Jan 142011

Somewhat of an off-topic post here, as I discuss some of my favorite and least favorite things money can buy. I started out wanting to give a shout-out to those products and companies that provide a great product or service, the things that just do what they’re supposed to do, do it reliably, and do it well. Then I figured it would also be a good excuse to rant a bit about those things that just annoy the heck out of you.


Mac Mini: I’ve been a Mac user for many years, and I find their computers far more reliable, easy to use, and virus free than the alternatives. (Note I do not necessarily feel the same way about all Apple products and iDevices, I’m talking about Mac computers specifically.) Nowadays, even low-end computers are fast enough for 95%+ of consumers; unless you’re doing high-end video editing work or playing the latest games, even the $599 Mac Mini is enough for email, Internet, Photoshop, word processing, etc. And, at that price, I get a new one (with the latest operating system and Apple iLife software) every few years. Mine never crashes, takes less than 30 seconds to start up, and does what I need it to do without spending hours constantly trying to fix it.

Readability and Instapaper: I’ll combine these two must-have Internet services. Readability is a “bookmarklet,” a little piece of code you save as a browser bookmark and that takes annoyingly-formatted articles that are split into 4 pages (I’m looking at you, Gatorsports.com) and formats them into a single, easy-to-read, black-text-on-white page, removing annoying side columns and flashing ads. Instapaper does something similar, gleaning the text of an online article and saving it into an archive for you to read later (or transfer to your Kindle).

Kindle 3: Regular readers of this blog knew this would be on the list (to be honest, it’s what prompted the idea for this blog post). The more I use the Kindle 3, the more I like it — actually, can’t live without it. It’s light and easy to carry and use, and the new e-Ink Pearl screen is very easy on the eyes, far better than the Kindle 2’s screen. The additional software improvements (like fitting more text on a page) are the icing on the cake. As a fiction reading device, it has no equal.

Corvette Z06: Ten years ago, when I was working as a lawyer at a big law firm, I splurged and bought my first new car, a 2001 Corvette Z06. I’m still driving it today, and it’s as fun to drive now as the day I bought it. This car is a precision-crafted machine that was built for a specific purpose and truly excels at that purpose. For under $50K (at the time), it blows away cars that cost double and triple the price. It’s also surprisingly practical, handling two cross-country trips with luggage, getting 28 mpg on the highway, and it hasn’t had any mechanical issues to speak of. Yes, tires are pricey, but well worth it for how this car accelerates, brakes, and handles. One note: if you’re looking for a chick magnet, look elsewhere — girls seem to be more impressed by cars that cost more but sport a fraction of the performance (*cough* Porsche Boxster *cough*), and it mainly impresses 18-year-old guys (who can actually tell a Z06 from a regular Corvette). But that doesn’t bother me, I bought it to drive, not impress, and I’ve never been disappointed.

Net 10 Wireless: Sure, it’s not “cool,” but I only pay $15 a month for my cellphone, which is less than most people pay just for their texting surcharge. Yeah, I only get 200 minutes (I don’t talk on the phone that much, and they roll over), and I can’t play Angry Birds (boo hoo), but I get great reception, never drop a call, and the battery on my non-smartphone lasts a week while my friends’ phones can’t make it through a day.

ING Direct: Very simple, convenient, no-fee, high-interest-paying online checking and savings accounts. It does exactly what it’s supposed to, pays a good rate, and makes it very easy to automate payments and transfers and handle my banking online.

Honorable Mention: Costco, for cheap prices, $1.50 hot dog & drink meals, and a very generous return policy. CreateSpace, for simple and affordable print book publishing.


Airlines in general, and American Airlines in particular: Airlines have just gotten so bad at customer service it’s a sad joke. I remember when it was kinda fun to fly, people treated you well, and they gave you playing cards and little wings — and I’m not that old. Now, you’re herded like cattle, charged for baggage (so everyone tries to cram all their stuff aboard), not fed, and squeezed into rows that I swear they make 1 cm smaller every year, figuring we won’t notice. But that’s the only explanation, since I stopped growing a while ago. They’re all pretty bad, but a special shout-out to American, who not only doesn’t have Wi-Fi or LCD screens on the seatbacks, they still have CRT TVs hanging down, like it’s 1972. And not only do they not feed you, but I was just on an 8-hour American flight and they didn’t so much as give us peanuts. On the plus side, most of my flights lately have been on time. And Hawaiian is the best of the bad domestic airlines.

iTunes: As much as I love my Mac, iTunes is the single biggest abomination of software I’ve ever seen (and I’ve used Microsoft Word, so that’s really saying something). First of all, who decided I wanted one program to manage my music library, organize e-books, watch movies, sync apps and music and movies and everything else with iPods and iPads, perform endless app and iOS updates, and be the only conduit to the App Store and iTunes Music Store? And does iTunes really have to launch (which takes way too long, now that it’s 10 programs in 1) every time I click a link to read about some app in my web browser? Oh, and syncing never seems to work right, every movie is in the wrong format and half my songs aren’t authorized for this iPod or whatever. The latest sync froze the movie player on my wife’s iPad for her 10-hour plane trip. Ugh.

AT&T Wireless: I don’t even have AT&T, but their cell phone service is so bad, I know which of my friends has it by how often they drop calls when I talk to them. Well, sure, they have the worst service, but at least they’re by far the most expensive wireless carrier. Wait, what? Oh yeah, that iPhone (with 2-year AT&T contract) didn’t only cost you $200.

Car Dealerships: OK, this is an oldie, but they’re breaking out some new tricks. Pretty much every dealer tries to slip in some sort of “dealer fee” or “dealer prep” or “ADM” (additional dealer markup) after you’ve negotiated the price of the car. And since people caught on to “rust coating,” now they have mandatory overpriced VIN etching in the windows (who needs that?), and — are you sitting down for this one? — “Nitro fill,” which means, yes, they’re actually charging you $100 to put air in your tires.

Dis-Honorable Mention: Red Lobster, because the commercials look so good and I get suckered into going back once every 10 years for some truly awful food — never again. Telephone Customer Service, outsourced to the lowest bidder and keeping you on hold for an hour, for just about every company ever. HSN & QVC, for ripping people off so badly; they should be ashamed. Cable companies, which is why I don’t have cable anymore. Movie theaters, who have the nerve to show commercials but expect me to pay $12-$15 for a movie. And commercials in general, isn’t it enough already? When we get back from a 5-minute commercial break just to see the announcer standing on a court with a Gatorade logo inside Staples Center which is plastered with Geico ads, and the announcer unconvincingly plugs the latest smartphone while telling us to watch the Allstate replay, brought to you by Coke — “obnoxious” doesn’t begin to cover it.

May 112010

A few friends have recently asked me about self-publishing, and it’s clear there are still several misconceptions out there. Most people think about self-publishing or print on demand (POD) services, and they think of high prices, large minimum order sizes, and the term “vanity publishing.” True, numerous companies still exist that are looking to make a buck by preying on the aspirations of new authors. It is important to do your research to avoid paying for overpriced services and “self-publishing packages.” But, the good news is that there now are ways to get your new novel, your family’s history, or your local cookbook into print for very low cost. In fact, you can print up a single copy of your book (and even make it available online and at Amazon so others can order additional copies if they wish) for literally ZERO in set-up fees — you just pay the cost of a single print copy plus shipping, which is under $10 for most books.

The service I most highly recommend is called CreateSpace. CS is a subsidiary of Amazon, and they offer a very low cost print on demand service that is suitable for printing small runs of trade paperback books (even just a single copy). While CS does offer optional, expensive author services packages (which I do not recommend), there is no charge to upload your work and make it available. You simply pay for a single proof copy and a reasonable rate per additional copy that you want to order. The price is based on the number of pages in the book, and includes a full-color glossy cover, perfect binding, high-quality white paper, and unlimited black-and-white interior photos.

Does it sound too good to be true? There is one “catch.” Since you’re not paying them anything (except the cost to print however many copies you order), you have to do all the formatting yourself. That means you have to create a PDF that is the right size with proper margins for the interior of your book (they offer numerous print sizes; my novels are 6×9 inches). Doing this is relatively easy, and you can use Word or pretty much any word processing or page layout program and save it as a PDF (even easier if you have a Mac). The more difficult part is designing a cover file. The cover will be a “full wrap” cover, which is the back cover, spine, and front cover all saved as a single PDF:

The full-wrap Right Ascension cover

Making a cover like this isn’t the easiest thing in the world. I did mine with Photoshop, and it took a LONG time to figure out and get it just right. CS does provide some templates to help you out, which are based on the page size of your book and the spine width is calculated based on the number of pages. Even still, I had to find a high-resolution cover image (you want 300dpi or more for it to look its best), fiddle with the text and all the effects, mess with the color, etc., etc. There are easier ways to do it, and you can find simpler cover templates where you pretty much just add a photo and some text, if that’s enough for your needs. There are artists who will offer cover design services for a fee, but that only becomes worthwhile for commercial books where you think you can sell several hundred copies or more to justify that up-front cost.

Assuming you can come up with your cover and interior PDF files, you simply upload them to CS. So far, you haven’t spent a cent. Now, CS will ask you to order a proof copy of your book to make sure it looks good. If you only want a single copy, the “proof” copy can be it. Your book is priced based on the page count, and a 200-page novel (70,000 words or so) costs $5.50, with another $3 or so for shipping.

Once the proof arrives, you check it out, and if it looks good, you log into CS and “approve” the proof. Then you can order additional copies (as many or few as you want). If you’re buying more than 17 or so, it becomes worthwhile to pay $39 for the “Pro Plan,” which reduces the per-book printing cost: our same 200-page book would drop to $3.25. (Do this before ordering the proof to save a couple bucks on the proof copy as well.) Shipping is more economical on larger purchases, as a single book may cost about $3 to ship while a 20-book shipment may cost around $10. Obviously, if you order more, your total per-book cost will decrease. For example, 50 books ($162.50) with the Pro Plan ($39) and shipping ($15) should cost about $4.33 per book.

Once you’ve approved the proof, you can decide if you’d like to make the book available for purchase through CreateSpace, Amazon, or Expanded Distribution. If you’re just ordering a few copies of something for yourself and your immediate family, there’s no reason to select these options. However, you may want to offer a family history book, but don’t want to order 50 copies and possibly be stuck with them, or deal with shipping them or collecting money. In that case, you can enable CS distribution (which is free), and just email people the link where they can purchase however many copies they want, CS will print them up and ship them directly when ordered. CS takes 20% of the purchase price for CS sales, and you can set the “list price” so you make zero royalty (at 20% more than the per-book printing cost), or price it higher and even make a buck or two for your trouble.

Similarly, you can make your book available on Amazon or through Expanded Distribution, although Amazon takes 40% and ED sales take 60% of the list price. The ins and outs of selling on Amazon and ED (which makes it available for order in bookstores and libraries) are beyond the scope of this post, but leave a comment if you’re interested in more info and I may devote a later post to it.

Anyway, there are low-cost options to create your own printed books for family reunions, your short story collection, or anything else you’d like to see in print. You do have to put in some effort, but the cost is very low, and there are no set-up or other up-front fees (you just pay for the books you have printed). I recommend CreateSpace for their low prices and high quality, but some other solid possibilities include Lightning Source and possibly Lulu. I would avoid Author House, iUniverse, and xLibris, as each charges several hundred dollars or more for what you can get through CS for free.

UPDATE: For info on self-publishing for e-books, check this post.