the book.


I've preached that companies like Xlibris need to stop behaving like crack whores who will provide service to anyone who can pay the price. I also said that self-publishing companies need to develop some pride, and to grow some balls. They need to be able to say, "I'm sorry, but your manuscript is just not good enough to be published unless it gets professional editing."


Sadly, even if an author does pay for editing, the book may still turn out badly. One author told me she paid $999 for the most expensive "Diamond" publishing package from stupid, sloppy and sleazy Outskirts Press, plus extra-cost options including nearly $1,000 for "professional" editing.

She said, "I have had some scathing reviews due to the errors that were left in my book after I paid a small fortune for editing with the Outskirts editing team. I was so excited when my book was first released, but after a few family members pointed out the mistakes left behind, I can't describe the restraint it took for me not to explode. I tried to reason with my so-called marketing representative, but she simply hid behind the "fine print" they give you after they receive payment from you. It would have cost me another small fortune to revise the book, and I am still in debt from publishing it in the first place. The marketing representative simply would not assume any responsibility for mistakes that Outskirts made. Outskirts made me feel paranoid about not getting their editing service, but when I did it was as if I had no editing at all."

A while ago I had the misfortune to flip through a horribly produced book from Outskirts Press, Stupid In Montana As America by Robert E. Milliken.


Virtually everything about the book is either inept or wacky.
  1. It had two reviews on Amazon, and one was written by the author. That was removed and the remaining review is terribly written.
  2. It's overpriced.
  3. The title makes no sense.
  4. The description on Amazon misuses the noun "dupe." It is not a synonym for "stupid person." Some dupes are smart people, like clients of Bernard Madoff.
  5. The author's promotion in an authors' online group is filled with religious nonsense, and nonwords such as "accurd" (occurred) and "maltible" (multiple).
  6. There are abundant errors inside the book. Some are silly and tiny, such as "bit" for "bitten." But there is major garbage which should never have been printed, e.g., "Fme fishing and hunting are my two faveretfavorite things to do, but I gotta tell yayou, that theirsthere are more and more people doing it."
  7. The first sentence in the first chapter says: "I may have a deferent different view point than of the local’s who live there." I've read a great many books, but I can't recall any short sequence of words with as many errors as this one. Like Owusu, Milliken has some important things to say, but his message is horribly weakened by the unprofessional publishing provided by Outskirts Press.
Sadly, this book about stupidity is a great example of stupidity. It is really stupid to publish an unedited book.

Companies that willingly (and gladly) publish shit are contributing to the downfall of literature, culture, civilization and maybe even life on Earth. I wish they would merely go out of business.

Monday, April 8, 2019

QUACK. A duck or two can make your writing funnier


David McCallum played agent Illya Kuryakin on The Man from U.N.C.L.E on TV in the 1960s. Since 2003 he has played Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard on NCIS. The doctor's last name could have been Jones, O'Hara, Liebowitz or Spock—but "Mallard" permitted him to be nicknamed "Ducky."

I don't know why, but there seems to be something inherently funny about ducks. Maybe it's the feet, or the beak or the quacks.


If you want to get some smiles from readers, take advantage of ducks. Warner Bros. has made lots of money from Daffy Duck. Donald Duck and his family have been very good to Disney. Maybe a duck can make you rich, too. 

“Wanna buy a duck?"
Joe Penner

Q: What’s the difference between a duck?
A: Each of its legs is both the same?
—My Father

Two ducks are sitting in a bathtub.
The first duck says, “Please pass the soap,”
The other duck says, “No soap, radio.”
—Unknown

A duck walks into a pharmacy, and asks for Chapstick. The cashier says, "Cash or check?" and the duck says, "Just put it on my bill."
—Unknown

A duck walks into a bar and asks the bartender, “Do you have any grapes?" 
The bartender says, "No we only have beer here." The duck leaves. 
The next day the duck walks back into the bar and asks the bartender, "Do you have any grapes?" 
The bartender says, "No, I told you we only have beer; and if you ask me again I’m going to nail your beak to the bar.” The duck leaves. 
The next day the duck walks back into the bar and asks the bartender, “Do you have any nails?" The bartender says "no." 
The duck asks, “Do you have any grapes?"
—Unknown

A motorist in a Mercedes was driving through the countryside on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when he came to a large puddle of water from a previous rain storm. Worried that he was going to damage the car in the deep water, he asked a local farmer (who was standing near the puddle) how deep the water was. "Arr", said the farmer "that water only be a few inches deep!" Relieved, the motorist edged his car into the water, expecting to come out on the other side with no trouble. Instead, as he drove in, the water came right up the side of the car, and the engine sputtered to a halt. Sitting there with the water lapping at the window, the motorist yelled at the farmer angrily: "I thought you said this water was only a few inches deep!!!" "Well", replied the farmer "It only come up to the waist of them there ducks."
—Unknown

CLICK for dirty duck jokes. 




 











“Why a duck?”
—Chico Marx



The Marx Brothers starred in an extremely funny movie called Duck Soup (1933).



On  Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life"  TV quiz  show  (1950 - 1960), contestants could win extra  money by saying an ordinary word while speaking to Groucho. A fake duck would drop down with $100.

-----------
Illustrations above came from the obvious sources and I thank them.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Writers: tax day is coming. Take advantage of your special advantages.


It's now April 3rd. This year Tax Day in the USA will be 'celebrated' on April 15th.  It's getting closer every second. 

What you do today—and every day—will affect what you pay and what you keep in the spring.

There's a lot to misunderstand about income taxes. However, my birthday is April 15th, so I am particularly qualified to give tax advice. I don't know everything, however. If you need help in setting up bank accounts in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands, ask Mitt Romney.

Years ago, when I lived in New York City, I had a simple formula that worked very well (i.e., no audits ever, and refunds every year):
  1. No more than 10% for the feds.
  2. No more than 5% for the state.
  3. No more than 1% for the city.
For 18 years I've been in Connecticut. There are no city taxes, but life is more complicated. I used to pay my accountant about $700 for a few hours work necessary to produce my annual business and personal federal and state returns. After much scientific number crunching, he still came up approximately with the same percentages I established 40 years earlier. My life is simpler now, as I ease into retirement, and I again do my own taxes.

I'll pass on a tip for a deduction I developed while working as an advertising copywriter and have continued to use as a webmaster, writer and publisher.

EVERY piece of media you consume, and equipment and services used with the media, should be deducted in the range of 25% to 100%.

Deduct movies, CDs, games, concerts, artwork, vacations, MP3 players, big TVs, little TVs, books, magazines, newspapers, smart phone, computers, tablets, ebook readers, software, Internet service, museum visits... all that stuff that helps you stay aware of trends in culture.


Years ago my father owned a chain of clothing stores. He once considered deducting his subscription to Playboy (which did provide news and advice about men's fashions among the airbrushed large-breasted babes). Alas, he was afraid to list a skin mag on his tax return, so he sent too much money to the IRS.  I have no such reluctance—and may have bigger cojones.


With proper classifications, you can probably get Uncle Sam to subsidize porn, booze and hallucinogens.

Here's some more advice of uncertain value:
  1. A successful small business is one that breaks even each year, with a slightly higher gross income.
  2. Big profits are nice if you're trying to sell the business, but not when you're filing your income tax return.
  3. Write about stuff you like, whether it's wine, sports cars, clothes, travel, cameras, horse racing or sex. Then you can deduct everything you spend on fun -- if you classify it as "research."
  4. There's almost nothing that's too crappy to donate to Goodwill Industries or the Salvation Army and claim an appropriate deduction for. Bill Clinton was criticized for claiming a deduction for donating used underwear. I'm not the president and don't care what Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh will say about me. I lost a lot of weight a few years ago, and I donated lots of oversized underwear. Washed, of course.
  5. If you are bad about saving money for a rainy day, it’s tempting to let Uncle Sam save money for you. I did that for years, and even earned interest on the money that was due me. Now there is a limit to how long you can let your money sit in Fort Knox (or wherever they keep the surplus) and the IRS may assess a penalty just for filing late, even if you don't owe anything, so check with a pro. Also: your state tax people may be tougher than the IRS.
I am not a professional tax adviser  I'm more of a professional wiseass (who usually gets away with his wiseassing).

I put a lot of what I've learned into an ebook. It can save you many times its low cost. 

Writers Can Get Away With Apparently Absurd Tax Deductions That Ordinary People Can't

Monday, April 1, 2019

Authors should know about small caps. Do you?


A small cap stock is a stock with a relatively small market capitalization (total market value of the company's outstanding shares). Generally, market capitalization of between $300 million and $2 billion is considered small cap. Apple has recently been the world champ in market cap—nearly a trillion bucks! 

A small cap letter is an uppercase (i.e., "cap" or "capital") letter that's about the same height as nearby lowercase letters. I first noticed them in Business Week about ten years ago, and found them disconcerting.
  • Small caps are frequently used for decorative effects on book covers and title pages and at the beginning of a block of text.
  • They're also used for abbreviations and acronyms like USA, FBI, SCUBA, RADAR, A.M. and IBM. Some publications have rules to use small caps for abbreviations and acronyms longer than three letters, which results in arbitrary and awkward typography. Abbreviations a.m. and p.m. are often smallcapped—but may be uppercased or put in standard type.
The theory behind small caps when not used for decoration is that they blend in well with surrounding text instead of SHOUTING AT THE READER like full-size caps. The use of small caps is supposed to be a sign of sophisticated typography, like hanging punctuation (which I may deal with in the future).

There are several problems with a few letters in small caps.
  • They look stupid at the beginning of a sentence. Sometimes a sentence can be reworked to avoid the problem. Some typographers switch to full-size, others keep the small caps up front. I prefer to rewrite.
  • If you have the names of two competing entities nearby, and one has normal lettering and one has small caps, there is an implicit downgrading of the one with small caps. USA looks less important or powerful than Canada. B&N is dominated by Amazon. HP and IBM are overpowered by Dell.
  • If you have a compound name like "U.S. Capitol," "U.N. Building" or "PR Newswire," it looks silly for the "U" or the "P" to be smaller than the first letter of the next word.
  • A title like "HTML Guide" would look silly if "HTML" was smaller than the "G."
As with many aspects of writing, publishing and typography, sometimes you just have to go with what seems right, rather than apply rigid rules. If you follow any rule 100% of the time, your work will seem stupid 10% of the time. Unfortunately, when you bend or break rules to make what you think is a better book, some people may think you made an error. That's life.

I avoided small caps in my first nine self-pubbed books, but as I tried to get "more professional" I started to use them in book #10, Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a better deal. Make a better book. After several hours, I got so frustrated trying to resolve inconsistencies, I gave up and went back to full-size caps.

If you have a lot of time to kill and are a graphic masochist, you can try using small caps. I doubt that I'll try them again, except in titles or other small doses.

Some typeface packages include characters specifically designed to be use as small caps. Software (including Microsoft Word) can make 'fake' small caps. The real small caps look better adjacent to full-size caps because they have thick strokes to match their big brothers. The fakes are "scaled down" caps and have unnaturally thin strokes. Fakes may be noticed by professional typographers, but probably not by readers.




(above) These two similar title pages from Scribner use all caps for the authors' names and some small caps in the titles. I think the titles look nice. (However, I would have slightly tucked the "H" under the "T" in "The" on both pages. That's called kerning.) Strangely, the typography for the name and locations of the publisher are composed differently on the two pages.



(above) This piece of a cover page from Stephen Crane's book mixes drop caps and underlined small caps. I think it looks like shit.



(above) It's common to start text in a newspaper or magazine article or book chapter with some small caps. I don't think they add anything useful or attractive here. This looks silly to me. It's an ancient affectation—maybe a typographer showing off. Why bother?


(above) This is the opening of The Great Gatsby. I think it looks silly to start with a big "I," then switch to small caps, and then use normal type.


(above) This chapter-opener has a full line of small caps following a dropped-in illustration. The word "winemakers" is half small caps and half normal. I think that's silly.


(above) Small caps often follow raised caps or dropped caps in chapter openings. You can left-click on the image to enlarge it. Maybe you'll recognize the books.)




(above) This page from Paradise Lost suffers from an overdose of small caps. Why does "Satan" get the special treatment, but not "Angels" and "Messiah?"




(above) This is the cover The Look of a Book, an ebook I wrote, designed and published. It's the first time I used small caps on a cover and I like the way it looks. I particularly like the way the tips of the "H" and "E" in "THE" butt together, and the way the "O" nestles into the "K" and "F" in "LOOK," "OF" and "BOOK." I think this treatment is much more attractive than ordinary upper and lower case lettering would be.

When you self-publish you can even change a title to take advantage of the way type looks. Publishing freedom is wonderful and powerful.



This posting is based on material in wonderful Typography for Independent Publishers.