The Little Book That Could

It has been seven years since I last wrote a blog shamelessly promoting my book Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems. In fact, I've never told the whole story of why I wrote the book, why I update it every year, and why it's lasted so long—the latest edition, dated 2018, is the 17th. Addicted as I am to numbers divisible by five, I might have waited for the 20th edition. But this blog is long overdue. Think of it as a delayed reaction to the 15th.

My vainglorious little book grew out of a futile six-year effort to turn myself into an internet millionaire. In 1995 four journalisic colleagues and myself started a website called (I am not acquainted with the "online presence enablers" who now use the URL.) Building something out of nothing, we grabbed the attention of a million identifiable readers per month and claimed to be the most heavily trafficked site devoted to consumer electronics. Among the things we pioneered was online trade show coverage, starting with 1996 CES. At one point my stock, which I couldn't sell, was valued at $2.7 million. Thanks to a hubristic business plan that gorged on other people's money, the company never made a profit, despite all those readers. Etown foundered in the dotcom bust of 2001.

Early in the etown experience I was pondering how to get value out of writing during the shift from print to web media. Having chosen writing as a career, this was a pressing matter for me. The ephemeral nature of the internet seemed like a mortal threat to my profession. I came up with an idea that probably wasn't original but held great significance for me: living copy. Writing for the internet may be like "writing on water," as one of my partners put it, but it also offered the freedom to revise infinitely. My partners didn't react to the idea but I kept it in the back of my mind. In 2001, three days after the company went poof—much to my relief, frankly—I started to write a book about home theater. It would be a living book. Rather than let it rot, as most tech books rapidly do, I would revise it every year. I kept that promise to my readers and the various editions have cumulatively made tens of thousands of dollars.

Having written a body of how to buy, how to use, and how to troubleshoot material for etown, I thought writing the book would be easy. After five months of effort I had a steaming pile of dung. The limits of my knowledge were all too apparent. Among the expert readers who came to my rescue were former Home Theater Magazine editor-in-chief Brent Butterworth, who commented on the audio chapters; former Video Magazine technical editor Lance Braithwaite, who commented on the television chapters; and the late Len Schneider, who commented on the DVD chapter.

The audio/video sphere has evolved since 2001 and the book has evolved with it. The biggest changes have been in the television chapter, originally broken down into subchapters on analog television and digital television. Obviously analog TV had to go and DTV had to be expanded—it's now broken down into subchapters on big-screen tech; resolution; aspect ratio; UHDTV and 3DTV; smart TVs, tuners, and cable; connections; and shopping. In an average year the television chapter gets the most revision, reflecting ongoing change in the category. I already have plans for the next edition: a fresh look at TV specs which would wrestle with the question of whether they're useful at all.

The organization of the surround sound chapter hasn't changed as much though its content has been a work in progress, with Dolby, DTS, and other outfits continually introducing new technologies every few years. At one point I realized it would be less confusing if I consolidated all that stuff into a subchapter on understanding surround standards, which follows the subchapters on surround speakers and surround electronics. The help of Craig Eggers at Dolby Labs has been especially crucial.

In the chapter on signal sources, I've killed the VCR subchapter and expanded the DVR subchapter to include streaming devices and servers. Even seemingly sleepy subchapters like the one on antennas, which includes much material unchanged since the first edition, includes a page of recent material on the spectrum auction, which will have some TV stations moving to new slots. The impact of the incoming HDMI 2.1 standard, the only one to cover all current and future forms of HDR, is felt in subtle ways throughout the book—including the subchapter on cables, since there will be a new 48 Gbps HDMI cable.

To look at the page count, which has been unchanged for several editions, you'd think there were no revisions at all. That's because I kill my babies. For everything new I put in, something else has to go. This is in part a response to readers who feel they have to wade through too much old material; I also want to keep the printing cost and price from going up. This year I was especially ruthless, subtracting more than I added, especially in the now-useless 3D section. That allowed me to upsize the index back to a more readable font size. As for the cover, I prefer to put as little work into it as possible. At one point I redesigned it to change the 4:3 direct-view TV to a 16:9 flat-panel TV (minus rabbit ears). Aside from that, each year I change the edition year on the spine, swap out the background color, and that's it. This year's edition is the first to feature a chocolate brown cover. It looks rather nice, but of course I would say that.

Another improvement is in the Kindle edition. I've finally licked a persistent problem with the formatting of headings. This might seem like small beans, but for a book heavily formatted in three layers of organization—big chapters, little subchapters, and loads of sections within subchapters—consistent formatting is a big deal. The ebook looked better on some platforms than others but none mimicked the orderly look of the print edition to my satisfaction. Amazon helpfully updated its Kindle-formatting instructions, I formatted my brains out, and finally the fourth edition of the Kindle ebook looks closer (if not identical) to what I'd intended all along. Incidentally, if you buy the print edition from Amazon, the MatchBook program gets you a 70 percent discount on the ebook. Surely you can't resist buying both?

However, it was not the Kindle platform that inspired me to start this project in 2001. It was a development in digital printing technology called print-on-demand (POD). Basically, as few as one copy can be printed at a time and shipped to the retailer—almost always an online retailer—and then shipped to you. The print charge per copy is higher but printing on demand enables small presses like mine to publish without maintaining warehouses full of moldering books. Without POD, Practical Home Theater, the living book that celebrates every birthday with a new edition, would have been impossible. I still consider the print edition definitive. (I'm a print guy.)

Also adding to the book's longevity was the decision to found Quiet River Press, my own little LLC. The first three editions came out from a POD vanity press, a company that catered to the dreams of amateur writers. A good samaritan who publishes his own POD books noticed that mine had high sales rankings among technical books on Amazon. He wrote to me suggesting that I create my own imprint, bypass the vanity press, and distribute the book through the same printer/distributor the vanity press had been using. The result of cutting out the middleman was to double what I was making from each book. Of course, after 17 editions, sales have, shall we say, matured—a lot of the home theater buffs who would be likely to buy the book have already bought it. But it still sells enough to justify new editions.

When I look back at the first edition, pictured above alongside the new one, I wince. The silly self-caricature was intended for promo literature and never intended to make the cover. The homemade interior graphics are gone except for the speaker icons, which survive on the cover of every edition. I somehow thought the interior text would look better flush left (what was I thinking?). But I also marvel at all the things I (and my expert readers) got right the first time. I look at every sentence, every year, and ask myself: "Is this still true? Should it survive?" If so, it stays; if not, it goes. I'm 90 percent satisfied with each new edition. The other 10 percent keeps me up at night.

Granted, this is not a book you'd take to the beach. "Don't try to read it all at once," I tell people. "It'll make you violently ill." Most people won't ever want to read it cover to cover (though I treasure the memory of the time I had dinner with Bob Carver, presented him with a copy, and he began reading immediately). It's more for the home theater newbie and intermediate reader than for the über-expert. With the limits of POD picture reproduction, and my own wordiness, graphics are minimal. And no, you don't need to buy a new one every year—changes are usually slow and incremental. But over time they have kept the book fresh. As one reviewer said: "If you've been looking to have all your home theater questions answered in one place, this book will do it." That's exactly what I intended.

Finally, be warned that while I'm quick to discontinue old editions, they are always swilling around the marketplace. The best way to get the latest one (now and in future years) is to click through from the link below to the Quiet River Press website. That's where I maintain retail links to the latest POD and ebook editions.

Audio Editor Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater: A Guide to Video and Audio Systems, available in both print and Kindle editions.

drny's picture

Geez Mark. At least give us one paragraph of your most excellent book.
I'll translate your three hundred word blog in three word:
Pleasssse buy my book.

Mark Fleischmann's picture
1709 words.