Why I love the Census

I’m bemused this decade by the variety of ads the US Census Bureau is running to encourage everybody to return their census forms this spring. They seem to be hitting every possible demographic. (I’m solidly in the group the Christopher Guest repertory company is aiming at.)

But the Census ads also remind me of the Bureau’s fascinating annual publication, The Statistical Abstract of the United States, which I wrote about last year on my Viral Learning blog:

For the past few years, I’ve had fun downloading and browsing through the Statistical Abstract of the United States, published annually by the Census Bureau. This week I finally got around to downloading the 2009 edition (published in October), which is 30 sections and 6 appendices full of all sorts of goodies, like:

—There were 240,800 blepharoplasties performed in 2007 (mine, to repair a ptosis, isn’t included there, since it was in 2008, so I supposed it’ll be included in next year’s abstract.

—The likelihood of a 3- to 5-year-old to visit a library is greater when the mother holds a baccalaureate (52%) or graduate (60%) degree (though nothing about the father’s education, unfortunately).

—More 18- to 24-year-olds play sports (49.4%) than garden (20.7%), but—not too surprisingly—more 55- to 64-year-olds garden (56.6%) than play sports (16%).

You never know what weird and interesting little tidbits you’ll find.

And it’s all meant to help us figure out who we are, which seems more than worthwhile.

Completely digital

Just found out this morning that The Unschooling Handbook will be published in Kindle format in November 2010. That’s the only one not already available in digital form.

The next few royalty reports should be interesting. As far as I can tell so far (from the admittedly murky indicator of the Amazon sales rankings), the digital versions don’t seem to be affecting the sales of the print versions much. The print versions are selling at about the same rate as the past few years. The digital versions are also selling, but without a royalty report yet, I can’t translate sales rankings into numbers sold.

Of course, since the Kindle versions of my other books were only just published this year, those sales won’t show up until the November report. Drives me nuts that my bank can tell me instantly when my husband picks up milk at the grocery store, but it takes four months after the end of a royalty period for my publisher to tell me how many copies of my books they sold. Ah, well—it’s not like it’ll affect any more than the relative extravagance of this year’s Christmas presents.

Is there a shortage of book designers?

It’s a lot easier to publish a book than it used to be.

Mostly this is A Good Thing, I think. Despite all the lamentations you can find about how print-on-demand (POD) publishing lets just anybody get themselves into print, there are a lot of tiny niche markets for titles that would never be worth publishing under the traditional model. My own Viral Learning, which I published POD (as well as in epub and Kindle versions), falls into that category—it was something I wanted to write for a very specific audience which was already familiar with my previous books and would not have been economically viable any other way.

But the lamenters have a valid point, too. Consider one of the books I’m currently reading. It’s a niche topic aimed at a very specific audience and was not published through a traditional mainstream publisher. The content is good—a thorough look at its topic—but oh, the design!

It’s the same syndrome I first saw years ago, when my kids were little and I first started finding books about homeschooling. Several homeschooling parents (moms, mostly) self-published accounts of their homeschooling experiences. Like the book I’m reading now, the content was solid. The problem was that the manuscript was a word processor dump.

Long word processor files are good for editing—you can print them out double-spaced and have lots of room to make corrections when you’re proofreading—but they’re not great for the ultimate reader.

Consider this book I’m reading now. It’s a nice trade paperback, about 7 x 9 inches, with a great-looking cover, which perhaps raised my expectations for the interior. Unfortunately, the text margins on all sides are less than a half-inch, which makes tracking the whole line across the page far more difficult than it should be. Not only is the text set too wide, but it’s also in a fully justified sans serif font that adds to the tracking difficulty. Less annoying, but still bothersome, are the chapter subheads, which are set equidistant between the text before and after, instead of being clearly attached to the text they announce.

I’ll still read the book—I’m interested enough in the content to keep at it. But it will be more of a slog than it needed to be, because the people who produced it didn’t know or care enough about how the reader would experience the book to make a few easy tweaks to their manuscript before it was printed.

Please, oh, please, you who might make your own book one day: Hire a designer or read a basic guide to graphic design. (Robin Williams’s The Non-Designer’s Design Book is a good place to start.) Your readers will be grateful, though they may never realize exactly why.

Current reading

When I was younger, I always read books sequentially, one book at a time, to be finished before I ever thought to start another. In short, I was a serially monogamous reader.

Times have changed. These days I’m quite a promiscuous reader, usually in the midst of three or four different books, with at least another half dozen sitting on the end table next to my chair, tempting me to jump into them as well.

What’s on that table this week?

Hmm, looks like I’m about due for some fiction.