The World of Publishing

Let's Hear it For Imagination!

The secret ingredient in these desserts? Imagination.

The secret ingredient in these desserts? Imagination.

I have lot of friends in the publishing business. Lots. And I meet a lot of people in that world as well. Years ago, when my children’s book first came out, I was talking to a woman who said she worked for a publisher of textbooks. She told me that her company had a policy of not using the word “imagination” in their textbooks because they feared that books using that word will not be bought in some U.S. school districts.

She explained that the word was too closely associated in some people’s minds with the word magic, which, if you recall the debates about the Harry Potter books back when they were first published, is a literary hot potato for many people.

You could say that I’m fascinated by magic in all its forms—as make-believe performance, as real-life pagan ritual, as literary device. I was a huge magic geek as a kid. I still have the wand and tote bag of tricks that I trot out every time the unsuspecting child of a neighbor has a birthday party. Several of the blogs I follow these days are written by modern-day witches. And one of my long-time pet projects is a series of fantasy novels featuring rich magic systems.

That said, I actually get the objection-to-magic thing, I really do. I don’t like that people feel that way, but I can live with their objection if they can live with mine. But banning your child from ever reading, hearing, or seeing the word IMAGINATION—the Old French origin of the world means “to picture to oneself”—seems crazy to me. I’d argue you need more imagination to ban the word IMAGINATION for all the harm it will do your kid. The most successful adults I know did not grow up in an imagination-free zone.

I wonder if my acquaintance’s employer was the only company to enact such a policy. Since I first heard this anecdote back in 2011, I haven’t been able to confirm what I was told, nor have I ever been able to find a news article from a reputable source confirming this person’s assertion. It’s entirely possible my acquaintance was full of it, but then again, this is not the sort of policy a textbook publisher would voluntarily release to the news media.

Just in case the policy is true, here are couple of copies of the word. Please feel free to copy and paste into your favorite textbook of choice. Give a few to some wonderful kids, and to some boring adults who need it badly while you’re at it.

IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION. IMAGINATION.

There. Now don’t you feel better?


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The Stark Truth

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Several years ago I heard that the University of Chicago was reprinting some of Donald Westlake’s old Richard Stark novels, both in print and as ebooks. I snapped up one of the ebooks during a heavily promoted “event” where they were offering one of the titles at the low, low price of free.

I’ve been trying to read more ebooks to reduce the amount of clutter in my home. I also like that when I’m on vacation or on the road, I can carry hundreds of books with me on one device.  I was looking forward to enjoying the Stark novel. That series, featuring master thief Parker, is known as the quintessential heist series in the crime fiction world.

But I was shocked by the number of typos I found in that Kindle edition. This happens whenever a publisher scans an old book that has never been digitized, and then uses OCR (optical character recognition) software to convert that image into text. You really have to proofread the resulting text very carefully because even good software will read the original text incorrectly. I went through this on a minor level when I recently scanned one of my old manuscripts—a pre-MS Word manuscript—and found that every instance of the letters “rn” as in “horn” was converted to the single letter “m.” If you squint real hard at the letters “rn,” you can kinda, sorta see how that might happen.

Anyway, the problems I spotted in the Stark novel were so bad and pervasive that I was actually moved to write the hallowed University of Chicago Press. To my surprise, they wrote me back. Here is our exchange. I’ve redacted the contact’s name and email.

From: Joe


Sent: Monday, October 31, 2011 7:40 AM


To: [Publicity, U of Chicago Press]


Subject: Richard Stark novels (problems)



Hi:



I have never written a letter like this.


I recently downloaded a Kindle edition of one of your Richard Stark novels, and was amazed by the number of typos I found in the text. Westlake was a fine writer, and I'm delighted that U. of Chicago Press is reprinting these old books. But someone has to proof them before they go out the door. I’m an author/editor myself, so I am especially aware of these sorts of problems. But still: they were unavoidable and frequent. 

Some of these problems looked like scanning errors. The word “I’ll” showed up several times as “111,” as if the text of an original paperback was scanned improperly into your system but not caught by a live editor. Other times, I’d find words such as “we’ll” written as “well,” and often the first word of sentences was uncapitalized.

This pretty basic stuff, but I don't feel comfortable buying more of the books until I know for sure that this problem has been corrected across the board. I’m told that a lot of Westlake’s older paperback originals had typos but that isn't an excuse. I can’t imagine that U. of Chicago Press is trying to reproduce the texts of these books exactly as they once appeared. That’s ludicrous. It seems more likely that someone was rushing to meet a deadline and didn't proof the Kindle editions. I notice a few other comments on Amazon’s websites that lead me to believe that this is pervasive throughout the series. I wouldn’t consider buying the print versions either, for the same reason.

 Can you let me know when/if the problem is fixed? I plan to buy them all. Just not yet.

 — Joe

On Oct 31, 2011, at 11:09 AM, they wrote back:


Dear Joe, 


Thank you for emailing to bring this issue to our attention. We do very much care about the quality of our print and e-books and I appreciate that you have made us aware of the problems you found. The older titles are more difficult to convert than the newer titles for which we have live files and editors freshly familiar with the text, so it does not surprise me that the conversion process caused errors, but it does concern me that they were not caught. 

I agree with you that the kinds of errors you are describing seem to be the sort that come from the conversion process. I’d like to look into this issue further. Could you tell me the title of the book that you purchased so I can have it reviewed? Once we have looked at the book you emailed about, we will check some of the others to which may have similar errors that were missed.

Sincerely, 
[redacted]

So I wrote back:

 The one I downloaded was “The Score.”

 But by poking around online, I found some other references to typos in at least two other titles. There’s this link, where someone writes:

“After reading another post like this, I reported 7 or 8 typos in “Butcher’s Moon” by Richard Stark. I also mentioned I would not be averse to a store credit for my efforts.”

 I found this comment at this link:

Letting Amazon know about typos/errors in Kindle books works. I pointed out 26 typos in a book and Amazon removed it indefinitely until the publisher fixes it. And they gave me 5$. : kindle

 And then, on Amazon, I found this review of the Stark book entitled “The Seventh”:

 4.0 out of 5 stars Who edited the Kindle edition?!  September 10, 2011

Amazon Verified Purchase

This review is from: The Seventh (Parker Novels) (Kindle Edition)

So many typos. I feel like I’m reading German “die” for “the” and often “w” for “v”. Great novel, but—if we are going to pay $10 for an electronic copy—please take the time to make it readable.

Again, I’m really sorry to contact you about this. I hope you will get this sorted out. I know this is a big effort, re-releasing these old books. I know a lot of fans are watching them closely.

 All best, Joe

That was was all from my end. My last note from the publisher was this:

Dear Joe,

Thanks so much—especially for sending the other comments as well!

 As a warning, it may be a couple months before this is sorted out since we have to work around the schedule of our new books. And, once again, thank you for taking the time to let us know about these.

Best wishes,

[redacted]

There you have it. I should note that I’m a terrible copy editor and proofreader of my own work. (Go ahead and look. I’m sure there are typos in this very post.) And I have been as long as I’ve been working in publishing, which is knocking on three decades at this point. That’s why I hire editors to review my books before I self-pub them. But here’s something people don’t like to admit: Even my traditionally published books have typos.

I once visited the offices of a friend who happened to be a literary agent. He was aggravated that week by a disaster that had happened with one of the books he repped and sold to a Big Five publisher. It was a nonfiction book about rock music. He flipped to a page and held up the volume. Near the bottom of the page, where there was supposed to be a photo and caption, there was nothing but a caption and a thin border where the photo was supposed to be.

“How did that happen?” I said.

He shook his head. “But they’re pubbing thousands of books a year and they apparently can’t bother to give a sh*t.”

Humans miss stuff all the time, even the experts. When people point out those typos to me, I try to have them fixed. It’s easier in the case of my self-pubbed books, trickier in the case of books pubbed by major publishers.

But here’s a highly touted line of books put out by the people who invented the freaking Chicago Manual of Style that appears not to have been proofread very well across the board. If there are shocking errors in three Kindle editions, as suggested by the notes above, they’re probably pervasive throughout the series.

In the long-running and by now uninteresting debate of traditional pub vs. self-pub, indie authors have been urged to be as professional as possible. Have someone edit your work, they’re told. Get a professional cover done. Have the book professionally formatted. And so on. Some of them do, some of them don’t.

I gotta say: I continue to be impressed by the work of authors whose books I’m proud to recommend to friends and even buy for family members.

Based on the Stark incident and a few others I’ve encountered in traditional publishing, I’m now convinced that a conscientious indie author can produce a better product than publishing professionals, who are routinely “swamped” and not personally invested in the final product.

It’s been seven years. I wonder if they’ve gotten the typos sorted out by now. I’ve been meaning to circle back and read those, but there’s always other books to read.

What do you think?


* This post first appeared in slightly different form on my old blog, November 16, 2011.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thanks — Joseph D’Agnese

Readability & the Self-Published Author

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Productivity guru David Allen says we all need to get handle on our “collection points” if we want to get organized. That’s why I love the Readability app—it helps me collect everything I want to read on my Kindle.

Every day I come across articles and blog posts I’d like to read more thoroughly or even a second time. I used to bookmark these, but I’d never go back to read them. I used the “reading list” feature on my Safari browser for a while but eventually stopped using it efficiently.

Then I signed up for Readability and added a “Send to my Kindle” button to my browser bar. Now, when I come across a post or longer article than I can’t just zip through immediately, I send it to my new collection point, my Kindle. The next time I settle in with my e-reader, I have a bunch of articles waiting for me. I’ll read them before or after I get into the book I’m currently reading. This way, nothing slips through the cracks.

There’s been some research to support that the notion that the ideal environment for digesting reading material is not the web, when you’re battling ads, work, and other distractions. Apps like Readability strip out the ads, the reader’s comments, and convert articles into mini e-books, so you can adjust fonts and point sizes easily. 

I downloaded the Readability app to my phone. Technically, I don’t need to do this, but my phone’s with me more often than my Kindle is. If I’m ever stuck somewhere without reading material, I can easily open the reading list on my phone and knock off a few more articles on my list.

I think GTD-master David Allen would approve. He argues that we feel overwhelmed the more collection points we have. Reducing those points helps us more efficiently process them. In the old days, I used to have a basket of unread magazines and newspaper clippings in the TV room. That basket is less and less relevant as I find more of my articles—typically about the book publishing business—online. The Kindle is now my virtual magazine basket.

This article at Moby Lives is somewhat incorrectly titled “The Ethics of Reading It Later.” They note that for all the reading we do online, we don’t really like the experience because it’s uncomfortable. We’d rather read on our own time, in our comfy chairs, under a comfortable light, and without ads. 

That raises issues for the people who put that content out there, people who are banking on us seeing those ads. 

And reading apps such as Readability, Instapaper, and Pocket pose an interesting dilemma for self-pubbed authors, whether we’ve noticed it or not.

Many writers post free short stories on their blogs. The implication is that you can read that story on the author’s site for free, but if you want the story on your e-reader, you need to buy it from a retailer such as Amazon or Smashwords. Scraping the text and converting it into an ebook has been regarded as unethical. It happens, but it’s not worth fretting about, we’re told, because it has historically been too much trouble to do.

But if all it takes is a click of a button to turn someone’s blog post to an e-book, and the whole culture is moving to this reading model, some writers are going to think twice about posting that story. 

Others will say: Who cares? If you care enough about my work to convert it, read it tonight on your Kindle, and save it to your library, huzzah to you.

I think I’d kill to have more readers like that. But I don’t know yet what they’re going to cost me.


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Amazon's emailing my friends and readers

The Mesmerist by Joseph D'Agnese

This week I got four emails from readers and friends who reported that they’d gotten an email from Amazon alerting them that I had a new book coming out. This is the first time I’ve ever experienced this from Amazon, so I thought it was worth trying to analyze what’s going on.

First, the book in question is a small, stocking-stuffer-sized book published by Quirk Books, entitled Stuff Every American Should Know.

The Stuff Every…Should Know series sells well for Quirk, and they asked my wife/co-author and me to contribute a book of U.S. history trivia, as a result of our series for Quirk on the signers of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration. The signers books sell well in historic site gift shops, and Quirk thought it might be smart to do a “Stuff” history title. The book is really short—10,000 words—and lists for $9.99. The print edition is out June 5; the Kindle edition is already out. 

But look at what Amazon’s been sending to my readers. All of these emails were sent between 6:30 AM and 7:00 AM of the days in question.

On May 22, Reader #1, who has only bought my (traditionally published) children’s book—in other words, none of my history titles are in this person’s purchasing history—received this:

Amazon promo for Stuff Every American Should Know

Notice that the ad features the new book but also has room for four more titles, in this case my book for freelancers (Random House); a history title (Quirk); my children’s history title (Scholastic); and my weeks-old, self-published novel, The Mesmerist. (Bang drums, blow trumpets here.)

On May 24, Reader #2, who has only ever bought one of my self-published books, The Scientist and the Sociopath, reported receiving this email:

Amazon promo for Stuff Every American Should Know

In this case, Amazon dropped The Mesmerist and added my children’s book about the mathematician Fibonacci, traditionally published by Holt.

On May 25, Reader #3, who has bought my signer titles in the past as gifts, reported receiving this ad. Notice that it displays yet a different permutation of my titles. Clearly, the system omits from the ad any book which it knows the person has already has bought.

Amazon promo for Stuff Every American Should Know

My wife heard from a fourth reader who has only bought our freelancer title. Reader #4’s ad promotes the same Stuff title but touts it as my wife’s book. This makes sense; my wife’s byline comes first on our freelancer title in Amazon’s system. 

I have no idea how many of these ads went out this week. My contact at the publisher confirms that this is a “new” thing Amazon is trying, but she didn’t know if it’s only for certain titles or authors. It’s also not clear if this ad went out to people who had bought books similar to the Stuff” title.

I was excited to get some attention for not one, but two of my most recent books. The big question here is what impact have all these ads had on sales of all of my titles? I’d say, Meh. Judging from the ranks of the “older” books that have appeared in the ad, I’d say not much. I can tell you that the ads had virtually no impact on The Mesmerist, which is the title I was most curious about. 

For about two seconds I wondered if they’d ever send out something like this to announce the arrival of one of my self-pubbed titles, but I think it’s clear that this is aimed at drumming up pre-orders and self-pubbed titles don’t get logged into the system the same way as traditionally published titles, which have on-sale dates. But the system does use sales data from self-pubbed books and isn’t above promoting self-pubbed books in the “more” section.

As for Stuff Americans Should Know, it is now solidly in the five-figure rank range, a far cry from the deep six-figures it was a week ago. In fact, on May 23, when I checked the hardcover book’s rank, I saw that it had hit three lists:

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I just checked the title and the rank is slightly better and it’s still on the same three lists—all without racking up any reviews. I don’t expect this bounce to last long without the reviews.

So I guess we can say that the ad did its intended job, which was to drive sales and pre-orders for Stuff. I intend to check the sales figures of all the books that have appeared in this ad this week and report back if/when I learn anything interesting.

Some other news:

I’m looking into some other blog options because it’s becoming apparent that people actually do stop by to read this and I’d like the chance to interact with you in a manner better than this iWeb blog will allow. More on that as soon as I make a decision on platform.

I was surprised/delighted that The Mesmerist has picked up some reviews already from people I don’t actually know, which is gratifying. The most substantive review is here.

Both of my novels could still use some reviews, so I’m continuing my offer: If you’d like a free copy of either Jersey Heat or The Mesmerist in exchange for your honest review on Amazon and anywhere else you’d like to post, kindly contact me via my contact page and I’ll send you a file for your device. If you want to participate but don’t “do” devices, write me anyway and I’ll hook you up with a tidy PDF version. (Paperbacks coming soon; I promise.) And no, I’m not afraid that you might hate the books. I need reviews of all kinds, good and bad.


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Dear Amazon Guy

Reading an excellent short story by Kristine Kathryn Rusch on le Kindle.

Reading an excellent short story by Kristine Kathryn Rusch on le Kindle.

A writer pal of mine just got a job at Amazon, writing for their blog Omnivoracious, among other things. He’s actually the second friend to have landed a job with the online retailer. My publisher at Random House, the fellow who unleashed The Money Book for Freelancers on the world, later left RH to take a job in Bezosland.

Dear Amazon Guy:

I noticed two things about life with a Kindle.

Many times when I'm reading a real book, I get an urge to check something out in another part of the book. When was this published? Where's the author live again? Is this footnoted well? When this happens, I keep one finger in the spot where I was reading, and flip to the other part of the book I need to check, then go back to my finger. Takes two seconds. With the Kindles, at least the one I have, I have to push at a bunch o’ buttons (three to go to the spot I want, and god knows how many to scroll to the page I saw that thing on, and at least one to get back to the main page, and a few more to get back to the spot where I was reading). This is lot of steps, so consequently, I don't do it as much. Which is funny, because the format is digital and that usually implies being able to break out of the media’s linearity. Think of what a hassle it was back in the day to find the song you wanted to hear on a cassette tape. Mp3s changed that. But for some reason with ebooks, I still feel locked-in.

Another thing: When I read a hard copy book late at night, I'll sometimes get a second or third wind and I can keep reading virtually all night without ever getting sleepy. I find I doze off more with the Kindle. Am I reading more boring books or is the device's much-lauded non-glare screen the culprit? I’m no scientist but I can imagine that the light of my bedside lamp reflected on white pages is more likely to keep me awake than the Kindle's screen.

Does this happen to you? Am I normal? Can you check in with your in-house behavioral/cognitive scientists and get back to me?

Also, the last book you mailed me arrived dinged in the box. Can you send me a new one?

Your bud,

Joe


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Today's Mailbag

Peter Mountford book cover

Today’s mailbag brings two morsels to add to the To-Be-Read pile. My buddy Stuart Connelly announced he’s made his short story The Allnighter available online for FREE. It’s available in all the popular digital formats. Stuart is a remarkable writer whose story about a man who cannot sleep — and who has never slept — is a powerful piece of literary horror fiction. His book of short stories, which includes The Allnighter, is hilariously entitled Confessions of a Velour-Shirted Man.

Also: Another buddy, journo-author Neal Thompson tells us about A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism by Peter Mountford. Judging from the reviews about this novel, it’s worth investigating. Quoting part of Neal’s review:

“[Mountford] tells the story of a transformational month in the life of Gabriel de Boya, an eager but conflicted young researcher for a New York hedge fund posing as a freelance journalist and struggling with greed, love, lies, and desire. Mountford’s writing is admirably restrained, visual and visceral, and the result is taut, poetic, sad, and at times quite moving. Though set in 2005, the story feels fresh and relevant, deftly capturing the deceitful, manipulative world of hedge funds and foreign investment.” 


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Literary March Madness

Literary March Madness at Malaprop's Bookstore, Asheville, NC

I know nothing of sports. But I do know books. Which makes me very qualified to participate in my local bookstore’s Literary March Madness...thing.

Should you pick ‘em according to literary quality? Should you pick the book you think will sell the most? Or should you just guess?

What if you haven’t read all the books on the sheet; how will you pick then? I dunno. It’s just fun. In this round, it’s a no-brainer. Conroy’s over-the-top Southern melodrama beats Larsson’s over-the-top Swedish melodrama.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your collection of free ebooks, go here. Thanks!