Friday, November 26, 2010

Semaphore Industries Caboose and Wayfarer Motor Homes--Research

For several years in the 1970s, I seemed to be unable to leave the world of wheels. I worked in the GM plant (Fisher Body, actually) that built all of the Firebirds and Camaros in the country (save for the 5 percent or so that were required to meet California emissions--those were built in California). After a months-long strike and massive layoffs, I ended up as a summer replacement at two Ford Motor Company transmission plants. Both jobs (plus an extremely brief return engagement with Fisher Body) were very intense learning experiences about what went into cars, and about the people who built them. (Yes, I have a book manuscript. It's fascinating, if I do say so.)

Next came a very short stint in the auto parts business. And then I took a job with Wayfarer Motor Homes, the Ashley Ward Manufacturing Company of Cincinnati. Ward was just starting up the motor home business, with an 18-footer on Dodge or Ford truck chassis. Soon after came a 25-footer. The company had previously manufactured Nimrod and Wayfarer folding camper trailers.

From there I went to Semaphore Industries, a travel trailer manufacturing company with a unique product: a 23-foot camper that looked like a classic red railroad caboose. If you ever saw one, you remember it. About 800 were made, nearly all red; at least one was a railroad yellow in color. The company also made a number without the interior appointments. These were used as mobile demonstration/display units by the Baldwin Piano Company (for organs) and others.

As a part of my research for some new projects, I am looking for information, photos and brochures of Wayfarer and Nimrod products, and especially Semaphore Industries' Caboose travel trailers. Leads appreciated. Please contact me at mynewbook over at America Online (the good old aol period com). Thank you.

Oh--almost forgot! At GM and Ford I did assembly jobs. (Ford was the more difficult employer.) I was an electrician for the Wayfarer and Semaphore plants, assembling, installing and testing the 12-volt automotive and 110-volt appliance, air conditioning and generator systems.

Monday, November 01, 2010

A Self-Publishing Success Story

When I'm researching a subject it is easy for me to get distracted by interesting sub-topics. Some are so interesting that I can't resist following up on them, even if I don't use the information.

This happens a lot with automotive history. The history of the industry is an endless parade of fascinating people, companies and products. An example: Clymer auto repair manuals. If you have done your own car repairs, you probably know Clymer manuals. I believe they've outsold the Chilton and Haynes manuals for some time, and they left Glenn's and Motor magazine's manuals in the dust long ago. (I could be wrong with regards to Haynes; AutoZone moves a lot of Haynes manuals.)

More interesting than sales numbers is the fact that Clymer repair manuals grew out of a self-publishing operation. The original Clymer Publishing was started by former motorcycle racer and dealer Floyd Clymer in the late 1940s. (Clymer started out in business as an automobile dealer at the age of 11, in 1906--a story for another time.) His first book was Those Wonderful Old Automobiles, a nostalgic look back at the first few decades of automotive history. It sold so well that a big New York publisher picked it up. He followed that title with another nostalgia title.

When he wasn't putting together books like Those Wonderful Old Automobiles and Model T Historic Scrapbook, Clymer wrote and commissioned brand-specific repair guides like The 1955 Plymouth & Chrysler Auto Repair Handbook and The Volkswagen Owner's Handbook of Repair and Maintenance (1957). To non-mechanics, these books were every bit as valuable as the tools they used. Short of buying factory shop manuals (which may or may not have existed for a given model, and may or may not have been for sale to the public), there was no better way to get your hands on the vital information you needed.

Clymer's books were almost on the fan level, but they had solid content. In the case of his auto nostalgia books, they were so entertaining and sold so well that a big New York publisher picked them up (among the earliest examples of self-published books "proving" themselves--in a big way).

The repair manuals, as noted, offered information that hobbyist mechanics desperately needed. Not as much info as Motor's manuals, but the price was right. The balance was exactly what most customers wanted.

In trade paperback, Clymer's two-dollar manuals outsold the most popular repair guides of the day: Motor magazine's popular auto repair manuals, which cost three times as much. Motor's manuals were pricey hardcover productions--coffee table-sized volumes of 700 pages or more that originated in the 1930s. One got fewer pages and less info with Clymer manuals, but one saved enough to buy a set of brakes or a clutch.

I wonder if a similar startup line of enthusiast books could survive today. Clymer did most of his marketing by direct mail--via ads in appropriate magazines and catalog mailings to every customer he got. (He had tried an entirely different sort of direct-mail marketing in the 1920s, and ended up doing prison time. But that's another story.) Clymer titles didn't become bookstore books until after the mainstream publisher brought out his nostalgia titles.

What was the secret of Floyd Clymer's success? In the end, it was the content that sold the books, more than some trick advertising or marketing (something that today's would-be publishing millionaires might give attention). It helped that many were unique in their subject coverage. But Clymer did his share of promotion, sending out an endless flow of review copies at a time when books weren't lightly published and most of what came in to book reviewers would at least get a glance. He also sent copies to celebrities and elected officials across the country for endorsements and to create buzz. (I found an endorsement from Earl Warren in one Clymer title.)

All that was after the books were published. Before Floyd Clymer decided to publish a book, he looked for the market, and how to reach it. Some subjects were obvious. Was there are market for a "fix your Ford" book? Heck, yeah--there were millions of Ford owners. Chrysler? Certainly! As for reaching the market, the obvious way was to advertise in magazines read by men, who without a doubt did nearly all auto repair. Not only car magazines, but also publications like Popular Mechanics. The essence of his approach was to use the same marketing channels as the competition--while offering a low-cost alternative. It was the same approach that Crosley used to dominate the radio business in the 1920s. Fill a need for less.

Floyd Clymer ended up publishing hundreds of books, as well as motorcycle and car magazines. It is interesting to look back over the subjects he published. As owner of the company, Clymer was able to do things that publishers can't do today: take chances. Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler--any publisher would go for subjects that had proven appeal to millions. But...Volkswagen, Nash Metropolitan, Simca? Clymer covered these and other relatively obscure makes. I think he had faith in every title he published, reasoning that while there were just a few thousand Simcas in the U.S., a well-produced book with no competition stood a good chance of grabbing the attention of most of those readers.

Whether he went for big markets or small, Clymer put together a lot of fascinating books Many of them (such as his annual coverage of the Indianapolis 500) are prized by collectors. The company spawned by Floyd's automotive history interest continues publishing repair manuals today. There is much, much more to the story (Clymer's inventions, in addition to his publishing and racing activities), but it will have to appear elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Halloween Story

I've written elsewhere about the power of words, the effects they can have on people. Sometimes even one word can exert a powerful influence.

Take, for example, "Begger's Night" on the Halloween when I was eight years old. Our mothers took my younger brothers and several cousins door-to-door through the neighborhood. The treats were the usual boring items--peanuts, apples, oranges, and the occasional miniature candy bar. At one point my oldest cousin (a year older than me) said, "Let's skip the next house."

Wow--"skip" a house? That sounded cool--so cool that I had to say it. "Yeah, let's skip this one!" Wow--we would be doing something! And so we did. We waited on the sidewalk as our mothers took the little kids up to the house's door, feeling decidedly older.

A few seconds later, we weren't feeling older (nor wiser) at all. My brothers and cousins came dancing down from the house's porch, cheering, "Look! They gave us Three Musketeers bars--the big ones!"

Sure enough, these people weren't messing around--no fruits and nuts here! They had dropped a full-size Three Musketeers bar into each bag. (And make no mistake about it: Three Musketeers bars were serious candy bars back then. Each one was the size of a cigar box!)

"We wanna go back," my cousin wailed. "Oh, no," our mothers replied. "You said you wanted to 'skip' that house, and skip it you will"

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Online in 1962: The First Online Content

For those who may have wondered what I have to say in On the Way to the Web that's not in other Internet histories, here is a free sample chapter in PDF format.

This chapter, titled "In the Money," details not only how early Internet (ARPANET) technology was transferred to the public sphere, but also the origins and nature of the very first online content.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Sane Overview of Electronic Publishing

Wondering about e-publishing (epublishing, epubbing, whatever)? I could say a lot about ebook publishing, but I have biases pro and con that are likely to upset many readers and get in the way of what I have to express.

That being the situation, may I recommend this very sane, level-headed and all-encompassing analysis of e-publishing, written by Victoria Strauss:

This is a service of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. While you're there, explore all the Writer Beware pages.
(Ebook reader, writer, editor, historian and occasional reviewer)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to Avoid Publishing Scams

Scams that prey on unpublished writers' desire to see print have always amazed me in their success. They obviously involve things not within the range of legitimate publishing. Huge reading fees to enter contests, or to have an editor or agent consider your work--these are not part of legitimate publishing. The people behind them aren't what they say they are, and can't deliver what they seem to promise. (I say "seem to promise" because if you go through such offers with a clear mind, you find that they don't really promise anything. They are crafted so as to allow the prospective writer to infer all sorts of things, and hence use the victim's own desires and emotions to scam her or him. Just like the "found wallet" and other cons.)

I first encountered these scams in the 1970s, when I wanted to badly to be published that some of the "get published the easy way" offers were tempting. But I was able to throttle my enthusiasm and resist all the empty promises because most of the scams stood out from legitimate offers like weeds on a putting green. In that pre-Web era, scammers had to put up money for advertising and printing to look like legitimate outfits. Most could not. They bought two-line classifieds and mailed out photocopied pitches. Many were tied to physical addresses that were easy to track down. (With a little effort you might learn that the "offices of the company" were in someone's dining room). Plus, reputable magazines acted as watchdogs--willing and able to censor the content of their advertising. (All that aside, I was in touch with a number of published writers who, I observed, weren't paying to get published.)

Online, it's tougher for new writers to weed out the dreck. There's more of it; scamming is almost free of cost, and anyone can have a Web site that looks like Simon & Schuster's. The virtual nature of online existence makes it easy to hide. Nobody acts as Web gatekeeper, so there is no way to block false advertising. (Not that scams didn't make it into print before the Web; but magazines who wanted to keep readers did keep scams to a minimum. Today, however, the incentive to enable online scams is greater than the incentive to block them.)

So the scams keep on coming. Those that succeed do so because their victims are blinded by the blaze of their desire to get into print. They wouldn't succeed if would-be writers followed two simple guidelines:
One, if an offer sounds too good to be true, it is.
Two, writers don't pay; writers are paid.

Seriously, it's that simple. But I know some people will want to believe the offers of the fame and fortune and film deals equal to those of of Colleen McCullough or Tom Clancy. When that happens, at least check them out. There are bulletin boards/forums/blogs that monitor scams. Like this one:
and this one:
and yet another:

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Scalping the Dalai Lama

Observed in Passing Department
Miami University (of Ohio) is hosting the Dalai Lama later this month. Tickets were sold for $25 to the public, and $5 to students. Right now, the tickets are being scalped for as much as $250 for a pair.

The Dalai Lama's talk will be: "Ethics in a Modern World."

Reminds me of a TV interview with a guy who was scalping Paul McCartney tickets. The interviewer asked him who was the biggest act he'd ever scalped tickets for. After an obviously embarrassed pause, the scalper blurted out, "The Pope!"

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In Memoriam: Stan Veit

Stan Veit, a personal computing pioneer and well-known as the editor of Computer Shopper, passed away on July 29, 2010. He was 90.

Many of you will remember the hardcopy magazine incarnation of Computer Shopper from the 1980s. It was the magazine that had hardcore personal computing geeks all but salivating over every issue. It offered news, great deals on computer parts and accessories, and ads for some products that you wouldn't have heard about elsewhere. (Computer Shopper was known and appreciated for its startup-friendly ad rates.)

It began as a "trader" newspaper, like those found in just about every community beginning in the 1970s. These were typically papers filled with nothing but classified ads. Initially, they were free, or offered on a "pay only if you sell" basis. (Most eventually became pay-up-front propositions.) One of the magazine's regular readers was Stan Veit, who in 1976 opened the world's second computer shop, in New York City. There's much more to Stan's history in personal computing, about which you can read in an appreciation I wrote for Computer Shopper, the URL for which is below.

I was a Contributing Editor for Computer Shopper in the 1980s and early 1990s, during the years that each issue ran to several hundred pages. My column dealt with the online world and modems. I wrote about modems and computer software, as well as online services like GEnie, CompuServe, DELPHI, BIX, AOL, Promenade, and all the rest of the commercial services, as well as BBSs.

The way I became a Contributing Editor is quite a story in itself, a story that is typical Stan Veit. I have several stories about Computer Shopper and Stan Veit, which I'll share in this blog over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I've written an appreciation of Stan Veit, which you can read in Computer Shopper here:

As you'll learn, Stan was quite a pioneer in personal computing. He opened what was only the second computer store in the world in 1976, and wrote one of the first computer books. He bought the third Apple I computer that Apple sold, and was Apple's third dealer, among other notable accomplishments.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Film Note: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

No review just now, but I can't help but point out a typo in the English subtitles for the Swedish version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

Near the end, a television newscaster is reporting the death of the largely off-screen villain Hans-Erik Wennerström. The newscaster notes that Wennerström died a sudden death, but the subtitle for the sentence reads "sudde."

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"It isn't...but it is..."

Somewhere I have the beginnings of a post about overused words and phrases (not to be confused with my post about over-using contemporary colloquialisms). This was inspired by Randy Michaels' banning the use of over 100 words and short phrases by Chicago's WGN employees. Some media outlets tried to make this come off as unfair, but in fact, Michaels was banning the words because they are overused, have lost their meanings in many instances, and are often misused. A good number of them are used so often that listeners/viewers sort of glaze over when they hear them. Phrases like, "the robbers fled" and "police are still seeking those responsible."

I believe that some words or phrases are used in TV and radio news reports simply out of habit, or because they are associated with a concept and are automatically used when the concept comes up. I read an example of this today:

But Pawn Stars isn't like any other History Channel show. Like 'American Pickers,' another great show on the channel, Pawn Stars delivers entertainment value that TV viewers simply won't find so easily elsewhere.

Wait, wait: it's not like any other History Channel show---but it is like another show on the channel? It appears that someone wanted to praise the show, and so out tumbled "'s not like any other..." a phrase often associated with greatness. But having written that and then negating it, I wonder if the reporter had really taken the phrase's meaning. Or did he use the phrase because it was linked in his mind with the concept of really good or great?

Is "Pawn Stars" also "more unique" than other shows?

By the way, I enjoy both shows. I notice two mistakes that nearly every "Pawn Stars" customer with something to sell makes. Some ask for the retail value, as if they're cashing in Savings Bonds and there's no need for profit to be made by the buyer. Do they not notice that they're in a business that makes money by buying and reseller? If a seller isn't asking the Earth for an item, she usually asks for exactly what she wants--which she isn't going to get because for the sake of form Rick and the Old Man will chisel them down. Rick Harrison has said as much.

Say a person has a collectible that she thinks is worth $500 to the shop. She's researched it and knows that items like hers are fetching $1,000 on eBay or live auctions. She will go in and ask for $500. Rick will offer $300, and they'll wrap up at $400 or $425. If the customer had started at $600 or $700, it's likely she would have left with $500--having given Rick or the Old Man the fun of chopping down the price. (BTW, does anyone else think the Old Man has an eastern Kentucky accent? Does anyone else notice how much he likes to say "Back in the day..."?)

Friday, July 02, 2010

A Review with Character

Periodically I happen upon a review of one of my books I haven't seen. Such as the case today when I found this review of Blogging Heroes at Ivan Chew's blog "Rambling Librarian: Incidental Thoughts of a Singapore Liblogrian."

Ivan's review of Blogging Heroes is an interesting approach that takes the title and theme to their logical conclusions. A taste of the review: "If this were a graphic novel, it would be an "Origins" story, where each superhero share his/ her tale of 'how they came to be.'"

Like I said, the review has character. So does some of Ivan's other writing, even if his wife thinks he tends to ramble. Have a look, and be sure to sample his Rough Notes blog. Fast-moving reviews.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

WLW Radio and Ruth Lyons fans will find this series of uploads to YouTube of interest: The full episode of "The 50-50 Club" for November 22, 1963. (A sadly historical day.)

This was during the period when WLWT and WLW radio were simulcasting "The 50-50 Club."


Saturday, June 26, 2010

"He had high cheekbones..."

Have you ever noticed how many characters in fiction are described as having "high cheekbones?" The incidence of high cheekbones in fiction is so high that a character would almost need to not have high cheekbones to stand out.
How far back does this go? I wonder if Prussian authors gave characters from Wisconsin or Florida high cheekbones. How widespread is it? Does an Asian writer cite high cheekbones as the distinguishing characteristic of a Brazilian? It’s a cliché that is worth giving up, in English literature, at least.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Kobo E-Reader

I received a Kobo ebook reader earlier this week. Nobody seems to know how to handle caps with this name. I've seen it written "Kobo," "KOBO" and "kobo," in reviews, at the company's Web site ( and elsewhere. I'm going with Kobo. (The name is an anagram of "book.")

This intriguing little gadget is the first ebook reader I've owned. For what it does and what it is, the device is good, and I'm learning to make it do things it's not supposed to do. The Kobo is powered by internal batteries, which are recharged whenever you plug it into a USB port. I have read two lengthy books on it and have yet to drain the battery.

The USB port is also a route to adding books to and removing books from the reader. (It also communicates via a Bluetooth radio, but I don't have one.) Kobo's software (which installs itself on Mac or PC) communicates directly with the Kobo Store ( It will be sold by Borders for $149.99, commencing in July, and Border's will operate its own online ebook store. (More info here.)

The operating instructions and online help are sparse, and the process or purchasing an ebook, adding a free ebook to your Kobo or even just changing what's on your current reading list may be confusing for some. For now, here's a tip: treat Kobo like just another disk drive when it's connected to your computer.

Treating the device as a drive or folder greatly simplifies transferring ebooks and documents (PDF files, which is how newspapers and magazines will be delivered). Download purchased or free material to your computer, then copy it to the root directory of Kobo. When you disconnect Kobo from your computer, it will wake up and process the new material, adding it to the Kobo menus. This procedure also lets you get ebooks from any source. I'll try to find time to provide more detailed info and specs here later--after I write an article on the subject.

The images above are experiments: I scanned the reader to see if the display would be washed out or destroyed by glare. The screen background is lighter, and contrast is in reality better on the physical reader, but these images aren't bad. The first image is the cover of Dark & Disorderly, by Bernita Harris. This is one of the books I edited for Carina Press. If you like the idea of a paranormal mystery with a touch of romance, this book is for you. Bernita is an excellent writer, and the novel is quirky enough and has enough twists and turns to keep you intrigued through the final page.

I also edited In Enemy Hands, a science fiction romance by KS Augustin that offers some truly original ideas. The second image is the first page of the novel on Kobo. Click on the title to buy or read an excerpt from either book. Or visit

Back to the Kobo, here's a quick tour: the blue square at the lower right of the Kobo is a navigation button, used to move around menus, turn pages, change fonts and so forth. Along the left side are several function buttons (as labeled on the front: Home, Menu, Display, Back). The power switch is on the top, along with an SD card slot . The mini-plug-in for the USB cable is on the bottom. The Bluetooth radio supports RIM Blackberry devices, and the company are planning to support additional smartphones and tablets. Oh--and no color, of course, but novels are all about text. I expect it will be some time before color displays reach a reasonable price.
I still prefer reading books printed on paper.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Carina Press Official Launch!

June 7 is the official launch date for Carina Press, Harlequin's new line of genre fiction ebooks.

While Harlequin is known for romance novels of all types, Carina will not be restricted to romance. Carina will publish romance but planned or already on its list are fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, gay/lesbian, historical and other categories.

Cross-genre novels will also be offered. Among the first such offerings is a science fiction romance by KS Augustin, In Enemy Hands. (Yes, it's a science fiction romance that works!) Another interesting cross-genre title is Dark & Disorderly, by Bernita Harris--a paranormal mystery interlaced with romance.

Each of these books has fascinating original elements. Details in upcoming posts!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Book Descriptions

Two paragraphs down is an alternate description for my book On the Way to the Web. (Was ISBN 1430208694, now ISBN 143797242X, and being sold by Diane Publishing.) I bring it up because the copy, from Diane's Web site, is more interesting than the original. Compare it with the existing bookseller listings. Whoever wrote it tightened it up considerably. (I wrote a rough version of the original.)

I'd be more likely to buy the book with the new description. I would change a couple of things ("the failed entrepreneurs" ought to be "the failed entrepreneurs who somehow managed to recover and build empires out of little more than empty time..."). But it works as-is.

Introduces you to failed entrepreneurs, people who built empires out of little more than empty time, the innovators who laid the foundation for the Internet and the World Wide Web, the man who invented online chat, and the people who invented the products all of us use online every day -- in the 1980s, the 1970s, and before! Learn where, when, how and why the Internet came into being, and exactly what hundreds of thousands of people were doing online before the Web. See who was behind it all, and what inspired it all. The real stories are all here -- the great businesses, colossal blunders, and great showmanship that led up to the Net and the Web -- and beyond, turning your perception of the Web and the people who created it upside down. Illus.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Which is More Important—the Synopsis or the Manuscript?

Which is more important to an editor when you're submitting a novel--the manuscript or the synopsis?

As an editor, I always look at the manuscript first. Always. My first approach to a novel is as a reader, and I want to be exposed to your writing without having been “prepped” for who’s who and what’s happening by the synopsis.

As a reader and as an editor, I want to see two things in the first few pages of the manuscript. First, a narrative hook that urges me to read more. It should intrigue me right away, rather than make me wait several pages to learn there is indeed an interesting character in an interesting situation. It should present action, dialogue and/or emotion—or at least challenge the reader with a puzzling circumstance.

Second, I want to be able to identify the protagonist and the setting, and understand the story situation—again, without having been informed by the synopsis. I have received manuscripts in which much of what is happening during the first chapter or two is puzzling—unless you’ve read the synopsis. (Or, until you’ve read past Chapter 6.) This is because the writer assumes people will know what she’s talking about, or because she is too focused on the story to remember that the readers don’t know everything she knows.

This is not to downplay the importance of the synopsis. It serves several purposes. It gives an editor an idea of where you’re going with the story. That saves time, of course, and lets the editor know that you are not writing a cliché (“…and it was all a dream!”) and not rewriting a favorite novel or film. It also shows how well you’ve organized your story—especially important if it is an episodic tale, switches viewpoints, or is not told in time-linear fashion. A good synopsis is in some ways a map of your novel that shows in brief the high and low points as well as the major elements of the plot. With this map, an editor can see where your story needs a little redirection, whether a character or event needs to be emphasized, and so forth.

To sum up: write your novel in such a way that the reader doesn’t have to read the synopsis to understand the story. And don’t put anything in your synopsis that’s not in the manuscript.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Click Here for Success

There exists in the mind of many a writer an assumption that if you go through the motions of tweeting, blogging, Facebooking and so forth, success is assured. Not so. Just posting or sending "here's my book--buy it," more or less filling in the blanks--doesn't do the trick. The publishers of books about how to "build your brand" and bring customers howling to your site want you to believe that the Web has mystical powers. So do those with services and methods guaranteed to make you a success. They want you to believe that if the Web is stroked and penetrated in just the right way, it will erupt in an orgasm of dollars, Euros, zlotys or whatever.

A huge industry is built upon that kind of wishful thinking--the desire for the existence of a shortcut. A secret technique or set of simple actions that will, through some magical means, make editors and agents notice you, land big advances, and cause people to buy tens of thousands of copies of your book. (And maybe--just maybe--cause that book you haven't written to come into being, or at least make people think a mediocre work is great.)

In 30 years online, I have yet to find a button labeled "Click Here for Success!" that works. If you want promotion that is guaranteed to sell books, buy billboards and network television spots. Just don't count on breaking even.

I started promoting books online for Baen and others in the mid-1980s, and I promoted one of my non-fiction books (about the online world) to sales of over 200,000 copies. But the promotion wasn't done exclusively online. I've also had books sell tens of thousands of copies without serious online promotion (so have Andre Norton, Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, and Stieg Larsson--pre- and post-Web).

What have I learned from all this book promotion? That successful promotion is (usually) anchored by a quality product, and Internet gyration is but one element in a larger effort. The secret, if there is one, can be found in promoting your work on multiple fronts. It also helps to concentrate on special niches where you're likely to be welcome.

Going through the motions of promotion doesn't yield automatic success--no more than saying you are a successful writer will make you one. Whether you motivate people depends in large part on what you deliver through the online channels, and the other promotional efforts--about which more in a later post.
--Michael Banks

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Stieg Larsson, Verisimilitude, and Billy's Pan Pizzas

I know that many of you are reading Stieg Larsson's "Millenium" series of novels, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. The discussions about these books are endless. Some people are unhappy with the sex. Other people are happy about the sex, except for rape. Some say the characterization of this or that character is poor, or hollow. (That fits Bloomqvist. Maybe it's because Bloomqvist is Larsson?) Some say the police couldn't be that bumbling, or that Neidermann couldn't be that strong and Paulo Roberto wouldn't have shown up out of nowhere the way he did.

No matter how you feel about these or other issues, you probably enjoyed the books. They're great entertainment. I've yet to read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, but I liked the first two--particularly the realistic nature of the family background,* the screwups in the system, and the human greed and manipulation that put Salander where she was--in the position of ward of the state over whom a warped individual had absolute power. (And didn't we enjoy Lisbeth Salander getting her own back?)

But--oh, the product name-dropping! Larsson waved brand names in front of the reader to the point where it disrupted the reading. IKEA, Macintosh, 7-Eleven stores, MSIE, Billy's Pan Pizza--products of all sorts are firmly branded, over and over. In the typical popular novel, a character fires up her unnamed laptop when she needs to do a little hacking. It might be singled out as a Mac if the author is enthusiastic about Macs, but just once. She might pick up frozen pizzas at the minimart, or occasionally at a King Kwik. A motorcycle might be distinguished as a Kawasaki, and a car as a Camry, to help give the reader a picture. But when every market is a 7-Eleven and every snack is a Billy's Pan Pizza, and so many brand names are overemphasized by repetition, it wears on the reader.

At least, it wore on me to the point where I went looking to see whether Billy's Pan Pizza--which Bloomqvist and Salander seemed to live on--was a made-up product. It is real. I posted an image of the packaged product above. The maker is Gunnar Dafgård AB, and they crank out 80,000 rectangular pizzas a day. And then I went back to reading the novel.

Was Larsson paid for these mentions? Unlikely. And it's unlikely that he was such a huge Apple 7-Eleven Billy's fan-boy that he couldn't pass up the opportunity to mention any of his favorites. ( 7-Eleven really that ubiquitous in Sweden? I know there are more than 36,000 7-Elevens around the world, but here in the U.S. I trade at a number of mini-marts that aren't 7-Eleven. Has 7-Eleven totally trampled its competition in Sweden?)

I think it's more likely that Stieg Larson subscribed to the verisimilitude school of fiction writing, which maintains that if you use brand names, your stories will be more believable. But, going back to the 1940s and 1950s, there was a school that felt that using specific product names left one open to some sort of defamation risk, or constituted a kind of unfair endorsement--or free advertising. (There's a tradition in newspapers that frowns on that--more about it in another posting.) Hence, authors would write Yamahonda or Tartus rather than Yamaha or Taurus. Even far-future tales disguised brand names, as Robert A. Heinlein did in The Man Who Sold the Moon, with Moka-Coka instead of Coca-Cola, and 6+ rather than 7UP.

So, was Larsson of the opinion that naming names a better story makes? Or could it be that his journalism background imprinted him with the habit of identifying specific brands?

Did he overdo it, or is it just me? Obviously, it wasn't fatal to sales, but...

Eva Gabrielsson, if you read this, let me know.

* I have a family like that.
Copyright © Michael A. Banks, 2010

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Be Suspicious of Facts

Remember the 8-track stereo cartridge? 8-track (and 4-track) stereo cartridges and players were really hot consumer items throughout most of the 1960s. For the first time, you could listen to the music you wanted--without commercials, and without changing and scratching records. (In-car record players were hopelessly vulnerable to potholes.) Once you put the tape in, all you had to do was listen. A typical tape offered an entire album's worth of songs on an endless loop of quarter-inch tape. If you wanted to skip a song, you could move among program channels or just drive your way to the next tune (the Sixties' version of fast-forward).

The cartridge was eventually eased out of the picture by the cassette tape, but not before it made its mark on popular culture, and the music and automotive industries. The history of this technology is part of a project I have in the works--and a fascinating history it is, involving a surprising range of people and events. (And, no: Bill Lear didn't invent the technology.)

As I tracked the development of the stereo cartridge, I was reminded of how easy it is to change history without trying. All you have to do is not check facts. Go with the first source you consult, or the story that offers the most entertainment value. It's easier, takes less time, and most of your readers won't know the difference. (And if you don't check your facts, you won't know that you're repeating the mistakes of those whose work you copy.)

This fast-track research seems to be very popular among those who write popular histories. I observed it when I was researching Crosley and Before Oprah: Ruth Lyons, the Woman Who Created Talk TV. Not to mention dozens of other subjects. And I'm seeing it now, as I research the evolution of the stereo tape cartridge. In the hands of short-cutting researchers, televisions morph into radios. Events that took place in 1940 flash forward to 1956. Toledo becomes Cleveland.

How do such transformations happen?

Consider the Toledo/Cleveland switch. The cities should be difficult to confuse: they're on opposite sides of Ohio, and Cleveland's the place where the river caught fire. But one can imagine an academic or freelance writer seated at her desk some time in the 1990s, surrounded by references, and jumping between notes and manuscript on the computer screen. The book she's writing includes passing mention of an engineer from Ohio named George Eash. (Eash came up with the first practical endless-loop audio tape cartridge--the template for radio station as well as auto stereo carts.) She remembers the name but can't remember the city. "Okay. He was from Ohio...but which city?"

She can't put her hands on the source immediately. Maybe she's up against a deadline. So she ponders for a moment more, hoping for a reliable memory. It was only last week that she'd read about Eash, after all...

"Cincinnati? No--nobody is from Cincinnati." Then she writes "Cleveland," because she's never been to Ohio but Cleveland pops right up because--well, because it's a name in the media. There's the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. And Drew Carey. Strong associations, those. "Yeah. If I remember it, it must be Cleveland. It's a big town. And it sounds good."

Three years later someone researching the same subject comes across her book. "Oh--he was from Cleveland! That saves me some digging." He doesn't bother checking other sources; the book he's reading is from a university press, and surely they must check all the facts--right? So he puts this "fact" into his notes and into his book. Several more writers duplicate and reinforce the error in books and magazines.

Oops! Before long, flawed memory becomes fact.

Nine years later I come along and take a quick look through their books and articles. As always, I'm checking multiple sources, and their info doesn't jibe with what I've seen elsewhere. "Cleveland?" I ask myself. "That doesn't seem right." I double-check my own notes and find that Eash told magazine and newspaper interviewers in the 1950s that he was from Toledo. Eash holds some patents and--by golly!--his residence is listed as Toledo in the patent records.

Now, maybe swapping Cleveland for Toledo isn't such a big deal. But it could be--especially if someone needs to know more about Eash and his activities. And there's the general point of Getting It Right. Isn't that what historians and journalists are supposed to do?

It is. But too many don't get it right for lack of checking a second (or third) source. Repeated often enough, erroneous information becomes historical fact--something "everybody knows" to be true. Like Henry Ford inventing the automobile or Powel Crosley inventing the FAX machine, neither of which is true.

Be suspicious of your sources. Even if you find two that agree, look for a third that doesn't. If you can't find a contrary source, you're probably okay--but if you find one, it's time for a real fact-finding expedition.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mindless Advertising

The article to the left really nails Wal-Mart's practice of discriminating against women (and others) to the wall. (Click here to read it.)

The box bordered in red is a segment of the same Web page's "sponsored links."

I ask you: how many people are going to read the condemnation of Wal-Mart and scramble for a chance to work for the company? How much is this like a series of Ford Motor Company sponsoring a documentary about the people killed by Pinto gas tank explosions? (And is a Web site really going to lead you to a job at Wal-Mart that pays fifty-six dollars per hour?)

In other words, how useful is mindless linking?

Has Blogging Peaked?

A recent piece on blogging in the Christian Science Monitor asks if blogging is on the decline. See the article for my views.

(Check out Blogging Heroes, too.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Three Things that May Look Weird in a Novel Submission

Having your friend, cousin, or partner disguise themselves as an agent to submit your work. It’s very easy for an editor to learn that Eldred “Slick” Bitsko isn’t an agent--especially when he has no other clients, let alone a track record. To some editors, this might imply that the trappings of publishing (“my agent”) are more important to you than the quality of your work.

Explaining in your cover letter how your last novel really was great, but “my publisher, Simter & Schuson, screwed up the marketing, and that disappointed me.” The editor isn’t trying to decide whether to buy your last novel. This is the sort of thing you might discuss with an editor once you’ve established a working relationship, but it adds nothing to the current submission.

Your name is Beldon of Atvar, but when the editor pops up the Document Properties dialog box in Word to get a word count (because you didn’t provide it), the name in the Author field is “Becky Lee Treversole” (your old girlfriend, who let you copy MS Office). Or maybe “US Robots & Mechanical Men” (your employer, who has no idea that you’re writing a novel on company time).

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Unrestrained Journalism

Yesterday (April 14) I was interviewed by an Australian broadcaster in connection with Blogging Heroes. It happened that the evening before I had seen an interview with Ted Koppel on BBC's American service. (Yes, he left Nightline for the Discovery Channel and the BBC.) The subject of the discussion was blogging--specifically, the legitimacy of news from blogs.

As expected, Koppel came out supporting mainstream media as superior to blogs. He didn't mount an attack on blogging, but he did make one good point, which I brought out during my interview. The big difference between conventional news media and blogs can be found in the fact that most blogs do not vet their news. It is true, of course, that non-vetted items make it through to newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV broadcasts. But blogs tend to go with far less verification than mainstream media. And "citizen journalists" often don't have the background necessary to see the story behind the story.

This being the state of things, it is a wise course to verify news with multiple sources. But that applies not just to blogs, but mainstream media, as well. Mainstream sources are known to to slant coverage and omit facts, which is sometimes more dangerous than getting the story wrong.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Apostrophes + Homonyms = Confusion

Misuses in writing that involve apostrophes (or the lack thereof) scream for attention, especially to editors. Oddly enough, most involve homonyms—words that sound the same but have different spellings.

Consider "I really like you're poem," for example. Or, "Its really tough to know which word to use."

The error of using "you're" for "your" is often committed in the heat of writing, in part because the words are homonyms. They sound the same, and the part of the brain that processes words to text sometimes just sends the first word that sounds right to your fingers. To complicate matters, when you reread what you’ve written there’s a good chance you’ll see "your" where you wrote "you're" (or vice-versa).

You may end up looking stupid when an editor reads your manuscript—or at least wincing when you discover the error later. You can cut down on this sort of problem by using fewer contractions.

A similar problem occurs with “its" versus "it's." If you’re one of the world’s many self-appointed proofreaders, you know that the wrong choice is made far too often in advertising, letters, or anywhere else someone is faced with the question, “Should I use an apostrophe here, or not?”

The problem can plague even experienced writers. It’s the homonym effect again, complicated by the fact that we are trained to use an apostrophe with almost every possessive.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Whatever Happened to Cloud Computing?

Whatever Happened to Cloud Computing? For a while it was getting big play in books and magazines, but the noise seems to have faded. Here's one take on it. (This entry is a replay of a piece I wrote for TechRepublic/CNET a while back.)


When I first heard about cloud computing in 2007, it was with a feeling of déjà vu. I had indeed been there and done that — with thousands of other personal computer users — as far back as 1983. That’s the year high-volume cloud computing was kicked off by the debut of the Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100.

Portable, but lacking storage

You may not have seen or heard of the Tandy Model 100. TechRepublic has a Photo Gallery on it if you want to see what it looked like - - inside and out. It was a minimalist microcomputer, a not-quite two-inch thick slab that measured about 12 inches by 8-1/2 inches.

The Model 100 came with built-in firmware applications: text editor, calendar/scheduler with an alarm clock function, BASIC, an address book, and terminal program — plus a 300-bps modem. Four AA batteries powered it for about 20 hours. It could display 40 or 80 columns on a monitor or television set and had its own 40-character by 8-line LCD display.

This miracle machine’s only real shortcoming was storage, particularly if you traveled for work. Like most, my Model 100 had only the basic 8K of memory, which didn’t quite hold 12 pages of text. There was no slot in the side for a disk or card. I worked with a lot of files — articles, short stories, books — so I needed external storage. So did most other Model 100 owners. Many who spent hundreds of dollars for 24K of RAM still didn’t have enough memory.

A cassette interface made tape storage possible, but the medium wasn’t always perfect. Besides, that would have meant hauling along a tape player that weighed more than the computer, and the reason for the Model 100 was portability. A Model 100 disk drive presented the same lug-along problems as the cassette and cost lots more. (Cost aside, I would probably have lost, damaged, or forgotten the peripherals, cables, or media at some critical point.)

But a storage solution was built in to the little machine in the form of its modem. It was easy to get an account on an online service such as CompuServe or The Source. (In fact, I had free press accounts.) So before I left home on a trip I would upload my work files to CompuServe, using the service’s own data network. When I was at home and wanted to work somewhere other than my office, I transferred files between my laptop and desktop machines using my virtual disk drive.

In essence, I was doing what they now call cloud computing 25 years ago.

Granted, the applications weren’t on a server, but that could be an advantage. If you had no telephone link, you could still work with the data in the Model 100’s memory. And even in the early days you could use online applications to write or crunch numbers if you really wanted. In fact, according to CompuServe founder Jeff Wilkins, using applications and storing data online were the two major attractions of the service when it as opened as MicroNET in 1978. (Most microcomputer owners couldn’t afford a floppy drive anyway, and transferring data to and from a mainframe was about as fast as and more reliable than using a cassette tape.)

Going back to the future

Of course, people were cloud computing with dumb terminals and mainframe computers long before 1978. It was called “timesharing,” and General Electric opened the first commercial timesharing service in 1965. And today one prediction about cloud computing is that we’ll soon be using minimal terminals to run online apps and retrieve and store data — just like in the 1960s.

I wonder what else from those days hasn’t been reinvented yet.


Michael Banks is the author of On the Way to the Web: The Secret History of the Internet and Its Founders (APress, 2008) in which he writes about the histories of timesharing services, databases like Dialog, and the consumer online services that paved the way for the Web: CompuServe, GEnie, The Source, Viewtron, AOL, Q-Link, Prodigy, Prestel, and many others around the world.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Bold, Brave Predictions of 1994

Those of you who have read On the Way to the Web know that Knight-Ridder was pretty busy with experiments in the online world in the 1980s, beginning with its Viewtron Videotext service. As I note in the book, Viewtron was an advanced system, much like the Web today. Its advanced graphics carred news, entertainment, and a host of interactive services, including email.

In 1994, ten years after it shut down Viewtron, Knight-Ridder produced the embedded video program above. It's worth taking a look at--and wondering where the hell all these wonderful ideas went. For many reasons, neither Knight-Ridder nor its competitors "got it," and failed to follow up on the developments of the era. Even though their own spokesman says, "It may be difficult to conceptualize the idea of a digital paper, but in fact we believe that's what's going to happen."

That had to have been a minority view, because Knight-Ridder failed to forge ahead with "digital paper." Again, watch the video--you'll see devices that showed up at last week's CES.

Dumbing Down the Web

If the Web is going to replace print, get ready for some real dumbing down. Apprently some publishers who put reviews on the Web (among them a former print mag or two) figure that Web surfers are functionally illiterate, and in terms of text require nothing more than strings of characters next to images and ads. It's kind of an insult to those of us who grew up on real magazines and books.

I was browsing hardware reviews earlier today, and much of what I encountered made about as much sense as this:

"So, I got this thing, I'm cool, and you plug this gadget into your computer, and set your phone next unto it, plug in your refrigerator, initiate windowed XMODEM protocol and wait for the furnace to switch on your printer's FAX unit. So then the USB chukka boots plan nose hair down to the CCITT RS232C diagram."