Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

Just a short, quick blog to wish everyone in the blogosphere a very happy and safe New Year's.

Tomorrow you get another chance to get it right. A fresh year and a clean slate. It doesn't matter what's happened in the past; that's behind you now. Ahead of you stretch endless days in which to live the life you want for yourself.

Wishing everyone laughter, love, happiness, success and hope in the New Year.

To my family and friends, I don't know what I'd do without you. Thanks for all your loving support.

A special thanks to my critique partners and Hussy friends. 2005 was a wonderful year filled with promise and success. 2006 will be even better. Onward and upward!

Hugs,

Maya

Friday, December 30, 2005

Top Movies of 2005

Met an old friend tonight for dinner and an early New Year's celebration. We were both pretty looped when we got it into our heads to name the top ten films of the year. Hey, everyone else is doing it; why shouldn't we?

We couldn't agree on the numbering so we finally decided to just list them alphabetically. Here are our choices:

Brokeback Mountain
Cinderella Man
Crash
Good Night, and Good Luck
History of Violence
Junebug
Match Point
Munich
The Squid and the Whale
Syriana

There were several movies in which we admired a particular actor's performance without thinking the film itself matched the quality of the acting. Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and the ape in King Kong come to mind (I told you we were were looped).

After we listed our ten best, we tried to pick our five Oscar nominations for best movie. Here they are:

Brokeback Mountain
Crash
Good Night, and Good Luck
Match Point
Munich

By then, our sense of camaraderie was stretched to its max and we limited ourselves to single votes for the best acting awards:

Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) and David Straithairn (Good Night, and Good Luck)

Best Supporting Actor: Don Cheadle (Crash) and George Clooney (Syriana)

Best Actress: Maria Bello (History of Violence) and Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line)

Best Supporting Acress: Diane Keaton (The Family Stone) and the Mother Penguin (March of the Penguins)

I'm looking forward to seeing the actual nominations.

Off to take an aspirin or two or three.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Attention All Snarklings

For you authors out there, Miss Snark is doing another of her exercises to help aspiring writers.

In case you are unfamiliar with her name, Miss Snark is a blogger who identifies herself as an anonymous New York literary agent. She's been blogging since June. I discovered her in early August at www.misssnark.blogspot.com. It's been a must-read for me ever since.

In late August, she offered to critique first pages for anyone willing to submit them. I sent in the first page from my "Dying To Do It" manuscript about fifteen minutes before the deadline. She critiqued it on 8/31 (#55 if you want to take a look). Reviewing the 57 critiques she did was a very helpful exercise in seeing what grabs a reader and what doesn't.

Last week, she upped the ante, offering to critique 1,000-word synopses. Wannabe participants had three days to submit before she shut the window at midnight on Christmas. Starting Monday, she began posting both the entries and her comments on them.

This exercise was a particular challenge for me because my synopses usually run between 1,500 and 1,800 words. Compacting a 100,000-word novel into 1,000 words nearly killed me. In her critique of "Perchance to Sleep" last night, she complained about an "information dump" and she was right. I had to dump the data in order to get everything into the synopsis that I wanted in there. However, her point that you don't need an exhaustive listing of every event in a manuscript is an important one that I'll remember.

I urge you to take advantage of the chance to read the 107 synopses she promised to review this week. Reading both the actual synopses and her comments on them have been very helpful to me.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A New Marketing Technique For Amazon

Yesterday's New York Times had an article entitled "A Chance to Meet the Author Online" about a new promotional tool over at Amazon called Amazon Connect.

Amazon began the new program in late November "to enhance the connections between authors and their fans -- and to sell more books -- with author blogs and extended personal profile pages on the company's online bookstore site. So far, Amazon has recruited a group of about a dozen authors, including novelists, writers of child care manuals and experts on subjects as diverse as real estate investing, science, fishing and the lyrics of the Grateful Dead."

I started out by doing a search on the Amazon website for Amazon Connect without success. My search took me straight to the "Publishers and Authors" section where I was invited to sign up as an author. It took about fifteen minutes for me to figure out that the blogs are listed with each individual book/author, not in a centralized location.

The Times article indicated that "Amazon is one of the many players in the publishing business trying to find new ways to increase the visibility of authors at a time when book sales are flat and other forms of entertainment are commanding ever-greater portions of the public's wallet. Most publishers have extensive author information on their Web sites, and a number of authors maintain their own sites, some quite elaborate."

The Amazon effort is strictly one-way with no accommodation for comments from readers. In addition--while most writers' blogs are soft-sell--by not centralizing the blogs, Amazon is clearly tying the reading of the blog to the buying of the specific book that a reader is considering.

It will be interesting to see how this concept works out for Amazon. I think I would have preferred a centralized site where I could browse among numerous authors at one sitting. Of course, most writers these days have websites and blogs of their own already. Depending on how the authors use the Amazon Connect program, it might develop into a tool with comments directed only at the specific book for sale.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Intelligent Design???

Last Friday, Science struck back.

By now, most Americans are familiar with "intelligent design (ID)." The term refers to the notion that there is an intelligent agent behind the creation of the universe and the creatures in it. Although the idea is an old one, the phrase itself has only been around for about 150 years. It came back into vogue with the publication of the book, "Of Pandas and People" in 1989. Proponents of the concept insist that intelligent design should be taught in schools on an equal basis with Darwin's theory of evolution.

When the advocates of intelligent design first started their campaign, the scientific community refused to participate in the debate. Their reasoning was that intelligent design was pseudo-science and, therefore, did not even merit a place at the discussion table. For this reason, few scientists commented upon the arguments that intelligent design should be included in curriculum. The ID advocates found themselves virtually unchallenged by the scientific community as they pressed forward in their campaign.

Then intelligent design began to make inroads into the American educational system. In October, 2004, Dover, Pennsylvania’s school board adopted a policy that demanded students hear a prepared statement about intelligent design at the same time they learned about evolution. In August, 2005, President Bush suggested that fairness required intelligent design and evolution be taught side-by-side. In November, 2005, the Kansas Board of Education adopted new science standards for its public schools. The definition of science was rewritten to include supernatural explanations of phenomena. This was the third time in six years that this issue had come before the Kansas BOE and was hailed as a significant victory for the proponents of intelligent design.

The scientific community has now apparently realized the error of their ignore-it-and-it-will-go-away strategy. The December issue of Science magazine (available online 12/23) listed the major scientific breakthroughs of 2005. Lo and behold--evolution was listed as #1. The magazine says,
"[t]oday evolution is the foundation of all biology, so basic and all-pervasive that scientists take its importance for granted. At some level every discovery in biology and medicine rests on it." The lengthy article discusses advances in the study of the chimpanzee genome and goes on to talk about how species split. The magazine might as well have raised a banner declaring war on intelligent design.

My guess is that, over the next few weeks and months, we are going to see a more active debate in which the scientific community participates instead of standing on the sidelines. Biologists and other scientists are likely to demand that faith-based curriculum be taught in philosophy or humanities class rather than in a science class. Their efforts will certainly be helped by a federal judge's court decision on December 20th, barring the Dover school district from mentioning intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theory. Judge John E. Jones, III, rendered "a scathing opinion that criticized local school board members for lying under oath and for their 'breathtaking inanity' in trying to inject religion into science classes." (Washington Post)

It will be interesting to see how this debate shakes out. If you want more on the subject, I highly recommend the 1960 film, "Inherit the Wind." Directed by Stanley Kramer, the movie is a fictionalized version of the real-life courtroom clash between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan in 1925 over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee. I own both the VCR and DVD versions, and the film remains one of my top ten favorite movies.

Monday, December 26, 2005

A Gift in Honor of the Day

It's 6:30 AM on St. Stephen's Day (aka Boxing Day to our British and Canadian friends). Time to check out the after-Christmas sales. I'm sitting here, nibbling on lemon poppy seed bread and sipping a cup of tea while I try to muster the energy to go shopping.

A note on St. Stephen's Day. My ethnic background is a little strange. My father was first-generation Italian-American and my mother is Irish--an odd combination not often found in the general population. My parents met and fell in love in New York City, that melting pot of immigrants. I sometimes joke that their marriage meant I grew up at the top of my lungs.

Although each side of my family was extremely wary of the other, they had more in common than they were willing to acknowledge. Both were devoutly Catholic and hard drinking, and both celebrated St. Stephen's Day. On that day, we went "visiting." Since I have sixteen aunts and uncles and thirty-two first cousins, it was often a very long day.

In honor of my Irish ancesters and the day, I'm offering you a new (to me) author to check out. John Connolly is an Irish writer whose first novel, "Every Dead Thing," won the Shamus Award for best first novel in 1999. When I stopped by the library on Friday afternoon, my library lady had a stack of books waiting for me. Among them was Connolly's latest book, "Black Angel."

I like hard-edged mysteries; the harder, the better. "Black Angel" is the fifth in Connolly's Charlie Parker series. Today I'll try to find the other four.

What sets "Black Angel" apart is that it is not a pure mystery--it's equal parts mystery and horror novel--a very intriguing combination. Charlie Parker is a private investigator who lives in Maine. As a favor to his best friend, he tries to track down a young black prostitute who has gone missing. Also looking for her are a group called "The Believers," who are the reincarnated fallen angels driven out of Heaven by God. This is not a spoiler, by the way. It's revealed on the first page of the novel.

Connolly is not perfect. He has several jarring point-of-view shifts and he's a little too fond of lengthy soliloquoys. However--in a world too long dominated by Stephen King and Dean Koontz--Connolly's voice is fresh and exciting. I highly recommend him.

Off to shop. Have a good day.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

For Unto Us a Child is Born

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given:
And the government shall be upon His shoulder:
And His name shall be called Wonderful,
Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father,
The Prince of Peace.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Blessings to You and Yours

I've always loved Christmas Eve. It's a time of such anticipation and hope.

When I was a child, this one night stretched endlessly. Minutes seemed to last hours. I'd never heard of the winter solstice, but would have accepted without question the concept of the longest night of the year.

Mom would tuck us into bed with a reminder that Santa didn't visit houses where children were still awake. My oldest brother always sank immediately into a deep sleep, leaving me alone, awake and edgy.

After trying to fall asleep, I usually dragged my pillow and blanket down the hall until I could see our Christmas tree. The sight of the brightly lit tree with the familiar creche beneath it offered comfort.

I was responsible for positioning the tiny figures of Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus inside the stable, and I took my job very seriously. Each day, like a miniature Advent calendar, I would move the three Wise Men a little closer to the creche. By Christmas Eve, the Magi, sheep, shepherds, donkeys and goats were all crowded round the Holy Babe.

Lying there on the hallway floor wrapped in my blanket, I felt a heady combination of impatience and hope. To this day, I can remember that excitement, and the memory is every bit as sweet as it once was.

Wishing you and yours all the blessings of this Season: laughter, love, health and--above all--hope.

Hugs,

Maya

Friday, December 23, 2005

Helpful Search Engines

I'm late blogging tonight because I've spent most of the day running around, trying to complete my Christmas preparations. Finally -- the shopping is done, the cards are mailed, the gifts are wrapped and the baking is finished. From here on out, I'm coasting. When I stopped off at the library this afternoon, the librarian had a stack of new books waiting for me; I'm looking forward to diving into them.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had an article recently on vertical search engines: those search engines devoted to a particular segment of the search universe -- as opposed to the general purpose search engines that "rarely offer the vertical engines' precision or ability to sort and filter the results."

Here is a summary of the search engines the WSJ recommended:

TO FIND A BOOK, TRY: isbn.nu; BookFinder; RedLightGreen; or NetLibrary

TO FIND A JOB, TRY: Simply Hired; Indeed; or Yahoo HotJobs

TO FIND A HOUSE TO BUY OR RENT, TRY: Trulia; HomePages; Oodle

TO FIND AIRLINE FLIGHTS OR HOTELS, TRY: SideStep; Kayak; FareChase; or Mobissimo

TO FIND TECHNICAL INFORMATION, TRY: GlobalSpec (engineering); Scirus (science-related); IT.com (corporate information technology); or LawCrawler (legal-related)

TO FIND A PHONE NUMBER, POSTAL OR EMAIL ADDRESS, TRY: Argali White & Yellow (requires downloading free software)

TO FIND REFERENCE SOURCES, TRY: Answers.com (formerly known as GuruNet)

Here's hoping you're ready for Christmas, too, and can take a little time for yourself.

Warm regards,

Maya

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Celebrating the Winter Solstice

Today is the first full day of the Winter Solstice, which began mid-day yesterday, December 21.

Because the earth's axis is tilting the northern hemisphere away from the sun, the winter solstice is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. The sun is at its lowest and weakest at this time. For several days before and after the solstice, the noon sun does not even appear to change position in the sky; hence, the word "solstice," which means "sun stoppage." After the solstice, the days begin to grow longer while the nights grow shorter.

Ancient peoples celebrated the solstice as proof of the sun's victory over winter. The Romans adopted the Persian god of light, Mithra, and celebrated the eve of the solstice in his honor, calling it the "Dies Natalis Invicti Solis," or the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun." Wikipedia describes Mithra as the son of God sent to earth to defend humanity from evil and from the Adversary. The parallels to Christianity are obvious.

The winter solstice was the perfect time of year for a celebration. According to the History Channel: "At that time of year, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking." As with most pagan celebrations, there was much feasting, merry-making, dancing and singing. The only thing missing was John Belushi shouting, "Toga! Toga! Toga!"

When Christianity came along, the most important holy day of the Christian calendar was Easter, which celebrated Jesus' resurrection. Since no one actually knew the date He was born, Christ's birthday was not celebrated.

The early Christian church was anxious to eliminate pagan celebrations. For this reason, the Church frequently replaced ancient pagan festivals with Christian holy days. It's no accident that the Christian celebration of Christ's birth coincides with the ancient pagan festival of the sun/Mithra. Somewhere around A.D. 350, December 25 became the official holy day for Jesus' birth or Christ's Mass.

The History Channel says, "[b]y holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated." Many of the ancient pagan traditions were simply absorbed into the new holy day. Mistletoe, yule logs, holly and evergreens were pagan traditions that became a part of Christmas.

The Puritans later argued that December 25th had no historical legitimacy and gave that as a reason for cancelling Christmas around 1645. Fortunately, Charles II was restored to the English throne and brought the holiday back.

So, this week, as you hang your mistletoe and decorate your tree, realize that you are carrying on a tradition that dates back long before the birth of the Christ child. When you switch on the lights decorating your tree and house, you are commemorating a time when pagans lit candles as sacrifices to the gods so that the sun would return once again to light their dark, wintery world.

God bless us, every one!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Revisiting C.S. Lewis

I played hooky yesterday.

For the past eight years, I've had the good fortune to have as my next-door neighbors a family with five children. When they moved in, the children ranged in age from five to eleven. Now, the oldest boy and the only girl are off at college in Arkansas and Kentucky, and the youngest boy has turned thirteen.

The children were home-schooled; the family is a committed Christian one. However, they have been remarkably tolerant of my eclectic and catholic (with a small "c") approach to spirituality.

Yesterday afternoon, they invited me to join the entire family (the oldest are home from college) on an outing to see the film "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe." I agreed with enthusiasm, and we set out for a 1:00 PM showing.

The theatre was packed--it turned out that several day care centers were in attendance. The eight of us were forced to find individual seats, and I ended up in the third row alongside a pair of friendly eight-year-olds.

I read the Chronicles as a child, but remembered only the barest outline of the story. Not to worry. The little boy on my left provided a running commentary that kept me apprised of what would happen next. At one point, he even patted my hand to assure me that Aslan the lion wasn't "really" dead.

When I first read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," I knew nothing of Lewis' Christian conversion; the book seemed to be only another adventure story. Revisiting it yesterday, the Christian allegory was unmistakable: Aslan's willingness to sacrifice himself for Edmund's sins now seemed obvious. At the same time, I found myself fascinated by Lewis' liberal mixing of mythology and fantasy into the tale. The White Witch ruled over a world populated by giants and dwarves, fauns and unicorns.

The audience--largely composed of kids under the age of ten--was completely engaged in the film. They clapped and cheered and laughed and chattered throughout the movie. Although grown-ups kept telling them "be quiet," the admonitions had little effect.

For my part, I was as much enchanted by the children's reactions as I was by the film itself. I found myself remembering those moments during my own childhood when the rules of reality didn't apply--reading the Raggedy Ann and Andy adventures and dreaming nightly of flying. Therein was the real charm of the Narnia stories: a world to which only children held passports; adults were not permitted. It was up to the children to battle and save the fantastical inhabitants and, because they were children, they believed they could.

When the film ended, I thanked the African-American boy beside me for keeping me from "being scared." He grinned happily and ran off with the rest of his class.

I went looking for my neighbor in the mob of children. She expressed the hope that Disney would film the other stories in the Chronicles. For just a minute, I toyed with the idea of asking why she allowed her children to see Narnia, but not Harry Potter. I didn't. We'd left the world in which fantasy and allegory could co-exist happily. Now we were back in the adult world with its complicated politics and prejudices. Witches and magic were no longer permitted.

I brushed aside my envy of the children's world and hugged my neighbor. We walked together out into the cold and rainy real world.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A New Kind of Internet Service

My plans to finish my Christmas baking on Saturday scurried away from me, and I was still baking yesterday morning. That meant I was packing cookies and breads in gift boxes yesterday afternoon while listening to the early news. Because I needed to get to the post office before it closed, I was more focused on my task than I was on the television. It was some seconds before the news anchor's words sank in. When they finally did, I stopped what I was doing and headed for my laptop to check on what I thought I'd heard.

A little background first. I live in north Texas, which means I live in one of the hundreds of small towns within an hour of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Little towns like mine are strung up and down the Texas highways like pearls on a strand of wire.

In 1999, Texas passed legislation to deregulate electric utilities and provide for a competitive environment. Texans can now choose among a half dozen electric providers. Because I live in a forest where power outages occur every time a tree branch falls somewhere in my neighborhood's grid, I've chosen to stay with my original provider, TXU Electric. They generally restore the power within an hour of my call, and I've been unwilling to test a new provider's reliability.

This was the announcement I'd heard (directly from a TXU press release): "TXU Electric Delivery, the nation's sixth largest electric transmission and distribution company and a subsidiary of TXU Corp., and Current Communications Group, LLC, the nation's leading provider of broadband over power line (BPL) solutions, today announced an agreement to transform TXU Electric Delivery's power distribution network into the nation's first broadcast-enabled Smart Grid."

There was the expected yadda yadda about how a Smart Grid would increase network reliability and power quality and restore consumer outages more effectively before they got down to business with the following:

"Current will leverage the same BPL network to provide homes and businesses high-performance broadband and wireless services, including the 'triple play' of voice, video and high-speed Internet access delivered over existing electrical lines by simply plugging into any home outlet . . . TXU Electric Delivery and Current expect to begin deploying the BPL network in 2006."

Hello? Broadband-over-power-line?

Over the past year, I've watched as cities across the U.S. made plans to create metropolitan area networks (MANs). As the name implies, MANs are city-wide computer networks as opposed to local area networks (LANs), which are usually limited to a building or a group of buildings like a campus. Recently, cities as large as San Francisco and Philadelphia have begun planning a blanket Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) system, offering city-wide Internet access to their citizens. Smaller towns like Tempe, Arizona; Albuquerque, New Mexico and Grand Haven, Michigan are also experimenting with providing Internet Wi-Fi access to their residents.

In the meantime, Internet cafes and coffee houses have sprung up around the country, providing Wi-Fi LAN access to customers. Even some airports now provide Wi-Fi access.

But, nowhere have I encountered BPL before this afternoon. I googled the term and was directed to a Wikipedia entry as follows: "Power line communication (PLC), also called Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) or Power Line Telecoms (PLT), is a wireline technology that is able to use the current electricity networks for data and voice transmission."

I will look forward to learning more and passing that information along when I do.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Why Writers Should Care About the Time Warner Deal

A long-time friend emailed me last night, asking why my blog was so "obsessed" with the proposed Time Warner deal with Google.

After I finished laughing, I wrote her back. Her email happened to arrive at a time when I'm in the middle of writing an article for my RWA chapter's newsletter on "Industry Matters." One of the points I make in the article is that the great divide that has existed for the last decade between print publishing and e-publishing is rapidly shrinking. I would venture to say that, in the next two years, it will completely disappear.

Yahoo, MSN and Google have all aligned themselves with initiatives to begin digitizing the world's books. They are not doing this for altruistic reasons. Their hope is that, by expanding the resources available to consumers, they will capture a larger share of the search (and advertising) markets.

All of the big Internet companies are jockeying to position themselves for a bigger piece of the advertising revenue pie. Audience size is critical. According to Friday's Internet News, Nielsen/NetRatings' latest stats indicate that the top Internet brand is Yahoo with a 103.8 million audience. Next is MSN with 91.3 million. Then comes Google with 85.5 million and finally AOL with 74.3 million.

According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), one of the important outcomes of the proposed--but not yet finalized--partnership between Time Warner and Google is that AOL's salespeople will be able to sell ads on Google's network. At the same time, the New York Times reports that AOL's Web properties (including aol.com, AIM and Mapquest) will receive "special placement" on Google's site along with Google's search results. You can see the advantage to AOL which can now promote to Google's audiences the same way Google has been accessing the AOL audience for the past three years.

Google is already the most popular search engine online. According to Mediapost, in October, Google accounted for 48 percent of all searches, followed by Yahoo! at 21.8 percent, and MSN a distant third, at 11.3 percent." Google's motives for expanding the partnership with AOL are both defensive and offensive. On the defensive side, they retain their position as AOL's search engine and protect the ten percent of their revenue attributed to AOL at present. On the offensive side, they keep MSN from muscling in on the search engine business.

The big publishing houses have begun to digitize their print books themselves. I applauded the recent move by HarperCollins to keep their digitized files in house rather then trusting to a Google or MSN to scan their assets. By doing so, HarperCollins has strengthened their negotiating position. Now, when they talk to Google or Yahoo or MSN, they control the discussion about advertising and selling their books.

The publishing industry is changing very rapidly. I believe writers need to pay attention in order to understand the potential impact on their own future contracts. With whom the publishing companies align themselves and how the deal is structured is an important part of understanding your sales potential.

What if I write a paranormal book in which crystals are an important feature of my story, and what if the search engine runs an ad for a shop selling crystals on the same page? In return for making the digitized file of my book available, will the publisher receive a small percentage of the advertising revenue every time a consumer clicks on that crystal ad or buys an actual crystal? If so, will I receive a percentage of that revenue, or only the royalty from the actual sale of my book?

As most authors' deals are currently structured, whether a publisher makes a digitized copy available for "Search Inside" or "Book Search" is entirely at the discretion of the publisher under the rubric of "marketing." If the search engine and publisher make a revenue-sharing arrangement, that changes the nature of the publishing equation. The publishers' income would no longer be solely based on book sales. In the same way that movies have tie-ins to action figures and other merchandise, the Internet makes it feasible for publishers (and authors) to participate in such arrangements. It could be as simple as a reader wanting to buy the same brand of perfume that a heroine wears, or to sample the wine that a couple is drinking during a romantic scene. The potential for readers to have an interactive experience is real.

In my opinion, writers need to understand how the Internet is changing (including the basics of search engines and advertising revenue) so that we can be prepared to understand what rights are at stake in future contracts before we relinquish them.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

More on the Proposed AOL/Google Partnership

Years ago, I worked for a stock brokerage house. My office was next door to that of corporate finance--the division that brought new offerings to market and specialized in mergers and acquisitions. I often ate lunch with the guys from corporate finance. I can remember one of the more experienced men telling me that the terms of a deal were often dictated "by the one who had the most to lose."

Those words came back to me when I heard the Associated Press report that "Time Warner Inc. ended talks with Microsoft Corp. Friday and entered into exclusive negotiations with Google Inc. over a $1 billion investment and a broader advertising partnership with America Online" [AOL].

In previous blogs, I've referred to the fact that Google's biggest customer is AOL. Google has been AOL's search engine for the last three years. According to the AP, that partnership accounted for $420 million (approximately ten percent) of Google's revenue for the first nine months of 2005. When Microsoft started negotiations with Time Warner early this year, Google was threatened by the potential of losing its protected position as AOL's search engine. Ten percent of your revenue is a lot to lose.

Meanwhile, Time Warner has its own problems. On the one hand, they need to beef up their stock price because of dissatisfaction on the part of vocal investors like Carl Icahn. On the other hand, there are risks involved in switching their search engine to Microsoft. If MSN couldn't maintain the level of revenue Google's search engine brings in, the Time Warner stock price could slide. As recently as last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google was unwilling to offer a guaranteed amount of revenue.

Early on, speculation was that Time Warner wanted to sell a minority stake in AOL to one of its suitors. Last week, BusinessWeek Online reported that "Time Warner has decided that the legal, regulatory, and managerial obstacles of a partial sale would be too complex, and it prefers to strike a commercial agreement instead."

Now, the AP reports that Google expects to buy a five percent stake in AOL for their $1 billion investment. What a difference a week makes.

Remember--all this is still preliminary. Until the Time Warner board meets on Wednesday and approves the prospective five-year deal, nothing is final. The Washington Post reported this morning that the deal "would give struggling AOL millions of dollars in free advertising space on Google, and a cut of any additional ad revenue AOL generates for the search engine. Carl C. Icahn, a dissident Time Warner shareholder who wants AOL spun off entirely, called the deal a 'travesty.'"

Stay tuned for more.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Gift For You

Okay, as of today, there's just one week left until Christmas. It's cold and wet outside, and I plan to spend the day inside baking. The Dallas Post Office has a final outgoing mail for the weekend at 5 PM, and I plan to have all my cookies and breads ready for that mail. If I get done early enough, we're going to see "The Family Stone" which has gotten great reviews.

All this is to say that today's blog is going to be short and sweet.

On December 10th, I blogged about the announcement that "podcast" had been selected as the Word of the Year by The New Oxford American Dictionary of English. I also mentioned that they had declined to include the word "sudoku" in the upcoming new dictionary.

If, like me, you’re a lover of logic puzzles, you need to acquaint yourself with sudoku. And, yes, Sloane, I'm talking to YOU.

Sudoku is a logic problem that uses either numbers or letters. There is no math involved. In its most common form, there is a grid of nine squares containing nine spaces each. Some of the spaces will have numbers from 1 to 9 (or letters from A to I) already filled in. The player must fill in the remaining numbers (or letters). The catch is that no row or line or square may contain the same number more than one time.

I did a Google search for the word "sudoku" and found 16 million entries. My favorite website among these is www.sudoku.com. It offers a 28-day free trial, or you can purchase the service for $14.95. The site includes puzzles of varying degrees of difficulty as well as a timer so that you can play against your own best time (it even keeps track of your average time for you).

This is my gift to you today. Try it. If you love puzzles, you'll find it addicting. I like to play on line, but you can print the puzzles out if you prefer to work on paper. I was in my local Barnes and Noble store yesterday and they had an entire table devoted to sudoku. These would make nice gifts for that person on your list who loves puzzles.

Stay warm and have fun!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Is Microsoft Out of the Running?

The news organization Reuters reported at 1 PM EST today that Time Warner is now in exclusive talks with Google about forming a partnership.

The source was unnamed, but it appears that Microsoft may be completely out of the picture.

Wikipedia's Accuracy Tested in a Study

Yesterday's BBC News reported on a study to test Wikipedia's accuracy.

Two recent scandals have given rise to issues of credibility about Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that is manned by volunteers. Questions were raised as to whether it was as trustworthy a source as, say, the Encyclopedia Britannica.

As a result, the "British journal Nature examined a range of scientific entries on both works of reference." Nature conducted a peer review of the scientific entries in Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. "The reviewers were asked to check for errors, but were not told the source of the information." (BBC)

The results were somewhat surprising. "'Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia,' reported Nature."

"But reviewers also found many factual errors, omissions or misleading statements." There were 162 such mistakes in Wikipedia and 123 in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

One of the complaints about Wikipedia was that entries were "often poorly structured and confused."

The Encyclopedia Britannica refused to comment on the study, although they did take a potshot at Wikipedia, saying that the open source encyclopedia had lots of poorly written articles and needed a good editor.

For his part, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, seemed encouraged. Nature quoted him as saying, "'We're hoping it [the study] will focus people's attention on the overall level of our work, which is pretty good.'"

Frankly, I was surprised. I was raised to regard the Encyclopedia Britannica as the gold standard by which other informational sources could be judged. To hear that there were four "serious" science errors in it came as a bit of a shock.

In thinking about it, I find myself wondering if science is changing at such a rapid rate that it makes it difficult to stay on top of the entries. Which, of course, leads to the question: What about the other categories beyond science?

I've said it before and will say it again. Wikipedia is a great place to START your research, especially when you don't have a clue as to the terms you'll need for a broader search.

Jimmy Wales himself was recently asked whether students and researchers should cite Wikipedia. His response: "No, I don't think people should cite it, and I don't think people should cite Britannica, either -- the error rate there isn't very good. People shouldn't be citing encyclopedias in the first place. Wikipedia and other encyclopedias should be solid enough to give good, solid background information to inform your studies for a deeper level." (BusinessWeek Online)

Take that, Britannica.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Here Comes Alexa

This week Amazon.com issued an announcement that made the world of search engines sit up and take notice.

In June, 1999, Amazon purchased Alexa, a San Francisco search engine founded in 1996. Alexa is one of the smaller search engines (ranked 77th for Internet tools and Web services by Nielsen/Netratings).

Amazon now says that it will allow software and Web developers to request customized data searches. According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), a "test version of this service, called the Alexa Web Search Platform, will be widely available to the public" as of December 13th. This "new service will give developers access to specialized content, let them create more exciting applications and, in some cases, alleviate potential work for start-up companies."

Let's be specific. We're not talking about horizonal (generic) searches. Instead we're talking about vertical searches--the kind of focused search that has been the subject of a lot of attention recently.

Advertisers are demanding more from their Internet dollars. The original Google business model where an advertiser paid every time a consumer clicked on their ad is simply too subject to error and fraud. Instead of the broad horizontal searches that Google is known for, advertisers want to target consumer-rich niche markets. Vertical searches are targeted to a specific market. Remember my blog of 12/6 in which I talked about Jason Calacanis selling his group of one hundred niche blogs to AOL for a reported $25 million dollars? "While few blogs generate much revenue, they introduce a new, promising micromedia model. Blogs are cheap, easily updated, and can focus on a niche market with passionate followers--an advertiser's dream." (BusinessWeek Online)

Alexa offers the same kind of promise to Amazon. The WSJ gives an example of a Ph.D student in the Netherlands who used Alexa to build a website that lets Internet users identify music when all they know is the melody. "People who use his Web site to identify certain songs will . . . if interested, follow links to buy relevant music CDs on Amazon's Web site." The student receives a commission for each sale.

Other search engines are trying to capture targeted advertisers' revenue. Google recently announced its Local Search program that allows consumers to find vendors in their own neighborhood. Google is also reportedly building a database of individual users' interests and tastes.

While Google, Yahoo and Microsoft do permit limited access to their Web indexes, the type of customized data searches that Alexa is prepared to offer developers is not something that other commercial search engines generally allow.

The WSJ articles closes saying: "Amazon stands to benefit as more developers create applications . . . that encourage Internet consumers to buy products from Amazon. . . Amazon plans to charge small fees for storage and use of its computers and tools on the Alexa Web Search Platform."

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Some Closure on a Wikipedia Scandal

On 12/2, I told the story of John Seigenthaler, the 78-year-old man who discovered that a prankster had written a false biography about him and submitted it to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.

On 11/29, Mr. Seigenthaler wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today. His article attacked Wikipedia on several fronts: (1) He called the encyclopedia "a flawed and irresponsible research tool"; (2) He was angry that it took from 5/26 to 10/5 before Wikipedia erased the reference which "depicted me as a suspected assassin"; and (3) He was frustrated by his inability to uncover the person who had defamed him.

Although he had the Internet Protocol (IP) address for the prankster and traced it to a customer at BellSouth Internet, he was informed that federal privacy laws protect the identity of a communications company's customers. Short of a subpoena, BellSouth Internet would not give up the name.

On Sunday, (12/11), the New York Times printed a story unmasking the writer of the false biographical entry. Daniel Brandt, a Texas book indexer, took up Mr. Seigenthaler's cause and set out to find the prankster. He tracked the IP address to a delivery company in Nashville where Mr. Seigenthaler lives.

It turns out that the operations manager of the delivery company, a 38-year-old man named Brian Chase, had written the entry as a gag to surprise a co-worker who knew of the Seigenthaler family. Mr. Chase later explained that he did not believe Wikipedia was a legitimate encyclopedia. When he realized the commotion he had caused, Mr. Chase wrote a letter of apology to Mr. Seigenthaler and hand-delivered it to his office. He also resigned his job at the delivery company. Mr. Seigenthaler urged the company not to accept Mr. Chase's resignation.

One final note on this story: While Mr. Seigenthaler declined to sue Mr. Chase after receiving the apology, he expressed surprise that he had no legal recourse against Wikipedia.

CNET News agrees with that assessment. In a story on 12/7, they said: "Thanks to Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act (CDA), which became law in 1996, Wikipedia is most likely safe from legal liability for libel, regardless of how long an inaccurate article stays on the site. That's because it is a service provider as opposed to a publisher such as Salon.com or CNN.com." CNET News also quoted Roger Myers, a San Francisco attorney: "One of the reasons Congress passed the (CDA) was to encourage service providers and other (sic) who make their space on the Internet available to do monitoring without assuming liability. . . Congress was very specific about this."

As I explained in a follow-up blog on 12/5, Jimmy Wales--the founder of Wikipedia--has since decided that he will no longer permit unregistered users to post new entries to the encyclopedia. In theory, this will make people think twice before posting false or malicious data. However, I suspect this is not the last we will be hearing about Wikipedia pranks. With all the exposure this story and the Adam Curry story (see my 12/5 blog) garnered, there will probably be college students and other hackers who will try their hands at inserting false stories. My guess is that Wikipedia is going to be forced to install more safeguards to prevent hacking.

I am very glad Mr. Seigenthaler finally got closure on this issue and will be able to put it behind him.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Further on HarperCollins

I wrote yesterday about an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on HarperCollins Publishers' new strategy with respect to the digitization of their books.

The company issued a corporate press release on Monday. In it, Jane Friedman, president and CEO of HarperCollins Worldwide was quoted as saying: "In keeping with our commitment to be a 21st century publisher, our content needs to be available in a digital format. We have a vision of the future and this is a significant step towards achieving that vision. We are putting our digital house in order so that we are prepared to offer consumers book content in new ways and with a variety of partners . . . The world we live in today is increasingly technology driven. HarperCollins is going to move with the technology."

HarperCollins plans to issue a "Request for Proposal" to seek a vendor to digitize their books on a global basis. Yesterday's WSJ article mentioned that "While HarperCollins will let the Internet companies search its books free, it is hoping that some of them will help share the costs of digitizing the books."

So the negotiations begin.

After my blog on Sunday in which I said, "technology cannot be stopped," Ms. Friedman's words were music to my ears. It's time that publishers and authors get in front of the digital revolution instead of standing on the sidelines screaming about it.

AOL Still Hasn't Made Up Its Mind

I backed myself into a box yesterday by writing two blogs--one on AOL and the other on HarperCollins. Guess I need to follow up on both stories today.

Let's start with AOL. BusinessWeek Online (BWO) reported yesterday as follows: "Efforts to find a partner for Time Warner's AOL Internet unit are taking longer than expected . . . The media giant has been in discussions with Google and Microsoft, which are both interested in creating a joint venture with AOL. Time Warner had hoped to begin exclusive talks with one company or the other by Friday, 12/9 . . . that timetable was 'optimistic.'"

The BWO article said that, as of Sunday, both Google and Microsoft were still in the running, and it may not be possible to nail a deal down before year's end.

Google is a motivated negotiator. If Microsoft edges them out, Google will lose its role as AOL's search engine to Microsoft's MSN. That partnership with AOL accounted for 11% of Google's revenue for the first half of this year.

To complicate matters, Time Warner is under attack from activist stockholder and billionaire investor, Carl Icahn. Mr. Icahn--who with partners owns almost 3% of Time Warner's stock--has been putting enormous pressure on the board of directors. He believes that Time Warner should be broken up into its constituent parts.

In a surprise move, on Sunday, Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL, wrote a controversial article for the Washington Post (WP). In early 2001, Case managed the merger between Time Warner and AOL, becoming the executive chairman of the new AOL Time Warner. Two years later, following the reporting of an enormous loss for 2002, Case was forced to resign, and the company dropped the AOL from its name. Case remained on the Time Warner board of directors until 10/31 of this year.

In his newspaper article (entitled "It's Time to Take It Apart"), Case joined Icahn in pressing to break up Time Warner. He proposes splitting "the conglomerate into four freestanding companies--Time Warner Cable, Time Warner Entertainment, Time Inc. and AOL--each with its own strategy, stock, balance sheet, management team and board." (WP)

Referring to the possibility that Time Warner would sell a minority stake in AOL to Microsoft or some other investor, Case says, "'Given that Time Warner failed to capitalize on AOL's potential during a period when it owned 100 percent of AOL, it seems doubtful that a scenario in which it has a lesser, but still controlling, stake will work better.'" He closes by saying, "It is time for a change at Time Warner. For the sake of shareholders, employees and customers, the best option now is to liberate the disparate businesses and let them compete on their own." (WP)

I don't envy the Time Warner board. On one hand, they have Microsoft and Google champing at the bit. On the other, they have Carl Icahn--a notorious corporate raider--along with their own former executive chairman arguing to break up their company. In between are the thousands of stockholders to whom they must answer.

BusinessWeek Online says it well: "In a business where the top four players [AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google] are roughly equal in size, combining two of them into an Internet powerhouse could yield huge strategic and financial benefits--and establish the dominant player in the medium of the future."

Monday, December 12, 2005

HarperCollins' Plans to Digitize Their Books

This morning's Wall Street Journal (WSJ) prompts me to do a rare second blog for the day.

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg and Kevin Delaney did a story on HarperCollins' plans to maintain control of the digitization of their books. "Along with a recent initiative by Bertelsmann AG's Random House, the initiative signals a growing desire by publishers to control and participate in some of the new online uses of their books."

At present, HarperCollins (HC) sends copies of their books to Internet companies such as Amazon or Google for digitizing. However, HC chief executive Jane Friedman said they have decided on a change in strategy. HC "will create a digital file of books in its own digital warehouse. Search companies such as Google will then be allowed to create an index of each book's content so that, when consumers do a search, they'll be pointed to a page view. However, that view will be hosted by a server in the HarperCollins digital warehouse."

This means that HC will control how much of any book that a search engine can access. The search engine will still be allowed to crawl the HC website to create an index. Brian Murray, group president of HC Publishers, says, "'This would prevent such Internet companies from selling a digital copy of that book unless HarperCollins decided to partner with them as a retailer. . . We'll own the file, and we'll control the terms of any sale.'"

HC had been a willing participant in Amazon's "Search Inside" program, which is similar to Google's "Book Search" program. Consumers are permitted to read several pages of a book to help them decide whether to purchase it or not. Ms. Friedman said that this has boosted her backlist sales by 6% to 8%. However, Amazon's recent announcement of its Amazon Upgrade program caught her off guard. The Upgrade program allows readers to pay an additional small fee for "perpetual online access to the physical books they buy through Amazon's Web site." Ms. Friedman became concerned, saying, "Is ownership physical possession, or is ownership defined by intellectual property?"

HC is now seeking bids to scan and digitize their active backlist of approximately 20,000 books (plus as many as 3,500 new books each year).

In yesterday's blog, I expressed a wish that the print industry would get ahead of technology instead of lagging behind in the way that the music industry has done. This is a prime example of a publisher doing just that. This initiative allows for the digitization of HC's books, but keeps the control with the publisher. It will involve a huge upfront expense (Ms. Friedman estimates the cost of the backlist plus new books for one year will be in the vicinity of seven figures). However, it then puts HC in an enviable position when negotiating with potential partners to sell the books online.

Bravo for HarperCollins!

Google or Microsoft -- Which Will AOL Choose?

With three weeks until the end of the year, many eyes are on Time Warner's AOL unit to see which direction the company is going to take. Will AOL increase its relationship with current partner, Google? Or will AOL sign on with Google's archenemy, Microsoft (MSN)?

This is the sixth story I have done on the wooing of AOL. If you want to follow the thread, here's the list:

10/13 Everyone Wants to Take AOL to the Dance
10/18 AOL Has ANOTHER Suitor
10/20 AOL Announces Layoffs
11/14 It May Be Time for AOL to Make Up Its Mind
11/15 Pre-Nuptial Talks Continue

In my last story on the subject on 11/15, I said, "I may be wrong, but this makes me wonder if Microsoft isn't ahead in the marriage sweepstakes."

On 12/7, both the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and BusinessWeek Online (BWO) did stories about AOL's forthcoming decision. BWO agreed with my earlier assessment, saying: "Many outside observers believe that MSN has the edge."

"The talks have been scaled back since earlier this year, when they included the prospect that Time Warner would sell a minority stake in AOL. But Time Warner has decided that the legal, regulatory, and managerial obstacles of a partial sale would be too complex, and it prefers to strike a commercial agreement instead." (BWO)

In an earlier story on 11/11, BusinessWeek Online speculated that a Microsoft investment in AOL might raise antitrust issues that could take up to a year to resolve. AOL doesn't have that kind of time. They need to generate ad-revenue growth now. In addition, investor Carl Icahn warned Time Warner on Wednesday that he will be closely watching any deal they make for AOL, and that they had better not under-value the company. For these reasons among others, it appears that Time Warner has decided not to sell an outright interest in AOL. Instead, they are looking for a partner for AOL.

The WSJ indicated that Microsoft is pushing "to hammer out final details of a partnership that could boost the online ad reach of both [AOL and MSN] and pose a challenge to Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc." Apparently Microsoft was willing to guarantee Time Warner a minimum amount of revenue, which--to date--Google has been unwilling to do.

"Search-ads are the biggest segment of the online advertising market. The search-ad systems such as those run by Google and Yahoo display ads when users type key words in queries . . . Advertisers bid in an auction system to have their ads displayed alongside specific phrases, such as 'digital camera.' Advertisers like the system because they pay only when a consumer clicks on an ad." (WSJ)

The WSJ suggests that a MSN/AOL partnership could reach nearly 140 million Americans each month compared to 122 million users of Yahoo and 86 million for Google. More importantly, BWO points out that MSN could help to change the demographics of AOL's users. "AOL's online advertising business isn't as profitable as that of Yahoo or Google. That's because advertisers believe that Yahoo and Google command a higher percentage of broadband users, as well as a higher percentage of daytime users who surf the Web at work. Rival AOL still is viewed as a medium for dial-up customers who log in at night. By combining AOL with MSN, Time Warner could attract more daytime and broadband users, boosting its profitability." (BWO)

Scott Kessler, a stock analyst, was quoted in the WSJ saying, "'Suddenly the competitive landscape looks a lot less favorable to Google for next year at this time compared to last year at this time. . . It would be a mounting threat to Yahoo' as well."

Word is that Google is still in there pitching to partner with AOL.

A final deal is expected to be announced any day now.

Who will it be . . . Microsoft or Google? Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Looking at Copyrights From Another Angle

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) had an article that caught my attention on Thursday. "Music Labels See New Threat From Satellite Radio" approached the copyright wars from a different angle than we've been following with Google Print.

"The beleaguered music industry faces a new, unexpected threat in its battle to protect copyrights and royalties: the arrival in stores of new satellite-radio receivers that mimic iPods in their ability to store and organize hundreds of songs." (WSJ)

I don't know about you, but I haven't paid much attention to the satellite radio phenomenon. When I listen to radio, it's generally NPR. Before reading the article, all I knew about satellite radio was that Howard Stern was going to Sirius to escape what he saw as a repressive atmosphere at his current station . . . and because he was offered a $500 million dollar contract over five years.

A year ago, Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. and XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. had slightly more than four million subscribers between them. Subscribers--as in people willing to buy a special radio AND pay $13 a month to listen to hundreds of music and talk radio channels. By the end of this year, the WSJ estimates that "the two services should have nearly 10 million paying subscribers between them." That's a huge jump. And that's before Howard Stern begins broadcasting for Sirius starting next month.

Now both services are poised to introduce new radio receivers which will permit subscribers to record and organize songs "as if they had bought them individually, for instance by setting up playlists and deleting songs they don't like. Because both services offer niche channels, it becomes easy for users to quickly find artists or songs they want and store them." (WSJ)

The music industry is understandably upset and argue that the new receivers are essentially recorders that permit subscribers to obtain songs without paying for them. "The new radio receivers tap into deeply held anxieties at record labels, which are trying to embrace new technology at the same time they fight off widespread online piracy of their product. The music industry has seen sales of recorded music fall steeply in the past six years, in part because of the industry's inability to harness new technologies." (WSJ)

The new receivers aren't cheap. The Sirius S50 retails for about $330, but can store almost 750 songs--more than even a comparable iPod. While portable, it must be placed in a docking station to receive the satellite-radio signal. It's only a matter of time before these receivers become truly portable, allowing the subscriber to listen anywhere.

To complicate matters, "(t)he current agreements under which the two satellite-radio companies pay labels for the right to play their music are expiring next year and must be renegotiated . . . The labels now want to boost their rates, saying they gave satellite favorable rates years ago when it was a struggling new technology." (WSJ)

Many people are familiar with the Mp3.com lawsuit where "(i)n 2000, a federal judge in New York ruled that Mp3.com's copying of CDs without permission infringed upon the record labels' copyrights." (The Salon, Farhad Manjoo, 11/9/05) In fact, the author and publishers' lawsuits brought against Google Print for copyright infringement have been filed in the Southern District of New York where that case is an important precedent.

Our copyright laws have not kept up with our technology. If we have learned anything from history, it is that technology cannot be stopped. Technological advances eventually win out and, in the process, change social mores, economic status and legal viewpoints.

The lawsuits being brought today over music and print copyright issues are just the beginning. I hope the print industry will be more far-seeing than the music industry has been to date and, instead of trying to stem the tide, will figure out how to sail with it.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Word of the Year

It’s Saturday morning and I have a full day planned. A short blog before I take off. Enjoy the day!

CNET News reports that the New Oxford American Dictionary of English rejected inclusion of the word “podcast” last year because it was not widely enough known. “Now, however, illustrating the technology’s rapid growth in popularity, the term is not only being added, it’s been declared the dictionary’s Word of the Year.”

The word is defined as “a digital recording of a radio broadcast or similar program, made available on the Internet for downloading to a personal audio player.”

According to a story in the BBC News on Wednesday, “the term was coined by journalist Ben Hammersley and although originally derived from combining ‘broadcasting’ and ‘iPod,’ this definition has become something of a misnomer as podcasts can be listened to on any digital music player.”

Some bloggers have been lobbying for a more generic term such as “blogcasting.” However, it appears podcast is here to stay.

The BBC article also listed some of the words that did not make the cut for the coming year’s dictionary: “bird flu,” “sudoku” (a logic puzzle) and “trans fat.”

Two tech terms that also didn’t make the cut were “lifehack” and “rootkit.” Lifehack refers to a more efficient way to complete an ordinary task, while rootkit refers to software installed on a computer by someone other than the owner that conceals other programs or files (a recent example would be the program Sony hid in its music CDs to prevent copying).

Friday, December 09, 2005

Let's Define the Terms

Yesterday I blogged about a writing scam. Today let’s talk about avenues to being published. Unless otherwise specified, the definitions that follow are my own, cobbled together over a couple of years of studying and reading about the world of publishing.

Years ago, the distinctions were simple: you had legitimate publishers and vanity presses. A legitimate publisher solicits authors’ manuscripts for commercial sale and distribution. This means that the only revenue the publisher will receive is from sales of the author’s published books. The costs the publisher incurs include advances to the author, editing, printing, binding, marketing, warehousing and distributing the books. Hopefully, the end result of this long process will be revenue for the publisher and royalties to the author. Legitimate publishers include large press houses and small press houses.

A vanity press, on the other hand, solicits manuscripts with the intent of providing services to the author who pays for them. Those services include the editing, printing and binding of books. Some vanity presses have added warehousing charges and advertising to their menu of services. The author pays for all of these services. Recently, vanity presses have signed deals with bookstores through which they “market, distribute and sell” the books for the author. Again, the author pays for these services. The term “vanity press” comes from the industry-wide belief that the book is only being produced to satisfy the writer’s vanity.

Since the author pays for all production and distribution costs, book sales do not produce revenue for the vanity press. They receive their monies upfront from the author. Any revenue from sales goes back to the author to offset the dollars they’ve already paid out.

Legitimate publishers need to be choosy in which manuscripts they accept. If they make a mistake and the book does not sell well, the publisher loses money. This is not the case with vanity presses. Their upfront fees are their source of revenue. They don’t care about the quality of the manuscript. This is why they are held in such low esteem by the industry.

There was a very funny expose of one of the big vanity presses in 2004. PublishAmerica advertised itself to wannabe writers as a legitimate publisher that was very selective in the manuscripts it chose. To prove that this was not true, a group of sci-fi writers joined together to produce the worst possible book they could. The result was “Atlanta Nights” by Travis Tea (pronounced “travesty”). On the Critters website (http://critters.critique.org/sting/), Dr. Andrew Burt proudly displayed the acceptance letter dated 12/7/04 from PublishAmerica’s Acquisitions Editor reading “I am happy to inform you that PublishAmerica has decided to give “Atlanta Nights” the chance it deserves.” Yeah, right.

I want to introduce two other terms to this discussion: self-publishing and print-on-demand (POD).

Self-publishing refers to an author who seeks a printer to produce bound copies of the writer’s work. The fees are substantially less than those charged by a vanity press. The reasons for self-publishing are varied. A writer may wish to produce a small number of books as a memento for his family and friends with no intention of selling the book on the open market. The work may be of a scholarly nature and not of interest to a large audience. The work may simply not be commercially viable.

In some cases, writers choose the self-publishing route with the hope of shortcutting the process to becoming published. This very rarely works out. The name that jumps to my mind is M.J. Rose, who had a background in marketing when she deliberately chose to self-publish her first book, “Lip Service,” in 1998. Because of Rose’s marketing expertise and her use of the Internet to advertise and sell “Lip Service,” the book went on to become a Literary Guild/Doubleday Book Club choice; and Rose eventually got a contract with a legitimate publisher. Again, this is exceedingly rare.

By now, you’re probably thinking the boundary between vanity press and self-publishing is a little squishy, and you’re right. It is. Sometimes defining whether a particular book has been produced by a vanity press or self-published depends on who is doing the defining. Either way, a writer who claims to be “published” when s/he paid for the experience is not likely to get much respect from the industry at large.

Print-on-demand (POD) is a technology. It is not a synonym for vanity press nor for self-publishing. It is simply the digital technology that allows for the printing of a specific number of books based upon the demand for that book. The beauty of POD technology is that it saves warehousing costs and permits as few as one or two books to be produced after consumers place orders for them.

I firmly believe that, someday soon, the combination of the new book search ventures and POD technology will provide authors with an opportunity to sell their books long after the books have been removed from booksellers’ shelves. If a reader finds your book on Google Book Search three years after publication and POD technology is offered as a way to purchase that book, you would still be able to earn royalties on that sale.

I wince when I hear someone saying POD when they mean vanity press, or when a person calls a well-known vanity press “their publisher.” In order to be taken seriously, writers need to learn the terms used to discuss publishing.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Anatomy of a Writing Scam

No matter how often professional groups and advice mavens like Miss Snark and Joe Konrath caution writers against paying fees to get published, it seems there are always writers so anxious to see themselves in print that they ignore the warnings.

On Monday (12/5), a particularly nasty scammer admitted her guilt in the U.S. District Court in Albany.

The U.S. Attorney's Office alleged that Martha Ivery defrauded wannabe writers from May, 1995 through September, 2002. According to the Albany, New York Times Union, "(p)rosecutors say she took as much as $700,000 from 200 writers."

I thought it might be instructive to examine how Martha's scams worked. Hopefully, we can all learn something from it. The information that follows comes directly from the indictment in the case of the United States of America v. Martha Ivery, also known as Kelly O'Donnell, Defendant.

Critical to the con was the fact that Martha created two personas: Kelly O'Donnell, literary agent; and Martha Ivery, the publisher of Press-Tige Publishing Company. She never disclosed to prospective authors that these two personas were one and the same person.

Right away you can see where this is going.

Martha/Kelly ran ads on the Internet and in Writer's Digest magazine soliciting clients. When a wannabe writer approached the Kelly O'Donnell Literary Agency, s/he was charged a fee for representation. Then the prospective author was advised that his/her manuscript needed editing and, of course, there was an editing fee. There were additional fees for illustration, marketing and copies of the unpublished manuscript. Eventually, the writer would be referred to the Press-Tige Publishing Company.

Martha/Kelly had a variety of excuses for the fact that the book remained unpublished years after the fees had been paid. These included: lost manuscripts, printing problems, computer viruses and production backlogs.

The Writer Beware website (www.sfwa.org/beware) says that, from 1998 to 2003, they received "scores of complaints" about Martha/Kelly. They also state that "Ivery was notable for her attempts to intimidate dissatisfied clients and people who attempted to expose her activities. Authors were told that she would 'blacklist' them so that publishers wouldn't look at their manuscripts." She also referred some unhappy writers to expensive vanity publishers, taking a kickback for doing so.

Writer Beware says that "(a)s a result of numerous author complaints (and lobbying by Writer Beware), a criminal investigation into Ivery's activities was launched by the FBI in 2001."

Ivery tried to extricate herself from the pending legal problems. She filed to place Press-Tige Publishing in bankruptcy in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of New York. She then turned around and created a new entity, New Millennium Publishing House, Inc. Displaying an almost unbelievable amount of chutzpah, Martha/Kelly approached the SAME wannabe authors and began soliciting new fees from them.

Since, in some cases, she solicited payments through the mail, Ivery incurred mail fraud charges for 15 of the persons she defrauded. The 15 felony counts were for amounts ranging from $1,665 to $10,025. Additionally, she had one count of credit card fraud and one count of lying during her bankruptcy filing.

The Times Union says that Ivery "faces up to 20 years in prison on the mail fraud charges, 10 years on the credit card charge, and five years on the bankruptcy charge. She could also be fined as much as $250,000."

No doubt, as I write this blog, there are wannabe authors out there preparing to write a check to the newest scammer on the block. Please, please, please don’t do it. Remember, if the operation is legitimate, the money should come to you, not be demanded from you.

If you want to be a serious author, there are no shortcuts. You keep working UNTIL.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Another Pitfall of the Open Source Approach

This is my one hundredth blog at this site--a milestone of sorts.

Yasmine commented on last night's blog: Maya, this morning as usual, my husband was listening to sports talk radio and one of the host was complaining about Wikipedia and how he ended up in it and how the description of him kept changing on a daily basis. His partner, a former football player, was also listed.

One of the things about the open source approach that has strongly attracted me is that it gives voice to people who have not previously had a voice.

Historically, the loudest voices have belonged to those who published newspapers or, in more modern times, owned radio and television stations. They could decide which stories to run and which stories to ignore. More recently, some newspapers and other media outlets have moved from news reporting to news slanting. On 11/10, I blogged about cancelling my daily newspaper after being a long-time subscriber because of my dissatisfaction with the subtle and increasingly not-so-subtle slanting of the news.

Of course, others have always tried to make themselves heard. In colonial America, we had the pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine who distributed pamphlets that expressed their political opinions. Practically, however, those efforts were limited to the pamphleteers' ability to print and distribute the brochures.

Today we have blogs and podcasts which anyone can create, giving them a voice that can be heard around the world. The power of the blogosphere was first seen three years ago this week. Trent Lott's racist statements in support of Strom Thurmond at Thurmond's 100th birthday party were largely ignored by the traditional media. It was a blogger who called attention to Lott and his previous history of racism. Other bloggers picked up the story and kept it alive until big media began to cover it. Lott, the Senate Minority Leader, was forced to resign in shame.

While I applaud this new democracy giving voice to everyone, I understand that it also is incumbent upon us to become more critical readers/listeners. Just because something appears in a blog or on a podcast or on a website such as Wikipedia, does NOT make it true. We need to learn to separate opinion from fact. The most recent example of this is the debate between evolution and intelligent design.

A good friend of mine teaches freshman college English. She spends a good part of the section on writing a thesis teaching her students how to discern good source material from bad source material. Even so, every semester, she ends up having to fail students who--ignoring her instructions--try to hand in papers filled with inappropriate references.

I hope our elementary schools will begin to include a curriculum on critical thinking. The downside of so many "voices" is the need to differentiate among them.

Thanks, Yasmine, for the comment that prompted this blog.

Happy Birthday to my friend, Carleen. Best wishes for a successful, happy and healthy year to come.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Happy Birthday to the Blog

Next week, the blogosphere will celebrate the eighth birthday of the term "weblog." Jorn Barger, who started an online journal on his Robot Wisdom website, coined the term on December 17, 1997. It was another fifteen months before Peter Merholz made the noun a verb as well by shortening the term to "blog" as in "we blog."

What started as a group of independent-minded mavericks has now evolved into a big-budget business. On October 6, 2005, Jason Calacanis sold his group of niche blogs called Weblogs, Inc. to AOL for a reported $25 million dollars. Calacanis will continue to run the unit for AOL. According to BusinessWeek Online (BWOL), the reason he sold Weblogs was "his frustration has been that he can't expand fast enough to meet advertiser demand without making large investments in technology and staff." AOL's deep pockets will permit that expansion.

Why would AOL lay out that much money for a group of approximately 100 unrelated blogs? "While few blogs generate much revenue, they introduce a new, promising micromedia model. Blogs are cheap, easily updated, and can focus on a niche market with passionate followers--an advertiser's dream." (BWOL)

While most bloggers are not raking in the kind of money that Calacanis did, the New York Times (NYT) reported recently that "(m)any blog writers have signed up for Google's AdSense program, which started in 2003 and pays Web publishers based on how many times advertisements on their sites receive clicks. Google places the ads on participating Web sites using contextual word matching, in an attempt to ensure that the advertisements relate to the content on the page."

There are other business models through which bloggers earn cash. According to the Times, "affiliate networks" permit bloggers to choose the advertisements that run on their blogs. Another model pays the blogger according to the actual sales that result from the ad instead of according to clicks on the ad. In other cases, bloggers are paid for linking to a company's home page (helping the company to move up on search engine results).

All of this is to say that blog advertising is now very big business. Previously closed source (proprietary) companies have begun to recognize the value of advertising revenue. Hence AOL's interest. I reported on October 18 that, as subscribers to AOL's very expensive dial-up service deserted for faster broadband connections, AOL realized it needed to change its strategy. In a creative move, the online giant began making its programming available for free, counting on advertising revenue on the free pages to make up for the lost subscriber income.

Now AOL has torqued off some of its paid subscribers. The week before Thanksgiving, without warning and without asking permission, AOL began to run advertising banners on their PAID subscriber's blogs on AOL Journals. This arrogance and short-sightedness seriously angered a number of consumers who have been very vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction.

AOL's blunder even prompted Jason Calacanis to scold his new partners. In his blog on www.calacanis.com on November 26, Calacanis said: "We'v (sic) got a ways to go before we make this right with the user base . . . I'm in favor of taking the ads down for now, . . . We should also apologize to the members and contact the folks who've left and offer them something to come back."

I found Calacanis' lengthy blog full of insight and wisdom. He suggested that AOL should begin its own series of blogs to communicate with their consumer base. In essence, he is describing a more intimate form of consumer interaction--and, after all, isn't that what blogging is in the first place?

At age eight, blogging isn't even a pre-teen yet. It will be interesting to see if the deals made with corporate America today change the nature and flavor of tomorrow's blogs.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A Sticky Wiki(t)

On Friday, I wrote about 78-year-old John Seigenthaler and his fight to clear his good name on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia.

Yesterday's (12/4) New York Times had an article on the Seigenthaler incident called "Snared in the Web of a Wikipedia Liar." The Times talks about Wikipedia, which was started by Jimmy Wales in January, 2001, and which "has, by most measures, been a spectacular success. Wikipedia is now the biggest encyclopedia in the history of the world. As of Friday, it was receiving 2.5 billion page views a month, and offering at least 1,000 articles in 82 languages. The number of articles, already close to two million, is growing by 7 percent a month. And Mr. Wales said that traffic doubles every four months."

Jimmy Wales told the Times that he was troubled by the Seigenthaler incident and said, "(w)e have constant problems where we have people who are trying to repeatedly abuse our sites."

Now, a second Wikipedia scandal has surfaced. According to CNET News, on Thursday "former MTV VJ and podcasting pioneer Adam Curry was accused of anonymously editing out references to other people's seminal podcasting work." Essentially, the charge is that Curry--in order to enlarge his role in the history of podcasting--removed references to others' contributions to the medium.

A quick review of the blogosphere this morning had Curry being bashed from hither to yon by dozens of bloggers. Rogers Cadenhead's "Workbench" blog reports: "When someone edits Wikipedia without logging in to a user account, the IP address is recorded to guard against abuse. Four times this year, an IP address controlled by Curry, 82.108.78.107, has made revisions involving the early history of podcasting." Cadenhead lists each edit Curry made and calls the man a "glory hog."

According to CNET News, Curry bristles at the accusations being leveled against him. "'That I'm trying to inflate my role in the history of podcasting is a mean-spirited claim . . .but the meme took, and now I'm the (jerk) of the week.'"

Meanwhile, Jimmy Wales is trying to decide how to protect his beloved Wikipedia. CNET News reports that, effective today, only registered members will be permitted to create new Wikipedia articles, barring anonymous entries (although not anonymous edits). He also told the Times that he was starting a review mechanism by which readers and experts could rate the value of various articles. He hopes that this effort will help to reveal strengths and weaknesses as well as patterns.

Tama Leaver, a postgraduate student in English and Communication, echoed what I said in my blog of 9/22 when she says in her blog: "While I think the Wikipedia is a fantastic resource, I'm often skeptical about it's (sic) day-to-day reliability. In most cases when students ask, I suggest they use it as a starting point but try to find other sources and references."

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Open Source: Capitalism or Communism?

I was amused to read an op-ed piece in Slate, the online magazine, on November 22. Adam L. Penenberg, an assistant professor at New York University, wrote the article entitled "Red Herring."

In reaction to disparaging comments about the open source movement by executives associated with companies that have a closed source philosophy, Penenberg argues that "the open-source movement isn't communism."

He explains: "The philosophy behind open-source software is simple. Instead of zealously protecting source code--the blood and guts of any computer program--open source encourages any programmer to tear apart the code and build it back up again. The theory is that this collaborative process encourages innovation and decreases bugs by increasing the number of people with a stake in the project."

Public criticism from Internet heavy weights started a few years ago, when "Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer called the open-source operating system Linux 'a cancer.'" In January, 2005, Bill Gates "suggested that free-software developers are communists." Most recently, in November, 2005, Shai Agassi, a member of the SAP executive board, referred to open-source software as "intellectual property socialism."

According to Penenberg, "(t)he Web owes its existence to open source . . . If it weren't for free open-source software, companies like Amazon, Google, and Yahoo!--all of which run Linux (open source operating system)--might never have got off the ground."

Professor Penenberg says: "Gates, Ballmer, and Agassi say that open source is software socialism that stifles innovation. But it's the capitalists who have the tech world stuck in the mud. Microsoft's ham-fisted control over its software has done more to set back technological progress than a thousand open-source projects."

As I have said time and again, Microsoft is the ultimate closed source company. And why not? Their aggressive efforts to protect their programs have given them 95% of the consumer PC market. But Penenberg warns, "the World Wide Web is an entirely different matter."

Even while companies like Microsoft and SAP slam the open source movement, they are not above borrowing its ideas and techniques. Penenberg points out that Microsoft is moving into earning money from advertising with its "Windows Live" system.

And remember Frank Gens' comment quoted in my blog on Friday: "The 'go it alone' model of innovation is an endangered species in the IT industry, and incorporationg a community-based innovation model--e.g., open source--is quickly becoming an important ingredient for market leadership."

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Technology Bumps Up Against Copyright Law

After writing yesterday about a malicious hacker taking advantage of the open source system, a news item this morning caught my attention.

Yahoo! News reports on a new kind of scam.

Erik Marcus is a vegan and an animal activist. Since 1997, he has operated the www.vegan.com website. From Vegan.com, you can access his podcast, Erik's Diner, which he currently records three times a week. According to Yahoo, "Marcus discovered that downloads of his podcast had suddenly diminished after he had gradually won an audience of 1,500 regular listeners."

Marcus began to investigate. He checked the Yahoo directory for RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feeds. The directory (www.podcasts.yahoo.com) had a listing for Erik's Diner, but it directed listeners to www.podkeyword.com instead of to www.vegan.com. Marcus found that Apple's iTunes also used the podkeyword.com address for Erik's Diner instead of the vegan.com address.

Marcus contacted podkeyword.com to demand that they make the directory changes. And, this is where the story gets interesting. According to press reports, the site allegedly made demands for money to release the podcast.

Refusing to yield to extortion, Marcus sought legal assistance. Colette Vogele, head of the law firm Vogele & Associates, says that they are investigating Marcus' legal options.

"'I do think this is a classic situation of a new technology trying to fit into existing legal structures," Vogele says.

On Vogele's website, Marcus explains that the scam did not involve swiping passwords or any overtly illegal method. "Rather, it merely involves finding a target podcast, and creating your own unique URL (address) for it on a website you control. You then point your URL to the RSS feed of the target podcast. Next, you do what it takes to make sure that as new podcast search engines come to market, the page each engine creates for your target podcast points to your URL instead of the podcast creator's official URL."

I went to the Yahoo directory and searched for Erik's Diner. I found two listings: One for www.cooking.podkeyword.com last updated 11/4, and the other for www.vegan.com last updated 11/30. It appears that Marcus has started all over again from scratch.

For its part, Yahoo expressed dismay. Their spokesperson said, "Open content formats provide tremendous benefit to podcasters and their audience, and it's disappointing that individuals are abusing the technology that the emerging podcasting industry is built on."

The Sydney, Australia Morning Herald did a story on RSS extortionists today. They tell of another podcaster who claims a similar thing happened to him with podkeyword.com. They also indicate that Marcus' attorney explained that "(w)hile there was currently no specific legal remedy, . . . there were other channels that could be investigated including unfair competition, trademark infringement/dilution, computer fraud and abuse, trespass, right of publicity and misappropriation."

This story illustrates two things: that an open source approach can be twisted by nefarious persons for their own purposes; and that our copyright laws have fallen behind our technology. We already know that the Google Print situation is headed for court. At some point, our legal system will have to address the pirating of podcast content, too.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Impact of Open Source

Since early October, I've been nattering on and on about the open source approach. I'm not going to repeat it all here now (start with my blogs for October 5 and 6 if you're interested). Suffice it to say that Google is one of the chief proponents of an open source approach which is a collaborative, sharing approach while Microsoft (until very recently) has been the poster child for a closed source or proprietary approach.

CNET News this morning had an interesting article in which it talked about predictions for the future with respect to IT (Information Technology) spending. It quotes Frank Gens, senior vice president of research at IDC, as saying, "A critical new ingredient we'll see (in 2006) is the acceleration of disruptive business models; 'open innovation' in IT product and service development--the open-source effect--and online delivery of IT as a service--the Google effect."

"Gens also believes that open-source-like collaboration will grow in popularity." He goes so far as to say, "Most of the big market share leaders in IT--e.g., Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, SAP--got that way by keeping tight control over their own product development. The 'go it alone' model of innovation is an endangered species in the IT industry, and incorporationg a community-based innovation model--e.g., open source--is quickly becoming an important ingredient for market leadership."

When you read articles like the CNET one, it's easy to fall into a position that an open source approach is all things positive. Today, I'd like to talk a bit about the dark side of open source and some of the potential pitfalls.

On Tuesday, John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist, wrote a very personal op-ed piece in USA Today about his own open-source experience. In late May, he discovered that Wikipedia, the wildly popular online encyclopedia, had a reference about him that read:

"John Seigenthaler Sr. was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."

The first part of that reference was true. Seigenthaler WAS the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. However, the stuff about his being suspected of being involved in the Kennedy assassinations was a malicious fabrication. However, it was a malicious fabrication which was picked up and repeated on other websites such as Reference.com and Answers.com.

How could this happen, you ask? It happened (and can happen again) because Wikipedia is an open source effort. I wrote about this in my blog of 9/22 entitled "Do You Wiki?" I explained that Wikipedia's entries are written "collaboratively by volunteers." That means that anyone with knowledge on a subject (or even without knowledge) can write an entry and have it posted under the Wikipedia byline. According to Wikipedia itself: "Wikipedia is built on the belief that collaboration among users will improve articles over time, in much the same way that open-source software develops."

Seigenthaler, who was a pallbearer at Bobby Kennedy's funeral and who is now 78 years old, was understandably outraged. He contacted Wikipedia, demanding that they remove the falsehoods. It took four months for this to happen. And then it took even longer for the other websites that were quoting Wikipedia to remove the objectionable content from their sites.

Seigenthaler wrote the op-ed piece to announce, "I want to unmask my 'biographer.' And, I am interested in letting many people know that Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool."

Charles Cooper of CNET News talked about the Seigenthaler incident this morning. He said, "Maybe this is part of the price that we're going to have to pay for the open approach where the system's very strength sometimes turns out to be its Achilles heel: Somebody nursing a grudge can always pervert or airbrush the historical record."

In a little over ten years, the Internet has become as much a part of daily living as our microwave ovens, electric toothbrushes and cell phones. There's a tendency on the part of many people to accept anything they see written on the Web and--especially on sites as popular as Wikipedia--as gospel. We need to remember to think critically and to check our sources not just once, but multiple times.

Keep An Eye Out For This Lady

My good friend and critique partner, Jeanne Laws, has her website up and running. Check it out at www.jeannelaws.com.

Jeanne writes shapeshifter romances, and I do mean romances. She tells love stories, not sexcapades. One of the benefits of being her critique partner is that I get to read her stories first.

Jeanne is the editor of the Passionate Ink newsletter and is scheduled to write an article on shapeshifters for an upcoming LARA (RWA's L.A. chapter) newsletter. She recently finaled in the CONNections contest.

Keep an eye out for the name Jeanne Laws. You'll be seeing more of her.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

New Marketing Strategies for Books

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg had an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on building buzz for a book not yet published.

The book in question was “The Number,” a non-fiction retirement guide by Lee Eisenberg, not due to be released until January 3, 2006. However, according to the WSJ, “it has already been on the cover of New York magazine, written about in Money magazine and highlighted on numerous Web blogs.”

Trachtenberg describes the book’s author as a media-savvy former editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine.

Traditionally, publishing houses did not try to hype a book months before publication for fear that readers would be annoyed not to be able to purchase it immediately. Nowadays, though, with online booksellers permitting pre-orders, a reader can purchase a book long before its release. Recent news reports have been filled with stories of pre-orders of the Bill Clinton autobiography and the latest Harry Potter sequel. Paul Bogards, spokesman for Alfred A. Knopf, is quoted saying, the “ability to capture a sale before a book is officially on sale has had a profound impact on our business.”

The campaign for “The Number” was very carefully orchestrated, down to its date of release. The Free Press (an imprint of Viacom) planned for “the book to hit the stands in January, that New-Year’s-Resolution time of year considered to be optimum for self-improvement tomes.”

The publisher started six months ago by sending bound manuscripts to influential people likely to spread the word about the book. Then they sent galleys to reviewers in August. Next, they printed 3,500 hardcover copies to be given to retail representatives. Last month, Free Press began sending emails to about 300 influential bloggers. They did not issue the emails all at once; instead, they sent them in waves to keep the interest alive. Also, in October, the author started his own Web site (www.thenumberbook.com).

The publisher also hired BzzAgent Inc., described as “a Boston-based marketing company that specializes in creating word of mouth through the use of a nationwide system of volunteers.” In exchange for preview copies and Bzz points, one thousand volunteers will begin to spread the word about the book on December 7, 2005.

Trachtenberg says that other publishers are also following similar marketing strategies, which he says they have borrowed from Hollywood studios marketing schemes.

Does it work? The story ends with a quote from Constance Sayre, who received one of those 3,500 hardcover copies. “I’ve told all my friends about ‘The Number.’”