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Food Expo Quite a Bargain

28 Jun

Bianca Alpaca (left) of San Antonio waits for Author Beth Ziesenis to sign her Upgrade to Free book

Oh, if only the afternoon could have been longer. Quick is the best way to describe TSTC Publishing’s recent visit to the 74th Annual Southwest Foodservice Expo hosted by the Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) at the Dallas Convention Center.

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What’s New at TSTC Publishing

11 Feb

What’s up at TSTC Publishing?

Well, for one thing, the publishing arm of Texas State Technical College just moved to new offices in Patterson Hall. Since a skunk had staked out the foundation space in our former offices, we welcomed the move to new bright cheery offices on the first floor of Patterson.

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Books About Publishing: The Merchants of Venus

4 Nov

Much to the ongoing dismay of my blushing bride I keep buying books at a rate that vastly exceeds my ability to read them. Moreover, as I travel around on various trips I always stop in at every Half Price Books I come across to see if they have any books on publishing, book design, and the like. It’s gotten to the point with these books that I don’t even get to bring them home; instead, they go straight to the office to get piled on a bookshelf there. (My rationale for this is that one of my dream of dreams would be to teach in a book publishing program some day and that these are necessary reference materials.) So that’s why one of the books that’s been kicking around in the back seat of my car for a while since I bought it is The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance by Paul Grescoe.

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Book Editing: A Rarity

12 Oct

Nothing can be more irksome for an editor than when someone, usually English teachers, call out mistakes in a published piece. Sometimes mistakes happen, especially in a fast-paced environment like a daily newspaper.

I never liked having my gaffs, when they did make it to print, pointed out, and I try not to point out gaffs others make, especially in material already published. But, I find myself noticing errors now when I read more than I used to, and find it hard not to comment, at least to myself, about those errors.

Periodically, over the past two or three months, I’ve been making my way through Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars by David Silverman (Mark reviewed this book in an earlier post) and I’ve become bogged down noticing errors that shouldn’t have escaped the copyeditor’s eye, for example, “In the morning I didn’t feeling very prepared to meet with Jose Bembo, the father of the brothers who ran the company and the money behind it.” Is the sentence supposed to read “I didn’t feel”? or “wasn’t feeling”? or some other variation? There are persistent inconsistencies in this book, and this one falls on page 65.

Thursday, some marketing and sales reps from Delmar Cengage Learning were at the school hawking their books, and I visited their booth. When I introduced myself, one of the sales reps (or was it a marketer?) said, “You’re a rarity.” Yes, I am unique. Of course, what he meant was this: It’s rare now for any publishing company to have an in-house editor.

I knew vaguely this was true, having looked at publishing from the other side of the looking glass: the aspiring writer reading books, magazines and blogs to learn about how to market, submit and publish my writing. I knew the intimate relationships forged between writer and editor like those of Max Perkins and (insert name of famous literary novelist at Scribner’s in the early 20th century) were long gone, fading even in the golden age when Perkins worked. But, I didn’t know just how far those relationships had faded.

From what I’ve been reading and hearing of late, publishers are much more interested in having marketing and sales reps on board to push the books out into the world, a world I keep hearing is less hungry for books than ever before (if this is true, however, what exactly accounts for the success of Amazon and Barnes and Noble–though B&N has longevity on its side). At the same time, publishers are sending manuscripts out for freelancers to edit and design (not to disparage freelancers, given that I also freelance) their books.

Not to fault publishers for wanting to sell books. Publishing is a business after all, and businesses want to make money and profit from their ventures. But to cut costs by cutting in-house editors and designers seems risky. As a reader, who also happens to work as an editor and writer, I get bogged down by errors that stand out, just as my readers did when I gaffed at the paper. (Then again, I also get bogged down by things not so apparent, like the inconsistent use of drop caps.) Isn’t sacrificing the reader’s satisfaction leaving the publisher at risk of losing customers, or does it really matter, as long as the bottom line gets filled?

I didn’t set out to call out Soft Skull Press, who published Silverman’s book. Their books are nicely designed, and Typo itself is fascinating (I prefer the narrative memoir style over just nuts and bolts plain-facts of most business books) — who would have thought a general-interest book about a failed business venture in typesetting would be so quirky and appealing? I just hope the editor was, like most of us in publishing, overworked and underpaid, when he or she undertook the copyedit of Typo, and that publishers take a greater stock in producing quality books over ones that are simply marketable.

Oh, and if you spot any errors in this blog post, feel free to let me know — I won’t get irked. At least not this time. (And the fragment is intentional.)

Todd

Books About Business: Typo

6 Jul

Continuing my trend—starting with The Smartest Guys in the Room—of reading books about grand business failures, I recently finished the just-published Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars by David Silverman. It’s about how he and his mentor bought Clarinda, a large typesetting company, in the late ‘90s that they—slowly at first and then quickly—drove into the ground. I’ve wanted to write about this book for a while but have been mulling over exactly what to say because, overall, I mixed feelings about it.

I really like the way that the book—as what I would consider creative nonfiction—related both the anecdotal side of the typesetting industry along with specific business and technical details. (In particular, I liked the informal financial statements that came at the end of each chapter/section.) This combination is something I’ve been looking for in a book more specifically devoted to book publishing but have yet to find. That is, you get memoirs like Jason Epstein’s Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future or straight nuts-and-bolts publishing information like Dan Poynter’s The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print, and Sell Your Own Book, 15th Edition but I haven’t come across anything that has really effectively married those two approaches in one book nearly as well as Silverman does.

On the downside, whether intentional or not, Silverman never comes across as particularly likeable or sympathetic. Part of this is certainly because of the situation he found himself in: He went from IT geek to president of a company without ever having supervised or managed anyone in his life. In addition, his primary motivation seemed to be almost exclusively money: to turn Clarinda around, go public, and then cash out. Consequently, he never really demonstrates much affinity for his employees (at all!), his customers, books in general or typesetting in particular. One final thing that really struck me was that—I would guess—at least 4-6 times in the book he talks about how fat the women are that he finds himself around. I mean, that may well have been true but, given the fact this was a characterization that didn’t register with me as occurring with men (or, even more importantly, relevant to the subject at hand), all it ultimately did was make him look even more like a jackass unsympathetic. At the very least, some judicious editing of about six or so sentences in the book would have put him in a more positive light.

I think the best lesson that the book shows budding entrepreneurs is that you must do the necessary financial due diligence for both the specific company you want to start/buy as well as the industry in general. Very late—too late for Clarinda—in the book Silverman finally breaks down which of Clarinda’s offices are making money and, not too surprisingly, it turns out that the company was effectively dead on arrival from the point he and his partner Dan Coyne had bought it, mainly due to industry outsourcing of typesetting to India. (Not all of this is Silverman’s fault by any means; there is a whole subplot concerning the way Coyne bamboozled everyone involved from the top to the bottom.)

Certainly, for anyone interested in the big issues of globalization and outsourcing as well as entrepreneurship and typesetting or even just how (not) to manage your employees, this is a book with a wealth of information in it despite, in my opinion, not coming from a particular likeable narrative voice.

Mark

Recommended Business Resources: The Smartest Guys in the Room

19 Jun

Yesterday I was back in the office after taking a few days off last week to catch my breath at this point during the summer production cycle and do some reading. I was able to finally start (and finish) Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone: A Novel, a fairly good example of “country noir” (although not quite as strong as his Tomato Red or, my all-time favorite, The Death of Sweet Mister which has an ending that has the horrifying impact of being run over—repeatedly—by a dump truck). Currently I’m working my way through Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Oryx and Crake because I needed a break before tackling the noir-ish No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, which I’m determined to read before the Coen brothers movie version comes out this fall. (I’ll have to wait a couple of years before Ridley Scott’s version of Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West is released; it’s hands down my favorite McCarthy novel by far.)

Anyway, all that aside, I did get a chance to read a business-related book I picked up several weeks ago at Books-A-Million. At the front of the book was this statement from the company under discussion:

Our Values

RESPECT: We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment. Ruthlessness, callousness, and arrogance don’t belong here.

INTEGRITY: We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly, and sincerely. When we say we will do something, we will do it; when we cannot or will not do something, then we won’t do it.

COMMUNICATION: We have an obligation to communicate. Here, we take the time to talk with one another . . . and to listen. We believe that information is meant to move and that information moves people.

EXCELLENCE: We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything that we do. We will continue to raise the bar for everyone. The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we really can be.

Sounds good, right? (The more cynical reader might be more inclined to say “typical” and/or “generic.”) These are the sentiments that people like to hear and the kinds of things we are often told by businesses and other organizations. The key thing here is that all too often there is a big difference between what we’re told versus what we’re shown. And, when you’re a company like Enron—and the statement above came from their 1998 annual report—that point is illustrated all the more clearly.

At one point in the late ‘90s and early 2000s Enron was the darling of Wall Street and one of the largest and most influential energy companies in the country. After a series of accounting, trading, and other business-related scandals Enron fell apart very quickly and very publicly at the end of 2001. This is very well documented by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, both senior writers at Fortune, in The Smartest Guys in the Room. After this book came out, a documentary of the same name Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was released; I’ve seen it a couple of times before reading the book last week and it is a good introduction to the wealth of more detailed information presented by McLean and Elkind.

By the time Ken Lay took Enron over as CEO in 2001 after Jeff Skilling’s departure, an internal study of morale at the company made “brutally” clear, as reported by McLean and Elkind, that:

“. . . the CEO’s exalted notions of Enron’s culture were a delusion. ‘Instability and chaos’ were the defining features at Enron. . . . employees complained bitterly about senior management’s ‘lack of corporate vision’; ‘there appears to be no long-term thinking, strategy, or game plan.’ Enron’s constant reorganizations—six in just the previous 18 months—were a running joke. The PRC [the employee evaluation committee structure] was viewed not as a meritocracy but as ‘punishment.’ Only deal makers got ahead; ‘no one in the corporate leadership truly cares about those charged with executing the deals and making them actually produce profit.’ Enron’s lack of discipline wasn’t something noble that nurtured creativity; it was destructive and demoralizing. Commented one Enron employee: ‘We’re a major corporation still acting like a dot-com start-up.’”

There are a lot of specific lessons to be learned from this case study known as the Enron debacle—far too many to go into here (Hey! Read the book! Watch the movie!)—but there are certainly some general principles that leap to the forefront: making a deal is one thing but satisfactorily fulfilling the obligations of the deal is another set of equally important concerns, transparent accounting is a necessity, hubris is a losing bet over the long haul, and you can’t have multiple/contradictory codes of standards and conduct, either internally or externally.

In the end, for having come across this book by virtue of having seen the documentary and wanting, subsequently, to learn more of the in-depth details of Enron’s rise and collapse, I would have to say this is one of the best business management books you could read. That is, management books with perky maxims and/or too-brief and under-explained happy case studies are one thing; books that show how the best of intentions can lead to the worst of failures can be both compelling and insightful.

Mark

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