Writing on the Ether: Libraries Vs. the World

iStockphoto / Uchar
iStockphoto / Uchar

The second word is ‘jerk’
Amazon: The wolves gather
Libraries vs. the world
Agents in disarray
Authors on parade
Amazon: Kindle Fire-ing range
Amazon: The cult of Prime
Amazon: Lusting with Nancy Pearl
Libraries and piracy: swashbuckling
Libraries and the Research Works Act
Libraries: So many, many knees
Authors: Who has the right of way?
Authors warned: Spammy PR
Authors: A successful sighting made out in Book Country
Publishers learning new tricks
Publishers: A Canadian house is absorbed
eBooks across the water
Blotto for Plotto
When editors strode the land
The joyless truth about cuteness

The second word is ‘jerk’

And in fact, why don’t we get down on our patellae and pray?

In his decades in the Methodist pulpit ministry of South Carolina, my father, surely a closet publisher, loved producing the Sunday bulletin. Think Playbill. It contained what we called The Order of Worship for the main service, listing the hymns to be sung, creeds to be chanted, prayers to be made, and, of course, Daddy’s big sermon title of the week. The monologue. On its back page, the bulletin carried a listing of Fellowship Ahead. Coming attractions. All put together by a local print shop with less than extensive proofreading forces.

And on a sweltering August Sunday morning at our red-brick church in Denny Terrace,  everyone turned at Daddy’s request to follow along as he read aloud from the chancel the Fellowship Ahead and found himself intoning:

4:00 p.m. TODAY:  Church-wide panic. Please be prompt.

That typo, my mother the schoolteacher claimed, produced the best-attended church-wide picnic of Daddy’s career.

Today, it wouldn’t hurt our congregation of publishing to catch a church-window reflection of how we look engaging in one industry-wide panic after the next. Our energetic knees-up exercises of feverish fellowship seem so frequent nowadays that we might as well schedule them.

That way, we wouldn’t be caught off-guard by knee-jerk reactions when Twitter lashes out at Google search changes (Alexei Oreskovic, Reuters) … only to learn that Google+ enhanced searches can be turned off and on by users as update continues rolling out.

Before you scoff and get all knee-jerky about that one again, note that Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You, told Steven Levy:

It’s definitely a big step in terms of transparency and control. It’s kind of awesome to see them do this.

Pariser, a major analyst and critic of our philosophical echo chambers on the Web, believes we may be seeing transparency from Google? Oh. Hm. Well. Gosh. As you climb down off the ceiling, you can read Levy’s Epicenter post: Has Google Popped the Filter Bubble?

Oh, and Twitter didn’t renew its agreement with Google to have real-time feeds of tweets included in search results. Which might indicate a certain amount of chutzpah in Twitter’s complaint that tweets may not top search results. Oreskovic reports:

Google also said it was abiding by code embedded within certain Twitter messages instructing search engines not to rank the messages within their search results.

Oh. Hm. Well. Gosh again.

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And maybe we weren’t staring into the edge of night a week ago, after all, when Jenn Webb at O’Reilly Radar was among the few sensible enough to ask the logical question, Can the Nook be a viable business by itself? Lots of artful alarmists had enjoyed foretelling Barnes and Noble’s collapse, Arctic ice melting in the nonfiction section, Bezosian storm troopers invading our living rooms and raking the last “real books” right off your sainted handmade bookshelf.

The site for this year’s January 23-25 Digital Book World Conference & Expo — #dbw12 to your Twitteresque neighbors — leads with the line “When change is the only constant, it’s time to get with the program.” Not bad advice for all of us. It’s really all Dad was ever saying, after all. Different program. Same problem.

Lots more fun to go astray first and ask forgiveness later, lots more fun to pitch a fit about the latest publishing hiccup and later act as if you never believed for a minute the Armageddon you said it was.

How many people have tried to predict what Apple would say in its “event” this month? –before Ingrid Lunden and some others gave us the merciful word (and burst a few fat filter bubbles): Apple Event In New York This Month Will Focus On Education. All we had to do was wait. No church-wide panic was needed.

Our program is change. We’re going to hit a lot of bumps, surprises both happy and otherwise. And we’re going to wear ourselves out if we let the hotter heads among us call the dynamic shots. We need to leave DEFCON to the Pentagon. We have smaller fish to fry.

I’m going to look at several items in this particular snootful of Ether with reflexive knees in mind. Join me. Wherever we’re headed in publishing, you’ll look better when you get there with your Sunday-go-to-meetin’ hat still on your head.

So cool your knees. Enough panic.

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Amazon: The wolves gather

Apple may be taking steps to arm itself against this effort from Amazon by improving its publishing platform. One such improvement could be opening up a new digital self-publishing platform, according to sources talking to Good e-Reader.

Speaking of that Apple event, here is Darrell Etherington at GigaOm writing Will Apple Push Publishing at Its Next Event? Just couldn’t wait for the announcement, you see.

And another lair heard from:

While Digitimes frequently publishes unverified rumors and has a spotty record of accuracy, Google chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt said last month that the company will produce an Android tablet of “the highest quality” within the next six months.

Leslie Horn’s Report: 7-Inch Google Tablet to Compete With Kindle Fire for PC Magazine does a careful job of parsing unsubstantiated reports out of Taiwan. They seem to follow on Schmidt‘s surprising comments to Italy’s Corriere della Sera.

The Taiwanese site alleged that the Google-made tablet will undercut Amazon’s already affordable $199 Kindle Fire with an even lower price. It said the device will run on Android 4.0 (a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich) and debut in March or April.

Bloggers: Note the frank but not punitive clarity with which Horn warns us about Digitimes’ track record – and the heavily qualified language of the report overall. No scream-headline, no tabloid over-reach, no sneering opinion, and the cautionary attribution “Report:” opening the headline. This is how to handle such material properly, an excellent piece to keep around and look over the next time  you’re about to haul off with an emotional rant about some allegation or another.

Doing it this way? It’s called responsible. Not knee-jerk. It keeps your readers coming back.

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Amazon: Kindle Fire-ing range

I’ve learned it’s worth paying a premium, as long as it’s not ridiculously high, for the ability to choose from multiple content providers.

Another way to keep your readers, of course, is to provide consistent coverage with a beginning, middle, and end — that is, experiential evaluation in which you learn how things turn out. O’Reilly’s Joe Wikert is great at this, bringing us all along for a personable, engaged assessment of new devices and initiatives.

Here, we’re at the end of a story: Wikert passes his Kindle Fire to his daugher (who loves it) and produces a fine summation of pros and cons as they relate to his decision that the Amazon tablet isn’t for him.  While, as he admits, “I’m a fairly unique user and plenty of Fire owners are perfectly happy with their purchase,” his conclusions are useful and instructive.

I’m convinced that my next tablet will be an Android-based one. The only Android tablet I’ll consider though is one that gives me access to all types of content, not just content from the company who sells the hardware. Heck, as closed as they are, even Apple lets you install e-reader apps from Amazon, B&N, etc.

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Amazon: The cult of Prime

There are two types of people in the world: those with Amazon Prime and those without. How you think about consumption, commerce and your personal time is radically different depending on if you’ve join the cult — yet.  And to be clear, Prime is a cult you will be joining.

Jason Calacanis (of the March 7-8 Launch Conferenceof tech-company debuts) estimates that Amazon’s “Prime will reach 30 million to 40 million of the 120 million households in the United States in the next four years,” and he’s taking into account the family-membership availability and “the brilliant ‘Amazon Student’ $39 version of Prime for folks with a valid .edu email address.” His article is headlined The Cult of Amazon Prime:

Once you’re in the cult you’re not leaving because leaving means you have the drudgery of having to drive to the store, finding the item you want, seeing if it’s in stock and then dealing with the most horrifying experience of all: retail employees. According to most Prime members I’ve talked to, one of the greatest joys of the cult membership is never again having to deal with an apathetic teenager or bitter baby boomer forced to work in retail.

Calacanis so nails this, I cannot tell you. Read it and weep.

When you take the $79 leap into Prime, Amazon has you for life. Cult members understand there can be joy, and time savings, associated with intelligent consumption. Prime gives you the joy of consumption without the pain of acquisition.

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Amazon: Lusting with Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl is the author of Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason, which includes many books that are out of print. Amazon says “Pearl received numerous letters from readers who were eager to read these books, but were having great difficulty finding copies. This dilemma inspired Pearl’s idea to republish a series of her recommended books.”

Laura Hazard Owen in Amazon Publishing Taps Famous Librarian To Curate Its New Series has the word on Amazon’s new “Book Lust Rediscoveries” program curated by librarian and NPR commentator Nancy Pearl.  She’ll come up with a list of out-of-print books for Amazon to republish (print and digital versions).

Turns out Seattle’s The Stranger heard that Pearl would be working with Amazon a few days ago. “If Pearl is bringing her recommendations to Amazon.com, many of the local librarians and independent booksellers who supported her and her Book Lust TV show and series of books will feel disappointed, and even betrayed, by the move,” Paul Constant wrote.

Which gets us to our next section. Does it seem to you as if library people are simply “disappointed” — or worse — in just about everything these days? Bear with me.
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Libraries vs. the world

First of all, I should say that I admire Google in many ways … I admire their sheer chutzpah, as we put it, their ability to take a problem and wrestle it to the ground and do something with it.

Prof. Robert Darnton, Director of the Harvard University Library puts over a lot of interesting material in talking to Rhys Tranter at A Piece of Monologue in this interesting interview. It’s headlined with a knee-jerky flood-pants zeal that overshoots the mark — Do Books Have a Future?  But I’m glad to see Peter Brantley at the Internet Archive flag these comments.

Darnton describes his perception of the Google project’s problems (and Darnton’s resulting support of the Digital Public Library of America) this way:

Google was sued by the authors and the publishers in the United States for alleged infringement of their copyrights. And in trying to negotiate a settlement to that lawsuit, Google transformed what was originally a search operation into something entirely different: a commercial library. So the entire database of digitized books, fifteen million books or so, would be made available, but at a price.

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Libraries and piracy: swashbuckling

Libraries have always been the best counter to piracy. And instead of cementing a relationship with libraries that works to the benefit of all parties, publishers have steadfastly withdrawn the ability of libraries to provide free content, even when it is available for only limited borrowing periods, or only a restricted number of titles, with severe constraints on sharing and copying. Instead, they have indicated an interest in the commercialization of libraries by encouraging rental models.

Noting the opposition of Internet technologists to anti-piracy legislation, Peter Brantley in Libraries are the best counter to piracy reminds us of Tim O’Reilly declining  to use DRM a decade ago, and wishes more publishers today were on the same page.

 Having shot themselves in one foot by trying to control piracy through technically inappropriate means even though it is a manageable risk, they’ve looked around and noticed that books remain available for free at another location, libraries, and so they’ve taken aim and shot themselves in their other foot. Someone needs to buy them steel-toed boots before they decide to aim higher.

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Libraries and the Research Works Act

A bill introduced December 16 in the House of Representatives has exacerbated tensions between open access advocates and the scholarly publishing industry over the dissemination of  publicly funded scientific and medical research.

No, they’re not crying, “Wolf!” There are real problematic issues out there. And many of them seem to have potential, negative impact on librarians. But you have only to read this headline, another high-water marker, Librarians, Open Access Advocates ‘Vehemently Oppose’ Research Works Act, to realize that the next research our fine librarians need to do is on the fine art of choosing one’s battles.

Michael Kelley at Media Source’s The Digital Shift – “the new home for all technology-related stories and features published by Library Journal and School Library Journal” – is here writing about the Research Works Act (HR 3699) as having “the effect of a 3 a.m. tocsin on  librarians and other open access champions who wish to raze paywalls that enclose taxpayer-funded, peer-reviewed research.”

“Essentially, the bill seeks to prohibit federal agencies from conditioning their grants to require that articles reporting on publicly funded research be made accessible to the public online,” wrote Heather Joseph, the executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), which is a creature of the Association of Research Libraries.

This bill is co-sponsored by Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), only to be shunted into the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which Kelley notes is “a zone from which few bills emerge unmodified (if they emerge at all).”  Nevertheless, this is another important issue in which libraries’ interests are featured.

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Libraries: So many, many knees

Now, in terms of knee jerks: As an integral component of the literary and publishing world, our library community and its challenges are critically important to us.

But there are so many issues — each addressed in pitched-battle tones by those who hold it dear and dire — that we who labor outside those halls of knowledge need a white board to keep up.

It would really help if someone within the vast panoply of saintly services known as libraries could prioritize things for the rest of us. Every pothole cannot be “another chasm opening up under our feet!” Some knees must stay under the reading room table and let needier issues get the wider attention first.

It’s hard to know how to support libraries when they seem to be classified as the victims of every e-age wrong. Somebody might do well to choose some battles and rate them for the rest of us.


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Agents in disarray

After a year in which a number of agents began helping their clients epublish directly and through non-traditional intermediaries, the Association of Authors’ Representatives has begun the new year by underscoring a few core principles to their members in an e-mail sent last week.

Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch writes in AAR Advises Agents Engaging In ePublishing  of Brian DeFiore’s leadership in having the AAR address the toughest ethical issue to cross authors’ representatives’ desks in a long time, agents who become publishers of their clients’ material.

As the canon already states in broad fashion, “members shall not represent both buyer and seller in the same transaction.” The recent e-mail adds that in explaining electronic and non-traditional publishing options to an author, “in no event may the member take any action that might put his own business interests above the interests of the client.”

But as Cader writes, there’s no definitive ruling on agents e-publishing their own clients’ work, though he notes that “US agents who also have a role in freestanding epublishing companies, such as Richard Curtis, Arthur Klebanoff and Scott Waxman, are not members of the AAR.” And he goes on to note that the UK’s counterpart association has had no luck in getting a solid line drawn, either.

Under the UK association’s code of practice, members are simply required to disclose in writing in advance whenever they represent a purchaser as well as the client, and must similarly disclose “any proprietary or profitable interest in any contract apart from that of a normal agency commission.”

Conference note: DeFiore is a member of a panel discussing Agents Evolving: New developments in business models and publisher relations — certain to be lively — at Digital Book World Conference & Expo (#dbw12 and the marketing summit pre-conference, #dbwsum). DeFiore will be joined on the panel by agents Liza Dawson of Liza Dawson Associates, and Curtis Brown’s Ginger Brown, the Lynn Fontanne of Writing on the Ether.

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Authors on parade

Going forward, writers and agents have to be wise, creative and stalwart in their negotiating with traditional publishers. And publishers need to realize that author good will is something they’re going to need long term.

Speaking of agents, in his Indie Interview: James Scott Bell with Jennie Coughlin, Bell — both a traditionally and self-published suspense author — talks about how “many authors with traditional contracts are running into their non-compete clauses, and some publishers are playing hardball with them.”

He urges writers, especially those who don’t go through traditional-publishing experiences with editors first, to “make it hard on themselves. Study the craft diligently, get hammered by freelance editors or critique partners or beta readers. Don’t assume that this thing is easy.”

Conference note: Bell, will be teaching a session called Conflict & Suspense: How To Keep Readers Turning Pages in Any Genre at the Writer’s Digest Conference (Twitter hashtag #wdc12), January 20-22 in New York). On a full registration, use my discount code WDCTWEET for $50 off.

And if you join us there — I hope you will — let’s see if we can get Bell to talk about his feelings on the issue of quality and standards in self-published work. When Coughlin (a dedicated advocate for self-publishing standards) brings up the issue, Bell has an interesting answer:

We will always be subject to Sturgeon’s Law, which states that 90% of everything is crap. That’s not going to change. So readers will find various ways to deal with that. Free sampling, perhaps some trusted web hubs. But I don’t think there is ever going to be one, dominant location to find quality work. The marketplace is too vast now, and everyone can get a seat at the table. So success will happen this way: a reader will love a book or story and want to buy more from that author. If the author has more to sell, he or she will make more bank.

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Authors: Who has the right of way?

Right on the heels of Bell’s comments about authors experiences with publishing contracts, Jane Friedman — an author, herself, and the host of this column each week — has a terrific post in which she takes on a thorny case, in Do You Hold E-Rights to Your Traditionally Published Book?

If you’ve been unsure why some of us rave about Jane’s incisive work, read carefully through this post, prompted by the question of an author-reader, and note how Friedman first parses four elements of difficulty in the issue:

  • Contract language may be ambiguous as to who holds rights, and the language may be interpreted differently (there is little legal precedent to refer to in these situations)
  • Who retains e-book rights—author or publisher—is a controversial issue
  • Who holds rights to the text versus images may be different
  • Who holds e-book rights based on territory can be even more confusing

She includes a super citation of articles bearing on “controversy surrounding this issue” and points up that authors in the UK reportedly are being offered less favorable ebook royalty rates than in the US. (The questioning writer is in the UK.)

Conference note: Friedman, like Bell, is a featured and annually popular speaker at the Writer’s Digest Conference (#wdc12). She’ll be presenting E-Publishing 101: The Major Services, How They Work, and What You Have To Provide and she’s a member of the panel looking at Navigating the World of Self-Publishing. She’s joined in that panel session by Keith Ogorek of Author Solutions; Brent Sampson of Outskirts Press; writing coach Holly Payne; and Jesse Potash of PubSlush. Again, don’t forget my code: WDCTWEET will save you money on a full registration.

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Authors warned: Spammy PR

Friedman directs us to another important post, BookStoreMarketing.net: Beware Spam PR Services, by Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware, about vetting PR services offered to authors.

Unfortunately, the past decade’s explosion of self-publishing and small press publishing options has created a similar explosion of opportunistic enterprises designed to exploit  writers’ struggle for discoverability in an increasingly crowded and chaotic market. One of the challenges of vetting PR services these days is figuring out whether they are real services, or just cynical attempts to cash in on a trend.

Strauss names scams in her post and tells you how they work (some of them changing their names and URLs to disguise themselves to new victims). It’s an important read that can save you money, time, and frustration.

BookStoreMarketing.net and its brothers and sisters exist not to make money by providing useful services, but to grab a quick buck by selling cheap crap to exposure-starved authors.

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Authors: A successful sighting made out in Book Country

In November, Ms. Schafer… tried again with “Between,” a fantasy novel about a woman named Vivian who must destroy a powerful sorceress. That attracted the notice of Deidre Knight, a literary agent, who was browsing submissions on Book Country. “I read the first 10 pages and said, yes, she definitely needs to send to us,” Ms. Knight said.

Contained in the news that author Kerry Schafer has been signed to a two-book deal after posting pages at Book Country is an interesting point about the route of discovery there. As Julie Bosman writes it in the Times, Discovered on Publisher’s Web Site, Aspiring Author Signs Book Deal, the Schafer material was spotted by agent Deidre Knight, who has repped the books to Ace, a Penguin imprint.

That telling of events might lead you to think that Book Country’s own people weren’t necessarily aware of the material, or at least of its potential to stand out.

Colleen Lindsay, who handles community and audience at Book Country, tells me, however, that Book Country’s own editorial coordinator, Danielle Poiesz – who works extensively with authors in reviewing their work and offering feedback – had spotted the Schafer manuscript materials, herself. Poiesz then helped make Berkley VP Susan Allison aware of it. (The Ace imprint is part of Penguin’s Berkley Group.) And, as Lindsay tells it, it was “kind of kismet,” in that Knight and Allison were both interested at the same time in the Schafer books.

Within weeks, Ms. Knight had taken on Ms. Schafer as a client and negotiated a deal with Ace Books, which included a second book, “Wakeworld,” a novel that Ms. Schafer is in the early stages of writing.

After suffering an intense backlash from some knee-jerking members of the self-publishing community, there’s some understandable pleasure being taken at Book Country in the fact that Schafer’s books are going to a Penguin imprint. Book Country’s in-house team has done its job and helped find and cultivate significant work of interest to its parent publisher.

“Our in-house editors have been reading a lot of Book Country submissions,” Lindsay tells me, stressing the developmental aspect of the program. “They’re actively looking for new writers. The younger editors especially keep finding cool new writers to bring to the more established editors. We’re looking for writers with real potential whom we can help get better. That’s the point of the workshop.”

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Publishers learning new tricks

Direct relationships with customers are great, whether in a traditional sales relationship or in some of the newer proposed business models (such as rentals and subscriptions), but Publishers shouldn’t underestimate the challenges associated with dealing directly with Reader/Customers.

Writing at Firebrand Associates’ From the Whiteboard blog, Don Linn lays out some good questions easily glossed over when we exhort publishers to learn better how to market directly to consumers (readers) rather than to retailers. In For Publishers, a New Customer? , among other things, Linn calls on publishers to determine the actual cost of acquiring a new consumer – and points out that even the evaluation of the economics involved may not be a task readily fulfilled in-house.

What is the value of the customer? If it costs $20.00 to acquire her, and she buys multiple products over time, then perhaps $20.00 is a bargain. Again, these things can be modeled at a relatively sophisticated level, but it’s not a skill-set most book publishers have in-house.

Conference note: Fran Toolan of Firebrand Technologies is a speaker at Digital Book World Conference & Expo (#dbw12 and the marketing summit pre-conference #dbwsum) in a presentation with Avalon Travel’s Bill Newlin on Understanding Media.

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Publishers: A Canadian house is absorbed

After years existing in semi-captivity, Canada’s most storied independent publishing house has merged fully into the multinational behemoth known as Bertelsmann AG, owner of Random House and its affiliates, the world’s largest trade book publisher.

John Barber at the Globe and Mail captures the tone with which Canadians have greeted the news of the takeover by Our Friends in Gütersloh in his article, McClelland & Stewart swallowed up by Random House Canada.

Since 2000, Random House has had a 25 per cent stake in McClelland & Stewart, with the other 75 per cent belonging to the University of Toronto after it was donated to the university by M&S’s former sole owner, Avie Bennett.

At this point there are assurances all around that all imprints, poetry programs, etc. will continue, and that a new McClelland & Stewart Lecture will be instituted.

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eBooks across the water

I started selling the electronic version (only) of my EPUB Straight to the Point book when it was published in late 2010…The first thing that I noticed was that people were buying the book from far away. A fair number of my first sales were from Australia, South Africa, and Europe, where it might have taken the print book several more weeks (months?) to arrive.

In Selling ebooks outside of the U.S., Liz Castro goes of the substantial range she has in selling her EPUB “miniguides” as a self-publisher.

More than 50% of my readers are outside of the US. More than 30% are in Europe. Almost 10% in the UK alone. Notice that although everyone says that Spain is full of pirates, there is little difference between sales to Spain and to France, which is similar in size. I am convinced that the way to compete with pirates is not on price, but rather on service and ease of use.

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Blotto for Plotto

In 1894, French critic Georges Polti recognized thirty-six possible plots, which included conflicts such as Supplication, Pursuit, Self-sacrifice, Adultery, Revolt, the Enigma, Abduction, and Disaster.

And, really, what more could you possibly need? But as Lapham’s Quarterly’s Michelle Legro tells us at Brainpicker in Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots:

In 1928, dime novelist William Wallace Cook, author of Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots, did him (Poltri) one better, cataloging every narrative he could think of through a method that bordered on madness. His final plot count? 1,462.”

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When editors strode the land

 It seems clear from the reports of the few remaining ombudsmen (another frill) that readers are complaining about errors in print and seeing their number increase. One of the unexamined assumptions of the War on Editing is that readers, comfortable with the lack of editing standards on the Internet, would be fine with low-grade stuff in print. I know that newspapers notoriously do little audience research, but have you made any effort to determine whether this is actually the case? Do errors make your readers want to vomit, too?

I’d like to shake John E. McIntyre‘s hand for his piece, Gag me with a copy editor.

He opens quoting Columbus Dispatch editor Benjamin J. Marrison writing “Thursday’s front page made me want to vomit.” Knee jerk? Well, what we learn is that “Thursday’s front page misspelled the first name of the president of the United States, twice,” among other errors. And then, pointing out that none of us (and I join him) can be error free, McIntyre rightly describes the deteriorating state of much media copy today.

The other unexamined assumption was that, with the elimination of copy editors, reporters would pull up their socks and make greater efforts at accuracy, knowing that there would be fewer checks on their articles. How’s that working out for you?* Anybody holding the reporters responsible? (Remember that what is everyone’s job is usually no one’s job.)

Take the time to check McIntyre’s asterisked point at the bottom of his column, too. His point about SEO functionality spreading inaccuracies and errors is as sobering as the decline of editing, itself.

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The joyless truth about cuteness

You may have seen the video making the rounds this week. Lots of knee-jerk “best ever” crap stuck to it. It’s called The Joy of Books. Just 1:51 TRT. It was made by Sean Ohlenkamp and Lisa Blonder Ohlenkamp, with that squadron of all-night helpers you see rightly listed in the “show more” view of the YouTube credits.

From "The Joy of Books" by Sean Ohlenkamp and associates
From “The Joy of Books” by Sean Ohlenkamp and associates

I’m glad to see all who worked on it named. They deserve the credit. I especially like Grayson Matthews’ post-Sorcerer’s Apprentice music. It hits precisely the needed magical-music-boxy aura from its first celesta-silky note. Matthews augments his boisterous harmonies with a keen rack of percussive effects.

And having spent too much of my own career up to my IFB in video, I know how hard it is to produce such a piece. Painstaking setups and shots are the only way on this kind of animation, and they pay off smartly here. This is well made. Its flow, transitions, and arc are particularly good. Check the clock you see running fast at one point. That’s about how quickly  your production time is eaten by intensive work like this.

In short, the piece itself, as craft, is great. I think its intentions are, too.

From "The Joy of Books" by Sean Ohlenkamp and associates
From “The Joy of Books” by Sean Ohlenkamp and associates

And yet, for all the excellence of the effort and charm of the endeavor, “The Joy of Books” pushes the sorely challenged world of publishing another novella’s width toward the Realm of Cuteness. Where we do ourselves no favors. Books “coming alive.” The magic bookstore going all sugarplum-y. A twinkling world of gyrating volumes. Fun, did you say?

In truth, I’d gladly kill you in my rush to get out of that place, if this nightmarish scenario actually kicked in. I’d exit right through the window of Type bookstore in Toronto. And I’d steal the bike parked out front without hesitation, just to get away.

But much more important, I’m reminded that as long as we’ve had “books” of any format with us, the key point has been what was in them. Not the things, themselves. Not even the beauty of ancient papyrus outweighed what was recorded on it. And it wasn’t the rock of the Rosetta Stone that counted. It was what the writing on the thing said. The automobile is not the point, your destination in that car is. Same for books. They are our vehicles of thought. Cherished vehicles, yes, but vehicles.

From "The Joy of Books" by Sean Ohlenkamp and associates
From “The Joy of Books” by Sean Ohlenkamp and associates

We love books for what they tell us, not for their choreography.

And I’m troubled by the finale of the piece that tells us “There’s nothing quite like a real book.”

It turns out, in the final seconds, that “The Joy of Books” is a ham-handed bit of bookstore propaganda set against the encroaching scourge of ebooks, which — I’m not sorry to tell you — will not be stopped. And won’t be slowed by cute videos. No one is asking us to give up our paperback and hardback books. I intend to enjoy mine all my life and to buy more. But digital is here. And we need to work with it, not mount Coppelia-doll assaults on it.

Once everybody’s gushed “awwww” all over Twitter about it, what’s the right reponse?

Shall we pile up our e-readers in the square for tonight’s bonfire? Would a little Nookish auto-da-fé make our cute-mongers happy?

From "The Joy of Books" by Sean Ohlenkamp and associates
From “The Joy of Books” by Sean Ohlenkamp and associates

Shall we torch the digital vehicles that can bring the real joy of books, their contents, to people faster, more cheaply, with less environmental damage and more real-time context and interactivity than at any moment in history?

What if Mein Kampf went dancing by in this video? Maybe along with The Prince and Quotations from Mao Tse Tung? Still having a good time? Satanic Verses and Darwin’s Origin of Species and Snooki’s A Shore Thing, wry partners to The Idiot and On the Beach and some bound scripts of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, let’s say the heartbreak of All My Sons and the cynicism of Small Craft Warnings. Cute enough for you?

Look, the happy volumes traipsing around that bookshop in Toronto are welcome to dance their spines off nightly. But this video, too, is a knee jerked.

Every time we place books, however stylishly, in the neighborhood of kitty shower curtains and dancing cinema concessions, we’ve shot ourselves in the baby toe and squealed all the way home. What’s next week? Singing bookmarks? This confection dead-heads a mistaken message to its viewers, and I regret seeing so many publishing people go weak in the jerking knees about it.

We will make our case to the world, our argument for the importance of books, publishing, and the evolving technologies that support them, only when we remember that books are not about their formats. The true joy of books is in their usefulness as tools for capturing and relaying thought, stories, intelligence.

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