The latest Amazon wrangle, and the challenge of growing new writers

I’m a bit late to this chat—”real work” keeps obnoxiously interfering with blog writing and other activities—but Charlie Stross discusses the latest publishing imbroglio in “Amazon: malignant monopoly, or just plain evil?“, but like George Packer before him he is distinctly anti-Amazon. It’s a somewhat justified point of view, but I think his followup, “A footnote about the publishing industry,” is less vituperative and consequently more interesting. As usual with these kinds of stories Stross ignores an important point: Amazon is great news for readers and writers who don’t have (or, sometimes, want) a big publisher (like yours truly) but not particularly good news for those who already have a publisher.

But there’s a more interesting and often overlooked point embedded:

But [the reading business is] still a more or less global zero sum game (competing for readers eyeball-hours). And because the rate of individual production is relatively low and the product is still produced artisanally by cottage industries, product lead time is measured in years, time to achieve net positive revenue is also measured in years, and it’s important to keep the back list on tap because it can take decades to grow an author’s career. Stephen King was an overnight success with “Carrie” after a decade of learning to write, but Terry Pratchett took about 15 years to finally break big. J. K. Rowling took 3 books to really get rolling, and she grew eye-wateringly rapidly by industry standards. And some authors are slow-burn successes: my big breakthrough book was my tenth novel in print (“Halting State”). J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was in print for a decade or more before it really took off in the 1960s. If you practice ruthless commercial Darwinism, weeding out any hopeful mutants that aren’t immediately successful, you will miss out on a lot of huge opportunities.

So reforming the publishing industry is a very non-trivial undertaking.

Which is also why Jeff Bezos picked it as his #1 target when he founded Amazon. He set out to disrupt an incumbent mature industry using the internet, and picked publishing because it was obviously the most dysfunctional. After all, if he’d gone after groceries he’d be competing with sharks like Tesco and WalMart.

It takes an incredibly long time for writers to get good, and publishers may have lost interest in that process. The process also seems especially long relative to what’s happening on the Internet, which is still in its Cambrian explosion phase. In ten years everything touched by Moore’s Law gets a thousand times better, but writers still do our thing at about the same pace. Learning the craft is long, and a lot of it still occurs in a very slow, very old-school master-apprentice fashion. It may be that self-publishing or de-factor self-publishing takes the place of the previous publishing model, and that the publishing of novels becomes more like the publishing of poetry, which the big houses haven’t been doing in earnest for at least twenty years and possibly longer.

Not everyone shares Stross’s views about the evilness of Amazon; here is James Fallows posting an anonymous e-mail from a small publisher who likes Amazon for the same reasons similar to mine (“Amazon is the best deal going for a small publisher: a better price and better reach than any other options”). I’m also not real worried about Amazon-as-monopoly; if there’s a book I really want to read, it’s not hard to get it from Barnes & Noble (for now), or the various other sites that have popped up to help authors (Lulu, etc.). Amazon is fighting in a thin-margin business with highly differentiated products in which almost no product is a perfect substitute for another, with the possible exception of some specific genres (romance, thrillers).

EDIT: I forgot to add that most writers are still helped along by editors, and that the self-publishing system doesn’t really help with that. It’s possible to find sympathetic readers, but I’m not sure sympathetic readers can take the place of professional editors for most people. I don’t really foresee a good solution to this problem. MFA programs are one possible measure, but only for some people who do some kinds of writing.

James Fallows and The Iraq Invasion, ten years later

James Fallows has been running a series on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, and his essential questions are about accountability and the future—as he says, “Anyone now age 30 or above should probably reflect on what he or she got right and wrong ten years ago.” I’m not quite there, but in 2003 I basically favored the war because I was an idiot who listened to government propaganda.

I didn’t really realize or hadn’t yet internalized that government—especially the political parts—lie all the time, and one important part of living in a democracy is paying attention to when parts of government lie. My professors, however, did. Many had lived through Vietnam and knew the capacity for political mendacity. I wonder if, 30 years from now, I’ll be addressing a group of gullible students and watching their skepticism at my own claims, and the sureness of their faith in the powers that be.

At the time the war started, I also happened to be taking a seminar called “State Building in the Middle East and the Balkans” with a guy named Petros Vamvakas (who is still teaching!); being 18 or 19, however, I knew everything that a person who’d lived through the Greek Junta and studied the Middle East for decades didn’t. Vamvakas also knew how to teach, and he knew some of the tricks that I’ve since learned: you can’t usefully confront student ignorance head-on. You have to attack it obliquely, through questions, readings, and your own example.

That’s exactly what he did.

In the seminar, anti-war students outnumbered pro-war students, which led to predictable debates. In retrospect, however, the interesting thing was what Vamvakas knew about deep ethnic divisions, tribal identity, and oil wealth. He also laid out what was going to happen and even how it was probably going to happen: he foresaw that the U.S. military would crush the Iraqi military, and that the U.S. would then botch the peace (which it did), because that peace would be almost impossible in a made-up country like Iraq—at least, impossible without a dictator. To Vamvakas’s mind, one major Iraq question was how long the Kurds would remain part of the country. Whether the northern, Kurdish part of Iraq is still really part of Iraq is up for debate (and they like the war, for reasons not all that dissimilar to the reasons Americans like the role of the French in the American Revolution).

Vamvakas also predicted the guerilla war, or insurgency, or whatever one calls it. He understood that inflicting democracy is a difficult if not impossible thing to do.

History vindicated his views. It has also shown me that a single professor in a small liberal arts college can know and understand far more than people in positions of enormous, life-and-death power. It’s cliché to say that hubris and ignorance fueled the war, but it’s still true; no one in the White House thought to ask Vamvakas what was likely to happen after the invasion. Few dissenters within the political and military establishment, like Eric Shinseki, were ignored, marginalized, or punished.

I watched the war on TV and believed what I read in the press. The war taught me, the hard way, not to be chary of what I read, and to look more carefully and who is speaking and what they know. The most knowledgable person might not have a megaphone, and the person with a megaphone may want to lie.

Tina Fey’s Bossypants and its relationship to James Fallows’ Breaking the News

From Tina Fey’s memoir / how-to guide Bossypants:

And Oh, the Cable News Reportage! The great thing about cable news is that they have to have something to talk about twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes it’s Anderson Cooper giggling with one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Sometimes it’s Rick Sanchez screaming about corn syrup. They have endless time to filler, but viewers get kind of ‘bummed out’ if they supply actual information about wars and stuff, so ‘Media Portrayal of Sarah Palin’ and SNL and I became the carrageenan in America’s news nuggets for several weeks. I was a cable news star, like a shark or a missing white child!

The downside of being a cable news star is that nay ass-hair with a clip-on tie can come on an as ‘expert’ to talk about you. One day, by accident, I caught this tool Tom something on MSNBC saying that he thought I had not ‘conducted myself well’ during all this. In his opinion, Mrs. Palin had conducted herself with dignity and I had not. (I’m pretty sure Tom’s only claim to expertise is that he oversees a website where people guess incorrectly about who might win show biz awards.) There was a patronizing attitude behind Tom’s comments that I certainly don’t think he would have applied to a male comedian. Chris Rock was touring at the time and he was literally calling George W. Bush ‘retarded’ in his act. I don’t think Tom something would have expressed disappointment that Chris was not conducting himself sweetly. I learned how incredibly frustrating it is to watch someone talk smack about you and not be able to respond.

I love the word “reportage,” which sounds like “personage,” and bears the same relationships to real news or reports that McDonald’s does to real food with real nutritional value. And the phrase “wars and stuff” lets Fey drop into the mindset of a network executive, perhaps just a few years out from his or her MBA, who is trying to decide what might maximize revenue this quarter. Answer: sharks, missing white girls, and fake controversy. We don’t need any stuff about wars, tough compromises, or deep trends! Let’s dazzle them with superficial bullshit, which a subset of them really like, and hope no one notices what we’re not covering!

(Unfortunately, this works because we, collectively, don’t demand better. But that’s a subject for another time.)

Fey’s critique is close to James Fallows’ in Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. Fey is being funny and Fallows serious, and Fey is dealing with a media environment a decade and change later than the one Fallows describes, but on a basic level the environment has barely changed. If anything, the explosion in cable news has made it worse in many ways, with only a handful of exceptions (The Daily Show, which fights against the dumbest parts of the contemporary media, or coverage of Trayvon Martin’s murder). The net result of this is Americans losing confidence in the institutions that are supposed to serve us. The responsibility is partially ours, but it’s also partially that of the people who nominally serve us.

Everyone who pays attention to the media knows it’s broken, and that the brokenness seems to have seeped into the larger culture as a form of blanket cynicism and condemnation. I don’t have a strong sense of how to reverse this dynamic, save perhaps on an individual level.

See also David Brin on how an idea has, over the last twenty years, become “fundamental dogma to millions of Americans:” “The notion that assertions can trump facts.” I wonder if the Western world’s enormous wealth insulates people from the potential consequences of their beliefs; very people die or are seriously injured as a result of dumb beliefs based on erroneous or completely absent information. In other words, it’s now much cheaper to believe nonsense.

On a separate, and more pleasant note, Fallows’ new book, China Airborne, will be published on May 15. In addition, Bossypants itself is funny throughout. Samples:

* “Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? ‘I’m not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I’m just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I’d like to cut your chest open.’ The crowd cheers.”

* “In 1997 I flew to New York from Chicago to interview for a writing position at Saturday Night Live. It seemed promising because I’d heard the show was looking to diversify. Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.”

* “I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society . . . unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.”

* “If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.) When choosing sexual partners, remember: Talent is not sexually transmittable. Also, don’t eat diet foods in meetings.”

Tina Fey's Bossypants and its relationship to James Fallows' Breaking the News

This passage appears in Tina Fey’s memoir / how-to guide Bossypants:

And Oh, the Cable News Reportage! The great thing about cable news is that they have to have something to talk about twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes it’s Anderson Cooper giggling with one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta. Sometimes it’s Rick Sanchez screaming about corn syrup. They have endless time to filler, but viewers get kind of ‘bummed out’ if they supply actual information about wars and stuff, so ‘Media Portrayal of Sarah Palin’ and SNL and I became the carrageenan in America’s news nuggets for several weeks. I was a cable news star, like a shark or a missing white child!

The downside of being a cable news star is that nay ass-hair with a clip-on tie can come on an as ‘expert’ to talk about you. One day, by accident, I caught this tool Tom something on MSNBC saying that he thought I had not ‘conducted myself well’ during all this. In his opinion, Mrs. Palin had conducted herself with dignity and I had not. (I’m pretty sure Tom’s only claim to expertise is that he oversees a website where people guess incorrectly about who might win show biz awards.) There was a patronizing attitude behind Tom’s comments that I certainly don’t think he would have applied to a male comedian. Chris Rock was touring at the time and he was literally calling George W. Bush ‘retarded’ in his act. I don’t think Tom something would have expressed disappointment that Chris was not conducting himself sweetly. I learned how incredibly frustrating it is to watch someone talk smack about you and not be able to respond.

I love the word “reportage,” which sounds like “personage,” and bears the same relationships to real news or reports that McDonald’s does to real food with real nutritional value. And the phrase “wars and stuff” lets Fey drop into the mindset of a network executive, perhaps just a few years out from his or her MBA, who is trying to decide what might maximize revenue this quarter. Answer: sharks, missing white girls, and fake controversy. We don’t need any stuff about wars, tough compromises, or deep trends! Let’s dazzle them with superficial bullshit, which a subset of them really like, and hope no one notices what we’re not covering!

(Unfortunately, this works because we, collectively, don’t demand better. But that’s a subject for another time.)

Fey’s critique is close to James Fallows’ in Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy. Fey is being funny and Fallows serious, and Fey is dealing with a media environment a decade and change later than the one Fallows describes, but on a basic level the environment has barely changed. If anything, the explosion in cable news has made it worse in many ways, with only a handful of exceptions (The Daily Show, which fights against the dumbest parts of the contemporary media, or coverage of Trayvon Martin’s murder). The net result of this is Americans losing confidence in the institutions that are supposed to serve us. The responsibility is partially ours, but it’s also partially that of the people who nominally serve us.

Everyone who pays attention to the media knows it’s broken, and that the brokenness seems to have seeped into the larger culture as a form of blanket cynicism and condemnation. I don’t have a strong sense of how to reverse this dynamic, save perhaps on an individual level.

See also David Brin on how an idea has, over the last twenty years, become “fundamental dogma to millions of Americans:” “The notion that assertions can trump facts.” I wonder if the Western world’s enormous wealth insulates people from the potential consequences of their beliefs; very people die or are seriously injured as a result of dumb beliefs based on erroneous or completely absent information. In other words, it’s now much cheaper to believe nonsense.

On a separate, and more pleasant note, Fallows’ new book, China Airborne, will be published on May 15. In addition, Bossypants itself is funny throughout. Samples:

* “Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? ‘I’m not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I’m just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I’d like to cut your chest open.’ The crowd cheers.”

* “In 1997 I flew to New York from Chicago to interview for a writing position at Saturday Night Live. It seemed promising because I’d heard the show was looking to diversify. Only in comedy, by the way, does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.”

* “I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society . . . unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.”

* “If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly. (Some people say ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.) When choosing sexual partners, remember: Talent is not sexually transmittable. Also, don’t eat diet foods in meetings.”

Scrivener or Devonthink Pro, with a side of James Joyce’s Ulysses

James Fallows’ post about the writing program Scrivener “suggests broader truths about the ways computers help and hinder the way we think.” He’s right, although I’ve used Scrivener and didn’t love it enough to switch: for anything beyond blog posts I mostly use a combination of Microsoft Word and Mellel, a word processor that is very fast and stable but can’t track changes. This, for me, is not merely bad: I can’t use Mellel beyond first drafts.

The other problem with Mellel isn’t related to the program itself, but to the release cycle. It’s discouraging when a forum post from the developer says, “Yes, we have been slacking off. The pace of development of Mellel – that is, the number of new releases – have dropped significantly over the last three years.” That’s another way of saying, “We’re not really working on it.”

Word, in turn, gets used for any documents I have to share with others (since they already have Word).

Fallows describes how Scrivener offers “a ‘project’ organization system that makes it easy to amass many notes, files, quotes, research documents, etc related to the essay or article or book you’re writing.” I primarily use Devonthink Pro (DTP) for this kind of purpose, and it connects whatever ideas I have to other quotes, ideas, and the like. The “artificial intelligence” engine is surprisingly useful at making connections that I didn’t realize I had. Obviously I could use DTP with Scrivener, but the use of DTP makes the marginal value of Scrivener somewhat lower.

Scrivener 2.0, however, is intriguing; these videos demonstrate its power. More on that later, as I’d like to follow-up on the idea that computers can “help and hinder the way we work.” Scrivener enables one to rearrange large chunks of materials easily, which is how a lot of writers work in the off-line world. For example, I’ve been reading Critical Essays on James Joyce’s Ulysses for a seminar paper and came across this description of Joyce’s process in A. Walton Litz’s “The Design of Ulysses:”

[Joyce] did not write Ulysses straight through, following the final order the episodes. First it was necessary to determine the design of the novel, to visualize its characters and the course of the action, and this entailed putting scattered portions on paper in order to clarify them. Then, like the mosaic worker, Joyce collected and sorted material to fit the design. Finally, the fragments were placed in their proper positions through a process of rough drafts and revisions.

The “design” and the ability to “visualize its characters and the course of the action” corresponds roughly to Scrivener’s idea pane. The “scattered portions on paper” come next so they can be rearranged, “collected” and “sorted.” There’s nothing wrong with using pieces of paper, of course—it worked for Joyce!—but I wonder what the great novelist would think of working digitally.

Joyce used notecards, and Litz liked the mosaic-worker analogy so much that he uses it again a few pages later:

It was the function of the note-sheets to assure that patterns and relationships already visualized by Joyce reached their fore-ordained positions in the text. Like the mosaic worker, he was continuously sorting and re-grouping his raw materials, assigned each fragment to its proper place in the general design. The mechanical nature of this process emphasizes the mechanical nature of those ordering principles which give Ulysses its superficial unity [. . . ]

I used to write more like this and now I write less like this: it is often my goal to ensure that each chapter follows inexorably from the preceding chapter. The narrative threads and the desires of each character should force the novel in a particular direction. If I can rearrange the chapters relatively easily, then I feel like I’ve done something wrong. I still want “patterns and relationships” to reach conclusions, but I don’t want those conclusions “fore-ordained:” I want them to arise organically, and for them to be inevitable yet surprising. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but it means that the serial nature of the writing I do is probably less likely to be helped by the structure of Scrivener than the writing some others might do.

In the essay after Litz’s, Anthony Cronin’s “The Advent of Bloom” begins with the structure of Ulysses: “[. . .] if Ulysses can be said to have a plot, its plot is formless and does not give form to the book – it is not shaped to produce a series of dramatic sensations for purposes aesthetic or otherwise; it has no conclusion in event, only a termination in time [. . .]” If a plot “does not give form to the book,” then something must; for some writers, Scrivener might organize it and help find a way to present formlessness. The program helps one create a mosaic, but I’m not trying to create a mosaic in my work, at least right now: I’m trying to create a linear plot. So I don’t think the program will help me as much as it could.

Nonfiction books, on the other hand, might be much better with Scrivener: in my papers, I move material around much more frequently than I do in fiction. Since I haven’t written any nonfiction books, however, I can’t comment as much on those.

I suspect that large, high-resolution monitors enable programs like Scrivener: at 24″ or larger, one can have a broad enough swatch of material open to really make a (computer) desktop feel like a (physical) desktop. You can layout and rearrange items much more easily. The new 27″ iMacs in particular are appealing for this purpose, and one can now find 27″ external monitors from Dell, Apple, and others. As desktops become more like desktops, being able to visualize large amounts of information at once makes tools like Scrivener more useful.

At the moment, I’m about 80K words into a novel that I think will end up in the neighborhood of 100K – 110K words, which is a bit long for a first published work but not impossibly long. Using a 24″ iMac, I can easily have two pages of text open at a time, which is very convenient. That’s what I use for my “notes” section (miscellaneous stuff I want to remember but can’t immediately add to the main narrative) and my main window, which has the novel progressing from Chapter 1 to “### END ###.” On my second monitor, a 20″ cheapie Dell, I have an outline and character list open.

Some of those functions could be taken over by Scrivener, based on what I’ve seen in the videos. For my next novel—if there is another in the immediate future; I need to devote more time to academic writing—I’d be willing to try Scrivener long enough to know if version 2.0 is a good fit. For this one, however, the thought of changing tools in the middle of the process would be too disruptive. There’s no reason, after all, that I can’t use both Scrivener and Devonthink Pro.

Scrivener or Devonthink Pro, with a side of James Joyce's Ulysses

James Fallows’ post about the writing program Scrivener “suggests broader truths about the ways computers help and hinder the way we think.” He’s right, although I’ve used Scrivener and didn’t love it enough to switch: for anything beyond blog posts I mostly use a combination of Microsoft Word and Mellel, a word processor that is very fast and stable but can’t track changes. This, for me, is not merely bad: I can’t use Mellel beyond first drafts.

The other problem with Mellel isn’t related to the program itself, but to the release cycle. It’s discouraging when a forum post from the developer says, “Yes, we have been slacking off. The pace of development of Mellel – that is, the number of new releases – have dropped significantly over the last three years.” That’s another way of saying, “We’re not really working on it.”

Word, in turn, gets used for any documents I have to share with others (since they already have Word).

Fallows describes how Scrivener offers “a ‘project’ organization system that makes it easy to amass many notes, files, quotes, research documents, etc related to the essay or article or book you’re writing.” I primarily use Devonthink Pro (DTP) for this kind of purpose, and it connects whatever ideas I have to other quotes, ideas, and the like. The “artificial intelligence” engine is surprisingly useful at making connections that I didn’t realize I had. Obviously I could use DTP with Scrivener, but the use of DTP makes the marginal value of Scrivener somewhat lower.

Scrivener 2.0, however, is intriguing; these videos demonstrate its power. More on that later, as I’d like to follow-up on the idea that computers can “help and hinder the way we work.” Scrivener enables one to rearrange large chunks of materials easily, which is how a lot of writers work in the off-line world. For example, I’ve been reading Critical Essays on James Joyce’s Ulysses for a seminar paper and came across this description of Joyce’s process in A. Walton Litz’s “The Design of Ulysses:”

[Joyce] did not write Ulysses straight through, following the final order the episodes. First it was necessary to determine the design of the novel, to visualize its characters and the course of the action, and this entailed putting scattered portions on paper in order to clarify them. Then, like the mosaic worker, Joyce collected and sorted material to fit the design. Finally, the fragments were placed in their proper positions through a process of rough drafts and revisions.

The “design” and the ability to “visualize its characters and the course of the action” corresponds roughly to Scrivener’s idea pane. The “scattered portions on paper” come next so they can be rearranged, “collected” and “sorted.” There’s nothing wrong with using pieces of paper, of course—it worked for Joyce!—but I wonder what the great novelist would think of working digitally.

Joyce used notecards, and Litz liked the mosaic-worker analogy so much that he uses it again a few pages later:

It was the function of the note-sheets to assure that patterns and relationships already visualized by Joyce reached their fore-ordained positions in the text. Like the mosaic worker, he was continuously sorting and re-grouping his raw materials, assigned each fragment to its proper place in the general design. The mechanical nature of this process emphasizes the mechanical nature of those ordering principles which give Ulysses its superficial unity [. . . ]

I used to write more like this and now I write less like this: it is often my goal to ensure that each chapter follows inexorably from the preceding chapter. The narrative threads and the desires of each character should force the novel in a particular direction. If I can rearrange the chapters relatively easily, then I feel like I’ve done something wrong. I still want “patterns and relationships” to reach conclusions, but I don’t want those conclusions “fore-ordained:” I want them to arise organically, and for them to be inevitable yet surprising. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but it means that the serial nature of the writing I do is probably less likely to be helped by the structure of Scrivener than the writing some others might do.

In the essay after Litz’s, Anthony Cronin’s “The Advent of Bloom” begins with the structure of Ulysses: “[. . .] if Ulysses can be said to have a plot, its plot is formless and does not give form to the book – it is not shaped to produce a series of dramatic sensations for purposes aesthetic or otherwise; it has no conclusion in event, only a termination in time [. . .]” If a plot “does not give form to the book,” then something must; for some writers, Scrivener might organize it and help find a way to present formlessness. The program helps one create a mosaic, but I’m not trying to create a mosaic in my work, at least right now: I’m trying to create a linear plot. So I don’t think the program will help me as much as it could.

Nonfiction books, on the other hand, might be much better with Scrivener: in my papers, I move material around much more frequently than I do in fiction. Since I haven’t written any nonfiction books, however, I can’t comment as much on those.

I suspect that large, high-resolution monitors enable programs like Scrivener: at 24″ or larger, one can have a broad enough swatch of material open to really make a (computer) desktop feel like a (physical) desktop. You can layout and rearrange items much more easily. The new 27″ iMacs in particular are appealing for this purpose, and one can now find 27″ external monitors from Dell, Apple, and others. As desktops become more like desktops, being able to visualize large amounts of information at once makes tools like Scrivener more useful.

At the moment, I’m about 80K words into a novel that I think will end up in the neighborhood of 100K – 110K words, which is a bit long for a first published work but not impossibly long. Using a 24″ iMac, I can easily have two pages of text open at a time, which is very convenient. That’s what I use for my “notes” section (miscellaneous stuff I want to remember but can’t immediately add to the main narrative) and my main window, which has the novel progressing from Chapter 1 to “### END ###.” On my second monitor, a 20″ cheapie Dell, I have an outline and character list open.

Some of those functions could be taken over by Scrivener, based on what I’ve seen in the videos. For my next novel—if there is another in the immediate future; I need to devote more time to academic writing—I’d be willing to try Scrivener long enough to know if version 2.0 is a good fit. For this one, however, the thought of changing tools in the middle of the process would be too disruptive. There’s no reason, after all, that I can’t use both Scrivener and Devonthink Pro.

Kindle land, with requisite ruminations on the iPad

EDIT: See this comment on my long-term analysis of this generation of Kindle.

James Fallows says that in order to avoid becoming a Kindle bore, you should “Just shut up when tempted to say or write anything about it. Otherwise you’ll be driving people crazy with your enthusing about how useful and convenient it is, and what its potential might be, and how many elegant decisions are evident in its conception and design.” I’m going to violate that right now by enumerating the number of things the Kindle does right and huge, giant thing it does wrong. If this makes me a bore, proceed to the next post.

Things done right: The screen is very, very nice, as is the tactile feel of the device itself. Although notes aren’t as satisfying to write as they are in paper, they work reasonably well and are easily aggregated. Using the “search” feature allows effectively infinite, immediate concordances in realtime. Shopping in the Kindle store is easy, although I think I’ve only bought two books from it because of the DRM.

The most useful thing about the Kindle for me isn’t actually reading books bought from Amazon—I’m reluctant to spend much money on them, knowing there’s a decent chance that in five years I’ll have a different device or won’t be able to transfer the books I buy now. Rather, Marco Arment’s Instapaper makes the Kindle insanely useful. If I find a longish article online, I hit the “Read Later” bookmarklet in Firefox. About once a week, I log into Instapaper and download all those articles on my Kindle. Bingo: I don’t have to keep printing and losing papers and I still get to read everything I want to read.

Things done wrong: The big-time, number one problem with the Kindle is its terrible software for organizing and managing documents. Actually, scratch that: it doesn’t really have software for managing documents.

The Kindle shows up as a generic USB device on OS X. Want to load it with .pdfs? Be prepared to drag them into a folder labeled “documents.” This process reminds me of .mp3 players… before the iPod. This doesn’t bode well for Amazon, especially now that the iPad is out.

The closest third-party app I’ve found so far is Calibre, which is clunky and doesn’t work that well, especially out-of-the-box. It won’t automatically sync to my Kindle at the moment for reasons not abundantly clear to me; it doesn’t have built-in optical character recognition (OCR) for .pdfs; it doesn’t automatically copy things bought off my Kindle to the computer. The list goes on. The difficulty of writing really good, really intuitive software like iTunes is really, really high.

I’m reminded of this post comparing Tumblr and Posterous, which compares those two “reblogging” tools. The basic point: design counts more than technology. At the moment, the Kindle’s technology is impressive. The physical hardware isn’t bad, although the screen should be bigger: there isn’t enough space before I have to scroll. But until iTunes for the Kindle comes along and whisks the searching and sorting problems away, the Kindle is effectively crippled by software.

I’m sure the omission of iTunes-for-the-Kindle is intentional on Amazon’s part: what they really want you to do is pay them money every time you buy a book or convert a .pdf. That’s okay but seems penny-wise and pound-foolish; think of Scott Adams’ complaint about bad user interfaces. At the end he asks, “What is your biggest interface peeve?” I now have one.

In other news, Apple released the iPad not long ago, which virtually every media outlet on the planet has covered. Megan McArdle says of it:

I’m still unsure how the iPad gets around the core problem: it doesn’t replace anything. Buying an iPhone let me take my phone, my camera, and my iPod out of the briefcase. Buying a Kindle let me remove a newspaper, several books, and some documents I have on PDF.

You can see similar comments here.

But if the iPad software is sufficiently better than the Kindle, users might end up chiefly with it.
One should read this article from Paul Buchheit’s blog, in which he notes the three reasons why the original iPod succeeded where others didn’t. It was:

1) small enough to fit in your pocket, 2) had enough storage to hold many hours of music and 3) easy to sync with your Mac (most hardware companies can’t make software, so I bet the others got this wrong).

Emphasis added. The weird thing is that Amazon is getting this wrong right now. Syncing the Kindle to my computer is cumbersome; there isn’t a good program for organizing my books and .pdfs. Charlie Stross writes about why he, a self-described UNIX bigot, uses a couple of Macs, instead of cheaper Linux boxes:

The reason I choose to pay through the nose for my computers is very simple: unlike just about every other manufacturer in the business, Apple appreciate the importance of good industrial design.

(Note: he’s British, which explains the “Apple appreciate” rather than “Apple appreciates.” The Brits think of corporations as plural, we think of them as singular. What would Steven Pinker say?)

I would also add that Apple has fewer and different hassles than running Linux boxes, which I say as someone who had periodic problems with audio drivers and other things in the ~2001 – 2003 range before I gave up. But the Kindle’s hassles are reminiscent of a product that should be better than it is. I’ve drifted somewhat from the main point regarding the Kindle, but the device is one of these “close, but still wrong” items that is somewhat frustrating, much like Linux, the last Volvo I drove, the Ikea desks I’ve seen, and chairs that unsuccessfully mimic the Aeron.

The Kindle is very, very good for English majors who get assigned a lot of pre-1923 fiction (which they can get free online) or for people who like reading from that era and do so voluminously. For the rest of us, it lacks, especially in the nonfiction department, where it’s hard to skip from section to section quickly.

Reading fiction on it is a substantially better experience because I seldom skip long sections in novels—it’s pretty hard to decide an entire chapter should be skipped, since that chapter will usually contribute something important to the story (and, if it doesn’t, the novel isn’t very good). In addition, novels are relatively unlikely to have research citations, which are sometimes important in evaluating nonfiction, especially if that nonfiction makes extensive or dubious claims. Right now, the small amount of nonfiction I’ve got doesn’t come with footnote hyperlinks. It shouldn’t be all that hard to create a style named, say, footnote with an automated number linking it to a later number so that one can jump freely back and forth between them. But that’s rare in the books I’ve read.

Amazon has released a kindle Software Development Kit (SDK), which might improve some of its current problems. But until it solves the “organizing home” problem that iTunes does so well, it’s not going to be a tremendously useful device for me and many other heavy readers who need some way of getting articles to and from the device. That’s a huge missing feature that Instapaper (somewhat) solves, but not well enough. The Kindle is an “almost” device, like many of the “almost” mp3 players before the iPod. But I don’t think almost is enough.

Breaking the News follow-up

My post on James Fallows’ Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy generated a fair amount of e-mail and commentary. In the comments section, Steve Karger pointed to The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get, which rehashes of some of Fallows’ points but without acknowledgement except at the top, which has a quote, and the very bottom of the page, which says “With fond apologies to James Fallows.” Nonetheless, it’s worth reading.

I found What should be “the new rules of news” in The Guardian, one of the UK’s major newspapers. I especially like this rule:

3. Transparency would be a core element of our journalism. One example of many: every print article would have an accompanying box called “Things We Don’t Know,” a list of questions our journalists couldn’t answer in their reporting. TV and radio stories would mention the key unknowns. Whatever the medium, the organisation’s website would include an invitation to the audience to help fill in the holes, which exist in every story.

Sadly, its recommendations seem unlikely to come to pass: the incentives against better journalism seem too deeply entrenched, especially compared with the cost of real journalism.

Salon.com reports that “Journalists like Evan Thomas now admit the Clinton scandals were bogus. When will they admit they played along?” And the answer appears to be “never.” These kinds of retrospective pieces remind us of what’s wrong with the news business: reporters are participating in the practices that weaken confidence in the business, much like individual investors who make decisions that collectively shake the market’s foundation yet are personally beneficially.

Finally, Fallows himself caught my post and wrote in reply:

I have thought several times about revising or updating the book but have held back for two reasons. One is the shark-like instinct that it’s worth always moving ahead to new territory. The other, that the central points to make remain the same; the details would differ and be more depressing.

He’s correct, and others have been gathering plenty of fresh examples, as “The 3 key parts of news stories you usually don’t get” shows. I have no idea what arrangements he has with his publisher, but perhaps a new edition with a new forward/afterward would a) give a reason for additional coverage of the book and b) give the benefit of a small number of new examples without having to overhaul the entire thing. Then again, as far as I can tell, Breaking the News got a fairly loud reception the first time and the problems it discusses are fairly well-known, so maybe this wouldn’t matter much.

As I said in my first post, I think the individual’s response to lousy news is likely to be limited, since I can’t immediately make structural changes in the big news organizations that produce lousy “news,” which some people seem to prefer, like Fox News. But if you are interested in better news, try The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal (which still seems pretty good) and the New York Times.

Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy — James Fallows

The weird thing about Breaking The News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy is how timely it still seems—I think Thoreau called books “the news that stays news.”* Even after some of the particulars that Fallows wrote about have receded—like, say, the healthcare debate—the main point that news celebrities and TV-style have cheapened, perhaps dangerously, American knowledge and democracy remains. More importantly, the habit of political score-keeping rather than dealing with substantive issues remains too. He quotes a Clinton administration who said after the 1994 Republic landslide:

They [meaning voters] had ‘made the monkey jump’—they were able to discipline an institution they didn’t like. They could register the fact that they were unhappy. There doesn’t seem to be any way to do that with the press, except to stop watching and reading, which more and more people have done.

The process seems to have accelerated. In part that’s because of the Internet—people have more choices for news—but I wonder if it’s also in part because of the product being produced. Fallows gives an excellent sample of what TV news is like: mostly chasing sensation and catastrophe that doesn’t really mean anything, or have any nuance: there’s no real ambiguity concerning whether a killer should be caught and punished, or that a tornado is a tragedy. As Fallows says, “Then there is political news, almost always in the context of horse race politics—the mayor is criticizing his opponents, the city council is arguing with the mayor.” But over what? And why? The scorecard aspect ignores these important issues.

I’m not giving specific examples from Breaking the News largely because they’re too involved for a relatively short blog post. But Fallows gives numerous anecdotes and stories to back his points, and it’s almost impossible to have seen TV news over the last ten years and not nod in agreement. The only place he fails in his proscriptions for working past the problems; most revolve around the idea of public journalism, which involves greater citizen participation in news topics, commitment to real information, and so forth. The major problem appears to be that most of the public doesn’t seem genuinely interested in such subjects, or at least in paying for them. Those who are interested subscribe to The Atlantic (Fallows’ current home), or, today, find what they need on specialized forums on the Internet.

For me, Hacker News does a better job of finding what’s worthy than all but a handful of publications (The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, and The New York Times being the most obvious). But Hacker News is only an aggregator, not an originator. Despite strides being made by blogging, it hasn’t come close to replace media organizations—in part because of lawsuit threats that can stymie the proverbial little guy.

As Jack Shafer says on Slate, “Among the many glorious things about American journalism is that no credentialing organization or regulatory body stands between an individual who wants to break a story and his public reporting of it.” This is true: but it’s also true that the “big media,” much as hate using that phrase, has disproportionate power—especially television. And the media business (another unfortunate phrase) doesn’t seem able to reform itself, so the Internet is doing part of the job for it. Still, media companies are in the business of giving people what they want, or at least what they seem to want, and what people seem to want is to have their prejudices massaged, whether by Fox News or MSNBC. And the status conveyed by TV (which Fallows deals with in a chapter titled “The Gravy Train;” one consultant says of pundits, “Every time they vanish from the tube for a period of time, the requests for their speaking and lectures drop off dramatically.” In other words, appearing on TV is insanely lucrative) means that far more people want to get on than can get on. The result: you can get people to do or say almost everything. As Shafer says, no professional body will stop you. But if people become more accustomed to unfiltered material on the net, maybe they’ll grow more tired of the news blowhards.

Against these problems, the individual doesn’t have a tremendous amount he or she can immediately do. “Don’t watch TV, or at least most TV news” is an obvious one that’s akin to telling people to eat their broccoli, even as McDonald’s continues to expand like waistlines. But, as any community organizer knows, making people aware of a problem is often an important step in solving it. Fallows made people aware of this problem in 1996. Alas: too little has changed. Maybe this post is another step, however tiny, in the direction of change for the better.


* This quote is probably slightly wrong, or wrongly attributed. Maybe he was the one who said, “Read not the times. Read the eternities.”

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream — Steven Watts

The standard for general nonfiction books these days is Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which reaches astonishing depth in its use of music to explore history and culture as much as vice-versa. A book need not be as sophisticated as that one to still be worth reading, but less ambitious ones still ought to at least strive toward that standard. Steven Watts’ Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream doesn’t, or at least doesn’t obviously. It starts with a promising enough subject—a cultural symbol for much of the last 50 years—and an equally promising premise—that he will illuminate society based on one symbol. Alas, neither occurs, and we’re left with a book that does neither particularly well.

The reasons why a decent book that could be good isn’t aren’t always obvious, even if symptoms of its problems are. I keep coming back to James Fallows’ comment:

Here is something that is common knowledge in the publishing business but that few “normal” readers know: that the average article in a good magazine is much, much more carefully edited than almost any book. Yes, books can last forever while magazines go away after a week or month. But in a high-end magazine – like, well, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books, or one of a dozen others that invest in good copy editors and fact checkers – you’re far less likely to find typos, grammar errors, careless repetitions and contradictions, or simple made-up facts than you’ll find in books.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Ross normally writes for the New Yorker, as his book is impeccably edited. Before discussing the content of Mr. Playboy, its noxious style and innumerable mistakes have to be noted because they so distract from the reading of it. In Charlie Wilson’s War, such problems were relatively minor but noticeable. In Mr. Playboy, they’re glaring and enormous. We learn that: “[…] Hefner also emerged as a serious shaper of, and commentator on, modern American values.” He was also a “serious, influential figure in modern culture,” who “played a key role in changing American values, ideas, and attitudes” (all on 3). Hefner and Playboy shaped rather than just reflecting “American values” (4). He also helped transform “sexual values” (4). He personified “the mass-culture overhaul of modern society” and “he was a child of popular culture” (both on 5). The magazine became a “cultural litmus test [… for ….] modern American culture” (6). Playboy became a “cultural trendsetter” (6, again). Hefner positioned himself “as a dissenter in modern America” but “expressed many of the deepest impulses of mainstream American culture [… appearing on] the cultural skyline […]” (7). And he “presented a compelling vision of the good life in modern America” (7). I don’t know how often “modern” is used and in how many different ways and contexts, but the author or editor should do a “find” using a word processor and figure it out.

Enough of the introduction. The first chapter tells us Hefner’s boyhood fantasies “mirrored larger patterns in America’s emerging culture of self-fulfillment […]” (12). “The popular culture milieu of Depression-era America” helped shape Hefner (18). The Hefner family was susceptible to “modernizing influences” and “American popular culture” (19). “In certain ways they had embraced modernity.” Hefner’s mother “displayed a modern side” (both 21). Her modernity is mentioned again on page 26, where we also learn “American popular culture molded Hugh Hefner’s boyhood character,” and it’s mentioned one more time on 32. On 27, we learn more about “Popular culture.” After college, “Hefner’s emotional and ideological maturation received an added boost from American popular culture” (56). “Playboy’s appeal was rooted more deeply in the broad social and cultural milieu of postwar America” (72). You don’t say? I had no idea popular culture affected Hefner or Playboy.

On page 35, Hefner was dating a girl but “met someone else.” Two lines down, he “met a young woman who had been a classmate.” On page 40, “He became roommates with Bob Preuss, established a fresh circle of friends, and threw himself into a new round of experiences.” Why not just describe the circle and experiences? Further, we find out that “Bob Preuss, a roommate at the Granada House, was struck by [Hefner’s] candor in talking about sex” (46). Really? I had no idea this Bob guy existed.

On the consumer end, he advocated “consumer efflorescence” and “consumer products” and gave a model for the “stylish consumer” (all on 4). The early 1900s saw “the explosive growth of a consumer economy” (this phrase combining a cliche and repetition on 19). Alfred Kinsey’s findings shocked a society “committed to consumer conformity” (45). We learn about “an economy of abundance” and “material abundance” (the latter twice) on 73). On 74 we find the Cold War “molded these elements of abundance […]”, and that Life magazine ran photos showing “consumer amenities.” And on 75, we hear more of “people intoxicated with abundance.” Playboy encouraged “young men into a fuller enjoyment of American abundance in all of its material and emotional dimensions” (80). On page 83, we learn of “a climate of […] widespread abundance.” On page 104, we learn that postwar American has “consumer abundance.” Chapter seven is titled “An Abundant Life.” Mr. Playboy has an abundance of abundance.

On page 86, Playboy begins through “working in the small Superior Street town house in an atmosphere marked by common purpose and camaraderie […],” and we find out below that “A sense of closeness marked the office atmosphere.” At the top of the next page, “An early staffer observed, ‘There was a closeness there […]'” followed by, “Amid this warm atmosphere [….]”. Did anyone edit this book in a modestly serious fashion? If that weren’t enough, cliches occur too frequently, as when Hefner and Playboy “had taken the country by storm” (3). His first wife “scarred him for life” (48). “Everything seemed possible” (61). Something “captures [Hefner’s] imagination” (62). “It helped drive the final nails into the coffin of traditional Victorian morality […]” (121).

Watts chronically makes the kind of mistakes I mark in freshmen papers. He says, “[Consumer society] was intimately connected to a larger ethos of pleasure, leisure and entertainment” (129). How is it connected? He says “important elements of fantasy went into the presentation of these “real” young women.” That sentence isn’t needed because he goes into those element later in the paragraph. He says of one Playboy staffer who feels superior to the organization, “The reasons were complex” (92). Don’t say the reasons are complex—show why they are complex.

There’s more, but I don’t have the heart or, more importantly, the interest to observe every problem that could’ve come out of a student essay. Most of my examples came from the first half of the book because I didn’t read the second as carefully. Mr Playboy also shows why magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic are so good, aside from their editing: either might’ve taken the 70,000 or so words in this book, compressed them a 6,000 word article, and lost little if any meaning while giving the virtues of compression. If Watts had hired me, many of these problems could’ve been avoided. The above barrage is free, however, and if anyone (like his publicist, for example) knows how to forward said advice to Watts before the paperback edition, I’d highly encourage you to do so. It might alleviate some of the book’s problems. There is an inherent danger in studying a person wittier and deeper than you are in that quotes and jokes from one’s subject will upstage the writer. On page 106, surrounded by banal commentary, Watts quotes Hefner saying:

There’s nothing dirty in sex unless we make it dirty. A picture of a beautiful woman is something that a fellow of any age ought to be able to enjoy […] It is the sick mind that finds something loathsome and obscene in sex.

It’s the kind of elegant stylistic and intellectual formulation Watts seldom gets to. Perhaps the most self-referential part of Mr. Playboy and its author comes amid a discussion of Hefner’s enormous and apparently misguided effort to write a piece called “the Playboy philosophy” every month. Watts says, “While [Hefner’s] unadorned prose could be crisp and illuminated with flashes of insight and passion, more often it was turgid and repetitive.” This sentences applies to Mr. Playboy, and Watts shows no sense of the irony in his committing of the same sins he projects on Hefner.

Still, occasional passages, if not redemptive, do convey signifance. Watts likes the amusingly sophomoric through phrases about how “a new commitment to pleasure penetrated [tee-hee] into the most intimate, personal realm of human life…” Bits have surprising pathos, like a quote from one of Hefner’s former girlfriends described on page 205. He also reveals an original thought about Playboy and its creator on page 53 when he says:

Hefner also struggled to shape his views of the world into some kind of cohesive form. In typical adolescent fashion, this bright young man had soaked up a mishmash of ideas and theories during his high school and college years, ranging from Hollywood movies to Freud, popular cartoons to Darwin, Protestant theology to Tarzan.

Such random influences can’t be so unusual given American pop culture, and this section helps show some of the internal contradictions of Playboy’s later philosophy, or faux-philosophy. Such moments are too rare in Mr. Playboy, and I don’t think they’re the fault of the subject—they’re the fault of the writer. Maybe if Watts better connected the facets of Hefner’s life to anything besides themselves, the book would have been improved. As it was, the ten or so girlfriends listed through the latter half of the book only demonstrate that Hefner famously likes to date young. If there’s a better known facet of his life, I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps one day a better biographer will come along and show us what’s really new.

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