Site Seeing: Daniel Menaker

One additional nugget I managed to recover while fixing broken links was a post on the Barnes & Noble site, written by Daniel Menaker. Who is Daniel Menaker? Well, at the time I knew almost nothing about him, to the point that I described him — hilariously in retrospect — as “another dirt-dishing voice” in the publishing industry. (Saving me somewhat, I also noted that he was a former Editor-in-Chief at Random House and Fiction Editor at The New Yorker.)

Re-reading the B&N post after five years, however, I found myself more curious about Mr. Menaker than about publishing. A quick search led me to a memoir he’d written, titled My Mistake, which was published in 2013. Interestingly, in reading that book I found that the context of Mr. Menaker’s life gave more weight to the views he expressed in the B&N post, as well as those in that book and in other writings I discovered.

Now, it may be that confirmation bias played a part in my reaction because much of what Mr. Menaker had to say jibed with my own conclusions, but I don’t think that’s the case. Not only do I think he would disagree with some of my grousing here on Ditchwalk, but my interest in understanding the publishing industry has decreased so much in the past five years that I now consider such questions moot at best. (For example, five years ago I would have deemed this story important. Today it seems meaningless.)

Still, as an outsider corroboration is useful when you’re assessing any human endeavor, to say nothing of doing so from the relative orbit of, say, Neptune. In reading My Mistake I found a fair bit of corroboration for conclusions I’d previously reached, yet after I finished the book I also decided to see what others had to say as a hedge against my own potential bias. That impetus quickly led to this review in The New York Times, which caused me to stare agape at my screen as I read what seemed to be a bizarro-world take on the same text I’d just digested:

Make no mistake, this is an angry book. Menaker is angry at himself for his character flaws (a flippant one-­upmanship that alienates others), and he is thin-skinned, remembering every slight. As a former executive editor in chief of Random House, he is proud to have nurtured writers who went on to win literary acclaim (the Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout, the National Book Award winner Colum McCann). Menaker is understandably upset over being ousted from that job in 2007, but what seems to truly infuriate him is being shunned by the publisher, Gina Centrello, during a transition period.

I honestly don’t know what that reviewer is talking about. My Mistake is not an angry book, unless your definition of anger includes expressing an opinion. And no, Mr. Menaker is not infuriated about being shunned by anyone — or at least not anyone in the publishing biz. If anything, he’s infuriated by his own serial incapacity to connect with other human beings in his life, though over time — and particularly in the writing and structure of My Mistake — I think he belatedly squares things with his departed father.

Then again, that’s the publishing industry in a nutshell. You can spend a year or two writing a book, yet when it’s reviewed — in this case, by no less than the self-anointed consensus cultural steward of commercial literary criticism — you can still end up being cleaved by a reviewer with an axe to grind, or mischaracterized because of a reviewer’s blind spots or personal acidity. (If you also worked in publishing for a time you might even be the recipient of some score settling.)

Read more ]

Site Seeing: Laura Resnick

Speaking of reclaiming busted links, one benefit I didn’t anticipate was that chasing down lost pages put me back in touch with information and sources I previously found valuable. For example, while I was ultimately thwarted in my ability to recover an excellent post by Laura Resnick concerning cover design, digging around on the web for that missing content led to two informative discoveries.

First, I eventually found what I think is a more recent discussion of the same subject here. (The first link at the bottom of that interview is the same busted link I was trying to track down.) Second, when I went to Laura’s new site I found a great resource page that every independent author should bookmark and peruse.

Sure, the fact that I don’t have a resources page suddenly makes me look very bad in comparison, but that’s all the more reason to visit Laura’s site and check it out.

— Mark Barrett

2015 Iowa Poetry Writing MOOC

Several of the busted links I recently splinted together involved last year’s poetry and fiction MOOC’s from the University of Iowa. In tracking down those errant U of I pages — or at least the most recent placeholders — I ran across mention of this year’s free offerings.

Fortuitously, the 2015 version of How Writers Write Poetry just opened for registration on April 13th, after an initial delay. Registration will close on June 1st.

Having weathered an avalanche of entrepreneurial hyperbole about MOOC’s coming from Silicon Valley and its academic proxies, I think it is a good sign that the University of Iowa is continuing to make these courses available. The bottom line with any MOOC — as with anything else in life — is that you’re only going to get out of it what you put into it. For people in far-flung locations around the globe, however, having access to such experiences could be life changing.

— Mark Barrett

Link Rot Postmortem

Ugh. So here’s what I learned while banishing broken links…

* Broken Link Checker isn’t completely intuitive, but as of this date it’s current and supported. If you have a question you may not get the answer you’re looking for, but you’ll get an answer, and you’ll profit from it.

* Over the past year the BLC plugin reported (via email) in fits and starts for reasons I did not understand. In reading up and poking around, however, I discovered a ‘server load’ setting which seems to act like a throttle. If you set it very low — meaning lower than the reported server load — you effectively idle BLC until the server load drops. Or at least I think that’s what happens. In any case, when I raised the number above the reported load, BLC sprang into action, so if you’re not getting activity when you expect it I would check that setting. (Also, if you’re on shared hosting, consider changing that setting at night when the server load is low. BLC may run much faster.)

* When you’re working on each individual broken link, going slowly and searching for missing pages on the web can be surprisingly fruitful. I fixed quite a few dead links where the missing page’s URL had been altered without a redirect. Once located, copying and pasting the current active link in place of the broken link solved the problem.

* I initially decided to deal with a minimum of twenty-five links each day, but the first day was tough. As it turned out, however, much of the struggle was due to the fact that I had no process or workflow to follow, so what I was really fighting was the learning curve, not the task. On the second day I probably fixed or killed fifty or so links, then the following day I finished off the remaining sixty or so, meaning it took me three days to get through my backlog. (If you’re in the weeds like I was, or worse, just make link-fixing a chore that you come back to again and again until it’s done.)  Read more ]

Link Rot

Whatever my favorite blog post title used to be, it is now a distant second to this one.

So what is link rot? It’s decay that happens to a linked document over time as links become unresponsive. You add links to pages on other sites, some of those pages disappear or are moved, and suddenly your links don’t work any more.

On a case-by-case basis it’s a nuisance. Over time, and over an entire website, it’s a horror. Across an entire discipline, like law, it’s potentially crippling. Speaking of which….

More than a year ago now I found a couple of dead links in an old post, which made me realize I had no way to find such links on a proactive basis. After using a few web-based spiders to search my site and report on dead links, and finding them wanting, I came across a WordPress plugin called — appropriately — Broken Link Checker.

Installing and running BLC was easy, but the results were frightening. At the time I had over 150 reported broken links, although on closer inspection some of those proved to be links that timed out. Still, 150+ bad links was plenty, yet when I earnestly set about trying to solve the problem I realized I didn’t know how.

Yes, I could see that a link pointed to a page that was no longer available, but how to note that in context so the reader would understand? Worse, what if a whole paragraph was written around the presumption of a link?

Just knowing about the problem has allowed me to be a little smarter about writing link text. For example, in the paragraph above, where I mentioned law, the article I linked to is on, which went belly-up only a few weeks back. At some point that link will probably be reported dead because the content on Gigaom will no longer be available, but that sentence will still be intelligible without it. It won’t be substantiated, but it will still make sense.

Maddeningly, however, as simple as the problem seems — fix dead links — in practice it has repeatedly proved insurmountable. I psych myself up, I dig into BLC, I fix one or two broken links — usually the easiest ones — then flop back, mentally exhausted.

Searching for sage advice on the interweb reveals fraught awareness of the problem, but few good solutions I can put into practice. Or solutions that are overkill. (Oops — that sentence won’t make much sense when that link dies.)

Since I first installed BLC days have turned into weeks, weeks into months, months into a year, and…well, here I am. Still with 150+ dead links reported.

So it’s time to do something about the problem. I don’t know what that’s going to be, and I suspect it’s going to be a fight all the way, but I’ve got a little time now and nothing better to do. And believe me, I tried to find something better to do.

They say the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have a problem. I have a problem. I have link rot.

— Mark Barrett

Single Color Text on a Full Gradient

Speaking of graphics software, by pure chance recently I ran across the obvious and thus embarrassing solution to a problem that has vexed me for quite some time. Not only have I wrestled with this conceptual beast on multiple occasions — and lost, even after spending hours using imprecise or generic keywords, thus inevitably drowning in the sea of noise that is rapidly rendering search itself almost useless — but I’ve known for several years that I would have to slay said beast in order to design a graphic for a book I was working on.

Thankfully, said book has proceeded at a snail’s pace, giving the world time to help me despite my obliviousness. (That I came upon the answer by mere happenstance is disheartening given the implications for other aspects of my future, but still — I’ll take it.)

The problem arises when trying to show a single text color across a full background gradient. While it’s likely in practice that such a problem would occur on a page featuring many words, here’s an example using a single word in black text against a full gradient from white to black:

As you can see, on the right side the black text is swallowed by the black background. Just as obviously, switching to white text only shifts the instigation of the problem:

The temptation on a page with many spread-out words would be to switch text colors midway through the gradient, but at best that’s a hack. The simple and elegant fix — which it pains me I was unable to arrive at on my own — is to add a contrasting border around the text:

And here’s the same solution for white text, using a black outline:

If completely bounding your text seems heavy-handed, here’s a slightly offset version that is still readable but also conveys a sense of mood:

The solution also works for two colors, assuming sufficient contrast:

As to how to implement such changes in most graphics programs, the simplest workflow seems to be duplicating the text, changing the color in the copy, then slightly expanding or shrinking one copy until the two can be arranged on to of each other, thus revealing a consistent border. In Inkscape, however, because all text can be either stroke or fill, you can simply change the fill to one color and stroke to another.

If you’re a total beginner, here’s a GIMP video and one for Inkscape. If you have a little experience with GIMP, here’s a shorter video.

(Note: the current version of Inkscape is 0.91. Prior to version 0.91 the previous stable release was 0.48.5 in July of 2014. Inkscape version history here.)

— Mark Barrett

DIY Cover Design: GIMP vs. Inkscape

The first (and so far, only) two book covers I designed were done with GIMP. I got great help from Joleene Naylor on the first cover, and managed to flounder my way to solo completion with the second, but along the way I noticed some recurrent problems, particularly with regard to text, curves and anti-aliasing.

What I have learned over the past year or so is that all graphics software breaks down along two main lines: vector graphics and raster graphics. GIMP is commonly and accurately categorized as photo-editing software, but also belongs on the raster side of the graphics software divide. While photo-editing software can be incredibly powerful in its own right, because raster graphics are based on pixels, resizing raster graphics can also get you into serious trouble.

That’s not true for vector graphics, which are defined by mathematical relationships. Put together a snazzy logo in a vector program and you can scale that logo down to a business card or up to a billboard with no loss of detail. Yes, it is a miracle.

I have a few covers to design in the coming months — or years, at my current pace — and I plan on doing so, at least in part, using a vector graphics program called Inkscape. Like GIMP, Inkscape is open-source freeware and incredibly powerful. Also like GIMP, Inkscape is incredibly obtuse and difficult to learn, even if you’re otherwise comfortable with all things computer.

For example, suppose you want to combine two simple shapes as follows, using Inkscape:

After reading up on the program, following tutorials and learning about the power of nodes and paths, and playing with snazzy features like combine and union, to say nothing of delete segment, you might think the proper solution would be to overlap the two shapes, join them at nodes, then remove the line across the middle of the circle:

And you would be one hundred percent wrong.  Read more ]

Site Seeing: Jane Friedman

First things first. Because nothing is ever easy in life, there are (at least) two Jane Friedman’s in the publishing world. One Jane is the CEO of Open Road. This post concerns the other Jane, who is the CEO of herself, and formidably so.

Back about five or six years ago, when the self-publishing craze blew up and all the hand-wringing inside publishing turned into shrieking and wailing in the streets, one of the people I ran across on the interweb was Jane Friedman, then at Writer’s Digest. While ably fulfilling her contractual duties Jane struck me as someone who didn’t just have a job, but genuinely enjoyed — and more importantly, was interested in — her line of work. When she later departed WD I was glad to see her hang out her own shingle and keep moving with the times, because I thought she had a lot to offer both new and veteran writers who were struggling to understand the rapidly shifting publiscape.

Flash forward half a decade and I just ran across the most recent iteration of Jane’s site, and I think you should stop by yourself. I don’t know Jane personally and I can’t vouch for her in any professional context, but one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that there’s a lot to be said for people who stick with their interests no matter what else might be happening. In a world — and particularly a disingenuous online universe — where everyone is always racing off to the next shiny object or embracing the latest transactional fad (or fraud), I think it’s worth paying attention to people who seem immune to such influences.

Jane’s blog is here, and if you’re interested in publishing, self-publishing, and how authors are transitioning between and navigating the two, you won’t be disappointed. Having been in a cave since 2010 I’m happy to have years of back posts to read through, and I’ve already found one or two that were genuinely informative.

Too, not only does Jane post regularly, but she maintains a presence on her site, which is also quite rare given the usual online advice about branding, social networking and becoming a micro-celebrity. For example, not only do I agree with just about everything she had to say in this recent post — yet another rarity, albeit largely because I’m a crank — but one of the few concerns I did have was mentioned in the comments, to which Jane herself replied. The only point I might add is to make your website mobile-responsive, as Jane’s site already is. Not only are most people using smartphones these days, meaning they’re looking at your content in a very small window, but in a few weeks Google is going to start factoring mobile-responsive web design into its page rankings.

(Don’t have a mobile-responsive site? Don’t panic. Anyone searching for your name or the title of one of your books will still have little or no trouble finding you on the first page of search hits. It’s just something to keep in mind when you’re putting up a site or doing a refresh.)

— Mark Barrett

Valuing Yourself and Your Work

On the heels of the previous post about money junkies it’s worth taking a moment to think about self-worth. The reason it’s an important topic is that if you’re not willing to set the floor on your own value, you can assume everyone else will set it at zero. In fact, only a few years ago there was a theory being floated that the smart play in the internet age was to give yourself away in every respect, including work you created.

Called the freemium pricing strategy, the idea — much like the overriding ethos of web development in general — was that eyeballs, marketing and branding are more important than anything else. Gather enough attention and you can cash in by monetizing your online celebrity. Now, if your product is celebrity that might be true, just as it’s probably true if you’re a money junkie and have lots of cash and employees to burn through. Likewise, if you have no compunction about abusing your own customer base, and in particular children and young adults, making free-to-play games can be profitable. Like street-savvy drug dealers, the makers of free-to-play games give their products away until users are hooked, then stick them with carefully engineered pricing strategies and deceptive promises that all but compel players to pony up real cash if they want to stay competitive.

Unfortunately, if you are an unknown, do not have a round of funding you can torch in order to attract your next round of funding, or you have a conscience, giving yourself and your work away will always yield exactly no money, which is problematic if you also like to eat and don’t want to live under a bridge. If you aspire to make a living doing something you love, or even doing something you hate, you’re going to have to give some consideration to your worth as a worker and as a human being. Depending on the state of the economy it’s entirely possible that the world will laugh in your face, particularly if the money junkies on Wall St. have blown the earning power of the average consumer to to smithereens and unemployment is through the roof, but still — at some point you have to draw a line in the sand.

Speaking of which, when you’re just starting out in your chosen field — or playing around until you figure out what you want to be when you grow up — it’s probably a good thing to be humble. Nobody likes a know-it-all or someone who is overly confident. If you’ve written a book and you’re sure it’s going to sell a million copies at $100 a piece — well, you get points for valuing yourself, but many more points off for being an idiot. By the same token, however, if you have zero confidence, even if only in your ability to bounce back from what will almost certainly be setbacks, you’re probably going to fail.  Read more ]

Money Junkies

I’ve been reading a lot of posts and articles lately about people trying to get into this business or that, and about people being marginalized while trying to get into this business or that, and it struck me that while discrimination is never acceptable, the premise of having a boss also needs to be considered. Where it used to be the case that jobs were offered by companies that had been in business a while, in industries where get-rick-quick schemes were not common, let alone the main product, when it comes to working in tech the opposite is often true. In fact, if you take a job in tech, including interactive entertainment, it’s quite possible that the human beings cutting your checks will be money junkies posing as entrepreneurs.

What is a money junkie? Well, as the name suggests, a money junkie is someone who will do anything they can to make money. Unlike a normal businessperson who wants to do business, and more importantly keep doing business, a money junkie is determined to burn through as many resources as possible in pursuit of money, including those human resources called employees.

If you’re a money junkie yourself there might be some benefit in working for a money junkie, because they really do know how to squeeze the last drop of productivity from a human being before casting the dessicated corpse aside. If you’re not, however — and particularly if other human beings rely on your paycheck — the last thing you want to do is sign on to work for a money junkie. Yet that’s probably not what you’ve been told.

What you’ve been told is that by allying yourself with a money junkie you can make heaping piles of money, and in some extremely rare instances that does happen. Not surprisingly, the people pushing that million-to-one-shot message are the money junkies, because they need all the eager, bushy-tailed employees they can get. It’s like that when you’re a money junkie, because the employees who were bushy-tailed six months ago will soon fail to demonstrate loyalty, initiative and drive by impertinently cracking apart at the seams.

You may be thinking you’re too smart to be exploited by a money junkie. You may be thinking you’ve got the right stuff to succeed no matter who you work for. You may believe you’ve got to take any job to get your foot in the door. No, no and no.

Your job, before you take a job, is to avoid working for people who are going to grind you down and have an unpaid intern sweep your shavings into the trash. Fortunately, particularly in the tech world, there’s a way to test the waters without naively exposing yourself to money junkie abuse.  Read more ]