Writing on the Ether: Defensive Reading

5 December 2013 iStock_000000472669XSmall photog ncook texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. Notes
  2. Defensive Reading
  3. “Anything Except Readerly Books”
  4. “Print versus Digital”
  5. “Where I Get Unhappy”
  6. Those Lists


Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

(1) As you may know, I’ve begun a weekly feature with The Bookseller in London, “Porter Anderson Meets,” in which I interview a newsmaker each Monday, live on Twitter, and then produce an article from the interview for The Bookseller magazine, which is on the stands each Friday. It’s a lot of fun, great working with Philip Jones, Nigel Roby and their team. And this Monday, December 9, our interviewee will be author Hugh Howey (who, with Jane Friedman, is a keynote speaker at PubSmart in April). You’re welcome to look in on us during the interview, which will start at 11 a.m. Eastern, 4 p.m. GMT in London, 8 a.m. Pacific. Our hashtag for these Monday interviews is #PorterMeets.

Dominique Raccah #PorterMeets 29 November 2013 The Bookseller double-truckIn case you’d like to subscribe to The Bookseller’s magazine, there’s information here (and a weekly Yudu rendition of the print edition that’s very good). And we had so much good material from our interview with Dominique Raccah, Sourcebooks’ founding publisher and winner of The Bookseller’s FutureBook award for Most Inspiring Digital Publishing Person, that the team in London has put together an online workup of that #PorterMeets chat you can see here.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, author platform, blog, blogging, journalism, TOC, #TOCcon, Author (R)evolution Day, #ARDay, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, Foyles, #FutureFoyles, London Book Fair, #LBF13(2) Cool changes are ahead for the weekly sister column to this one, Ether for Authors at Publishing Perspectives. Starting Tuesday, December 10, we’re going to sharpen things up a bit, calling it Issues on the Ether. Each Tuesday, the column will focus on a key issue (or a couple of competing ones, perhaps), and then on Wednesdays, we hope you’ll join us for a live Twitter chat about the topic(s), hosted by Ed Nawotka and me. We’re getting such robust response to the Ether that this seems a natural step to take and we’d love to have your input. Our hashtag for these Wednesday chats is #EtherIssue.

(3) Congrats to my and Jane’s colleagues and community at Writer Unboxed. At this writing, Technorati is ranking the site at #3 (of 19,760 Books blog sites). BookRiot and Tor.com are looking over their shoulders now.

And now…

Defensive Reading

6 Ways To Knock Your Next Guest Post Out of the Park

5 Well-Paying Jobs You Can Land With an English Degree

10 Concentration Apps That Will Help You Get Down to Business

11 Ways to Doom Your Freelance Writing Career

And maybe those 32 ways and means can supply you with the “secrets” and the “tools” to “take it to the next level” and finally achieve such a gloriously numbered state that something actually adds up to “giving 110 percent” to your goal. Not for nothing do we like those headlines:

Within the context of a Web page or Facebook stream, with their many choices, a list is the easy pick, in part because it promises a definite ending: we think we know what we’re in for, and the certainty is both alluring and reassuring.

Maria Konnikova
Maria Konnikova

That’s Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

In A List of Reasons Why Our Brains Love Lists at the New Yorker, she sorts through various points of research and observation to explain—very ably, I think—why these sometimes maddening list-headlines are so prevalent, especially in the work of writers blogging for other writers.

For me, the most compelling case she makes is for what we might call defensive reading. I made that up, mind you, don’t blame it on Konnikova. But here’s what she means:

The more we know about something—including precisely how much time it will consume—the greater the chance we will commit to it. The process is self-reinforcing: we recall with pleasure that we were able to complete the task (of reading the article) instead of leaving it undone and that satisfaction, in turn, makes us more likely to click on lists again—even ones we hate-read.

Mastermind How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes by @MariaKonnikovaIf we’re trying to defend our time (and God knows we are), we choose the apparent safety of a list to read.

Konnikova does caution that “Once our attention has been ensnared, we still need to be sufficiently intrigued to read the story.”

And she cites material from the University of Athens, 2009, in which researchers “found that people preferred headlines that were both creative and uninformative, like ‘THE SMELL OF CORRUPTION, THE SCENT OF TRUTH’ or ‘FACE TO FAITH.’ They not only rated them as more interesting over-all but also indicated that they would be more likely to read the corresponding stories.”

In our constant churn of community-facing how-to pieces for writers, however, this endless conversation we keep having with ourselves, we tend to drop the allure-and-charm appeal we may offer consumers—readers. We frequently opt to speak to each other, instead, with promises of defensive reading: short, bulleted, get-in-get-out, fix-you-right-up lists.

Tips ‘n’ tricks.

Konnikova helps us understand why this works for us.

In the current media environment, a list is perfectly designed for our brain. We are drawn to it intuitively, we process it more efficiently, and we retain it with little effort.

And she hints at why, on the wider scale, it doesn’t:

That’s just fine, as long as we realize that our fast-food information diet is necessarily limited in content and nuance, and thus unlikely to contain the nutritional value of the more in-depth analysis of traditional articles that rely on paragraphs, not bullet points.

In an interesting parallel round of articles lately, however—in no way directly related to Konnikova’s piece, and sometimes only broadly related to each other—we can glimpse things that don’t easily “list up” the way we might like them to in publishing.

These are issues that resist both the tips ‘n’ the tricks because they make us look at unresolved, hard-to-grasp, difficult-to-handle gray areas in the digital dynamic, factors that simply aren’t going to lie down for us in nice numbered rows so we can tick them off with little square USA Today boxes and call them “done and done.”

You’re not expected to provide us with the solutions, although many of us would be really grateful if you’d do that. Just bounce off each of these quickly, simply to remind yourself that it’s not all containable, not all sortable, not all responsive to what Konnikova calls our “general tendency to categorize things.”

I’ll make it even easier for our defensive reading radar: these are just:

3 Not So Simple Issues.

Back to Table of Contents

“Anything Except Readerly Books”

The digital future for narrative reading — fiction and non-fiction — is much clearer than it is for any other kind of book. Publishers of novels can apparently count on their sales shifting from print to digital and from in-store to online without losing a lot of readers…But publishers of everything else have no basis for similar confidence.

Mike Shatzkin has been working on this problem for quite awhile.

All That Is by James SalterThe jump from print book to ebook, as he keeps reminding us, works very well for, say, David Salter’s All That Is.

But what about The Vatican: All the Paintings? — we simply haven’t cracked that one.

In The truth is we do not yet know whether ebooks will work for anything except readerly books, Shatzkin points out that it’s not strictly a concern for illustrated books.

He echoes a point that Ether host, publishing specialist, and Scratch magazine co-creator  Jane Friedman has made many times: in the age of the Internet, there’s a real question of how useful an old-style how-to book (he uses the example of David Hessayon’s gardening books) can be when all can be online, update-able and searchable.

The Vatican - all the paintingsShatzkin writes:

No general publisher that I’m aware of has announced “we won’t do illustrated books anymore”. I have purely anecdotal evidence from people who once worked there and left that Random House — the one publisher I know that really tried to convert a lot of its illustrated content to ebooks over the past few years — is de-emphasizing illustrated book publishing. I have been given to understand that one of the leading art book publishers is now doing more straight text publishing, which is sensible if art books don’t port to digital.

We’ll hear more about this at Digital Book World in January. Shatzkin is again the chair of the conference and is programming it with several cross-currents. (For example, there’s a session called “Start-Ups Working with Publishing” followed by one called “Publishers Working with Start-Ups.”)

Pertinent to this concern about illustrated books, Shatzkin has programmed in a panel titled “Crossing the Chasm: Finding Digital Solutions for Non-Narrative Content” on January 14 at 4 p.m. Eastern. The panel features Booktrix’ David WilkAptara’s Pavan Arora; inkling’s Gus Gostyla; and Aerbook’s Ron MartinezSee the Schedule page.

If you’re registering, you’re welcome to use code PORTER14 to save five percent on a full registration or Total Access pass.

Back to Table of Contents

“Print versus Digital”

I didn’t want to start reading print books again, but I honestly had no choice. My dog, Pixel, forced me to.

Pixel Bilton
Pixel Bilton

Blaming his defenseless dog—saying that she goes crazy trying to catch the reflections from the screens of e-readers—the New York Times’ Nick Bilton, in The Allure of the Print Book, writes of rediscovering his pleasure in print reading.

When I touched that physical book again for the first time in years, it was like the moment you hear a nostalgic song on the radio and are instantly lost in it. The feeling of a print book, with its rough paper and thick spine, is an absorbing and pleasurable experience — sometimes more so than reading on a device.

Yes, this is Mr. Let Us Use Our Devices During Takeoff and Landing, a valiant proponent of dismissing some flaky FAA rules—I’ve appreciated him fighting the good fight for us en l’air.

But this? Well, this is indicative of more slipping and sliding out there than we sometimes like to contemplate in the world of “new reading.”

As with other digital gray areas, many folks are not, actually, as settled on an e-reading future as we sometimes may like to think. Bilton:

I personally still read books on my iPad, specifically when I travel, where e-books weigh next-to-nothing and can now be read during take-off and landing. But at home on my couch, I’m definitely going to continue reading print books too, even if Pixel doesn’t like them.

Back to Table of Contents

“Where I Get Unhappy”

Publishers are innovating constantly, but subtly, internally, and on their own terms…and what is needed is a full-on skunkworks from which the conventional trade could produce new possibilities rather than tweak old ones. In any case, we haven’t seen any evidence of a disruptive change coming out of the traditional houses, and I think that’s dangerous in the longer term, both to their well-being as companies and to the trade at large.

Porter Anderson, PorterAnderson.com, Writingon the Ether, Ether for Authors, London on the Ether, Jane Friedman, Ed Nawotka, Philip Jones, Publishing Perspectives, The Bookseller, books, ebooks, author, agent, Amazon, publishing, The FutureBook
Nick Harkaway

Author Nick Harkaway, in Of Mills and Penguins at The FutureBook, takes the news of the deal between Penguin and social-reading Readmill as a cue to wrestle with what is real innovation and what is

The stuff I see from Big 5 publishers is very much about mitigation and resilience in the face of the digital tidal wave. There’s no suggestion that anyone might try to leapfrog the digital giants’ development.

There’s an interesting melancholy to Harkaway’s piece. For one thing, he makes the case against the current idea of “social reading” (a sort of real time discussion about what’s being read) this way:

I love to be in a group, but I’m an introvert – in the modern sense that I don’t easily draw energy from the experience but expend energy on it. Reading is a place where I recharge, and the idea of having my hearthspace further drawn into the public environment is not appealing. However, I may be in the minority there.

3 December 2013 prime-air_high-resolution01 texted story imageHe makes a good point, too, just heard from author and designer Peter Meyers in that much-discussed David Streitfeld piece from the Times, Out of Print, Maybe, but Not Out of Mind. (We much-discussed it in Tuesday’s Ether for Authors: “Amazon Will Be Disrupted One Day.”)

Meyers, talking in general about the sorts of innovations we see at times, is quoted saying:

A lot of these solutions were born out of a programmer’s ability to do something rather than the reader’s enthusiasm for things they need. We pursued distractions and called them enhancements.

Harkaway is right. The several concepts of social reading (we’re not all agreed on what we mean with the term) may not be based on a strong understanding of reader interest.

And the really soft area he gets at most effectively is the fact that for all we speak of innovation, it can be very hard to be sure at times whether we’re driving it or it’s driving us.

Changes that disrupt the business model by making it more perfectly centred on delivering reading are changes that the industry should not just embrace but seek out and above all imagine before anyone else does. Publishing cannot continue to await the benevolent indulgence of digital for ever. Sooner or later, we need to see publishing setting an agenda for digital to meet rather than the other way around.

Back to Table of Contents

Those Lists

Something of how we talk to each other, even in how-to’s about freelancing and blogging-by-the-numbers, eventually does affect the work, of course.

Maybe the next literary “big book” isn’t going to come out with bullet points but our perfectly understandable drive for simplification in the industry! the industry! doesn’t get at the complex realities we need to contemplate.

Do you feel at times that we might be overdoing the listicles and not spending enough time wading into the tougher dilemmas facing publishing today? 


Back to Table of Contents

(At last a Meeting of The Two Jane Friedmans! Coming soon to Scratch Magazine.)

Main image: iStockphoto – NCook

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