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Elves ‘n’ Dwarves

I just finished walking to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,which is the third or fourth time I’ve seen it. I have some grumbles: The damned thing came to 181 minutes long; did we really need atolkienic rock giants starting a rumble with dwarves clinging to their pants legs? On the other hand, it was visually startling and lots of fun, and I give Jackson points for working in some of the appendices’ material, especially Radagast and Dol Guldur. Sure, Goblin Town was over the top, as was the Goblin King (“That’ll do it”) and the whole Goblin Town episode reminded me of a side-scroller video game.

All that said, what I really like about the film is its depiction of the dwarves. We didn’t see much of them in Jackson’s LOTR trilogy, beyond Gimli and stacks of decayed corpses in Moria. From his own text, Tolkien clearly didn’t like the dwarves much, both explicitly and implicitly. I figured that out over 40 years ago, once the Silmarillion was published. Unlike elves and men, the dwarves were tinkered together after work hours by Aulë, the Valar demigod of tinkering. Aulë was out of his depth there, so Eru (God) fixed their bugs and archived them until the elves got out of beta and were RTMed.

That’s a pattern in Tolkien’s universe: Aulë’s guys were always digging stuff up and doing stuff with it, causing lots of trouble in the process. Fëanor made the Silmarils, and before you know it, we’d lost half a continent and the rest of the First Age. The dwarves in Moria dug too deep and struck Balrog; the dwarves in Erebor unearthed the Arkenstone, which made Thrain go nuts and hoard so much gold that Smaug sniffed it half a world away.

Oh–and Sauron (disguised as as a sort of evil Santa Claus) gave the clueless dwarf kings Seven Rings of Power. Worst. Idea. Evah.

Ok. They were nerds. You got a problem with that? By contrast, the Elves just sort of sat around inside their own collective auras, eating salad and nostalgia-tripping. The elven makers like Fëanor and Celebrimbor all came to bad ends, leaving behind the elven New Agers, who made a three-Age career of doing nothing in particular while feeling like on the whole, they’d rather be in Philadel…er, Valinor.

Screw that. I’m with the dwarves. They had an angular sort of art design that I envy (see any footage set within Erebor) and a capella groups long before the invention of barbershops. (See this for a bone-chilling cover.) We haven’t seen them in the films yet, but Weta concepts indicate that dwarf women are hot, irrespective of their long sideburns. And only a celebrity dwarf could tell you why mattocks rock.

Metal is fun, and craftiness is next to demigodliness, especially with Aulë as your demigod. The dwarves are basically Tolkien’s steampunkers, and if they didn’t have airships it was solely because they didn’t like heights. Sure, they were maybe a little slow on the uptake at times. Playing with minerals requires an intuitive grip on chemistry, and out of chemistry (given metal plating for motivation) comes electricity, as the Babylonians showed us. After three Ages, the dwarves still didn’t have AA batteries? Sheesh.

Still, they did real damned fine with iron, bronze, gold, and mithril. Makes you wonder what they could have done with ytterbium. Eä, the Final Frontier? Fifth Age, fersure!

Odd Lots

Tripwander

Bugsplat Rearview - 500 wide.jpg

Carol and I just got back from a month-long driving trek to Chicago. I generally don’t talk much about my travels until I get back home, hence my silence here for the last few weeks. As usual with Tripwanders, this entry will be a sort of long-form Odd Lots, and not a coherent essay leading toward any particular point, beyond the epiphany that there are many different colors of bugsplat.


Place: The Des Moines Sheraton. Time: 5:38 AM. I awaken from my usual dream of trying to teach evil cosmic forces how to use their silverware correctly to find a xenon strobe flashing in my face, one pulse per second. WTF? The room is utterly dark. There is no fire alarm, nor any sound at all beyond that puissant pop! of the triggered strobe. I am on my back, and the damned thing is centered in my field of view. I began counting pulses while waiting for some sort of hell to break loose, or at least try to push peas onto a fork with its fingers. 26 pulses, and then darkness again.

So much for that particular Saturday night. I lay there and fumed until Carol woke about an hour later. There were in fact three strobes in the ceiling of our room, two attached to fire alarms of some sort, and one solo. The solo strobe was the one I had been staring at. I went down to the desk a little later to complain, or at least ask for an explanation. The clerk told me that the strobe I’d seen was…the doorbell. Sure enough, there was a doorbell button to one side of our door. If you’re hearing-impaired and order room service, how else would you know your dinner had arrived?

We were in a handicapped room because that was what there was, and we’d gotten the room for $88 in a hotel where most of the rooms went for $150 and up. My only hesitation in getting handicapped rooms is that some handicapped person might come to the hotel an hour later and want it. I never quite understood why they were so cheap. Now I do. As the clerk explained that they’d had a very large and rowdy wedding that night (which we’d seen as we checked in) with drunks wandering the walls until dawn, I could see some staggering fool noticing the button and pressing it. Works as designed.


Other odd things we saw in the middle of the night included little red LED smiles on the front edges of LG TVs in hotels. I never noticed them until our first night out, when I reached for the switch on the nightstand light at a Holiday Inn Express, and saw something grinning at me in the darkness. I discovered that I’m a little apprehensive about glow-in-the-dark smiles (I’m sure there’s a technical term for the psychological condition somewhere) and parked my briefcase in front of it.


Footprints Penny - 500 wide.jpg

Part of the challenge of summer road trips taken with dogs is that you can’t leave them in the car while you catch a meal. This means that we eat fast food a lot. This isn’t a health hazard, though Southern Style Chicken meals can get old after a few days. One lunchtime at a McDonald’s drive-through (in Nebraska, I think) I got a penny in change with two footprints punched all the way through it.

Defacing currency is a crime, which is why I always wondered if the Where’s George site would get into trouble. The same guys who protect the President are also tasked with going after penny-punchers, which says something about something, albeit nothing coherent. As it happens, coin art is legal as long as you don’t try to pass off a coin as a different coin. I was told in grade school that you can sand a penny down on the sidewalk until it would pass as a dime in a payphone, but it seemed like a lot of work to earn nine cents, when the local empty lots were lousy with returnable Coke bottles.

It didn’t take much Googling to find out that the penny had been sold as a sort of inspirational good-luck token based on the well-known Christian fable “Footprints in the Sand.” I’m going to toss it in my weird coins cup, though I do wonder where all the little copper-coated zinc footprints ended up.


Dog & Suds - 350 wide.jpgOne of my goals this trip was to trek out to Third Lake, Illinois, to see what (if anything) was left of the summer place our family had owned there from 1965-1991. I knew the cottage itself was gone, after a tree fell on it in the mid-1990s, and I was more interested in the neighborhood itself, which had been a constant summer haunt in my young teen years. Telescopes and dark skies, model rockets, slopping around in the slightly green lake, my first attempt at target shooting–it was formative in ways I didn’t realize for decades.

I had gotten in touch with a couple of the “kids” I used to hang out with there, and spent a little time with Rob and Tim Smyth, walking around the area while they pointed to things that used to be there. The garage Uncle Louie built in 1977 still stands, but after that it was slim pickins. The adjoining Picket Fence Farm, where we would chase Angus steers while stepping smartly around cowpies, is now a forest preserve, with grass as high as my nose. I’m guessing that launching model rockets there would now be a felony.

I did find, to my delight, that the Dog ‘N’ Suds drive-in is still there in nearby Grayslake, essentially unchanged since the 1950s. I had a coney dog and a bag full of sumptuously greasy fries, and for a moment it was 1968 all over again.


The trip, of course, was centered around the wedding of our younger nephew Matt and his high-school sweetheart Justine. They met as sophomores, which means that they have Carol and me beat by almost two years. As I would expect, the ceremony at St. Thomas church was beautiful, and the reception (at the tony Boulder Ridge Country Club) spectacular. The open bar included Chicago’s infamous Jeppson’s Malört, and whereas I toyed with the idea of trying it, I went for the pinot noir instead. After eating all that McDonald’s on the trip out, I figured my tongue had suffered enough. Besides, my camera was conked and there was no way to get a picture of my inevitable Malört face.

The weather had not been helpful. As we were milling around Carol’s sister’s house 40 minutes before the ceremony, I went outside and could see a very ugly front glowering its way toward us out of the northwest. The WGN radar on my phone painted it in red and (worse) dark red. I suggested to Carol that we needed to leave right damned now, and although we did, it wasn’t quite soon enough. Just after we pulled into the church parking lot, a thunderstorm the likes of which we rarely see opened on our heads. I took Carol as close to the building as I could, and then tried to wait out the sheeting downpour in the parking lot. As the minutes ticked past, the storm abated only slowly. Finally, just a few minutes before the ceremony was slated to begin, I opened an umbrella and ran for it. It crossed my mind that I was dashing through puddles under a lively thunderstorm carrying a metal spike in one hand. I like ground rods, and have used many in my time, but never felt any desire at all to be one.

Things began a little late but turned out well, with the storm rising and falling and rattling against the skylights in the church ceiling. During the exchange of vows, a second front rolled through, with deafending thunder while Matt declared his love for his bride. People laughed, but I had been through something very like this before, and knew the truth: It was God’s applause, for two young people who had made us all very proud, and would almost certainly continue to do so.


Of course, we both got colds toward the end of our stay, which has happened before, and we made the long trip back amidst coughs and sniffles. The dogs were peevish and unruly; Dash has taken up howling whenever Carol isn’t in his immediate vicinity. So when we rolled back into town on Monday night, both of us were abundantly glad that the trip, as good as it had been, was over.

Much to do here, but I’ll try to post a little more often than in the immediate past.

Odd Lots

  • Lenin’s head is missing. It was last seen rolling around a forest near Berlin 23 years ago, but nobody can find it now, even though it weighs three and a half tons. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Evidently Lenin loses his head a lot. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. Shame it didn’t happen in 1890 or so.
  • How far does $100 go in your state? (Backstory here.) Be careful; the figures are state-wide averages. It’s much worse in urban cores. (Thanks to Tony Kyle for the link.)
  • If you’ve never seen one, here’s an ad-farm article. I’ve often wondered if these are machine generated, written by people who don’t know English well, or machine-obfuscated copies of legitimate articles, intended to duck news providers’ plagiarism bots.
  • Wired volcanologist Eric Klemetti reports that a swarm of small earthquakes may presage an eruption from Iceland’s Barðarbunga volcano. The volcano is interesting because its name contains the ancient letter eth (ð) something I don’t recall seeing on Web news sites in a lot of years. To generate an eth on Windows, by the way, just enter Alt-0240.
  • Wired misses as often as it hits. One of its supposed futurists is telling us that the educated elite should be able to license reproduction, and dictate who can and who cannot have babies. By the way, his description of who is unfit to reproduce sounds a lot like the nonwhite urban poor. Articles of this sort are about as wise as “The Case for Killing Granny,” which put Newsweek in a world of hurt back in 2009.
  • To make you love this guy even more, let me quote a summary of presentation he did on Red Ice Radio: “Zoltan argues that ultimately technology will be helpful to the ‘greater good’ and must be implemented, even if by force and even if there are causalities along the way. In the second hour, Zoltan philosophizes about technology as evolution and luck as the prime mover of the human experience. He talks about maximizing on the transhumanist value for the evolution of our species. We parallel transhumanism with religious thinking. He’ll speak in favor of controversial subjects such as a transhumanist dictatorship, population control, licenses to have children and people needing to justify their existence in front of a committee, much like the Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw’s idea.” If I were a transhumanist, I’d be ripping him several new ones right now. Or is transhumanism really that nasty?
  • Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek is not proposing thiotimoline, nor anything else (I think) having to do with time travel. He believes that he’s broken the temporal symmetry of nature…which sounds devilish and full of interesting possibilities. As soon as I figure out what the hell it all means, time crystals will land in one of my hard SF concepts in -5 milliseconds.
  • Michael Covington reminded us on Facebook that there are a surprising number of plurals with no singular form, including kudos, biceps, suds, and shenanigans. (I do wonder, as does Bill Lindley, if the very last bubble in the sink is a sud.)
  • That discussion in turn reminded me of a concept for an END piece in PC Techniques that I took notes on but never wrote: the KUDOS operating system, which lacks error messages but pays you a compliment every time you do anything right. In 1992 I was thinking of purely textual compliments, but these days I imagine a spell-checker that plays “Bravo!” on the speakers every time you spell a word correctly. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Godzilla’s Gumball Machine

This is Part 2 of an entry I began yesterday.

Nine years ago, I called for the creation of a digital content gumball machine; that is, a Web site that would accept payment and send back a file of some sort, whether a song, a video, or an ebook. It was the start of a popular series and I got a lot of good feedback. I’ve since walked back on several of the original essay’s points, primarily the notion that every author should have his or her own ebook gumball machine, but also the notion that DRM needs to be accomodated. At the time, I thought that while DRM might not help much, it wouldn’t hurt. I think the experiences of Baen and Tor (and probably other imprints) have proven me wrong. Lack of DRM helps. Besides, DRM is what gave Amazon its market-lock, and publishers demanded it. Petard, meet hoist.

The really big lesson Amazon taught us is that Size Matters. What we need isn’t a separate gumball machine for every author or publisher, nor even a clever P-P network of individual gumball machines, though that might work to some extent. We need Godzilla’s Gumball Machine, or Amazon will just step on it and keep marching through the ruins. To compete with Amazon, all publisher/author storefronts must be searchable from a single search prompt. Payment must be handled by the gumball machine system as a whole, via Paypal or something like it. Publishers will probably sell direct, and pay a commission to the firm operating the system.

This could be done. It wouldn’t even be hideously difficult. The technology is not only available but mature. Best of all, well…it’s (almost) been done already. There is a second e-commerce titan in the world. Its name is EBay. (Ok, there’s also Alibaba, which I have never used and know little about aside from the fact that it’s bigger than Amazon and eBay combined. Oh, and the fact that their TMall site is already hosting stores for Chinese print-book publishers.)

I’ll cut the dramatics and get right to the point: The Big Five need to partner with eBay and possibly Alibaba to produce a digital content gumball machine (or two) as efficient and seamless as Amazon’s. EBay’s affiliate store model is a good one, and I’ve bought an awful lot of physical goods on eBay, both new and used, outside the auction model. In fact, in the last few years I’ve bought only collectable kites at auction. Everything else was a fixed-price “buy it now” affiliate sale.

Admittedly, eBay has some work to do to make their purchasing experience as good as Amazon’s. However, they are already providing digital storefronts to physical goods retailers. I haven’t seen any plans for them to offer digital content so far, but man, are they so dense that they haven’t thought of it? Unlikely. If eBay isn’t considering a content gumball machine, it can only be because the Brittles won’t touch it. That’s a shame, though I think there’s an explanation. (Stay tuned.)

A large and thriving eBay media store would provide several benefits to publishers:

  • Print books could be sold side-by-side with ebooks. Publishers could sell signed first editions to people who like signed print books (and will pay a premium for them) and ebooks to everybody else.
  • Selling direct means you don’t lose 55% to the retail channel. Sure, there would be costs associated with selling on such a system, but they wouldn’t be over half the price of the goods.
  • Cash flow is immediate from direct sales. It’s not net 30, nor net 60. It’s net right-the-hell-now.
  • Publishers could price the goods however they wanted, at whatever points they prefer.

So what’s not to like?

Readers who have any history at all with the publishing industry know exactly what’s not to like: channel conflict. In our early Coriolis years, we sold books through ads in the back of our magazine. They weren’t always books we had published; in fact, we were selling other publishers’ books a year or two before we began publishing books at all. The Bookstream arm of the company generated a fair bit of cash flow, and it was immediate cash flow, not the net-180 terms we later received from our retailers. Cash flow is a very serious constraint in print book publishing. Cash flow from Bookstream helped us grow more quickly than we otherwise might have.

However, we caught a whole lot of hell from our retailers for selling our own products direct. That’s really what’s at stake here, and it’s an issue that hasn’t come up much in discussion of the Amazon vs. Hachette fistfight: Publishers can’t compete with Amazon without a strong online retail presence, and any such presence will pull sales away from traditional retailers, making those retailers less viable. If the Big Five partner with somebody to create Godzilla’s Gumball Machine to compete with Amazon, we may lose B&M bookstores as collateral damage.

Then again, the last time I was at B&N, they’d pulled out another several book bays and replaced them with toys and knicknacks and other stuff that I simply wasn’t interested in. The slow death of the B&M retail book channel has been happening for years, and will continue to happen whether or not the Big Five create their own Amazon-class gumball machine.

Alas, the Amazon-Hachette thing cooks down to this: Do we want Amazon to have competition in the ebook market? Or do we want B&M bookstores? We may not be able to have both, not on the terms that publishers (especially large publishers) are demanding.

And beneath that question lies another, even darker one: If eBay/Alibaba/whoever can provide an e-commerce site with centrally searchable ebook gumball machine for anybody…do we really need publishers in their current form? Publisher services can be unbundled, and increasingly are. Editing, layout, artwork, indexing, and promotion can all be had for a price. What’s left may be thought of as a sort of online bookie service placing money bets against the future whims of public taste. People are already funding books with kickstarter. B&M bookstores may not be the only things dying a slow death.

So what’s my point?

  • Amazon works because it’s a single system through which customers can order damned near any book that ever existed. Any system that competes with Amazon must do the same.
  • Digital and physical goods may not be sellable by the same firm, through the same retail channels. How many record stores have you been to lately? We may not like it, but it’s real.
  • Neither B&M bookstores nor conventional publishers are essential to keep the book business alive and vibrant. We may not like that either, but it’s true.
  • Publishing will probably become a basket of unbundled services. Big basket, big price. Smaller basket (if you can do some of the work yourself) smaller price. (I have an unfinished entry on this very subject.)
  • The real problem in bookselling is discovery. This is not a new insight, and however the book publishing industry rearranges itself, discovery will remain the core challenge. You need to learn something about this, and although I’ll have more to say about it here in the future, this is an interesting and pertinent book.

And to conclude, some odd thoughts:

  • The future of print-media bookselling may lie in used bookselling. Used bookstores seem to be doing OK, and it’s no great leap to imagine them taking a certain number of new books. Expect it to be a small number, and expect them to be sold without return privileges.
  • The book publishing business may fragment into segments that bear little business model resemblance to one another. Genre books work very well as ebooks. Technical books, not so much.
  • Change is not only inevitable, it’s underway. Brittle will be fatal.

Any questions?

Brittle Publishers

I spent a couple of hours yesterday catching up on posts I hadn’t seen before concerning the Amazon vs. Hachette conflict. Most of it was what I call “nyahh-nyahh” stuff, which is easy to spot and click past. My eyes rolled so hard I could see my own pineal gland. I mean, really, is a ten billion dollar corporation “the little guy”?

In truth, the conflict is and will remain a standoff, for two major reasons:

  • Amazon is doing nothing illegal. I’ve covered this in some detail before.
  • Hachette (and the rest of the Big Five) can’t get what they want (in essence, to form an ebook cartel) without running afoul (again) of US antitrust law. (See the above link.)

So there’s nothing left to do but wage a PR war. This was The Latest Thing for awhile, though I think everybody is rapidly losing interest, probably because it’s really hard to make people feel sorry for James Patterson or Steven King. Calls for compromise will fail, as long as “compromise” remains what it is in today’s political sphere:

  • Unconditional surrender of the Wholly Evil Other (WEO) to My Tribe;
  • Self-humiliation of the WEO on national media, with apologies for existing;
  • A pledge by the WEO to do everything My Tribe tells it to do while quietly dismantling itself and vanishing.

What I found fascinating about yesterday’s session is that nobody is talking about what the Big Five should be doing, which is competing with Amazon. Duuhh. In wondering why, I was reminded of a phenomenon I read about twenty or thirty years ago: brittle thinking. In a business context, brittle thinking appears when an organization has been doing things its own way for so long that it literally can’t imagine any change that wouldn’t destroy it. My theory is that brittle thinking is a consequence of narratives that we tell and repeat to ourselves until they become a sort of Holy Writ that cannot be challenged, lest the world end. The older a business is, the more vulnerable it is to brittle thinking. This may be why so many successful companies eventually fail. A narrative, like a habit, is a cable. The Big Five are all tied up in their own cables, and have become what I call brittle publishers.

The Big Five could take on Amazon. They could even win. They probably won’t, because they may be too brittle to imagine the changes that will be necessary. I’ve refined my thinking on this, and will offer a few points, aimed squarely at the foreheads of the Brittles:

  • Break the Snowflake Mindset. Publishing is just a business. It has its quirks, like any other business. There is nothing magical or inherently special about it.
  • Get out of Manhattan and San Francisco. The Brittles’ mantra that nobody outside Manhattan knows anything about publishing is hooey. I used to run Arizona’s largest book publishing company from a dodgy industrial park in North Scottsdale. My fixed costs were probably a third (or less) of what they would have been in Manhattan. My staffers, furthermore, were nothing short of brilliant. If it can be done in Scottsdale, it can be done in Omaha, Denver, Des Moines, or any other mid-sized heartland city. Hell, I bet I could do it in Cozad, Nebraska.
  • Eliminate DRM completely. Many have commented that DRM was what caused the platform lock-in that gave control of the ebook market to Amazon. Yup. And it was the publishers that demanded that DRM. The only way to reduce piracy to manageable levels is to make the product cheap, good, and easily purchased. Oh–and don’t try to claw back what the honest customers have paid for, or you’ll just be giving them a full ride to Pirate University.
  • And now, the biggie: Create an electronic retailer to rival Amazon.

Huh? What? Am I crazy?

Of course. I’m an SF writer. Tune in tomorrow, boys and girls, for our next exciting episode!

Odd Lots

Daywander

CornRoastJeffCarol1969-500Wide.jpg

Last Thursday was 45 years since the magical night I met Carol. The earth moved for both of us; we just didn’t know what it meant yet. I was walking into walls for weeks thereafter. Carol, being generally more sensible, was determined not to lose her head, but she could tell almost immediately that I was, well, different. How many other boys would set up a home-made 100-pound telescope in her driveway to show her the stars? As it happened, I won her with science, and she won me the same way. I’ve told the whole story here and won’t recap, except to say that my father was right: Love grows out of friendship. There really isn’t any other way to do it, unless you’re willing to settle (as so many seem to) for mere infatuation.

On July 31, 2019 it’ll be 50 years, and that is gonna be a party and a half.

_…_

Two Readers - 500 Wide.jpg

I jumped into e-readers fairly early, back in January 2007, with the original Sony PRS-500. It put me off e-ink for another seven years. I read a fair number of books with it, but the display only really excelled in direct sunlight. Since I read in a comfy chair under lamps that aren’t always as bright as I prefer, the gadget’s lack of contrast made me nuts. I soon went back to reading ebooks on IBM’s flawed but prescient X41 Tablet PC Convertible, which I used (generally for nothing else) until I bought a Nook Color at the beginning of 2012.

Fast forward to yesterday. (Now there’s a book title!) I came back from the mailbox at a dead run, with my new Kindle Paperwhite clutched tight in my right hand. Seven years is a long time in this business. I should have guessed that e-ink would improve. Optimistic as I am, I would have guessed short. The display is fantastic, in part due to seven years’ improvement in e-ink technology, and in part to the fact that the Paperwhite’s display is illuminated to keep it from depending completely on incident light. As with tablets and smartphones, you can actually read it under the covers in the dark. No flashlight required. (See above, which doesn’t do justice to the actual contrast between the two displays.)

Amazon has the ebook thing figured out: Make the products good, cheap, and effortless to buy. I had the Paperwhite out of the box for probably three minutes before I went online (through Wi-Fi; my unit does not have cell network capability) and bought two books in less than thirty seconds: Chuck Ott’s new novel The Floor of the World , and the Dover collection Oscar Wilde’s Wit and Wisdom . I’ve been a Nook guy for a couple of years, but that may change. We’ll see, as I explore the Paperwhite over the next few weeks.

Why did I buy yet another ebook reader? The Nook Color is actually pretty damned good, and my Transformer Prime is even better, at least for sideloaded books. However, I’m about to begin formatting my back catalog as ebooks, and I need to be able to test Kindle books (especially the newish KF8 format) on a real Kindle.

_…_

ESR recently posted a blog entry that won’t make him many friends in conventional SF publishing, but he’s on to something: We may be overstating the influence of tribal politics in the current SF culture wars. There is a huge difference between saying that characterization and literary writing are valuable, and insisting with rolled-back eyes that they’re all that matter. You know my perspective, at least on what defines SF: It’s the ideas. (Note the point that I make in the last comment; to that extent, I agree with ESR and did so a whole year before he made the point. I take my thiotimoline every morning, like all good hard SF writers should.)

Now, I am not taking up the character of Oscar Wilde in The Molten Flesh as a mere shortcut to literary acceptance. I have reasons, and I’m starting to think I need to explain those reasons fairly soon. Don’t worry; my intent is to stuff that yarn so full of ideas that they spill out onto the floor when you open it. It’s just what I do.

_…_

Finally, if any of you have any impressions or tips on Google Hangouts, I’d like to hear them. I’m about to implement virtual meetings for the Front Range Bichon Frise Club, and Hangouts looks like my best bet so far. (Skype has been off the table for over three years.)

Odd Lots

In Search of the Great Unifier

I’ve been in book publishing since long before there were ebooks. Print was always primary, and you saw to print first. Once ebooks became practical, ebooks were derived from print book content. The tools were dicey, and the renderers (in ebook readers and apps) were very dicey. (I think they still are. Will any common ebook reader render a drop-cap correctly? If so, let me know. I have yet to see one that does.) The way publishing is currently evolving, this has to change. Ebooks are becoming the afterthought that wags the industry, and print, where it survives at all, looks to become an extra-cost option.

I’ve been watching for that change for some time, while continuing to use the same system I learned in the 1990s. I write and edit in Word, and then do layout and print image generation in InDesign, which I’ve used since V1.0. I’m willing to change the apps I use to generate books of both kinds, but it’s got to be worth my while.

So far, it hasn’t been. I do intuit that we may be getting close.

What rubbed my nose in all this is my recent project to clean up and re-issue my novel The Cunning Blood in ebook format. Although it was published in late 2005, I actually wrote the book in 1998 and 1999. Even when you’re 62, sixteen years is a long time. I’ve become a better writer since then, and beyond a list of typos I’ve accumulated some good feedback from readers about booboos and awkwardnesses in the story that should be addressed in any reissue. So the adventure begins.

There’s a common gotcha in the way I create books: Final corrections to the text in a layout need to be recaptured when you return to manuscript to prepare a new edition. I was in a hurry and careless back in 2005. I made literally dozens of changes to the layout text but not to the Word file. To recapture those changes to the manuscript I’ve had to go from the layout back to a Word file, which with InDesign, at least, is not easy. I don’t intend to make that mistake again.

That said, avoiding the mistake may be difficult. Word processors are marginal layout programs, and layout programs are marginal word processors. The distinction is really artificial in this era of eight-core desktops. There’s no reason that one program can’t maintain two views into a document, one for editing and one for layout. The marvel is that nobody’s succeeded in doing this. My only guess is that until very recently, publishing drew a fairly bright line between editing and layout, with separate practitioners on each side of the line. Few individuals did both. What attempts I’ve seen are shaped by that line.

Consider InCopy. Adobe introduced InCopy with CS1. It’s a sort of allied word processor for InDesign. It never caught on and is no longer part of CS. (Only one book was ever published about InCopy CS2, which is the surest measure of failure on the part of an app from a major vendor.) I have CS2 and can guess why: InCopy requires a great deal of what my Irish grandmother would call kafeutherin’ to transfer copy between the two apps. InCopy was designed for newspaper work, where a lot of different writers and editors contribute to a single project. I consider it it a multiuser word processor, for which I have no need at all. For very small press and self-publishing, we need to go in the opposite direction, toward unification of layout and editing.

There is a commercial plug-in for InCopy called CrossTalk that sets up InDesign and InCopy for single practictioner use, but the damned thing costs $269 and may no longer support CS2.

I’m still looking. A couple of my correspondents recommended I try Serif’s PagePlus. I might have done so already, but the firm’s free version installs crapware toolbars that most people consider malware. The paid version does not; however, I’ll be damned if I’ll drop $100 on spec just to test something.

I know a number of people who have laid out whole books entirely in Word, and I could probably do that. With Acrobat CS2, I could generate page image PDFs from a Word file. Atlantis edits Word files and generates good-quality .epub and .mobi files from .docx. That’s not a bad toolchain, if what you want is a chain. I already have a chain. What I want is a single edit/layout app that generates page images, .epubs, and .mobis.

Etc. The tools are definitely getting better. Solutions exist, and one of these days soon I’m going to have to choose one. As I said, I’m still looking. I’ll certainly hear suggestions if you have some.