Saturday, June 30, 2007

Copyright Theft and eBooks for Sale Online

Elsewhere I've written about online piracy of copyrighted ebooks, specifically those copies of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code for sale on eBay. Lots of people report these scams, in which the seller offers "complete resale rights" along with a download of the ebook for 99 cents or some other absurdly low price. (Sometimes three or four ebooks are offered for $4.95.)

I've tried to contact Random House and Brown's agent about this, but no one wants to talk about it. What's up? The "reseller rights" is a blatant lie (I'm sure many of the people offering the book and reseller rights actually believed it when they fell for the same kind of offer. But somewhere along the line someone created this scam, knowing that the greed of eBay sellers would make it easy for them to believe the lies he was telling.)

Maybe this would stop if Random House goes after these sellers the way John Wiley & Sons are going after Carlos Velasco for selling Wiley ebooks on eBay. The complete story is here, at
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Friday, June 29, 2007

Writing Blogs and Books

I've been talking with a number of well-known bloggers in connection with a project I'm doing, and I've noticed that there are two bits of advice that they all offer to other bloggers. And they definitely apply to writing books--which should be of no surprise, since several blogs have become books, and at least three books I know of are going to become blogs.

The first bit of advice is that you ought to blog about something for which you have enthusiasm. The other is to avoid imitating others--in content as well as in style.

I feel like I'm always telling would-be writers these things. If you write about something you're interested in (and enthusiastic about) you don't have to do as much research, and the enthusiasm will show in your writing. It seems obvious, but some people miss it when they try to write a book or a blog because it's a "hot topic" and will probably make money. If it's that hot, 9,000 other people have already thought of it. (Of course, if you need the money and someone asks you to write a training manual for a UNIX system admin and you really need the money, this rule is suspended.)

If you try to imitate another writer, you'll usually end up reading like an imitation of that writer. Follow too closely when it comes to content, and you might find yourself plagiarizing--something that happens a lot more often with blogs than books. I think m ore people get caught up in this than write books about stuff they're have no interest in. Most writers are dissatisfied with their writing styles early in their careers, and long to be able to write as well as (insert name of favorite writer here).

The problem with imitating another writer because you don't like your own style is that you almost always end up looking like an imitation of that writer--or worse. That's most likely because you don't know enough about writing to be able to analyze the style of the writer in question. If you did, you wouldn't be worrying about your style; you'd already be there! So, work on your style. (Tip: Instead of trying to write like so-and-so, try rewriting one of her paragraphs in your own style. You'll probably learn something about your stylistic weaknesses, and the strengths of the other writer!)
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Monday, June 25, 2007

Recreational Writing and Data-Gathering Pranks

Being creative, writers often find their recreation in creative ways. On occasion some of us have so much creativity (or madness or frustration) bubbling away in our brains that we just have to let it out. The result is recreational writing, a few examples of which you'll find on this blog. (See the original version of the Beatles' "Rain" and the origin of Web 2.0 and my history of the Internet.)

On occasion these bits are published. For example, I’ve sold several bogus advertisements to radio and magazines. Among were a one-minute spot for the Famous Barbarians' Correspondence School, and a pitch for the Ultimate Personal Computer (the human brain and body described in computer terms. That one first appeared in ANALOG Science Fiction Magazine, and was reprinted in the United States Air Force Cryptologic Command Newsletter and elsewhere.) These, and oddities like "What Do I Do if I Get a Phone Call from Mars?" were written during idle periods when I felt this great urge to do something.

But sometimes words aren't enough. Then it's time for action. When I reach that point, I look for interesting pranks that serve a purpose. One of my favorite is an ongoing study of public honesty I've been conducting for about a year now.

The venue is the local Post Office. The study involves dropping bank envelopes that appear to be packed with cash, then observing to see what people do when they find the envelopes. I print, "Cash for money orders" boldly on the outside of each envelope. The envelopes are stuffed with bank deposit slips for realism, and each includes a special note intended for the dishonest types (details on that in a few lines).

The procedure is to drop an envelope between myself and the counter while I'm talking to a clerk. (The clerk helps with observing the subjects.) Then--if there aren't many people present--I walk away and watch from the outer lobby or through the windows in front of the building. If there's a crowd, I leave the watching to the clerk, lest I tip off the subjects of the study.

The results are probably what you think: out of 12 test-drops, 5 people have handed the envelope over to the clerk, while 6 have kept the money--surreptitiously dipping and retrieving the envelope, then sliding it into purse or pocket.

One subject surprised us. A student at the local college (Miami University), he swooped down on the envelope as he approached the clerk, opened it and pulled out the contents in front of the waiting line of postal customers. Then he opened the envelope, glanced at the dummy paper inside, and laughed, "Hey! Someone's having a joke--cool!"

The note inside, printed on more than one ticket so the dishonest subject is sure to see it, reads: "You thought you'd get away with someone else's cash. So did all the people who watched you pick up this envelope."

Never have learned how the dishonest types reacted on learning that they'd been scammed.
Copyight © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Can't We All Just Tell the Truth?

Just when I thought we were done with the whole sell-a-bad-novel-as-a-true-story thing (ala A Million Little Pieces), another autobiographical tome that wasn't quite what it said it was is back in the news. It had already been established that J.T. Leroy, author of Sarah, the autobiographical story of an underage male prostitute, doesn't exist. The real author, a woman of legal age named Laura Albert, had sold the rights to a film company, and when the truth came out the film company sued. A jury found in favor of the film company on June 22.

You can find the full details at any news site. What I'm interested in here is not so much who told which lies for how much, or whether the author believes the non-existent Leroy exists, but how the reading public responds. I expect the sales of J.T. Leroy books to climb, just like the sales of A Million Little Pieces did after it was revealed that its author had scammed Oprah.

Maybe she'll be a guest on Oprah's show and explain the whole thing. Whether or not that happens, the gullible American public will doubtless be buying her books in the usual knee spasmodic response to national publicity.

Hey, media types: as long as you're guiding the public around by its nose, how about publicizing some worthwhile books? There are lots of those with scandals attached ... but who needs scandals when you have a good read?

Big Claims for E-Books, and the Economics of Print Publishing

I just read some interesting claims by the author of an E-book on search-engine optimization. This SEO maven claims to be selling around 4,000 copies per year—at $79 a pop. In addition, the author informs us that publishers have been offering deals to publish the book, it’s such a winner.

Skeptic that I am, I have my doubts about the sales claim. I don’t think the E-book business is mature enough to spin off that kind of money from a book on a worn-out topic by an unestablished writer. But I suppose it could be true. After all, everyone knows that the Internet is the absolute the place to go if you want to make forty-seven million dollars in three days while sitting in your hot tub after you lost your job, went deep into debt, and watched your family slowly starve. And this author might one of those select few who have the secret to Internet wealth, and has broken the Money for Nothing Code of Silence. Lots of people would be willing to blow $79 on the chance that the E-book will deliver on its promises. You spend more than that on a chance to win a $30,000 car in a charity raffle. All that has to happen is for enough of the right kind of people to stumble across the Web site, and the author might be making several hundred grand per year. (Of course, there are tens of thousands of other Web sites trying to sell those millionaire raffle tickets, so getting 4,000 customers a year might prove difficult.)

Regardless of how likely that is to happen, I have more serious doubts over the claim about print publishers tripping over themselves to buy the book.

Even if the author provided absolute, unequivocal proof of selling 4,000 copies per year at $79 and grossing $300,000, I don’t believe a print publisher would spring for it. There are too many SEO books out there already. And there’s just not enough money to make a publisher interested.

How can I say that? Because the book is very unlikely to sell 4,000 copies, and it definitely wouldn’t sell for $79.

Hard to believe? I’ll explain the second statement first. Except where textbooks and professional references are involved (and I mean real professions, like medicine and law), readers are accustomed to certain price caps. A bookstore browser would expect the big trade paperback that such an SEO book would be to cost $30 or less. If she picked it up and saw a $79 price tag, she’d probably think, “This is a book. I know what books cost. Big paperback books like this go for less than thirty bucks!” and go on to something else.

Some optimists would look past the price and flip through the book, hopes still high. And they would be dissuaded from buying it because it doesn’t look like something they can use to make ten bucks, let alone millions. Not something they’d bet $79 on, anyway. (That kind of price works on the Internet because you don’t get to see what you’re really buying, and you can sustain your million-dollar fantasy long enough to buy. And few print books make the kind of outrageous promises that Web sites make to convince someone to buy into a fantasy.)

So, maybe the book would sell for $25.

Now, let’s set up a scenario where the book sells 4,000 copies. Wouldn’t that be enough money to interest a publisher? Probably not. Maybe they do a 5,000-copy print run of a trade paperback, typical run for an unproven book by an unproven author. Publishers know they can always print more if the need arises. At a cost of three bucks per copy the total expense is $15K. Add another $10K author advance. That $10K maximum because the author in this instance would be regarded as a midlist author, if not a new writer altogether. There’s a little overhead in there (editorial and promotion and warehousing), so say the publisher has $30K invested to produce the book and print 5,000 copies.

So 4,000 copies sell—and that’s a generous sell-through, equal to the number of customers the aforementioned E-book author claims to have found already. The publisher’s net is going to be around $50,000. Subtract the author advance and production costs, and the publisher makes $20,000. (And the author has failed to earn out his advance.)

But there’s no guarantee that the book will sell that many copies. Like a lot of other books, this one will hit the market with the expectation that it will sell about half the print run and break even. There would probably be very little promotion or advertising; when publishers advertise, they tend to put money into proven authors and books. A new author’s work has to prove itself. Once an author and book start bringing in big orders with a high sell-through rate, then the publisher will get behind the book.

And it’s unlikely to sell another 4,000 copies, since the market has already been tapped, the topic is old, and the book will soon be outdated. Any publisher will choose invest in a book that has a better chance of earning more than $20,000 for the same investment.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Blogging and Honesty

“Blogging allows us writers to state our biases and admit them, thus bringing more honesty to the things we write.”
--Mary Jo Foley
All About Microsoft

Monday, June 18, 2007

With Apologies to Lennon & McCartney ...

It is a little-known fact that the Beatles song "Rain" was based on a song written by Paul McCartney's sheepdog, Martha. In commemoration of Martha, who shared Paul's birth-date (June 18), here are Martha's original lyrics, later incorporated into "Rain" by Paul:
If the rain comes,
dogs run and hide their heads,
from the booming they all dread,
If the rain comes, if the rain comes.

When the sun shines,
they romp on the green grass
and gen'rally have a blast.
When the sun shines, when the sun shines.

I'll go hide.
the weather's fine.

I can show you
that when it starts to rain
the carpet I will stain.
I can show you, I can show you.


Can you hear me,
that when it rains and shines
it really blows my mind.
Can you hear me, can you hear me?

(Chorus, fade w/backward lyics)

Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Saturday, June 16, 2007

On Syllables ...

Polysyllabic is.
Monosyllabic isn’t.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Leveraging Paradigms with Jargon

(Or should that be Leveraging Jargon with Paradigms?)
I've written several essays making fun of the overuse of jargon--especially in business communications. It's gotten to the point where you can write a sentence like "Leverage my profit with a new paradigm," change the words 'round in any order, and still be accepted. Try it! "Profit my paradigm with a new leverage," and "Paradigm a new leverage with my profit" make about as much sense as, say, "Increase my income with a new pattern."

Rather like the Emperor's new clothes, overall.

I'm not satisfied with any of my essays, but Dick Margulis points us to the best commentary on businessspeak I've yet seen. Check out this post.

Not incidentally, I think "paradigm" should be pronounced "pair-a-dij-em." Part of the magic of jargon is having words that are not pronounced as they look (with the occasional smatteering of foreign terms).

Google: A Prank with a Point

If you have an opinion on Google Book Search--or if you're still trying to form one--have a look at this post at Richard Charkin's blog. Richard is Chief Executive at Macmillan publishing. Last week he was at the BEA (Book Expo America), where he pulled a prank with a point on Google Book Search. It's self-explanatory, and hilarious!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Speaking with Johnny Bench

Photo by Janet Tittle
One of the more fun things about being a writer is that you get invited to interesting events. I recently had the honor of speaking at a charity event with Baseball Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench.

The event was "Step Up to the Plate" that supports the Center for Children and Families in Cincinnati. The venue was Great American Ball Park. It was a perfect Spring day, sunny and mild--a great day for a ball game. (The Reds were in San Diego, where they beat the Padres 2 to 1.)

I gave a talk on the Crosleys at the Reds Hall of Fame Museum. (For those who don't know, Powel Crosley, Jr. owned the Cincinnati Reds from 1934 until his death in 1961, and the Reds' home park was Crosley Field from 1935 until 1970.)

The event was one of the most enjoyable of the many signings and talks I've done in connection with the Crosley book. Following my address, Bench gave an inspiring talk in support of the charity, standing near his old spot behind home plate.

As a bonus, attendees had the opportunity to hit some balls from home plate--pitched the Reds' batting practice pitcher. (Home plate is just behind Bench and me in the accompanying photo. There was a long line of batters off to the right.) A fine dinner and silent auction followed.

I'd not met Johnny Bench before this. He's a quiet, unassuming guy, and in pretty good shape, just a bit heavier than I remember him from the days of "the Big Red Machine."

And yeah, shaking hands with Johnny Bench is like shaking hands with a catcher's mitt!
Photo © 2007 Janet Tittle

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Books on the Business of Writing

This is the fourth in a series of posts in which I recommend books for aspiring and published writers. Each post covers a category, including biographies/autobiographies, magazine writing, how-to-write books by notable writers, fiction how-to, and more.

These books address the business aspects of writing and publishing.

You can find most of these books at your local bookstore or at or other online retailers. For a few of the out-of-print titles you will have to go to eBay or a used book store.

(For additional recommendations, see this list at Amazon.

Books About Agenting, Contracts, and Related Topics

This is the third in a series of posts in which I recommend books for aspiring and published writers. Each post covers a category, including biographies/autobiographies, magazine writing, how-to-write books by notable writers, books on the business aspects of writing, fiction how-to, and more.

These books cover agenting, contracts, and related matters. They are a must if you don't use an agent, and worth reading even if you do.

How to Be Your Own Literary Agent: The Business of Getting a Book Published, Revised edition, by Richard Curtis (Houghton-Mifflin, 2003)
Be Your Own Literary Agent: The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Getting Published, Third edition, by Martin P. Levin (Ten Speed Press, 2002)
The Career Novelist: A Literary Agent Offers Strategies for Success, by Donald Maass (Heineman, 1996)

You can find most of these books at your local bookstore or at or other online retailers. For a few of the out-of-print titles you will have to go to eBay or a used book store.

Books About Magazine Writing

This is the second in a series of posts in which I recommend books for aspiring and published writers. Each post covers a category, including biographies/autobiographies, how-to-write books by notable writers, books on the business aspects of writing, fiction how-to, and more.

Interested in writing for magazines? Check out the books on this list.

You can find most of these books at your local bookstore or at or other online retailers. For a few of the out-of-print titles you will have to go to eBay or a used book store.

Biographies for Writers

This is the first in a series of posts in which I recommend books for aspiring and published writers. Each post covers a category, including magazine writing, how-to-write books by notable writers, books on the business aspects of writing, fiction how-to, and more.

The books listed in this post are biographies or autobiographies, and as such do not focus on writing and getting published. However, the authors offer writing advice now and then, and there is much to be learned from the experiences they relate.

You can find most of these books at your local bookstore or at or other online retailers. For a few of the out-of-print titles you will have to go to eBay or a used book store. (The list is alphabetical, by subject.)

  • Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, by M.J. Simpson (Justin, Charles & Co.,
    June 2005)
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King (Scribner, 2002)
  • Another Life: A Memoir of Other People, by Michael Korda (Random House, 1999)
  • Education of a Wandering Man, by Louis L'Amour (Bantam Books, 1990 Reissue)
  • The Way the Future Was, by Frederik Pohl (Del Rey Books, 1978)
  • Tomorrow's Child, by Jack Williamson (Benbella Books, 2005)
  • --Mike

    Procrastinating Writers

    I recently had conversations with several editors about writers who don't deliver on time (something that every new editor quickly learns is not uncommon). Most writers who deliver late are just plain procrastinators. They put off starting on books for weeks and even months. Some have to be forced into writing by nagging editors and agents, or by the need of money. One such was Harold Robbins, who is described in Another Life by Michael Korda as having to be watched over (on occasion, under literal lock and key) before he would finish a novel.

    But what is procrastination? In this case it is a quick catch-all that covers several reasons for writers being late.

    (Note: Now and then, writers are kept from writing by circumstances beyond their control, definitely not procrastination. Family problems, health issues, and bizarre things that no one would buy as fiction. I recall being really late with a book after being hit by a divorce and an auto accident within weeks of one another.)

    So why do writers (like the aforementioned Harold Robbins) who are given plenty of time to write their books, and don't have any life emergencies between signing the contract and the manuscript delivery date, run late? Some writers get too comfortable; they have money, and there's loads and loads of time before the book is due, so why not take a few days (weeks, or months) off and enjoy it? At some point they realize that the deadline is on the horizon, and panic--which slows down writerly production something fierce. (Just about any emotion can slow production--fear, joy, hate, terror. Everything but love, in my experience. Love has been known to actually speed up writing!)

    And then there are writers who are seized by fear as they get into their project--fear of being unable to complete it, fear of rejection, fear of not doing their best. This usually happens to first-time writers, but pros are not immune to the problem. A sudden change in the relationship between the editor or publisher and the author can make for delays--egos and attitudes, that sort of thing. Writers have also been known to slow down or stop working when advance checks don't arrive on schedule.

    And there's that mysterious malady, Writer's Block.

    How to deal with this? Editors cope by harassing the writer--a surprisingly effective tactic. Some beg, some manipulate, and some threaten. (They may threaten to bring in another writer as permitted in the author's contract.) All's fair in the battle to bring in the manuscript on deadline.

    And how do writes handle the situation? Many are in denial, so they do nothing but give in to pressure or threats, not a good working situation. Others will come up with all sorts of situations on which to place the blame for their tardiness, and still crank out a good manuscript really quickly.

    The minority of writers who admit to themselves that they've been procrastinating just dig in and crank out quality chapters in impossibly short periods of time (I've been known to do that). And some produce really bad prose because they're trying to cram 6 months worth of work into 2 months. (Yet another reason why bad books get into print.)

    Of course, it's best to avoid the situation entirely.
    Copyright 2007, Michael A. Banks