Recently I was at Digital Book World with my friend Len Edgerly from The Kindle Chronicles podcast. He and I have had an ongoing discussion about what makes a good interview. At Digital Book World (DBW) we talked specifically about interviews with authors.
This came up at DBW because Kathy Doyle from Macmillan Publishers was there and answered an audience question concerning suggestions for authors who who have been approached for an interview. I think she gave some good tips which included listening to other interviews that the interviewer has done to get a feel for what their style is.
That brings us back to types, or styles, of author interviews. I have identified three types that I like for different reasons. As an author looking to do an interview with a podcaster or radio station, I think you should try to figure out what the purpose the interviewer is trying to accomplish by having you on their program.
Tell Me About the Author
Sometimes I am less interested in the book than I am the author and their story. This is the type of interview I enjoy on shows like The Kindle Chronicles. I like hearing the story of how the author got to where they are and what types of books they have written.
This type of interview will certainly talk about the author’s latest book, but I don’t listen to these types of programs to learn about books. I listen for the human interest story of how an author ended up where they are.
Tell Me About the Book
Then there are times when I am much more interested in the book than I am the author. For example, The Art of Manliness podcast does many author interviews. I enjoy these, not because of who the author is, but because of what the book is about.
In this type of interview I am wanting to hear about the content of the book. I want to find out if this is a book that I would be interested in buying.
In this interview type the host of the podcast, or other media outlet, has selected the author and book because it fits with their theme. Therefore, the theme of the book is the greater focus in this type of interview.
Tell Me What the Host Wants Me to Know
The third type of author interview that I enjoy is one where the host directs the questions to get the information out of the author that the host is interested in sharing. Todd Henry at The Accidental Creative podcast is a master at this.
Todd is not asking the author to come on the show to talk generically about their work. Todd has a very targeted topic and he interviews authors for the purpose of getting them to share targeted content for the listeners. He is brilliant at asking questions that pull out the few specific points that he wants to share with his audience.
In this type of interview the author may not have a chance to talk about the book as a whole, but may only cover a few select themes covered in the book. That is perfectly fine since the host has an agenda and a reason for sharing the author with his listeners.
Which Format is Best
There is no single best type of author interview. Each of these three interview types has a specific purpose. It would behoove an author to take the time to listen to a few interviews by the host and find out what the host wants to share with the audience. If you don’t hit the target, or especially if you don’t try, then your time may be wasted and the interview may never be played. I have done my share of interviewing and there are times when an interview never makes it out of the recorder because the guest never really understood what the purpose of the interview was.
If you are an author, take the time to learn why the host wants to talk with you. In the process, you may find new readers because they heard what they were listening for in that show.
I can’t actually remember when I started my book light project, but a recent trip to the Atlanta Maker Faire motivated me to get back to some projects that I had worked on in the past but never finished. The book light was one that benefited from this renewed interest.
My book light project wasn’t really as much about making a usable lamp as much as it was about learning how to work with certain materials. After buying a 5 meter roll of white LED lights for a bigger project, I wanted some simple lighting task to learn how to use them. I also had a partial sheet of 1/8″ acrylic (Plexiglas) that I wanted to do something with.
The project proposal was inspired by something I saw on Instructables. (At least I think it was there. I did a quick search and could not find it). I needed to hollow out a book then install the lights and acrylic sheet. That was the basics of the project. I also wanted to make a switch so that when the book opened it would automatically turn on the light. That switch mechanism is what delayed the project every time I got into it again.
Oh, and, as always for my projects, I wanted to spend as little money as necessary.
I got two books from a used book store that gives away books that they don’t feel have any resale value. I got two because my original plan was that I would practice on one and then I would make my final project from the nicer book. At this point, the second book light will never be made. I learned what I wanted from the project and don’t really plan to make the second one.
Preparing the Book
I closed the book with wax paper between the front cover and the rest of the book so I could glue all the pages together. This kept the front cover free from the glue I was about to apply. I painted the edges of the book with Elmer’s glue to hold them together. I think I may have fanned the pages a bit to make sure I got glue in between the pages as much as was practical and not just on the edges (I really don’t remember since it was well over a year ago that I started the project). While the book dried from the gluing, I pressed it down with other books on top. I wanted to make sure the pages didn’t wrinkle too much.
Cutting out the Pages
I figured out how much margin I wanted to leave in the book and cut everything inside that line using an array of X-Acto knives and box cutters. The variety in blades was because I kept thinking that something would make the process easier and quicker. It is just a tedious process. You should not try to cut more than a few pages at a time.
After the book was hollowed out I painted the inside of the pages with Elmer’s glue, put my wax paper back in the front cover and then weighted the book down again to dry. I don’t remember how long I let it all dry, but as you can tell, I was not in a hurry.
I painted the acrylic sheet with a frosted spray paint. I did this on both the inside and the outside of the acrylic. This helps to diffuse the lights and make a more even glow instead of seeing the harsh individual LEDs.
I installed a little wooden strip on the inside of the hollowed out area to act as a platform for the Plexiglas. I used contact cement for this. Hot glue would have probably been sufficient. The wood needed to be about 1/8″ below the top of the book pages so that the acrylic sheet could sit flush with the pages.
The LED strip has an adhesive back that helped me to attach it to the wood strips. However, I just used very rough scrap wood and did not think to sand the strips because they would not be seen. The problem with not sanding them is that the LED adhesive back did not stick too well. I had to hot glue some parts of the strip to the wood.
The lights are 12V lights. With LED strips you have to be careful to make sure you have enough amperage to run the lights. However, since I am using such a small number of lights, I figure just about any 12V power supply that I have will be strong enough (I really should do the math and find out).
I have a box full of wall plugs (or wall warts, or AC-DC power supplies). I found one with the right plug and had a positive center polarity. Because I was wiring this up myself I could have reversed the wiring if I needed. However, what seems to be standard in the maker world (and is a standard in my personal construction) is that the center pin of an electronics project should be positive polarity. By always doing it this way I never have to guess as to how I wired a project. But you must check your power supply because they aren’t always wired this way.
Another seeming standard is the size of the plug and jack used in these types of projects. Unlike the commercial world where every manufacturer wants to have a different size plug and wiring standard, we use 5.5 mm plugs and jacks. Not the smallest, but easy to work with. Plus by using the same thing every time all you have to look for in your pile of power supplies is one with the right voltage.
A Painful Switch
The main thing that held up my project is I wanted a certain type of switch. My desire was to have the light automatically turn on when the book was opened. When explaining my project to a friend he introduced me to a reed switch. This is one that is activated in the presence of a magnet.
What I needed was a normally closed (NC) reed switch. The magnet would be on the cover of the book with the switch being near a metal plate under the diffused acrylic sheet. When the book was closed the magnet would stick to the metal plate and activate the switch. This activation of the switch would open the circuit and cause the light to go off. The normally closed reed switch allows the electricity to turn the lights on when the magnet was not close to it.
But going back to one of the premises of the project—spend as little money as necessary—I quickly found that reed switches could be had for next to nothing or be very expensive. A normally open (NO) reed switch cost about a quarter each if you didn’t go for the bottom of the barrel (the ones I bought were 11 cents each). But NC reed switches are about $2 each. I didn’t want to spend that much for a simple switch.
So the project went on hold every time I started into it again because I could not get the switch mechanism the way I wanted it. There is a fairly simple way to make an NO switch act like an NC switch using a transistor, but, the way I understand it, it uses a little bit of electrical current to not turn on the lights. If the book is plugged in and not being used it is still draining electricity. I didn’t want to do that.
Enter Maker Faire and my renewed interest. I dug through all the switches I have at the house and could not quite find what I needed. My friend who introduced me to reed switches said that he had an extra normally closed pushbutton left over from another project. It was much bigger than what I wanted, but I was able to make it fit the project.
Demagnetizing a Magnet
I needed more magnetic strength to close the book and push down the switch than what I had originally put into the book. So I replaced my metal closing plate with another magnet. However, because these were strong neodymium magnets, they were almost too strong to be able to open the book without tearing all the glue apart.
Did you know you can demagnetize a magnet? I found out through Google searching that you could heat a magnet and it would demagnetize it. This is because a magnet (at least a neodymium magnet) is made by heating the material inside a magnetic field. The hot molecules in the neodymium align to the polarity of the magnetic field. Keep the new magnet in the magnetic field as it cools off and those molecules are fixed in that North/South arrangement and you end up with a strong magnet. By heating the magnet outside of a magnetic field those molecule get all jumbled up and it is no longer a strong magnet. I assume this would work with any type of magnet, though you probably should not do it with rubbery craft magnets unless you like potential toxic materials filling your kitchen.
My wife cooked my magnet with lunch. 450 degrees for 10 minutes did the trick. It was still magnetic but not nearly as strong. The book opens and closes very easily now but is still strong enough to push the plunger on the push button switch.
Maker Faire Connection
I took my local librarian to the Maker Fair in Atlanta with me. She enjoyed all the different projects she saw. She went because she is interested in various STEAM programming that could be done in the library to attract young people. We have talked about me teaching various projects to kids at the library, but have not found the right project. We did know that we wanted to do something with soldering irons so the kids could learn that useful skill.
I was hesitant to take a book that I butchered into the library to show it off. But when I showed it to the librarian last week she immediately knew that is what she wanted to do for our Teen Tech Week program coming up in a few months. And, as barbaric as it sounds, she volunteered to gather the needed books and cut out the pages. I guess she would rather have the kids wielding 350 degree hot pokers than using a bunch of box cutters.
What I Learned
The purpose of this project was to be a learning experience. And it was. I learned that it is possible to weaken a magnet by heating it. I learned how to work with the LED light strips. I have even made another project since then using the LEDs—the tracing table that the book is sitting on when I took the pictures. I also learned that cutting out the guts of a book is harder than it looks. Though the switch isn’t what I originally planned, I learned that sometimes it is better to complete a project than to insist that it be a certain way and never be completed.
I also learned that not all librarians will weep at the sight of a hacked book.
Yesterday I heard a podcaster make the comment that “if you’re like me, your love of learning did not end just because you finished school.” I immediately thought, “well, I guess I am not like you.” Before I tell you how the Math Dude and I are different, let me talk about how some people’s love of learning has seemed to end.
Old Dogs, New Tricks
I know plenty of people who seem to have stopped learning because they graduated from high school or college. It is amazing—and sad—to me to see so many people who seem to have the attitude that because they are now out of school, they don’t need to learn anything else. Some even feel like they can’t learn anything new. All their learning took place in school as if it is required to have a classroom and a teacher to guide the learning process.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is one of the worst attitudes that has permeated our society. I certainly understand that some things might get more difficult with age. But the majority of the time I hear this in relation to something that a person just doesn’t want to learn. Or, worse yet, is when the person is convinced that they can’t learn.
Let’s take typing as an example, but this can be applied to so many skills and areas of learning.
How many times have you seen someone who sits at a computer all day but has never learned to type properly? I don’t know that everyone needs to learn to type 100 WPM, but most people could do better than what they do. I have friends who use two or three fingers on each hand and claim that they do just fine with typing. They refuse to try to learn to type properly because “it will take too much time to learn the right way and I have real work to do.”, “I have my own way and it works for me.”, or “I’ve tried it the right way and I can’t learn it.”
Certainly there may be a better way to type than what we are taught in school. However, I think most typing curriculum is based in research. Using 8-10 fingers on the keyboard has to be more efficient than 4-6. Yet, if you still think that your way is better I would love to read your scientific basis for that. I wouldn’t mind learning a new way to type if it is better. Over the years we will end up doing more and more typing, not less and less. I am all for a better way.
I don’t expect everyone to learn the superior Dvorak keyboard layout, but at least learn QWERTY the best you can.
If these folks would consider how much time they would save by learning to type properly, they would understand that it is worth taking 2 weeks to learn the right way. Then they will hone their new-found skill as they go about their normal jobs.
As to “I can’t learn it (typing/language/grammar/whatever)”, who was the expert in that skill who convinced you that you were not capable of learning it? Many people with the attitude that they can’t learn something made that determination on their own and are limited by that attitude—not by their actual ability.
My Love of Learning
I don’t think I was like the Math Dude who said his love of learning did not end after school. The truth is, I don’t think mine even started until I got out of college. I somewhat remember a time a couple of years after college that I discovered the wealth of knowledge contained in books. This was before the world had easy access to the Internet.
It’s not that I didn’t have a thirst for knowledge in school, it was that I wanted so much more of some subjects and much less of others. I still don’t consider myself a lover of history, but give me a compelling historical account of an event and I will learn every detail there is to learn. I do remember in high school really enjoying physics, calculus and something called college math (it seemed to be a primer on logic that used various math disciplines as the teaching tool). Enjoying those subjects and actually getting good grades were not necessarily synonymous.
I also loved any statistic I could get my hands on concerning the Dallas Cowboys and the many great players we had through the 1980s. As often as I could, I would buy The Dallas Morning News from the gas station on the way home from school on Mondays. That gave me the best set of facts and figures from the weekend game.
So I’ve always had an intense desire to learn something, but I certainly didn’t enjoy school and having to study everything equally. I didn’t even enjoy college all that much. It was one of those things that I endured because it was the right thing for me to do.
Don’t let your love of learning die just because you are no longer tortured by a teacher and a classroom. Find something to be curious about. I just can’t imagine going through life without any desire to learn something new. I see people who have lied to themselves about not being able to learn new skills or information and I have to wonder where the fun in life is for them. I may be missing something and they may have a curiosity that I never see, but people who are curious usually have trouble containing their curiosity when talking with others.
I always enjoy when I get a book recommendation by someone who knows what type of books I like. This happened a couple of months ago when my local librarian showed me a new book that the library just purchased. The book was not yet cataloged nor was it ready to lend, but she said that if I stopped by later that afternoon she would have it prepared for me.
The book was The Internet of Things by Donald Norris. Though I hadn’t read much about IoT, nor anything by Donald Norris, I was still excited about getting the book. The subtitle of the book got me even more excited since I am a fan of the Raspberry Pi and becoming an Arduino aficionado: Do-It-Yourself at Home Projects for Arduino, Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone Black.
Knowing quite a bit of what would be in the front several pages of the book, I decided to skip ahead and start reading at the first thing that might catch my eye. Unfortunately, the first thing that jumped out at me was a poorly formed portion of PHP code on page 25.
I tried running the code and was surprised to find that it worked even though it wasn’t written correctly. Since PHP isn’t a language I know well, I decided to get some help in figuring this out. I sent off a message to my PHP friend and he confirmed that the code was not correct, but explained that the reason it still worked was because there was only one error of that type in the code. The server was smart enough to compensate for the mistake but would have failed had there been another one like that.
I then continued to scan through the book not thinking that one error was that big of a deal. But I noticed—just 4 pages later—the text gave 2 different names for the same table when talking about setting up a database for a project. That particular section of the book asked the reader to manually create database tables from the command line in MySQL. If that last sentence didn’t make sense to you then you probably understand that this was harder than normal people usually deal with. Yet the book seemed to be written for normal people.
Because there were two different names for the same table, there was no way for the reader to accomplish the task of setting up a working database the way the text expected. This was on page 29 of a 352 page book. If the book had many more errors like this then it would be unusable…
At this point I started looking for errors. Since it was a library book, I used sticky notes to mark my findings. From page 25 to 201 (a little more than half the book), I ended up with 46 sticky notes pointing out mistakes that I found. The vast majority of them were editing and formatting errors. Because it is a technical book, many of the errors were not the kind that could be easily caught by a proofreader, but there were a good handful of those too.
It seems like this book skipped a couple of steps before it got sent to the printing press.
Back to the Library
This book is published by TAB, an imprint of McGraw-Hill. A month or so previous to this incident I had pointed out a couple of minor mistakes in another McGraw-Hill/TAB book (Hacking Electronics) to my librarian. Though nothing was too egregious with Hacking Electronics, I told her when I returned the book that I had previously noticed a few mistakes in other TAB books. When I brought The Internet of Things book to show her my findings I also grabbed Hacking Electronics from the shelf.
My librarian was eager to know what I thought about the new book. That is, until she saw that I was also carrying Hacking Electronics. She remembered my complaint about that book and knew immediately that the new book probably had mistakes in it too.
She began flipping through the book to look at my colorful sticky notes. On the first page of the first chapter she saw a style error that I had not even seen. With an average of one mistake every 3.8 pages that I found, it did not surprise me that she caught one immediately.
Contacting the Publisher
I contacted McGraw-Hill and asked if there were any corrections submitted for the book. I was put in touch with a senior editor for the division. He said that nothing had been submitted for the book. Unfortunately, McGraw-Hill does not have a system in place for the public to submit corrections like O’Reilly does.
I told the editor that I had found some mistakes in the material and said I was disappointed in the quality of the book. He was kind (or at least diplomatic), and asked me for some examples of the problems so that he could ask the author about them. My level of disappointment reached a new low at that comment. In my mind, not a single one of the errors I found were author errors.
The way traditional publishing companies work, at least as I understand them, is that the author submits the material and an editor works with them to make the material better. The few frustrations that I had with the author were because of comments like, “I showed you the right way to do this in chapter 2, but I already have this example written this way, so you modify my code to do it the right way that I showed you.” That came from page 150 of the book. (Not a direct quote but the same sentiment). While I don’t like that the author said that, an editor is the one who should have slapped the author and said, “Don’t be lazy! Fix it yourself!”
It is an editor’s job to find problems like that and tell the author to do better. Therefore, I still don’t see that as anything that the author should have to fix. He doesn’t know the problem exists. He is too close to the work. An editor is the one who is supposed to catch problems like that.
In response to the editor who said that he would take some examples and pass them along to the author, I told him I didn’t think that the problem were author problems. I was glad to provide some examples, but the examples were more formatting, editing and proofreading errors. I did not give him the example from page 59 where the author told the reader to write their code properly. I wanted to emphasize that, in my opinion, the problem was a McGraw-Hill / TAB problem, not an author problem.
Here are a few examples.
flowing line instead of following line (page 125)
missing space between sudo and the following word (pages 156 (twice), 166 (5 times), 170, etc.)
preceding table instead of following table (page 173)
missing colon (page 170)
Rasbian instead of Raspbian (pages 155 and 163)
MAC address not properly capitalized (page 182)
EEPROM not properly capitalized (page 201)
Then there are the many places where formatting is not consistent in the book. The book uses mono spaced text for code examples, but several places there is normal text within the code that will break the code if put into a program. Those lines should be normal text or set off from the code as comments.
In the whole time I communicated with their editor, I felt like I had a listening ear. However, he kept insisting he would talk to the author about the things I found. Without trying to be too unkind I told the editor that I didn’t think the author was responsible for the majority of the errors, “unless McGraw-Hill/TAB is a self-publishing platform and the author is responsible for doing his own editing and layout work.” After that comment I didn’t hear from the editor for another month until after I sent 2 more emails asking if the line of communication was still open.
Though I only sent the editor about 1/3 of my findings, he didn’t seem to want any more. Of course, I also didn’t want to spend much time doing, for free, the work that McGraw-Hill is already paying their staff to do.
At this point I think I have reached the end of what I can do with my contact at McGraw-Hill. I really want them to continue to put out books on subjects like this. This is the kind of book that gets me excited to go to my library. But, if technical books, from a publishing house that is a major player in textbooks, have so many errors in them that the information is not usable, then I am not sure I want to read them.
I know it sounds like I am being nit-picky about the book, but I really never even fully read it and I found all these mistakes. I only skimmed through looking for things that caught my eye or sounded interesting to read. There were huge sections of code that I completely overlooked because they were in languages that I didn’t know. So unless I was actually trying to do the project, I didn’t need to try to understand how it worked.
The thing that bothers me most about all of this is that my library has been given no assurance that they can confidently buy a McGraw-Hill / TAB book that will be better edited in the future (an assurance I asked the editor to give me on several occasions). I also don’t feel like I got anywhere with the publisher. As I said, the editor I talked to was kind, but his responses were very political. There was no commitment to assuring me that this was a one-time case.
My hope is that there will be an improvement in their process and that I can confidently enjoy books by publishers like McGraw-Hill. But when traditional publishers begin to act like the self-publishing companies they seem to detest, they lose their authoritative position in the market through laziness.
I really like our new public library and have always enjoyed the workers there (as opposed to the other local library where I have never heard anyone say anything nice about the workers). Of course our conversation is always about books we’ve read, are reading, or want to read. Admittedly I probably read more non-fiction than the average person. Knowing that the ladies at the library find some of what I read to be very boring, I intentionally mentioned that I just started reading a 500-page book on how to program computer chips at a low level without the need to load an operating system on them.
That prompted one of the ladies to comment, “You should try to read more fiction. I think you would really enjoy it.” Her comment wasn’t unkind, but it wasn’t in jest either. The implication was that I don’t enjoy reading what I read.
Of the 66 books I’ve read so far this year, I did read 1 fiction book. I didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t poorly written, but it wasn’t the kind of story I like. It was recommended by one of the librarians. She suggested another book to try. I tried. But there was too much raw language in the first few pages that I really didn’t think I wanted to read any more.
While I read quite a bit of non-fiction, I would venture to guess that I still have quite a variety of content. Just scanning quickly through the books I read in the last two years, here are some of the broad topics: Bible, computers (hardware and software), missionary/church ministry, business, communication, adventure, travel, craft/making, self improvement (particularly in areas of brain development), politics, history, electronics, grammar, math, self-defense, Christian growth, creativity and productivity.
While I do read heavily in the business, communications, and technology categories, most fiction readers I know vary their reading tastes by only 2 or 3 genres.
I try not to berate fiction readers, though I really don’t understand why you would put forth the effort if your aren’t going to learn anything; however, I am amazed as to how many of them think that what I read is boring and that I need to “broaden my horizons” in my reading choices.
Though you may not enjoy reading what I read, that doesn’t mean it is boring to me. Who knows, you might find a book by Malcolm Gladwell or Seth Godin to be very enjoyable if you give it a try.