PCW Plus "Langford" Columns, 1989

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Column 28, 8000 Plus 28, January 1989


It's coming up to the time of year when some big mainframe computers get together and announce their intention of sending me wads of Government money. This is no empty promise: in February, for the sixth year in succession, I'll get a cheque for a few hundred quid. The payment and the amount don't even depend on my knowing dreadful and unsavoury secrets about cabinet ministers. In effect, it's democratically awarded by the great British public (you), and I shall be grateful all the way to the bank.

If you've ever published a book you are probably nodding your head wisely and murmuring `Public Lending Right'. If you've published books but don't know this phrase, you're almost certainly missing out and should read on -- likewise if you merely hope to get published one day.

PLR is a pleasant attempt at giving a fair deal to authors whose masterworks are borrowed a lot in UK libraries. Say you've written a novel retailing at £10 and get £1 royalty every time someone buys and reads a copy. (If you're a jaded, cynical author, you may not mind staying unread so long as the book gets bought....)

When the buyer is a public library, hordes of people will read the book, but the return to the author used to be the same: one 10% royalty fee only. Can't the author be rewarded a bit -- that is, paid for public lending right as he or she might be for translation or film rights? For a long time there were arguments about charging a penny a loan and passing the revenue to authors: this would have been hellish to administrate in pre-computer days, and librarians were naturally dead against it.

The difficulties of introducing the PLR idea were compounded by the sort of conservatism which resisted other changes, like allowing women to vote. Authors have long been regarded as scum, and copyright protection is unique in law as being biodegradable: if you build a house it can be inherited by your descendants for decades or centuries, but if you write a book which still keeps on selling 50 years after your death, it goes into the public domain -- anyone can reprint it, issue an edited version, etc.

How does PLR work? Now that so many libraries are computerized, the big PLR computer in Stockton-on-Tees merely has to gross up the borrowings recorded by twenty sample libraries: this produces an estimate of how many times each book by each PLR-registered author has been borrowed in the given year. I was cheered in 1988 to find that my own first book (published 1979) was reckoned to have had more than 3000 readers over the previous year.

Yes, all the authors in the scheme get statements detailing the statistics for every edition of every book: it makes for morbidly compulsive reading.

PLR funding comes from a not all that big lump of Government money somewhat arbitrarily allotted by the Minister for the Arts. After deducting running costs (for the computer and its acolytes), the remaining loot is divided up amongst the authors: the 1988 dividend was an exciting 1.12p per estimated loan. It would be less, but in order to weight PLR distribution towards starving as opposed to ultra-popular authors, no one is allowed to rake off more than £5000.

The PLR office is an oddly friendly department of the Civil Service: they actually answer queries in plain English and give unstuffy advice. What, I asked them, do I do about this book I wrote with a pal who isn't eligible because he's American? The reply: get him to waive the share of PLR which he can't claim anyway, apply for 100% of PLR income on the book, and slip your friend whatever percentage of this amount your conscience tells you.

Along with your PLR statement for the year, you get a fascinating leaflet of arcane statistics. Last time we were told that 57 authors had achieved the top whack of £5000, that 49% of those registered got less than £1000, and that the whole distribution was based on an estimated 639 million library loans grossed up from an actual sample of 7.6 million, only 235 million of the total loans being of books actually registered for PLR....

I need hardly mention that there are statistical checks designed to ensure that the estimated loans aren't boosted over-much by your entire family taking out all your books six times a week.

So how do you climb aboard? If you've published a book, and your name (or a pseudonym which is all your own) appears on the title page in company with not too many co-authors (books with four or more authors are ineligible on grounds of Too Much Work All Round), it's probably worth registering. I remember the anguished and envious groans on that very first PLR dividend day in 1984, from those who hadn't registered because `obviously' the scheme would never bring them a penny. Oh yes -- as well as all the above you must live in the UK and not be dead.

Registration itself is pretty simple; it used to be more tortuous, but the system has been fine-tuned since the early days. Basically, in the great tradition of our Civil Service, you fill in a form. All the information can be had from the Public Lending Right Office, Bayheath House, Prince Regent Street, Stockton-on-Tees, Cleveland, TS18 1DF.

Being a fairly obscure author myself, I'm still boggled by the fact that PLR brings me a little bonus each year, and also by the nuggets of accompanying information -- like the fact that one book that never made me much in royalties is my most popular in libraries, with uncounted thousands of loans. I owe it all to you lot. And to the computers.

Column 29, 8000 Plus 29, February 1989


Your esteemed editor (whose name and face keep changing at inexplicable intervals) sometimes suggests that I write more about the seamy side of little software companies -- that is, my own. Natural modesty permits me to do this only once a year.

Should you enter the rough world of software marketing, my main tip is: make sure someone else answers the telephone. Being slightly deaf, I have a permanent excuse. My Ansible Information co-director merely has a permanent twitch. Each morning he resolves to answer calls with utmost suavity and politesse; each evening he sends me a despondent report in which (I fear) the words `bastard' and `wally' figure prominently.

Before millions of readers rise up to lynch the entire Ansible staff and plough salt into the ruins, let me hastily add that most callers are just wonderful. As with street litter, grandstand violence and statutory rape, the problem is caused by a minority.

`What sort of minority?' you suspiciously ask. Aha....

• `How do I know your rotten cheap software works? Can you send three evaluation copies?'

Translation: a rip-off artist. Who'd dare go into a bookshop, say `How do I know this novel is any good?' -- and demand to take it home and read it before deciding whether to pay? (Software and book copyright laws are the same.)

• `Your brochure says your program will do this, that, and that. Will it really?'


`Are you sure?'


`Well, maybe. But will it advise me on diet horoscopes, do family trees for the gerbils and write to my VAT inspector?'

`No, that's not what -- '

`Oh, it can't be much good then.' (Hangs up.)

Translation: here's someone who believed that stuff about how computers will transform your entire life, and is still looking for the one perfect piece of software which will instantly usher in the Earthly Paradise, at not more than £12.95 of course.

• `You do this program for LocoScript on the Amstrad PCW, right?'

`Yes. It costs a mere -- '

`Will it work with my home-made BASIC word processor on a Commodore 64?'

Translation: hope springs eternal in the human breast. Few C64s boast a three-inch disk drive.

• `Hello! I'm having trouble with PIP, can I ask you nineteen detailed technical questions?'

`Look, sunshine, it's seven in the bloody morning and Ansible Information was in bed!'

`I have to get to work early! You should too! Now about PIP....'

`Sorry, we're so overworked that we can't give our customers technical support for programs we didn't write ourselves.'

`Oh, I'm not one of your customers....'

`Ritfim!' (Hangs up.)

Translation: the final expletive is constantly on support teams' lips, and is properly spelt RTFM, for `Read the effing manual!'

• `This is Megawally Associates Ltd. We're big, we're important, and we're taking no nonsense from you. I ordered your software weeks ago: nothing's come. This is urgent. If it's not on my desk first thing tomorrow morning, there's going to be trouble!'

Translation: a bastard. In ten cases out of nine, this call means, `I told the purchasing people to send an order last week, and although they probably haven't done it yet, I'm going to take it out of you for not clairvoyantly realizing an order was coming.' Many frustrated executives find their egos soothed by this cheap, gratifying exercise.

• `This is Megawally Associates Ltd. Our accounts department needs a receipted invoice for your software. Where is it? What are you going to do about it? I want it yesterday!'

`You'll find it in the parcel which at your loud and urgent request we rushed to you last Tuesday.'

`Oh, that. I haven't opened it yet.'

Translation: a right bastard. Sceptical readers are assured that both Megawally conversations are given almost verbatim.

• `Send the stuff now and we'll pay in due course.'

`Sorry, we send on those terms only to educational, medical and government establishments.'

`Look, sunshine, we're one of the four biggest accountancy firms in the world!'

Translation: if so, they could scrape together a few quid from the petty cash, wouldn't you think? Despite attempts to be cuddly and nice, Ansible had to get tough about sending stuff on tick. `One of the four biggest accountancy firms in the world' still owes us money two years after we were foolishly trusting, but generally the worst payers of all are computer companies. Amstrad themselves were forthright -- when they demanded all our software, they made it clear that there'd be no nonsense about payment. Deep financial analysis of this proposed deal convinced us to save the postage.

• `I'm going to have the law on you! You've destroyed my computer!'

`What!?' (Symptoms of heart attack, etc.)

`Yeah. I was running your program during a perfectly ordinary thunderstorm when the power-lines went down and in the dark I spilled coffee into the disk drive and trod on the keyboard, so it's all your fault. What are you going to do about it?'


Translation: we are going to take the phone off the hook for the rest of the day while we hide under the desk. Ansible seriously has been blamed for disasters resulting from loading/saving files while electrical storms raged overhead ... a good time to switch off and drink coffee in another room.

• (On the answering machine:) `Please call me back to discuss your software. The number's 876543210. (Pause.) That's backwards, har har.'

Translation: some mothers do 'ave 'em. Only space prevents me from revealing much, much more.... (Translation: `That's enough whingeing' -- Ed.)

Column 30, 8000 Plus 30, March 1989


I have been. Trying to. Improve my style and. Make it. Easier. For you punters to read. Is this any. Better?

Well, several recent articles and press releases have gone on about the virtues of style checking programs -- software that reports on the clarity of your writing. My first paragraph is the result of paying rather too much attention to one of the most popular `readability' tests. In future I will be writing lots more. Easy prose. Like this.

Conversely, would you care to measure your powers of analysis against a real brain-burster of difficult writing? A sentence whose comprehension, according to the best authorities, requires more than 31 years of full-time education? Fasten your straitjackets, check your MENSA credentials -- here it comes!

`That excellent occasion of family celebration was enlivened by elephants, aspirin, carpentry and bananas.'

If that challenge was too hard for you, work up to it by easy stages via the following sentence of the same length -- which the same formula calculates as being easier by some 25 years of schooling.

`A sard pyx of lymph and gleet was limned with a quincunx of merkins.'

By contrast, what does the formula make of my first, disjointed paragraph? The answer which is cranked out is that it's suitable reading for a hitherto uneducated child after approximately one year in school.

Now for some explanations. The formula I'm using, or misusing, is Robert Gunning's venerable `FOG index', the basis of most `style difficulty' checkers. It dates from 1952; the name is an acronym, meaning Frequency Of Gobbledegook.

Working the actual FOG formula involves going through a piece of prose and making some simple counts which cry out to be computerized. You count the number and length of the sentences, and from that work out an average sentence length.

You also calculate the percentage of `hard words' in the total word count, the rule of thumb being that a hard word is anything with three or more syllables which isn't a proper name (your program should be watching for capital letters), a combination of `easy' words (this eliminates terms like `horsepower' and `superfluid'), or a variant of a word whose basic form is `easy'. `Edit' counts as easy, therefore `editing' is easy. As a writer -- no, an originator -- I always suspected it.

Finally, add the average sentence length to the hard-word percentage and multiply this sum by 0.4. The result, Gunning being an American, is supposed to give the US school grade at which you should be able to tackle the prose. Grade 1 corresponds to six-year-olds, Grade 2 to seven-year-olds, etc. I'm uneasy about adding two different kinds of number (an amount and a percentage) at the last step, but it seems that the formula tests out pretty well on a practical basis.

How ludicrously it can fall down is shown by those slightly spurious examples. My opening paragraph has no `hard' words at all and fiddles the sentence-length average by simple defiance of grammar. The `excellent occasion' sentence rates as terrifically obscure since 64% of its words are trisyllables and thus `hard', even if they don't look hard to you. And the `sard pyx' fools the rule-of-thumb difficulty gauge with a cluster of short, `easy' obscurities.

Obviously the second and third cock-ups can be partly eliminated by a program with access to some comprehensive dictionary of genuinely easy words. The first is actually more subtle. Breaking up sentences automatically gives a better readability score even when the. Disruption of logical. Flow means. A harder. Read....

It is time for a little Viewing With Alarm. This hasn't merely been an exercise in poking fun. Style checker programs are loose in the world. I don't know whether any author who submits text on disk has achieved the dubious privilege of being the first to be rejected unread because `the style program says you're too highbrow for our median market'. It will come.

Fortunately the checking contains the seeds of its own ruin. I once wrote a spoof fairy tale in which a king, well read in the literature and having to choose between the merits of three princely suitors for his daughter's hand, decides to cut out the complexities and go straight to the inevitable winner by simply asking which prince is the youngest. Later it occurs to him that this point is too well known, and all but the youngest prince will infallibly lie about their age.

Just so, authors may lie about their style, as in my examples above. Gunning's FOG formula assumes that writers are unspoilt and don't contort their prose to achieve a `correct' score. Authors with style checkers of their own may soon be cunningly aiming for the exact readability level demanded for the chosen market.

But by this stage, what will `readability' mean? Only that the prose is tailored to get the right score from tests like the FOG index. Some editor is still going to have to toil through the stuff and find out whether, like my second example but unlike my first and third, it really is readable. Back to square one, everyone.

Meanwhile, an outfit called Scandinavian PC Systems is flogging a style checker called READABILITY, presumably not for the PCW market since here you can't get away with a price tag of £59.80. Is it any good? A rave review appeared in PC magazine, excitingly illustrated with screen prints of the program at work. As it improves your English, READABILITY can be seen to offer you choises (sic), to give an overall evaulation (sic), and to report how many short or long words you use in average.

Truly, this could be the software that teached we to write good!

Column 31, 8000 Plus 31, April 1989


Welcome, one and all, to the second monthly number of this family periodical. Your warm response to our first has gratified the Editors most excessively. No doubt of it: scattered through the length and breadth of England are thousands of happy devotees of the machine from which our publication takes its name -- none of whom would willingly return to the old, wearisome ways, yet most of whom are a little `stumped' by the mechanical intricacies. It is for you that we publish Remington Plus.

Without further ado we present our first `Enquire Within Upon Everything' page. Herein readers' queries will be answered monthly by `Aunt Davinia', who seeks to be to you a Counsellor, Guardian, Instructor, Companion and Friend.

• `Baffled' -- We agree that the pamphlet of instructions provided with your machine is shamefully deficient. The reason that your letters are difficult to read lies in a point which was not made clear: you are meant to insert a sheet of paper into the typewriter by dint of rotating the knurled knob at the top right. If you do not follow this somewhat technical explanation, you must consult the tradesman who supplied your machine. You will find that the use of paper makes the result far more legible and also less costly to post. (Should you wish us to return the roller carrying your letter, you must remit eighteenpence for carriage.)

• `Paterfamilias' -- An excellent spelling checker is published by Bowdler & Company, containing none of the terms to which you discreetly allude. Your children may consult it without fear. However, such lexicons do not offer the alternative renditions you require. The `add-on software' of M.Roget provides this facility but includes notions somewhat too sensational for those of tender years.

• `lowercase' -- This is a frequent enquiry. Although the feature for which you ask was in fact introduced in 1878, it has never in our opinion been adequately documented. Somewhere amongst the keys of your machine -- we cannot say where without further information -- you should find one bearing the legend Shift. Depress this firmly when typing the first letters of proper names and the opening words of sentences. With a few weeks' practice you will soon master the trick of releasing this key before the next letter is typed. Space precludes our entering into fuller details, but for our summer number we are preparing a lengthy essay entitled Shift Lock Secrets.

• `Pro Bono Publico' -- Clearly you have been dulling your mind with the childish fantasies of such as M.Jules Verne, until your sense of proportion is quite eroded. The notion that personal typewriters might be driven by some such fantastic means as electricity is sheer nonsense. Only the huge `mainframe' typewriters of commerce, such as that devised by Mr Edison in 1872, could conceivably operate in such a fashion. Are you afraid of honest toil?

• `Thrifty' -- You should read our pages with greater attention. Each issue contains several advertisements for preparations of soot, lamp-black, boot-polish, et cetera, supposedly suitable for the `rejuvenation' of ribbons. We cannot recommend any one in particular. Your own efforts with oak-galls and household chemicals are perhaps commendable, but imperfect: the ink emits noxious fumes which made our chambers uninhabitable until your letter was removed by the public hangman. We have forwarded his account to your address.

• `Aspirans' -- Certainly not! Under no circumstances should any English author take colonials like Mr Mark Twain as setters of precedent in this respect. We dare say publishers in those uncouth parts are prepared to accept typewritten submissions. In Britain, literary etiquette is unchanged. You may prepare drafts of your work on the machine, but must write it out in `letter quality' script for the publisher. Vellum and quill pens remain optional.

• `Fun-Lover' -- Yes. Although the Remington is almost exclusively thought of as a serious machine for the use of authors and businesses alone, many games are indeed available. For example, the advertisement from `Diversions and Pastimes Workshop' on page 94 offers a selection which includes `Consequences', `Acrostics', `Double Acrostics' and `Postman's Knock'. Many enthusiasts declare the Remington adaptations of these games to be infinitely superior to the old `manual' versions.

• `In Statu Pupillari' -- Your tutor or governess has sadly neglected your education. A child of your years should be aware that the typewriter, far from being a new idea, appears in a British Patent as long as ago as 1714. Nor was your letter free from errors of grammar, syntax, layout, punctuation, spelling and diction.

• `Blackbeard' -- We can take no pleasure in your account of how (no matter with what ingenuity) you have `hacked' the internal mechanisms of Remingtons to effect various claimed improvements. Such tampering is in clear violation of the makers' warranty conditions. We hold it our duty to prevent such bad and dangerous suggestions from reaching our readers. After taking legal advice we must also return your article on the use of a modified machine to generate `official' identification and thus penetrate the Bank of England's ledger system. The notion is in poor taste.

• `Wordsallruntogether' -- The key you seek is the very wide one which you will find lies closest to you as you operate the mechanism. Contrary to your somewhat petulant implication, we consider the manufacturers to have labelled this clearly and correctly with a picture of a space.

Aunt Davinia will return with further enlightenment next month.

Column 32, 8000 Plus 32, May 1989


Wearing other hats in other magazines, I also review science fiction ... but I never thought I'd cover an SF book here. It's not so much the book as its introduction, which unites two favourite themes: the unreliability of statistics and the often hilarious results of applying machine analysis to our slippery English language.

For an enjoyable if dated look at the first theme, see Darrell Huff's How To Lie With Statistics (1954). This covers many classic cock-ups, like the American opinion poll which selected its thousands of victims totally at random from the telephone directory but was still dead wrong about the election. (Phones weren't quite as universal then, and the selection method ruled out hordes of less well-off voters.)

As for my jaundiced views on how computers look at words ... see the column on page 33.

Here's the book, The Best of the Nebulas edited by Ben Bova. The Nebula awards for SF stories are voted on by members of the SF Writers of America, an organization which anyone can join on the strength of three short published stories. They've been presenting these awards since 1965; this is a `best of the best' anthology.

What's perched by my keyboard is an uncorrected proof copy from Tor Books (New York) ... so before actual publication, some editor might yet remove the points which caused me to say loudly, `Oi!'

As early as his third introductory sentence, editor Bova gets into trouble. As judged by SFWA, the anthology `contains absolutely the best SF stories published between 1965 and 1985'.

Oi! Here's a thought experiment. Imagine that 1980 was a terrifically good year and saw the publication of the best, second-best and third-best short SF stories of 1965-85. Only one could win the award. (We'll assume it's the best, although short-term log-rolling is rife, and as Bova admits, opinions shift with time.) Then the SFWA members who voted on the contents of this anthology couldn't possibly pick the second- or third-best stories: they won no Nebula and are excluded, unlike the fourth- and twentieth-best, which did win in leaner years.

Then, how to conduct the actual voting? Bova polled North American SFWA members only, since: `Overseas membership is too small to have a significant effect....'

Oi! Two more thought experiments. One: our government excludes all `fringe' parties like the Green Party or SDLDDLSP from the next election because they're too small to affect results. Two: Bova notices that SFWA has only one member in, say, Kansas. Does he exclude Kansas on the same logical ground? Does he hell.

(One reason SFWA overseas recruitment remains small is that members in funny foreign countries like Britain feel they're not considered `real'. Bova certainly adds to this impression. Example from my own experience when a member: SFWA refused to handle a dispute with my publishers, which is supposed to be one of its functions. The UK Society of Authors browbeat said publishers into a cash settlement for crimes in breach of contract. Moral: join the Society, not SFWA.)

Best of all is the Bova description of how all the voting questionnaires were analysed by fantastically sophisticated software which actually ... compared the frequencies of the words used!

This sounds suspiciously like the program I wrote years ago and called GREASE in honour of David Lodge's nifty novel Small World (where similar software plays, as it were, a bit part). I meant it as interesting and maybe illuminating fun; Bova says it's a powerful tool for determining covert opinions and attitudes.

Thus, he points out triumphantly, the words `fiction' and `science' turned up lots of times and were about equally frequent, presumably betraying the `not outwardly expressed' fact that this poll concerned SF. Warming to his theme, he notes that the most frequently used words of all are: `story' and `stories'.

The point soon emerges as Bova launches an attack on the artsy-fartsy poseurs who filled in voting forms. These fibbers, he complains, kept banging on about `literary quality', `passing the test of time', and `impact on the field', all esoteric virtues of which Bova's own SF is certainly innocent. But the computer saw through this holier-than-thou posing!

For, as Bova reports gleefully, the most frequently used words of all were `good' and `read'. At heart the voters spurned the high-flown litcrit stuff and wanted a good read....


Here are some questions to ponder.

• How come the most frequently used words were also `story' and `stories'?

• Might the frequent words `good' and `read' have been parallelled by frequent use of `not', `just' and `a'?

• Might `read' have sometimes been a verb?

• Aren't there many more ways of phrasing subtler literary virtues than there are of saying `a good read'? For example, mightn't you talk about sheer writing quality or excellence, and wouldn't the analysis be meaningless -- or even more meaningless -- unless the word-counts for `quality' and `excellence' were combined?

• Are you now surprised to learn that in pursuance of some murky sub-argument, Bova proudly points out that `quality' scored high while `excellence' came low?

• Would you buy a used statistic from Ben Bova?

Probably his conclusions have several grains of truth; but conclusions reached by such shabby reasoning are automatically devalued.

Meanwhile, you're lucky this isn't an SF magazine, otherwise now I'd have to go on and review all the collection's actual stories....

Suffice it to say that for lack of room to reprint the novel winners, Bova instead offered little essays on those books; and that to remove all possible bias and ensure trenchantly impartial evaluations, these essays were written by the book's authors.

Column 33, 8000 Plus 33, June 1989


I sat in my office watching the level of the bourbon slowly sink, like Amstrad profits. Another couple of slugs and I'd start kidding myself I could understand CP/M BDOS error messages. Being a private computer consultant can drive you crazy.

The client was a dame. A dame whose picture would melt anyone's video digitizer. There were lines on her face, maybe thirty-two of them, but she'd stayed easy enough on the eye. She'd said her name was Joyce.

`I need you to track down some disks.'

`LP, compact, brake or spinal?' I quipped.

`CF2,' she snapped. `I need them bad. My supplier says there's a shortage....'

`Of all the columns in this magazine,' I sighed, `you had to walk into mine.'

So now it was my problem. Maybe this tied in with my April investigation. An outfit called M.D.Office Supplies had put a flashy ad in Amstrad PCW magazine. It offered disks. Five and a quarter inch disks. Three and a half inch disks. No other size at all.

Dealers ... who can figure 'em?

I started out with my own dealer contact. He lived in a bad part of town, where the ads are small and cheap. Down every dark alley someone was waiting to clobber you good with VAT and carriage, not included in the advertised price. In that district, customer support meant that instead of throwing you out they carried you out. And dropped you.

`Times are hard all over,' muttered the dealer, nervously shifting a wad of greenbacks from one pocket to another. `Our wholesaler, he's got a million disks back-ordered. Nothing I can do to speed them up, squire.'

I got the grimy sheet of paper from my pocket. `These are the discount prices you promised you'd hold level until....'

I'd forgotten his assistant. I spun around, one hand diving for the holster, but too late. He smiled as he slugged me behind the ear with a fat list of revised prices. My Visa card went limp like a Dali watch. On the second blow the whole world curled up and turned black as NLQ from a fresh new ribbon.

The last words I heard were, `Thirty days minimum delivery time.'

... My brain kept throbbing and reporting `missing address mark in frontal lobe'. My mouth tasted like the toilet floor at a computer show. It was no time to be talking to the client. I was talking to the client.

`How about some results?' she said with a green light in her eyes.

I explained: `Down these mean disk manager menus a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.'

`I guess that means no progress.'

`You got it.' I patted her on the monitor, which was curved in all the right places. `Here's looking at you, kid.'

Following a hunch I checked out another lead, another of the million outlets in the naked city. These were big-time mobsters with an open plan dump full of potted plants. Out of my league. One false move, and the heavy in the smart suit and tie would have me up against the wall. I'd be lucky to get out without being sold an 80386 IBM system with VGA display and laser printer.

`I want to know about disks. CF2 disks.'

His laugh would have made a hyena hide nervously under the bed. `Get out of here, you small-time punk.'

I got mad. He froze as I drew a bead on him with my snub-nosed RS-232 interface. `You've got contacts,' I told him. `Guys who spend fifty big ones on accounts programs, and that's just to handle petty cash. Guys who know the disk situation.'


I fired seven data bits over his shoulder, to show I meant business.

`You're thinking to yourself, is his RS-232 set up for seven-bit or eight-bit transmission? You're wondering, has he got one bit left? What you should be asking yourself is ... do I feel lucky?'

His teeth did castanet impressions. `OK, I'll spill it. It's the import connection -- most big Jap outfits have pulled out of CF2s. Only Maxell still make them. There's a famine. The operators with big stocks plan to clean up.'

It fitted together. I dived through the glass doors just before a fusillade of hype could shoot fatal holes in my sales resistance. This is a lousy stinking business, I thought as the pavement came up to hit me.

Later: `I can't touch the Mr Big behind this,' I told the client. `It's the old story -- he's out of reach. Seems he made a killing installing cheap drives in a million machines, and left the suckers to feed them with expensive disks. It's easy to get hooked ... hard to kick the CF2 habit.'

`I can pay,' she whispered.

`Seems the operation never went over big, Stateside. Maybe the Mafia didn't like the interference, maybe the punters saw through the scam. Without that market, the Japs got leery and dropped out.'

She blazed greenly at me. `So you can't fill my order. How d'you plan to stop me blowing the whistle on this sleazy consultancy business of yours?'

There's no arguing with dames. `Farewell, my lovely, until the shortage is over....'

My fist caught her smack on the power button, and she slept the big sleep.

Column 34, 8000 Plus 34, July 1989


What ghastly, warping childhood experiences could make someone grow up to be a freelance futurologist and software knowall? Revelation came to me at a computer show where I'd arranged a second mortgage to buy a drink. It tasted awful, and I thought of when a pint almost as bad cost me exactly one-twentieth as much.

This thrifty fluid was some foul fizz served in South Wales pothouses to schoolboys of limited taste. My teenage memories started trickling back. Proust sailed into the wastes of lost time at the remembered nibble of a biscuit, but I was made of sterner stuff. The remembered tang of iron filings....

Participants in those smoky pub sessions were thrown together by friendship, throbbing absence of girlfriends, and the natural human urge not to be doing homework. It was my evil pal Dai who enlivened the evenings with the direly hazardous game Fizz-Buzz.

If you're lucky, you won't have met it. Semi-drunken clowns sit in a circle, counting aloud, clockwise round the ring: `One.' `Two.' `Three.' At five, and every multiple of five, the current sucker must instead cry `Fizz!' At seven and its multiples, the word is `Buzz!' and the order of play reverses direction. Anyone failing to make the right noise at the right time must take a huge swig of beer (amateur rules), drain the glass and buy another (tournament rules), or knock back all visible drinks and buy a round (insane idiot rules).

Well, it beat South Wales's other conversational topics: women (frustrating since none of us knew any) and rugby -- even more frustrating since, precociously beer-raddled, we couldn't play the national game without wheezing and falling over. This has been a health warning.

There was a weird satisfaction in doing this daft business right, `the solemn intoxication which comes of intricate ritual faultlessly performed' (thus Dorothy Sayers on bell-ringing) -- except that the ritual wasn't that intricate. Even the double thrill of `Fizz Buzz!' at multiples of 35 failed to reach orgasm level.

Clearly the `game' lacked intellectual challenge, at least until so late in the evening that remembering one's name also began to present difficulties on the order of Fermat's Last Theorem. We tried attaching electrodes to the sluggish rules. An early experiment was to assign `Oink!' as the, er, buzzword for multiples of 3. Dai soon developed a particularly obscene `Oink!' whose mere enunciation counted as gamesmanship. The corpse of the rotten game began to twitch.

`Burp!' for multiples of 11 was the next logical addition. By now, some us were sweating, concentrating intently, and falling over sooner than of yore (see above: Tournament Rules). Then came a quantum leap into genuine mathematical abstraction: `Clang!' each time the count reached a prime number. (After savage debate, the dogma of mathematics was cast aside and 1 was declared prime.) Around then I stopped remembering petty things like closing times or how I'd got home afterwards. Sanity finally died with the two-pronged introduction of `Pow!' for perfect squares and `Zap!' for powers of two. Was 1 a perfect square? (Oh, all right.) A power of two?

By now, alert readers will see, there were no blasted landmarks. Pale, strained faces ringed the table, struggling to follow a count which began not 1-2-3-4 but: `Clang Pow!' `Clang Zap!' `Oink Clang!' `Pow Zap!' It was a supreme moment of triumph if we successfully galloped into the straight with `Oink Buzz!' `Burp!' `Clang!' `Oink!' `Fizz Pow!' ...and, at last, the first number in our counting system which came through in clear.


I've never worked out what the pub regulars thought of us, but they used to look worried.

The suggestion of `Ping!' for cubes was perhaps unnecessary. Perfect numbers also received short shrift. The sessions ended after a serious plan to signal numbers in the Fibonacci series (1-1-2-3-5-8-13 ...) with, appropriately, `Argh!' Rather than debate whether 1 should now be intricately coded as `Argh Argh Clang Pow!' owing to its double appearance in the series, we all went to university instead.

In Oxford, many splendours and miseries followed, but the demented game wasn't so easily escaped -- not merely because I inflicted it on precocious hackers who programmed the Nuclear Physics Department computers to list every response up to ten thousand. (When I write Advanced Fizz-Buzz -- the Dungeon Master's Guide, I'll know where to do the research.) Those nonsense sequences were strangely hard to shake off. People have been driven round the twist by obsession with Charles Hinton's coloured cubes for visualizing the fourth dimension (1904). Not being quite intellectually up to that, I still suffered years of fizzes and oinks and clangs running round my head like mathematically-minded squirrels.

(Also I invented variants like Real Men's Fizz-Buzz, played with all the real numbers between 0 and 1 with special grunts for transcendentals -- you go first, thanks; Big Fizz-Buzz, in which anyone reaching the first transfinite ordinal before closing time must intone `Someone's Been Cheating!'; and, after a crippling attack of Douglas Hofstadter ... Self-Referential Fizz-Buzz incorporating Strange Loops.)

The sound effects in my skull did eventually fade, but as a possible side-effect I seem to have spent my working life doing vaguely mathematical and computerish things, from SF to doomsday-weapon simulations to making PCWs count words. Wasting time in pubs? I can almost truthfully say: `I owe my whole career to lousy bitter and Fizz-Buzz.' Death comes on swift wings to anyone who responds, `What career?'

Admittedly, my failure to get rich by writing The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy can be blamed on schoolday conditioning to think that, for the reasons above, 26 is an infinitely funnier punchline than `Oink Buzz!'. I mean, funnier than 42....

Column 35, 8000 Plus 35, August 1989


Each year, as technology marches resistlessly onward and hordes more writers discover the joys of automation and repetitive strain injury, the image of word processing grows friendlier -- more commonplace. Even non-technophiles can play; even those organizations most mired in ancient tradition, the book publishers. I once moaned here about laggard publishers who despite your offer of perfect copy on disk would still insist on having the whole thing retypoed at enormous expense by their palsied printers. This still happens, but nothing like as universally.

(However, do note that preparing clean print-outs of your stuff remains important. A publishing outfit which favours the IBM GrottyScript word processor will not be happy to get an unsolicited novel on a three-inch disk. These days I add `Available on disk in such-and-such formats' on MS covering sheets.)

The point of disk submissions is only partly that publishers save money on `rekeying'. Authors may or may not get a share of the resulting extra profits ... but for a dedicated author, the great attraction is that your words should be printed as you wrote them.

Of course, merely changing the format of your text for book pages or magazine columns might not be the end of it. Discreet corrections could be needed, where the sensitive, intelligent editor realizes that you've cocked it up.

In addition, there's the question of house style. This makes sense in two contexts. First, if an author is just plain inconsistent about whether to write `World War 2' or `World War II' -- `realise' or `realize' -- `no one' or `no-one' -- then the publishers will quite reasonably get out their `style book' and standardize on their own preferred usage. Second, magazines routinely do the same to articles for the sake of coherent presentation.

So far, so good ... but horror stories follow. The trouble arises when publishers mechanically impose their wretched style-book on prose which is consistent and correct, but doesn't conform to the `rules' scribbled by some bored editor in 1966. For example, at school we all learned to use double quotation marks for speech: "Hello" and not `Hello'. Many publishers go through entire books substituting single quotes; on investigation you find that half the editors you ask would prefer double ones, but `we have to change it because it's the house style'. [In fact I have yielded to single quotes over the years simply because proper left-and-right ones are easier to enter and look better on the computer than the double equivalents. Yes: blame the machine.]

That's a minor annoyance. One outfit drove me to distraction by preferring the `ize' forms of verbs (OK by me) and as a result changing every use of `advertise' to `advertize' (wrong by either standard), and `laser' to `lazer'. The same publisher refused to print the book's dedication because it would injure their lexical dignity: `To XXXX, who teached I to write good.'

Another -- and let's name names, it was Practical Computing in the days when they ran occasional fiction -- favoured me with the worst copy-editing job I've suffered in my life. It was a humorous story, and they passed it to a dour technical editor who carefully removed all the funny bits and rewrote the horrid abbreviations which his house style forbade. Thus I'd have someone saying `Can't fool you!' and it would come out as `Unable to fool you.'

But then I started submitting (by arrangement) on disk, and of course everything was perfect. Er, well, um. What is actually amazing is the discovery of how you can send perfect prose on disk and errors will be put in by eager copyeditors. I still wake up screaming at the memory of my article on fantasy for a magazine whose editor couldn't spell Tolkien, and who carefully uncorrected each of my eighteen mentions of the guy.

Then there's the magazine for which I write monthly book reviews. Sometimes I dream of sneaking in and finding out what they do to the disk file to lose random letters here and there, just as though it had been retyped by hand. I suspect technology can't be blamed for their dismemberment of unfortunate US anthologist Beth Meacham, who was finally printed as Beth Full Stop New Paragraph Meacham.

A weekly computer rag not a million miles from Bath suffered a severe lapse of its spellynge chequer when I sent (on IBM disk) an article which frequently mentioned the word `twilight'. This came out, consistently, as `twighlight'.

After all this bitchiness, you're doubtless expecting me to finish by belabouring 8000 Plus. Unfortunately for lovers of bloodshed, they're pretty good, apart from a tendency since issue 30 to lose my italic marks. (Do shut up about that, you whingeing sod -- Ed.)

True Confession time: I must admit that when recently confronted with a novel safely stored on disk, I didn't do too brilliantly myself. This awesome masterwork was my and John Grant's horror-novel spoof Guts!, of which it has been said, by my wife, `Yuk!' Mr Grant and I had drafted it on word processors; alas, he'd used his 8256 while I'd been trying out WordPerfect on an IBM clone. (There were complicated reasons for this. No hate mail, please.)

We thus had a book whose chapters were in different formats on different-sized disks. Fortunately, I'd been tinkering with a program to convert LocoScript files to other formats while avoiding the ASCII route which loses all the italic/bold/underline markers. Guts! became a huge and revolting guinea pig for this software.

After the revisions were made and the book was printed out, I found a slight problem whereby (for reasons which almost made sense) every dash in the novel had vanished in transit. During my long afternoon of checking early drafts and inserting all the lost dashes by hand, I was mortified to think of you lot chuckling, `Ho ho, serves him right for straying from the one true way of LocoScript....'

Column 36, 8000 Plus 36, September 1989


I've been groaning my way through more unpublishable typescripts, and suspect it's time for some tub-thumping fundamentalism. What passes for punctuation in these benighted days is quite frequently enraging. Sage advice and maddening pedantry follow herewith.

Apostrophes. If you write `it's' as a possessive pronoun, editors will call you illiterate. (Its only correct use is as a contraction of the well-known phrase or saying `it is'.) Beware of Grocer's English, where the apostrophe is used for all plurals: `tomato's' instead of `tomatoes' and so on. Many people get confused by possessive plurals and words ending in S: the pips of several tomatoes are `the tomatoes' pips', but Steve Whatsisname is `8000 Plus's editor', not `8000 Plus' editor'.

Brackets. I use too many ... do as I say, not as I do. When writing English as opposed to mathematics, resist the temptation to flaunt the PCW's square, curly or angle brackets. (However, if you ask nicely I'll permit you to use square brackets to distinguish a parenthesis within a parenthesis [like this].)

Colons. The colon is tricky because it has two uses: introducing a list (as here) or example, and, more rarely, linking two sentences to point up their contrast. `I am a columnist: you are not.' Business English tends to put a superfluous dash after a colon which introduces a list -- but let's stick to English English. (`Who is this guy Colin Dash?' said my American pal.) Many Americans capitalize the word following a colon. This is incorrect, even according to many other Americans, but is spreading over here thanks to cheapskate publishers who photo-offset from US books.

Commas. These are most often misused as an illiterate means of stringing sentences together, for example this `sentence' should be broken into two with a full stop or given another punctuation mark instead of its comma. (SF author Harry Harrison is a persistent offender in this respect.) Warning to 8256/8512 owners: as your ribbon fades, keep an eye on the tails of printed-out commas. They're the first things to vanish when greyish print is xeroxed, and prose doesn't half look illiterate when all the commas turn into full stops.

Dashes. Thank goodness, we've escaped the elegant anonymity of past centuries' dash-spattered novels: `In the year 18 -- a young man might have been observed purchasing a copy of 8000 P -- in the town of B -- . He glanced within and ejaculated, 'D -- !'' The dash is a more frenetic and breathless version of the colon, which can also mark parenthetical phrases like ersatz brackets or commas. How to type it? Space-hyphen-space is common, but sometimes this slips into print as a mere hyphenation. Space-hyphen-hyphen-space makes your intention clearer. Some writers prefer double or even triple hyphens with no spacing at all.

Ellipses. See full stops....

Exclamation marks. Use them very sparingly!! There's no grammatical rule against slapping exclamation marks on every sentence you think is dramatic, clever or witty! However, this is the literary equivalent of laughing loudly at your own jokes while digging violently at the listener's ribs!

Full stops. You must have noticed them, those little dots at the ends of sentences. Put three together and you have an ellipsis ... like that. Many publishers like you to put a space before three dots. When ending a sentence with an ellipsis, pedantic writers use four dots.... Don't overdo this: it's a way of nudging the reader to hint that Things Are Being Left Unsaid, and (as with exclamation marks) people resent too much nudging.

Inverted commas. See `quotation marks'.

Parentheses. (See brackets.)

Question marks. Surprisingly many writers fail to notice that they've just written a rhetorical question, and mistakenly end it with a full stop. Or do they assume that because such a question (like this one) doesn't actually expect an answer, it's not a real question?

Quotation marks. When typing use double quotes as mentioned last issue, unless your publisher begs you to follow a different house style. Quotations within quotations get single quotes; quotations within quotations within quotations are probably a mistake, but it's back to double quotes again. (And so on.) Punctuation goes outside the quotes for isolated phrases or words, like `this', but inside for speeches: `Do it this way,' said Langford. (American usage differs.) In Grocer's English, quotation marks are used merely for emphasis. Discerning readers can thus enjoy placards saying things like `Fresh' Lettuce, which actually conveys that the word `fresh' should be pronounced in tones of extreme sarcasm.

Semicolons. I am addicted to semicolons; readers may have noticed this terrible habit. Use them to link vaguely related sentences when complete separation with a full stop seems a bit too sundering. The decision tends to be a matter of personal style rather than grammatical compulsion. Downmarket newspapers will probably convert all your semicolons to full stops anyway, and then start a new paragraph after each full stop. This is supposed to make for easier reading -- just as a meal is so much easier to eat when each potato is served as a separate course.

Spaces. The space is the most important mark of all, and the most abused. Of late I've seen spaces put immediately before full stops, commas, question and exclamation marks, semicolons, colons and right-hand parentheses -- as well as immediately after left-hand parentheses. All these disgusting practices must stop at once. Nor will you be forgiven should you sleazily omit the space after the full stop, comma, question mark, etc. Some typing purists demand two or even three spaces following each full stop, but this remains wholly optional.

... Speaking of space, I've used up all mine. For further reading, consult G.V.Carey's Mind the Stop or Kenneth Tynan's substantially funnier essay on punctuation in Tynan Right and Left.

Column 37, 8000 Plus 37, October 1989


Does your PCW give you nasty pains in the back? Suspicion eventually fell on my various computers when early this year I found myself groaning, limping, hurling myself out of bed screaming with cramp, etc.

Friends rallied round at once. Being my friends, they started by diagnosing kidneys wrecked by alcohol, went on to suggest that I was paying the inevitable penalty of being too tall (`Your disintegrating backbone just gets worse all the way to the grave now.'), speculated on loathsome viral ailments unknown to science, and hit bottom with merry hints (many of them from the other director of Ansible Information Ltd) about spinal cancer.

My doctor took a less alarmed view when he discovered how much time I spent hunched over word processors. It was the old problem of correct typing posture, which you tend to forget when running your fingers over something as effortless as a PCW keyboard. A contributing factor is that after all one's investment in computer hardware, there's rarely much spare change for mundane matters like office furniture. Rather suddenly it dawned on me that despite the above-mentioned Langfordian tallness, all my work for one magazine was being done at a battered little desk which my brother-in-law had used at the age of twelve. This is known as stupidity.

I'd better break it to you that grown-up desks with plenty of legroom are not available on NHS prescription. However, the investment worked well enough to make me recommend taking a critical look at whatever rickety washstand or tottering card-table currently holds up your PCW. With bad luck like mine, the result can be the kind of disk inflammation which Dave's Disk Doctor Service Ltd is not equipped to handle.

Here are further totally ill-informed health notes.

PCW Pink-Eye is merely a harmless optical after-image effect, whereby after long staring at a green screen, you temporarily see pale objects as pinkish. Immediate first-aid action consists of telling yourself loudly that this is not some frightful irreversible damage caused by dread VDU radiations. I have tried, and don't recommend, swapping each half hour between the 8256/8512 and a machine with an amber monitor. An alarming intensity of after-pinkness might indicate poor workroom lighting: even if you touch-type perfectly and think you look only at the self-illuminated monitor, excessively dim surroundings tire the eyes.

(Personally I advise keeping the monitor brightness turned well down. One of those mesh filters might also help, by eliminating reflection from the screen; but if your screen is a glittering riot of reflections and highlights there's probably something wrong with the arrangement of workroom lighting and furniture.)

PPC Finger, a more complex syndrome, results from the interaction of one's old-fashioned, metal Anglepoise lamp with the liquid crystal display of an Amstrad PPC luggable computer. After the 827 adjustments of screen and lighting angle required before you can view this wretched display even semi-comfortably, you'll have acquired several painful blisters from the hot metal shade. Cure: a midget fluorescent desk-lamp. More expensive cure: sell the PPC to an enemy and find a portable with a backlit display.

IBM Hernia needs no more equipment than one of those old IBM XT clones built like the legendary brick outhouse. Simply rearrange your office furniture on medical advice, pick up this machine without first dismantling it into the smallest possible bits, scream while putting it too hastily down, and seek more medical advice.

Paper-Align Jitter, a nervous affliction of the wrist muscles, begins to set in after the first fourteen attempts to get the PCW printer to roll in a sheet of A4 without tilting it just slightly out of line. Sprocket-fed continuous paper is the only known cure.

Write-Protect Fingernail occurs when, as always, no stout ballpen is to hand when you need to protect or unprotect the sort of disk requiring manipulation of a tiny, recessed and exceedingly stiff lever. (Warning to DIY enthusiasts: oiling this lever is not a good idea.) The resulting split and splintered nails can produce hideous side-effects if you ever idly pick your nose while brooding at the keyboard, but for the sake of the squeamish I will not go into detail about Write-Protect Nostril. Cure: try and stick to disks with sliding protection tabs, not the lever-action variety. Sorry about that, Maxell.

Daisywheel Despondency principally attacks 9512 buyers who thought they would be getting something much better in every way than the presumably cheaper and nastier 8256/8512. Agonizing bouts of existential dread and despair follow the discovery that of all those hundreds of fancy LocoScript characters, only a very few of the snazzier ones can be handled by a 96-petal daisywheel. Cure: pay extra for a matrix printer, or gloomily learn to fake exotic symbols -- for example, type © copyright signs with brackets as (c).

The Bottom Line. Which aspect of literary health is the most fundamentally unsound? In the end, the long-serving professional writers who sit all day round at their word processors are most often heard to complain in embarrassing detail that it gives them piles. If you are seriously afflicted by these painful heaps of abandoned drafts and early print-outs, you should at once consult a qualified dustman.

Column 38, 8000 Plus 38, November 1989


September's magazine feature on the secrets of Locomotive Software prompted our ace reporter to detach himself momentarily from the bar and investigate the software company which is possibly the most obscure in the world: Ansible Information Ltd.

Ansible began life in 1984, and again in 1985, 1986 and 1988. For a company which has had no effect whatever on the working habits of nearly four billion people, its offices are surprisingly grandiose, consisting of two crumbling Victorian slum houses 45 miles apart. Asked how they can afford such palatial premises, head programmer David Langford quipped, `We can't, but we have to sleep somewhere.'

Besides its basic commitment to unpronounceability, Ansible, as originally envisaged by chairman Christopher Priest, was to provide software solutions for unknown, obsolete computer systems which nobody owns or buys any more. `While stealing computer time in the Oxford nuclear physics department, I learned to program an IBM 1130 by punching the cards with my teeth,' explained technical director David. `Unfortunately this skill was less viable than hoped in the home computer market.'

Ansible's first commercial project was a system of pop-up menus which might have been a great success if restaurant owners hadn't objected to having slots sawn in their tables for the installation of this simple, spring-loaded device.

What complementary skills did production chief Christopher bring to the company? `By then I'd written several highly praised though unremunerative SF novels in which shifting realities and hallucinatory narrative established a dreamlike state where no fact or interpretation seemed reliable. This left me ideally qualified to write industry-standard instruction manuals.'

How did Ansible enter the Amstrad market? Secretarial scapegoat David explained: `As SF writers, we used to be forced to look at friends' terrible, badly-typed, unpublishable novel drafts. Then we noticed a change: more and more we were seeing terrible, unpublishable novels smartly produced on PCWs! This was an obvious pointer. Also, we had this idealistic notion about making obscene sums of money.'

An early Ansible product was the TYPO program, which could be run against LocoScript documents to introduce random spelling errors, misaligned letters, etc., thus catching the eyes of editors who'd grown bored with excessively perfect word-processed scripts. But these were early days for Ansible, and TYPO was withdrawn owing to a slight bug which in its first releases (up to version 4.79) could cause PCW monitors to explode.

Is the computing world anything like the directors' former haunt of SF writing? `Oh yes,' replied switchboard operator Christopher. `The combination of good reviews with low profits and huge tax demands is very nostalgic. We keep sales down partly by writing software for obscure jobs no one wants done -- like indexing -- and partly by our policy of not answering the phone.'

Our reporter was shown around Ansible's trophy room, and peered with revulsion into the glass case containing more than 47,000 pin-mounted bugs from early programs. On the wall are framed letters from computing giants Locomotive, WordPerfect Corporation and many more, all telling Ansible to watch it if they don't want to get sued.

Is it possible to explain Ansible Information's fabulous lack of success? `I put it down to beards,' commented tea-boy David. `In big-name software houses, male staff have peculiarly irritating beards -- look at that horribly hirsute lot at Locomotive. Unfortunately my wife won't permit such a drastic revision of our public image.'

We followed the Ansible team through a complete day's work, beginning with intensive hours of oversleeping. Software boss David expertly showed how five minutes of making random changes in a program can quite often move the bugs around a bit, while public relations maestro Christopher shouted down the phone at multi-million-pound companies who as usual wanted a £29.95 software package but claimed total inability to write a cheque for such a huge amount in less than six months.

After a long discussion about the parentage of HM Inspector of Taxes in the company's nearby boardroom, known as The Plasterers' Arms, the mailroom supervisor (Christopher) and philatelic salivation operative (David) gave an exciting demonstration of how on a busy day Ansible often mails out enough software parcels to be counted on the thumbs of both hands.

Of which of its achievements, then, is Ansible most proud? `Our manuals,' insisted technical authorship co-ordinator Christopher. `We print fewer split infinitives and maintain a higher level of semicolons than almost any other doomed company of comparable size based in Reading.'

`I'd say our support service,' contradicted customer liaison assistant David. `Within weeks of receiving a routine letter of complaint or death threat, we rush back a full explanation that the bug in question only appears to be so because they've misread the manual, and in fact doesn't exist, being instead a valuable feature requested by thousands of past users, which in any case results from flaws in CP/M or Amstrad's hardware.'

Why the name Ansible? `We wanted the software to go ever so fast,' said nomenclature supervisor Christopher, `so we stole the name of the fastest thing in SF, the instantaneous communicator in the novels of Ursula Le Guin.' Only later did they discover that it's an anagram of `lesbian', which amuses their customers greatly and frequently.

Asked whether PCWs were used to prepare the manuals for their PCW software, both members of Ansible's product documentation section shuddered and said, `Do you think we're mad? What do you use to produce 8000 Plus, eh?' Our reporter made an excuse, collected his mac, and left.

Discussing proposals to write up this profile of Ansible Information as a four-page publicity feature packed with colour photographs, the chirpy editor of 8000 Plus laughingly observed, `Not on your nelly, Langford.'

[There had recently been such a feature on beard-ridden Locomotive, the vast software company which bestrides the Amstrad PCW world like a colossus.]

Column 39, 8000 Plus 39, December 1989


Some people think becoming a professional author must involve a terrible initiation rite leaving lifelong scars: the brand of a red-hot keyboard, perhaps, or the outlines of three-inch disks tattooed on each buttock. Actually the true and appalling rite of passage comes when, delirious at hearing that Pemmican Publishing Ltd likes your masterwork, you're abruptly brought to earth by a horrible document called the contract.

This intimidating `Memorandum of Agreement' tends to be printed on legal paper, hardly more flexible than tablets of stone and (maddeningly) too long for an A4 photocopier. With experience, one can suspect a psychological gambit: most literary agents keep standard contracts as word-processor documents because they're infinitely negotiable, while publishers prefer the printed look, to give the impression that they aren't.

The impulse is to sign at once for fear of losing your first big sale. Such action is invariably unwise. There's always the chance of a better deal.

You can pass the buck to your literary agent; if you have none, a book offer from a reputable publisher is excellent leverage when persuading one to take you on. Or ... grit your teeth and do your own negotiating. Don't trust my omniscience! A good starting point is the Society of Authors booklet Publishing Contracts, £1.50 from them (84 Drayton Gardens, SW10 9SB) or free to members.

Whichever your decision, you should read the contract yourself: though intimidatingly formal at first sight, each clause ought on examination to make some sort of sense. If not, ask your agent or publisher to translate.

The money arrangements tend to be straightforward (though beware of `vanity' publishers who expect you to pay them). In exchange for various publishing and licensing rights, Pemmican Books undertake to pay you so much (perhaps negotiable) as an advance against royalties on sales, calculated as a percentage (not so negotiable) of the book's cover price. Certain subsidiary rights will also be covered, such as book club sales, translation, newspaper serialization -- all potentially yielding loot for division between you and Pemmican (proportions highly negotiable).

Pemmican will undertake to do its sums regularly after publication, usually twice yearly, but will claim inability to write a cheque for royalties due until months after the accounting date. (Sometimes negotiable, to little effect.)

What about traps? Pemmican Publishing are not crooks (opinion negotiable after polling their authors) but want the best possible deal -- and protection -- for themselves. Here are some points to watch.

• Will the copyright be in your name or your pseudonym's? Any other arrangement is a Bad Sign, except in special cases of `work for hire': for example, software instruction manuals are normally copyrighted by the software company, hundred-contributor encyclopaedias by the editor or publisher.

• How long before publication? The Pemmican agreement probably says `within a reasonable time' from the contract or delivery date. `Within eighteen months', say, is preferable. There's nothing more disheartening than indeterminate delays, especially if the book is at all topical.

• Will you see the final, copy-edited version of your typescript? Often it vanishes into the system and you know nothing until printed proofs arrive -- a bad time to find that excessive tinkering has mucked up your book. The contract should specify that you get two sets of proofs for correction, and can keep one for reference.

• Does your book need illustrations or an index? Are photo copyrights owned by third parties? Pemmican will want you to pay reproduction/illustration fees; you want them to pay; you might end up splitting it 50%. Likewise for the services of an indexer if you can't face the job yourself.

• Is there a reversion clause (very important)? This ensures that rights return to you should Pemmican go bust, allow your book to drop out of print for more than (say) a year without scheduling a requested reissue, or remainder it.

• Is there an option clause giving Pemmican first refusal of your next book? This can be a pain: when Gastric Editions ask you urgently to do a lucrative book for them, you may not want a long, delaying ritual of first offering it to Pemmican. If Pemmican insist, there should be a time limit for their decision: six weeks, say. Having rarely written two similar books running, I've sometimes defused such clauses by allowing an option on my next `of a similar nature'.

• What sweeping guarantees do you give by signing this contract? It's usual to declare that the book doesn't infringe copyright (e.g. by being plagiarized outright from John Fowles) and isn't libellous. Picky publishers may request disturbing extras, whereby you warrant that the book doesn't contravene the Official Secrets Act, and even, just recently, that it isn't blasphemous. The last in particular should be resisted at all costs. How can you predict what some maniac in Whitehall or Iran will retrospectively decide shouldn't have been published?

• What happens when they remainder your book? (When. Not if.) In the contract, Pemmican should promise to give advance notice that they intend to administer this humiliating kick in the groin, and to allow you first option of buying stocks for resale or Xmas presents ... at the low price offered to the trade. (My first remaindered hardback suddenly dropped to 50p when I queried the £3 asked.) Pemmican will happily agree to such provisions, and as a rule will then ignore them, knowing there's little you can do.

(`The marketing division remaindered it without telling us,' you hear from editors. `Copies were not moving fast enough out of the warehouse,' the marketing people explain, as though they'd been waiting for the wretched things to evolve legs.)

One last tip: distrust the common clause which goes, `The AUTHOR shall forfeit his/her immortal soul for a period of not less than ONE ETERNITY from the date of this Agreement'....

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