Writing on the Ether: One Short Golden Age

Temple at Sounion / Photo: Porter Anderson
Temple at Sounion / Photo: Porter Anderson

Late addition to the Ether

One short golden age

Careful. We are a destination for detonation this week, my Ethernaut. That plate is hot, these gases are flammable, and those matches are rattling in the box. Don your tinfoil computing suit. I don’t want to have to hose you down.

Here we have mild-mannered author Tobias Buckell:

Imagine my disgust to see the loud-mouthed “if you don’t self publish you’re an idiot” crowd of Michael Stackpole and Barry Eisler and J.A Konrath (remember, Konrath and Eisler work with Amazon, they don’t self publish as such) thumping themselves on the chest and saying ‘if you don’t self publish you’re a house slave.’ … Three white dudes, screaming about how it’s really *them* being oppressed … how tone deaf. How self involved. How dripping full of loud, male privilege.

He titles that one a demure Self publishing doesn’t mean you have to be a raging f–k wad


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Speaking of Barry Eisler, he’s as articulate as all get-out in comments on the new Mike Shatzkin post. This is Eisler:

Personally, I don’t think there ever was a time of “pure” indie publishing. After all, Amanda Hocking needed Amazon’s, B&N’s, and Smashwords’ distribution to get her books to readers—she didn’t sell through her own website. And even if she had sold through her own website, she would have been reliant on her website hosting company, on PayPal for billing services, etc.

Then there’s Kristen Lamb, lone star, fleecing the fuzz to warn us Beware the Social Media Snuggie–One Size Does NOT Fit All:  

As awesome as indie presses are, logic dictates that most of them won’t have the manpower to help us in promotion and marketing like Random House or Penguin. We don’t get book placement in major chain bookstores or Wal-mart or Costco. We need a VERY LARGE PLATFORM. Sure, the indie press will help, but the lion’s share of the burden is ours.

Lamb adds, “Pay attention to Chuck Wendig. He makes the second-oldest-profession-in-the-world look good and is not above showing a little leg.”

I can’t look.


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The glory that was Greece? Now at fire-sale prices. The grandeur that was Rome? Look out for falling Silvios. Every boy can’t be Tom Clancy, and every girl may not make as mean a cheese sandwich as Margaret Atwood.

Novelist and speechwriter Keith Cronin stokes the blaze:

There are many inexperienced writers who are simply using self-publishing as a way to skip the hassle of trying to gain anybody else’s editorial approval … I’m not opposed to self-publishing. I’m opposed to shortcuts. And I’m starting to see inexperienced writers choose self-publishing as an alternative to learning to write well, fueled by impatience and dreams of becoming the next Amanda Hocking or John Locke.

Cronin’s piece, for Writer Unboxed, is called An Endangered Rite of Passage, and he goes on to write, “So gleeful are they in having eluded the ‘evil gatekeepers’ that they think it’s perfectly fine to self-publish anything they write, brimming with confidence that every word they type is literary gold.”

This is a job for Shatzkin:

Publishers are right when they say there’s a role for them in an ebook world … Although authors will continue to self-publish, the debate that matters in the future is what the basket of services will be that authors require and what will be the right price for them … good covers, changing covers, dynamic pricing, constantly improved metadata, monitoring to catch glitch take-downs, as well as developmental editing, line-editing, copy-editing, and proofreading … The lines are drawn for that discussion and the opinions are really all over the lot.

Mike Shatzkin, in True “do-it-yourself” publishing success stories will probably become rare, is, among other things, effectively endorsing Jane Friedman‘s now-prescient Self-Published Authors Have Great Power, But Are They Taking Responsibility? I quoted it here last week. It’s roughly summarize-able this way: Don’t throw publishing professionalism out with the bubble bath of irrationally exuberant DIY-ism.

Shatzkin, for his part, debriefs traditional- and self-publishing author Bob Mayer. He had Mayer speak at his Publisher’s Launch’s “eBooks for Everyone Else” (#eBEE) in San Francisco. And Mayer now comes to us with a true veteran’s perspective in For authors there are many roads to the Oz of publishing—thoughts from Publishers Launch:

Things have exploded in the argument of traditional publishing versus self-publishing versus agent publishing versus using those little gray guys at Area 51 publish you…The key for a writer is to sort through all the facts, opinions and flat out lies being thrown about, figure out their own situation, decide where they want to be as an author in the future, and then smartly and courageously choose their own path.

What’s more, remember, no path can for-sure save you from the mortification of format-failure. Did you see Kassia Krozser‘s account of what it felt like to read HarperCollins’ initial ebook edition of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde in That Customer Service Thing?

So I started the book. And I noticed. Oh, I noticed. Conversion errors galore! Okay, maybe five conversion errors in my first half-hour of reading. Anything that jerks me out of the flow of a story—and, boy, do conversion errors do that!—is a Bad Thing.

Whether you’re going out as gentle as Lamb’s “hybrid author” or roaring in, beating the papyrus yourself, there’s a chance your tools of change (generic, not our buddies at TOC) aren’t even stabilized yet.

So. As they say in “Camelot,” that was one brief shining moment, huh?

Jump into the Comments below and join the conflagration.

Before the blowback hits, I’m going to have Shatzkin airlift us out of here with a practical point from one of his own answers to a comment on his blog:

I didn’t suggest that one should abandon self- or indie-publishing for traditional. The point I was making … is that people developing the chops to do this will find it sensible to do it for other authors, and that indie authors will find lots of help from places other than the big publishers … A one-to-one relationship between an author and a publishing machine is inherently inefficient. Even in the digital age.


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Late addition to the Ether

New call for an ‘all stakeholders’ organization

We’ve had the organizations in place for decades to make this work, but for whatever reason, they’ve largely looked after their individual interests to the detriment of the industry as a whole. To be blunt, our institutions have failed us…We can’t move quickly enough to compete (or even to collaborate when appropriate) with new entrants to our industry when we’re bogged down fighting the last war or arguing arcane points of future standards that we needed yesterday.

I’ve gone back into the Ether to add what I believe is a critical call from Don Linn for the “streamlined, well-funded, collaborative, empowered team” that Brian O’Leary envisions in his signal Books in Browsers address, which I flagged here last week, The Opportunity in Abundance. (If you’d rather see and hear Brian deliver it, here’s the video.)

With typical precision, Linn identifies both the longstanding and newer trade organizations’ leaders who, while “neither evil nor stupid,” have nevertheless caused publishing to seize up, while “Amazon, Google, Apple and others don’t care and, more importantly, neither do readers.”

I commend to you Linn’s A Tragedy of the Commons for the very reason I’ve made this special late addition to Writing on the Ether. As Linn puts it, “Brian’s call for collaborative action is not just important; it’s urgent.” This is right-headed thinking in a direly muddled context. Please read both O’Leary’s ‘Opportunity” and Linn’s “Tragedy.” Because, as Linn writes, not to take action “in the very near term is to surrender our current and future customers (and borrowers) without even fighting the battle.”

And don’t miss the even newer post O’Leary has written, Not Pretty Enough, responding to Linn’s take on publishing associations (that tragedy of the commons). I’ll leave you  to your weekend homework with a bit of O’Leary’s eloquence:

Not only have most associations fiddled while Rome burned; they have been vocal about it.  Just last week, the AAR blog included a post calling publishers out for allegedly avoiding negotiations about digital royalty rates.  It’s a land grab; why not? “Abundance” explains why not: we are eroding our competitiveness from the inside out.  We need an industry solution, not a cascade of power struggles.


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Buckell bucks the trend: a comments-free blog

I turned off the comments to this blog last year, right around this time. I had little energy as I dealt with recovering my health, and I’d come to realize that I was less interested in spending my energy as a moderator and wanted to spend more of it writing and blogging. Some predicted doom. Others knowingly said things like “engagement with readers is critical to growing your brand.” … Despite all that, traffic surged as I both increased my blogging here, and also found my voice.

Still understated, Tobias Buckell takes a detailed look at The story of a blog, my blog and comes to some interesting conclusions about a field in which “every other new writer is doing the same thing. Everyone’s trying to position themselves as an expert about writing. Or publishing.”


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Deepest, darkest Amazonia

The program is great for Amazon and maybe even for consumers, assuming they’re willing to live with the many restrictions, but it’s awful for publishers and authors. Why? As Amazon stated in its press release, “For the vast majority of titles, Amazon has reached agreement with publishers to include titles for a fixed fee.” So no matter how popular (or unpopular) the publisher’s titles are, they get one flat fee for participation in the library. I strongly believe this type of program needs to compensate publishers and authors on a usage level, not a flat fee. The more a title is borrowed, the higher the fee to the publisher and author. Period.

O’Reilly’s expert observer Joe Wikert, while a longtime proponent of Amazon, doesn’t hesitate to wade right into The problem with Amazon’s Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

The agent and author community have not been consulted about this new sort of use of authors’ copyrighted material, and are unaware of how publishers plan on compensating authors for this sort of use of their books, which is unprecedented … Without a clear contractual understanding with their authors, it is unclear to us how publishers can participate in this program. We take very seriously our role to protect the interests of our clients, and at this stage it is difficult to see how this program is in the best interests of our clients.

That language, with its important, troubling questions about the Kindle lending initiative is the statement of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR, the  professional organization for agents). Agent Rachelle Gardner helpfully includes it in her piece on Amazon Kindle Owners’ Lending LibraryAnd Mathew Ingram voices the parallel exasperation, in Kindle lending: Book publishers still not getting it:

Here’s a hint for publishers: Book prices are going down whether you like it or not, and trying to maintain artificially high prices for electronic books is a losing strategy. In some cases …dropping the price of an e-book can produce sales that are orders of magnitude larger than they otherwise would be. That’s clearly a good thing, just as allowing more authors to reach readers via programs like Amazon’s lending feature is a good thing. But publishers are still not interested.

And meanwhile, down on the Amazon Publishing farm, David Streitfeld at the Times picks up on Laura Hazard Owen‘s revealing The Truth About Amazon Publishing and creates a wish list of concerns, almost fascinating in the proverbial train-wreck way. His post is titled Uncovering Amazon Publishing.

Ms. Owen concludes that “Amazon Publishing hasn’t killed print yet.” But is anyone saying it has? The real question is whether it will reshape publishing by dissolving old rules and creating new expectations, the way it has reconfigured bookselling. Will a physical edition become the reward for a successful electronic publication? Will authors enlarge their share of e-book revenues at the expense of traditional publishers? Will independent bookstores carry Amazon books?

The exquisitely named Alexis Madrigal gets the final (spoken) word in The Atlantic: I See Your Siri and Raise You a Yap: Amazon Quietly Snaps Up Speech-Recognition Startup.

No charge to Prime members for shipping those earplugs.


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Still with me? Good. Let’s confer on conferring

Since you can’t swing a dead cat these days without hitting a conference on publishing it felt worthwhile to share what I hope are constructive suggestions … What’s tough in most conferences is pattern-spotting and takeaway extraction. What’s missing are the epiphanies a great teacher gets her students to notice by the end of a class or semester: a sense kids get that they now know more about the topic than when they began.

Having wafted a lot about conferences on last week’s Ether, I’m glad to come across a fine post that almost got away. It’s by Peter Meyers, who spoke, himself, at the fine O’Reilly/Internet Archive Books in Browsers conference. (Here’s the video of Meyers’ presentation on “The Infinite Canvas” of digital production.)

Meyers came away dissatisfied in ways that many of us might grok. No criticism of #BiB11 is intended or material here. What’s at issue is the standard format and effect of so many confabs we’re all trundling through, in which, Meyers writes, we all get “Conference head”—that state you’re in after “speakers #2, #5, #8, and #11 all talk about how ‘social reading’ is gonna change digital books” and everybody staggers out of the Whatever Vista Ballroom finding it “hard to pinpoint what, exactly, they’ve learned.”

It’s late in the game for folks planning the next Writer’s Digest Conference (#wdc12), Digital Book World (#dbw12), Tools of Change (#toccon), and the Chinese mainland of these things, Association of Writers & Writing Programs (#awp12). But I’ll bet that even at this point, some sessions, some sequences of events, could be thought through in light of what Meyers is so good at articulating in Presentation Overload: Alternatives to Serial Speaker Syndrome. My favorite of his points:

Boy, for an industry built around authors, it’s amazing how little time they get at our events. I’m not just talking about storytellers. I’m also thinking of how-to explainers, idea-weavers, cookbook chefs, photographers. Is there a way to get more of these people up on stage—not just talking about their fears in this new era of publishing—but actually sharing what they create to remind everyone of why consumers buy books in the first place?


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Who are you calling a distraction?

Everything I’ve ever written was composed in notebooks first. I have hundreds of them filled with my scribbles tucked away in boxes … I find that writing longhand I can enter a zone of comfort I find hard to achieve when sitting in front of a screen–I find typing annoying, if I’m honest, not the mechanics of it, but the sound. The constant tap-tap-tap-tap on the keyboard reminds me of all the offices I’ve worked in.

Author and fellow critic Lee Rourke says “there are far too many distractions when writing directly onto the screen,” in   Why creative writing is better with a penWhat on Earth is he talking about?


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Big fat books and young wives’ tales?

What this means for long-winded authors is hard to judge—will they benefit (and perhaps write even fatter whoppers) because the disincentive of having to lug heavy novels around and rest them on your tummy disappears? Or suffer because readers become more aware of the eye-fatigue associated with ebooks the longer a book continues?

So not only does John Dugdale at the Guardian declare us to be seized by The craze for long books he tells us is going “on and on,” but he’s announcing an association of eye-fatigue with the reading of long ebooks. No sourcing of that little revelation, you’ll note. He just lays it in there with the Trowel of Truth, there ya go, boom, we’re done. Somebody call Jeff Bezos.



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Workhouse whistleblower

Night came very suddenly. Dickens’s readers needed to fasten their safety belts: it was going to be a bumpy ride. He was intent on deromanticising the criminal world, of which he had such vivid firsthand experience in his endless nocturnal wanderings through the city.

I’m loving Simon Callow’s essay on Dickens in his time and what Oliver Twist meant, in conjunction with the Guardian’s competition with Vintage Classics to create cover art for An Oliver Twist for Our Times, a forthcoming, new edition for 2012. When Dickens will have been 200 years old.


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Comics with a Kick(starter)

Mainstream comics are a buck more expensive and have two pages less content; there are still (riddle me this, Batman!) a majority of female editors but almost no women writers or artists on mainstream books. The writing of female, LGBTQ and minority characters is still kinda cringemaking as they’re still mainly penned by straight white guys … but … but … now there’s Kickstarter. And now there’s digital self-publishing, without having to front up a crapload of money to pay a printer.

Alex de Campi, Comics Innovator and Provocateur, talks with Guy LeCharles Gonzalez  about her  Ashes Kickstarter fundraiser: “I’m a writer, not a coder.”


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What’s rational and what’s rationalizing in piracy?

If there were NO way to get these products without paying, and these people weren’t habituated to “free,” wouldn’t we have avoided creating a whole generation of people who feel entitled to intellectual property without paying for it? In any case, plenty of freeloaders can afford to purchase books/movies/songs. They just choose not to.

Agent Rachelle Gardner responds to blog-reader questions on the topic in Authors and Book Piracy


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May all your panics be creative

The amateur (i.e., me blundering around Tel Aviv or getting stuck for twenty minutes in a parking garage) identifies his momentary panic with himself; he internalizes it, blames himself, and loses his composure, making an uncomfortable situation far worse than it needs to be. The professional (i.e., this famous aviator in his Mirage fighter plane with the engine flaming out) does NOT identify with the fear he’s feeling; he focuses instead on the problem—and solves it.

Steve Pressfield, my favorite Warrior of Art, would think he looked pretty professional trying to get his Hertz out of a garage overseas if he’d seen me trying to get one into the Dusseldorf airport after buzzing over from Maastricht at the crack of dawn. And as our good friend Todd Henry comments when Steve announces he’s Out of My Comfort Zone, “I love the observation that creative panic rarely means smoke in the cockpit.”

Since it seems we’re all driving through one creative panic or another this week, I’m handing the wheel back to the maestro here:

Comfort zones do widen. What scared us on Tuesday becomes old hat by Friday. Composure can be learned. I’ll remind myself of that, tomorrow at Minute Nineteen, when I’m still trying to find my way out of the parking garage.


Porter Anderson

Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, and a producer and consultant formerly with the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome and INDEX: Design to Improve Life in Copenhagen. As a journalist, he has worked with media including CNN, the Village Voice, and the Dallas Times Herald. He reviews literary fiction at Reader Unboxed, and is based in Tampa.

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