A scathing review is better than no review

Sarah Lacy doesn’t care for the recent New York Times review of her book, and is turning lose the hounds of blogging hell on the article author, Katie Hafner. Without, of course, linking to the article in question, which the egalitarian elite of Silicon Valley never do when peeved.

Lacy believes the review is overly personal, seemingly because to her, criticizing her book is somehow equivalent to criticizing her, as a person. However, the review is focused on the book, including issues of writing style, such as Lacy’s use of incomplete sentences.

The writing is, at best, informal. For instance, the last time I checked the American Heritage Dictionary, in spite of how computer trade journalists might choose to use the word, “architect” was not recognized as a verb, to say nothing of “rearchitect.” And Lacy’s fifth-grade teacher would no doubt wince at the profusion of incomplete sentences. (“Probably a good thing few women work there.” And “The time Jay and Marc were chatting when Sumner Redstone sauntered up.”) Then again, everything happens so quickly in Silicon Valley that perhaps there is no time to write a proper sentence.

Whatever anecdotal information is included in the review is all focused on the book, including the reference to the article that originally inspired the book, as well as Lacy’s seeming familiarity with the people she interviewed.

Though my books aren’t the Big Deal that books like Lacy’s are, negative reviews are just as painful, and I can understand Lacy’s unhappiness with the review. However, letting loose her fans on the review author is, to me, a tacky, rather childish action; especially since Lacy’s book has received primarily positive reviews. Did she seriously think everyone would like it? Lacy would do better to appreciate the fact that her book was reviewed in the New York Times—a negative review is better than no review at all, especially in a prestigious publication like the NY Times.

The worst thing that can happen to a book, and a book author, is no one caring about the book enough to write any review, positive or negative. Probably one of the most important points Randy Pausch made in his “Last Lecture”, linked in an earlier post, was the following:

when you see yourself doing something badly and nobody’s bothering to tell you anymore, that’s a bad place to be. Your critics are the ones telling you they still love you and care.


My life. The book.

Virginia DeBolt writes at Blogher about the recent “open tutorial” session the Blogher conference had on Sunday. I’m not much on conferences, but I thought this was an excellent idea. What typically happens at tech conferences is that the experienced people connect up with the other experienced people and the newbies are forced either into a generic crowd around the well known folks, or into connecting with each other. This is no bad thing, but there’s no opportunity for dispersion, so to speak, other than in the formal conference sessions.

With the Blogher one-on-one tutorials, not only are experienced people helping inexperienced people, there’s a breakdown of barriers between the old guard and the new, and in such a way that it isn’t a “fangirl/fanboy” situation, either, which can only be healthy for all participants.

Returning to Blogher’s one-on-one, one person who Virginia helped was Frances Ellen who had an interesting challenge.

Frances is writing a book, Story of Nadia, two paragraphs at a time, published twice a week. She’s using WordPress, which means that the entries are displaying in reverse chronological order, and without any tie-in with each other. The solution Virginia and the others came up with was to create a TOC for the sidebar that pulls the entries together in proper order. An idea that came to my mind when reading the post was to create chapter “categories”, and have a category listing in the sidebar ordered alphabetically: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and so on. When publishing a new post, Frances would then pick which chapter “category” to place the posting. To ensure the publications display correctly, she can use chronological order for the postings in the chapter categories, when the chapter category pages are opened. This would effectively create a book without having to manually edit entries in a TOC.

As for the tag items Frances already has, these could be managed as “tags” rather than categories—though with a single purpose site, the meta information should be in the header as meta tags, rather than in individual post, since this information is repeated across all posts. However, these tags also tie Frances’ work into the tag cloud, so the repetition does serve a purpose.

Using chapter categories, with a sidebar entry, and chronological entries within the categories, not to mention, meta information in the header, should work at Frances’ site without having to move any page, or leave In fact, I’m not sure if Frances isn’t doing this already, and if so, my apologies for a redundant suggestion. The only other recommendation I would make is that within the “Chapter” pages, to remove the sub-titles on the individual listings, as these disrupt the reading flow. This modification should be a theme change, and not impact on the existing site structure.

What Frances has works for her, but I can’t resist using this challenge to plug Drupal, because it is just this circumstance that made me move to Drupal.

At my personal site, Just Shelley, I don’t have a taxonomy or categories. Instead, I’m writing a series of “books”, on specific subjects, with each new writing being a new “chapter” in the book. I’ve started two, and I’ll probably end up with five or six “books” when finished. I don’t plan on writing the books in order, either. I’ll add a page to one, and the next time, a page to another.

I’ve made the first page of the books “sticky”, which means they will always be on the front page, and always at the top of the page. Currently I have the site set to show three postings on the front page, but I’ll eventually make it five or six: enough for the first pages of the “books”, and perhaps a couple of additional entries for photos or whatnot.

However, I’ve set the feed to ten items, and when I publish a new book page, I publish it to the front page. Though it may not actually, physically show in the front page of the item, it will show up in the feed, so my patient, long-suffering friends following my long, meandering stories can be notified when I’ve published a new page to one of my “books”.

Only the first page of each book will show on the front page of the site, but clicking through will open up not only the first page of the book, but a table of contents, as well as book navigation at the bottom of the page (as shown in my Drupal Live book, here at RealTech). You can then either use the book navigation or the TOC to click through to pages. You can print the whole book at once by selecting the Printer Friendly option at the bottom of the first page. This is particularly handy if you want to export the entire book in order to read on your Kindle or computer while offline. Pick Printer Friendly, and then Save As (single web page) from your browser. For Kindle users, use the free Kindle conversion email address for your account, or just pay the dime.

The tech to make this work:

  • Use Drupal, of course
  • I use clean URLs and the pathauto module in order to ensure friendly URLs for the book pages
  • Download the development version of the token Drupal Module, because this one supports book titles, as part of the book page URLs. I believe this will end up being version 2.0 when released.
  • In the Automated alias settings tab, in URL Aliases, I use the following setting for Node path settings, Book page paths: [book-raw]/[title-raw]. The only time I override the automated setting is for the first page, which I set to the URL for the book. Another option could be to add my own alias consisting only of the book title URL, pointing to the first page.
  • Set the Post Settings to how ever many entries you want to show on the front page. Also set the Length of Trimmed Posts to unlimited—you’ll want to manage your own book page excerpts, not let the system do it for you.
  • In the RSS publishing settings, I set the number of entries to ten, but you’ll want to use a number higher than your post setting count. In addition, I use title and teasers as content, but that’s my own preference.
  • This is also a personal preference, but I use the Atom feed module, and add a printer friendly link to the Atom feed by appending the following to the post using the Ad Insertion setting: <a href=””>Printer friendly version</a>
  • Speaking of printer friendly, I use the printer friendly Drupal module to enable this functionality. By using this module, people will be able to download or print the entire book from the first page of the book. They can also read the book directly from their feed if my web site design proves too much of a challenge for whatever browser and device they’re using.
  • Finally, and only because I am not using categories, I created a Page entry that lists each “book” with an associated image, and connected it to my Primary links via the Writings menu item. It’s not necessary since all books will have their first page listed on the home page for the site. However, people are dependent on menus, so it’s better to be redundant than risk confusing the readers who reach your site other than through your feed, or who may not know that the front page also serves as navigation for the site. I also have exactly one image gallery, created using the image module, containing all images I upload. I won’t be uploading many, as they are mainly story illustrations or photos I think complement the site. In addition, I use the Lightbox2 module to provide slideshow and dynamic photo expansion capabilities.

I’m still relatively new to Drupal, so some of these steps may end up being unnecessary. However, the site works, the process works, and is relatively simple to maintain, so I’m happy with what I have.

Books Technology

Amazon S3 and Kindle

It’s not just SmugMug and other client applications that aren’t working because of Amazon’s S3 failure. You can purchase a book on Amazon, and it shows among your books in Content Manager, but the book won’t download. The same holds for any subscriptions you try to download.

You don’t get an error or a message. You just don’t get the book. I’ve been back and forth with Amazon trying to figure out why my new purchases weren’t downloading, until I saw the posts about S3. I’m assuming that the book files are stored in S3 storage. Understandable. What’s less understandable is the absolute lack of communication about why a book is not downloading.

I have to wonder if this isn’t related to Amazon’s new video download service. If so, then we may be in for some interesting times.

Amazon also put out a Whispernet upgrade today, and several people have been told this is the problem. However, if the issue was networking, we wouldn’t be able to access the store. We can access the store, but we can’t get our purchases to download. That strikes me as a storage access problem, not a Whispernet problem. Since the timing on this is identical with the down time on S3, I would say these two items are related. Either that, or Amazon is having a system wide failure.

Just received from Amazon:

I apologize for the difficulties you have experienced while trying to download from the Amazon Kindle Store. We are currently performing upgrades on some of our systems that handle file downloads like yours and this is responsible for the error you encountered. Please retry your download again in a few hours and let us know if this problem persists.

That’s the first time I’ve heard a system failure called an upgrade. Amazon is not handling this incident well.

Amazon is all better now and we’re able to download our books. One of the books I purchased was my own, Painting the Web. I just couldn’t resist seeing the whole thing in Kindle.

However, you can forget the “enough room to store 300 books” if you buy my book on the Kindle. The largest book I’ve had to date was 6MB. Painting the Web took a whopping seventeen MB of space. I’m not sure if it’s the heaviest Kindle book there is, but it certainly has to be up there with any others.


The life of a tech book writer

I read Baron Schwartz’s recounting of his experience authoring O’Reilly’s High Performance MySQL with interest, and no little fascination. Having authored 17 computer books (or so, I begin to lose count), I can both empathize with some of the challenges he’s faced, while also wondering if I shouldn’t have been more demanding, at times. Wait a sec: I have been demanding, at times.

I worked with DocBook with one book, and didn’t really care for it. Now, I use NeoOffice, which is the Mac OS front-end to OpenOffice, but I don’t seem to have quite the same number of problems that Baron had. However, since I write only one author books now, cross-referencing issues are not as critical as they are with multiple authors.

I also have had the same editor, Simon St. Laurent, for my last several books. Having the same editor can make your job immeasurably easier. Simon knows my weaknesses and strengths and can help me minimize the first, while maximizing the second.

Tech reviewing can be a challenge, at times. Tech reviewers doing copy editing isn’t unusual, and can help, but can also hurt because what you need from tech reviewers is not for them to correct the writing— O’Reilly has copy editors to do the grammar editing—but to focus on the technology and look for errors, omissions, and problems. It’s hard, though, for people to separate the two in their mind when they tech review. They want to help.

Baron also mentions about the writing quirks like the use of passive voice. It’s almost impossible to avoid writing with passive voice when you’re writing about technology. I have this theory that tech is a left brain activity, as is the use of words, but it is the right brain that takes the medium, the words, and creatively puts them together in a pleasing, flowing whole. Since tech books force us to focus on left brain activity, our right brains are starved out of the process, and the writing becomes more an act of efficiency rather than creativity.

Well, I said it was just a theory. I use a variation of Baron’s regular expressions in order to find my own uses of passive voice, but again, I’m also dependent on both my main editor and my copy editor.

Last but not least in the writing process is the schedule. I’ve had books run the gamut from being a fast-track three months (first edition of Learning JavaScript) to almost two years (Practical RDF). I’ve found that I don’t do well with an intense, short schedule, especially with a new book series. At the same time, anything over a year is too long. Not only do you miss your publication slot, you also run the risk of book burn out. Adding Ajax and Painting the Web had optimum schedules for the book sizes and topic, and I think the less stressful schedule shows with both books.

I digress, though. Baron has provided an interesting perspective on writing a tech book, and has covered many of the issues, not to mention tasks. His recounting is invaluable, and should be required reading for every dewy-eyed author wannabe. However, I think that Baron also brought on some of the problems, himself, first by focusing too strongly on the technology used, and perhaps not having enough faith in the process, as well as other people associated with the book. Writing is work, true, but writing is also a leap of faith.

Regardless, it sounds like a good book and I look forward to reading it.

(Andy Oram, Baron’s editor, has posted a response, which is also good reading.)

(Thanks to Simon for pointing to initial story.)

Books Writing

PTW on Kindle

Painting the Web is now live on Kindle, and I downloaded a sample chapter. I ended up being pleasantly surprised at the figures. Though they are in grays, they’re large enough to be easily viewable, and nicely integrated into the text.

It’s fun seeing your work in a new medium. Reminds me of the thrill I felt when seeing my first book in print.

update The URLs I included in the book are also converted into working links, and if the wireless connection is turned on, clicking one of the links opens the page in Kindle’s built-in browser. Tough to do that with a paper book. The spacing for the code samples is off, but this isn’t too much of a problem since examples can be downloaded from O’Reilly.

PTW on Kindle