Monday, April 26, 2010

Book Review: The Big Life of a Little Man

Sometimes you find books on the shelf, and sometimes by a recommendation.  This time, I discovered the author.  Sherry Kelly with her husband Don had been told by a friend to try selling her book at a science fiction convention.  They came into the dealer room, looking for their table, which was directly across the aisle from mine.  They came well prepared, with a projector to show photos from the book and various visual aides.  It didn't take me long to get caught up into their story.

The Big Life of a Little Man is the biography of the famous dwarf actor Michael Dunn who I remember from the Wild, Wild West television show as Dr. Lovelace. He was also Sherry Kelly's cousin and her depth of research included 175 footnotes, and that doesn't count all the little remembrances I heard across the aisle over the course of the weekend.  So by Saturday, I was intrigued enough to buy a copy for myself.

It's now Monday, after reading the whole book through in one sitting.  It's an engrossing tale, not only of an actor I remembered from back when, but also a engaging story of the other side of that life, his family.  Sherry includes many quotes from letters and stories from Michael Dunn himself as well as from a family that had gone the extra mile to raise a child with physical problems into a man with a full life that stamped his own imprint onto the world.

To be honest, I'm not a huge reader of biographies, so I can only review this book as a tale, a story of emotion, struggles, victories and defeats.  Like I said.  I read it in one sitting, it carries a strong narrative, and with enough details about the man behind the actor that I really need to put the Wild, Wild West DVD's  and the movie Ship of Fools on my viewing list. And I think after you read the book, you will too.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My "Website"

My web presence has grown over the years.  Back in the early '90s I had the earliest site on the corporate network where I worked.  By the late '90s I had moved added a personal site out on the wide web.  Take a look at this from the Way Back Machine, "The Melton Page".

Part of what I did was a blog, even before that name was invented, and over time, I ported the personal blog thread to Idle Thoughts hosted on Blogger.

As it became clear to me that I needed an 'Author's site', I branched off of my "Melton" site and created a place dedicated to my writing, where I could list my works and post some writings.  The first domain name I acquired was for this site.  From a hand-coded collection of pages, it gradually evolved to the iWeb managed site for people who are interested in my work.

When I began publishing and created Wire Rim Books, I first attempted to use the Google Pages to host a website as the public face of the company.  After struggling with the crude tools and templates available there, I created a second iWeb site at where the focus was on the books published by the company.  It was a place for press releases, catalogs and collected reviews.

There were plenty of one-shot places as well, like Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace.  I would have to do a bit of research to track them all down.  Each time I added another, it was clear that keeping them all current was an impossible task.  The site and the sites were heavily cross-linked to reduce duplication.  Browse around on one and you're likely to end up on the other.  They can easily be thought of as one website.

When Twitter rolled around, it was clear that this was a happy way to add current information to many of the sites.  A little snippet of code could be included in each of the other sites and recent tweets would show up on appropriate sites.  When I added a Facebook 'Fan' page, there was the option to tweet whenever I posted something to the page.  Currently, Twitter is the core of the information flow among the sites, although I can start by tweeting directly, or by posting something writing related to the Facebook Fan page.  If it's not writing related, I skip directly to Twitter.

The same applies to my Blog entries on Idle Thoughts (like this one).  If it is writing/publishing related, I'll announce the blog post on the Facebook Fan page.  If it's a blog about something else, like a snake in the swimming pool, I'll announce it on Twitter.

It's definitely a complex web of information, but that's why it got that name, isn't it?

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Hook-em Rating

Have you seen this rating pattern when you're looking for a product on some on-line store.  I'm finding it more and more common, and I've been calling it the 'hook-em' pattern.  After all, I do live in the Austin, Texas area and the well known finger pattern is universal around here. (Except for the Aggies.) 

The rating split is usually because some subset of the raters are upset about something, usually having nothing to do with the quality of the product itself.  People can give feedback in two ways on most systems, an actual text review, and a quick numerical score, so it's pretty easy to find what the hot-button is that's causing the trouble, and the artificially low scores.  I suppose it could work the other way too, with a poor product with some people giving it high marks for good intentions or something, but I expect that's rare.  

In practical terms, I tend to just ignore the one-star scores because they generally have nothing to do with what I'm interested in -- a feel for the quality of the product.  What is dangerous are those systems that don't give you this kind of bar-chart look at the distribution of scores.  In that case, the single number score can get seriously distorted, and mislead the shopper.

So cheers for the stores that give you more data.  

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Getting into the Apple Bookstore with ePub 1.0.5

The first thing that caught my notice when the iPad was first announced was that they would have a bookstore.  The second thing that was clear, after lots of research, was that there was no easy way for a tiny publisher like me to talk to the Apple people.  I monitored the publishing news and sure enough, there's a new word out there–"Aggregators".

Apple has contracts with Lulu, Ingram, LibreDigital, and perhaps others to serve as aggregators of small publishers and self publishers.  I've been looking at the details and the first thing that stands out is the tougher standards required for the ePub files.  You see there are ePub books that work, but there are also ePub books that pass the 1.0.5 standard validators.  Only the latter need apply.

So...I found the validator at where it's a free download.  The program is java, so it's fairly portable.  It's easy to run in a terminal session:

hjmmbp:epubcheck-1.0.5 hmelton$ java -jar epubcheck-1.0.5.jar /Users/hmelton/Desktop/GoldenGirl.epub 
Epubcheck Version 1.0.5

ERROR: /Users/hmelton/Desktop/GoldenGirl.epub/OEBPS/text/content004.xhtml(15): attribute "name" not allowed at this point; ignored
ERROR: /Users/hmelton/Desktop/GoldenGirl.epub/OEBPS/text/content004.xhtml(17): attribute "name" not allowed at this point; ignored
ERROR: /Users/hmelton/Desktop/GoldenGirl.epub/OEBPS/text/content005.xhtml(13): attribute "name" not allowed at this point; ignored
ERROR: /Users/hmelton/Desktop/GoldenGirl.epub/OEBPS/text/content006.xhtml(13): attribute "name" not allow

I was horrified to see that my lovely ePub files weren't validated.  Actually, there was one that passed.  But the others needed minor work.  Tedious minor work.  I had created my books using various work-flows.  I had used Dreamweaver to do the HTML markup.  I had exported ePub from InDesign CS4.  I had converted some from mobi format using Calibre.  And most of them had been through Sigil for various touch-up fixes–and been subjected to Sigil's built-in tidy which modifies the code.  The end result was code that worked, but code that didn't pass the validator.

Now, I didn't actually need to download and run my own copy of epubcheck since the nice people at Three Press Consulting run a web version of the same software where you can upload you files and test them.  I wanted my own version so I could run it faster and with less net traffic and command line software doesn't bother me, but your tastes may vary.

Once I discovered the errors, there comes the difficulty of fixing them.  Sigil failed me.  I would open the ePub file, correct the offending code, save the file and retest–and discover that the error was still there.  Either I was making some kind of cockpit error, or Sigil was 'fixing' by code by putting back the elements I was removing.  

I decided to go back to my roots.  You can 'explode' an ePub file with the command:

unzip -d work FallingBakward.epub

Then in work/OEBPS/text there are numerous files that contain the xhtml code of the book.  I dropped into vi and went to work.  Any text editor would probably work, but I was feeling very command line oriented, so vi with all it's handy shortcuts was my choice for the day.  Using the error codes from epubcheck points you right to the problem:  
ERROR: /Users/hmelton/Desktop/GoldenGirl.epub/OEBPS/text/content004.xhtml(15): attribute "name" not allowed at this point; ignored
This says that in the file content004.xhtml, on line 15, there is an extraneous name attribute.  A few keystrokes, and it's gone.

Repeat for every error line.

Now comes the process of putting the ePub file back together.  Google took me to a nice comment on the process at where the magic sequence is:

cd work

zip file.epub -X0D mimetype
zip file.epub -X9rD OEBPS
zip file.epub -X9rD META-INF/

Now you have file.epub which you can run through the epubcheck validator again and see if any additional errors have popped up.  Repeat until it's clean.  

If you have any plans for putting your ePub files into Apple's bookstore, you'd better get your files validated and ready.  Good luck.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Packing My Jeep Box

I'm in the habit of carrying a box in my car that contains a collection of my books.  From time to time, an unplanned conversation will lead to the question, "Where can I buy your book?"  Having a portable bookstore at hand has led to a few sales from time to time.

When the shipment of Pixie Dust arrived a couple of days ago, that meant I had to repack the box, to take out a few other books to add the new ones.  I can keep this up for a while, until I have more than 20-some titles out, and then I'll come up with another solution.

I was happy to find these boxes as Office Depot.  The brand name is "Really Useful Box" and the 17L size works quite nicely with my 6x9 trade paperbacks.  The interior is rectangular, rather than the sloped sides of many other tubs, so I can pack the books in straight.  There's a little space that is normally unused, but for those tubs I put out in the cars, I include "Keep It Dry" packets of desiccant.  The box seals fairly tightly, so the interior stays dry even in the rainy season.  I also use these boxes in my office and carry them to the convention tables.  Mary Ann is starting to use the same kind of box in different sizes for her artwork when she has a display tent.

So, if we meet on the street, ask me if I have a book for you.  I probably will.