Excel and PowerPoint

My secret life as an author
Nikon N8008, 28-80mm f/3.3-5.6 AF Nikkor
Kodak Tri-X 400
2017

I used to edit and, sometimes, write books about popular software applications.

I started doing this in 1994. It was the job that brought me to Indianapolis from Terre Haute, at a time when the “For Dummies” franchise was red hot. That job turned out to be a sweatshop grind, and I left it after just eighteen months. Shortly I made connections with a competing publisher and edited on the side for several more years.

The two pictured books have my work in them. The PowerPoint book was originally written by the two other authors listed on the spine. But PowerPoint marches on, and new features are added. The publisher paid me nicely to update the entire book for what was then PowerPoint’s latest version. You don’t see my name on the Excel book’s spine because I was a ghost author, contributing to about half of the chapters.

My favorite work was technical editing, which made sure the books were accurate. Nobody wants to spend $30 on an instructional book only to have it steer them wrong! The publisher paid me by the page, and I was fast, so my effective hourly rate was high.

I gave up the work near the end of my first marriage, as I wanted my nights and weekends back. My first wife and I paid down a lot of debt from editing money. I wouldn’t mind picking up a little side editing now, for the same reason.

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Film Photography, Stories Told

single frame: My secret life as an author

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Photography

More lessons learned in self-publishing

My book, Exceptional Ordinary, has been on sale for a couple months now. And it’s just not selling.

BookPromoI’ve managed to sell nine paper copies and two PDFs. Which isn’t bad, considering that I’ve barely marketed the book.

I’ve pitched it here four or five times. I mentioned it a couple times on Twitter. I shared images from it, plus a link to buy it, on Instagram a handful of times.

That was my entire marketing push. Holy wow, does this stuff ever take time. And that’s the lesson learned: marketing takes creativity, effort, and persistence.

It probably also hurts that I chose such a niche topic with no obvious market beyond people who already know and like my work, and perhaps other film photographers and Pentaxians.

It certainly also hurt that I gave away the PDF for two days after announcing the book. But I knew that would hurt. About 50 of you took me up on it. And I figured this book wouldn’t sell well as a result of it.

It doesn’t matter to me. I actually achieved my goals with this book: to experience the self-publishing process. Win!

I have ideas for a future books. I’d like to re-survey the Michigan Road in 2018, which will be ten years after I did it last time, and publish a book of interesting photos from the tour. The market there is people interested in Indiana history, and people who live or have lived on or near the road. I’d also like to do a book about the many farms that lie inside the city of Indianapolis. It’s surprising to many just how many farms have an Indianapolis address! That market could include people who live in Indiana, and people who have an affinity to farms, and people who enjoy landscape photography. And maybe there’s a book in photographs of the repurposed stores of the defunct Roselyn Bakeries of Indianapolis. Their buildings and signs were distinctive; the dozens of them that remain are easy to recognize. Some of them went on to good, noble uses; others not so much. It’s a study in urban architectural reuse, and people interested in that might buy such a book.

So my refinement for my next book is to have an addressable market in mind, and a plan for addressing it, before I publish.

Thanks to on-demand printing, it’s never too late to buy my book. It’s reasonably priced at $15.99 for the paper copy or $8.49 for the PDF. I’d love for you to hold a copy of my work in your hands. You can do that by clicking the cover below.

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Photography

Lessons learned in self-publishing

I created my book about photography with the Pentax ME as an experiment in self-publishing. (If you’d like to buy one, either paper or PDF, click here.) After all, the Internet and print-on-demand technology mean you no longer need a traditional publisher. You can do it all yourself: writing, layout, marketing. But that’s the rub: you have to do it all yourself. It sucks down large quantities of time at things you may not enjoy or be good at.

I’ll do it again. But I’ll do some things differently next time. Here are some things I learned.

Rife's

A photo from the book

Choosing the photographs was the hardest part of the project. Because this project was about experiencing the bookmaking (and selling) process, I chose to use photos I already made. It was surprisingly challenging and time-consuming to pick through all the photos I shot with my Pentax ME. All of my insecurities as a photographer came out. What if this photo, which I love, isn’t actually all that good? Am I leaving out a photo that is truly good? Fortunately, a reader (who probably wishes to remain anonymous in this forum) offered to edit out the photos that shouldn’t make the cut. That advice was invaluable.

Choosing Blurb as my publisher was easy. I chose Blurb largely because Mike Connealy has published two books that way (go buy them; they’re lovely). My copies of his books are of acceptable quality for the cost. And from his experience I knew that the process for making and selling the book would be reasonable.

Blurb is a decent choice for an image-intensive book. I think there are better choices for text-intensive books. I’ve been investigating CreateSpace, for example, for a text-intensive book I have in mind.

Laying out the book was the least rewarding part of the project. I used Blurb’s BookWright software, which is a lightweight page-layout tool. It works, but it lacks much of the power I hoped I might get based on my past career experience in publishing and technical writing. As I’m still on the tool’s learning curve, I may yet find features I wished I knew about while laying out this book. Primarily, BookWright’s page templates didn’t function as I expected and offered no good way to apply a template change across the book. Blurb allows upload of PDF from other layout platforms and I may try that next time.

I had to rescan several photos because BookWright warned me they were too small for successful printing. I don’t understand that. The film lab scanned those photos at about 1500×1000 pixels, and I’ve successfully printed 8x10s from such scans before. But just to be safe I dug out the negatives and rescanned them at larger resolution on my Epson V300.

I won’t put off titling the book next time. I don’t enjoy writing titles, and when no title easily came to me I decided to figure it out later. Later came right at the end, after everything about the book was finished. I dithered for a week over the title. I don’t love the title I chose, but it is by far the best of a dreadful lot I brainstormed.

The book is priced far higher than I want. Ideally my slim volume would be priced at less than $10. But because Blurb makes its money selling books that people like me create, a book’s base price includes their profit. My book’s base price was slightly more than $10. Any profit I take has to raise that price.

I knew I wanted to make a small profit on each book sold — enough, I decided, to buy myself a roll of Tri-X. That seemed reasonable.  That’s why the book is priced at $16, and even the PDF is $8.50. That’s too much, if you ask me.

Pricing is a black art. Even people who do it all the time struggle with it. When I worked in publishing, I remember difficult discussions over whether a particular book should be $14.99 or $19.99. $14.99 might lead to greater volume at lower margin, while $19.99 brought greater margin at the likely cost of lower volume. A wrong choice could cost us big.

Eric over at Little Black Star recently self-published a delightful little book of his recent work. He charged $7. That tiny price made it so easy for me to click Buy! I assume he took on some or all of the printing and binding himself, however, and that’s a lot of work. I bet he also has to keep an inventory. I have none of that with Blurb. When you order, they print one and send it to you.

I’m not enjoying marketing the book. I don’t enjoy sales or marketing and don’t really know what I’m doing with it. I’m hawking my book here (and, by extension, on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+) and am telling friends and family as I see them, and that’s it.

The other book I have in mind would deserve, I think, a more serious marketing push. I’d want to distribute that book through Amazon.com. I might create a Facebook page for it and pay to have posts on that page promoted.

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Ten Years of Down the Road

How to blog more often

As I’ve been celebrating this blog’s tenth anniversary with posts about blogging, a few of you have asked me how I blog so often.

I haven’t always published six days a week. At first I published sporadically, as little as twice a month. In 2010 I committed to three days a week. In 2014 I bumped up to six days a week.

The benefits have been clear: the more often I publish, the more pageviews I get. That’s because frequent publishing makes your blog look more serious to the search engines. And when you publish regularly and write compelling posts, your readers come to look forward to it. You gain regular readers.

But publishing frequently takes time. At present I give this blog as much as ten hours a week. I’d like to produce the same output in no more than six hours. I recently took a nonfiction writing workshop that gave me some solid techniques that should help me get there. But when I started posting six days a week, it took me far more than ten hours a week to deliver the goods. I’ve figured out how to write more in less time.

Here, then, is how I do it.

blogideas

My sticky note of ideas for this series

Write down ideas as they come. You’ll always find two or three sticky notes on my desk filled with blog post ideas. I write down potential titles, which is usually enough for me to remember what I was thinking. When I sit down to write, I have plenty of ideas ready to go.

Brainstorm ideas. Sometimes I make time to imagine a series of posts I might like to write and just think up (and write down) titles.

Set aside specific regular times to write. I write 30 minutes to an hour (almost) every morning over breakfast. I also set aside at least a couple hours on Saturday morning. Writing regularly is important because it helps keep your pump primed. The more you write, the more you have to say. Make a regular writing schedule that you can stick with.

Freewrite in 15-30 minute time boxes. I’ve only recently started practicing this technique, and it is allowing me to write more posts in less time. I’ve always edited as I go, which slows me down, gets me stuck in the word-choice weeds, and blocks the free flow of thinking about my topic. Perfectionism kills creativity and can lead to writer’s block. I start by writing down my high-level ideas about what I want to say, and then I write about each idea without judging the words I type. I allow myself to move sentences, paragraphs, and sections around for better logical flow, but I do not let myself change or rearrange words. If I’m struggling to write, I make myself keep going for 15 minutes and then stop. If I’m able to freewrite easily, I’ll use all 30 minutes. I generally stop at 30, but if I still have time and I know a whole bunch of things I still want to say, I’ll write until either those words or my time are exhausted.

Let unfinished posts stay unfinished until the next time you write. An unfinished post will frequently keep percolating in the back of your mind until you come back to it. I’m astonished by how often I return to an unfinished post I had been struggling to write to find that I now have plenty of good things to say.

When the words come to you, make time to write them down. Sometimes post ideas and the words that go with them just come to me in a flood. I make every effort to set aside a block of time as soon as I can to write them. I love it when this happens, and when it does I can suddenly find myself with a month of posts queued up.

When the well is dry, choose a photograph you took and like and write a paragraph about it. Sometimes you just can’t think of anything to write about. Write about a photograph to prime your pump. If you’re not a photographer, write about a song or a book or a favorite possession. Tell something about it, or what was happening in your life when you photographed it/first heard it/first read it/first got it, or how it makes you feel now. It hardly matters what you write, just write it and publish it.

Edit separately, lightly. After you’ve written a post, set it aside for a while. I often use a future 15-30 minute time box for editing. And I generally edit lightly. This is a blog, not high literature. But my freewriting lets my personality shine through and I hate to edit that away. I start by making sure I like the way the post is organized; if I don’t, I move things around until I’m happy. Then I tweak the words, sentences, and paragraphs to make them flow better.

This is what works for me. Take what works for you from this and leave the rest. But if you try any of this and it works for you, I’d love it if you’d come back to this post and say so in the comments!

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Photography

On making book

OutOfTheBoxFellow photoblogger Mike Connealy recently self-published a thin, charming book of film photographs he’s taken with a few of his box cameras.

You might not think that such simple cameras can be used to create fine art, but page after page Mike’s book shows these old boxes’ artful capabilities. You can look at Mike’s book online here. If you’d like to own a copy, you can buy one here for a price so nominal that he can’t be making any real money off the venture.

After viewing and enjoying Mike’s work online for years, I really enjoyed seeing it printed. It’s easy to forget in this age of digital imaging that photographs were, for most of their history, a physical medium. And in printing a photograph, you exert final control over the image, not only in its size but in its density and contrast and how it renders highlights and shadows. An image on a screen is subject to the screen’s vagaries. The screen could be calibrated in any number of ways that affect the photograph and potentially take it far away from the photographer’s intentions.

Mike’s self-publishing experiment has triggered an interest in me in trying the same thing. I’m not entirely sure what I want from it beyond seeing my photographs bound and in the hands of others. Do I just want my printed work in a few peoples’ hands for their enjoyment, or do I want to make a little money off it perhaps to fund further photography? Do I want to do the work of marketing the book, even if only through this blog and Facebook and Twitter? How would marketing my book affect the relationships I’ve built with you here? And would anybody want to buy something that’s not too different, in content and style, from what they get on this blog for free anyway? And finally, where will I find the time for all of this?

I don’t know. But what I do know is that I started this blog on a lark in 2007, unsure what I wanted from it — and with experimentation and persistence, in time its purpose took shape and people like you started visiting regularly and enjoying my work. I can take much the same approach with this venture and see what happens.

If I decide to move forward, I’ll chronicle the journey all along the way here.

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Stories Told

Twenty-one years in the software salt mines

A personal anniversary passed quietly last Saturday. It was the 21st year since I started my career.

It may seem odd that I remember the day only until you know that I started work on July 3, making my second day a paid holiday. The office was nearly deserted on my first day. My boss regretted not having me start on July 5 so he could have had an extra-long weekend too.

And given that we seem to love divisible-by-ten and divisible-by-25 anniversaries, it may seem odd that I’m honoring this 21st anniversary. But I was 21 years old when I joined that little software company in Terre Haute.

I have now worked half my life in and around the software industry.

I taught myself how to write computer programs when I was 15. When I was 16, my math teacher saw some of my programs and praised my work. He encouraged me to pursue software development as a career. He began to tell me about this tough engineering school in Terre Haute.

My desk at one of my career stops

I graduated from that tough engineering school with a desire to find work as a programmer. Jobs were hard to come by that year, so when the only software company in town wanted to hire me as a technical writer I was thrilled just to work. And then it turned out I had a real knack for explaining software to people. I did it for twelve years, including a brief stint in technology publishing and five years managing writers.

I then returned to my technical roots, testing software and managing software testers. I learned to write automated functional and performance tests – code that tests code – and it has taken me places in my career that I could never have imagined.

I’ve worked for seven companies in 21 years. The longest I’ve stayed anywhere is five years; I left one company after just 14 months. I’ve moved on voluntarily six times, was laid off once, and was fired and rehired once (which is quite a story; I’ll tell it one day). Changing jobs this often isn’t unusual in this industry and has given me rich experience I couldn’t have gained by staying with one company all this time.

I’ve worked on software that managed telephone networks, helped media buyers place advertising, helped manufacturers manage their business, run Medicare call centers, helped small banks make more money, and enabled very large companies to more effectively market their products.

Some of these companies were private and others were public; so far, I’ve liked private companies better. Some of them made lots of money, some of them had good and bad years, and one of them folded. Some of them were well run and others had cheats and liars at the helm. Some were very difficult places to work, but those were crucibles in which I learned the most. Others have brought successes beyond anything I could have hoped for 21 years ago.

I did, however, hope for a good, long run in this industry, and I got it. But I’m also having a hard time envisioning another 21 years. Maybe that’s part of reaching middle age – indeed, many of my similarly aged colleagues, some with careers far beyond mine, have gone into other lines of work. I’m still having a lot of fun making software, though. I currently manage four software testers, two test automation developers, and five technical writers. I get to bring all of my experience to bear, and encourage my teams to reach and grow. I don’t want to stop just yet.

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