William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Evolution of a Killer Cover

I'm a firm believer in paying for professional services. My CPA costs several hundred dollars per year, but he's got decades of experience and knows how to trim thousands of dollars off of my family's tax bill every year (legally!) in ways that I couldn't hope to grasp. When you need legal representation, you don't try to muddle your way through a court case; you hire an attorney. Almost invariably, good professionals will return several times over the cost you paid for their services. This begs the question of why I've been so slow to take my own advice when it comes to publishing ebooks. Judge for yourself if I've made a smart move...

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When you sell a novel to a traditional publisher, the publisher typically takes responsibility for producing cover artwork. But when you're a small, independent publisher of your own material, you often start out with no budget for artwork and no prayer of generating enough revenue to have such a budget. As a result, the fledgling self-publisher does the best he or she can manage for virtually free. The trouble is that the results generally look free. Since we all inevitably judge books (and also short stories since we're talking about ebooks) by their covers, this does not bode well for sales and success.

A little over a year ago, I released my first ebook title, a poetry collection titled Rough Crossing. The photograph was donated by a friend, the ridiculously talented pro photographer Gary Wilson.

As you can see, it's not much of a cover. I have very little experience in graphical design, and it shows. The photograph itself is outstanding, but as a book cover this image fails almost completely. The text is illegible when the image is seen at thumbnail size -- which is how people will see it 90% of the time on ebook retail sites -- and all of those steel beams look like a tangled mess. Now, I know that nobody reads poetry, plus I'm giving the book away for free through Smashwords, so I don't lose much sleep over this early experiment.

Fast forward one year. I've now released a free collection of technology essays, two ebooks of fascinating "celebrity" interviews, and a short but sweet horror tale called "The Sound of Autumn Night." In each case, I've done the covers myself. For the short story, I bought two images from a royalty-free photo service. The total cost to me was $10 or $12 and an hour or two of Photoshop time. You'll probably agree that the cover's appearance matches its cost.

Heading into 2012, I've set myself a much more aggressive self-publishing schedule. First up on my to-do list is a short story I've been working on since last spring, a Civil War-era zombie story called "The Followers." Now that I'm into the home stretch on revisions and preparing to publish, I had to make a decision about the cover art: go big or go home? I've done the home thing up until now, and the results have been...well, they could be better. Ready or not, I think it's time to take my game up a notch.

One of my magazine editors volunteered to help on the story editing, and his input has, I believe, helped to improve the tale considerably. More to the point, though, his wife, Andria Cogley, is a design professional. We worked out a deal that my budding budget could manage, and I sent off an initial cover concept based on two royalty-free images pulled from iStockphoto.

Because cannons figure prominently in the story's battle scene, I thought that having a cannon on the cover would be pertinent to the content and convey the Civil War setting. As for the zonbi (an older alternate spelling that I use in the piece), I knew there was no way I could portray my key monster as I'd described her, bound and gagged on the floor of a tent. The makeup, modeling, photography, and time are far beyond my capabilities at this point. So I wondered about the one key standout characteristic of my creature and decided it was her eyes. With that, I was able to locate a piece of photography that could serve. I threw together the image you see here and sent it to Andria.

She requested a little time to sketch something out, and I expected a doodle, like something you'd do with a Sharpie pen and a cocktail napkin. This is what came back to me a couple of days later:

I was stunned. An electric thrill went through me the moment I first opened the image. I suppose that feeling you hear about when authors receive their very first copies of their first book in the mail might be more intense or fulfilling, but I'll tell you what. Every time I looked at this image, I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. Still, I knew it was a first pass. I replied back, noting my amazement as well as a couple of criticisms. One, I wanted the title to be bigger. I'd learned my lesson about readability at thumbnail sizes. Second, I thought the eyes were too sexy. The zonbi needed to be roughed up a bit. She was decaying, after all. My wife commented that she looked like a green version of the Na'vi chick from Avatar.

That was when my editor friend replied that his wife, Andria, had done the photography herself -- from a self-portrait. Ah. Awkward.

A few hours later, this revision came back. So much better! I confirmed that the text was indeed legible at the tiny size Smashwords shows for search results. I loved the scar running down the left eye (our left, not the zonbi's). But in doing the texturing, I felt the left eye had become oddly darker than the right. There was also a gap in the right eyebrow that had mysteriously crept in. Speaking of which, I commented that those were some very well-maintained eyebrows and lashes for a a Civil War-era corpse.

Andria did another version, lightening the left eye and patching the right brow. However, I now felt that the scar running down the eye looked too pale, making it look more like a Photoshop effect than a wound. Quickly and without complaint (at least that I could hear from 2,000 miles away), Andria issued a fourth revision, and I couldn't be happier.

I made this the background image for my triple-display Windows desktop. I still get a thrill every time I see it, and the constant reminder keeps my mind churning on what should be the final text revision now in progress. Hopefully, you agree with me that this is a kickass cover, and now I feel even more pressure to make sure that the story itself lives up to the incredible artwork.

The moral of the story, of course, is that it really is worth the money to use professional services, especially when you're trying to build a business. I'll be extremely curious to try and assess what impact the cover image has on sales over the coming months.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

It's OK Not to Know

In high school, I had a teacher/mentor named Tom Collins (no, not the drink) who taught me history and comparative religion but also a bit about human perception and life in general. His influence on my thinking was immense. One of his most oft-repeated mantras, spoken reverently like a Zen koan and always enunciated for emphasis in his slight Southern drawl, was this gem: "It's OK not to know."

Now, I went to a top-shelf private school, and one of the things on which you pride yourself in such places is having the intellectual tools necessary to find the right answer -- to anything. If you don't know something, you research, research some more, and keep researching until you figure it out. Getting this message drilled into me for four years was probably a key component in my future career as a journalist.

Being told "it's OK not to know" made no sense. What the hell do you mean it's OK? It's not OK! Not knowing is no better than being wrong! In fact, it's worse because at least if you're wrong it shows that you probably tried to get the right answer. I'd like to think that after two years of intensive study with Tom I finally understood what he was getting at. In reality, though, I probably didn't. Not entirely. Because here I am, over 20 years later, still trying to put the wisdom of those five words into practice every day.

As a culture, we hate not knowing. "Is is better to spank your kids or not? You don't know? Seriously? Don't you want to be a good parent?" "How are you going to vote in 2012? You don't know? Well, clearly you're an uncaring and ignorant sop who's content to leech off of society." "What are you gonna do with your life? You don't know? Well, that sounds like a recipe for failure. You're screwed."

It feels better to have an answer, any answer, than this terrifying chasm of ambiguity in front of us. The trouble is that when we jump to conclusions and reach for answers prematurely, we burn precious resources. Consider all of the people in college who don't really know what to pursue, but their parents are spending tens of thousands of dollars for them to be there, and everybody expects them to have a major, so they pick Psychology. Two years later, some epiphany hits, and they change to Materials Engineering. Now they know (or at least think they do) and are on a positive, motivated path. In the meantime, though, they've burned all that time and money going in the wrong direction because they felt an answer was necessary immediately. Not knowing was simply unendurable.

Knowing takes time, and unfortunately it usually takes more time than we're willing to wait. I'm reminded of my ridiculous dating career, in which I went through a succession of girls/women who were clearly wrong for me. I was flailing about, making terrible choices because I just didn't know what I wanted. After all, having made some decision was surely better than the loneliness and embarrassment of no decision at all...right? Then I met the woman who would become my wife, and I knew. How could I be so certain? I can't articulate it for you. It's like the difference between building a log cabin with tree stumps compared to accurately measured and cut timbers. You can see when it's right. You can feel it. You just know.

Knowing takes patience and fortitude. You have to understand that not knowing now is an essential part of the process of knowing later.

Which brings me to this blog. I follow several blogs, and they all seem to know what they're about. They keep tightly focused on their given topics, and each post clearly furthers that author's agenda. I think that's what a blog is supposed to do. Otherwise, why spend the time on it? I have mouths to feed, and if I wanted to wallow in my own thoughts, I'd talk to myself in the shower.

I originally envisioned this blog as a sort of "DVD extras" repository, a showcase of leftovers from my day job, thinking that this might benefit my journalism career somehow. For some people, I'm sure this approach works. It doesn't for me. I can feel the drafts and crazy tilting of that log cabin made from tree stumps. Flailing about, I've wandered through topics on education, low-carb dieting, and who knows what else. Clearly, I don't know what I'm doing here.

But that's OK. I believe it's OK not to know...yet.

There's the rub. The difference is the "yet." If you don't know what you want to do with your life, that's fine as long as you're working on it. We've got to make effort toward understanding. We can't just throw up our hands, say "well, I tried!" and watch more TV. That's just asking to fall into the pit of ambiguity and never be heard from again. When you don't know and you stop trying to reach answers, you're effectively dead weight.

I'm going to flatter myself and say that I think I've been experimenting with this blog rather than simply casting about aimlessly. With each post, I'm trying out new things in my mind, waiting for different ingredients to gel. I am "actively waiting" to know, if that makes any sense.

Over the last few months, I've seen glimpses of the direction I want to travel, and I'm very excited to see a path emerging under my feet. How will this blog fit into that path? I don't know...yet. I do know that I don't want to be a mouthpiece and repeat the works of others, nor do I want to offer yet another voice of commentary on current events. I just don't think I'm that unique or clever. But I'm not afraid to wait and keep experimenting, because when the answer arrives, I'll feel it, and hopefully you will, too. The timbers will stack neatly, the drafts will be plugged, and that cabin is going to be awesome.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Five Ways Your Old PC Can Help Create Super-Kids!

Being someone who works with and reviews a lot of computer gear, I have a fair collection of old, junky, really freaking slow entry-level PCs. Those nettops and netbooks that seemed like such a great idea when they debuted a few years ago? Got those. Old dual-core desktops in an age of quad- and six-core? Check. The Logitech Google TV unit that totally tanked here in the U.S.? Installed and in use. I've even got three VGA LCD monitors. Not DVI, not HDMI, not DisplayPort. Just old school VGA. You know what the difference is between VGA and VHS? Me neither.

However! I've also got two elementary school-aged kids, and they don't need to run eight browser windows alongside Photoshop, the entire MS Office suite, two more instances of OpenOffice, and iTunes, all while running active ripping software in the background. (Yes, that's my usual app load every day.) All they want out of their computing lives is to run browser-based games, and for that most of my secondary systems will work perfectly.

I'm willing to compromise with the kids on their computer time. They can have their gaming time, yes, but in return I want them to learn. There are so many gaping holes in their education, it's appalling. I'll try not to get into my long-winded rant about our K-12 educational system here, but suffice it to say that a) I think most parents are on their own when it comes to filling in these holes and b) after so many years of personal computing, most of us now have at least one or two such secondary systems laying about and gathering dust. Here are five uses I've found for such "mostly dead" machines that could make a world of difference in your youngsters' lives.

1. Typing. 

I don't know about your school system, but mine still seems to think it's 1986. Cursive gets taught to third-graders (and promptly discarded by fourth grade). Fifth graders have never even heard of PowerPoint. Students can't construct blogs for class projects because the district bans all student access to such sites. So far, the only purpose I've seen for the computers in my kids' school is to help quiz them on standardized tests. The machines aren't supposed to teach them anything, only help the school meet its state benchmarks...which, by the way, it fails.

I have always deplored handwriting, especially cursive. It's slow, untidy, laborious, and open to misreading. Compared to computer-based typing, it's simply an inferior method of written communication. Even worse, it's a bottleneck. Of course, all writing is a bottleneck. You have ideas in your head that need to get to the page, but there's this translation thing in the middle that has to happen, and sometimes that translation happens so slowly that you get bored or frustrated. This happens to my boys constantly. Handwriting stifles their creative development because it's so inefficient. People have told me that "some studies" have shown how the constant motion of handwriting helps to stimulate a certain region of the brain. Last time I checked, typing involved equally constant motion of the fingers. I bet no one tested that, though.

Solution? At the end of 2010, I paid $10 for a downloadable copy of Typing Instructor for Kids Platinum. (The price has gone up to $20 since then.) Ever since, I've had my boys practice with the software two or three times per week, 15 to 20 minutes per session. It's a fun mix of basic skills building plus video games. I wish the designer would update the software with more current-looking and challenging games, but the software suffices as it is.

The result is that, one year later, my nine-year-old can type at 30 WPM and my just-turned-seven-year-old is hitting above 25 WPM. [Correction: Thirty minutes after posting this, the little one also passed his 30 WPM challenge. Nothing motivates quite like sibling rivalry.] I have an incentive system for them to help with motivation, but the bottom line is that they're both now skilled enough to make typing their primary mode of written communication -- and both of them enjoy it! They think it's a blast to express themselves through a keyboard. In contrast, neither of them has had a kind word to say about handwriting as taught by their school. Ever.

2. Music.

Unless you're studying track mixing, it's obvious that nothing can replace learning to play music on a real instrument. Still, any musician will tell you that there's a lot of theory that goes along with true musical understanding, and this is where the Web can help.

As an example, check out Theta Music Trainer. Rather than try to chain your kid to some boring music textbook, why not let him learn the theory intuitively through game play?

Alternatively, don't underestimate the power of YouTube and streaming video. There are untold numbers of how-to videos on YouTube, but they can tend to be a bit scattered and haphazard in their quality. For something more systematic, look for subscription services, such as the one offered by Next Level Guitar. Compared to a one-on-one tutor at $30+/hour, such videos can't provide the same sort of personalized feedback, but if you're on a budget, getting all-you-can-watch lessons for $29/month or $75/quarter is not a bad deal.

3. Foreign language.

The same idea holds true for foreign language studies. I grit my teeth every time I think about my boys doing colored paper cut-out projects rather than learning Spanish or Mandarin. Once again, it falls to the parents to fill in the skills our children will need later in life that the schools are blatantly ignoring. Can that old PC help? If it can play YouTube, absolutely.

One of the best free sites I've found so far is SpanishDict. Short of having a live classroom or shelling out major money for a package such as Rosetta Stone, SpanishDict's collection of sequential videos, flash cards, reference resources, and more make this an excellent starting point for Spanish learning. I'm sure similar sites must exist for other languages, and if they don't, they will soon.

4. Math and science.

If you've followed or known me for any length of time, you know I'm a die-hard Khan Academy fanatic. There are many, many other sites for learning math and science, but this is far and away my favorite, with the cleanest interface, most effective lessons, and best management tools. The site is so good that, with only a $5 investment in a pair of small whiteboards and dry erase pens, both of my kids were able to complete arithmetic and move into pre-algebra long before their peers. My youngest boy even asks to pull up random Khan Academy science videos as a reward for good behavior. Last night we watched the video on whether the real universe is smaller than the observable universe and both of them found it interesting. Can you imagine an elementary school kid being exposed to ideas like this in the classroom? And there are literally thousands of videos and exercise modules -- all free, all for you.

5. College preparation.

Imagine if your child could get a free pass to sit in as many MIT classes as she pleased. You'd freak out, right? "A free MIT education?! No way!" But that's exactly what MIT's OpenCourseWare effort provides. There are over 2,000 courses from the eminent school's catalog, many with videos of every lecture, course notes, reading lists, on and on. The only things missing are the tests and homework feedback. And the labs. OK, and the parties. But you get the idea.

No employer is saying, "So you watched all of the course work necessary for a degree in Biology, but you didn't do the work? Well, that's good enough for us." But if you were a high school kid wanting to build expertise in a field and you had some spare time, or even if you were an adult wanting to bolster your knowledge in a field that could impact your income, wouldn't you take the time to study some of this material? Could you possibly find a better or more authoritative source?

If MIT doesn't suit your taste, check out the list of other institutions involved in the OpenCourseWare initiative: Tufts, University of California, Paris Tech, Kyushu University, on and on. And again, all it takes to participate in this mind blowing, world class educational opportunity is a cast-off computer with enough horsepower and Internet bandwidth to run YouTube.

You know how competitive and globally "flat" the economic landscape is becoming. My children's prospects for the job market in 10 years or so are daunting to say the least. If our kids don't have these skills and knowledge, rest assured that their international peers, all of which will be able to telecommute over the Internet just as easily as we can, certainly will. Most of us have the gateways to these digital assets sitting idly in a corner or closet. Brush them off, plug them back in, and turn your kids loose into a world of learning that none of us had the chance to enjoy and leverage when we were young.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Top Reviewer Tackles "Architects, Vol. 2"

You never really know if a given strategy is any good until results start to arrive. I sent a copy of my recent ebook, "Architects of Tomorrow, Volume 2," to Amazon top reviewer (currently #114 in the world) BigAl for his perusal. He'd read and liked Volume 1 well enough, but would he find Volume 2 repetitive? Would the shorter length seem lazy rather than accommodating? Would the interviews be as interesting? I had no idea...until now.

BigAl posted the review on his Books and Pals blog, giving Volume 2 four our of five stars and this conclusion: "Anyone with an interest in technology, where it has been, and where it might be going, should enjoy this new volume."

I couldn't ask for better than that. Thanks so much, BigAl! And for those of you who've also been kind enough to download the new book, if you could spare two minutes to leave a quick review on the title's Amazon page, I'd be immensely grateful!