The past is no fun and self-publishing is the worst: Ted Heller and solipsism

Those of you who are thinking about publishing your own books or already have—and I know you’re out there—should read Ted Heller’s “The future is no fun: Self-publishing is the worst” for a couple reasons, the most important being that it highlights the way self-publishing is probably not a path to fame and fortune for most of us. But Heller should also highlight that, for most of us, conventional publishing wasn’t a path to fame and fortune either.

He writes that he conventionally published three books between 2001 and 2011, then found that he couldn’t get a publisher for his fourth, West of Babylon. If he’d begun publishing in 1991 and had the same experience in 2001, that would’ve been it: self-publishing didn’t exist in a practical form, and now it does, which means his book at least has a chance.

It’s also clear that Heller is doing it wrong. He writes about sending review copies to newspapers and magazines (“I do everything I possibly can in about four or five paragraphs to inspire interest in whomever the email is sent to”), but that’s like me wanting to become a gigolo for female clients: the world just doesn’t work that way. Me wanting the world to work that way isn’t going to make the world work that way either. Newspapers and magazines barely review conventionally published books any more, and self-published books are explicitly forbidden by most of them; to the extent newspapers and magazines write about such books, it’s after they’ve become best-sellers (like 50 Shades of Grey).

Heller appears to have few personal connections with anyone at newspapers or magazines (“When I finally found contact information for someone at the show I’d been on, they did email me back [. . .] to politely tell me that they would not be having me back onto their show”), which means he’s wasting his time by sending out random P.R. e-mails. I know this. Why doesn’t he?

Heller doesn’t have a blog, as far as I can tell. He doesn’t say that he scraped the e-mails of everyone he’s ever corresponded with and sent a quick e-mail blast about his book. He apparently hasn’t been collecting the e-mail addresses of his readers. The price for West of Babylon —$8—is too high. It should be $3 – $5. The book sounds at best mildly appealing. Though the topic–has-been, 60-year-old rockers—makes me want to look elsewhere, it could be pulled off. Still, based on the description, I wonder: what’s at stake? Do I care about whether these guys can “pull the tour off?”

The Salon piece also makes Heller sounds like. . . I’m look for a euphemism but none come to mind. . . an asshole:

If there is one positive thing about this self-publishing business it is this: You separate the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances. Who is willing to lend a hand and who cannot wait to abandon you? Who will nudge someone they know and get your book to them and who just won’t even acknowledge your desperation or is laughing at you behind your back? Some people have been remarkable, others’ names are now forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List.

Look, if your friend doesn’t like your book, it doesn’t mean shit, other than that your friend doesn’t like your book. I’m neutral towards 60% of the books I read, actively dislike 30%, and find 10% magical. Playing the straight odds, when a friend publishes a book, there’s a 90% shot that I’ll be neutral towards or dislike their book. The probability of me liking their book is probably lower, because the vast majority of books I read are books I choose.

When I start self-publishing, I doubt all my friends will like what I write. Which is okay. Having cancer and seeing who supports you and who doesn’t separates “the wheat from the chaff among your friends and acquaintances.” Publishing a book that you friends don’t love is hardly a reason to be “forever etched onto my Eternal Personal Shit List.”

Let’s examine the upside for a moment. Heller has a real chance to get his book in front of readers, which he wouldn’t have had ten years ago. He’s playing a game with low odds of success. Thousands of other writers, and maybe hundreds of thousands, are in the same game. But he’s living in a time when it’s possible to get in the game, and that itself is still something to celebrate.

EDIT: I should add that, based on what I’ve read, most writers at most major publishing houses get very little real marketing / PR help. The ones who do are the lucky exceptions. Throwing a stone into the ocean of literature and having it sink to the bottom is normal. Throwing a stone into the ocean of literature and having it turn into a cruise ship is not.

Links: News is bad for you, the UnSlut project, the crab basket effect, self-publishing, space, extinction, flus, and more

* “News is bad for you [. . .] The real news consists of dull but informative reports circulated by consultancies giving in-depth insight into what’s going on. The sort of stuff you find digested in the inside pages of The Economist. All else is comics.”

* Women and the crab-basket effect.

* “New Publisher Authors Trust: Themselves.” File this under “Calling Captain Obvious.”

IMG_2219* The future of U.S. space policy, a topic that is under-discussed.

* Human extinction is an underrated threat.

* Is China covering up another flu pandemic?

* Russell Blake: Why authors annoy me, which is really about how any “rules” about art also meant to be broken.

* “One look at why income inequality is growing,” hat tip and headline tip Tyler Cowen.

* The UnSlut Project: the “It Gets Better” of slut-shaming.

Links: Teachers, strippers, self-publishing, In the Realm of the Senses, Fundrise, and more

* The Case for a Teacher Bar Exam. I’m skeptical: teaching is one of the skills that is least captured by standardized tests. See also “How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?

_MG_8427* The Uses of Difficulty. Maybe.

* “Uncovering Union Violence,” which “is an under-reported story.”

* “The North Dakota Stripper Boom,” which is a tale about unexpected expected consequences: “North Dakota [. . .] is experiencing an oil boom, which is leading to an overwhelmingly male population boom, which has some strange spillover consequences.”

* “The Early Education Racket: If you are reading this article, your kid probably doesn’t need to go to preschool.” Having written Head Start proposals and read a lot of studies on Head Start and similar programs, I’m not surprised, although this article focuses on the effects of relatively wealthy people (hilarious quote: “research suggests that if you have the time and money to argue over the merits of a Waldorf preschool versus a Montessori one, little Emma isn’t going to suffer either way.”)

* Thorium Reactors, by Peter Reinhardt, which explains one aspect of why thorium-powered power plants might be the future of energy.

* Tips for a successful book launch. This is interesting for its own sake and because Roosh never mentions the word “self-published.” That’s simply assumed.

* Fremen Stillsuit soon to be manufactured? Are the Bene Gesserit up next?

* “Going All the Way: The late Nagisa Oshima’s erotic, transgressive In the Realm of the Senses isn’t about sex. It is sex.

* Fundrise has a new project in the pipeline.

* Copy Of ‘The Scarlet Letter’ Can’t Believe The Notes High Schooler Writing In Margins.

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur — Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch

ape_cover_KawasakiFor decades, books got published something like this: you, the writer, wrote and polished your book; you submitted a query letter and perhaps sample chapters to literary agents; an agent read the full manuscript; an agent took you on; the agent pitched your book to large publishing houses in New York; the editor, or ideally more than one editor, made an offer; the agent negotiated; and you got a book deal. This system worked kind of okay, and there wasn’t a better way to do it, but a lot of writers, including me, got hung up in the “an agent took you on” step.

Now, self-publishing has a realistic chance of success—defined as getting your work to readers and getting some amount of money from those readers—which offers opportunities and headaches. Big publishers know change is coming. The opportunities are obvious, and the headaches stem from having to learn a lot of stuff that publishers used to do, like cover design, knowing what a “widow” is, and figuring out how to hire a copy editor. APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur wants to explain the new world, and it’s a book for a very specific group: people who are, for whatever reason, deeply interested in the publishing industry, and people who want to write a book, have written a book, or want to publish the book they’ve written. If you’re sure you don’t fall into those categories and aren’t likely to, stop reading. You’re probably wasting your time. If you want to know, keep going.

A few months ago I noted this, from Tim Parks’s “Does Money Make Us Write Better?“, in a links post:

When they are starting out writers rarely make anything at all for what they do. I wrote seven novels over a period of six years before one was accepted for publication. Rejected by some twenty publishers that seventh eventually earned me an advance of £1,000 for world rights. Evidently, I wasn’t working for money. What then? Pleasure? I don’t think so; I remember I was on the point of giving up when that book was accepted. I’d had enough. However much I enjoyed trying to get the world into words, the rejections were disheartening; and the writing habit was keeping me from a “proper” career elsewhere.

These kinds of stories infect writer interviews, as do tales of heroic perseverance. John Barth and William Goldman almost quit writing too. But more interesting still are the dark matter writers, the ones we don’t hear about because they gave up and aren’t being interviewed or writing introductions to reprints of their older books. I don’t want to be one of them. And I bet I can make more than £1,000, though I don’t know how long ago Parks began writing: adjusted for inflation, £1,000 might be a lot of money.

Kawasaki and Welch explain how to avoid being a dark matter writer. They say, “Will your book add value to people’s lives? This is a severe test, but if your answer is affirmative, there’s no doubt that you should write a book.” Still, people write books for all sorts of reasons, though I suspect the major reasons are related and twofold: the book they’d like to read doesn’t already exist, and they have something to say. Answers like “to add value to people’s lives” are good reasons to write a book, and good reasons to do many things. There is still some doubt. Writing a book can consume all your mental energy. It might add value to, say, two people’s lives, which might not justify the costs. Not everyone has the impetus towards book writing; to get through the difficulties of writing a book, I think that writing itself has to be fun, or fun at times (more on that later).

But the number of people who could write books and aren’t, in part because of the daunting publishing process, is much larger than the number who do write books. And that pool is getting larger. One challenge is that writers are going to have to think more like publishers, and publishers are going to have to think more like entrepreneurs. APE is about these transformations, and it takes its place near J.A. Konrath and Jack Kilborn’s The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (Everything A Writer Needs To Know) and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Surviving the Transition: How Writers Can Thrive in the New World of Publishing (one thing writers evidently do, once they spend the painful time learning to self-publish, is write guides so that others can learn the same).

How useful APE will be to you depends on how much other reading you’ve done in the how-to-be-a-writer genre. I have trouble resisting it, and so sections of APE are less useful; some, like chapters 6, were fun but already well-known to me. The later ones, on the finer point of Kindle, Nook, and iBooks publishing, were exceedingly useful. I follow digital publishing closely, because I’m going to do it, but I still learned things: for example, I didn’t realize that Google Play exists. Google Play might not matter for me, or for you, but uploading to it requires little time beyond the effort necessary for iBooks and Barnes and Noble’s Nook.

Kawasaki and Welch also have overly strong views on tools (which may make sense given Kawasaki’s background: “For four years I evangelized Macintosh to software and hardware developers and led the charge against world-wide domination by IBM;” the word “evangelized” is key here, implying religious fervor that’s been transferred from God to Mac). I’ve learned some about photography in the last two years, perhaps a reaction against the extreme amount of reading and writing I’ve done, and in cameras, there’s a continual debate between the people who want the newest, coolest gear and who argue that the latest gear enables them to get shots they couldn’t have gotten before. Their intellectual adversaries argue that the most important tool is between the photographer’s ears and that composition, subject matter, and skill with what you have matters more than the newest cameras and the best lenses.

I’ve read impassioned pleas from both sides, and agreed fully with one side, then read the opposite, and agreed fully with them. There isn’t a right answer. One cliche in the photography community holds that every image you’ve admired was captured with worse gear than what you’ve got. Yet there’s also no reason to ignore the tools you’re using and the potential that new tools may unlock.

Kawasaki and Welch write, “In our book (again, pun intended), you should use a Macintosh. No computer makes you more creative and productive, because a Macintosh becomes part of you whereas you need to overcome other operating systems.” I don’t think it matters that much, which is somewhat funny because I’m writing this on an iMac. But pretty much any computer made in the last ten years will due, because, the most important parts of the writing process are a) a word processor and b) there is no b.

There are some nifty tools I use extensively, like Devonthink Pro, and some nifty tools that I’ve used less extensively but still helpfully at times, like Scrivener. Nonetheless, 95% of the real “work” of writing still happens on the level of the sentence and paragraph (though Kawasaki and Welch say of Scrivener, “I pride myself in having an organized mind, but my mind isn’t this organized”)*. A Mac is not going to give you great sentences. Neither is Windows or Linux or the tea you drink or the cafe you write at or the hot literary groupie offering you head or the pen you use. Great sentences, like change, come from within.

They also say, “We have never met anyone who regretted buying a Macintosh.” I have—like those who need perfect Exchange synchronization, or people who are seduced by the Mac’s cool factor, only to realize that the paying-the-rent factor is even more important. These are quibbles. Still, in one chapter the writers quote Zoe Winters, and I would repurpose her advice to apply to technology: “There is no shortcut to awesome.” Writing well is always a longcut, not a shortcut, and self-publishing arguably makes the road longer. There’s no real alternative, through software, hardware, or anything else.

The road may be long, but one can find comfort and encouragement along the way. Kawasaki and Welch write, “If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland [. . .] changed my life by empowering me to write even though I didn’t consider myself a writer.” This is a common feeling, but it’s also one that’s long puzzled me: I spend very little, if any, time considering whether or not I’m “a writer.” I just do it. I didn’t need permission to be a writer, and neither do you. Alternately, if you do need permission, let me bestow it on you: a random stranger on the Internet has now dubbed thee a writer. Feel better?

You should. You should also realize that writing may be lonely in the moment, but it’s a way of bringing people together over time. This tension is implied in moments like these:: “Authors who write to impress people have difficulty remaining true to themselves. A better path is to write what pleases you and pray that there are others like you.” I would also add that few people are likely to be impressed anyway, and those who might be impressed will be more impressed if your book is written, at least some of the time, because you’re having fun and seeing where things go. Think about your favorite sexual experiences: few of them probably arose because you were putting a lot of pressure on yourself or your partners to have a Great Sexual Experience. Most of them probably arose because you and your partner(s) were relaxed and ready to have a good time by seeing where things go. So too with writing, and many other activities.

Sometimes writing will be painful, as Kawasaki and Welch note. I won’t deny it. But parts should be fun, and the fun will show in the final product.

In a few places, I’d like to see better writing in a book about writing. One chapter begins, “This section explains how to take a manuscript and turn it into a book. We assume that you have a rock-solid draft of your book.” “Rock-solid” turns up 74 million hits on Google. It’s a cliche. A book about writing should itself be impeccably written. This one is close—very close. Perhaps the next update will fix that.

Elsewhere, the writers say, “For example, The Schmoe Way by Joe Schmoe from Schmoe Press doesn’t cut it.” And “Pure text posts don’t cut it in the highly visual world of social media.” And “While printed books may never die (an ebook of Annie Leibovitz’s photographs won’t cut it) [. . . .]” What does “cut it,” and what is being cut? All of these could be improved: for example, “an ebook of Annie Leibovitz’s photographs is as useful as sheet music for someone who wants to hear Beethoven’s Fifth.” Maybe that’s a little clunky too, but it’s still an improvement because the metaphor is fresh. One could say, “Pure text posts in the highly visual world of social media make more sense than a pure text movie, but both are improved by images.”

Some words are wasted. The last sentence in this paragraph:

Undaunted, [Amanda] Hocking decided to self-publish her novels with Kindle Direct Publishing to pay for the $300 trip. She started with My Blood Approves, and by October 2010, she made over $20,000. Over the next twenty months, she made $2.5 million. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

could be removed. I can only think of two similar nonfiction books that had no wasted words: Rework (the 37signals book, and one of the few books I’ve read that should be expanded) and Derek Sivers’ Anything You Want (where Sivers even talks about brevity and clarity in “You should feel pain when unclear“—”Writing that email to all customers would take me all day, carefully eliminating every unnecessary word, and reshaping every sentence to make sure it could not be misunderstood”). The best writing advice I’ve ever received is “omit unnecessary words.” Almost everyone is guilty of this crime at times, including me, in this post, in this blog, and in my other writing.

Their advice on serial commas is askew; Kawasaki and Welch favor serial commas (“A serial comma (or Oxford comma, as they say across the pond) prevents confusion when you are listing several items”), but serial commas can also create ambiguity.

These are minor issues, but I bring them up because nonfiction should aspire to be art. Kawasaki and Welch agree—they say, “Metaphors and similes beat the crap out of adjectives and adverbs, so use them when you can. For example, rather than saying, ‘Hockey is very violent,’ you could say, ‘Hockey is war on ice.'” Perhaps I’m overly fastidious about the War Against Cliche. Others who are highly attuned to language will notice too.

Some sections of APE linger in the mind long after they’re read, like this:

There are two kinds of people: eaters and bakers. Eaters think the world is a zero-sum game: what someone else eats, they cannot eat. Bakers do not believe that the world is a zero-sum game because they can bake more and bigger pies. Everyone can eat more. People trust bakers and not eaters.

It expresses a sentiment I’ve discussed in many contexts, but in a way I hadn’t conceived. My closest approximation came in “How to think about science and becoming a scientist:”

while society needs a certain number of lawyers to function well, too many lawyers leads to diminishing returns as lawyers waste time ginning up work by suing each other over trivialities or chasing ambulances.

By contrast, an excess of scientists and engineers means more people who will build the stuff that lawyers then litigate over. Scientists and engineers expand the size of the economic pie; lawyers mostly work to divide it up differently. Whenever possible, work to be a person who creates things, instead of a person who tries to take stuff created by someone else.

Kawasaki and Welch are bakers. They’re creators. They want to help you be one too. Still, according to them, you have to be the kind of writer who wants to “take control of their fate and embrace the ideas here in order to maximize their success.” A fair number of writers don’t appear to care about being able to “maximize their success” as measured by sales and finances, and in some literary circles cachet comes from not marketing one’s book, or appearing not to market it; sometimes not marketing becomes marketing, as examples like J. D. Salinger and Cormac McCarthy show.

This underlying model of success can seem claustrophobic, and, just I gave you permission to be be a writer above, I give you permission to be selective with social networks here: plans for Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, e-mail, Google+, and more would leave me with less writing time. I want to do things that really interest me, and that’s mostly long-form writing. Facebook and Twitter aren’t interesting, and I want the mental space they would otherwise occupy to be occupied by better things. I’m also reluctant to trust Facebook and Google+ because that gives those companies so much control over what I do and who I talk to. There was a recent kerfuffle when Facebook “turned down the volume” of businesses that had Facebook pages. That’s good for Facebook’s users but terrible for anyone who spent time and money encouraging people to interact on Facebook.

Facebook is, of course, where the people are. Using it is good advice, but it might also be useful to ask what you can say no to. In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers has a chapter called “No more yes. It’s either HELL YEAH! or no,” where he says that your reaction to most propositions should be one of those two extremes. To me, Facebook, Google+, and Twitter are in the lukewarm middle. Kawasaki and Welch “recommend using Google+ as a blogging platform.” Does it allow one to export nicely-formatted XML that will allow you to easily switch, if necessary? That’s a prerequisite, at least to me.

Kawasaki and Welch might be overly enamored of social media, and me underly enamored, but unless you want a Salinger-like existence you probably need to do something. There are few alternative to social media, e-mail, and other promotional efforts, and those efforts are a boon to outsiders. The authors say, “I’ve never come across an author who was happy with the marketing efforts of his publisher.” That might be because publishers have one thing that can’t be replicated by outsiders: distribution. Publishers are set up for a world where they control distribution. That advantage is eroding over time.

The chapters about social networking show you how to make sure you have access to new advantages.

The downside is that learning the business consumes time like space shuttles consume jet fuel. At the moment, however, APE is a relatively easy, comprehensible way of learning about all the steps that one should take to move from “guy with a story” or “guy with a long document” to “writes books that other people value and read.”

* I’ve only used Scrivener for one novel, called THE HOOK, that has different, named narrators at different times, like Tom Perrotta’s Election, Anita Shreve’s Testimony, or William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Scrivener was an ideal tool for this task because it made rearranging sections easy, and it made reading each speaker’s full narrative, in order, easy. I can also see it being very useful for non-narrative nonfiction and or dissertations / academic books (James Fallows is a convert). For most fiction, I think the bigger problem is making the story cohere, not rearranging it., Daniel Kahneman, and the future of publishing

Amazon Will Destroy You” says, among other things: “Amazon is going to destroy the Big 6, destroy bookstores, destroy 95% of all agents, destroy distributors (Ingram, Baker & Taylor), and revolutionize the publishing industry by becoming the dominant force. . . . Amazon INNOVATES. That’s the thing you whiners don’t understand.”

My own (very limited) adventures in publishing make me inclined to think this is basically correct; having now dealt a fair amount with agents, I’ve observed enough about their behavior to be suspicious: most appear to simply be judging submissions based on “gut instincts” of dubious predictive value. An increasing body of research shows how horseshit gut instincts are as a guide to most kinds of behavior, and how little we know about the decisions we make. You only have to read Daniel Kahneman and Dan Ariely to understand this. You can see the same principles in Moneyball, book or movie. Virtually every field that has pitted empirical data or tests against the beliefs of supposed “experts” has found that the data win. In the case of Amazon, the company is basically running a massive experiment by letting anyone who wants to publish, publish, and letting readers sort out who’s good.With the gates open, entrants are numerous—and more numerous than conventional publishers could ever hope to match.

Literary agents and publishers are now in the same position as baseball managers were in the pre-Moneyball era: completely missing the data revolution going on around them.

The gatekeepers are just wrong too much. You can tell as much from the innumerable stories about beloved, or at least popular, books that were rejected dozens or hundreds of times before finding a publisher. This isn’t the fault of agents or publishers directly: if I were an agent and saw the manuscripts for Harry Potter, Twilight, or The Da Vinci Code, I’d have rejected them—and I’d have been wrong, at least as measured by revenue. When publishers had a lock on distribution, however, they could afford to be wrong, because it was virtually impossible for writers to use alternate mechanisms to sell their books. A wrongly rejected book went in the drawer. A lucky break just happened to be a lucky break.

Increasingly, though, writers aren’t going to rely on gatekeepers. They’re going to let the market decide; publishers and agents will step in after a writer is popular. The problem is, once a writer is sufficiently successful via Internet metrics, I’m not sure that agents or publishers will be in much of a position to negotiate.

Amazon knows this. Its strategy is simple: let everyone in and let readers sort ’em out. This will shake out many of the false negatives given by agents and publishers. Conventional publishers, who pay for expensive Manhattan office space and distribution warehouses and paper, can’t afford to do this using traditional methods.

Agents and publishers probably know this, but they know it in the same way Blockbuster knew it had to compete with Netflix.

The world is moving away from mystical hand-waving and towards data / experimentation. Businesses on the wrong side of that divide are going to suffer.

EDIT: I’m reading Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology and, weirdly, came across this contribution, by Cory Doctorow, which discusses a different context that applies to my analysis of the literary marketplace:

We’re bad futurists, we humans. We’re bad at predicting what will be important and useful tomorrow. We think the telephone will be best used to bring opera to America’s living rooms. We set out nobly to make TV into an educational medium. We create functional hypertext to facilitate the sharing of draft physics papers.

If you need to convince a gatekeeper that your contribution is worthy before you’re allowed to make it, you’d better hope the gatekeeper has superhuman prescience. (Gatekeepers don’t have superhuman prescience.) Historically, the best way to keep the important things rolling off the lines is to reduce the barriers to entry. Important things are a fraction of all things, and therefore, the more things you have, the more important things you’ll have.

The worst judges of tomorrow’s important things is today’s incumbents. If you’re about to creatively destroy some incumbent’s business-model, that incumbent will be able to tell you all kinds of reasons why you should cut it out. Travel agents had lots of soothing platitudes about why Expedia would never fly. Remember travel agents? Wonder how that worked out for them.

Links: William Gibson, publishing (self and legacy), teaching, boring playgrounds

* William Gibson eloquently describes why I write a blog, from Distrust That Particular Flavor:

In writing speeches, curiously, one sometimes finds out what one thinks, at that moment, about something. The world at large, say. Or futurity. Or the impossibility of absolutely grasping either. Generally they make me even more uncomfortable to write than articles, but later, back in the place of writing fiction, I often discover that I have been trying to tell myself something.

In writing almost anything, “one sometimes finds out what one thinks,” especially if the readers of that writing pose interesting, informed questions. Which I often think about, even when I don’t respond directly. Note that I often respond directly, too.

* Speaking of blogs, I updated the “About” page of this one, for the first time in years.

* How Thor Power Hammered Publishing, which I didn’t know. Incidentally, this may also explain some of the shift towards ebooks, since publishers don’t like paper inventory.

* “My US Border Nightmare;” would you want to return to a country after this?

* Scholars Seek Better Ways to Track Impact Online.

* Self-Publishing Your Own Book is the New Business Card.

* Barnes & Noble and the Collapse of the Publishing Ecosystem; I am not convinced:

Macmillan CEO John Sargent tries to persuade Bosman that the chain goes all the way to the writers. “Anybody who is an author, a publisher, or makes their living from distributing intellectual property in book form is badly hurt,” he said, “if Barnes & Noble does not prosper.”

What about all those writers who aren’t involved in legacy publishing and can’t get their books in stores? Besides, I don’t think readers care about who “makes their living from distributing intellectual property;” they care about whether a book is any good.

* Con’d: Will Amazon Kill Publishing? And, if so, will anyone not being employed by a publisher mourn?

* Con’d, part 3: “Writers are essential. Readers are essential. Publishers are not.

* The Great Divorce, on Charles C. Mann’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which sounds like a book better read about than read. See also Tyler Cowen’s take.

* Teaching with authenticity and authority, which I try to do.

* Great idea: “Legislation in Florida would allow parents to vote to restructure a public school into a private or charter model.

* Make playgrounds safe but boring and kids won’t use them. When I was a kid, I loved dodgeball, which is apparently also out of style.

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.

Late March Links: Sexting times two, English as a baffling language, vocabulary, raising the status of U.S. manufactured goods, Lev Grossman's The Magician King, science as a career, and more

* Sexting lawsuits get stupid.

* Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: sex. And, the writer notes, why do so many videogames deal with it in such a juvenile (read: juvenile boy) way?

* An etiquette guide, and one of the unintentional hilarities of self-publishing.

* “To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more [. . .] ‘Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation [. . . .]’ ” The problem: I don’t see how you can accomplish this without making it harder to fire teachers. One thing most high-status occupations have in common: you have to be good at them to remain in the occupation. If you’re not good, you’ll be forced to the margins of the occupation, suffer financial consequences, and have clients leave you. Until teaching does that, it can’t really improve in status. Until teachers’ unions will accept simpler firing procedures or are eliminated, that can’t happen.

* English, that baffling language.

* AT & T is piping Internet data straight to the NSA. Nasty.

* Microsoft Word Now Includes Squiggly Blue Line To Alert Writer When Word Is Too Advanced For Mainstream Audience.

* Who Is Really a Sex Rebel? Why we are so obsessed with desire among the Victorians.

* A political history of science fiction.

* Neil Gaiman: Why defend freedom of icky speech?

* A Girl’s Nude Photo, and Altered Lives. This is completely insane:

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it.

In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost. Only then would the community try to turn the fiasco into an opportunity to educate.

* Lev Grossman says The Magician King will be out August 9.

* How to manufacture stuff in the U.S.: raise the status of the stuff’s place of origin. This is being written by a guy who has a Tom Bihn (made in Washington State!) messenger bag, so it worked on me.

* Deadbeats and Turnips: understand who can actually pay child support, since sending people who can’t pay to jail is counterproductive.

The basic problem is this: someone (usually the father) can’t pay child support. Virtually all states now send you to jail if you can’t pay court-ordered child support. Sending people to jail has lots of obvious negative effects on the ability to find and keep a job. So you get out of jail, can’t find a job, still have to pay child support and. . . go to jail again.

* How Western Diets Are Making The World Sick. This should be obvious to anyone who’s read Michael Pollan.

* The real science gap, which mirrors Philip Greenspun’s Women in Science. The short version: science is great but science careers are terrible and getting worse. Smart students figure this out and do something other than science PhD programs. Remember this next time someone is bemoaning the lack of American scientists.

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