The Kopps Are Going to Hollywood!

I am beyond thrilled to share the news that Girl Waits with Gun and the rest of the Kopp Sisters series is officially in development for the small screen. Elizabeth Banks’ production company, Brownstone Productions, in partnership with Warner Studios, has made a deal with Amazon for a drama series based on the novels.

The project is in the hands of two very funny and talented screenwriters, and I can’t wait to see what they do with it!

Read all about it here, and watch this space for more news when I have it!

Every Author’s Secret Weapon: A Brilliant Book Publicist

Friends, I am so pleased to share the news that my former publicist at Algonquin, Michael Taeckens, has formed his own agency and is now accepting new clients.

Michael was my publicist for my first four books.  You would not think that a book about earthworms, or poisonous plants, or the flower industry, or a little garden in California, would get much attention in this over-saturated, short-attention-span world. But Michael managed to get my books into the hands of journalists, producers, book reviewers, and readers who took the time to read them and help spread the word. This is no easy task. Michael has connections everywhere, and is much loved and respected by everyone he works with.

So if you are ever in need of a great book publicist, I hope you’ll reach out to Michael. You’ll be glad you did.  And if you’d like to know more about what a publicist can do for an author, these author testimonials will give you some idea.

The Amazing, Astonishing Google Check: How I Used Google to Spell-Check Every Word in My Book.

Anyone who uses technical terms, scientific terms, foreign words, proper nouns, or brand names in their writing knows the limitations of the spell-checker built into a word processing program.  After all, it’s just a static list of words that got loaded onto your computer and never gets updated or expanded unless you do it yourself.  (And if you’ve ever tried one of the professional spell check add-ons, like Spellex, you may have noticed that they don’t always include every possible term in your field–I found the botanical checker particularly lacking–in which case, you still can’t be confident that you’ve caught everything.)

My latest book, The Drunken Botanist, is packed with weird, tricky words.  On a single page, I might mention the name of a flavor molecule, the Latin name of a plant, the surname of the French botanist who discovered it, and the brand name of a liqueur that is flavored by that plant.

That goes on for 400 pages.  You cannot imagine what a chore it was to proofread this book, and the level of sobriety required for the task.

After the completed, polished, edited, spell-checked manuscript had been proofread at least three times by me, my editor, a professional copy editor, a professional proofreader, a few other people I probably don’t even know about, and been read closely by a few smart friends and relatives, I got the pages back one last time for a final check.  It had already been typeset by then, so I got it as one long PDF.

Every time I saw a tricky term that didn’t look right, I double-clicked the word, copied it, and pasted it into Google to check.  Google, as you may know, is a surprisingly useful spell-checker:  if you get a word wrong, you’ll probably get “Did you mean…” right under the search term.  Even if that doesn’t happen, Google will generally take you to a variety of well-respected sources (or, in the case of a brand name, the company’s website) to help you check the spelling. It even catches pop culture terms, and it snags some context-specific stuff (for instance, if you wrote “hear” instead of “here”) And–bonus– Google is poly-lingual.

So as I was doing that, I was thinking, “I wish I could just Google the whole book.  Why can’t I do that?”

Then I realized that I could.  Google Docs (now called Google Drive) relies on Google’s search engine technology for its spell check function.

Why had I never thought of this before?  Here’s how I did it:

First, since I was working with a PDF, I copied the text and pasted it into a plain-text editor.

Once I had the whole document in Notepad, I copied chunks of it into a blank Google Docs document.  I found that there was an upper limit to how much text Google Docs could handle at once.  What worked for me was to put my cursor at a starting point in the Notepad text, then hit Page Down about 15 -20 times, and copy that much text at a time.    In my case, that worked out to about 35,000 words at a time.

Once you paste it into Google Docs, it takes a little while to process and save it–roughly 20 seconds.  At some point beyond that 20-second mark, with a larger chunk of text, it just gives up and won’t process it at all–at least, that was my experience.  So the sweet spot seems to be right about 35,000 words. (update: in 2020, you can pretty much always just paste the entire text in at once. But try breaking it into chunks if you find it’s too slow.)

Then all you have to do is go through and right-click on any word underlined in red.  It’ll give you a “Did you mean…” suggestion for anything that looks weird to Google–including people’s names, names of foreign cities, obscure scientific terms, all of it.

And guess what?  I found an astonishing thirty-eight errors with this method.

This is after it had been through a very rigorous and professional editing process that took months and passed through many very competent hands.  A process in which we’d all discussed how important it would be to check and double-check those tricky, difficult-to-check words. We weren’t even really proofreading anymore–this was just a final, quick look-see before it went to the printer.

And yet the silliest mistakes had escaped the notice of all of us.  Most of the mistakes I found had been in the original manuscript all along. We’d all missed them.

I can tell you that I will never again publish a book without running it through Google. (and I am fighting the temptation to Google my previous books–it is only the fact that I don’t have a PDF of the final version of each previous book that is holding me back.)

It’s time-consuming — the whole process took me 12-14 hours, in part because Google flagged a lot of words that were actually correct, but I still had to slow down and double-check them– but entirely worthwhile.   I think that if I had it to do over again, I’d run the Google check twice during the editing process.

The first time would be right before I transmit the final version of the manuscript. This is the version that my editor and I have already been over at least three times and that I have spell-checked (both with the computer and with my eyeballs) many times.  Once we transmit it, I never get it back as a Word document again.  From that point on, someone else inputs the changes. And new errors can get introduced as those changes are made.

So I’d Google-check it once right before transmittal just to eliminate obvious errors and make the professional copy editor and proofreader’s jobs easier.  The fewer mistakes they have to contend with, the more likely they will be to catch all the stuff that computers don’t catch.

Then, when I got final, typeset pages, maybe at the second pass stage, I’d take the PDF and copy/paste it and do the Google check one more time.  It probably wouldn’t turn up much, but then again, I wasn’t expecting to find 38 errors this time.

The genius behind this technology appears to be a guy named Yew Jin Lim.  Dude, you are invited to Thanksgiving at my house every year, from now on. Do not be surprised if I dedicate my next book to you. Srsly.  (Google got that word right, btw. And that one.)




November eBook Sale



Ebooks rarely go on sale, but this month two of mine are available through special promotions:

For the month of November only, pick up Flower Confidential for $1.99 as an ebook at Apple, Barnes & NobleIndieBound, Kobo, Google, and  Amazon

Wicked Bugs is also available this month only at Amazon for $2.99.

And remember, you don’t need a dedicated ebook reader to read them–you can download them to your laptop, tablet, desktop computer, or smartphone as well. Enjoy!



How Not To Be Eaten

Great title. I reviewed that and another bug book in the Washington Post.  Both got me rassling with the question of what make science writing interesting. The answer, as far as I can tell?  Little bit of science, whole lot of drama. Adultery and murders whenever possible.

In other news:  the Wall Street Journal did a little garden round-up for spring.  They wanted a picture of me in my garden, and I remembered that Saxon Holt took some when he was here a few years ago.  Memo to self:  Next time there’s a photographer lurking around just after dawn, and you force yourself out of bed to make some coffee and keep him company, don’t agree to be in any pictures until AFTER you’ve brushed your hair–or at least looked in a mirror.

At least I wasn’t still in my pajamas. Although I don’t know–jammies and wellies–I’m sure it’s been done before.

Experimenting with Free

Lastbookstoreinamerica_frontcoverThis is ever so slightly off-topic, but I know that many of you are writers, or landscapers, or small business owners, or self-employed people of some sort.  If you are, you have been asked at some point to give your work away for free.  Maybe you've wondered if "free" is the new "paid" and if there's some amount of giving stuff away for free that actually, paradoxically, weirdly, will pay off in some tangible way.

So if you're a writer, you may know that a Great Debate is raging about Amazon's new program for the Kindle, in which Amazon Prime members can "borrow" one Kindle book per month for free, Netflix-style. If you've published your own book on the Kindle, you can enroll in the lending library and get paid when Prime members borrow your book.  And you can give your Kindle ebook away, for free, for up to 5 days.  In exchange, Amazon gets a 90-day exclusive on your ebook.

So there is a HUGE debate about whether this is a terrible thing or a wonderful thing.  I won't rehash it here.  I'll just say that when I looked at sales of my novel on all other ebook platforms, I saw that I'd only sold 3 copies in the last 3 months through non-Amazon outlets, and decided I could afford to take it off the market for a 90-day trial period without unduly depriving the reading public of my literary contributions.

So my novel, The Last Bookstore in America, (which is itself about the future of books and bookstores in the digital age) is free to you Kindle owners through Thursday night. Go get it if you want it.  As of this writing, 13,500 other people already have.

What do you think of free?  Of course, this blog is practically free–we get a little beer money from the ads, but it's never been enough to pay an actual bill. When is free worthwhile?  When (from a business or career standpoint) does it make sense to give something away?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Introducing: Subtext!

Subtext from Subtext Video on Vimeo.

When my publisher asked me if I'd like to participate in the launch of a new interactive ebook platform, I jumped at the chance.  It's an interesting time for digital books, to say the least. 

Susan Harris' post this summer raised many interesting questions about digital books in general and digital garden books in particular.  Susan made the point that garden books (and travel books, and cookbooks, and other how-to books) can really benefit from a technological update.  Photo galleries, videos, audio features, links–imagine the possibilities! A cookbook with videos demonstrating key techniques.  A garden book with photographs of every plant, or of the garden at every point in the season.  Imagine travel books that can link to maps and offer reader reviews, more photos, faster updates as hotels open and restaurants change hands.

This is all very exciting, and I'm glad to be a writer at this moment, when so much is possible.  But guess what?  Publishers are really scrambling to figure it all out. They're hiring programmers, contracting with startups, and wondering how much they can invest and what the return on that investment will be.   Authors who want to leap into the digital world are turning to their publishers for the tools–but the tools aren't all there yet.

So–into all this comes Subtext.  The beauty of Subtext is that it requires no extra technical know-how. The author and the publisher just have to create a beautiful book, as they have always done, and anyone who can send an email or post to Facebook has the skills to add extra digital content. No programming required.  Repeat:  No. Programming. Required.

Here's how it works.  Note that they are still in launch mode, and only a select few titles are feature-rich right now.  But overall, this is the idea.

Splash-SubtextGirl_LFirst, you download the free Subtext app to your iPad. ( Yes, it currently only works on the iPad.  It's just getting going, so give it some time and I think we'll see it on other tablet/reader platforms.)

Second, you buy an ebook through the Google eBookstore. This is one of many places that ebooks are sold.  Millions of books are available there, including new releases.  Independent bookstores have a deal where they can sell ebooks to their customers via the Google eBookstore site.   (Yes, you might prefer to buy your ebooks from some other source.  Again, Subtext is just getting going, so who knows where it might go next? I believe it also works with Kobo and a few other sites, but they started with Google.)

Third, you open up Subtext, sign in, and your ebooks are there on your Subtext bookshelf.  You can read your books, comment on them, and discuss them with other readers, sort of like how you might post and comment on Facebook.  Or you can choose not to, and just read.  Up to you. Also, you can invite your friends to join you in a Subtext discussion of a particular book.  Yes, this imagines a world where everybody has an iPad and reads ebooks on them, but again, we've got to start somewhere.

Fourth–and this is what I'm getting at--the author can go in and fully annotate their book.  The author (or, for the JK Rowlings and Stephen Kings of the world, their staff) can add pictures, video, links to relevant websites or news stories, audio commentary, or just written commentary.  Extras.  Of all kinds.  The author can also answer reader's questions.  Maybe host a little discussion, right there in the book.  Keep updating it as time goes on.  All that stuff. 

It an annotated, interactive ebook that requires no special programming.  Anyone can do it.

So–they're only launching with a few books.  The idea is to test it, kick the tires, get a large crowd of people talking about a few books to really test the interactive features.  And one of those books is Wicked Bugs.

Wicked Bugs in Subtext

What I've done in Subtext with Wicked Bugs is to link to sources, experts, videos, and photographs that offer a deeper look into each bug (sometimes literally.)  I'm also linking to relevant news stories and useful references.  And I've added my own personal reactions to some of these bugs, as well as the reactions of other people I've met since the book came out, from drive-time DJs to victims of bug attacks.

I also worked with the artist, Briony Morrow-Cribbs, to help illuminate the process she undertook to create the copperplate etchings that illustrate the book.  We created two videos about the art, and I linked to her full-color illustrations and other bits and pieces about her and her work.

It was great fun to participate in the launch.  In all, I uploaded over 150 comments, links, videos, and other extras that I hope will enhance the book–for those who want their books enhanced, that is.

Now, a couple of caveats for those of you who might want to nit-pick (to use a Wicked Bugs term!)

Caveat #1:  Like I said, at the moment it's only available on the iPad, with the Google eBookstore, and they are starting with a limited "bookshelf" of books that are highly annotated and being discussed.

Caveat #2:  Right now, Subtext can only "read" and allow comments on the "plain text" or "flowing text" version of the book.  eBooks also come in a "scanned pages" version, which is exactly what it sounds like–a PDF-type view of the book exactly as it appears in print–with color, graphics, fancy typefaces, etc.  The plain text or "flowing text" version is fine for novels, where art, layout, and design are not as big a deal. In fact, the "flowing text" version is better with a novel, because you can re-size the type and even choose your own font.   But when it comes to highly designed and illustrated books, you want the "scanned pages" version that looks as beautiful as the real deal. They tell me that's coming, so hang in there. 

Caveat #3:  Right now, all of the author's comments appear as little icons on the side of the page that you click to read.  I would love to someday see a scrollbar type thing along the side or bottom of the screen that previewed those author comments, pictures, video, etc, so that you don't have to click every one to see what's there.  I don't know if they have something like that planned or not, but given the progress I've seen as they've worked on this thing all summer, I imagine more enhancements are in the works.

So.  What do you think?   As an author, do you like the idea of going in and "enhancing" your book, rather than waiting around for your publisher to figure out how to do it?  As a reader, do you like the idea of an enhanced ebook that includes video extras, reader discussions, author commentary, etc etc?

Wicked Plants in the Conservatory with RadioGarden

Andrew Keys invited the staff at the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers to create a RadioGarden podcast about the making of the Wicked Plants exhibit.  He assured us that any ordinary audio recorder would work; in fact, he's done interviews on his iPhone.  So, equipped with exactly that sort of technology, curator Lau Hodges and I settled in to do our interview the afternoon before the opening night gala.

Except.  Andrew Roth, the extraordinarily creative sound engineer who designed the sound effects for the exhibit, was sitting quietly in the corner, fine-tuning his audio creation. When he saw me pull out my cheap Radio Shack digital recorder, he could remain silent no longer.

"Uh–would you like me to record this interview for you?" he asked.

We both looked over at him in amazement. 

"I am the sound guy, after all," he said.

Oh, yeah!  So after a little scrambling around, Andrew got us wired up and we sat down behind this gate and started recording with his much nicer equipment:

Interview spot

AND–after Lau and I were done, Andrew sat down and talked about how he created the sound effects.  And that is my FAVORITE part of the interview.  Everyone on staff learned something–none of us had any idea what went into creating sounds that go along with a garden of poisonous plants. (his part starts around minute 16)

How does a plant sound?   How does fear sound? Tune in and find out.