Certain people send SFXperts-type queries directly to me. It's like those dreams of sitting vital exams where every question is terrifyingly unfamiliar. I almost panicked at email from a Swedish editor who was struggling to translate some UK story featuring a Sunday dinner of "Masson" (in cabbage) and "plentrails" (green, glistening with butter). What, please, were these obscure English words? I would have woken up screaming, but terrifyingly it wasn't a dream. All will be revealed below.
Another, cheerier dream – this link courtesy of the Oxford Dictionary of Incredibly Contrived Transitions – is to collect all my professional writing in book form. My friendly US publishers, Cosmos, will happily tackle any SF-related stuff including SFX columns, but even I didn't have the gall to send them a collection of 1980s technical articles about Apricot computers. The market for this consisted of a few friends who remember Apricot File magazine, three computer museums, and my mother's legendary shelf of books by her sons that she will never ever read.
Of course there are SF jokes in there. Different Apricot models all had incompatible operating systems: naturally I linked this with the scene in Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer where the torturer-hero darkly mentions "the excruciation we call two apricots". Which induces hideous agony in the plentrails.
The stark truth is that I decided to publish The Apricot Files myself. I've been around long enough to resist the snares of vanity presses that charge the earth for printing but not, in fact, distributing your masterpiece, or the dodgy agents who take money to read your work and forward it to a vanity press. The SF Writers of America "Writer Beware" site (www.sfwa.org/Beware) monitors some of the sharp practitioners out there.
Now is the time to be cautious about names. One agent on the SFWA "Thumbs Down Agency List" – alias the Twenty Worst Literary Agents – is suing the owners of various warning sites for including her name. If I were a listed agent I'd lie low rather than make a fuss and ensure that web searches for "Langford" generate pantechnicon loads of bad publicity. Try Googling for, ahem, the recipe for cooking Barbara in cabbage with some nice buttered Bauer.
My personal choice for self-publishing was the much recommended Lulu.com. It's a on-line printing service rather than a vanity press, and charges nothing until you bite the bullet and order a proof copy at cost price – a bit over four quid in my case. I was already used to making ready-to-print PDF (Portable Document Format) versions of Langford books for Cosmos, and Lulu even lets you design the cover on-line with uploaded graphics or photos. What I most dreaded was the fiddliness of getting the title properly aligned with a paperback's spine. This turned out to be automatic, which felt like being let off the hard part of the exam.
What about creating that PDF? In Windows, I once used the expensive version of Adobe Acrobat, but nowadays there's a freeware package called PrimoPDF (again, Google is your friend) which seems to do just as good a job. Format the book in your favourite word processor, print to PrimoPDF rather than an actual physical printer, and your work is done. Some software, including OpenOffice for Linux, will export documents as PDFs; Mac users have other options about which I'm blissfully ignorant.
After I'd acquired my presentation copies, absolutely no sales of this magnum opus were expected. Imagine my surprise when royalties began to pour in! Well, trickle in, from total purchases to date of five copies. Better than expected – by a factor of infinity. Publicity is always the killer: I plugged the book, in my restrained and slightly embarrassed way, to several thousand Ansible readers and sold five.
Returning to the tasty Masson and plentrails, it finally dawned on me that this was a joking homage to the late SF author David Masson. His story "A Two-Timer" is told in 17th-century English by a time traveller who ventures forward to the futuristic year of 1964. Asking about this strange "Meteor, like a shining Thread" seen in the sky, he hears the answer as "plentrail" (plane trail). It does sound vaguely foody – maybe "plant entrails". Who flummoxed the Swedes with this enigma? My lips are sealed, and my wife is calling me to our gourmet lunch of Adam in cabbage with a side-dish of glistening green Roberts ...
David Langford is madly assembling two more essay collections.