Okay, let me answer this once and for all in the form of an exercise.
Probably the most common question talent gets asked is "where do you get your ideas?" This is an old saw, right? Remember the other old saw "there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers"? "Where do you get your ideas?" isn't a stupid question, but the answer is stupid. Simple stupid.
As long as we're on old saws, this is the "give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime" part of our program. Want ideas of your own? Here's how.
First, a couple premises. "Ideas" seem to have a mystical quality for most people, but the only reason there's anything at all mystical about them is that people assume there must be something mystical about them. Every idea is a juxtaposition. That's it. A juxtaposition of existing concepts. This doesn't mean that all ideas have already been thought up, or that all ideas are imitations of something. They haven't and they aren't. Some of it comes down to talent, some people obviously have more of a talent for ideas than others, but we all start out more or less the same: babies, tabula rasas that the world randomly writes data on.
When you were a baby you were putting together huge ideas on a second-to-second basis, as you were absorbing and figuring out the world to the point of being able in some small measure to cope with it. Didn't matter that probably none of those ideas were new – the only time it didn't matter – it only matters that you had, have, it in you. That you're here now is proof of this.
Past infancy, your ability to concoct ideas is mostly connected to your upbringing. There's a thread that runs among most people who've made a profession – and that's what we're really talking here, right? – of coming up with ideas: they're inquisitive. Some overtly, some shyly, but they read a lot, or watched a lot of movies, or listened to a variety of lectures. They snooped around a panoply of subjects, investigated different philosophies and perspectives. Whatever face they showed to the world, they didn't much care about whether their pursuits were socially acceptable.
That's the first step: soak up as much data as you can. Particularly read. Not just Dan Brown novels, but as much non-fiction in as many different areas as possible. As much fiction in as many areas as you can fit in.
The good news is that anyone can do this. The bad news is that to achieve any real density of input takes years.
Step 2: Organize it.
This isn't really a progression from step 1, but a naturally occurring parallel activity. Our minds are built to organize our perceptions of the world. There are two ways to go about this: accept someone else's organization or actively pursue your own.
The latter is where ideas come together.
But after a lifetime of it, it's very hard to abandon how other people have told you to organize your world, though everyone does that in little ways every day of their lives. When I say "organize" don't think of your mind as neatly organized bookshelf. Neat is counterproductive. Ideas don't come from information being neatly processed and organized, it comes from wild collisions. Rather picture all the information in your mind as a game of Jenga, all your absorbed information stacked like little blocks of wood.
Now start pulling pieces out.
The stack itself isn't of interest. The patterns the information makes when it tumbles chaotically, the intersections or openings left when it lands in chaos, those are where ideas arise. That's what juxtapositions are: patterns, intersections and interstices. Pattern recognition. Deducing ways even apparently incongruent data fits together. Imagining what might fill a perceived void. All of these are phyla of ideas. They're no more mystical or mysterious than the components of the classic atom. (If we liked, we could start getting into weirder minutiae, the quarks and leptons of the psyche, but that's unnecessary information, at least at the moment.)
That's all there is to it. Virtually all of us are capable of pattern recognition, deductive thinking and imagination. They're the muscles we flex when we have ideas, and like every other muscle in the body the more they're exercised the better they function and the more capable they become.
The good news is they're very easy to exercise.
Step 3: Get a notebook. Practice getting ideas by trying to look at something from a different angle, or by applying a bit of information to an unrelated matter. Write it down. If a bolt of lightning crashing to Earth reminds you of a spark that flew off the grill when you flipped a steak over, link the two and write it down.
Although there's always the chance you'll come up with something brilliantly innovative, be prepared for your ideas to initially seem puerile, derivative or meaningless. They will be; you're in the infant stage of your development, you have to remain mindful that most people who "get ideas" spent most of their lives getting there, and you're playing catch up. Once you get some practice, it doesn't take that long. Start questioning things. Everything. The answers you come up with are ideas. Write them down. Watching something on TV where there's some huge logic leap? Concoct a scenario or rationale that will bridge that gap. Write it down. Keep the notebook and a pen on your nightstand, and as soon as you wake up from a dream write down as much as you can remember; you'll soon start remembering tons more. If you have a reaction to an ad or a movie or some song you heard, write it down. Etc.
Writing everything down is important. Not so you'll have a manuscript or something to dazzle others with, or to reread. Odds are pretty good you'll want to burn it when you're done with it. But writing it down trains your consciousness to see your ideas. It gives them a concrete form; it's a culmination and a visualization of the process, and it reinforces the process. Neatness is irrelevant. All those things you were ever taught were virtues are irrelevant, because that notebook is the world you're making, and no matter how much rubbish you may end up filling it with – this is another rather unmystical thing about ideas: they're mostly rubbish – what you look for when you look back on them isn't how good or bad they are but what juxtapositions are there that you didn't see before.
When you finally get what you think are really good ideas, the next step is to check them against the existing idea pool because whatever ideas you have someone else has likely come up with something very much like them. There are a couple ways to take that: you can get depressed at your lack of originality (but, again, if you independently thought of an idea that someone else already thought of, it means both of you were original; you were just a little late) or you can take pride that someone agrees with you. At that point, you have two choices: dump the idea or take the evolutionary path. Darwin's "survival of the fittest" never, as the Social Darwinists misinterpreted, meant being bigger, stronger, tougher or smarter than all those around you. Dinosaurs were biggest, stronger, tougher and possibly smarter than small furry mammals and they, birds and coelacanth aside, still died out while small furry mammals thrived and eventually became us. How? They were able to adapt to the niche the environment opened up. If you really like an idea but find it too close to an existing one, refine it until it can fill a different niche.
Practice getting and refining ideas long enough and it becomes like any other muscle activity: eventually it ceases to be conscious behavior and becomes automatic. In exercise, this is called muscle memory; your muscles don't have to ask your brain for specific instructions, they just get the general idea and carry through while your brain occupies itself elsewhere. Like walking. When you were an infant, it was a struggle and you had to more or less consciously, unsteadily, put one foot in front of the other, order your knees not to buckle, force your hips and torso to balance and support your weight, and after five steps you'd fall over. Then one day you didn't fall over, and at some point you were no longer concerned about your knees or ankles or hips. You just walked. Ideas aren't any different. Getting ideas is as physical an activity as a mental process can be.
Not surprisingly, most writers develop writer's block when they consciously try to force ideas instead of letting "the muscle" take care of it, because for whatever reason they've lost confidence in their "idea muscle." It's like if you're jogging but you suddenly start trying to take conscious control over every muscle and nerve involved in the activity to the point where your muscle memory kicked off. That way lies the pavement.
Again, the good news: anybody can become fairly adept at coming up with ideas.
The bad news?
Unless you have a special natural aptitude, it's a slow process.
An idea is just an idea, and it's much easier to get bad ideas than good. Getting enough ideas theoretically gives you lots of practice in sorting good from bad, but there are no guarantees, as that's a whole other skill set.
On a professional level, sorting marketable ideas from unmarketable is often thought synonymous with sorting good from bad, but it isn't. Work long enough and it becomes relatively easy to spot ideas you can easily sell, but whether those ideas are worth pursuing is your own private Rubicon to cross.
Anyone can get one idea. The virtue of having lots of ideas is that you become far less attached to any one of them. The ones that really stick in those conditions are the ones you're likeliest to work out with the most attention and vigor, all other things being equal.
I can't emphasize this enough: ideas in themselves are next to nothing. They're like the firing of the starter's gun in a foot race. They're not the race and they're certainly not the victory. They're just the launch to all the hard and frequently bitter work that follows, and that work is what distinguishes the idea, not the other way around.
And that's a whole other lesson plan.
Now bookmark this page and let us speak no more of it.
The story popped up recently about Bluewater Productions having trouble paying freelancers. Two things I want to mention upfront: Bluewater vehemently disavows the report, and I have no personal knowledge whether it's true or otherwise. Of course, every comics publisher in financial trouble denies the reports, even as the freelancers working for them line up with reports of this unpaid voucher and that, or royalties that never surfaced, and publisher retorts to that sort of thing run along a pretty predictable script, starting with "misunderstanding that has been/will be cleared up imminently" then usually jumps to the complaining freelancer/s is/are disgruntled and antagonistic and don't want to play fair with the company that's now being crucified by a press/fandom that doesn't understand anything before landing at "temporary cash flow problem," the common springboard to "publisher files bankruptcy/closes doors/pays no one."
Though this doesn't really apply to Bluewater, because Bluewater is a modern small comics company, and modern small comics companies like Bluewater don't have to concern themselves with accusations of non-payment because at companies like Bluewater nobody gets paid. If they're freelancers. Because that's the new business model for many small publishers now: no upfront, only back-end.
I can see why publishers love it. On paper it looks like a great business model. Not that many ever seem to succeed with this model, since the comics business is a swamp of unexpected expenses and cash flow backups.
For freelancers, for anyone plying a creative craft in the field, it's not a business model at all.
It's one thing to deal with a royalty only publisher on a creator-owned project, because for the freelancer the value of the project is the publication, not the income. Such projects can always be capitalized after the fact. Work-for-hire, and increasingly even small publishers will only consider work-for-hire, or creator-"owned" projects where the publisher insists on controlling and retaining all rights, making the phrase "creator-owned" little more than a bad joke, are toilet projects for freelancers, just a means to flush away time and effort.
C. 1992, royalty-only deals might not have been terrible deals. Speculation fever was driving ridiculous sales levels, and big back-end checks were hardly unusual, though not quite as common as people like to fondly remember. That was then. Now the odds on making substantial royalties on a comic aren't good – in fact, bad would be the more accurate description – even if the book's published by Marvel or DC, unless it's one of their top echelon titles. That means if you work on a book solely for a piece of the back end, without either a page rate or a non-refundable advance against royalties, the odds extremely favor you never seeing a single penny for your work. (As a sidebar, if you have a work-for-hire contract, especially if you've "sold" an original property to a publisher under "work-for-hire" terms, you might want to check with a copyright lawyer because, while it's possible a court might determine your contract supersedes the law, according to the copyright law ownership of your work – and your creations – can't change hands unless money changes hands. But, as I say, check with a lawyer.)
Never seeing a penny for your work = a bad, bad business model. Especially if you're left no alternative means of capitalization because you've left all those decisions, and the right to make those decisions, to a publisher. In general, all publishers work in their own interests, and equate their interests with your interests. It's arguably worth taking a no-pay job if you're left with a "presentation package" to use as a calling card elsewhere, but before you accept that deal, consider how appropriate the material you'll produce is to the other markets you're ultimately aiming for. Bear in mind that with a lot of small publishers, odds are pretty good almost no one in or out of the business will ever see that work, as Diamond makes distribution increasingly difficult for smaller publishers. A company that doesn't have money in the budget to pay freelance creative talent generally doesn't have a promotional budget either, and comics no one knows about (really, how many people read the hinterland pages in PREVIEWS or even get that far before their budgets are eaten up?) aren't comics that end up impressing anyone. The usual publisher argument is that if the talent is good enough, their work will sell the comics and everyone will make money, but that's a naïve misrepresentation of the realities of today's comics business. Nobody breaks through on wishful thinking alone, but avenues for anything besides wishful thinking are being systematically choked off. Your work isn't likely to sell comics because virtually no one is going to see it.
In the meantime, working on a back end work-for-hire deal (if such a thing has any legal basis at all) is just another way of saying you're subsidizing the publisher with your work. You can bet he's paying his rent. His editor's rent is being paid.
I'm not suggesting any of these publishers are unethical or criminal or anything like that. They're not vile scum, unless they are, but it's not a necessity. Bluewater has reportedly never told anyone that all creative fees will be on the back end. That doesn't make them thieves or con men. It just makes them, consciously or otherwise, opportunists preying on the hunger or desperation of would-be creative talents to be published when it would be in their better interests to keep practicing and improving out of the public eye. I know many claim to be doing it for love of the medium, though the output rarely seems to support that contention. What it comes down to is that any publisher who offer neither upfront compensation for the creative work they're building their company around while claiming all control over the material nor even the serious suggestion of a back-end payoff (at least Image and Dark Horse can legitimately dangle that hope, and it's hard enough for them in most cases, and Image, at least, claims via their deal nothing but publishing rights) have no right to be publishing.
I keep getting email from outraged right wing readers demanding to know when I'm going to start holding Obama to the same standards I held The Ghost to, and, yeah, I could stand to be a little more focused these days. It's not that I'm in love with Democrats or that I especially like the course the O-Ring has so far taken (though I'm apt to dislike it for different reasons than the Right does) (and while we're at it, let's reiterated that Republicans isn't synonymous with "The Right Wing" – there are lots of Republicans who don't fall into goosestep behind all the latter day Joe Pyne/Wally George nonsense that now epitomizes the Right, and it's not very productive to lump them all in under the same rubric, any more than it's productive to absolutely equate Democrats with liberal as if they're a monolithic singleminded entity relentlessly parroting the party line, and absolutely laughable to equate liberal and radical, an equation only even remotely swallowable because what few radicals even still exist in America never get any media play so almost no one even remembers what real radicals are like – but on the other hand, as with mainstream Christians tired of being maligned in the same breath as the nutjob right wing "Christians" whose voices get prominent play, I don't see them doing a lot to visibly, publicly disassociate themselves with the nutjobs of either stripe so while I have some sympathy for their plight it's hard to rustle up a lot) it's more that after eight years of one virtually daily bit of often dangerous stupidity after another, I was exhausted.
The other problem being that the Right is just so much more entertaining than the O-Ring, in a sideshow car crash kind of way; it's impossible not to rubberneck. Maybe that's all they really want: attention. The birthers set out to "prove" Obama's an illegal president, pretty much the same way Creationists "prove" Creationism. The absolutely needed debate over absolutely needed health care reform (because there's no doubt the Obama proposal is the wrong proposal, but rejecting that shouldn't be the same as rejecting health care reform, unless you're really convinced a system where corporations that provide really crappy service at prices heavily inflated not because they're passing along their costs but because they're passing along the losses from their crappy high risk investments literally have the power of life or death over their customers is the best health care system in the world) is largely derailed by hysterical Death Panelists shrieking about something isn't even in the proposal. (In one of the best Jon Stewart moments in recent years, he had on the GOP flak who started the whole Death Panel flap, she showed him the exact paragraph in the proposed bill listing the offending proposal, Stewart read the paragraph aloud and it didn't mention anything remotely resembling Death Panels, and when he then points this out to her she continues to insist that's what it says, following the Cheney/Rumsfeld model of public discourse – and, anyway, do all these people really think Obama's election triggered a real-life remake of WILD IN THE STREETS? Really?) (By the way, for those who are convinced Death Panels are coming, Wall Street has a new scam, now that the sub-prime housing market thing went belly up and took much of the American economy with it: "buying" life insurance policies from the elderly and infirm in return for a cash settlement usually paid out over the course of time rather than as a lump sum, then, a la sub-prime loans, bundling these together into marketable bonds and annuities whose purchasers make more money the quicker those named on the policies die. There are your death panels right there. So when does the outcry against this little tontine scam start?)
But far and away the funniest and most bizarre moment – so far – was the hysterical response of the right wing to the news that President Obama would address the nation's school children! That heartless, manipulative bastard! How dare a sitting! president! of the United! States! speak to school children?!!! Suddenly right wingers all over the country promise to yank their children out of school that day so they won't be exposed to some vile radical-socialist-liberal message... from arguably the most straight-laced president since Gerry Ford, whose main message, predictably and ironically, was stay in school if you expect to be a productive member of society. Though he did at one point say today's schoolchildren are tomorrow's leaders who'll be responsible for making this a freer and fairer country, so I suppose the pundits on the Right will transform this into him proclaiming the country is neither free nor fair, just to give them something to fixate on. Be interesting to see if they next put out the claim that the original speech called for all students to sign up as uniformed Obama Youth and turn their ignorant right wing parents over for liberal socialist re-education but it was the protest on the right that caused the content to be changed. Following the hubbub and recent Republican claims that under proposed health care reforms non-Democrats would be totally excluded from health care, I wouldn't be surprised by any nutty story they come up with.
I'm not especially in favor of Obama giving speeches aimed at schoolchildren, but, well, that's the sort of thing presidents do. (Like meeting with foreign leaders, both here and abroad, another Obama activity the Right has bitterly complained about.) Funny thing is, had the Ghost given such a speech they'd've been demanding principals across the country plop all students in front of a TV to absorb the great man's words – and they don't seem to have any problem with the military and proto-military groups coming onto school campuses on all levels of education to promote and recruit, so it's not like they have a problem with government intruding on schools, in principle. What exactly were they afraid of? They'd have to have zero faith in the strength of their own arguments to believe Obama could steal away their children's hearts and minds with a single ordinary speech. But is that really what this is all about?
For months now, there has been a steady stealth campaign to resurrect "charges" originally hurled at Obama during the primary and presidential races: that he's a radical pseudo-Christian whose minister preached race warfare, who's secretly a radical Muslim taught to hate America in an Indonesian school, that he isn't "really" an American, that he's a fascistic socialist out to undermine the entire fabric of American life (because, you know, fascism, communism and socialism are all the same thing, really), etc. These aren't criticisms of policy. They're all meant to do one thing: amplify a sense of Obama's Otherness, that He Is Not Like Us.
How can he be our president?
So ministers pray openly in their churches for Obama's death and descent into hell, and their followers show up armed for Obama rallies. So what's been the discourse from the right, to the extent they've acknowledged the event at all? That Obama is using the Secret Service to repress gun rights? The gun lobby, at least, has been incensed – by the media's steady misidentification of one of the rifles involved as an assault weapon. This is nuttiness almost beyond belief.
I know someone will doubtless write to say, "Hey, you bashed The Ghost for eight years." And I did. I never really believed his first election was legitimate, but at least there was some question there. There was no question that he won by a sizable margin in his second election, as Obama won by a sizable margin in his. And I constantly monitored the Ghost's administration's actions, and critiqued him bitterly. But Obama hasn't even done anything, except throw hundreds of billions of dollars at the banks, Wall St. and Detroit and that was going to happen no matter who became president because as much as they like to put on a dog and pony show of it the government doesn't run money policy, the banks do. Other than that, Obama has mainly a) tried to shut down any investigation of Ghost-era indiscretions on the premise that we must move forward, not divisively continue to look to the past and b) maintained and amplified many of the repressive Ghost-instituted policies. For which the Right has labeled him the most divisive president ever.
Bear in mind I don't have the slightest belief in the sanctity of the presidency, or that the president should be our equivalent of a king. I've written before that the office doesn't make anyone our boss, that whoever's president works for us. But I'm the one who got lectured for eight years on how even if you don't like the man, respect the office. I'm not preaching that, I'm just saying: is that how little cherished your supposedly cherished beliefs are?
What's the great threat in an Obama speech to schoolchildren? As near as I can tell, that they might come away from it thinking "Gee, I guess he's really just a normal guy just like us after all." That's maybe what they can't stand their kids thinking. He certainly couldn't have been much blander.
But all this right wing nuttiness makes the O-Ring utterly bland by comparison. Hard to work up the interest to write anything about them.
Notes from under the floorboards:
I've been known to complain about the sorry state of comics criticism, but Ng Suat Tong, over at Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter website, has produced one of the best pieces of comparative storytelling I've read since the golden age of FANTASY ILLUSTRATED/GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE. Not that there's been a lot of competition, but it's a great article by any standard. It's don't miss reading, if you're any kind of comics fan at all. (Skip down to the Sept. 7, 2009 entry.)
Starting Sept. 30, longtime top comics writer and former DC/Marvel editor Denny O'Neil repeats his ten week evening course at New York University's School Of Professional & Continuing Studies. Call 212-998-7200 for more information, and if you're an aspiring writer (or even a journeyman) in the New York City area, it's something you should seriously consider. The information Denny gave me back before I became a pro comics writer helped me keep a toehold once I got a foot in the door. I don't know that I'd say I couldn't have done it without him, but I never had to find out...
By the way, TwoMorrows Publishing not only has great new issues of ALTER EGO (Harvey's horror comics of the '50s/'60s) and BACK ISSUE (Marvel/DC monster heroes of the '70s) out, they're holding a 2-for-1 sale on their vast array of magazines that lasts through the end of the month.
Here's big business for you: a few weeks ago, despite sugar being the most plentiful crop on the planet, a number of business concerns feverishly warned the government that we're staring down the double barrels of an imminent sugar crisis. Now comes a new promotion campaign, just to show they're looking out for our welfare: Smart Choices Program, "to help shoppers easily identify smarter food and beverage choices," and work with the government to combat obesity and other food-related health problems. Among the "smart choices": Froot Loops. Turns out products don't need, oh, whole grains or diminished salt, fat or sugar or anything genuinely healthy as long as a few synthetic vitamins are pumped into them. The FDA says they're "monitoring" the program...
By the way, as China and Brazil both openly talk about moving away from the dollar as the basic unit of exchange (something Saddam Hussein threatened shortly before our invasion) the UN is now entertaining the idea. What this, if implemented, would mean for the US economy is unclear, but presumably this is an instance where we'd exercise our Security Council veto, assuming the banks don't decide it's a jolly good idea...
If you've been considering buying an Amazon Kindle or a Sony e-Reader, you might want to wait a few months until Asus, popularizers of the netbook, release their new e-book reader, which I mentioned awhile back. It improves on the others by a) having two screens so it can be opened, closed and read as a book; b) having color screens, making it a viable option for e-comics; and c) retailing for ~$150, finally bringing the e-book to an almost reasonable price. (Considering how much more it has going for it than Amazon's and Sony's, it probably qualifies as reasonable.) Other pluses: no proprietary formats, and supposedly it can double as a low-end netbook, with speakers, webcam and Internet phone capabilities.
Uh-oh. Bad news for Microsoft. And Apple. Was off squandering a few bucks playing video slots at the local casino the other night when all of a sudden the machine I was playing went psycho. An attendant showed up fairly quickly and reset the machine. That's no big deal; it happens. Thing is, though: last time that happened to me, a few years back, I sat through a machine's reboot, waiting for Windows to load up and all the diagnostics to run before returning me to my game and total. Same thing this time, except this time I sat through a Linux reboot and diagnostic...
I feel strangely realigned with the universe: in his new novel, INHERENT VICE, Thomas Pynchon mentions Henderson NV...
Today's 9-9-9. Um... where's the panic? Isn't that 6-6-6 upside down?
Congratulations to Frank Krulicki, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "last." (Sorry, Paul, missed it by that much.) Frank wishes to point your attention to comics news/rumor/opinion site Bleeding Cool, current home of our old pals Rich Johnston and Adi Tantimedh, and one of Warren Ellis' current watering holes. Check it out.
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but if you can't find it, don't blow a gasket. Good luck.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.