Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Harlequin and NASCAR, Sitting in a Tree...

Harlequin is introducing a new line.

From the CBC:
'Racy' writing: Harlequin to publish NASCAR-themed titles

A licensing agreement announced Wednesday with NASCAR will see Harlequin publish a variety of NASCAR-branded "women's fiction" titles.

The novels, by some of Harlequin's bestselling authors, will have plotlines centering on NASCAR and will bear the NASCAR brand on their covers," the companies said in a joint statement.

The series name: In the Groove.

It makes a certain amount of sense: NASCAR's demographic is far from the beer-swilling mama's boys of popular imagination. NASCAR fans comprise lots of women, and buy a lot of branded merchandise. Why shouldn't they have themed books to read while travelling to Daytona?

The promo tag cited from an author's website sums it up nicely: "She wouldn't know a NASCAR star if he hit her with his car – and he just did."

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Hanging up the Hard Hat and Unrolling the Dredging Net

I have resigned from the Comma Mines. I hung up the hard hat just before my vacation, and will embark on a freelance career. In consquence, in addition to posting on weird industry stuff, language, books, editing, and anything we think even remotely relevant to the industry, I'll be posting semi-regular reports on my new, shiny, exciting, not to mention terrifying freelance career.

Freelance Annals, Part 1
I returned from vacation yesterday to the news that one potential three-month freelance tech. editing gig had vanished, because the individual for whom I would have been covering had returned early from parental leave, and another part-time job had been awarded to someone with more immediately relevant experience. On the more hopeful side, an e-mail from a contact at a publishing house who saw my work at the Comma Mines just before I departed thence e-mailed me to ask if I wanted to do some more work for them any time in the immediate or more distant future. My response said "Yes! Sure! How about now?" but in a slightly more dignified manner.

I have sent one e-mail to the tech. editing client saying "Sorry I won't get to work with you. Glad your editorial needs are being met. Hope to work with you some other time," and one to a contact who had asked me to e-mail when I got back from vacation, saying "Hi, I'm home!" I've arranged one lunch with a freelance friend, and phoned one other freelancer who frequently has too much work, just to keep in touch.

Before I left, I applied for two one-year contracts, and have heard nothing. It's summer, people are taking vacations and covering for other people on vacations, and oftentimes people don't respond to applicants, so I should simply forget about those, and forge ahead. I also cold-called one publisher and received an encouraging but not-yet-fruitful response to my inquiry ("Thanks for your resume. All of our current projects are with their editors, but I'll certainly keep you in mind for future projects."Maybe he was just being nice, but I'm glad the e-mail didn't sink without even a faint plonk.)

Tasks for the rest of the week include the following:
  • Invoice freelance client from April. I'm going to need that cash.
  • Phone or e-mail at least five contacts from my "People to Call for Work" list, and inquire about work.
  • Apply for GST number and BIN. DONE.
  • Computer maintenance and upgrades.
  • Other stuff as it comes up.
Nothing has walked in the door yet. I shouldn't worry, yet, right?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

"Commas are a sign of weakness"

I'm very nearly certain that some of my writers and some of our clients went to the same training ground as the O. Pine, who, in his breathtakingly stunning Tech Writer's Style Guide neatly sums up the prevailing linguistic wisdom in the field.

On bulleted lists
There is simply no way to include too many bulleted lists. Bulleted lists make everything clear, because it takes a complicated sentence with too many commas and turns it into a simple and precise enumeration of critical points. Use as many bulleted lists as possible, because the more often you use them, the more clear your document becomes.

On commas
Commas Commas are a sign of weakness. Good sentences are clear without the use of commas. Bad sentences use commas as a crutch to help readers limp along. Rewrite any sentence that requires the use of a comma. If all else fails just take the commas out of the sentence without changing anything else. Occasionally sprinkle a few commas into the document at random just to keep the English-major weenies happy.

Concerning "impact"
This is a wonderful word. Use it as much as possible! Any time you have an opportunity to explain that an action causes something to happen, be sure that it was an impact (you can use it as a verb, too, by explaining how an action impacted something).

It's all so much more clear now.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Dispatches from the Comma Mines, part 3

A textbook project that came in quite late, incomplete, on impossibly tight deadlines, and written by authors who didn't understand the publisher's requirements has been consuming my life and time. Rachel and I worked until close to midnight tonight, trying to meet tomorrow's impossible deadline. It's going to be quiet around TCI for the next little bit.

But, other people are writing interesting stuff, so I'll pass that along to you, with apologies that much of it is not precisely current:

Over at John Scalzi's Whatever, guest blogger Jim Winter takes on one of my favourite hobgoblins, and champions the singular they:

If you look at the history of the English language, it becomes clear that "they" used for gender non-specific singular is more than feasible. In fact, it's almost mandatory. Why? English has no gender-nonspecific singular pronoun except "it."

And we don't like calling people of indeterminate gender "it."

Hey, I'm with Jim. If it's good enough for Jane Austen, it's good enough for me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Electronic Publishing

One of the industry tropes right now (and probably for the past ten years, but I haven't been paying attention that long), is the recurring "How can we make any money when books can be published electronically for free?" question.

A sensible article in the Book Standard looks at publishers and authors who think, rather "How can we not?"

Major publishers have been releasing online excerpts and teasers of books for years. Baen Books, a publisher of science fiction, does other publishers one better with a free downloadable library on its site, in which all of their authors are invited to post the full texts of their books. The first one Baen posted in its entirety was David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, which had already been selling well in hardcover. “We put it up for free and the result of that is that since that very month, this title has been our No. 1 backlist seller,” says founder Jim Baen. “It bounced up when it went online, and it just stays up.”

Lisa Spangenberg wins the award for best comment:

I tend to think of a "book" as a data container; this is perhaps because I've read "books" in clay tablets, in wax tablets, in papyrus and vellum scrolls, in vellum and paper sheets, and even in vellum and paper codices.

Some containers are more durable than others; some are easier to read on a plane or bus. I tend to think about where I'll be doing my reading, and buy the most suitable container. Sometimes I buy the same book in several different containers.

What we're dealing with is the opportunties and challenges offered by a new kind of container---one that makes delivering and packaging information much easier and faster than before. It's going to be awhile before we figure out how best to use the container to deliver the content in a way that meets the readers' needs. But I think that's part of the fun.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Losing my Faith in Humanity, One Manuscript at a Time

At about the time I began this post (yes, I'm behind in my blogging. Too many escapades.), Teresa, in an instance of serendipity, posted some more slushpile-inspired advice for authors.

Teresa's read a lot more manuscripts than I have. I'm relatively new to this industry, and reading manuscripts is a small part of what we do at the Comma Mines. I don't read slush. I read proto-slush. Then I evaluate it, in the hope that I can give the would-be authors helpful advice on what to do next.

I thought reading manuscripts would be rewarding. Sometimes, when I can really help an author, it is. Often, though it's just sad work. I stand between the author and the slushpile, and my job is to give the author an honest, educated opinion of what he or she should do with the manuscript. Often this involves dashing the author's hopes, and protecting the slushpile reader from one more tiny blob of slushy yuck. Unlike some slushpile readers, I can't stop reading the moment I determine that the manuscript will not make anything resembling a book in this incarnation. I'm contracted to read the whole thing and analyze its strengths and weaknesses, presenting the author with a detailed report of where and how it works, and more often, where and how it doesn't.

It's not the clumsy prose, stilted dialogue, leaden storytelling, limping pacing, heavyhanded symbolism, shopworn plots, or rickety structure of these manscripts that gets to me, though. As dire as these aspects of a manuscript may be, I can point out to the author where he or she went wrong, and make constructive suggestions regarding how to fix them. I like being able to help people. I admire those who can finish writing novels. I love finding out what their ideas are and seeing how they build them into a story. It's often a deeply imperfect attempt, since many of these authors have never tried writing anything serious before this, and haven't the craft to pull a novel off yet. But I can usually find something encouraging to say, even as I try to show the authors where and how they can improve their novels.

What leaves me cold about these stories is what they show me about their authors*.

I know nothing about these would be authors, beyond what they write in their manuscripts. Somehow, after reading the manuscripts, I find myself unwilling to know any more.

I'm not talking about the obviously weird novels—those clearly inspired by Franz Kafka or Tom Robbins or even those clearly inspired by computer games—I'm not talking about the novel in which all the characters turn into birds, or in which the protagonist's pet cactus starts psychoanalyzing him. I'm talking about the relatively straightforward thrillers, generally written by men who seem to hold peculiar ideas about women, men, sex, and relationships.

Often, the women in these novels are featureless. Oh, their physiques may be described in some detail, with special emphasis on breasts, legs, and hair. But, like buxom Glaucons, these female characters serve only to provide Our Heroes with admiration and cues. They ask the questions; Our Heroes answer them. They get into trouble; Our Heroes get them out. They pose problems; Our Heroes solve them.

I don't have a huge problem with the Boy-Rescues-Girl trope—it's tired and old, but it works, and if you're a first-time author, writing in a genre with established conventions, sticking to those conventions isn't necessarily a bad plan. But Love Interest A should have some characteristics that distinguish her from Love Interest B, beyond hair colour and cup size. We should be able to believe that when she's not hanging out with Our Hero, she's leading her own life, not simply waiting in the wings for her.

Then, there are the seriously icky boy/girl things:

Things I try to phrase more delicately:

1) Even if being rescued from a dangerous experience makes a female character horny as a female triceratops in heat, having male protagonist take her to bed immediately after he rescues her shows us only that he is a scumbag who takes advantage of women when they are in an altered state of consciousness. Ick.

2) Describing female protagonists only in terms of what makes them sexy is condescending. Likewise, having your male protagonist decide to marry a woman simply because she is blonde, has a 22-inch waist and an E cup size will not give me a good impression of his judgement. Also, why do older men inevitably wind up with women in their mid-to-late twenties? When I took up with a man twice my age, in my late teens, most real people said he was too old for me. Maybe that's because he was not a gun-toting, studly action-hero (his own delusions notwithstanding).

3) If you tell me a female character is strong and independent, but relegate her to the kitchen and the bedroom as soon as she takes up with Our Studly and Intelligent Hero, I'm not going to believe you about the whole independance thing. Strength and independence are not best represented as whiny and domineering.

4) Likewise, if you tell me Our Studly and Intelligent Hero is a Sensitive New-Age Gun-totin' Guy, have him display a little bit of sensitivity (for example, by not taking our Strong and Independent but Suddenly Temporarily Helpless Love Interest to bed when she's probably in shock, or by making dinner for her once in a while.).

Gary-Stu is not someone I want to hang around with

Just as the cardboard-cutout Love Interests tell me something about how my authors view the opposite sex (and these author have, thus far, been universally male and writing heterosexual fiction), so their protagonists tell me unfortuate things about the authors themselves.

Oftentimes the protagonists are no more well drawn than any of the other characters. The reader is told that the protagonists are smart, bold, honest, quick-thinking, prepared, suave, and, of course, irresistible to the opposite sex. The authors give the heros long speeches in which the heros expound on honour, integrity, loyalty, and other Roman virtues. The heroes themselves, though, display no unusual intelligence, wit, charm, and, like certain politicians, their actions seem to be honourable only because they—the honourable heroes—are doing them. If the bad guys were stealing things, it would be theft; if the hero steals something it must be necessity, and perhaps even a decisive and justifiable disregard for the bourgeois conventions of morality.

This tells me more than I wanted to know about these authors. I'm getting a picture of the author, the way the author wishes to be seen. These heroes are Mary-Sues. They portray men the authors see themselves to be. And, frankly, they're not people I'd wish to know. These characters tend to see other characters only insofar as those characters affect them. Two-dimensional representations of the idealized author, they are rarely portrayed as possessing true faults (other than boringness and one-sidedness, and the authors don't mean for the characters to come off that way). And they often preach. At length.

In the end, the heroes talk a good game, but don't give me anything to admire. If their authors truly believe that they're portraying classical heroes, exemplars of excellence, or even decent guys who do extraordinary deeds in tough situations, then I worry about them. I wouldn't trust these heroes to feed my cats. Are my authors so lacking in real, live examples of decency and humanity, let alone heroics, that they can't look around them, at their loved ones, at the people they see, and put those in their books. Are they so bereft of decent literary examples that they must fall back on Wesley Crusher? And are they so ashamed of their own failings that when they practise self-insertion, they must avoid any mention of peccadilloes that might make their heroes more interesting, believable, and satisfying?

I can help the authors fix the plot problems, the pacing, the dialogue. I can recommend places where they can get help with the craft of writing. I can point out the problems with their diction, their grammar, and their premises. But I can't fix the holes in their selves that their stories reveal.

*It should be noted that I have never met any of the authors, and that not all manuscripts I evaluate share these faults. I'm generalizing based on a trend I've observed.

Thursday, June 16, 2005


Because it's nice to share your toys:

A Glossary for Every Glottis

Via CE-L: The Electric Eclectic—a compendium of online glossaries. From accounting and anthropomorphemics through educationese, oceanographics, and Yiddish, to Zeus.

Very handy.

Grammar Glossary

While we're on glossaries, Get into Uni has a nice Grammar glossary.

Don't Switch that Dial

As you may have noticed, we're making some changes. Yes, that use of the present progressive is deliberate—we're not done yet. Blogger's templates are giving both of us an education.

As we argue about typefaces, colours, contrast, light-on-dark vs. dark-on-light, we keep finding new things to argue about, and we keep discovering that we don't know how to do what we want to do. I'm certain everyone's been here before. So we welcome your thoughts, comments, and suggestions (unless you hate grey, in which case a) we know who you are, and b) we've heard it before).

Rachel's away, so changes won't be speedy (she's the HTML-savvy one; I'm just the wordy one).

We now return you to your scheduled book stuff.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A Flotsam's-eye View

We're back. We've mostly recovered, unpacked the inevitable free books and divvied them up with our fellow comma miners, sorted through the rolodex of new contacts, and soaked our sore feet. The Comma Miners have survived BookExpo.

Adjectives like "big," "vast," "busy," and "crazy" apply. We did not find, as Publisher's Lunch did, that B.E.A. was "more personal than corporate, and more about encounters than transactions," but then, we are humble Canadian Comma Miners, not Big (or even Medium-sized) Industry Players. My perspective was that of a small plankton floating in the turbulent stream of publishing mania. For a more fish- or even heron-eyed view, you can, view the photos, read the NYT article, or check out the "I was there" anecdotes on Making Light.

Some flotsam's-eye impressions:

Buzzing and Gushing
The only panel I made was the Buzz Panel, mentioned in the Times article, where trade editors from some of the big publishers "outdid each other with hyperbole."

It may be "business as usual," but I found it refreshing and encouraging to hear editors gushing the books they edit. So often in my corner of the industry, we're so pressed to find books that will sell, that will fill a niche, that will capture some of the fickle book-buying public's grudgingly spent dollars, that it's easy to forget that somewhere people are publishing books that they like, that they admire, and that they want other people to read. So often we hear how few people buy books, that it was refreshing to be surrounded by 30,000 people who undoubtedly buy and read books. So maybe I'm working on how-to books and personal finance books, and science textbooks that students are going to abuse and hate simply because they're textbooks. And yeah, sure, a lot of the books on the floor (the majority of the books on the floor, I think) went through the same profit-and-loss considerations that ours do, before becoming books. Still, some people are publishing books they get all teary describing. It's good to know.

Packaging Doesn't Mean with Cellophane
My tag said "BOOK PACKAGER," which kind of annoyed me. Since we were at B.E.A. to sell packages, I can't complain too much, and the label proved a useful tool for sorting the complete strangers to whom we spoke. If we said "We're book packagers. Some of your books look like the sort of thing we do—do you have a moment?" and our prospective client talked about boxes or shrinkwrap, we could pretty much close the conversation there with a quick explanation, like "No, sorry, I guess we weren't clear. We sell books—the idea, the writing, the design and layout, and the illustration, for a flat fee. So you get the whole package ready for you to stick your imprint on and publish. We're not about cellophane. So I guess you don't buy books that way, huh?"

Those who referred us to their acquiring editor or who seemed to know what book packagers do seemed a more likely target than anyone who thought we meant that we make boxes for books.

Everything's Political
After we walked the trade show floor all day Friday, we found the music emanating from the big Events Hall enticing. I could see a bar. By the time we dumped our samples, though, we arrived back at the hall just in time to sit down and watch the American Booksellers' Association hand out its awards. What the heck—we were sitting down.

A year ago, at the Editors' Association of Canada conference, keynote speaker Lois Hole, the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, gave a speech that was mildly political for an editors' conference, but which was certainly not inappropriate for the audience. She exhorted the assembled editors to support public libraries. Not a difficult sell, really. The ABA's keynote speaker was Congressman Bernie Sanders, who spoke about Provision 115 of the Patriot Act, and the shenanigans surrounding the voting in the U.S. government. Of course booksellers and librarians have protested the very notion of making records of who reads which books available to government spooks. And of course, I've haven't been completely unaware of how important their struggle is, and how very scary the proposed legislation is. Congressman Sanders gave a stirring speech, full of righteous anger and determination, and received a standing ovation, even from the footsore Canadian packagers in the corner. And I thought of Lois Hole's plea, which was also a politcal speech that I could applaud, but was a lot less frightening.

Al Franken, author of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, one of the many political books that have come out of the States, unsurprisingly played a variation on the same theme, sharing a lot of unpleasant, frightening truths from his upcoming book (which he said he was considering calling The Truth—with no apologies to Terry Pratchett. I don't think anyone will confuse the two books). None Mr. Franken's speech—not the part about how the scary right wing people use fear to confound the public's view of issues, nor the part about how the U.S. uses its protectorates to enslave women from Asia and forces those who become pregnant to have abortions, nor the part about how the aforementioned scary people use smear tactics to keep the public eye on their opponents' peccadilloes rather than on their own, nor any other part, really—could possibly have been a shock to anyone who pays attention. But still, I came away shaken, not by the content but by the extent to which politics permeates all avenues of public discourse, and moved by the desperate sounding determination with which both the congressman and the author-cum-comedian-cum-radio personality claim that they will fight and win.

As Bossman said "That was inspirational. Those books they're selling [the ones labelled "inspirational," which nobody at the comma mines has any time for], are just lame."

Other Random Impressions
People who bring wheeled luggage onto the tradeshow floor, in defiance of the signs forbidding them, should be stuffed into their own luggage. Pedestrian gridlock is bad enough without someone's luggage trailing behind them and adding a tripping hazard.

My fellow comma miners and I were totally wowed by Candlewick Press's booth. The Dragonology Handbook is one beautiful book, among stacks of gorgeous kids' books. We ogled Robert Sabuda an Matthew Reinhart's beautiful, intricate pop-up dinosaurs, and nabbed samples pop-up spreads, thinking these were just the best thing ever. Greg's kids, aged 9 and 10, who are presumably part of the target market, however, displayed nothing but disdain for Robert Sabuda's and Matthew Reinhart's georgeous pop-up dinos. Oh well—the pop-out dinos can live in the Comma Mines.

The Javits Center needs better soundproofing, more chairs and rest areas, and coffee that doesn't cost $3 a cup (I ask you!).

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Upcoming Appearances

Yours truly will be representing the 'umble freelance editor on Saturday, May 28, at the Writers' Union of Canada conference at a panel entitled "A Carnival of
Commas: Dispatches from the Grammar Wars," with Alison Gordon, Russell Smith, and moderator Doug Gibson.

Next weekend, they're shaking the comma dust off me, and we're going to wander the halls with the throngs at BookExpo.

The weekend after, I'll be speaking in defense of some of my favourite hobgoblin-fodder at the Editors' Association of Canada conference, back in Toronto.

After that, I'll be back in the punctuation pits, again, feeding unrefined prose to the processors.

The Comma Mines: Extracts and Dispatches

Once again, I'm down in the comma mines. These days, I'm pumping the raw prose through the initial processing stages.

While I'm trapped down here, ensuring a steady flow of prose and ideas through the cogs, I'll send dispatches and extracts for the amusement of any loyal readers.

Fact-checking: The Big Leagues

Fact-checking is one of my favourite editorial tasks. I'm a born arguer, hole-poker, thread-picker, and generally an argumentative, cranky person. I'm pretty pleased when I find a hero who drives away in a car that didn't go into production until three years after the date of the novel, or if I notice that a female, Victorian character has neglected to put her shoes on before lacing her corset. It seems, though that I might just be a minor-league fact-catcher. These guys sound like the big leagues.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Adventures in Parallelism

From the department of "There's a Name for That?!" comes one of my favourite editorial errors: the Floating Conjunctive Both.

Mark Liberman cites this example fom the May 15, 2005 NYT article by Ian Fisher and Laurie Goodstein, "Pope Names American to Be Guardian of Church Doctrine."

Acting both symbolically and consolidating his young rule, Benedict XVI announced today his first major public acts as pope: He named an American archbishop to be the guardian of church doctrine and he said he would speed up the process to make his popular predecessor, John Paul II, a saint.
My high school grammar teacher called this sort of thing "faulty parallelism." When my authors do it, I sigh, and move the "both" to in front of the participle—"Both acting symbolically and consolidating his young rule...." When my authors ask why I've done this, I explain that I wanted to make both parts of the sentence parallel.

Now I have another term to throw at my authors. Hooray!*

Of course, serious research into linguistic trends does not actually exist in order to provide me with jargon. The rest of the article provides a nice look at the way the usage is shifting. He notes, to my chagrin that "The pattern both DET [...] and [...] seems to be several times more common, across the board, than the pattern both DET [...] and DET [...]." So, "He had forgotten both his hat and mitts" would be more common than "He had forgotten both his hat and his mitts," even if the latter is, technically, more correct.

Best of all, even better than new jargon, though, is his conclusion about the NYT article:

I guess there's another possible explanation, besides language change in progress or a copy editor with delusions; perhaps this article, like The Dante Club, has slipped through some compositional wormhole from a parallel universe where linguistic norms are slightly different.

A compositional wormhole from a parallel universe would explain so very many things.

Pace, Greg, if you are reading this. I deploy jargon only when strictly necessary to subdue people who won't accept the simple explanation.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Untapped Markets

Penguin Books, India, is tapping into a new market.

Penguin, one of India's leading English-language book publishers, has taken what it describes as an "unprecedented" decision to print books in Hindi in a drive to reach more readers.
The firm hopes to tap the vast market of Indian book buyers who are not comfortable reading in English, while simultaneously searching for new Indian talent writing in Hindi and a range of other Indian languages.
Wow. A major untapped niche—books in a language that half a billion people speak. I'm amazed.

via Blookslut

Monday, May 02, 2005

What Was Rule #1, Again?

Several people have noticed Macmillan's new acquisitions scheme. In fact, we're kind of late in discussing it (it's been busy at the Comma Mines.)

Some folks at Making Light, are unimpressed.

Greg is unconcerned.

I don't share his nonchalance.

If it [Macmillan] decides to accept a novel for the list, terms are unnegotiable; no advance will be paid, though writers will receive 20% of royalties from sales. Macmillan will copy edit books, but if manuscripts need more detailed work, it will suggest that writers employ freelance editors. According to notes sent to authors, such editors "will charge realistic fees and this will not in itself guarantee publication". [Emphasis added.]
There's a rule in mainstream publishing, clearly articulated by James D. Macdonald: Money flows toward the author.

In some low- or no-advance publishing arrangements, it's true that money doesn't always flow toward the author
immediately. I know of one reputable, very small Canadian publisher whose advances run in the $500 range. The house offers its authors royalty rates similar to those of larger houses; it just can't afford to take the financial risk of a large advance. However, once that advance is paid, by all reports, the house is commited to the book, and the editor works closely with the author to produce the best book possible. Their print runs are tend to be small, initially, but once the book earns out its piddly little advance, the author earns a royalty on every copy, and on rights sales. Money flows toward the author.

If a publisher recommends editorial changes to a book, then the publisher should be willing to commit to the book. It is both unscrupulous and unfair to ask an unpublished author to pay a freelancer for a structural edit, with no guarantee that this will make the book publishable.

About once a month, a call comes into the Comma Mines or to my professional association from an author who has written a manuscript, and who has some vague idea that books get edited before they get published (which is indeed supposed to be the case. The poor dears are simply a bit confused about the order of operations). So they call, asking for someone who can edit their MS. If they call the Comma Mines, we tell them, gently, that if a publisher acquires the MS, the publisher's editorial staff will handle the editing. We can do an evaluation—a careful read of their book and an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses, marketability, readiness for submission to a publisher. We warn authors that we can't promise them that our evaluation will help them get published. We warn them that we may not like their book. We quote them the flat fee for the evaluation. Some go away. Some bring us a manuscript.

It takes approximately three working days to do an evaluation of a 500-page manuscript. At the end of that, the author has report that candidly evaluates the book based on the criteria that several publishers use in their evaluation forms, and a set of recommendations (none of which involve paying for further editorial services or sending the book to a PoD or vanity press). What the author does with the recommendations is their business. We have a disclaimer to the effect that this is our what we think will make the MS more publishable, but we can't guarantee that it will work--we're not publishers.

We don't edit pre-submission manuscripts. To do a good structural edit of some of the manuscripts I've seen would take me way more than three days. And I bill by the hour for that kind of work. It's going to cost a heckuva lot more than the prices that would be authors offer editors on Craigslist (the average is $200. This won't get you an evaluation, let alone an edit.)

I'm not willing to ask an author to invest that kind of time and money with no guarantee that a publishable manuscript will result from it. If a publisher acquires a book, and discovers that the author needs to work with an editor, that's another story entirely (no pun intended).
Money flows toward the author.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Macmillan is asking these authors to shell out a lot of money*, with no guarantee that the result will see publication. That's not on. Most fiction authors cannot afford a decent structural edit. And if Macmillan is promising these authors "affordable" editors, they're either recommending cheap decent editors who are devaluing the market that I'm competing in, or they're recommending cheap editors who are cheap because they're incompetent.
Either way, they're not doing my profession any favours.

*To give you an idea, where I work the going rate for structural/substantive editing falls somewhere between $20/hr and $50/hr for trade books. A definition of editorial tasks can be found here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

"The Most Unheralded Job in Publishing"

Adam Langer on copyeditors:

"They perform one of the most important jobs on manuscripts, saving authors from their misspellings, their grammatical errors, their logical and stylistic flaws, and yet, their efforts remain largely anonymous."

I mean, really, when was the last time you saw a copyeditor credited on a book jacket? Every now and again, an author will thank the copyeditor, in the acknowledgements. More often, the reader will never really know who saved them from dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, unclear antecedents, idiosyncratic spelling, factual errors that throw the reader out of the book, jarringly, and sentences that go on for lines and lines without stopping, just like this one does.

Not only does Langer sing the praises of good copyeditors, he also introduces us to several. I've never met these people, and I may not be in their league, but some of what they said sounded really darned familiar:

Steve Lamont: One needs to be fairly neurotic to copyedit—you have to be willing to spend time worrying about whether something’s a restrictive participle or a nonrestrictive one, and you actually have to care. Relatedly, it has to make a difference to you whether the name of the song is “I Want to Hold You Hand” or “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”
Yes! Yes! It so makes a difference!

Judit Z. Bodnar replied to a question about the most difficult parts of the job with

The toughest part is a toss-up between an author’s insisting on keeping wording that makes no sense or is just plain wrong (and the editor’s allowing it) and some people’s insistence that I not do fact-checking on projects in which I know things are inaccurate.
Ayup. Or when the publisher tells you "Please make this more clear without changing any of the words." I adore that.

Really, Judit Z. Bodnar sounds like a kindred spirit:

I work in fits and starts, bitch and moan to others in the business, toy with the idea of leaving everything just as it is, walk around the block when I find myself sarcastically reading passages aloud to myself. When the deadline looms close enough, I sit down and do what I’m being paid to do. You just do your best and wonder why you didn’t make a career of grooming poodles or putting wheels on toy trains when you had the chance. And why you didn’t have the business sense to whip out a piece of trash and sell it to a publisher for a huge advance.

Bitching and moaning? We never do that at the Comma Mines. Sarcastically read passages aloud? Not that, either.

We IM each other some of the more impossible sentences, take latte breaks, consume dark chocolate, and amuse ourselves by replacing every vague noun string with "giant, carniverous, flying wombat" to see whether it changes the meaning. But we wouldn't ever sarcastically read passages aloud.

It might disturb someone.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Everyone's Third Choice Wins

A nicely balanced WaPo article on book prizes—the Pulitzer, the Booker, and the like. It captures a lot of the ambivalence I tend to hear about prizes: they boost an author's profile, give librarians and bookstore employees something to recommend, lend strength to a publishing program, and sometimes baffle everyone involved:

Publishers love winning prizes because a strong backlist is their bread and butter, but it doesn't follow that they take the awards too seriously. "When the judges choose your book, you think they're geniuses," says Simon & Schuster's Rosenthal, "and when they don't, you think they're drinking too much Jack Daniels or smoking bad weed or something." His wry ambivalence is hardly unique. "Crapshoot," "lottery," "game" and "joke" are words that recur often in discussions about prizes, even among jurors. A closer look at the judging suggests why.
Often, when a prize is announced, a certain segment of the population will vocally wonder "Who gives these things out, anyway? They may well ask:

Two-time Booker fiction panel head John Carey, an emeritus professor of English at Oxford and chief book reviewer for the London Sunday Times, remembers a "not particularly literary" individual who, once chosen for the jury, asked Carey to lunch to learn what makes a good book.
I'm not certain I agree with James English, entirely, but I do see his point:

People familiar with the publishing industry can't help but see the prizes "if not as a joke, then an error-riddled and rather embarrassing sideshow," in the words of James English, chairman of English at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book on cultural prizes. Part of the problem lies in the arithmetic of compromise. For the Booker Prize, for example, each juror ranks the finalists, says Carey, and the prize goes to the book with the lowest (best) average score.
Embarrassing or not, the article makes it clear that those most intimately involved with the publishing industry—the authors and publishers—are quite happy to capitalize on the publicity, notoriety, and increased interest that winning a major literary prize brings.

Frazzled Editor

A Magic, The Gathering card for us! Hooray! Behold the power of the red pencil—this card affords the bearer "Protection from Wordy" [**ED: Should there be a noun after "wordy"? What does it modify. Pls. clarify.***].

Notwithstanding the missing noun, I could use some of that right now.

via Making Light.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Happy (Belated) Birthday English Spelling

Friday was the 250th anniversary of the publication of Dr. Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, nine years after the Good Doctorand therefore of modern spelling.

The Guardian has a nice bio. of the Good Doctor, "An established man of letters, famous for his epitaphs, his parliamentary debates, his translations of the Odes of his favourite poet, Horace, numerous essays written for the Gentleman's Magazine and for his epic poem, 'The Vanity of Human Wishes'."

While not the very first dictionary of the English language, Dr. Johnson's Dictionary can justifiably be called the first modern English dictionary. It redeemed English language and English scholarship, which had lacked lagged behind in creating a modern dictionary. Johnson's dictionary was the first Engish dictionary to use quotations to illustrate its usages, with terms "illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best authors." It defined more than 40,000 words, a number paltry by comparison with the

Here, pulled from World Wide Words, we present a selection of Dr. Johnson's more idiosyncratic (and famous) definitions:

EXCISE: a hateful tax levied upon commodities.
DISTILLER: One who makes and sells pernicious and inflammatory spirits.
OATS: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.
LEXICOGRAPHER: A maker of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A 'dandy' fallacy?

An article in the Scotsman bears a headline proclaiming Research finds a Dandy way to help young boys improve literacy. Apparently, giving boys comic books to read will encourage them to read more.
Research published yesterday revealed that while 17 per cent of boys aged between seven and 11 do not read books outside school, 60 per cent regularly read comics.

The survey also revealed that just 5 per cent of boys read for more than an hour a day in their spare time, compared to 17 per cent of girls.

Last night, experts said that encouraging youngsters to read comics could be a vital tool in the fight to improve literacy rates.
So this study posits that young boys will read comics, which are low on description and vocabulary and high on action and dialogue, in addition to offering pictoral support to the action, more readily than they'll read more girl-oriented books.

The low-male-literacy question is the other side of the why-don't-more-girls-do-math question that got teachers all hot and frustrated when I was at school. Examining the problem of girls and math led to changes in teaching methods, and a gradual closing of the gap between boys' and girls' performance on math tests. Gradually, educators started to consider how social conditions, intrinsic ability, and performance were connected:

Many now believe that traits that seem intrinsic – meaning those grounded in the brain or shaped by a gene – are subject to cultural and social forces, and that these forces determine how a biological trait actually manifests itself in a person’s behavior or abilities. An “intrinsic” trait, in other words, does not mean an inevitable outcome, as many scientists had long thought.

And, to be sure, in most countries, the gap between girls' and boys' performance in math has vanished.

But, according to this WaPo article, the question of boys, reading, intrisic traits, and cultural forces has educators baffled.

Apparently, despite a historical bias towards men in education (remember, folks, universal literacy is a relatively new idea; universal literacy that includes women is even newer.*), boys are, in general performing increasingly poorly in literacy tests. It appears that with respect to reading, paedogogy favours girls.

Exactly what should be done, however, is unclear, because there is no consensus on how much genetics, environment and culture are responsible for the gap. And it is not strictly a U.S. phenomenon: Stephen Gorard, education professor at the University of York in England, reviewed scores for 22 countries and discovered gaps in every one, despite differences in school setups and curricula.

What is known is that boys generally take longer to learn to read than girls; they read less and are less enthusiastic about it; and they have more trouble understanding narrative texts yet are better at absorbing informational texts. Those findings are from a literacy study done in 2002, "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys," by Michael W. Smith, a Temple University professor, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Boise State University English education professor.

Scientists have said that boys are born with smaller language centers in their brains -- and larger spatial centers -- than girls and that boys develop language abilities at a slower rate, though eventually they catch up.

The WaPo article presents several theories, some of which make sense:
The notion of confidence in reading is central to the issue, said Smith, the Temple professor. He said that people like to do what they are good at and that when boys stumble early in learning to read, it is often a skill they never warm to.

So also with girls and math. It's no fun to work on things you suck at.**

Other theories make less sense to me:
Another factor, said Hoffman, a reading specialist at Pattie Elementary School in Prince William County, is that it is more difficult for many boys to sit still for classes, much less to "cuddle up with a book."

I mean, back in the boys-are-better-at-math-days, teachers taught math to children seated at desks or tables. We didn't learn multiplication by doing jumping jacks. And, statistically, boys performed better at math. I know it's more difficult for very active children to manage school—I used to have to take regular wiggle breaks with some of my tutoring students, and vary the pace of the sessions in order to get them to focus a bit. So I've no doubt that in some cases some boys have a difficult time sitting still.

I do wonder, though, how studies can take into account the less easily quantifiable question of parental and social expectations, and how these affect boys' proclivities for reading and girls' proclivities for math.

How many boys' parents give them books, comics, and magazine subscriptions as presents? How many girls' parents do so? How many girls' parents give them chemistry sets? How many girls grow up under the assumption that they'll learn how to repair a bike? How many boys grow up under the assumption that they'll learn how to tell a story? How many boys grow up in reading families, where people think that curling up with a book is an admirable way to spend a Saturday afternoon, for boys as well as for girls? How many families will listen to a boy who doesn't want to play hockey, or baseball, and
does want to read comics, science fiction, or books with scatological humour?

Children who grow up in environments that support, celebrate, and value a particular skill will often display aptitude in that area. Witness the Bach family.

The math gap came to educators' attention during the seventies and eighties, at a time when society in general (meaning, of course, the western society in which I live) was looking at women's performance in various math-and-science-related fields, and asking why more women weren't involved in business. The culture that set the expectations for women had changed, and the educational system had to change too. I don't see a similar shift in culture that would create an expectation that literacy among boys is good. And I hazard that until we see a social shift, neither comic books nor phonics will significantly affect boys' performance.

Yes, I know that "universal" de facto includes women. Unless, like the ancient Athenians, or early Americans, you don't believe that it does. Allow me my sarcastic rhetorical point, please.

** Completely statistically invalid anecdotal case in point: I dropped math as soon as I could, not because I couldn't do it, but because it was more difficult for me to do, and I thought I sucked at it. I greatly preferred working on subjects at which I didn't suck.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Where the Big Kids Play

Publisher's Lunch turned me on to the litblog co-op, a collective of the "leading literary weblogs" created "for the purpose of drawing attention to the best of contemporary fiction, authors and presses that are struggling to be noticed in a flooded marketplace."

Their mission: a quarterly selection of one underrepresented, literary jewel (i.e. a work of "serious fiction") to recommend to the blog-reading literary masses. Their goal: "serve notice to publishers and to the editors of book reviews and magazines that this audience exists."

Hey, anything that encourages publishers to take more risks and recognize the significant midlist readership constitutes a worthy endeavour, in my book. Read on, guys—over here, in our corner of the playground, we'll watch what the "leading literary weblogs" get up to.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Becoming an Editor

Because it comes up frequently in my various editorial forums, I've decided to put all the tips I have for breaking into the editorial profession in one place.

Disclaimer: Because there’s no single definable path to professional editorship, it’s entirely possible that none of these observations or tips apply to your situation. I’m writing from my experience. Please feel free to add your own in the comments.

I asked the same question, back when I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. I was sitting having a coffee with a friend who was a freelance editor, and asked her "So, if I were to want to become an editor, how would I go about it?"

She replied "Well, there’s no real way to become an editor. You do some editing, and eventually you hang out your shingle and say 'I’m an editor!' and people give you work."

I didn’t find this at all reassuring. I wanted a clear path—something like "get a junior job at a publisher, and start off proofreading, or counting words, or something, and you’ll get to watch Real Editors at Work, and learn." I still think it would be nice if it worked that way. I’m told in some cases it does. But for every editor I meet who found an entry-level job at a publisher, and followed a clear path, I meet at least a dozen others whose paths, like my friend’s, and like my own, weren’t that direct.

As I went about becoming an editor, I learned the truth behind what sounded like truly Belgian waffling to me when my friend said it: There’s no way a person becomes an editor. One simply decides that one is, and sets about doing it.

That said, some combination of the following seems to happen to most people I know who end up earning a living editing:

1. Discovery of Predilection
Editors like to read. They groove on language, punctuation, and words. Thus, they read voraciously and critically. They notice shifts in language. They wince when they see an apostrophe abused. They abhor an unnecessary passive. However, not all grammarians are editors. Editing demands a flexible approach to language and an understanding of more than when one might employ a subjunctive. Most people I know who work as editors found, even before they got paid for doing it, that they really couldn’t not edit. What some of us had to learn was when to curb our inner prescriptivist.

2. Formal Education
Most editors do not hold degrees in Publishing, Editing, or anything clearly related to the trade. In Canada, some may hold certificates or have taken courses related to the profession.

Many editors hold university degrees; however, it’s not strictly necessary to have a bachelor’s in anything. An English degree is no better preparation for a career in editing than a degree in math, French, or Latin. (In fact, a senior editor of my acquaintance insists that many English majors are ruined for freelance editorial work by too much acquaintance with and admiration for Literature. If your definition of good writing extends only to literary writing, then you may not have what it takes to edit a corporate annual report. But I digress.) These days, neophyte editors who don’t hold a degree may find themselves at a disadvantage applying for in-house jobs. For freelance work, however, you really need only the ability to do the work, and to convince people to let you do it. If you can edit cleanly and well, nobody’s going to care that you don’t have a degree.

3. Informal Education
Most editors are lifelong learners and tend towards polymathematicism. All the successful editors I know read widely, and know about a lot of stuff, much of it irrelevant to their formal training. They also tend to be curious, and to have well developed critical research skills.

4. Training Programs (Postsecondary)
A few colleges and universities offer courses and programmes in publishing and editing. Here in Canada, there are at least three book publishing programmes in post-secondary institutions in Toronto, Simon Fraser University offers a Master's degree in publishing, and the renowned Banff Summer Publishing Workshop is reputed to be a cushy publishing boot camp. Among the Toronto-based publishing courses are Ryerson University’s Certificate in Book Publishing, which offers many of its course online, Centennial College's one-year certificate in book and magazine publishing, Humber College's certificate in creative book publishing, and George Brown College's certificate in editing.

In addition to editing and publishing programmes and seminars, courses in business communications, grammar, technical writing, and journalism may provide some exposure to the editorial toolbox.

5. Mentoring
This might be the oldest recognized step on the editorial career path: the young editor finds an experienced editor whom he or she respects, and somehow inveigles this paragon into teaching him or her how to work the necessary magic on the text. If one is fortunate enough to already know editors, this step is vastly easier. Having an experienced, skilled editor go through the material you think you’ve cleaned up and point out any refuse you left behind can be a humbling, but very effective, training exercise.

6. Internships
Many publishers, newspapers, and magazines offer unpaid or poorly paid internships to would-be incumbents to the field. Some internships are linked to training programs—for the last month or so of their training, students are placed in a real-world environment and put to work. Others are more ad-hoc—the employer posts an internship and considers all comers. Internships can provide would-be editors with valuable experience, but too often employers seem to view their interns as free labour, and use them to operate the photocopiers, with little or no consideration for the intern’s goals or training. Several former interns of my acquaintance have complained that they gave their publishers three months’ work, and never got closer to editorial work than photocopying manuscripts to send for review. Others have reported more useful experiences, writing cover copy, marking up manuscripts, preparing art logs and photo manuscripts, reading slush, and preparing catalogue copy, in addition to operating the photocopier, running errands, and preparing courier packages.

Internships are open only to those who have some other means of support—most internships require the intern to work full-time hours for between three and six months, for no pay or for a token honorarium. Some offer minimal wages. As with full-time training program, this is all very well if one doesn’t need to eat or pay rent, and I do know several interns who supported themselves by working part time, but working full-time hours for less than full-time wages is certainly not an easy road, nor is it one that is open to everyone.

I successfully avoided an internship, mostly because I couldn’t afford to do one, and also because I refused to accept that I should volunteer full-time for three months in order to qualify for the privilege of being paid to do the same work; however, many in the industry insist that an internship (or two or three) represents an invaluable experience, and is the only way to get in the door.

7. Wriggling in Through Any Crack You Can Find
As I understand it, back in the good old days of more publishing houses, more money, and just plain abundance, a hopeful young wordsmith might fall into an job as an assistant or member of the clerical staff at a publishing house, and one of the editors would notice that young hopeful’s way with his or her semi-colons and become a mentor to the young editor. This does still seem to happen—several colleagues seem to have worked their way into editorial jobs from the reception desk or the warehouse floor. The trick seems to be not being proud or holding out for an editorial job, since those often require some editorial experience, learning what you can learn wherever you wind up, and keeping your eye on your eventual goal, while doing a good job at whatever job you have taken.

I went from temping to a research job at a map publisher’s, where I did very little editorial work, but was around production schedules, proofs, and in a sort-of publishing environment. All this time, I was volunteering with the Editors' Association of Canada, meeting editors and taking seminars, as well as attending night school at Ryerson (the book publishing programme mentioned above). Ryerson had a job listing service for students in the program, and eventually a posting for a position as an editorial assistant at an educational publisher came into my inbox. I got the six-month contract, and spent six months photocopying, collating, preparing courier packages, preparing art manuscripts, processing invoices, photocopying, and hating almost every minute of it, but gaining "valuable in-house experience."

Meanwhile I continued to volunteer for the Editors’ Association, organizing their professional development seminars. This put me into contact with a lot of editors at different stages of their career paths. Eventually one of these contacts up and offered me a job, doing real editorial work, where I was able to gain more experience with different types of publications, schedules, and editorial needs, while getting some real training.

I think, in general, some combination of editorial training (formal or informal); networking (i.e., meeting other editors and industry folks, which can be a lot of fun); volunteer editorial work (for a literary group or association, a not-for-profit, or a school or college publication); and taking whatever job will get you closer to the job you want has proved a moderately successful recipe. Of course, there’s one other ingredient: actual editorial ability.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Newsflash! People Buy Books Their Friends Recommend!

They also buy books from authors whose work they've enjoyed before!

It's official now. There was a survey and everything. Notwithstanding Richard Curtis, and the editors who look for "packages" to promote, notwithstanding all the fancy promotions and publicity campaigns, "nothing sells [a book] better than the recommendation of a friend or relative."

So here at Comma Central we did a deeply un-scientifical survey. I asked my co-workers "How did you choose the last book you read for fun?"

Editor #1: "I had read a short story by that author, so I borrowed a book by the same author from the library."
Editorial Trainee: "My sister recommended it to me."
Production Manager: "Someone gave it to me, and it sat on my shelf until I finally picked it up."
Big Boss Editor: "It was by an author I had read and enjoyed before."
Yours Truly: "I remembered my Spanish teacher in high-school recommending this author, so when I saw one of his books at the library, I picked it up."
Editor #2: "Friend's recommendation. I could lie and say it had to do with a stellar publicity campaign, though."

Experience would indeed support the survey's findings.

Quoth Rachel: In other news, the sky is blue.

via Electrolite

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Print is Dying, Blah Blah Blah

Richard Curtis, on "the shift to a new publisihing paradigm":

A generation that defines books as material objects is giving way to one that regards them as quanta of digitized information. This new culture thrives on the vivid colors of television and videos, the frenetic interactivity of email and messaging, the emotional stimulation of video games and of channel- and web-surfing, and the instant gratification of cell phones and googling....For many jittery young people, printed texts on a stack of paper are, as one editor said, “kind of boring.” “If all it is, is a book, merely words” he elaborated, “it’s hard to get excited. I ask myself, ‘What else is it besides a book? Is it a video game? A movie? A web site?’ It’s got to be more than a book to turn me on.”
Blah blah blah, print is dead, nobody reads anymore, kids are hyperstimulated, books are dying, Big Publishing is dying, Blogs are the Future, the gatekeepers are going away. Blah blah blah.

Comments Steve Eley, over at Making Light, "If blogging helps the best writers launch careers, it's by helping them get book deals. If that changes in several years, it will have to be under a new economic model, and with an audience that does
not assume that anything on the Internet will be free by default."

Sure, publishing is changing, and new media are making self-publishing easier, faster, and more accessible. So did the printing press. So did the mimeograph. So did DTP. I'm not chopping up my bookshelves for firewood anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Great Linguistic Debates

We're working overtime in the comma mines right now, and haven't had much time or energy for dispatches, but when a new data source for the great soda vs. pop controversy came to my attention, I couldn't resist sharing it. Especially since it offers the extremely scientifical conclusion that "People who say pop are cooler."

via the really smart folks at CE-L.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Dispatches from the Comma Mines, part 1

It's been a busy fortnight at Comma Central, and promises to be a busy February.

Adventures with Errant Authors
Book A, which is undergoing a complete redesign, goes to press in two weeks. The author is travelling in the southern hemisphere, sending us grumpy, unhelpful notes from Intenet cafés in Patagonia, Antarctica, and other points south of 40, and threatening us with penguins, but not answering our queries. When he does deign to find an Internet café and respond to them, his answers contradict completely what he has previously said.

This is the author who disappeared in Mexico two weeks before the publication date of his last book, getting lost in the mountains, and not giving his editors an address to which to send his proofs.

Eliminating Editorial Hopefuls
We posted a trainee position at the local editorial training ground and received 23 responses from would-be trainees. From 23 resumés, we found only four clean enough to give us any faith in the applicant's editorial abilities. Two cover letters were of marginal literacy. Several more came from applicants who admitted freely that they had not take the basic copy-editing course that we listed as a prerequisite for the job. One cover letter had amusing footnotes.

Note to anyone ever applying for an editorial job: Have someone else edit your resumé. Spell the company's name correctly. Spell the company president's name correctly. Spell everything else correctly. Avoid amusing footnotes. And remember, we deal with writers every day. We can tell when you're padding.

More later...another shipment of prose just arrived and we're struggling to clear it before Friday.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Paradox of Successful Self-Publishing

Self-publishing seems to be increasingly prevalent in news and gossip of late. Quill&Quire had an article in December 2004, "Adventures in self-publishing," which highlighted several successful Canadian self-publishing ventures, such as Recipes from the Road, published by The Cooking Ladies (Phyllis Hinz and Lamont Mackay) through Hushion House. The Cooking Ladies, veteran food columnists, did all their own writing and photography, hired a design company to create a design and lay the book out, and hired a publicist to promote the finished product, which was distributed through Hushion House. While they did get publicity, they didn't get many sales until they approached national retailers about placing customized versions of the cookbooks in their stores, and "hit the jackpot" when Home Hardware ordered 12,000 non-returnable copies. This success earned them the notice of Ten Speed Press (which publishes and distributes Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbooks), which will now distribute both the Cooking Ladies' books, in Canada and the U.S.

While Q&Q shone some light on the success of projects like the Cooking Ladies', where personable authors who identified a niche market have done well with their self-publishing projects, the SFWA Atlanta Nights sting operation, which has been big news in the publishing blogosphere shows the other side of the self-publishing coin.
Grumpy Old Bookman (who is now required reading for This Crazy Industry) discusses the claims, made by several self-publishing outfits,

that almost every famous writer in the entire history of literature started out by publishing his or her own work. Trafford, for instance, gives us a list including Alexander Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe, and Margaret Atwood. Advocate House reminds us of Mark Twain, James Redfield, and John Grisham. And even so straitlaced a body as the UK Publishers Association mentions Jill Paton, Timothy Mo, and Susan Hill. The longest list is to be found in the self-publishing hall of fame.

(I'll forgo the rant about how, like much good PR, these claims leave out more than they include. They imply that these authors were successful because they self published, as if self-publishing were a first step on the ladder to literary success. The stories behind self publishing ventures are almost always more complicated than that. Margaret Atwood's, for example, self-published her first volume of poetry. Her first two novels were published by small literary presses; it was only when McLelland and Stewart published her third novel that those first two novels gained much commercial success for their publishers, this interest sparked interest in her poetry. But I was going to forgo that rant.)

More to the point, as the Bookman points out, for every Cooking Lady we hear about, there are thousands of self-published authors whose works are never read by more than a handful of people.

One rarely hears of self-published authors who continue to self publish after they achieve publishing "success" (where success seems to be defined as being picked up by a mainstream publisher). The Cooking Ladies are now carried by a Ten Speed Press. India Edgehill's novel Queenmaker, touted in Wired News as an example of a self-published success, was "traditionally published" in 2002 by St. Martin's press. David Chilton's legendary self-publishing success The Wealthy Barber is published by Random House (and I believe it was published by Stoddart prior to the Stoddart disaster) For all the claims that self-publishing is coming into its own, it seems that success is still defined by the the publishing industry, which still controls the means of distribution. A "successful" self-published book is one that comes to a publisher's notice, so that it can be "traditionally" published in its second edition.

Does it seem paradoxical to anyone else?

Monday, January 31, 2005

Scambusting with SFWA

This is PublishAmerica, proud "traditional publisher."

This is SFWA. Quoth John Scalzi "Don’t annoy science fiction writers. These are people who destroy entire planets before lunch. Think of what they’ll do to you." John Scalzi is wise.

This is what happens when SFWA decides to test the veracity of PublishAmerica's claim that
Each day, an average 78 new authors who are looking to find a book publishing company ask us [PA] to publish their book [***ED: do all 78 authors have one book among them or does each of the 78 have a book?***]. We review not only the quality but also the genre [***ED: How precisely do you review a genre?***] of their work. PublishAmerica specializes in books about, for, or by people who confront a challenge in life, and who are determined to overcome it, real or imagined, fiction or nonfiction [***ED: Do we mean that the people are real or imagined, or the situations. Suggest revising this sentence***]. Like all serious book publishing companies we have to be picky as we can only accept the works that meet our requirements in both areas.[***ED: Sorry about all the queries. I got confused.***]
This is Atlanta Nights, the appalling spawn of a posse of annoyed writers and a computer, under the pen name "Travis Tea", which was accepted by one Meg Phillips, Acquisitions Editor for PublishAmerica, who in her sublime editorial wisdom "decided to give 'Atlanta Nights' the chance it deserves." I'm not certain which passage decided Ms. Phillips to give Mr. Travis Tea a chance. Perhaps it was the following example of the book's incandescent prose styling:

The sun broke through the clouds then its brilliant golden disk burning a hole through the great puffs of water vapor to send a shaft of golden light zigzagging down through the layers of atmosphere and warm the earth in a way that no sunlight since the beginning of time had ever warmed the earth before. Somewhere a child was being born. Somewhere a dog was barking. Life was going on but in this one moment at this particular place in time and space. The two beautiful women, one twisting her hair into knots, the other sittings sideways, were not part of it. They were here only for each other and for the memory of a great man who had walked the earth like a rock in the sand. Life is like that sometimes, thought Margaret helplessly. Sometimes is just an interruption in the day and not a part of it. The trick is knowing when it's day and when it's night and the lightness or darkness has nothing to do with telling the difference between them. The death of a man like Henry Archer was definitely night even if it took place at noon. It was like an eclipse of the world. There must have been people even in distant primitive villages who had felt the moment he breathed his last. They must have looked up at the night sky or even the day sky and said, what was that, meaning him.

The above is but one example of the truly amazing writing. It chokes me right up.

So why would a buncha pros
want to expose a vanity publisher that claims to be a traditional publisher, many of whose authors are, at least according to its message boards, cultish fans of its programs? Why not let the poor deluded authors take what comfort they can from seeing their books in print?

James D. Macdonald puts it succinctly on Absolute Write:
PA is a vanity press that lies about itself, pretending to be a legitimate press.

Whatever business they're in, regardless of what they tell the people they've suckered, they aren't in the business of selling books to the general public. They're in the business of selling unedited slush, at full price, to their own authors.

Some folks get kind of upset when people get taken advantage of. Me, I'm glad folks like SFWA do.

Making Light

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Copyediting the Great American Novel

...But behind these horn-rimmed glasses, there's a woman dreaming big dreams. I won't be stuck standardizing verb tenses in business documents my whole life. One day, I will copyedit the Great American Novel.

Every editorial forum I frequent has posted the Onion Someday I Will Copyedit The Great American Novel. It's on the wall of the office. Approximately seven people forwarded the link to me.

Reactions among editors vary, but seem to fall into a few different categories:

Oh, yes, me too, please!
Most of us do not become editors in order to give the world better punctuated insurance textbooks and annual reports. Yes, we do have "clear eyes and an unquenchable thirst for syntactical truth," and apply them to any copy that comes our way, whether it be a bumper sticker with a misplaced apostrophe, a passive-laden government brief, or a throbbing romance-novel sex scene. But we did not learn the difference between a a restrictive and a non-restrictive appositive merely in order to render turgid financial writing grammatically correct. Nobody becomes enamoured of the written word because of the way a clearly written press released sucked them into a new world. And so, many young editors, identify with Ms. Cohen's desire, which creates a lot of competition among young editors.

Huh. Sadly, I doubt she's qualified.
Several of my more persnickety colleagues (and, in my profession, persnickety is a compliment, as is perfectionist) took a certain amount of satisfaction in pointing out the errors, overstatements, and Hobgoblins.
Duck Tape® is the brand name of the shiny, sticky, waterproof stuff, and was the original name; "duct tape" is a relatively modern overcorrection (or, in the words of a colleague "Apocope, my a**!"). It is not wrong to start a sentence with "but," doing so is merely frowned upon by overzealous Thistlebottoms. Likewise splitting infinitives. But for the lies to children told by schoolteachers, more people would recall that eminently respectable authors and editors have done so, and that renowned grammarians have cheerfully split their infinitives.

The great "that/which," "restrictive/non-" debate is a grammatical shibboleth, by which the editors of Daniel Webster's tribe know each other. In other, less florid words, it's a matter of style. Perfectly respectable editors ignore the distinction. Perfectly respectable grammarians insist that "that" is only to be as a demonstrative adjective or a subordinating conjunction, never to introduce any kind of appositive. Perfectly respectable editors consider illiterate anyone who fails to use "that" in a restrictive fashion, without parenthetical commas, and which non-restrictively, with parenthetical commas.

...and what's with the capitalized "The" in the title?

That's just plain heartwarming.
More inclusive than the tribe of Daniel Webster is the tribe of Those of Us for Whom Editing Is a Vocation (which needs a snappier name). We can't walk past abused apostrophes without wanting to put them where they belong. Misplaced modifiers distress us. We glory in an aptly applied subjunctive. It bugs us when someone spells "travelling" with two "l"s but "jeweler" with one. And when we encounter a fellow tribe member marking up the flyer for the new take-out restaurant, which proclaims Pizza's and Drinks, or correcting the notice beside the elevator that says "Use stairs too get to 2nd floor," we can smile at them, and know that here is someone who understands.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Why Are So Few People Talking About This?

Seeing this, over on Language Hat, and realizing that nobody else was blogging it inspired this weblog.

From the New York Times:

Pearson Education, the publishing company that owns the copyright to the Dick and Jane reading primers, has filed a lawsuit against a division of Time Warner in Federal District Court in Los Angeles claiming that the book "Yiddish With Dick and Jane" violates Pearson's copyrights and trademarks for the familiar characters.
So here's the thing:

  1. Pearson gave permission for the copyright and trademarked material to be used.
  2. Yiddish with Dick and Jane is a parody, which can't exist without referring to the material it's poking fun at.
Getting Permission
As I understand it, if an author or a publisher wants to use copyright material the author or publisher (usually the author) contacts the body holding the rights to the copyright material, and requests permission to use the material. Several things can then happen:

1) The rightsholder says "yes," "sure!" "of course," "go right ahead," or otherwise gives consent
The author/publisher makes certain to get this in writing, and goes ahead and uses the material, scrupulously observing the rightsholder's stipulations regarding how they work may be used. If the publisher is polite, and if the schedules allow (which doesn't often happen), they let the rightsholder see the work before it goes to press.

2) The rightsholder says "no," "no way!" or otherwise does not consent
The author/publisher sighs, and finds something else to use, or cuts the quoted material so that they're allowed to use it under Fair Use, or paraphrases.

3) The rightsholder says "Yes, for a fee."
The author/publisher dickers about the price and either pays it, or sighs and move onto one of the options for "no."

4) The righsholder says "Yes, but only if you...."
The rightsholder and the would-be user negotiate the various provisions governing how the user can use the material. They write these down and agree to them. For instance, if you buy the rights to an image from a museum, the museum generally stipulates that you can't alter the image at all—no cropping, no re-sizing, no photoshopping amusing hats onto the Mona Lisa.

The authors of Yiddish with Dick and Jane seem to have encountered case #4. The stipulation was that the book should bear a prominent notice that it is a parody, to forstall any assumptions that it might be an official Dick and Jane publication. Just in case, y'know? So the book is covered with Parody notices, on the spine, the cover, and I believe, in the opening pages. The promotional video opens with "Warning! Parody!" So there can be very little confusion on that point.

Under the Fair Use provisions of Copyright law, parody is protected—a creator can make use of somebody else's original material in order to create a parody of that material, since, as I mentioned above, if you don't refer to the original material, nobody's going to get your parody.

Defining Parody
Pearson (or its lawyer) claims that Yiddish with Dick and Jane can't be a parody "
because it does not use the copyrighted characters 'for the purpose of social criticism.'"


By that definition, Weird Al Yankovic's entire career (except maybe the polkas) has violated the provisions of Fair Use. Or maybe I failed to notice the underlying social commentary in "I Love Rocky Road."

A parody exists when one imitates a serious piece of work, such as literature, music or artwork, for a humorous or satirical effect." (Parody: Fair Use or Copyright Infringement, Lloyd L. Rich, 1999)

This is the more traditional characterisation of parody. Note the conspicuous absence of any need for social relevance.

More than Weird Al's status as a parodist is at risk here. Re-defining parody, or narrowing the defintion of parody, essentially sheathes one of the humorist's weapons, and narrows the range of creative expression.