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And The Changes Keep Coming Faster

In 2010, Red Room asked writers to write about getting older...and, as it does today, when the discussion swung to publishing, many lamented the changes that they were seeing. I had a slightly different take. I still do.  That much hasn't changed.

Give Me New Tech

I love that episode of NCIS where the power is knocked out and the team has to go all "old tech" (Polaroid cameras, visually comparing fingerprint cards, etc) to solve the crime. The boss is gleeful because he hates the computers and the rest of the crew are frustrated. At the end, they all acknowledge that they can indeed get the crime solved this way. It just takes longer and the work is much harder. 

One of the things I've seen as I grow older is how much easier publishing has become with "new tech." During my college days, a software package called Pagemaker was changing how newspapers and magazines were created. A number of my early editors and bosses swore that the computer and the Aldus software would never catch on with serious publications. The typewriter, the Linotype machine, the hot wax machine (for sticking down copy on layout boards), and so on were the only professional way to produce printed materials.

After college, I worked on one of the last magazines in town put together in the "traditional way," a  weekly covering the waterfront industry. I burned my wrists continually on that waxer, had to wait for the linotype guy to show up to make a one-word correction to the copy (unless I could slash together something with a judicious cutting of the exacto blade), drove flats across town to the printer (including one memorable night when I shoved a flat under the wrong delivery dock door and down an elevator shaft), and, in general, produced a magazine in the way that my grandfather, a newspaper editor during the Depression, would have recognized.

Today, of course, that's all gone. Along with many of the newspapers and tiny magazines where I wrote my earliest stories. I miss the printed pages, but I don't miss the waxer, the linotype, the typewriter, and the other slow ways of putting together newspapers, magazines, and books.

These days, one small laptop can handle all those chores and, then, with press of button, go whoosh across town to the printer. No more shoving flats under doors at midnight and losing them down the elevator shaft!

Do You Remember the Daisy-Wheel?

My attitude of changing technology being good for writers may be inherited.

When I was growing up, my mother typed her novels on a Smith-Corona with carbon paper copies. In those days, those smudgy pages were the back-up. If the editor dumped coffee on your precious pages or lost your book in the mail, you had to retype it into a clean copy and send it back to the publisher.

Eventually, Tandy came out with a dual-disk personal computer that we brought into our house with much excitement. My mother even paid extra for the daisy-wheel printer to make her publisher happy. (For the writers of this century:  The computers of the early 1980s came with dot matrix printers and nobody in New York would accept "those" print-outs as submissions. So professional writers  paid extra for a daisy-wheel that mimicked the Selectric typewriter. And thus the editors saw that the manuscript had been professionally "typed" and were happy).

But my mother was handling "hard copies" of manuscripts as required by her NY publishers (Dell, Avon, Scholastic, and so on). There, somebody else retyped the complete manuscript into a format that could be turned into a book. These transcription typists were very good, but errors could creep in.  So paper galleys were sent back to her and the editors, which had to be marked with a pen, bundled up into a box, mailed  back, retyped, requiring more waiting,  then "blue lines" (final copy, blue ink on blue paper) were mailed out to check to see if the editor had caught all the corrections and the typist had typed them into the manuscript, more marking, more mailing, and then more waiting until the book was done.

When I started writing books about collecting children's books with my mother, we were overjoyed to find a publisher who let us submit our manuscript on a floppy disk! This speeded up the process, although we still had to send a print copy as well as the disk through the mail. We still waded through the usual rounds of galleys being mailed back and forth. Also, our scans of book covers couldn't be submitted on the disks available to us (the digital files were too big) so we had to send actual color prints to be rescanned on their end. Which caused a number of color correction headaches, but was less difficult than shooting film and submitting negatives.

Eventually we both invested in zip drives, and then CD drives, that let us mail off an entire book, graphics and all, contained in one slim envelope.

These days, I write my books on a laptop. My mother grabbed rights back from her NY publishers, converted her old paperbacks into digital copies, and now republishes them herself as ebooks. Neither of us wants to go back to the "old days" of producing books. And the typewriter is just a hipster decorating item on the top of the bookcase.

Can't wait to see where this revolution goes....


Now You Want Video?

Back in 2009 when this article appeared on Red Room, everybody on the web seemed to want slideshows. It was supposed to increase the "stickiness" of a site, causing folks to linger longer and read additional articles. This led to some interesting discussions with PR people as I tried to comply with the request.

These days, I've pretty much abandoned slideshows and the theater column's current format only allows one photo inside an article. But I do call for video (using YouTube embed coded) to add punch to arts articles. Interestingly, some of the same issues come up. I still hear from PR people worried about giving away too much about a production and, once they see how it looks, wanting the same thing for their show.

Will The Slideshow Tell All?

As Seattle Theater Examiner, I not only worry about words, I worry about photographs. For years, I used to tell PR people who asked where to send the photos, "Please query the editor about photos. I just do the words." But that changed when I went to a web-based publication. 

Having also worn the PR hat for a high-faulutin' arts organization, I do know my way around a  photograph and understand the differences between what a newspaper needs and a color glossy magazine.  Photos these days mean digital and best results come from understanding what a publication needs in terms of  resolution, dpi, and size of the jpg.  If you're a nonfiction writer, ask your editor for these requirements, even if you're not responsible for securing photos. It's just good information to know and keep in the back of your head as you talk to your sources.

Well, now I'm not only writing the words, I'm creating the Flash slideshows for my column. And suddenly, one picture is not enough for a story.  I need photos.  I need multiple photos. I need good photos that tell the story when I'm limited to 400 characters for the caption!  

So, after calling and arranging interviews and fact checking and all the other stuff that I used to do with PR people, I beg for photos.  "Can you e-mail me?  Do you have a website to download from?"

Often I'm sent something sized for print and not web -- but downsizing a photo, as it were, is much easier than enlarging. So I quick crop and export in the right size (iPhoto works just fine for this) and place as many photos as make sense in the articles.

Interestingly, I get a little bit of resistance from some PR people about using more than one photo in an article. I had a PR pro ask me to only use a single photo as the designers of the show were worried about someone copying their ideas.  OK, if you're creating Wolverine for Fox, early leaks of your designs may be a problem.  But, frankly my dears, nobody is going to run around the web looking at regional theater shows and saying "YES! This is how I'm going to do my version of Hamlet!!"

Still, having worn that PR hat (complete with Valkyrie horns), I know how touchy some designers can be about letting people outside the audience see their designs. So I do what the PR person asks.  Only to get the e-mail the next day saying "Gee, we saw the slideshow you did for this other show, and we'd like to get the same exposure."  Usually with three more oversized photographs attached!

The slideshows, the videos, and all the other multimedia tricks in an article do attract the eye.  They also cause the viewers  to click through to the production's website. In short, a slideshow or any other visual media may catch a ticket buyer's eye and entice them into a production or theater that they haven't tried yet.

Back-up, Back-up, Back-up

There used to be a sense in publishing that when your books made it into hardback that you'd scaled a new peak in professionalism. Also you should make more money because hardbacks cost more than softcovers! So I was  excited when my publisher decided that the Encyclopedia would be issued in hardcover instead of trade paperback format. 

Since this article appeared in 2008 on Red Room, further complications ensued with my first...and so far...only hardback sale. The publisher closed down the division shortly after the book appeared and the Encyclopedia disappeared from bookstores.  The royalties were far less than all previous softcover books, despite the higher cover price. So be careful what you wish for! And do update your back-ups every few years.

Hardcover Headaches and Triumphs

My first hardcover book weighs 3 lbs according to the publisher's website. All I know is that it is my first book that's actually slightly bigger than my computer (I work on a laptop!).

The Encyclopedia of Collectible Children's Books was one of those projects that seemed really simple when it started and got slightly more complicated and then insanely more complicated as we went along.

Things that I learned along the way of putting together a book that was the "best" of four previous books on the topic (as well as multiple changes and additions to reflect the changing market of collectible books):
  • Just because you have a back-up doesn't mean you can open the disks. The oldest disks from Book 1 were from the last decade and that version of our word processing software was not compatible with our current version.
  • There is a reason for storing that old laptop in the basement. Using it, we were able to translate those elderly 20th century disks into a 21st-century version that could be opened by our current laptops. The fact that the oldest laptop screen would only come on in the "slightly open" position made it more interesting.
  • Even through you check and doublecheck your copy, the gremlins will eat a paragraph or two. Somewhere during the final edit, I discovered a favorite Edwardian illustrator had vanished from the manuscript. Luckily the editor and designer #3 (designers #1 and #2 apparently fled screaming into the night) figured out how to shoehorn that information back into the books.
  • No matter how carefully you plan, everything happens at once. I really, really didn't expect to have my first novel to go through final edits with the publisher as we were preparing the first draft of the Encyclopedia. I would have preferred a few more months apart -- and having a boss at my day job quit during the same period and increasing my hours at said day job: well that just added to hysteria.
  • Working with an understanding writing partner is (as the commercial says) priceless. Thank heavens, we live in the same area code. Endless e-mails, phone calls, and she would make dinner when I'd come over to her house to read over the bluelines. Wow!
So the Encyclopedia is finally here. I've shoved aside some of the collection to make room for it on the "tall book" shelves. And it does feel good to have 3 lbs of shiny nonfiction done!

What I Learned At The Chinese Newspaper

Published back in 2008 on Red Room, shortly after I had lunch with the editor mentioned. I'm still very grateful that my college journalism professor suggested I apply for the job and the editor was willing to take a chance on me.

Know What the Editor Wants, Or What I Learned at the Chinese Newspaper

As often stated in various published bios, my first post-college writing job was working for a Chinese newspaper. Now, if you've seen my photo, you may be thinking "She doesn't look Chinese." (You're right!)

However, the very understanding editor of the Seattle Chinese Post thought if I was crazy enough to apply for the job, she was crazy enough to hire her first non-Asian employee. I wrote a four-page English language insert that went into a larger, Chinese-language newspaper. And my "beat" was going out and interviewing various members of the community for a column called "Who's Who in Chinatown."

I learned a lot during the six months that I worked there, including various ways to answer my interviewees when they invariably said to me, "You know, you don't look Chinese." But the most important thing that I learned was "If you ask, your editor will tell what she wants."

My first couple of "Who's Who" columns didn't go over too well. My editor kept handing them back and asking for rewrites. Finally, I asked her what she wanted. The formula for a good article (for her) was (1) Tell which part of China the person or their parents came from; (2) Tell which dialect of Chinese they spoke; and (3) Tell how this heritage led to a successful career.

After that, I was always able to write a "Who's Who" that made her happy. And every column was wildly different, which made me happy, because I didn't want to write the same thing over and over again. But I found asking those three questions solicited very different responses from the interviewees, just as the people that I interviewed were wildly different, ranging from a pharmacist to a FBI agent to the owner of a frozen food factory.

I came across those clippings the other day. None of the articles read the same, but, if you know what you're looking for, you can find the answers to question 1, 2, and 3 in each story.

Every now and then, I see that editor. She's become a very successful publisher whose newspapers serve a diverse Asian community. She still compliments me on my writing (which is kind, because it's been a very long time since I've done anything for her). And I always tell her that she was a terrific first editor to work for. Because she taught me to ask what an editor wants and then think very hard about how I can make my writing fit that request while still staying true to the story that I wanted to tell.

Since then, I've always felt it was OK to ask "what do you want?" Not all editors can give you three specific questions, but most can give you a hint. For example, I did a round of spectacular rejections from Wizards of the Coast. After approving a writing sample, they asked me to send ideas for novels for the Forgotten Realms series. Every idea came back with "Sorry, don't like this outline. Do like your writing. Try again."

Finally, I said, "What do you want to see in an outline?" (Note I didn't say "what don't you like about this?"). The WOTC editor kindly wrote back and said that he wanted a very clear synopsis that showed who the main character was, what the major obstacle was for the main character, and how the main character would overcome that obstacle. Three very simple points that he wanted addressed and (he added) not much else. For example, he said that he didn't need to know all the names of all the other characters or any of the subplots. That explanation could come later.

So, the next synopsis that I wrote just named one character, said what the major plot obstacle was for that character, and how that character would overcome it. There's a touch more description in it than that, but it all fit on one page. The  only character who even has a name in this synopsis was Ivy, the leader of a scruffy band of mercenaries. How she solves her problems became Crypt of the Moaning Diamond, my first novel sale.


DIY In Publishing: More Than Writing The Book

This article originally appeared on Red Room in 2008, and the project under discussion was a print book. With all the new resources available in recent years, there's even more options for folks. I still think it's a good idea to make friends with those who have tried publishing and learn from their mistakes and successes. DIY means much more than just writing the book, but the educational resources are better than ever if you want to try it out.

To Publish Or Not To Publish Yourself

I am convinced that everyone has at least one book in their head.  This comes from that usual conversation which begins "what do you do?"  Once I answer that I'm a writer and, yes, I have had several books published, the questioner tells me about the book in their head.

This conversation used to progress to "how do I find a publisher?"  But these days, more people are ask me "how do I publish my book myself?"  The DIY movement has swept over publishing because the technology has made it so much cheaper than it used to be and the Internet has made distribution outside of the traditional bookstore-to-consumer much easier.

So yesterday, I had that "should you publish it yourself?"  chat with a contractor in the middle of my kitchen. Because, as much as  I love the idea of DIY, if I hang my kitchen cabinets, the result would not be pretty. 

Turns out the contractor was a good candidate for becoming his own publisher.  He had most of the elements in place that would make his project work:
  • His wife was professional graphic designer who specialized in commercial packaging and also had good understanding of print buying.
  • He had a friend who was a small niche publisher, a mutual acquaintance and somebody that I knew would make a great mentor.
  • He was willing to hire experts, like a line editor, to make his work look great and he had a realistic idea of what you have to pay freelancers.
He also had a few ideas on where and how he could sell his book, which is perhaps the most difficult part of making any small publishing project sucessful.  Unless you get really lucky, like another a publishers I know who woke up with the only published biography of Sarah Palin on the day she become the Republican pick for vice-president. He found 40,000+ backorders on waiting for his attention. Most small publishers have to work every day on selling to move even a few books every week.

My final recommendation to the contractor, before we got back to debating the merits of maple vs. birch, was to talk to his publisher friend and even drop into a couple of meetings of a local branch of the Independent Book Publishing Association.  Because if you want to launch a new business, and publishing is a business as much as writing is an art, it is good to learn your trade from others who have gone before you.

I also told him that as much as I love managing book projects, and I've done several for other people, I always end up going the more traditional route of having someone else publish my fiction.  Why?  Because when I am writing fiction,  I want to concentrate on that aspect of the project.  I don't want to be thinking about trim sizes, distribution contracts, finding a cover artist, ebook formats, etc.  For now, that seems to be the right way for me to bring my work to the public. But I'm never ruling out DIY or saying that one particular way is the only way.


We All Want That Secret Handshake

This was the very first article published on Red Room in 2008, and nothing has changed much. I'm still using my writing skills to pay the bills with "corporate communications" (i.e. providing content for everything from annual reports to whole websites). My fiction projects still lead to very interesting conversations. Writing about the arts inspires me daily. And nobody has taught me the secret handshake yet.

Seeking A Secret Handshake Or How To Sell Your Book

When people hear that I am a published writer, they always ask how I sold a book. In short, the secret handshake that everyone always knows that writers and publishers have but won't reveal to other people. Many seem to believe that there is one surefire route to being a published author that will allow them to skip all that dreary business of sending out queries and reading rejection letters.

Sadly, nobody taught the secret sign to me. Instead, I've sold nonfiction books, novels, stories, and several hundred articles to publishers without one single handshake. I also have supported myself in a less than luxurious lifestyle by doing various forms of commercial writing: catalogs, advertisements, press releases, and other business media. I've even hopped to the other side of publishing blanket and actually produced a number of books for other people at the start of this century. For one brief period in the 1990s, I ran a bookstore, an experience that left me with nothing but admiration for independent booksellers and the amount of work that they do to sell books!

These days, my writing life is a nice mix of business assignments (the stuff that pays my bills) and what I consider "fun assignments" (the assignments that might only pay for a dinner out but lead me into interesting conversations and friendships).

But if you know the secret handshake, can you teach it to me?