Friday, August 31, 2007

Loss Leader E-Book Readers

Remember King C. Gillette? He's the guy who came up with disposable blades for the safety razor. The razor that used them was fairly expensive, but Gillette sold them for little or no profit in order to create a continuing market for his ultra-thin stamped (as opposed to forged) blades.

With the cost of technology constantly dropping, I wonder if we'll see someone assume the same role in the E-book world. Sell the reader at little or no profit, and make the profit on content sales. This would overcome one of the main barriers to E-books via a reader: the cost of the reader.

This isn't a new idea, I'm sure. But how about implementing it this way: Publishers distribute the reader and sell the content they produce. And with a proprietary format. Which would put the publishers in a position similar to that of selling hardcopy books. The reader takes the place of producing hardcopy books.

There's the matter of DRM, which a proprietary format could take care of. Allow each E-book to be read on two or three readers, to satisfy publishers and to accommodate readers who like to loan out books. If anyone else wants to sell E-books (a distributor, for example), they would have to agree to provide readers on the same basis as the publishers.

I'm sure most publishers would prefer restricting each E-book to one reader, but they would have to permit at least two readers, in case the owner's reader breaks or is lost.

I don't see this being implemented any time soon, if ever, because it will require a significant investment on the part of publishers. And it would be a gamble.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Reading Glasses: An Alternative E-Book Format

I’ve seen lots of proposals for ebooks, some better than others, and each having this or that problem. I started thinking about them recently when I was reading a book on my laptop. It was all-text, html, and it wasn’t long before I got a stiff neck, something that usually happens when I read. (It’s the legacy of some long-ago accidents.) I might have printed out the pages, but I was low on paper.

So I changed position quite a bit, moved the laptop here and there. I couldn’t get nearly as comfortable as I might have with a conventional book, but I plodded through 100 pages or so okay. As I read I kept visualizing myself reading the book at hand with various styles of readers I’ve seen here and there. Then the thought came to me: “reading glasses.”

No, not vision correction, but eyeglasses whose lenses were replaced with tiny screens onto which book pages could be projected. Call the gadget “reading glasses,” of course.

It’s an idea that Hugo Gernsback might have come up with back in the 1920s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if old Hugo didn’t propose it at some point in one of his early 20-century radio or science magazines. I know he designed glasses with miniature television screens.

This has been worked on, and I can see it as a real product: reading glasses into which you plug a book stored in some small media. Or maybe book text would be downloadable to the reading glasses.

What about preloaded, disposable reading glasses? Or not disposable: you read the book then sell the used “book” on eBay. Or trade it to a friend for another book. If you limit the capacity of a pair of reading glasses to that of a large book, bookstores and libraries might sell/loan a book out to anyone with reading glasses. There would be a small fee, and publishers and authors would share in the proceeds equally, after the dispensing operation takes its cut. The 50-50 publisher/author split is fair, since the publisher isn’t going to any extra effort here.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Authors and Book Covers

Blogging Heroes is completed. My part, that is; it's now in the hands of production. I noticed that Joe Wikert has posted a larger version the final cover at his blog. I like it.

I'm often asked how much input authors have in the design of a book's cover. I get the impression that a lot of readers believe that the author of a nonfiction book or novel gets to dictate or create the cover. Actually, it's rare that the author determines what the cover will be. Most writers aren't artists (really bad comic art and mechanical drawing are about my speed), and it's the publisher's prerogative to decide what the cover will be, since the cover not so much a part of the content as it is a marketing element.

And there's the fact that book designers and artists have a lot more experience than most authors at this sort of thing. (Except for the occasional artist-turned-writer, like Stephen Hickman.)

I did get to dictate the cover for one of my books, PC Confidential. I suggested that the cover be made to look like a pulp detective magazine or dime novel cover, incorporating computers. So the cover shows a 1940s stereotypical detective at a computer, with a woman in the background looking very shocked, like this:

Interestingly, though I never met the artist (someone around San Francisco) he ended up painting a detective who looks very much like one of the cops here in Oxford.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The "Best" Training for Writing a Novel?

Have a look at this blog post over at It has to do with whether technical writing (such as writing a computer book, or documentation to this or that) is "real" writing. A link in that article goes to a piece in the Deseret News in which a Professor Hatch (a former technical writer) contends that journalism and technical writing are the best training for writing a novel.

Maybe my viewpoint is skewed, because I've done so many kinds of writing, but I disagree. Writing--not a specific kind of writing--is the best training for writing a novel. People are not going to be good novelists because they were good tech-writers or journalists; they are going to be good novelists because they are good novelists. Writing a novel requires more than skill with language and observation, although any writing experience helps.

If Professor Hatch or anyone else is bothered that much by people who say they're not "real" writers, why not just do a general-interest nonfiction book (if not a novel) to bolster your credentials for the people in the high seats? For too many people, if they don't see it with the other books in Walmart or the local bookstore, it's not "real."

Sunday, August 19, 2007

We're Losing Civilization's Backups

Ever notice that various pieces of the civilized landscape are slowly disappearing? Pay telephones are getting really hard to find. And clocks, those big advertising pieces that formerly graced store windows across the country or provided a public service outside banks and department stores--those are all but gone. The odd time/temp digital displays are still around, but there are few new ones going up.

I notice the new buildings at Miami University (and several at the University of Cincinnati) are sans clocks. None in the classrooms, and at French Hall at U.C. there are two clocks in offices, with dozens of other rooms entirely clockless. I expect this is echoed in new construction everywhere.

The gradual fading of those once-ubiquitous accouterments of daily life is the result of cheap technology. Timepieces are cheap, and they're added to just about every piece of electronic equipment you can think of. (Pretty much the same clock chip in everything).) And "everyone" has a cell phone. (I have one, though I've never activated it; at this point in my life there's nothing I can think of that requires me to be accessible no matter where I am, unless someone I know needs a blood transfusion from a universal donor.)

Anyway, those once-common pieces of civilized landscape (public clocks and pay telephones) aren't the only things gone missing. New buildings are going up without water fountains. How much has that to do with the popularity of bottled water? And what's next? Will street signs stop being replaced, or even put up, as GPS-driven maps become more common? Will catering to people who can't afford GPS systems, cell phones, and bottled water become too much trouble?

I think we need our backup systems. If some cell towers go out or there's some sort of EMP event, it'll be nice to have public landline phones for emergencies. For those who just can't afford cell phones, pay phones are vital. And people forget watches, and some just can't buy 'em. Finally, those computer maps aren't perfect. Look up the "center" of Oxford, Ohio, with MapQuest; it's a one-block, dead-end street on the edge of town. Weather maps used by local television stations (all provided cost-effectively by some "accurate" national service) sometimes show towns 50 miles and a state away from their real locations. And routing systems take you 60 miles out of your way because they ignore local roads, or have them in the wrong place. MapQuest still hasn't changed errors I reported to them 10 years ago. (I suspect that southern California MapQuest maps and directions are the only onez that are perfect, because the people who use MapQuest use those.)

Anyway, let's keep the big clocks going, and pay telephones in place. And give us paper maps that are accurate. Don't kill the backups because you can make more money without them. Look what happened with the railroads; they were a good backup for personal transportation, but it was possible to make more money trucking. And now we have a personal transportation system that grows more costly every day--and no backup.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Blog is a Book is a Blog ...

The blog/book hybrid seems to have become a successful phenomenon. The early entries in this sub-genre include The Long Tail, Naked Conversations, and Lifehacker--each of which is worthwhile, and each of which benefited greatly from the novelty factor. That is, each grabbed a lot of interest because of blog affiliation/origin. (These books stand on their own and would have done okay without the blogs--though not as well.)

But what happens when "everyone" is turning their blog into a book? I think that will dilute the blog-book hybrid concept. It will probably be like disks and CDs with computer books. Blogs will be created for books on any pretext, and the public will become jaded and numb to the fact that there's a blog to go with the latest [whatever] book by [whomever]. Then readers will go back to evaluating books as books.

But I suspect some bad books will be published because they are linked to blogs.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Something Different: PostSecret

Some of you are familiar with PostSecret. For those who aren't, it's a site that displays homemade post cards that tell secrets. People make cards with illustrations of their choice and write their secrets on them, and send them to Frank Warren, who runs the PostSecret blog. It started as a community art project, but has grown into something of an institution.

PostSecret doesn't accept advertising; that would dilute the content. It's almost pure content, and Warren treats the secrets with respect--which is one reason he's received tens of thousands of them. The secrets that Warren receives cover just about the total range of human experience. Most are works of art in miniature—many rough, some collages. A few are photographs “I quit karate because of a panic attack,” one person confesses. We assume the writer is a woman because the words are written across a photo of a woman in a karate gi, her face obscured. Another submitter assures the world, “I no longer look out for high places to hang myself from when I walk down the street.” An image of a Norman Rockwell painting is labeled, “My prom date was gay. I pretended not to know.” Mysteriously, an early photo of the Beatles is captioned, “I sometimes still wish I had had an abortion.” Pick a card, any card: It could be heartbreaking, terrifying, disgusting, inspirational, or hilarious. Or it might be lustful or incomprehensible. Each one tells a story—or stories. Each one could inspire dozens of new stories, fictional or real.

I interviewed Frank Warren for my upcoming book, Blogging Heroes, and I'm sure you'll find his story fascinating. In the chapter about PostSecret I note that he calls himself "an accidental artist." This is probably the best description of what Frank Warren is doing with PostSecret, week in and week out. Have a look at the PostSecret blog for yourself. There are 20 new secrets posted every Sunday.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Quotable Quotes Department

I tuned in Charlie Rose on one of my local PBS stations last night, and there sat Esther Dyson. "This should be interesting," I thought--and it was, save for Charlie tromping on her statements now and then. He would ask a question, and as Esther began answering interrupt her to "clarify" the question--which didn't need clarification. Anyway, the quotes:

(Anent social networking) "People now want to spread their presence around the world. "

"If Google was self-aware what would it say?"

"There’s diabetes, which is too much sugar. Then there’s information diabetes, which is too much pablum."


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Upcoming Blog Posts

In case anyone is wondering, I will get around to writing parts 2 and 3 of "Correspondence Courses for Writers" Real Soon Now.

I also intend to write about the Incredible Disappearing Editor (to balance out my earlier piece on procrastinating writers). And I'll continue with the interview advice, too.

I still have the editing work on Blogging Heroes to do, and I'm looking to buy another car. The Ford Windstar (never buy one of those!) is gone, literally dragging a wheel as it went, and the Jeep has an exhaust leak and a bad alterntator. (But it sure is nice when the big snows come, so I guess I'll yank the alternator and swap it out for a replacement at AutoZone, since the one I bought for it three years ago was one of the "lifetime warranty" jobs. They really make out on that in the long run, you know, as only a minority of the lifetime warranty buyers remember they have a lifetime warranty when the part breaks--those who haven't already gotten rid of the vehicle in question, that is.) Maybe a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry this time ...

Q the Dog got a haircut, finally. She had collie-length hair, but it was just too much in the heat. Took her two days to get used to it, and now she's happy again, runninig around grinning.. The outdoor cats (there are no indoor cats), suspicious that they may have missed something, are giving everyone sullen and reproachful looks.
Write on!

I'm Back (sort of) and I'm Late!

There several posts I intended to write over the past two weeks, but I had to write instead. That is, complete a book that was past it's deadline. (That sounds so much better than "I'm late!")

Which reminds me of conversation I had with an editor, Meredith Mark, 20 years ago or so, regarding a book that I was going to write, then waited a year to start. We were discussing the book and I was bemoaning the fact that I felt I really should have written the book a year earlier. Not that it was due, or even scheduled. But I finally had started writing it, and Meredith pointed out that perhaps the reason I hadn't written the book sooner was becauase I couldn't write it at that time.

I bristled for a second, thinking she was impugning my ability, then realized what she was saying. "Yeah, you're right," I told her. I wasn't the same person a year ago."

Which I bring up to support some advice I offer some writers: Don't get too bent out of shape if that book (or story, etc.) just isn't coming along. Maybe you just can't write it now--but you will be able to write it later, when you're the right person.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Wave of the Future?

As just about everyone knows, blogging is all the rage. It's a big enough phenomenon that the Wall Street Journal covered it (and got the facts wrong), so it's Official Mainstream.

While blogs are hot, there's something new developing that will

Monday, August 06, 2007

Are These Champion Blog Readers?

How many blogs do you read? Three or four (my speed), 50, 100 or more. Check out this post for a sampling of how many feeds are in the readers of some well-known and busy bloggers. It's by Rebecca Lieb of ClickZ, who was interested in the distillation of some my research for Blogging Heroes.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Mark Twain on Writing

"Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for."

"Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words."

Writing Aphorisms (Writing, Sex, and Rejection)

Over the years, I've collected a good number of aphorisms or sayings having to do with writing. I've also created a few. Here are some samples:

"Writing is like sex. When we're not doing it, we're thinking about it, talking about it, looking forward to it, or recovering from it." –Pat Cadigan

"Writing is not easy; having written is." –Michael A. Banks

"A rejection is an opportunity to sell to a different market." –Michael A. Banks

Copyright 2007, Michael A. Banks, Patricia K. Cadigan

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Editing Interviews and "the F-Word"

I have probably been interviewed more times than I have been an interviewer. But I know well from both ends how comments can be somehow transformed between tape recorder or notes and final publication. As an interview subject I am always careful to speak slowly and offer quotes that will (I hope) read well. I write down quotes for the reporter's use. I figure that if I'm not careful in what I say, the interviewer will end up writing what he thought I said, rather than what I said.

When I interview someone, I always ask the subject if it's okay to "clean up" some of the quotes, mainly by adding punctuation to eliminate confusing run-on and fragmentary sentences (although I may move sentences, too). But I promise to retain the sense and meaning of the original words, and I follow through on that promise. It's a courtesy that I haven't always been afforded as an interview subject, and one that you would do well to offer when you interview someone.

What about editing "objectionable" content or words? I ran into this when doing an interview with the late Martin Caidin, which turned into one of my favorite pieces--an article/interview in Writer's Digest.

The problem with quoting Caidin was that he always said what he meant, in the exact way he wanted to say it. And he used "colorful" language--just the sort of language that you might expect from a man who had, among other things, broken just about every bone in his body at one time or another in airplane crashes, faced a Bolvian firing squad, and crossed the Atlantic in a PBY Catalina. To him, "fucking" was an just adjective, like "sweet" or "ugly."

The editor, Bill Brohaugh, and I dithered over using every word of some really great quotes, worrying that doing so might offend a good many of the readers. In the end, we let all the colorful adjectives and nouns stay. It turned out to be a good decision; if we hadn't let Caidin speak in his own words, the profile would have lost some of the essence of his character, and thus its effectiveness.
Copyright 2007, Michael A. Banks

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

One Way to Get a Job Writing a Magazine Column

I've written columns for several different types of magazines--fan magaiznes, Fantasy Modeling (one of Starlog's mags), writers' magazines, and in several computer magazines, like Windows and PCM Magazine.
In every case but one, I was invited to write the column. The exception was my first column, which was in Computer Shopper.

Those of you who remember Computer Shopper (and I mean the classic Computer Shopper, on newsprint, before Ziff-Davis messed it up) will know what I mean when I say things were kind of wacky there. It was as near a clone as possible to something called Camera Shopper, published out of the Melbourne, Florida, area. The magazine was edited by a crusty old guy named Stan Veit.

(Stan was something of a pioneer in computer retailing, in New York City, and his autobiographical tome, Stan Veit's History of the Personal Computer, is a must-read. )

I had been reading the magazine since its beginnings, and in 1985 I decided the magazine ought to have a column about PC communications and the online world. So, I wrote two sample columns and sent them to the magazine's editor, about whom I knew nothing other than this name, Stan Veit. I included a cover letter offering a column like these each month.

I had sold articles and reviews to Stan before. In fact, up until them Stan had bought everything I sent him. I never queried; I just wrote something I thought fit the magazine and sent it in. A couple of months later, a check would arrive, and eventually my work would appear in the magazine. But I never really communicated with Stan. The whole thing seemed natural enough to me, since Stan was somewhat notorious for his unconventional approach to running a magazine.

I heard nothing about my column submissions for seven weeks. One day the phone rang; I pikced it up and the gravelly voice of Stan Veit roared. "Banks! Where the hell's the next column?"

I almost blurted out, "What column? Nobody said I had a column!" Instead, I said, "Oh! I was getting ready to send it out today."

As it turned out, Stan had put my columns in the next two issues--the first column in an issue that would be out within a week. Now nearing the deadline for the third issue ahead, he needed my column. Which is why he called. Details like notifying me that I had a column were unimportant; he needed that column.

So I wrote the column and sent it in the next day. As it turned out, the column ran for six years. The last few years it paid a thousand a month. How it came to an end is another story, for a later post.
Copryight © 2007, Michael A. Banks

On Writing When One is Ill, Sick, or in Pain ...

Yesterday I took a “break” because the book chapter I was writing was turning into drudgery. I figured that was because I had been too focused on it for too long. I didn’t give a thought to the sinus headache or kidney stone-level back pains I was experiencing at the time. Nor did I take into consideration that fact that I hadn’t eaten anything all day because of the pain.

During that break I wrote a post about laptops and seating and ... well, it was bad. So I deleted it, and my apologies to those who have this blog on their RSS feeds.

I’ve written when I was ill before, but never when I had so much pain. Normally, if i write when I'm ill, my work is usually shot-through with typos, but it still follows a theme and makes sense. Not this time.

I think I’ll stop trying to write when I’m sick.