Although I started out writing fiction in the early 90′s, my path to professional publishing came through technical writing, primarily my books about building and repairing PCs. The mid-1990′s were probably the peak of the computer book market, so I got in a little late, but not too late to have a bestselling build book with McGraw-Hill that sold over 100,000 copies through four editions. But by the time I started self publishing PC books in 2003, the market was rapidly shrinking, and today, I doubt anybody could make a living self publishing computer hardware books unless they worked very, very hard at education sales.
The photo below shows the timing mark on the flywheel of my 1986 Dodge Omni with the camshaft at top dead center. It means the timing belt on the cam is advanced a tooth, which some performance guys do intentionally on Chrysler 2.2 motors.
Despite the Google death of my website, authors still send me questions from time to time about getting into the self publishing business. Authors, like generals in peace time, are often stuck on fighting the last war. So I field questions from authors who are worried about finding a distributor at a time when distributors have never been less relevant for self publishers. I get questions from the “I need money fast to save my mother, I swear I’m not lying,” crowd about publishing public domain books on Kindle, years after the people who were going to get rich doing it got rich. A better way to get rich on public domain books today would be writing yet another how-to book on getting rich with public domain books.
You can reset the timing belt on a 2.2 liter Chrysler engine without removing the lower timing cover and pulling the passenger side wheel and skirt for a good look at the crank and cam sprockets. The upper timing belt cover has a plug which you can remove, and when the little hole is in the center, the cam is at TDC (Top Dead Center).
The publishing world I came to know 20 years ago was greatly altered by ten years later (think Internet plus Amazon) and is almost unrecognizable today (think eBooks plus Amazon plus Internet). Large swathes of the nonfiction book business, especially how-to and non-education reference books, have been pushed to the wall by the Internet. The market hasn’t vanished entirely, some genres (computer books:-) have fared worse than others, but it’s hard to see much of a future for such books on paper. Yes, eBooks are going strong and some writers can earn a good living on the Internet, but both of these venues feature cut-throat competition from spammers and outright thieves who were kept out of the traditional public ecosystem by opportunity cost, ie, the investment required to publish a book. The opportunity cost for web spam and Kindle eBooks is zero.
The white mark on the cam sprocket tooth is left over from years ago when the belt actually broke and I had to realign the crank and the cam shaft the proper way. As a non-interference engine, the only thing that happens when you break a timing belt on the 2.2 Chrysler is that it stalls. With interference engines, a broken timing belt means the pistons knock the valves into the head and you can spend thousands of dollars on parts and machine shop work on some cars, even if you do everything you can yourself. I marked the belt one tooth ahead so I could try to slide it off, turn the cam, and slide it back on with the proper timing while dealing with the issue below.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact of social networking on publishing, even for those of us like myself who don’t do it and are too old to be interested, even for mercenary purposes. But social networking is the ideal method for launching books, getting an initial sales boost and friendly reviews from, well, friends. Ten years ago, savvy publishers built mailing lists of opt-in reviewers who would sing the praises of any book they could resell on Amazon for a few bucks. Those Amazon reviews helped propel Amazon sales and visibility, and believe it or not, Amazon sales could in turn drive brick-and-mortar store orders for books that hadn’t been stocked as a result of traditional sales methods.
The main point of this particular timing job was not to retard the cam for proper timing, but to correct the misalignment of the auxiliary shaft from many years ago when my timing belt broke and I hurried through the replacement. The auxiliary shaft in the 2.2 drives the fuel pump, the oil pump and the distributor. The top of the oil pump gear (shown below) is where the distributor slots in, and the slot should be parallel to the head, or horizontal in the picture. When I finished that belt replacement, the car wouldn’t start, and I had to turn the distributor all the way into the engine to get it running. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t want to take it apart again until I got home. It ran so well, and with no loss of gas mileage, that I never bothered, but it meant I couldn’t time the car properly.
The educational publishers continue to rake it in with high priced books and captive audiences, though they all complain about used books sales and textbook renting. But the rest of the traditional book publishing world is basically in shock. Will Barnes&Noble follow Borders into bankruptcy? It’s hard to see why they shouldn’t. The Nook which was to save their bacon is lagging, despite a huge investment from Microsoft, and it’s hard to understand why anybody needs huge bookstores where most of the books serve as wallpaper. If Barnes&Noble didn’t run a very effective public domain business of their own, printing and selling out-of-copyright classics, along with a profitable how-to book operation, I think they might have given up the ghost already.
The toothed wheel below the timing belt behind the alternator bracket is the auxiliary shaft sprocket. I worked the timing belt off of the cam sprocket with my fingers, kept the tension on the crank shaft side (the belt isn’t going to move the crank on its own), let the other side sag and used a large screwdriver to advance the auxiliary shaft sprocket until the distributor slot was aligned properly. Since I know how the #1 spark plug tower on the cap orients, I wasn’t worried I’d get it 180 degrees out.
People once looked at Barnes&Noble and Borders as equivalents of Home Depot and Lowes, in terms of what the giants did to the local businesses. But Lowes and Home Depot, like the hardware stores, independent lumber yards and plumbing supply shops they chased out, feature many products that are difficult to ship and are often purchased in the middle of a job. Books, on the other hand, are easy to ship, and are rarely needed in the middle of a job - except for the type of books sold at auto parts stores, Lowes and Home Depot. For anybody concerned with greenhouse gasses, it’s far more efficient to order your books from Amazon than to drive your car to the nearest Barnes&Noble.
So here I am in the middle of last winter sliding the timing belt back on. I would describe my expression as a grimace, it’s not like the belt tension was so slack that it went off and on without a good deal of force. It seems to me I thought it would be a good idea to do this on the coldest day of the year since rubber has a negative expansion coefficient (expands in the cold) but timing belts are probably made from exotic plastic.
Will I be sorry if Barnes&Noble shuts down? Not a bit. They stopped stocking any of my self published books five or six years ago and I don’t remember the last time I visted one. Wait, I do remember. It was to meet a local self publisher in their “cafe” to talk about POD a couple years ago. If Barnes&Noble goes under it will free up breathing room for independent book shops. Bookstores could turn into the next retirement business for well heeled ex-corporate types with guilt issues, now that all the bed & breakfasts have been taken.
Here’s the distributor, upside-down view, so the two ears that fit into the slot are up and the rotor which spins around and delivers spark to the wires on the cap is at the bottom, held in place by my fingers. The thick black disc above the rotor is the Hall effect pick-up, the magnetic sensor unit that replaced points and condenser in these “modern” distributors backed by a spark control computer. They’ve long since been replaced by various flavors of electronic ignition systems, a shame from where I’m standing.
Today’s new fiction writers, if they aren’t sleeping with a literary agent or the editor of a major press, probably have their best chance of breaking in through Kindle and social networking, a category in which I include story sharing sites like Wattpad. And fiction, more than ever, is dominated by women. Even fiction about the domination of women is written by women. If you have the chops to engage in warm cyber relationships with lots of other aspiring writers and fans, social networking offers much better odds than the old model of manuscripts commuting by mail to slush piles at trade presses, later to be replaced by query letters sent to slush piles at literary agencies. All of which seems incredibly inefficient given that Amazon likely comprises well over half of the fiction market (eBooks, audio books and paper) by this point for all but supermarket romances. If Amazon put together a hot social networking site, we could just replace “publishing” with “Amazoning” and get on with it.
You can see the distributor slot on top of the oil pump gear is now aligned properly with the head, so I could use my timing gun to set the timing correctly for the first time in many years. The problem is, the car didn’t run any better since the real issue is likely a vacuum leak or just a carburetor in desperate need of a rebuild. I’ve owned the car for 27 years and I literally can’t remember if I rebuilt the carb at some point. Well, I’ll try to get it running decently before the winter this year, just as soon as I finish the current round of body/unibody patching.
Timing is traditionally important in the publishing business, except when it isn’t. I can’t guess whether Harry Potter would have been a hit today, or whether the Hunger Games would have taken off in the 1990′s. Authors writing vampire romances today might complain that the market is saturated, but authors writing vampire romances in the 1970′s would have had trouble finding a publisher, and had no decent self publishing alternatives. I’d like to wrap this post up with some deep insight into the future of publishing in general, but I don’t really have one. If you put a gun to my head and asked for three words to describe the future of self publishing fiction, they would be:
First person, female.