Friday, October 31, 2008

Free Blogging Heroes Excerpt (PDF)

Click here or on the book image to read Chapter 1 of Blogging Heroes. This chapter is a Q&A interview with Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired Magazine and author of The Long Tail. It also provides some background. Read it to learn what Anderson considers important in blogging, and what went into the success of his Long Tail blog.

One of several interesting quotes from the interview is "I do some of my best thinking on my blog." As you may know, The Long Tail originated as a blog, with Chris trying out ideas and gaining wisdom from those who participated in the blog ...

Chris Anderson has a new book coming out in July. Titled Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price, it offers some controversial notions.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Voting Machine Glitches

Banks' First Law of Voting Machines: There will always be people who believe in glitches, whether or not there are any.

Corollary: Those who perceive glitches will always believe "the other party" is responsible for and benefiting from them.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's a Good Sales Rank at Amazon?

As most writers have noticed, Amazon offers a sales rank with each book's listing; it's at the end of the Product Details section (the listing with publisher, publication date, number of pages, etc.) I've just looked at the Canadian listing for On the Way to the Web, and as I write this it is ranked 2,433. Which means that only 2,432 books are selling better. It also ranks number 1 in the category of Internet History.

In a world of hundreds of thousands of books, that's pretty good. In fact, this site (TitleZ) says that it's a "very successful book," or that any book ranking between 1,001 and 10,000 is very succeseful. (Books ranking 1 to 100 are "best-sellers.") That judgment only maintains if the number is an average; a book may jump to 942 (as On the Way to the Web did one day), but that could be a spike in response to a review or media mention. A given rank doesn't provide useful data; you must take a look at overall averages--by week, month, quarter--to get a good feel for how well the book might be doing, comparatively.

I refer you to the TitleZ page because Amazon has no explanation. There was a page that explained sales rank at one time, but it's empty now. TitleZ also offers a service that gives long-term average ranks, which could be of interest to authors who cannot readily get sell-through data from their publishers. (The service is at present still in beta.)

The data are for Amazon sales only. There is no correlation between sales ranking and the number of copies sold. A service called BookScan will give you precise info on chain and other sales. Depending on who you're talking with, BookScan gives you 60 or 70 percent of total sales.

Holding Secrets Is Worse Than Owing Money

About once a month something jumps up out of my own life and inspires an aphorism or adage. The October aphorism grew out of pondering why I hadn't heard from certain people for a year or more.

I thought about what makes people distance themselves from a friend or relative. Embarrassment for the other person can do it (you know--when your friend or relative gets two DUIs in a row). So can owing money. And guilt over something the other party doesn't know. Or taking offense at something, intentional or unintentional, the shunned party had done or said.

None of these applied to the people I was thinking about. But it came to me that the three of them did have something in common: I knew certain things about them that no one of their current acquaintance knows. These were things from decades past, and I've never said anything about them to anyone.

Still, I think holding someone's secrets can cause them to edge away from you. Do they have feelings of guilt? Are they embarrassed or angry because you know? Could be any of that, or something else. And so the aphorism sprang suddenly to mind:

Holding someone's secret is worse than owing them money; you can pay back the money.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ayn Rand's Writing: Descriptive Technique

There's something to be learned from reading just about any novel. This is certainly true of The Fountainhead, discussed in the preceding post. The novel offers lessons in plotting and pacing an episodic novel, symbolism, characterization, the author speaking through characters, and more.

In addition, one can learn from certain of Ayn Rand's descriptive techniques--techniques that are best avoided by new writers and, indeed, nearly all contemporary writers.

So, what about Ayn Rand's descriptive writing? First, too many of her images rely on second-hand descriptions of how things (usually buildings) affect people, with few words as to what they actually look like. An example: the reader is left to make up the picture of a life-size sculpture of a nude woman that expresses so much, and offends many at the same time. The reader wonders exactly what it looks like, of course. But the most the author offers us is that the nude's arms are at her sides, palms turned up, and her head is thrown back in triumph. (How was her hair falling? Were her breasts pendulous, nipples erect? Was her stance defying or submissive? Her facial expression--was it blank?) Even though we meet and the character who modeled for the statue, there's no realistic picture in the reader’s mind of either.

A few details, as above, or simple similes and metaphors could have brought the reader so much more into the story, could have made the statue and its inspiration far more real. (“She stood like Sally Rand would liked to have stood, without her fans, proud and defiant and transcending the mere humans around her as she challenged the sky.”)

Houses and other buildings designed by the protagonist, Howard Roark, are similarly disposed of. A structure is occasionally noted as having bricks or dormers or pediments, strange windows, having or not having Doric or Grecian elements, and so forth. Be we never really see the architectural monstrosities, triumphs, and mundania that figure so heavily in the novel. Rand emphasizes the effects of the buildings. She writes of the design of a new department store sending customers fleeing the shopping district that it dominates. She shows us the pure disgust people feel for a universal spiritual temple Roark was commissioned to designed (it housed or displayed on its roof the aforementioned nude). But do they loom? Are they baroque in appearance, or perhaps carry a half-demolished look? Does the department store look like an abandoned prison? Does the temple resemble a Roman bathhouse, or perhaps a pagan alter?

There's a lot to be said for describing a person or object through its effects on an observer, or even on its environment or other objects. However, the author provides few (and sometimes no) clues or cues as to appearance, and as a reader I find this disruptive because I have to stop considering the story unfolding in my mind to create pictures.

Going light on description is not a bad thing. My approach in writing and teaching is exactly that. The reader begins to build an image of a person or thing as soon as your description begins. I give the reader enough to get a solid though general image of "... her blond hair cascaded to her thin shoulders, where it split in twin rivers to obscure her breasts. Below the waves of hair, a long torso and short legs gave her the appearance of ... ." At this point, I don't want to intrude on the image the reader has developed. So I probably won't write about arm length or hands or whether her ears protrude beyond through her hair, unless there's an unusual feature to one of those elements, or it's otherwise important. Facial features are described separately, but in the same manner--long, thin noise, large or small eyes, square jaw, and so forth.

The goal is to give the reader enough to work with and create her own image of the character. Rand usually gives us little beyond orange hair, blond hair, eyes or faces or expressions that have a specified effect, and the reader is left to step outside the story to visualize the face.

Of course, saying that a certain expression or eyes have a certain effect is a time-honored way to make the moment slip by without disruption--but if you use this too frequently, it verges on boring the reader, who reacts with the thought, "Not 'her face made him feel like he was looking at an undercooked pizza' again!"

The point here is that Ayn Rand offers us examples of overdoing my recommendation that you don't use overmuch detail lest you come between the reader and her enjoyment of the story. In other words, her descriptions are often too subtle and indirect.

Back to buildings, we don't get to see double doors, or casement or sash windows, or arched entryways, brick lines and other details that allow us to created the necessary image.

Rand obviously knew something about architecture, and used some of her knowledge for verisimilitude. She need not have written in exacting detail about elements like texture and light, angles and lines. But simple details that anyone could recognize and incorporate into their version of the story would have made a more visual and effective story.

Still ... it worked for Ayn Rand. And I have the feeling she intended to write descriptions exactly as she did for the same reason I recommend going light on details (just don’t overdo that): to draw the reader into the story by involving her in creating it. I just don't believe the technique of describing effects and reactions rather than physical details works well in contemporary fiction.
Copyright 2008, Michael A. Banks

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Powel Crosley, Jr. and Ayn Rand

(Click to view paperback and hardcover editions.)

What? Powel Crosley, Jr. and Ayn Rand?

Right: An unliklier pair to appear in a header there never was. Powel Crosley was a staunch Republican and anti-union, which would have put him in line with Ayn Rand's philosophies. But Powel probably loathed the woman and most of her philosophies because he often ignored facts. And I think his misogony would have put him at a point where he loathed her for being a woman who not only had such philosophies, but expressed them in a popular novel. All of which makes it funny that Crosley is caricatured in Rand's The Fountainhead. I may be wrong, though.

I didn’t notice this the caricature I first read the book, over 30 years ago. But a recent re-reading finds Powel Crosley, Jr. thinly disguised as newspaper baron Gail Wynand. Wynand is an aviation enthusiast who spends a ton of money on the latest and best private aircraft. It is used to set a transcontinental speed record (as was Crosley's Vega), after which Wynand gives it to “… an enchanting aviatrix of twenty-four.” Shades of Ruth Nichols! Wynand's physical description matches that of Crosley, as well.

Rand also lampoons the controlled crash-landing Nichols made in a Pennsylvania field when she tried to set a Cincinnati-to-New York record. In the Wynand version, it is presented as an orchestrated publicity stunt, designed to draw the press--who were waiting there even as the aircraft approached from the west. (Crosley is also echoed in the radio and refrigerator manufacturer who is diversified beyond logic.)

Of course, the Wynand character is a composite of several people, with some original twists. (However, it's not quite the same as the portrayl of William Randolph Hearst in Citizen Kane.) For the writer, The Fountainhead serves as a good model for incorporating contemporary figures into a work of fiction without using their names.
Copyright © 2008, Michael A. Banks

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Book That Wasn't ... Then Was

When Jean Shepherd (the "Christmas Story" guy) was a late-night talk show host on WOR in the 1950s, he told a lot of stories from his childhood and the rest of his life. One boring night, perhaps tired of telling old stories--or any stories at all--he decided to create a new tale by cooking up a book hoax.

Shepherd asked all his listeners go to bookstores and ask for a novel titled I, Libertine, which did not exist. Pretty soon, booksellers were trying to find out who published the book. Ian and Betty Ballentine, of Ballentine Books, glomed onto this and brought in Theodore Sturgeon to write the volume. It was published as by Frederick R. Ewing in 1956.

I, Libertine's cover depicted an 18th-Century gent hobnobbing with women, one large-busted in a low-front gown. Above the title were the adjectives, "Turbulent! Turgid! Tempestuous!" At the bottom of the cover was a line from the book: "Gadzooks!" quoth I, "but here's a saucy bawd!" The back cover featured a photo of Shepherd as the author. And all for 35 cents. The print run was said to be 25,000. It's a real collectible today.

When I was doing some freelance editing for Baen Books in the 1980s, we talked about doing something similar with a space opera title, but the idea never gelled.
Copyright © 2008, Michael A. Banks

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

DELPHI, CompuServe, BIX, GEnie, The Source, Q-Link, PC-Link

Do those names bring back memories? Or are you wondering what they are? Either way, you'll find On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders fascinating. It's the story of how the Internet began (before ARPAnet), how the prime technology was developed by ARPA and transferred to the world at large by Telenet, then propogated into the public sphere by the commercial online services: CompuServe, The Source, DELPHI, GEnie, Playnet, Q-Link (eventually, AOL), PeopleLink, CIX, and all the other major stars and bit players in the drama of the developing Internet, from 1959 through 1994.

It's the story of yesterday's tomorrows, the many and varied visions the online services and their users created on the way to the World Wide Web. Sound interesting? Click here for more information. (Coming soon: Excerpts from On the Way to the Web.)

"As someone who has been involved in the telecom scene since 1978 I have always feared that much of the wild history during the Hayes-modem era would be lost. Michael Banks to the rescue. This fascinating book is a must have for any student of the techology scene." --John C. Dvorak

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Continuing Tale of the Outdated Photo

TRUE STORY: Back in 1997 I wrote a book about Internet safety, and included a chapter about online dating. (No, I'm not writing another such book right now.) I had been to sites like this one in 1995, looking for a date, and in 1997 I noticed one woman whom I'd seen back in 1995--using the same photo.

She finally added a new photo later that year. I saw the photo again in 2000 when I was researching another book. Guess what? She posts the same photo today on dating sites! No kidding, no mistake; the photo was very distinctive. I wonder what she tells guys when they meet her and see that she's a decade older? And how worried is she about aging? Or maybe it's just someone perpetuating a multi-decade prank ...

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Conservative Rocker Pens Political Tome

It had to happen: Ted Nugent has written a book about contemporary politics. (Or his ghost has. I have no idea how literate Nugent is, though I'd vote in favor of his having written the book himself. He's had plenty of time of late.)

The book is Ted, White, and Blue: The Nugent Manifesto, a title designed to both state the political theme and grab attention, as in "Ted, White, and Blue?" What's "Ted?" Of course, his name's almost as big as the title, and the caricature on the cover easily explains who Ted is, even to those who don't recognize the name.

Those who do know Ted will not be surprised that this is a conservative work. It talks about things such as war is the solution to America's problems, trimming big government, and how to change the world for the better "through the power of God, guns, and rock n' roll."

This line of flap copy sums it up nicely: "If you care about America, if you want to preserve, protect, and defend the land of the free and the home of the brave, if you're fed up with lazy, whining, fear-mongering, government-gorging Al Gores, Michael Moores, and Obamaniacs, then you need to read Ted, White, and Blue: The Nugent Manifesto."

It's currently high on the Amazon list of bestselling political books, and is probably headed for other bestseller lists. It appears that conservatives read as much as liberals, given something they're motivated to read--and that not all entertainment people are liberal.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Book Publishing Business from the Inside

In the past, I've recommended several books that can fill you in on the book publishing business. Of course things change and books may be outdated--and there's always a question or two that the books don't answer. So let me introduce you to an interesting source on how publishing works from the publisher's perspective, with things an author needs to know. It's current, and faster than reading a book.

The source is at Joe Wikert's Publishing 2020 Blog. Joe is a Vice President and Executive Publisher in the Professional/Trade division of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (The company that published my book, Blogging Heroes.) In four posts, Joe answers a lot of questions about book distribution, marketing, sell-through (what's that?), and sales expectations (how do publishers project sales?)

Here are labeled links to each post:
Marketing and PR
Sell-through Data
Sales Expectations

Feng Shui and Your Money

I suppose it had to happen: a book about increasing your wealth with Feng Shui. No need to link to it; I just want to point out its existence, and wonder what sort of thinking went into it. Was it "Hey--Feng Shui is hot, and creating wealth is hotter! What if we put them together in a book?" Or perhaps the author is serious. I have no idea.

But I do have one question: Instead of reading the entire book and doing everything it says, can I just paint my kitchen chartruse and pick up a quick thousand bucks?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"People tell me I look younger than I really am..."

Being between books and still too distracted to settle down to the magazine articles I need to write, I've been browsing the Web (as who hasn't?) and came across some singles' sites. Looking at how some people describe themselves is almost like watching an episode of "The Mentalist" because they often say more about themselves than they intended.

For example, quite a few singles (more women than men) include the line "People tell me I look younger than I really am" in their descriptions. If you look younger than you really are, your (carefully chosen) photos should show it. Hitting potential suitors over the head with the obvious is hard-sell, and saying it when it's obviously not true makes you a wishful liar. Worse, it leads many to infer that you have this "thing" about aging and turns off anyone near your age. (Hint: let the other person decide how old or young you look for themselves.)

Then there are those who complain about "head games." What in the hell are "head games," as in "If you're into playing head games, just move on?" Near 's I can tell, the phrase came from the song, and while it is a great gut-wrencher to yell out during a hard rock singalong, that's about the sum total of its value. Nobody wants head games, any more than people want to have fingers amputated. That's a given, so why bother waving them off? As my friend MJ on one of the sites says, nobody ever asks for head games, like "You know, I haven't had a good mindfuck in a long time--come play some head games with me!" (Okay, politicians play head games, but that's their job!)

Next are the free spirits. I thought we got over the "free spirit" stuff in the early 1970s. As with "look younger" comment, you see this more with women than men. As I recall, 1960s free spirits were flighty girls who spent most of their time looking for someone to help them get high (i.e., score the dope). Funny that the women who label themselves thus are usually up-tight types; maybe they wish they could be whatever they define free spirits to be, or want to have that as an excuse to win arguements: "I'm a free spirit, so I can't agree with that." Oh, well.

Finally (for this outing) what are all those people who select "Other" in the employment category doing for a living? Are they waiting for their eBay businesses to take off so they won't have to look for a job?
Copyright 2008, Michael A. Banks