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Archive for March, 2017

Work advice from a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer

March 31st, 2017 by Bob Bly

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, the then
79-year-old (now 83) Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian David
McCullough explained why he had no intention of retiring from

“I’m having a ball. I can’t wait to get out of bed every morning.
To me, it’s the only way to live.

“When the founders wrote about life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness, they didn’t mean longer vacations and more comfortable
hammocks. They meant the pursuit of learning. The love of
learning. The pursuit of improvement and excellence.

“I keep telling students, Find work you love. Don’t concern
yourself overly about how much money is involved or whether
you’re ever going to be famous.

I’m giving a talk at Dartmouth this week. It’s called the Hard
Work of Writing. And it is hard work. But in hard work is

However, there’s a flaw in David’s hard work equals happiness

Namely, it only holds when you actually like or love the work you

Conversely, if you work 9 to 5, forty hours a week at a job that
either bores you or you actively dislike — or even hate — the
result is the opposite of happiness.

You feel like a prisoner or indentured slave, stuck seemingly
forever in a rut. And as my late client SK once observed, “A rut
is a grave without a cover.”

To me the 4 most important things in my life are (a) my family,
(b) our health, (c) having enough money that we are financially
secure, and (d) having work I don’t just like but absolutely

Fortunately, I more or less have most of those items on the list.
I was recently in a car crash, which endangered item B for me,
but after just 4 weeks of physical therapy, I was 100% recovered.

I can’t exactly articulate why I love reading and writing so much
— I just do. I have written since the 7th grace, and now, as I
will be 60 in July, there is still nothing I would rather do.

I have other interests. I have a few hobbies. My wife and I
socialize with friends. But that’s peripheral for me.

If I can write 10 to 12 hours a day, working on projects that
interest me — and I am careful to take on only those writing
projects that do — and then read after work, I am a happy camper.


Category: General | 106 Comments »

Design your workspace for maximum productivity

March 28th, 2017 by Bob Bly

I find I’m most productive working in a space that’s comfortable
and filled with things I like — which in my case means my home

What can you tell about a person by the way he decorates his

In my case, I look around and immediately see the following:

1–A fax machine. People tell me fax is old technology. I wouldn’t
give mine up; I even maintain a dedicated phone line for it.

2–A gigantic wall poster of about two dozen of the major Marvel

3–A small abstract oil painting by my friend and sometimes
coauthor Gary Blake.

4–A framed picture of my two sons when they were young. Press a
button on the frame and it plays a message they recorded for me
around when the picture was taken!

5–Many other photos of my kids all over the walls.

6–Several toy robots including Robbie the Robot from Forbidden
Planet and Robot B-9 from Lost in Space.

7–My two favorite coffee mugs, one that says “I’m a chemical
engineer — just like a regular guy, only smarter” … and the
second which reads, “My story begins in Paterson, NJ.”

8–A picture of my little sister and I when we were very young,
holding hands.

9–A picture of Stan Lee, personally autographed and made out to
me and my boys — a gift from copywriter Peter Fogel.

10–A scale model of a 1962 Chevy Belair, the car my father bought
new when I was 5. He died 22 years ago when I was 37, so it has
great sentimental meaning to me.

11–A framed certificate recognizing me as a member of the
American Institute of Chemical Engineers since 1979. Why? It’s
a beautiful certificate, nicer-looking than my college diploma,
which hangs directly below it.

12–A handsome Successories desk clock with a transparent center
through which you can see the faux gears (the clock runs on a
battery). Also a gift.

13–A cabinet and rack with dozens of assorted CDs — mostly rock,
jazz, classical, and pop — from Madonna and Elvis, to Maynard
Ferguson and Beethoven, to Gerry Mulligan and Eminem. And of
course a boom box to play it.

14–A poster of Grumpy Cat that says “Go Away.”

15–A desk lamp that simulates the wavelength of natural sunlight.
It is supposed to make one less grumpy. I have no idea whether it
affects my mood one way or the other, though I suspect not.

16–Oddly, only a very few reference books. Reason: I need the
shelves in my office bookcases for three-ring binders, which hold
the background materials for each of my current and recent
copywriting projects. I have plenty of bookcases in nearby rooms
holding my other books. No need to clutter my limited workspace
with them.

17–My desk faces a window overlooking our one-acre heavily wooded
back yard. Almost every day I see a small herd of deer march past
my office window.

18–I had a fishbowl with a beta fish I got as a gift, but it was
too small. So I got him a tank with proper lighting and
filtration. But I was out of space in the office so he’s now
across the hall. I miss looking at the little guy!

19–I have two 4-drawer metal file cabinets that hold hanging file
folders — and a few steps away, down in a large finished room in
our basement, 8 more just l like them.

20–I have a framed Mark Alan Stamaty poster with a slightly
mocking cartoon of how Madison Avenue advertising agencies work —
a gift from the Village Voice given back in the day when I was an
advertising manager who bought ad space.

My dirty little secret: all of these add up to a strangely warm,
familiar, fun, and comforting environment in which I MUST be to
do my work.

I am in awe of you who are able to work productively anywhere
outside of your home office — on a plane, at the beach, in a
hotel room, Starbucks.

I just can’t do it. Nor do I want to. Since I love to work and
can only do so at maximum output in my home office, the result is
I am here 12 hours a day, despise travel, and seldom go anywhere.

So … what’s in your office that you treasure … that you like …
and that would tell me something about who you are or what you


Category: General | 1,159 Comments »

Self-publishing: the good, the bad, and the ugly

March 24th, 2017 by Bob Bly

Whenever I mention that I prefer traditional publishing to
self-publishing, two things happen.

First, I get a slew of e-mails from writers telling me
traditional publishing is awful — small advances, low royalties,
and publishers not promoting their books.

Second, I get another flood of e-mails from authors telling me
that they or other self-publishers are “crushing it,” making
money hand over fist.

They often cite Amanda Hocking, who has sales of over $2.5
million for her self-published Kindle e-book.

But according to a survey of 1,007 self-publishing authors by the
web site Taleist, conducted by Dave Cornford and Steven Lewis in
2011 (yes, it’s a bit dated), the truth is quite different.

“The majority of the information out there is about the outliers,
whose success is inspiring, but as we can now confirm bears scant
resemblance to the experience of most authors,” said Dave
Cornford and Steven Lewis.

According to their survey, half of self-published authors make
less than $500 a year.

That’s because, as reported in a 2015 article by Chris McMullen,
the average self-published book sells less than 250 copies.

Derek Murphy, an expert in independent publishing, says, “The
average self-published author spends $2,000 to $5,000 to publish
their books, and few earn any money.”

If you spend two grand and sell 250 copies, you are losing a lot
of money on your self-published book!

By comparison, in traditional publishing, the money flows from
publisher to author, even though advances are much smaller today
than when I started writing books 25 years ago.

The mainstream publishers not only give you money up front; they
also pay for everything, from printing and cover design to
editing and proofreading — saving you a considerable amount of

The bell curve for self-publishing is skewed, with less than 10%
of self-published authors earning about three-quarters of the
total revenues from sales of self-published books.

The average self-publisher from the group surveyed by Taleist
earns just $10,000 a year.

Notice also that many self-publishers with good sales, from El
James (“Fifty Shades of Grey”), Robert Ringer (“Looking Out for
#1”), and Roger von Oech (“A Whack on the Side of the Head”)
either immediately or eventually look for and get a deal with a
mainstream publishing house.

Take note: I am not saying mainstream publishing is great or the
better way to go.

My purpose here is to just present some cold, hard facts for all
those self-publishing cheerleaders I constantly hear from to
ponder — and to inform the rest of us about the good, the bad,
and the ugly of being your own publisher.


Category: General, Writing | 124 Comments »

Is your participle dangling?

March 21st, 2017 by Bob Bly

While channel surfing, I came across a horror movie, and the
description at the bottom of the screen read:

“Stranded in the countryside, a monstrous scarecrow terrorizes a
group of teens.”

This is one of the most common grammar mistakes, and it is called
a dangling participle or dangling modifier.

The first part of the sentence — “stranded in the countryside” —
modifies or describes a noun in the second part of the sentence.

In this example, it is obviously the teens who are stranded and
being terrorized by the scarecrow.

We know this because if the teens were not stranded, they could
just leave and avoid the monster.

The sentence should read: “Stranded in the countryside, a group
of teens is terrorized by a monstrous scarecrow.”

The dangling modifier is a common mistake in the lead paragraph
of business letters.

For instance, here is the opening of a letter written by a sales
rep to warehouse managers, selling an inventory control software

It begins, “As a warehouse manager, I know inventory control is
critical to your success.”

This is wrong because it says the letter writer — “I” — is a
warehouse manager, which he is not.

The correct grammar would be: “As a warehouse manager, you know
that inventory control is critical to your success.”


Category: Writing | 71 Comments »

Optimizing PDF content for search engines

March 17th, 2017 by Bob Bly

My esteemed colleague, white paper guru Gordon Graham, recently
told me and his many other readers that, just like a web page,
your white papers should be optimized for search engines.

As Gordon explained, “Web spiders can index PDFs on the web so
that they show up in search results.”

That’s why you should always include your chosen keywords as
“descriptive metadata” in any white paper you post online.

(Descriptive metadata can include elements such as title,
abstract, author, and keywords.)

So how do you insert the metadata with the keywords into your
white paper PDF?

To insert metadata using Adobe Acrobat:

1. Open the PDF with Acrobat and select File > Properties.

2. In the Document Properties dialog, on the Description panel,
enter your preferred title, author, subject, and keywords
(separated by commas) in the appropriate text boxes. Then click

3. Select File > Save.

To insert metadata using InDesign:

If you have InDesign, you can insert metadata in your white paper
file and then generate a fresh PDF.

If your designers don’t know how to do this, share the following
process with them:

1. Open the white paper file with InDesign and select File > File

2. In the File Info dialog box, enter your preferred document
title, author, description, and keywords (separated by commas) in
the appropriate text boxes. Then click OK.

3. Select File > Save to save your updated file.

4. Then select File > Export.

5. In the Export dialog, select Adobe PDF with your regular PDF
options. Then click OK.

To insert metadata using Word:

If you have a recent version of Word, you can insert metadata in
a more roundabout way. Here’s how:

1. Open the white paper file with Word, press Alt+F, and select
Prepare > Properties.

2. In the Document Information panel, enter your preferred title,
subject, and keywords (separated by commas) in the appropriate
text boxes.

3. Press Alt+F and select Save As and then select PDF or XPS.

4. In the Publish as PDF or XPS dialog, navigate to the folder
you want, enter a suitable file name, and click Publish.

To insert metadata using your Mac:

If you have a Mac, you can use Adobe Acrobat or InDesign as
described earlier.

Or you can use a nifty piece of freeware that makes up for the
limitations of Preview, called Combine PDFs. You can download it

When you have Combine PDFs running, do this:

1. Select File > Add Files.

2. In the Open dialog, select the white paper PDF and click Open,
then select Options > Add Metadata.

3. In the Add Metadata dialog, enter your preferred title,
author, subject, and keywords (separated by commas). Then click

4. Click Merge PDFs in the lower-right corner.

5. In the Save dialog, enter a file name and click Save.

Note that CombinePDFs is shareware, so after you process 1,000
pages with it, it asks you to pay for a license.

Gordon advises that if you use it that much, you should shell out
for it.


Category: General, Online Marketing | 88 Comments »

When outbound telemarketing goes terribly wrong

March 15th, 2017 by Bob Bly

As a marketer, I am supposed to be open to using whatever
marketing channel will work for me and my clients.

But extreme distaste makes me avoid one — and only one —
marketing method: outbound telemarketing to cold lists.

There are three reasons why I believe I can always find a better
— read: more effective and less offensive — method than outbound
telemarketing to cold lists.

First, when predictive dialers are used, there is a time delay
between the prospect answering the phone and the start of the

This wastes the prospect’s time and annoys her in a way that, to
me, is unacceptable.

Second, people are so much busier today, your call is almost
always an unwelcome interruption.

At work I have to inform the telemarketer that I am on a deadline
and therefore cannot talk with him.

At home, the telemarketer is interrupting a meal, family time,
chores, or leisure time — none of which is welcome.

Third, more than half of the telemarketers who call me today have
thick regional, ethnic, or nation-specific accents.

The accents are so strong that I literally cannot understand much
of what they are saying.

This forces me to ask them to repeat what they just said multiple
times if I want to continue the conversation — which I don’t.

And don’t even get me started on outright scams, like the guy who
called yesterday.

He said he was from Microsoft, had detected a problem with my PC
software, and I needed to immediately give him remote access to
my computer to fix it.

About once a week, someone says they are calling about my utility
bill from Jersey Central Power and Light.

And when I get them to admit they not with JCP&L, I tell them,
“Well, then we have no reason to discuss my bill.” That only gets
them talking faster, and I immediately hang up.

The day before, I got another common scam call: a young man who
said, when I answered the phone, “Grandpa, I need your help.”

I am amazed this works on some people, and how could it work on
me, given I do not have grandkids?

But then again, I know someone who actually sent a check for
$10,000 to get unclaimed funds from a scam artist in Nigeria.

Also, when you pick up the phone and a recorded voice says, “This
is an urgent public service announcement” — trust me, it isn’t.

I guess you can’t go broke underestimating the intelligence of
the American public.

And certain telemarketers and spammers seem to be leading the
movement to make as much fraudulent profit from us as possible.


Category: General | 71 Comments »