02/06/2001

Shopping. I went to Wal-Mart yesterday intending to pick up shampoo and vitamins. On a whim, I wandered over to the electronics section, and found some surprises. I knew they sold HP computers, but I didn’t realize they’d branched into the types of product that require you to pop the hood to install. I guess PCs really have gone mainstream. Power splitters, four bucks. Keyboard adapters, four bucks. Creative 52X CD-ROM drives, 58 bucks. You can get the same thing, only the white box version, from Mwave.com for $36, but shipping will eat half the price difference and if you need a CD-ROM drive at 3 a.m. for some reason, well, you can get it. The same goes for a keyboard or a mouse. Don’t laugh–I was visiting a friend one weekend several years ago, and about 8:30 p.m. Friday he decides it’s time to build his new PC. So we piled into his car and barreled off to CompUSA, and arrived in the parking lot at 9:05. Too late. So I know someone who’d appreciate being able to get components at odd hours.

More interesting was a special phone cord made of LAN-grade CAT5 cable. Pricey at $8, but it’ll improve your modem connection slightly, if you’re still cursed with a dialup connection. They had network cables too, at $8 for a 10-footer and $12 for a 15-footer. That’s about the same price as CompUSA, but Wal-Mart is probably closer and it’s open longer hours.

I didn’t end up buying any of that stuff. I did find a rotating CD tower with a 112-disc capacity for 10 bucks. I snapped that up. I’ve got about 1/4 that many data CDs laying around, but the way those things breed, I’ll fill it. You’ll frequently pay that price for a 25-disc tower. I also found a disk box for $2. Nothing fancy at all–it looks like a recipe box–but who needs something fancy to hold disks? I remember I used to pay $8 for beige disk boxes with see-through tops that held 50 disks. This costs 1/4 as much and holds more. The plastic’s thinner and you can’t see through the top, but these stack better. And the price was right. So I grabbed one. I thought about getting a second, but I figured no, I probably only have about 50 stray disks laying around, so a second box would just be extra clutter, and I just spent all weekend trying to get rid of extra clutter. I got home, herded up all the stray floppies I could find, and filled the box. Then I spotted another stack of floppies laying forgotten under a pile of papers. Rats. I should have grabbed a second box. Next time I’m out I’ll grab another one.

O’Reilly revisited. Frank McPherson had some interesting observations yesterday about O’Reilly in general and Optimizing Windows in particular. He said he didn’t like the title. I never liked it either; I thought it was cumbersome, limiting, and meaningless (which is why I usually just call it Optimizing Windows). Games is too limiting, graphics is too limiting, and multimedia is a buzzword that’s lost all meaning. The book title on the contract read “Essential Windows 9x Optimization.” I’m not sure if that was the title on the proposal or where that working title came from. I remember giving O’Reilly a list of about 10 possible titles, but they kept coming back to Optimizing Windows for Games, Graphics and Multimedia. I cited gamers in the proposal as one potential audience for the book, they ran with it.

Frank also brought up pricing and book length. It’s much harder to write a short book; had I skipped the self-editing process Optimizing Windows probably would have been closer to 330 pages instead of 290. I didn’t see that adding filler would add any value to the book, and I really wanted to stay under 300 pages so the book wouldn’t look intimidating. But people expect computer books to be thick. I remember seeing a picture of someone’s Apollo workstation, and he included a picture of his Apollo manuals. They would have nearly filled one of my 6-foot bookshelves. It was a ridiculous mass of 3-ring binders. But people seem to expect computer books to be 900 pages, just like they expect a CD to play for an hour.

I think Frank hit the nail on the head when he talked about layout. He cited bigger print and more whitespace and more use of graphics. Indeed, those things sell. I remember doing newsletter layouts with my ex-girlfriend. I’d lay the elements on the page, then she’d add tons of whitespace. A lot less fit on the page, but it looked a lot better and read much more quickly that way. She also added a lot of unnecessary flourishes. A hardcore computer geek would dismiss that as bravado, but it makes the pages look a lot better. People notice those things when they flip through the book or magazine in the store.

My editors at Computer Shopper UK asked me to provide them with more screenshots than I have been lately. I sent them 14, which I thought was a ridiculous number. I just got a PDF proof of my next article, for the April issue. They used 11 of them, and there’s no denying it looks great.

Pricing’s tougher. I suspect O’Reilly uses higher-quality paper than some of the other publishers, and that quickly adds cost. But if I didn’t have a degree in magazine publishing I probably wouldn’t notice the difference. I know Joe Consumer doesn’t notice and would rather pay $5 less. Some people would buy the book printed on newsprint if they could save 10 bucks. I’ve forgotten almost everything I ever knew about binding, but my O’Reilly books are bound better than some of the other computer books I have. I don’t think that matters much either though; I have a lot of comb-bound computer books too and I don’t think less of them because of it.

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