Follow-up to the eBook and publishing post

See the original post here, and pay special attention to the thoughtful and informed comments (which are a pleasant change from the usual Internet fare). They also bring up some points I’d like to address:

1) I don’t think publishers will go away altogether, even if they persist in some as mere quality signals or brands. Among the millions of self-published books coursing through the Internet, making informed decisions as a reader gets even harder than it is now. In the previous post, I mentioned the problem of false negatives—books that should’ve been published but are rejected—without reiterating that most negatives are true negatives—that is, books that are rejected because they’re bad. Readers are having and will continue to have problems in this regard. As Laura Miller says in “When anyone can be a published author: How do you find something good to read in a brave new self-published world?“:

You’ve either experienced slush or you haven’t, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is.

2) As a result of 1), I wouldn’t be surprised if “publishing” morphs into a much smaller, broader-based business in which editor-agent hybrids take on promising writers in a somewhat traditional manner but don’t offer advances or some of the conventional “perks.” Instead, they’ll work with writers to improve the writers’ writing, structure, and so forth, in exchange for somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 – 20% of the book’s profits.

Be very wary of writers who say they don’t need editors. Maybe Nabokov didn’t need an editor, but pretty much every other writer did and does. And editors are expensive—I know because I’ve looked into what hiring one would cost—and writers, especially young, untested writers, don’t have a lot of money. So I don’t think lump-sum upfront payments will work for most writers, particularly fiction writers. Editors might judge who is worth investment based on signals like, say, blog posts.

Laments like this one by Kristine Kathryn Rusch make me wonder about what function editors are performing now; I can’t excerpt it effectively, but it observes the extent to which junior editors at publishing houses treat her like an idiot. If the experience described in her post is routine or commonplace, I think it bodes ill for conventional publishing houses (assuming, of course, there’s not some mitigating factor she’s not describing in the post).

A lot of writers say publishers aren’t doing that much to promote their book as it is, which may be true, but they do at least send a quality signal. I wonder, though, about the cost of books—especially hardcovers, and still think this cost is going to fall. Which leads me to. . .

3) I think self-published writers are, over time, going to put pricing pressure on conventionally published books. If you’re a random mystery reader and don’t have especially high quality standards for prose quality or prose originality and consume a very large number of mysteries, self-published ones that aren’t as polished as commercially published fiction might be just as good. If you’re buying books for $2.99 on a Nook instead of $5.99 – $9.99 via Nook or mass-market paperback, then you get a lot more word for your buck. This is especially true, it seems to me, in genre publishing, where series are common and so are relatively rapid and similar books.

Being the kind of “informed” reader discussed in # 1 doesn’t stop most people from being not very discriminating.

4) Desperation is underrated as an inspiration to change. Jeff observes in a comment: “As an author just barely at the bottom of the midlist, if my choice is between self-publishing and not publishing and all, I’ll choose the former.” Me too, although, like him, I’d choose conventional publishing at this point in time, given the choice. But writers without a “choice” will increasingly lean towards self-publishing.

5) Blogs and other non-publisher signals of quality may become more important over time. If readers are debating an author’s merits, looking at their blog or other online writing may be a useful way to decide whether a writer is worth the time it takes to begin a novel. I suspect most non-established writers know or suspect this by now, but it’s worth reiterating anyway. These days, when people say things like, “I want to be a writer” to me, I ask if they have a blog. If the answer is “no,” that signals they’re probably not very serious about writing. Even if the blog only has one post a month, if that post is a substantial or interesting one I take it as a positive sign.

6) If you’re interested in how the publishing industry works now and why, despite the media portrayals, it works better than it’s sometimes depicted, take a look at Charlie Stross’s series of posts Common Misconceptions About Publishing, which were last updated in May 2010 but are still required reading for anyone interested in the subject.

7) I don’t think most of my analysis is terribly original, and you could find similar analyses elsewhere. Nonetheless, I find the changing business interesting both as a reader and writer / would-be writer.

8) I’m not sure much, if any of this, matters to readers, but it should matter a lot to writers who care at all about making some money from their work.

Columbine — Dave Cullen

Dave Cullen’s Columbine debunks many of the myths that help us make sense of Columbine as a disaster but that aren’t actually correct, and his book lays what seems sure to be the definitive account of both what happened and what lessons one should take.

Lies connecting the shooters with dislike for jocks, homosexuality, trench coats, violent video games, and more fall under Cullen’s research scythe. In one instance, he cites media portrays as showing that:

[Columbine] was terrorized by a band of reckless jock lords and ruled by an aristocracy of snotty rich white kids in the latest Abercrombie & Fitch line.
Some of that was true—which is to say, it was a high school. But Columbine came to embody everything noxious about adolescence in America.

In other words, the massacre quickly came to be symbolically imbued with fears and thoughts and desires regarding a range of subjects disconnected from what actually occurred. That pernicious effect isn’t just problematic because it’s wrong—it’s problematic because it fails to teach what one should learn from Columbine, like what to look for in dangerous teenagers, how to respond to such dangers, and the like. One painful moment comes early in Columbine, when a police officer named Deputy Gardner “followed protocol and did not pursue Eric inside” the school on April 20.” It seems like a minor detail, but the protocol was wrong: he should have attacked given that active shooters were inside. Today, he probably would, and Cullen details how the change in protocol occurred and its impact.

One problem with Columbine reporting is that the media and the public at large sought and still seek scapegoats. For example, in one survey Cullen cites, the parents of Klebold and Harris “dwarfed all other causes” for the massacre, “blamed by 85 percent of the population in a Gallup poll.” No wonder they hired attorneys. But the two killers lead relatively normal lives: their parents were together and nothing they did seems to have any relation to their children’s decision to murder. The parents might have responded more harshly to earlier infractions, but problems with school administrators and the like aren’t uncommon. Nothing probably would’ve helped Harris at the time if he was a psychopath. As a result, Cullen shows that searching for a single answer regarding why they acted is wrong—the question is why each acted individually, which an FBI agent named Dwayne Fuselier realized almost immediately.

What drove Harris is clearer than what drove Klebold. Harris was a psychopath, and Cullen gives a weak description of what that means on page 187 (“Psychopaths appear charming and likable, but it’s an act. They are coldhearted manipulators who will do anything for their own gain”) but makes up for it with a much stronger, fuller definition on page 242. A New Yorker article “Suffering Souls” complements Columbine by explaining what a psychopath is in greater detail.

Klebold, however, remains more enigmatic. He was depressed and apparently weak-willed, allowing him to be dominated by Harris. Depression and social problems haunted him. He’s harder to describe for that reason, and because a relatively simple diagnosis eludes him, it’s hard to say as much about him in such a short space and still convey a sense of the book.

Columbine is filled with fascinating details. Cullen observes that “Kids nearly always leak. The bigger the plot, the wider the leakage.” Klebold and Harris leaked all over the place, but too few people took them seriously, and what’s most significant is that the few who did so were ignored. The institutions that come off looking worse in this book are the Jefferson County Sheriff and Police offices, both of which are implicated in, by order of decreasing importance, information coverups, disseminating false information, and reacting slowly to the event itself. They kept avoiding information release until forced to via lawsuit, denying the families of victims knowledge about the case, out of a combination of incompetence and fear. Stories like this make “The Agitator” an important blog.

There are other examples of lies and tawdriness. Cassie Bernall died in the attack, and her parents capitalized by publishing a book called She Said Yes claiming that Bernall was shot for answering in the affirmative when asked if she was a Christian. Even when it became clear this hadn’t happened, her youth pastor, Dave McPherson, said that churches and publishers would ignore the story. He was right.

Just below the section about information leakage, Cullen says that “Oddballs are not the problem. They do not fit the profile. There is no profile.” (emphasis in original). It’s the same conclusion Malcolm Gladwell described about profiling any sort of criminal in “Dangerous Minds” for the New Yorker. The stereotypes create false leads. The only consistent finding Cullen notes is that “All the recent school shooters shared exactly one trait: 100 percent male,” although since then he says a few female shooters have appeared.

In Columbine, we learn everything about what happened, a vast amount about the aftermath, and a great deal about “why,” but also that we’ll never get to a perfect answer about why some people commit crimes like the Columbine massacre while others in similar circumstances don’t. He tries to answer the question in When kids become mass murderers for Salon.com, but even then we’re left with incompleteness (he’s also interviewed interviewed at Salon, where many of his early pieces about Columbine were published). Despite knowing all the facts, some events retain their inner mystery—perhaps explaining our collective fascination with them.

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