April 12, 2006

What to expect from today's agents and editors

The Columbia Journalism Review covers much more than the state of the printed word in magazines and papers, or what takes up broadcast time and Web space in news outlets. The CJR has published articles as wide-ranging as an essay on the trials of editing gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson to a sobering look at the heavy lifting during the months after your book is accepted.

The Writer's League of Texas has its Agents and Editors Conference coming up, a meeting where my writing group practice, The Writer's Workshop, will have an exhibitor's table in the Capitol View Terrace at the Capitol Marriott Hotel. To set expectations correctly about winning an agent or editor's attention, I offer this pointer.

A CJR article titled The Education of Stacy Sullivan chronicles the struggle of this first-time fiction author, a reporter for The New York Times who turned her Kosovo war dispatches into a non-fiction book. (80 percent of all books published are non-fiction titles, by the way, accounting for the four-fold increase in published titles just since 1991.) Sullivan signed with an agent who'd read an article she'd written for Mirabella. Esmond Harmsworth got her a book contract with St. Martin's Press, a press that often takes a flyer on small books from first-time book writers.

As that Agents and Editors conference comes closer on my calendar here in Austin, I read the CJR's advice on agents closely:
These days, agents set the bar for entering the world of publishing. There was a time when getting an agent was the easy part, when even without a polished proposal, an agent might be willing to take a risk on a writer who showed promise and to develop an idea with the writer. And although agents such as these might still exist, they, like editors who actually mold a text, are becoming exceedingly rare.

This makes sense. If it is harder to find a publishing house to acquire a serious book, then agents, who depend for their livelihood on selling books to these houses, should be more reluctant to spend their time on tomes that may never find their place next to a Frappuccino at a Barnes & Noble café. Harmsworth is not alone when he says, “I don’t take on a writer unless we know exactly where the idea is going."
Agents are hired to look out for the business aspects of the writing craft. It's reasonable to expect them to focus on what will sell, and how to package it for a publisher's tastes. The surprise to Sullivan was how little St. Martin's was able to do to help her book become better.
At a celebratory deal-signing lunch, Sullivan told her editor that she was hungry for a lot of editing. The editor said she hoped this would be the first of many lunches. As it turned out, throughout the next three years, Sullivan would see her editor only once more (by chance, as she stopped by St. Martin’s to drop off some photographs). For a book like Sullivan’s, not a high-priority acquisition, this was not unusual. What it meant, though, was that she was about to enter the solitary cave of book writing without so much as a pocket flashlight.
In this, St. Martin's is hardly alone: Much like the movie business, books have a different life in the hands of independent and university press publishers. Those "producers" have less marketing clout, shorter runs, and less compensation for authors than the "studios" of major presses. But it seems these indie writers won't get left in the dark with their editing, either. The CJR article says that "there is nonetheless an overwhelming trend in publishing of editors who don’t really edit. And for the most part this is a function of the increasingly market-driven aspect of the business."

That's something to think about when an agent steers a project toward more money from a bigger publisher, one keen for massive markets. Which might be a good reason to skip the agents who only want to do the big deals — unless you really like being left alone to do your work.

March 01, 2006

Windows wishing, aided by virus vendors

When your publishing platform gets pushed around in the press, unfairly, you might begin to see the mainstream prejudice against thinking different. Macs have far fewer virus problems than PCs running Windows. But it only takes one exploit to pull the Mac down to the Windows security level, apparently.

Despire dire stories in the press — especially in places like India and Australia, far from the North American media markets — nobody has any evidence of a security breach like Windows users suffer. Not yet. But the bone-headed mainstream press, as well as the Windows users already battered by exploits, equate these new leaks to water pouring across a spillway.

Typical is a brainless headline like "First virus seen targeting Apple computers." Wrong; not the first virus, just the first serious security hole in years. It also needs a specific browser, set to a default state that Apple needs to fix. You can fix it as a Mac user with two clicks. But it is an exploit, now further exposed by security vendors.

Meanwhile, those security vendors, bless 'em, have their sights set on a new market, relatively untapped: Mac users. We've secured our terminals here, logged away from our admin accounts. But our vendor Intego has posted an update, too.

So where's the stories of millions of desktops infected or vandalized by a virus? Oh yeah — over in the Windows marketplace. You'd think the level of dread over there would be enough to float the virus vendors' boats. But we continue to be warned, not by folks who have no-cost solutions, but by the companies who stand to profit from our need to secure our publishing platforms.

February 22, 2006

An e-mail tax to publish, or "You've got [paid] mail!"

America Online, gateway and de-facto publisher for so many people who go online, will now be taking money to pass its members their mail. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is up in arms over the AOL plan to let bulk mailers pay to have their messages delivered straight to a preferred in-box of an AOL customer.
Once a pay-to-speak system like this gets going, it will be increasingly difficult for people who don't pay to get their mail through. The system has no way to distinguish between ordinary mail and bulk mail, spam and non-spam, personal and commercial mail. It just gives preference to people who pay.
Non-profits like The Association for Cancer Online Resources are steamed about this, too, because they publish their messages by way of e-mail. Heck, a lot of us do, trying to build a practice or get notice for our publications. The belief now is that un-paid e-mails to AOL customers are going to get rough treatment, like a streetwalker pretending that what you're about to embark on is "a date." Unpaid messages are mail, alright. Just not the kind you'd take home to meet mom.

MoveOn.org is mounting an e-mail campaign (some irony there) to make AOL change its mind. It's referencing reports in The New York Times (which in another bit of irony, was among the publishers testing the GoodMail service that will make the AOL scheme possible) and from L-Soft, which makes the Listserv software that drives so many public interest newsgroups.

February 21, 2006

Good Morning's bright humor

One of my favorite moments each morning is scanning the headlines from Good Morning Silicon Valley. John Paczkowski pens this wicked, arch look at the top companies' tech news each workday, with plenty of humor embedded. Much of it appears in the headlines for each of the four or five items in the e-mail/blog. For example, a story about Google's ploy to enter the search engine derby in China — by way of censoring searches on things like "democracy" — got this headline: It's like watching little Anakin grow up to be Darth Vader. So much for not being evil, Google.

There's so much hubris, posturing and vapor-work going on in the computer biz. GMSV, run by The San Jose Mercury News (known as the Merc out in the Valley), is a great deflator. You can browse the the high tech lampooning at the GMSV blog, along with real reporting, as well as sign up to get a reminder e-mail in your box each workday. Even if you subscribe to a boatload of e-mail newsletters like I do, this will be the funniest one you read about compters.

One wonderful bonus of each GMSV e-mail: A link to something offsite, but just as funny. For example, Google's grab at the Chinese market, as well as the rolling over by Yahoo and others, is the subject of this Flash cartoon — an ad for iRepress.

February 20, 2006

When myspace becomes his space

News from the world of the Web, where more than 50 million people belong to social community myspace.com: Be prepared to see even more of your online neighbors. Perhaps one of them will have a staple through her navel.

Playboy has announced that it is searching for females who are myspace.com denizens to appear in an upcoming "Women of myspace" pictorial. Playboy has done this thing often enough before that its editor can compare response in this search to prior "Women of" pictorials. A story in MediaPost tells about the latest success at finding models, presumably of legal age.

"This ranks up there with the best searches we've done," said Editor John Thomas. "We'll probably shoot more than we usually do. We've been overwhelmed with the number and quality of submissions that we've gotten." He estimated that the site could have up to 30 different young women in the feature.

Face it, people want to be noticed and get connected. That's a primary attraction for myspace, although MediaPost notes a story about a 14 year old in New Jersey who was allegedly murdered by a man in his 20s she'd met through myspace.com.

That dangerous outcome would probably make myspace no different, really, than McDonalds, the Big 12 Conference, Baylor University — all places where murder has taken place. Oh, and all subjects of previous Playboy "Women of" pictorials.

It's not that much of a challenge to find posing in myspace, anyway.

With 50 million members, though, some of it is bound to be unclothed. What's attracting Playboy is the same thing luring any other media baron: A link to the glorious 14-34 demographic, the heartland of places like myspace.

Of course, these pictures won't be of any hard-bodied men on myspace. This has the writers on Feministing not exactly outraged, but wondering if they could be co-opted by Playboy in the future on an unauthorized pictorial. Myspace, while taking Playboy ads, isn't exactly cooperating with the magazine on the project.

Wired tells us in a recent issue that hard-core Web addicts call the outside world, where people live, "the meatspace." Playboy's going to do its best to blur that distinction a little more with its pictorial.

Update, Feb. 22

News Corp., makers of your friendly Fox News network, said in a Wall Street Journal article that it's trying to protect myspace users. But hey, who knows about safety better than Fox News, the network usually trying to scare the bejesus out of us?

From the Journal:
[Myspace] also is considering limiting access to certain groups, such as "swingers," to those over 18; blocking search terms that predators could use to locate kids; and encouraging users between 14 and 16 to make their profiles "private," meaning they can only be viewed by people they already know.

"We're going to take some pretty dramatic steps to provide industry-leading safety," says Ross Levinsohn, president of News Corp.'s Fox Interactive Media unit, which includes MySpace.

It is a delicate operation for News Corp. because the media group wants to retain MySpace's cool factor.

February 18, 2006

Sony wants to open up a book reader empire

After being beaten to the starting pole by Apple's iPod phenomenon, Sony will take a stab at another consumer media market this spring. The electronics giant that gave us the Walkman — remember Walkmans, those portable radio and tape-playing marvels of the 90s? — will serve up the Sony Reader. This gadget that will sell for about $50 less than the biggest iPod ($349), carries about 160 books, turns 7,500 pages on a single battery charge, and lets readers shop online in the new Sony Connect store for bestsellers and other titles.

It's those other titles that most interest me, since Sony seems to be hinting about making its Connect store a place where a writer might publish a novel or non-fiction book. The prices in its teasing screen-shot (the store's not open yet) show a $19.95 cost for Freakanomics. That's more than $6 higher than the cost at Amazon.com for a digital copy of the book that you read in Acrobat on any computer. Sony will have some work to do in order to get competitive on content. It was the content rights management that killed off the company's chance at catching Apple's wave it began with the iPod tsunami. You could download music from Sony, but good luck at sharing it. It was in a peculiar format, too, and the only way to play your music at first was to convert it to Sony's.

I don't know if Sony's figured out that last roadblock. Fine print on the Sony site says you can read PDF Acrobat files on the Reader, but only if you convert them to the BBeBook format. Same for blogs and newsreader content. Heck, most people don't even know how to use a newsreader, let alone convert its content.

You can't fault the hardware that Sony has built in its efforts. The Reader is lightweight, stylish and small enough to be treated like a paperback. It's got MP3 playing capabilities, so long as your music isn't protected like the tunes you buy at the iTunes music store. Sony is making a big deal of its new screen technology, which is supposed to make reading a digital screen just as comfortable as reading a book.

In the end, it's how many songs or stories or movies you can download that will lift up a new idea like the Sony Reader. If Sony would see the vast collection of under-published novels and books as its new heartland of content, it could offer something not well served already by Amazon and standard PCs. Of course, you'd have to be able to buy these cutting-edge, noveau novels at a fraction of the bestsellers' costs. That won't matter to the writers. We should still make our $3 a book in royalties on this deal, since the "publisher" won't have to buy ink, paper or ship cardboard cartons of our books to the booksellers.

February 08, 2006

Spreading the word on low-fat's failure

There's manna for the media today. News this morning about the failure of low-fat diets to improve health over a 10-year study of postmenopausal women is like a good hurricane: something everybody can understand and have feelings about. So many of us, my house included, have been working hard to get used to the taste of less fat in our food. After the food companies reeled us in with LOW FAT on the labels, they grabbed us all again in the last two years with LOW CARB. By now, 2 percent milk seems like a splurge in my fridge.

That's going to come undone in some households this week. Spend a few minutes with Google News by typing in Dr. Jules Hirsch, author of the National Institute for Health study — then look at all the spins the media is putting on 10 years of research. The comments range from, "This was bogus advice to begin with" to "Well, yes, the study showed no measureable benefit from eating less fat. But you shouldn't go nuts now."

Trouble is, a 10-year study is massive in medical research. Hardly any run that long. Some media outlets have found doctors who say, "well, they should have run the study longer to get results." Theories die hard.

I'd bet the freezers will be bare of Haagen Daz by the end of the week. Out on the San Francisco Chronicle Web site, the readers are already weighing in, so to speak, on being released from their fatless prisons. A typical letter, from Violet Lawton of Alameda:
I have been on a low-fat diet for about 30 years. Four years ago I had a heart attack. A year later, I had lung cancer and a pneumonectomy, so I believe the results of the National Institutes of Health study from bitter experience. It makes me mad that I could have had hot fudge sundaes all these years.
What's clear is that there's no silver bullet to health, despite what the food companies would promote on their packages. You gotta move, you gotta eat smart. A San Jose Mercury News story includes a quote from a Stanford researcher who says, "What we need to be thinking about is a healthy low-fat diet. We really need to hone in on getting nutritious foods into our diets.''

Of course, the coverage was so hurried at the Merc that the quote has a typo: "we really need to home in on..." And perhaps we do need to focus on the home, for those of us who are trying to eat more controlled meals.

Expect lots of coverage of the 49,000-woman study, poured like caramel over Natural Vanilla Bean Blue Bell. If there's some extra intelligence that surfaces, like adding exercise — well, maybe that's the jimmies over the top of this confection of liberation.