STC Summit 2010

May 7, 2010

I just returned from the Society for Technical Communication (STC) Summit in Dallas, TX. The conference this year had a much more optimistic feel than the last couple of years. This year, I actually met more people looking to hire than looking to be hired, which was not the case at the last two conferences. Of course, given that those looking for jobs often don’t have the means to travel to a conference, I wouldn’t argue this is conclusive evidence of an upturn, but it was encouraging.

As has been the case with nearly every conference I’ve ever attended, the greatest value came from interactions outside the sessions (of course, the sessions are essential, they provide a framework both in terms of the schedule and the topics of discussion, but they are just the starting point). What struck me most from both the sessions and the informal discussion is that the technical communication community is fully embracing the technologies and methodologies that have been bubbling around for the last few years. In particular, XML (esp. DITA) and social media are mainstream. The questions and discussions centered around how best to use these tools, not whether to use them.

I had the opportunity to visit with nearly all of the XML Press authors (Robert Delwood, Anne Gentle, Brenda Huettner, Alan Porter, and Zarella Rendon), plus meet a few prospective authors.

I also had the opportunity to do the following video podcast with Tom Johnson about XML Press and our current offerings. For more information about these books and other offerings, go to xmlpress.net. One note, the video was done on the spur of the moment with no chance for me to prepare, and I forgot to mention our newest author, Robert Delwood, whose book, tentatively titled “The Secret Life of Word” looks at how technical communicators can get the most from Microsoft Word (Sorry, Robert).


Amazon to E-Book Publishers: Change or Die

February 3, 2010

Regarding $10 eBooks, while I agree that this is the price point that the market seems to be headed for for widely distributed books, it is important to note that while this works well for big publishers (they set much higher retail prices that Amazon then discounts to $9.99), it doesn’t work well for smaller publishers or for niche publications, which don’t get the same discounting.

Because Amazon takes a very large chunk of the sales price, and bases the publisher share on the list price, there is a lot of room for uncertainty. If you have a best seller, it’s easy; you price where you want, and unless you’re crazy about it, the price will become $9.99. If you don’t have a best seller, then you need to set a price, see how it gets discounted, then adjust until the discounted price is one that you feel is fair for your customers, but still yields a fair profit.

I think most small publishers would prefer a scheme that takes the guess work out. In practice that would mean a smaller percentage to Amazon (good), but smaller (or no) discounts (not so good). Amazon seems to be signaling a willingness to do this, both in the Macmillan case and in other actions. Overall, I think that is good, and I’m guessing it will not push prices higher in the long run (the market ultimately will set prices).

Richard Hamilton
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost


Book Review: Writing in An Age of Silence, Sara Paretsky

November 4, 2009

I have a weakness for books about writing and am a fan of Sara Paretsky’s fiction, so her memoir, Writing in An Age of Silence, was a natural choice. While it was not at all what I expected it to be, it is a compelling read. Yes it’s a memoir, and it reveals much about Paretsky’s background and how she came to be a writer, but there’s much more going on here.

If you’ve read her books, you won’t be surprised to discover that Paretsky is an unapologetic liberal, with a strong sense of social justice. She rails against the then-current Bush administration (the book was published in 2007), and expresses her views on civil rights, Chicago politics, feminism, the Patriot Act, women writers, and mystery writing.

This slim (138 pages) volume is cogent and concise. It reminds me of Molly Ivins books, though Paretsky lacks Ivins’ wit. Both write clearly (or wrote, in the case of Ivins, who died in 2007) about politics, but without the maddening over-simplification that characterizes so much political writing these days. Paretsky uses her skills as a story-teller to create compelling, and sometimes hair-raising arguments. Her indictment of the Patriot Act is particularly effective. I’ll admit that about two-thirds of the way through, I got a bit bogged down in a somewhat repetitious argument about women’s reproductive rights, covering points she’d made more effectively earlier, but for the most part her arguments are to the point and strong.

Regarding writing, she talks more about her personal motivation for writing and how she created her characters than about writing per se. This is not the place to go to get tips on tightening your prose or step-by-step instructions on how to create a passionate protagonist. But, if you pay attention, the book itself is a case-study in both. And, along the way, she has some fascinating insights. Her analysis of Dashiell Hammett’s books and how they influenced her writing has put a re-reading of The Maltese Falcon high on my list, and she may have even convinced me to tackle a book that “real men” wouldn’t be caught dead reading, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

While I found the political arguments compelling, it was her personal story and her insights into literature that kept me reading and in the end lead me to recommend this book.


WebWorks RoundUp 2009

October 21, 2009

I’m just returning from WebWorks RoundUp 2009. It was a road trip (I drove to Austin from Colorado), my first solo road trip in years, and so far it has been a blast.

First of all, thanks to WebWorks for providing copies of two XML Press books to attendees. All attendees got complimentary copies of my Managing Writers and Anne Gentle’s Conversation and Community, and XML Press gave away a copy of Alan Porter’s forthcoming book, WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit.

I thought the conference was a model of the kind of conference a company should have for customers. While the conference is open to all, it is primarily focused on WebWorks customers, who are an interesting, enthusiastic group of people, who are not shy about expressing their opinions.

I was equally impressed with the management team; the top managers were there throughout, accessible to the audience, and participated in most of the sessions, as moderators and participants. They got some honest (i.e., tough) comments from the audience, and handled them well. That said, the positive out-weighed the negatives by a mile.

The conference was divided into two tracks. The first was a “Boot Camp,” which matched up customers with technical experts, with a loose focus (things like Automation and DITA) that as far as I could tell served mostly as ideas for discussion. The second was a more traditional panel-focused set of sessions, with some case studies. This is where I spent most of my time.

Stewart Mader, author of Wikipatterns, gave the opening talk and joined the first panel, which centered on wikis and social media. His talk and the panel set a direction to the conference around wikis and using wikis as part of documentation. He brought up, though no one really answered, the question of whether you can use a wiki as your complete documentation set. I suspect it will work with some, but not all, products.

XML Press authors Anne Gentle, Alan Porter, and I were all there, and we all participated in panels (not all together, unfortunately; that would have been interesting). Anne spoke about her book, Conversation and Community, and also joined a panel on DITA with Lisa Dyer and Georg Eck. Alan participated on several panels, including one that I also joined about content development best practice, which refreshingly concentrated on what goes between the tags, rather than the tags (the idea of concentrating on what goes on between the tags was from Bob Sima of Tedopres).

Tom Johnson, author of the I’d Rather Be Writing blog (a must read) gave the keynote for the second day, talking about the “Seven Deadly Sins of Blogging,” which has been the topic of several good, recent blog entries on his blog.

Overall, I found the conference interesting and entertaining. I also found my first real visit to Texas since living there in the late ’70s to be a lot of fun. I’d forgotten a lot about Texas. Here are a few tidbits:

  • First barbecue place I passed headed south on I35 had the following billboard (approximately, though the name of the piece de resistance is literal):

    Big Fatty’s Barbecue, home of
    El Farto Grande

  • Sign in the men’s room of two different places, including the conference hotel, warning you to not drink alcohol if you think you might be pregnant. Reliable sources tell me that the women’s room in the hotel did not have that sign
  • Under the category of “2nd Amendment anomalies,” I visited friends in a new housing development in Texas that featured a prominent “No Firearms Allowed” sign at the entrance to the development. Clearly an enclave of Damn Yankees (I learned when I lived in Texas that there is no such thing as a Yankee; you’re either a Damn Yankee, or you’re ok).
  • My favorite definition of the conference, courtesy of Mary Anthony, who gave a very interesting talk the first day. She defined agile methodologies as “Developers gone wild.”

Book Review: How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely

October 13, 2009

In a word, hilarious. I haven’t laughed this much reading a book in years.

Peter Tarslaw is a recently graduated English major working for a fly-by-night college essay “polishing/editing/writing” company. Writing essays by day and drinking cheap beer by night, he might have settled in for years of the same. But, in quick succession, his former girlfriend, Polly, announces her wedding plans, his employer folds and lays him off, and he sees an interview with Preston Brooks, best selling author of books with titles like Kindness to Birds (description in a faux New York Times Book Review: “On a journey across the Midwest, a downsized factory worker named Gabriel touches the lives of several people wounded by life.”).

Peter takes this as a call to action and decides to manufacture a best seller. His adventures navigating a world of pharmaceutically enhanced writing, desperate book publishers, horny writers, book tours, campus visits, Polly’s wedding, and a meeting with Preston Brooks himself are both hilarious and sadly plausible. He is a wonderfully self-aware, but clueless narrator, and his journey to–well, you’ll need to judge for your self if it’s success or failure–is a hoot. Highly recommended.