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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.

Odd Lots

Another Trip to an Alien Paradise

Jeff and Kite Punta Cana 500 Wide.jpg

Rumors of my abduction by aliens are at least a little exaggerated. My wife, as most of you know well, is an …otherworldly… beauty, and on my 62nd birthday she abducted me for another tropical vacation. Carol’s sister Kathy and our brother-in-law Bob were co-conspirators, and though the Dominican Republic is a bit of an alien environment (especially for white-bread boys like me) it was an alien world well worth visiting.

The east coast of the island is an area called Punta Cana, where the density of resorts approaches a weird sort of recreational singularity. We landed at Secrets Royal Beach and stayed there for a full week. Logistically, the trip was a polar opposite to our second honeymoon on Grand Cayman back in May: In the Caymans, we bought our own food, cooked, and kept house on our own steam in a rented beach condo. At the all-inclusive Secrets, well, they do pretty much everything except throw you in the pool, and I’m guessing that could be arranged.

Our phones didn’t work. Meh. Ask me if I care. We had to pay extra for Internet, which we used a lot less than we expected. (My increasingly cranky Win7 laptop didn’t help.) I gained four pounds, which for one week is close to a personal record. Much of that was due to the neverending pina coladas, I suspect. What wasn’t alcohol was sugar, and in truth (this being an all-inclusive) there wasn’t a great deal of alcohol in the drinks unless you knew how to ask for it. (We learned.)

Carol on Beach Punta Cana.jpg

The beach is spectacular. The white sand was like powder, soft, and for some reason never too hot to walk on, even in the brutal noonday sun. Some sea grass breaks loose from the bottom and washes onto the shore, but the beach tenders were constantly raking it up. The water was upstairs of 85 degrees. The resort has chairs under the palms and under dozens of hand-thatched tiki huts. Granted that this is their off-season, we had no trouble getting a hut when we wanted one.

The Secrets staff were wonderful, with particular mention of two: Angel and Marianny. Angel (a male waiter whose turf included our spot on the “lazy river” pool) was hilarious, and kept the drinks coming. Marianny worked at the beach grill, and she was gracious enough to help me remember my Spanish across the 41-year gulf since my last Spanish course. I wanted to say “bee” (abeja) and almost said “abuela” (grandmother.) Instead, I buzzed. She laughed, and told me the word. I could not for the life of me remember the word for “breakfast” (desayuno) and one word that I could say (conozco) I could not define. (It means “I know.” Heh.)

This was a (mild) problem throughout the week. I was never entirely sure whether the staff understood my questions, and therefore whether their answers reflected reality. Boy, I started wanting a book that would be a sort of second-gen Exam Cram for stuff you learned long ago and recall unevenly. Anybody want to buy a series? The first title will be Take Back Your Spanish. (The second might have been Take Back Your FORTH, but some things are best left forgotten.)

Pool Punta Cana.jpg

Americans at the resort were outnumbered (I’d guess 2 to 1) by Europeans and Canadians, and most of the people we spoke to were British, Irish, or Russian. I had abundant opportunity to play my private game of identifying overheard languages. We heard Russian, Polish, French, and probably Portuguese. Here and there I heard languages I had no clue about, though I think one was Turkish. Peculiar cultural gaps kept appearing. A middle-aged British woman asked me what sort of hat I was wearing (not the hat in the photo above) and seemed poleaxed by the idea of an indestructable terrycloth roll-up beach hat that (granted) looks like something made out of a washcloth. She wanted to know where I got it, but I’ve had it for at least 25 years and no longer recall. Another woman from the UK had never heard of Kaley Cuoco, even though she was a dead ringer. European women evidently wear bikinis well into their seventies, a species of courage that I much admire.

Carol and I remarked to one another that we may be the last people in the Industrialized West without tattoos.

The food was good. We ate most meals at the buffet, which had its quirks but was generally excellent. We had uneven luck with the a la carte restaurants. Language again intervened: I ordered a steak at the resort’s French restaurant, and asked for a glass of red wine. The waiter said there was only white wine. I said ok, I’ll take a glass of white wine. Then he returned with the bottle and poured me a glass of…red wine. The steak was terrific, and the mushroom orzo spectacular. The wine was workmanlike, and hey, however tangled the negotiation, I eventually got what I wanted.

There are all sorts of things to do there, almost none of which we did. People hanging from parasails were going by over the beach constantly. I like kites and brought two, but I don’t think I’d particularly enjoy riding one. You could also get rides on these little ultralight planes with inflatable pontoons, or, for more money, rides in real helicopters. The snorkling was not good unless you went out a lot farther than we wanted to go. (In the Caymans it was right off the beach.) So we bobbed in the ocean and paddled around the pool. I got another 150 pages through Richard Ellmann’s ginormous fine-print biography of Oscar Wilde. I now know that Wilde had a 17-inch neck and a 38 1/2 inch waistline. It’s that kind of biography, and took Ellmann twenty years to write. I hope to finish reading it in less.

Secrets is “adults-only” (which sounds disreputable but just means the kids are in the next resort over) but the definition of “adult” was slippery. There was deafening rappish tech/trance music and much twentysomething horseplay by the big pool all afternoon through mid-evening. Every time I turned around I was hearing Aloe Blacc’s technocountry (yes, I just made that up) hit “Wake Me Up When It’s All Over,” to the point where I was absently humming it over dinner. On Canada Day there was a marching band circling around the pool playing “O Canada,” whereas on the Fourth of July there was a hot dog eating contest and a big machine spraying soap foam all over the revelers in the pool. What this says about us and the Canadians (or how other cultures perceive us) is unclear.

All of this is to say that we had a great time doing exactly what we wanted to (splashing, reading, enjoying the company) and little of what we didn’t want to. The outing cost about a third of what a week in Hawaii would cost us. The plane ride was five hours, not eight or nine. It was hot. So? It was winter in Colorado until fairly recently. Heat still has some novelty value. Overall, I’d call the experience superb. Once the Polar Vortex starts landing on you (and it looks like it’s already begun in parts of the Midwest) we suggest getting a couple of tickets on a Frontier starship and heading to planet Punta Cana. Highly recommended.

Odd Lots

Stapling the Correct Battery to a Dead Horse

In the wake of Heartbleed there’s a whole lotta password changin’ going on, reawakening the always-lively discussion of what constitutes a strong password. Xkcd has a legendary answer to that as well: Correct horse battery staple. In other words, four randomly chosen words beats g0B!deEG00kk. The information theory explanation is that there is more entropy in those four random words than in a quirky misspelling of “gobbledegook.” Xkcd reminds us that if you can picture a horse asking if that’s a battery staple, those four words are also hugely easier to remember.

Bruce Schneier disagrees, and (as always) he lays out a good case. His password-generation scheme is certainly harder to crack than choosing four shortish random words. However, some scorch spot in my genes makes it hard to use a mnemonic like that. Remembering passwords is key, since a password that’s miserably difficult to remember simply won’t be used. Nonetheless, if you can do it, it’s golden. There are traps, however. Some years ago, when I first had an account that allowed (almost) arbitrarily long passwords, I used a favorite line from Tennyson:

Down along the beach I wandered, cherishing a youth sublime

That was in fact an excellent passphrase for a couple of reasons, one of which was unintentional. (Can you guess? Answer below.) Using Bruce’s method combining the initials of this line and the one that follows gives us:

datbiw,cays-wtftosatlrot

I’ll bet that’s damned hard to crack. However, it took a lot of work to extract that from the text, given that I had to extract it every time I typed it in. I could actually type both lines in full twice in the time it took me to extract the initials once. So as password generators go, it’s not my favorite. Furthermore, I intuit that automating initial-extraction from passphrases findable online (like lines from famous poems) would be trivial.

Once I learned a little more about dictionary-driven password cracking, I stopped using lines memorized out of famous poems. Given the size of modern hard drives, and the boggling number of offline hashes that modern GPUs can calculate per second, having a dictionary of all lines from virtually all famous poems, plays, and novels would be a computational blip. (Text is small.)

That said, the passphrase above is actually stronger than you’d think, because, well…it’s wrong. That’s not how the line goes in Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall.” The correct line is:

Here about the beach I wander’d, nourishing a youth sublime

Assuming I hadn’t spilled the beans here, I might actually have gone back to using it, because, having used it for a couple of years, it got pretty well set in my memory. Alas, consistent misremembrances of this quality are scarce. Poetry can work, however, since structures of rhyme and meter make poems easier to remember. It can work if you write the poems yourself. Your mileage will vary. I’m oddly good at both writing poetry (which doesn’t mean that it’s good poetry) and then remembering it. In fact, bad poetry is lots easier to remember. Just now, this line popped out of nowhere:

“Piffle!” said the Golmodox. “His niffled head is all but rocks.”

This is actually two reasonably strong passwords, or one if you’re paranoid. What makes them strong? Two of the words are made up. Words that don’t actually exist make cracking miserable. Poetry makes phrases easy to memorize. So sit yourself down, my writer friend, read some Lewis Carroll to get your brain revving in the right direction, and write a nonense poem. Read it several times until you can recite it out loud without hesitation, and then encrypt it (strongly). Choose a line from the poem and make it a password. As you need passwords, choose other lines from the poem. When you run out of lines, write a new poem.

Nothing is uncrackable…but when you’re the highest fruit on the tree, you’re not going to get picked any time soon.

Odd Lots

The Manhattan Hardcover Conundrum

Judging by the online commotion, people are still arguing about whether Amazon or Hachette (and by implication, the rest of the Big Five) will win the current fistfight over ebook pricing. The media has generally positioned Hachette as the plucky little guy trying to take on Saurazon by getting everybody in the Shire to stand up, face east, and yell, “Huzzah!” It’s not that easy, heh. But then again, nothing is.

My position? I think the fight may already be over. The Big Five lost. I say that for several reasons:

  1. The Feds are against them. The whole fight is about how to keep ebook prices from falling, which in antitrust law hurts the public and becomes actionable when producers collude. Even the appearance of collusion will start that hammer on its way down again. Hachette has one leg in a sling before the kicking contest even begins.
  2. The public has already decided that ebooks can’t be sold at hardcover prices. In fact, this decision was made years ago. Although the issues are subtle, it’s completely true that producing ebooks is considerably less costly than producing print books, especially hardcovers. What publishers have tried to declare the floor ($10) is probably now the ceiling. That ship has not only sailed, it’s folded into hyperspace.
  3. Monopsony power (one buyer facing many sellers; e.g., Amazon) is not illegal. I’ve read in several places that Section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act does not outlaw monopsonistic practices unless they are acquired by exclusionary conduct. There’s not a lot of settled case law about what sorts of conduct are considered exclusionary by a goods retailer, as opposed to an employer. Future cases may change this, but it’s going to be a near-vertical climb.
  4. Virtually all recent technology works in Amazon’s favor. Ebook readers, cheap tablets, fast ubiquitous broadband, POD machinery, thermonuclear sales data collection, online reviews, you name it: Amazon has almost no legacy baggage.
  5. Almost everything works against print publishing generally, and the Big Five in particular. I’ll come back to this.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about the whole business. In general, letting publishers set their own prices via agency agreements with retailers is a good thing because it allows startups to undercut them. The value to the public of any individual publisher (or conglomerate) is low, as long as startups have access to markets and can replace them. Access to bricks’n’mortar retail shelves has always been and still is tricky. Access to other retail channels has never been easier. If I were ten years younger I might be tempted to try again.

Now, why is Big Print in such trouble? Somebody could write a book (and I wish Mike Shatzkin in particular would) but here are some hints:

  1. Trade book print publishing is a big-stakes wager against public taste. It’s hard to predict what the public will want even in categories like tech. Literary fiction? Egad. Guess wrong, and you’ve lost what might be a million-dollar advance plus the full cost of the press run and any promotional efforts.
  2. The economics of trade book publishing are diabolical. Trade books are basically sold on consignment, and can be returned by the retailer at any time for a full refund. This makes revenue projection a very gnarly business. Books assumed to be sold may not stay sold.
  3. Online used bookselling reduces hardcover sales. Buying a hardcover bestseller soon after release is a sort of impatience tax. The impatient recover some of the tax by listing the book on personal retailing sites like eBay or Amazon Marketplace at half the cover price. The patient get a basically new book for half-off, and then sometimes sell it again…for half the cover price. This would not be possible if online searches of used book inventory weren’t fast and easy.
  4. Related to the above: Remaindering teaches the public that new hardcovers are cheap. Most print books are eventually remaindered. The remainders are generally sold online for as little as three or four bucks. They’re new old stock books with a marker swipe on one edge. The more publishers guess wrong about press runs (see Point #1) the more books are remaindered, and the more hardcovers lose their mystique and (more important) their price point.
  5. Fixed costs for the Big Five are…Big. There is a very strong sort of “Manhattan culture” in trade book publishing. Big publishers are generally in very big, very expensive cities, which carry high premiums for office space and personnel. My experience in book publishing suggests that none of that is necessary, but as with Silicon Valley, it’s a cultural assumption that You Have To Be There, whatever it costs.

Bottom line: The Big Five need the $25 (and up) hardcover price point to maintain the business model they’ve been evolving for 75 years. If hardcover sales ramp down, they need ebook sales to make up the difference. Ebooks are cheaper to produce and manage (i.e., no print/bind costs, shipping, warehousing, or returns) and it’s quite possible that a $20 ebook price point could stand in for a $30 hardcover price point. However, Amazon has trained the public to feel that an ebook shouldn’t cost more than $10. Indies have put downward pressure on even that, and the demystification of hardcovers via used and remainder sales hasn’t helped.

What options do the Big Five have? Culture is strong: They’re not going to cut the glitz and get out of Manhattan. (That may not be invariably true; Wiley US moved from Manhattan to New Jersey some years ago. Wiley, however, does not publish trade fiction and has never been deep into glitz. I doubt, furthermore, that they would have moved to Omaha.) A reliable midlist might help, but midlist titles now exist mostly as ebooks. Most publishers, big and small, have long since outsourced design and production to third parties, and are already doing a great deal of printing in China. Beyond that, I just don’t know.

Don’t misunderstand: My sympathies are with publishers, if not specifically large publishers. I was in the trenches and I know how it works. Books can only be made so cheap before quality suffers, especially ambitious nonfiction like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. We may be in a race-to-the-bottom that cannot be won by either side. What I’d really like is honesty in all quarters about the issues and (especially) the consequences. Rah-rah tribalism helps no one.

Both sides have points in their favor. Amazon has done something not well-appreciated: It’s made it possible for self-publishers and indie publishers to reach readers. Physical bookstores have long been barriers to entry in publishing. Quality remains a problem, but hey, is that a new problem? Traditional publishers claim that they guarantee quality, even though “quality” is a very tough thing to define. Most of my life I’ve abandoned a fair number of print books every year as unreadable, not because I dislike the approach or the topic but because the writing is bad. This is supposedly the value that publishers add. The adding is, shall we say, uneven.

My suggestions sound a little bit banal, even to me:

  • Publishers need to pay more attention to objective quality. Bad writing is a fixable problem; you either don’t buy it, or you fix it after you buy it if you judge the work important enough to go forward. This is the edge traditional publishers have over the indies.
  • Amazon needs to consider that book publishing is an ecosystem in which many players have important roles. Market share won’t matter if you kill huge segments of the market. They may not care; there’s plenty of money in selling thumb drives and diapers.
  • Readers need to meditate on the realities of writing. Writers need to be paid. Cover price isn’t everything. Quality matters.
  • The hardcover as the core of trade publishing must die. Hardcovers need to become a luxury option. If I read an ebook or paperback of a truly excellent work, I may want a hardcover, and we’re very close to having the machinery to do hardcover onesies at reasonable cost. I’ve upgraded to hardcover many times, but generally on the used market, since by the time I read a paperback the hardcover may already have been remaindered and unavailable new.
  • Publishers need to ask themselves if Manhattan and San Francisco really deliver benefits comcomitant to their astronomical cost.
  • Amazon is a given. The Internet leans toward channel capture. If it weren’t them it would be someone else. Grumble though we might, we need to start there and figure out the best way forward.

In the meantime, remember: There are countless sides to every argument, and no easy answers to anything. You are always wrong. And so am I. Get used to it.

Odd Lots

Print and Ebook from the Same PDF

I’ve been tinkering with a recast of my 1993 book Borland Pascal 7 From Square One since 2008, for the excellent FreePascal compiler. One reason I set the project aside after a year or so is that I wanted to see if the Lazarus IDE would mature a little. I had originally planned to use the text-mode IDE bundled with the compiler, but it had what I considered dealbreaker bugs. Besides, if Lazarus became usable, I could create a tutorial for it as well. Lazarus is now at V1.2.2 and (at least to the limits of my tests so far) works beautifully. I’ve gone back to the FreePascal From Square One project, yanking out all mention of the text-mode IDE, and deliberately tilting it toward a prequel tutorial for a future book on OOP and creating GUI apps in Lazarus, Delphi-style.

One of my goals with the project has been to create a single PDF that can be used as both an ebook and a print image. I’ve experimented with implementing it as an epub, with disastrous results. Layouts containing lots of art just don’t work as reflowable text. On the other hand, PDF images are painful to read and navigate unless the reader device can render a full page legibly. Back in 2008, we didn’t even have iPads yet, and the target display for my PDF ebooks was my 2005-era IBM X41 Tablet PC. You could read the PDF…barely. I spun a couple of page layouts that used smaller pages and larger fonts. They were readable, but looked bizarre (almost like children’s books) when printed to paper.

I left it there for some years. Come 2010 we met the iPad, with the multitude of Android slabs hot on its heels. Displays improved radically. I got an Asus Transformer Prime in 2012, and found the 1280 X 800 display startling. I took the page design that I had originally created for my X41 and tweaked it a little. The page size is A4 rather than letter or standard computer trim, for three reasons:

  • Whereas some POD houses can give you computer trim, sheets aren’t readily available at retail and thus can’t be printed at home.
  • A4 paper is the default paper size in Europe, where I suspect that most of my readers will be. It can be had in the US from the larger office stores, and modern laser printers will take it. Lacking A4 paper, the book can be printed to letter sheets with only a little bit of reduction.
  • A4 paper is taller and narrower than letter, and maps a little better to the wide-format displays that dominate the non-iPad tablet segment.

The layout still looks odd to me. Half a century of reading has made me used to fine print, so the larger type jars a little. However, the layout has plenty of room for technical art and screenshots, and full pages read very well on the Transformer Prime. (This is not true on the much smaller Nook Color.)

With print publishers struggling terribly, I’m guessing that this is one possible future for technical publishing: new layouts that allow the same PDFs to be either printed or rendered as ebooks. More and more specialty books that I buy are POD (I know how to spot them) and the customary high prices on computer books leave plenty of margin to make POD copies profitable.

You can help me out a little. The ebook is far from finished, but I’ve posted the PDF here. I’d be curious to know how legibly it renders on other tablets, particularly those smaller than 10″ but with 1280 X 800 or better resolution. Again, it’s not a complete book and there are plenty of typos and layout glitches in it. What I want to know is whether or not technical readers will find it usable on modern tablets. Thanks in advance for any feedback you can provide.