WRITING ON THE ETHER: Ingenious Pain


By

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, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, DBW, #DBW13, Publishers Launch, Authors Launch, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, The Bookseller, TheFutureBook

Table of Contents

  1. The Business of Writing: Ingenious Pain
  2. Amazon Reviews: Damned If It Does and…
  3. Blogs: The Dish Runs Away With the Silver Spoon
  4. Craft: Women Authors & Those Scarlet Initials
  5. Publishing Con­ferences: Loomin’ Large
  6. Books: Reading on the Ether
  7. Last Gas: Maria Popova’s Brain Picked

The Business of Writing: Ingenious Pain

On the first day of this annus novus, Brian O’Leary looked back at his “year of blogging assiduously.” He had lived up to his stated goal of posting every day of 2012. You can check out his anniversary post on it, headlined, significantly, Call Me Maybe. 

In it, O’Leary discusses with himself as much as with his readers how the experience, while rewarding, has been impossible to monetize.

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Brian O’Leary

I think publishing models are fundamentally broken. I’ve maintained for the life of this blog that cutting costs won’t fix the old order. We won’t win by becoming more efficient at making and marketing eBooks.

Bundled media are going away. Identifiers, to the extent that they persist, will tell a small part of the story. There will be new and different content forms, and there will be ways to make money creating and selling them. As I said this fall, it is an opportunity that probably will not accrue to many of the incumbents.

Maybe those are messages most publishers are unlikely to pay to hear or have applied to their business models.

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, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, DBW, #DBW13, Publishers Launch, Authors Launch, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, The Bookseller, TheFutureBook There’s no whining going on here, just a consultant’s so-orderly corner on a business messy with conjecture.

And if you’ll check out the comments section, you’ll find a well-intentioned offer of advice to O’Leary from our colleague Paul Biba, formerly of TeleRead.

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Paul Biba

I rarely pick up your posts because, while the content is always excellent, the titles are often completely non-descriptive and I don’t want to burden my followers with tweets that they cannot understand at a quick glimpse.

There’s a sturdy response from O’Leary in which he concedes, “It’s true; you pretty much have to read my posts to know what they are about.”

Headlines are useful, maybe…important. Content is more important to me. I’m glad that you feel it is always excellent. That’s my goal.

 

Kevin Franco of Enthrill Books joins in with a vote of confidence on this:

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Kevin Franco

I like your titles just fine… I know there’s gold on the other side of the link, the titles are intriguing, mysterious and 100% Brian O’Leary.

And in that good rejoinder, Franco encapsulates what I find myself trying to say to Biba, as well — and wanting to say to others at the top of this year:

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, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, DBW, #DBW13, Publishers Launch, Authors Launch, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, The Bookseller, TheFutureBook The more we (correctly) focus on industry performance, best business practices, and marketplace development, the more we need to remember that the industry! the industry! is about creativity. Business is its vehicle, not its end.

This is an industry of storytelling, a factory of fables. We forget that at our peril.

 

And I’m seeing too many blog posts and bits of guidance that counsel “staring into space,” taking time to regroup, slowing down, easing up.

Of course SEO technique demands planting keywords, and standard practice says headlines are the place, Biba’s right. Of course quick-read scanners want to grasp in a headline what’s what in a story. (Just look at the World War III-size headlines at GigaOM and paidContent since their redesign.)

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To that end, as you know, I eagerly welcome  O’Reilly Tools of Change’s Author (R)evolution Day on February 12. I’ll be participating in it, and more on that all-new conference is below.

I don’t recommend that we slow down our efforts to equip our increasingly empowered writers with everything they need to lead this business (yes, lead it) into its next major phase.

I do, however, recommend that we try in 2013 to find ways to synthesize commercial concepts and creative impulse. No sales savvy replaces the value of a truly original idea. And you get to cook the golden goose only once — there’s no second chance at those eggs.

  • I see more and more writerly blog posts and advice columns discussing slowing down, reconnecting with aesthetic goals, “staring into space,” finding and enforcing time “to do nothing at all.” These are warning signals.
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    Jane Friedman gives a live webinar for Writer’s Digest Thursday (January 3) at 1pET: How To Get Published in 2013

    When Jane Friedman, host of Writing on the Ether and digital editor at Virginia Quarterly Review, updated her article over the weekend, How Long Should You Keep Trying To Get Published?, excerpts of her fine post were vehemently attacked by self-publishing people who spoke of churning out books, many books — such troubling policies as publishing 10 books before you even think of building an audience for them, for example.

  • A self-publisher has engaged with me lately on LinkedIn, wanting to know why I think it’s important to have his digital-only books counted by means of ISBNs or in any other way. Who cares? he wants to know. They’re just ebooks.

Industry operatives find teaching the creative corps some elements of business to be a logical and contributing role. They’re not wrong, they’re right. I join them in these efforts, frequently.

But all of us might do well to remember that we’re purpose-splicing creativity with an unprecedented and sometimes unstable, untested bacterium of business concept and expectation. This is not something done before on this scale, in arts and letters. The endeavor is not wrong, we must hope. But neither is caution.

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Andrew Miller

I’m going to borrow from Andrew Miller, one of our most eloquent voice-artists among novelists today, because I want one of his titles: Ingenious Pain.

Unless we hand it all to formulaic genre writing, the ingenious pain which we must both train and defer to is impossible to catch, mercurial at best, evasive as a matter of course. And it can be rendered lifeless, discouraged, inert, if its energy is sapped entirely for the pop of a commercial cork.

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, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, DBW, #DBW13, Publishers Launch, Authors Launch, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, The Bookseller, TheFutureBook In 2013, let’s all work to find the ways in which creativity joins the hunt for sales, the means by which discoverability embraces not only hawking our wares but also buoying and emboldening the poetics of our product.

 

O’Leary has become accustomed to embodying the ingenious pain of mindful expression and industry savvy. He encapsulated the mission, our mission, in his response to the helpful Biba. O’Leary was defending his headline, “Innocence and Magic,” with the gusto of someone who knows better things are near us now:

The post was intended to be evocative, a remembrance of a time when publishing felt much different for me. I’m not going to name it “My thoughts on how publishing felt when I first started working in it in 1983”. I’m just not.

And his over-arching line for all this: There can be elegance in writing.

How good that he said so. And how unsettling that he had to.

We, of all people, have no business letting business make us forget the art we serve. We can do better in 2013. Let’s try.

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Amazon Reviews: Damned If It Does and…

We don’t allow authors to submit customer reviews on their own books even when they disclose their identity.

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I mean, of course authors shouldn’t review their own work on Amazon, certainly not secretly but not even openly. What a pathetic idea.

Would you feel good about actors reviewing themselves in films? (“I thought I was perfectly marvelous and I looked great in my pink top.”) How about dentists reviewing their own services? (“I’m easily the best guy with my hands in your mouth when it comes to dentistry on the Eastern Seaboard.”) Would such reviews be treated as anything but stupid jokes?

 

Maybe it’s because many authors are only now beginning to grapple with the realities of a business world. Why else would they be found saying such peculiar things about Amazon’s review program, and its recent adjustments to it in the wake of the paid-review and sock-puppetry scandals?

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Dave Malone, Seasons in Love, poetry, Trask Road PressIf you need to review any of that sorry business from August, here’s how I wrote it in Extra Ether: Buying Book Reviews — Still Admire John Locke?

Of course, the usual naysayers gathered then to assure us that Amazon would do nothing to defend its review system when it was assaulted by unscrupulous manipulations. But, of course, Amazon did defend it. And now, they don’t like the adjustments. Also of course.

We recently improved our detection of promotional reviews which resulted in the removal of reviews, both new and old.

Many folks have been surprised and riled to find their reviews pulled — among them some people who concede they have direct relationships with the writers they’ve reviewed and others whose reviews fit into categories that Amazon classifies as promotional.

 

For some reason, this sentence seems hard for many authors to grasp:

Customer Reviews are meant to give customers genuine product feedback from fellow shoppers.

The phrases are “customer reviews” and “fellow shoppers.” Sure, authors read other writers, and authors buy books from Amazon. But they’re not in the same category of lay “shoppers” as non-industry readers and consumers who have no involvement in the business.

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Andrew Hough

And yet, here is Andrew Hough writing of an Author backlash over Amazon’s new online review crackdown in the Telegraph:

Amazon…has introduced a ban on authors leaving reviews about other people’s books in the same genre because they may pose a “conflict of interest” and cannot be impartial about their rivals. This means that thriller writers are prevented from commenting on works by other authors who write similar books. Critics suggest this system is flawed because many authors are impartial and are experts on novels.

“Impartial.” Have you ever read a reviewer going on about the close personal relationship he or she has with the author being reviewed and insisting, “But that has no effect on my ability to judge this book objectively?” The phrase “mealymouthed” was created for them.

Does that kind of assertion ever make you feel, “Oh, OK, then, this person’s mother is here with a fair and balanced review?” #Cmonson. Look how some of this sounds from Hough’s report:

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Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris, the best-selling British author of titles including Chocolat and the Lollipop Shoes, said authors were in many ways the perfect people to review books as they are experts on them. “One thing authors are able to do is articulate about books. They tend to read about books and their opinions… are listened to,” the 48 year-old told The Daily Telegraph.

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Regardless, the question of expertise is not the issue.

The question of fairness is.

How about Toyota dealers reviewing new Honda models? They’re expert in the automotive field. Does that sound OK?

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Mark Billingham, the crime fiction author who was victim in the Ellory’s false reviews, said there was no good reason to ban authors. The 51 year-oid said: “If they are targeting authors for no valid reason then that is a shame.”

But, with all respect to Billingham, isn’t there an inherent “valid reason?”

Let’s return to the question earlier about actors reviewing themselves.

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Mark Billingham

How about actors reviewing other actors? “There’s no way Maggie Smith should be getting so much attention, she was barely on screen for ten minutes in that episode.”

What if a preposterous line like that came from Shirley MacLaine, Smith’s Downton Abbey co-star? She’s an expert in the field. So would that be OK?

Or would’t the fact that they work together, know each other, may be in line for some honors for their work be a perfectly valid reason to say these talents shouldn’t be reviewing each other?

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Jeremy Duns

Even the good Jeremy Duns, who helped lead the rightful charge against sock puppetry earlier, seems to have gone soft, telling Hough: “It seems unfair and bizarre to target authors like that. There needs to be change but not like this.”

But it’s not bizarre. It’s correct.

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And authors do themselves no favors when they suggest that they should have more ethical leeway in the market than members of other professions do.

Politicians and the journalists who cover them are very familiar with the phrase “appearance of conflict of interest.”

It’s useful and widely used shorthand for the sort of thing that can blow up policy, set back legislation, ruin careers without even being true. Politicians, the smart ones, learn to do all they can to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest, even if they have no such actual conflict.

And why should authors not observe the same realities as other professionals in their own fields, and understand that even if their reviews are driven-snow stuff, Amazon’s customers cannot be sure of this? If it looks like cronyism, it’s a problem — it’s as big a problem as actual cronyism — especially when such verified unethical practices as buying reviews and sock-puppeting have been brought to light.

 

The whole concept of customer reviews is more questionable than we may like to admit in our era of open sorcery.

It’s not that we don’t want gatekeepers, it’s that we want everybody to be gatekeepers.

But bias, whether real or just perceived, is a showstopper in marketplace gatekeeping.

And vendors — in this case, authors — can never be seen as unbiased and fair if they’re evaluating and holding forth on each other’s work. If people of letters want to be welcomed as true players in the commercial world, they’re going to need to accept how things work in the plaka.

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Blogs: The Dish Runs Away With the Silver Spoon

So why the move? The Dish has immensely loyal readers (Sullivan writes that the average Dish reader spends “up to 17 minutes a day” on the site) and has around a million monthly unique visitors.

Laura Hazard Owen

In Andrew Sullivan breaks from the Daily Beast; new Dish to charge $19.99/year, Laura Hazard Owen takes on what may be a bellwether statement in corporate funding, quoting Sullivan’s announcement:

“We want to create a place where readers — and readers alone — sustain the site. No bigger media companies will be subsidizing us; no venture capital will be sought to cushion our transition (unless my savings count as venture capital); and, most critically, no advertising will be getting in the way.”

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Andrew Sullivan

The experiment that Sullivan has announced, to take his blog, The Dish, out of the Daily Beast’s portfolio and over to a standalone venue with a metered paywall.

Writes Sullivan in his announcement column, New Year, New Dish, New Media:

The decision on advertising was the hardest, because obviously it provides a vital revenue stream for almost all media products. But we know from your emails how distracting and intrusive it can be; and how it often slows down the page painfully…We’re also mindful how online ads have created incentives for pageviews over quality content.

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The new site, which will be hosted at andrewsullivan.com, (will use)…the New York-based startup TinyPass, which added metered subscriptions for small publishers to its offerings in October. The Dish meter kicks in in February, but readers can pay in advance, and the Dish invites them to pay more than the minimum $19.99.

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Rosie Gray

And as the Ether is being prepared, a late write from Rosie Gray at BuzzFeed tells us that Sullivan is reporting a $10,000 subscription donation from one fan.

In Andrew Sullivan: “I Figured, What the Hell,” Gray writes:

“We’re well into six figures in revenue,” Sullivan told BuzzFeed Wednesday afternoon. “But there’s no meter yet, so we won’t find out how it’s really all going until mid-February.”

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A note on BuzzFeed: See Owen’s new report on its latest (fourth) funding round: BuzzFeed raises $19.3 million in fourth funding round, bringing total so far to $46 million

Owen’s colleague Mathew Ingram of GigaOM has the right perspective on what’s being attemped here:

Sullivan is betting that his personal brand and goodwill with his readers is enough to convince a substantial proportion of them to fund his writing — a more sophisticated version of the “tip jar” model. And within minutes of his announcement, dozens of prominent Twitter users and other Sullivan fans had announced that they had already signed up.

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Mathew Ingram

This is where another layer of potential comes into play. Ingram goes on:

As Laura Owen notes in her post, this could have a potential impact on The Daily Beast’s attempts to launch its own subscription model: what proportion of its readers would rather donate directly to support an individual writer, rather than have a blanket paywall around all the magazine’s content?

 

Could we be seeing the start of another digital sub-dynamic — the move to draw one’s own audience — in which we might see a few powerful players set up paywalled shop…only to realize that most others can’t emulate that kind of success? I’m not the only one looking for a parallel here in authors moving to self-publishing. Here’s Ingram again:

Sullivan’s approach — if it works — poses a potential threat to traditional media entities that have built their businesses on strong personal brands: there has already been speculation that statistics superstar Nate Silver of the 538 blog might quit the New York Times to go it alone, and other name-brands at that newspaper and others might decide to take a similar route. Just as a growing number of authors have been cutting out the middleman by self-publishing their books, a membership model could mean independence for columnists who have traditionally been shackled to a large media entity.

 

There’s a real and valid test here, clearly, well worth watching. Critics, many of them wishing Sullivan well, are wondering if he can keep a staff of seven (which includes two paid interns) and operate in the black this way. Some are wondering aloud whether Sullivan’s real motivation isn’t attracting another major venue by pushing away from The Beast.

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Felix Salmon

Reuters’ Felix Salmon in Andrew Sullivan goes it alone points out:

Sullivan is burning no bridges here. If this works, great; if it doesn’t work, I’m sure that there will be a fair few publications out there willing to add their names to the list of places which have hosted the Dish. It’s what the financial types call a free option. And I’m very glad that Sullivan is taking the plunge, to see just how much money is out there for someone looking to make it on subscription revenues alone.

Sullivan’s announcement article has some sobering numbers for folks who may be inspired to jump up and try the same thing. They turn up as Sullivan is writing about the need for income, sounding a call I really like hearing: valuable online content is not required, in any verse of the Bible, to be free:

We need, in particular, to get paid decently for what is extremely intense work 365 days a year. Some people I bump into ask me how we produce 240 posts a week (13,000 separate posts last year alone) or how we read the 90,000 emails we get a year. I have a simple answer: we work our asses off. And my colleagues and I deserve to be paid for it.

Yes, they do. And I wish them luck.

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Craft: Women Authors & Those Scarlet Initials

The Brontë sisters published their 19th-century masterpieces as the Bell brothers, because, Charlotte Brontë wrote, “we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” More than 150 years later, women are still facing the same “prejudice” in some sectors of the publishing industry.

You may recall my mention recently of women authors using initials rather than names. Quietly, several of them have told me they’re doing it because they think male readers won’t read books by women.

Just when I thought we were going to have to do a Whole Thing about this, here’s a happy discovery that research, of a kind, is underway.

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Stefanie Cohen

The text above is from Stefanie Cohen’s piece in the Wall Street JournalWhy Women Writers Still Take Men’s Names. Cohen writes of publisher pressure on women to masculinize their professional names.

“It sometimes makes sense for a female author to use a pseudonym, particularly when the main characters are male, or when it’s a genre with a strong appeal to men, like military science fiction, certain types of fantasy or gritty thrillers,” says Penguin editor Anne Sowards, whose fantasy authors K.A. Stewart, Rob Thurman and K.J. Taylor are women…”For a new author, we want to avoid anything that might cause a reader to put a book down and decide, ‘not for me,’ ” Ms. Sowards says. “When we think a book will appeal to male readers, we want everything about the book to say that—the cover, the copy and, yes, the author’s name.”

 

Cohen goes on, however, to mention that even with the famously initialed J.K. Rowling ruling the waves, the digital dynamic is less accommodating than a world of print was to such authorial subterfuge.

As authors become more active in selling their own books—hosting websites, attending conventions—it’s harder to hide one’s gender. And many women are refusing to write under their initials or fake masculine names…Editors are quick to note that it’s not only women authors who feel pressure to write under pseudonyms: Romance readers would be surprised to learn some of their favorite bodice-rippers were penned by men.

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Alyssa Rosenberg

Alyssa Rosenberg at Slate picks up on Cohen’s article in Why Are Women Writers Still Stuck Behind Pseudonyms?:

It’s insulting that publishers continue to think that they need to cater to the ridiculous biases of male readers, particularly when the industry so easily assumes that male authors are completely capable of recounting any experience (of a male or female character) to any audience (male or female)…Critics may debate how well George R.R. Martin handles things like sexual assault as a weapon of war and the psychological impact of arranged marriages in his Game of Thrones books, but I can’t imagine that anyone would have suggested he masquerade as a woman if he wanted his legion of female characters or his perspectives on those issues to be taken seriously.

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Teresa Frohock

So how good to learn that author Teresa Frohock is wrapping up a kind of contest she’s been running on her site — to see just what readers could tell about who writes what. She has been running a series of short science-fiction and fantasy works without author names, some by men, some by women. Her ask of her readers:

Tell us, based on the prose, whether the scene was written by a man or a woman. At the end, I want to tabulate the results and see if readers can really tell the difference. If you want to, you may say why you feel a particular scene was written by a man or woman, but you don’t have to.

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, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, DBW, #DBW13, Publishers Launch, Authors Launch, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, The Bookseller, TheFutureBook Frohock tells me she’s closing the contest just as this Ether gases. So she hopes to have some results of what her readers could do in terms of guessing authors’ gender next week, and I’ll be looking forward to hearing how it goes.

Meanwhile, as I’ve made inquiries about this business of women using initials as authors, it’s been amusing to ask folks to think of male authors who go by their initials. Initially (sorry), you think it must surely be easy to rattle off several such guys. But not so much. A.A. Milne and J.R.R. You Know Who aside, there may be fewer initialed guys springing to mind than you expect.

The sad laugh could be that initials instead of an author’s name may soon be the way to tell your author is a woman.  More to come on this.

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Publishing Con­ferences: Loomin’ Large

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Former DBW attendees, check your email for a newly issued code offering an additional $200 off your registration for  Digital Book World (#DBW13) (January 15-17) — and the associated Children’s Publishing Goes Digital (January 15).  That new code ends at midnight Friday (January 4), so look sharp if you want to us it.

And I’m saying “additional” in terms of the savings, because you’re still welcome to use my affiliate link to trigger them as you register. If not already showing on your registration form, just put in code PORTER.

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Rick Joyce

Conference chair Mike Shatzkin, taking his turn on the predictions mound, What to watch for in 2013, mentions Rick Joyce’s presentation at Frankfurt Book Fair (which sponsors Publishing Perspectives, host of Ether for Authors). Shatzkin writes:

Rick Joyce of Perseus presented some ground-breaking thinking at our Frankfurt event about using social listening data tools for publishing marketing; he learned that the tools were most effectively applied across categories rather than for titles.

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, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, DBW, #DBW13, Publishers Launch, Authors Launch, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, The Bookseller, TheFutureBook Look for more substantive material when Joyce — who was also a terrific keynote speaker at DBW’s Discoverability and Marketing Conference in September — is onstage at DBW with SourcebooksDominique Raccah and Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader.

The topic of their session, set for 2:30pET on January 16, is “Driving Innovation in Publishing,” and will position one of the most bedeviling questions facing publishers today:

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Dominique Raccah

Should publishers rely on start-ups and other industry outsiders to invent/reinvent the industry?–or should publishers be the creators, and if so, do they have what it takes to succeed?

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Also at Digital Book World, the Publishing Innovation Awards Luncheon, January 16. The awards are sponsored by Sony and AllZone Digital, and they honor the most innovative ebooks, enhanced ebooks, and book apps in 14 categories. Registration here.

And believe it or not, the DBW events start in under two weeks. Change of venue this year, don’t forget: We’re at the New York Hilton at Sixth and W. 53rd. (So handy to MoMA, as I doggedly keep pointing out.)

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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, Authors Launch, TOC Authors, Author (R)evolution Day, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, FutureBook, #fbook12, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, Nigel Roby, The Bookseller, TheFutureBook, Digital CensusThe 14th Annual Winter Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators is set for February 1-3 in New York.

“This year’s conference features two jam-packed days of inspiration and the latest on what’s happening in the field of children’s literature from top editors, agents, art directors, authors, and illustrators. Make sure you look at the detailed description of each workshop on the Schedule before you select your breakouts.”

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You’re welcome to use my code AFFILIATEPA for a discount of $350 on your registration.

I’ll be doing an onstage conversation with Grub Street’s Eve Bridburg – named one of Boston’s 50 most powerful women by Boston Magazine — on The Author Blueprint for Success as part of this program, looking forward to it.

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Sabrina McCarthy

Among other featured presenters is Argo Navis Author Services’ Sabrina McCarthy, president of Argo Navis and Perseus Distribution.

McCarthy will join Penguin Group’s Elizabeth Keenan, publicity director for Plume & Hudson Street Press, on a panel titled How To Put it Together: Thoughtful Strategies Around Marketing and Discovery.

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Kristen McLean

Conference co-chair Kristen McLean is moderator for this panel and the “How To Put It Together” panel that precedes it, “Choosing a Production and Distribution Service.”

Cory Doctorow, Laura Dawson, Allen Lau, Jesse Potash, Dana Newman, and Jacob Lewis.

Also featured are Peter Armstrong, Tim Sanders, Michael Tamblyn, Rob Eagar, Kate Pullinger, Kat Meyer, and Joe Wikert.

https://twitter.com/DamonLindelof/status/286543978894077955

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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, Authors Launch, TOC Authors, Author (R)evolution Day, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, FutureBook, #fbook12, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, Nigel Roby, The Bookseller, TheFutureBook, Digital CensusO’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change (#TOCcon) Conference  (February 12-14) in New York City (the Marriott at Times Square).

Use my code AFFILIATEPA for an immediate discount of $350 on any registration package.

At #TOCcon 2013, be sure not to overlook the brace of workshops planned for February 12. While many of us will be involved in  Author (R)evolution Day (your pass must include Tuesday), the workshop sessions running all day in parallel are extensive and led by a lot of talent.

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Joshua Tallent

There’s Joshua Tallent, for one, in Mastering Kindle Fixed Layout eBooks.

And Steven Shadle on How Libraries Use Publisher Metadata.

There’s Anne-Marie Concepcion’s enticingly titled Achieving Beautiful Typography in eBooks.

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Pilar Wyman

And Pilar Wyman’s Mashups, Models and Monetization: Making your indexes go all the way.

One of the main keynotes on the bill this year is The Library as Ebook Discovery Zone: More Lessons from Library Journal’s Public Library Patron Research with Barbara A. Genco.

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Jeff Jaffe

And among the most-watched afternoon sessions (this one on February 13), Great Expectations for Digital Publishing with HTML5 and the Open Web Platform with Jeff Jaffe of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

And speaking of HTML5, O’Reilly’s TOC co-chair Joe Wikert points out in a New Year’s post, HTML5: The code to maximizing revenue, that a new white paper on HTML5 is out from SPi Global with an extensive explanation of the pivotal position of this technology for publishing.

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Joe Wikert

Wikert writes:

Don’t believe the misinformation out there saying HTML5 is a moving target, today’s investment will become worthless tomorrow, etc. You’ve got a terrific set of rich content building blocks available today with HTML5 and CSS3 so there’s no reason to wait.

And he notes that John Wheeler of SPi Global is scheduled to give a keynote at TOC on February 13, Top 10 Reasons to Plan for a Successful Migration to EPUB 3/HTML5, and a follow-up breakout session, How Do I Successfully Migrate To EPUB 3/HTML5?

Remember that code AFFILIATEPA will save you $350 on any TOC registration, no matter what package of events you choose, from Author (R)evolution Day only to the entire several days of events.

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Freezing for fiction is a tradition at this one, unique among the annual national and international conferences. The farthest south this campus caravan goes in the next five years is LA (2016). Otherwise, it’s Nanook of the Novels — Seattle next year, Minnesota in 2015.

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Poet and essayist Seamus Heaney is one of this year’s keynote speakers at AWP. Photo: Jemimah Kuhfeld

AWP last year drew 10,000 attendees to icy Chicago (it looked like 40,000 attendees when everybody’s coats were on), and, per its copy on the site this year, AWP “typically features 550 readings, lectures, panel discussions, and forums, as well as hundreds of book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings.” The labyrinthine book fair is said to have featured some 600 exhibitors last year. The Boston setup is supposed to be much more attendee-friendly, maybe even adequate food services will be there.

The program is a service-organization event of campus departments, hence the many (I mean many) readings by faculty members and a frequently less-than-industry-ready approach that worries some of us about real-world training the students may be missing. The organization, however, seems largely impervious to concerns from the outside. Not for nothing do we call campus life sheltered.

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For an updated list of planned confabs, please see the Publishing Conferences page at porteranderson.com.  If you have a publishing conference event coming, please notify me through the contact page at porteranderson.com, and I’ll be happy to consider listing it.

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Books: Reading on the Ether

As each week, the books you see here have been referenced recently in Writing on the Ether, Ether for Authors, or in tweets.

I’m bringing them together in one spot each week, to help you recall and locate them, not as an endorsement. And, needless to say, we lead our list weekly with our Writing on the Ether Sponsors, in gratitude for their support.


Writing on the Ether Sponsors


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Last Gas: Maria Popova’s Brain Picked

People always talk about work/life balance, but I find that a tragic concept. I have no separation between work and my life. I don’t see what I do as work. There’s no greater joy than, as Richard Feynman put it, the pleasure of finding things out.

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Maria Popova

One of the most popular ways on the web of “finding things out,” of course, is by following Maria Popova’s yellow-trimmed Brain Pickings site.

The Bulgarian-born researcher and annotator, in a presentation for Paola Antonelli at the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, last fall, proved a highly precise, concentrated speaker. While she sadly didn’t seem to want to go into the Curator’s Code she helped launch (and which I enjoy using, though it doesn’t seem to be catching fire), her role there was as part of an evening’s examination of the widely frittered-away term “curator.”

(We’re at the stage, in case you’re interested, in which actual professional, says-so-on-their-business-cards curators get down and claim they’re delighted, I tell you, delighted to have their term of art passed around like a common cold and applied to every grocery list you write. Such is the ungainly dance of political correctness in the world of actual curatorial professions these days, and this is entirely my expression of it, not Antonelli’s nor Popova’s. I felt a bit bad for Antonelli, in particular, a supreme and utterly genuine world-class curator who now directs MoMA’s new research and development program. Then again, everybody thinks he’s a journalist, too, so I’m right there with her.)

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Kathy Sweeney

Popova’s comments here come from an interview with The Guardian’s Kathy SweeneyMaria Popova: why we need an antidote to the culture of Google.

Relative to the headline, some of Popova’s most interesting comments have to do with her own interests and methods of working:

Much of what is published online is content designed to be dead within hours, so I find most of my material offline. I gravitate more and more towards historical things that are somewhat obscure and yet timely in their sensibility and message. We really need an antidote to this culture of “if it’s not Google-able, it doesn’t exist”. There’s a wealth of knowledge and inspiration offline, ideas still very relevant and interesting.

 

One of the benefits of Popova’s work, in this light, is as a conduit. As she ferrets out good material to bring to her readers, she’s getting that material, or at least top-level references to it, online, presumably in many cases for the first time. And she has a handy way of using past newspaper nightmares to describe the dangers of some contemporary forces:

There’s a really beautiful letter that a newspaper journalist named Bruce Bliven wrote in 1923 to his editor. It was about how the circulation manager had taken over the newspaper, deciding what went on the front page. Today, search engine optimisation is the “circulation management” of the internet. It doesn’t put the reader’s best interests first – it turns them into a sellable eyeball, and sells that to advertisers.

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, Tools of Change, O'Reilly Media, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, DBW, #DBW13, Publishers Launch, Authors Launch, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Sam Missingham, The Bookseller, TheFutureBook Popova is to give a keynote address at TOC this year, on February 14. If you’re unable to join us, we’ll be madly live-tweeting, I mean calmly curating, her comments, and the O’Reilly Media operation has a great way of live-streaming most keynotes. We’ll keep you posted as we get closer.

And as Andrew Sullivan “harches out,” as we say in the South, to start serving bloggery off his own Dish, it’s worth noting that Sweeney’s interview with Popova focuses at times on her donation-supported approach at Brain Pickings.

I’m hopeful that the model of micro-patronage will grow, and will help more people who are passionate about some subject to deliver it to an audience without having to be reliant on advertisers. Even today, for instance,Radiolab [a podcast produced by WNYC, a public radio station in New York City] is supported by audience contribution, and Longreads, which curates the best free long-form reading online, has paid memberships.

 

And among the many comments I find useful here (work-life balance among them) are remarks on the disturbing almost throw-away nature of Internet content for many. The whole article is neatly poised, and a good warmup to the February presentation plus a fine read for Popova’s fans, of course.

I worry about the temporal bias of the web – everything online is based around vertical chronology. The latest stuff floats at the top, and the older stuff sinks towards the bottom. It suggests that just because something is more recent, it’s more relevant; yet, in culture, the best ideas are timeless, they have no expiration date. This makes the internet a tricky medium for organising information and prioritising knowledge. The best thing is the obvious thing – the remarkable access to nearly infinite information. It is my hope that, as we find better ways to transmute that information into knowledge and wisdom, we’ll be better able to ameliorate the former with the latter.


Main image / iStockphoto: xyno

  • http://twitter.com/ByRozMorris Roz Morris fiction

    Creativity first; business to serve that creativity. Absolutely. Bravo for starting the year with such an important reminder.
    Of course we have to figure out how to find an audience and develop a relationship with it. Any writer knows this as soon as they hit ‘publish’. But I find it so depressing that the majority of material written about publishing sets no value on the contribution of original, creative people.
    Of course we must study what works, as much as it can be studied. And then we must turn matters over to the creatives, and let them invent books that improve on it.

  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    @twitter-329334210:disqus

    Right, Roz, and thanks for the first comment of the year!

    This is a hard line to walk, and you can see me teetering all over the place, even in this item. As I say, we can’t slow down these good efforts to bring authors into the business community of writing — these efforts are right and urgent, and that’s why I’m part of them. But I do wish we’d figured out some tangible ways, somehow, that writers can work on their “commercial side” without it being such a conflict with their creative impetus.

    Some of these thoughts were inspired for me by @JaneFriedman’s piece (How Long Should You Keep Trying To Get Published) — in her comments, she found herself having to remind people that Amanda Hocking made her jump to traditional because she was totally worn out from doing all the marketing work on her books. She’d been at it a long time and was just over it.

    I’ve always liked the efforts to look at marketing, presentation, and other elements of authors’ promotional work as part of creativity a good writer brings to the job. And I think in some cases, this can really work. It’s probably easier, though, in nonfiction settings. A great chef, to name the obvious example, can do what he does and this creates great publicity and opportunities, shows, tours, more books, etc. It’s not so easy for fiction people, short of dressing as your characters and heading out to the village square to stage a ridiculous scene and get arrested, lol. Just not so easy in many cases to cross that promotional line.

    So we need to keep this in mind, keep looking, and beware of these moments (and I’m guilty of them, too) when we want writers to do the completely sensible thing (as in the O’Leary case — clean up those headlines!) without realizing that might not be at all a good move for the artist involved.

    Difficult stuff and what a long year of it we have ahead. :) On we go, thanks for your great comment and tweets, and one of these days we need to get you and @MirabilisDave over for one of our big conferences like DBW or TOC, quite the shows they are.

    Cheers for 2013!

    -p.

  • Pingback: The business of writing challenges the very creativity it supports. | Creativity for Better Living and Aging | Scoop.it

  • http://twitter.com/DarrelynSaloom Darrelyn Saloom

    I’d travel and pay to see you and Roz on stage. Great post, Porter. Perusing through it now.

  • Emily St. John Mandel

    The issue of female authors using initials is an interesting one. I’ve been wondering lately if the world’s perhaps changed somewhat for the better in this regard over the past decade or so. I’ve heard compelling (and depressing) arguments that the Harry Potter series might never have taken off if J.K. Rowling had used her full name at the outset, but on the other hand, it’s interesting to consider that a decade later Suzanne Collins put her full name on the cover of The Hunger Games with no noticeably detrimental effect.

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    The discussion about headline writing is endlessly fascinating to me—something that vexes a lot of creative people. I am equally sympathetic to Biba & O’Leary, but find myself more on Biba’s side if I discount everything I know about O’Leary, yet more on O’Leary’s side as a longtime reader of his column.

    One of the first things I teach in my online writing classes is that headlines matter, and that Google doesn’t understand cleverness, eloquence, or humor. I do believe this will change (we’re still in caveman era), but if you want to be creative in your headline writing, in some regard you have to earn the right. You have to already have people’s attention. And O’Leary does.

    Still: When O’Leary started writing daily posts, I stopped reading him quite as often, and I used the headline as a gauge of which days to dive in. Certainly I have Porter’s tweet-quotes to persuade me if I’ve made a bad decision, but is it incredibly insulting to say (yes, it probably is, I’m very sorry) that I would in fact be more inclined to read a post titled “My thoughts on how publishing felt when I started working in it in 1983″? Maybe that’s because of my age. Or my preference for the direct and practical. Or maybe because Google has now succeeded in rewiring my brain.

    There’s an interesting juxtaposition here with Popova, who is, as you point out, sensitive to these issues as well, but is quite direct with her headlines. Her best posts of 2012: How to Find Your Purpose & Do What You Love, The Daily Routines of Famous Writers, Susan Sontag on Love, 10 Tips on Writing From David Ogilvy, 5-Step Technique for Producing Ideas Circa 1939. Etc.

    And here’s another juxtaposition: A couple years ago, I remember playing on Twitter with #seotitles, re-imagining great works of literature as if they were titled by an SEO committee. Such an exercise makes you see how ridiculous it can be to make artistic expression serve business. Here’s McSweeney’s with a great list of BuzzFeed-worthy titles: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/great-literature-retitled-to-boost-website-traffic

    I don’t think there’s an either-or decision to be made. It’s just a continuing struggle that’s been well-expressed in this particular edition of Ether. (Thanks, Porter!)

  • http://twitter.com/DarrelynSaloom Darrelyn Saloom

    I’m back to comment on women authors using initials. Sometimes it may simply be due to a long name. But I believe it’s more often a gender issue. I naively wrote a boxing book with a female boxer and was shocked when a male agent rejected me with a handwritten note to inform me that “no one would be interested in a book about a woman boxer and it would never be published no matter how well written.” It’s the only rejection letter I kept. Once we did find a publisher (in fact, we found two) it was never an issue.

  • http://twitter.com/Victoria_Noe Victoria Noe

    There’s really only one issue here regarding reviews on Amazon: honesty.

    If an author pays for reviews, it’s inherently dishonest. What then is the difference if an author begs other authors to leave 5 star reviews (or “like” their page)? Is it a matter of the degree of dishonesty?

    “Please be sure you read at least a little of my book before you review it,” I actually saw an author post recently. A little? Really? I was in a production in college where one of the reviewers – who admitted he hated musicals – wrote a review that proved he left at intermission (he denied it, but it was obvious). Was that review valid? Yes, but only of half the show. We deserved to have both acts reviewed. Authors deserve the same.

    Negative/constructive criticism isn’t always bad. One of the people who has read an advance copy of my first book didn’t like it – really didn’t like it. He’s an academic, an expert in the field, and it didn’t rise to his standards. But his comments could possibly sell more books than the wildly enthusiastic response I got from someone last night. He’s right: it’s not academic. And that’s deliberate because it’s the first one on this topic that’s not.

    I have to admit, Porter, with my first self-pub date coming soon, that all this depresses me. I have no plans to ask people to post reviews (not the same as asking for blurbs, though I’ve not done much of that). If they read the book and like it and they want to review, that’s different. But there’s so much desperation out there, so much begging to get their books in the top ten on Amazon in their category.

    My question, though, and no one seems to have addressed it, is this: Is review honesty only an issue on Amazon? Are paid reviews or author-solicited reviews not an issue anywhere else? Just asking, Porter…

    Carry on –

    Viki

  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    @twitter-18401026:disqus
    @twitter-329334210:disqus

    Ha! Be careful what you ask for, Darrelyn, Roz Morris and I just may come pushing our pageant wagon through the village square any day now, LOL. Thanks so much for reading, and for some very fine tweeterie, too!

    -p.

  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    @janefriedman:disqus

    You’re fully correct on this, Jane, and thanks for such thought and depth on it.

    And in the kind of irony I’d cotton to only in such an occasion as this, I actually went back through my subheads this morning before publication to give them a word or two more grounding in what they signal, feeling that such cleverness as The Dish running away with the silver spoon might get the Andrew Sullivan segment overlooked.

    It’s a constant and tricky issue that only occasionally resolves with a fully aesthetic-plus-concise solution. Occasionally it actually happens and you feel as if Mother Teresa has smiled on you from heaven. I did like Brian’s explanation to Paul of trying to create the more aesthetic line and the more prosaic as an explainer on his posts. That’s mildly akin to me propping up subhead frippery with a topical word or two. So he and I are on fairly parallel paths here at this point, I imagine.

    I actually find SEO instructive in this regard. By making sure today, for example, that “writing” is my key word and is embedded everywhere, from headline to a metadata statement to a log line, etc., I’m seeing at least a consistency of draw that I compare loosely to good hashtag work in tweets.

    And yes, Popova is quite sensitive to this — leading her many times to take the most esoteric and poetic material and “display” it with a line that might remind you of the McSweeney’s list (love that link, thank you) for Animal Farm: “7 Awesome Ways Barnyard Animals Are Like Communism.”

    As you say, caveman times right now, but then again, they’re the times we’re given and putting across something that makes sense is usually — usually, lol — as valuable or more so as putting across something that sounds great. Usually. Except when it’s not, LOL.

    It’s about now I start feeling jealous of everybody from Aristophanes to Steinbeck for not having to think about these issues. So I should stop now before Full Regression sets in. :)

    Thanks for the really cogent comments on this, as you say, endlessly fascinating.

    -p.

  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    @72f50f3dafbbd1a05dda6de2bcd7d4a0:disqus

    Gosh, Emily, I’m glad to hear you say this. Maybe it’s not just me.

    I have the same sense you do, that we’ve actually ducked right out from under this one but folks haven’t realized it yet.

    The Rowling story, by the way, is recounted by Stefanie Cohen in her article and in her telling of the anecdote, it was indeed Bloomsbury, Jo’s publisher, who told her to go for the initials, this from Rowling having talked of it, herself. Here’s the segment from the story (two paragraphs):

    Fantasy has been somewhat friendlier for women, but generally not if they are writing about male characters. J.K. Rowling has famously said that her publisher, Bloomsbury, told her that she should sell the Harry Potter books under initials, not her given name, Joanne. Even after being revealed as a woman and becoming one of the best-selling authors of all time, those rules often still apply.

    “Would a 12-year-old boy have picked up a book by Joanne Rowling?” asks John Scalzi, a sci-fi writer and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. “Once you have your audience, you’re fine—J.K. Rowling still sold when people found out she was a woman—but it’s getting the audience that’s important.”

    So that’s what we have on Rowling in particular, and of course all or part of it could be apocryphal. I’d love to know this definitively. Next one of us who bumps into Jo Rowling asks her, OK?

    I’m also thinking that some things happening in Hollywood can and do help in this regard, even in literature. For example, the highly publicized success of Kathryn Bigelow in military-action films clearly says something to an intelligent male reader/viewer — Ridley Scott does not have to be at the helm of every action-adventure project, etc. Bigelow’s a stark exception in many, many ways, of course, but these cultural shifts do have lasting ramifications, often unnoticed in tangential disciplines (such as literature).

    I hope we’re right that this initials business, let alone going fully George Sand, is something less needed than before.

    A few Ethers ago, I had a chance to be in touch with Bethanne Patrick on some related material — she felt that guys simply won’t read fiction, which I explained is really, really not the case (and I can produce the guys with novels in hand, lol). I suggested to her that one of the biggest drawbacks for men (and this, I’m sure, is felt by women, too, in many scenarios) is “the insult of the assumption.” When guys feel it’s assumed they won’t touch fiction — or when a big noisy thing is made of fiction-vs-nonfiction — they tend to recoil and hunker. But just handing them a book and saying they might find it interesting, without a visible expectation of any particular reaction, can leave them the chance to explore the stuff. (My further theory on this is that the e-reader is a big help. Guys are happier reading widely if they don’t have to reveal and discuss what they’re reading. A Kindle means not having to get onto the plane with that dustcover glaring at everybody, big help.)

    I’d like to think there’s a parallel here: allowed to simply choose what looks good to read (by whatever signal a reader likes — cover art, title, topic, blurb, etc.), I think most readers, male or female, will choose in far less restricted bands than our societal assumptions predict.

    It’s easy for me to say, I know, that I hope more women authors will proudly use their names and just let the guys pick up the work that looks good to them. But I do think that if we can do more to lower the expectations, the assumptions, the “gotcha!” moments that never prove anything, we’ll see more of the bias shifts you and I think already are under way. (Hope we’re right.)

    Thanks for reading and commenting, an honor to have you!

    -p.

  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    @twitter-18401026:disqus
    Hey again, Darrelyn.

    You know what I suggest? I suggest that gently, kindly, cordially, looooooowwwwww-key-ish, lol, you send a copy of the book to that agent who wrote you the “no one would be interested” note. Do a nice letter explaining that he has every right to every opinion and that you’re not out to change his or anybody’s world on this, but that you thought it might be of some professional interest to him to see the success the book is having, the events it has spawned, the welcome in Ireland and the States, from men and women, “for his future reference.” And include a copy of his letter to you to jog his memory. No rubbing it in, no being nasty, nothing like that. But folks — all of us — from time to time can use a really good lesson in not making quick, facile assumptions about things. This business is no worse than many others for people making crass, snap decisions. But of course those decisions can affect others in major ways. And remembering that we always have the chance to ask whether our minds are open and our brains engaged (don’t put it this way to him) can be terribly healthy for every one of us. Wish him well with his work and that’s it. :)

    -p.

  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    @twitter-240542789:disqus
    Hey, Viki,

    To go bottoms up on your comment — as I’d like to be doing with some Campari right now — no, Amazon isn’t alone with this problem. In fact, Otis at Goodreads has had to face some difficult moments there when the reviewing culture became overly harsh, suspiciously virulent. And any site, any venue, is susceptible to inappropriate amateur-critical conduct. One of the most maddening elements of executive committee work on the American Theatre Critics Association, as a matter of fact, was the reluctance and sometimes resistance by some critics to my urgent calls for standards, even credentialing in an industry that still has largely none. The National Critics Institute was one way to get at least a specific proof of training, which is why my fellowship there has always been very important to me (though I didn’t like the program’s structure). Anybody can be the victim of what Amazon has run into, to re-answer your question, and almost all retail sites now have copied Amazon’s customer-review culture. You can bet this crap is going on all over. Few retailers have the sheer systemic sophistication to address it as well as Amazon can.

    I recently researched a hotel in Europe at great length because I found that the travel-service customer reviews made it seem like every person reviewing the place had stayed in a different hotel! Ridiculous. It’s no wonder you hear people all the time saying they can’t trust a customer review.

    About a critic leaving early. There is an old, old story out of Paris — and my Alliance Francaise friends who knew of this have died since, unfortunately, so I’d really have to dig to find the particulars. But this was a case told to me in the ExCom of the International Association of Theater Critics, as well, very highly reputed to be true. French critic goes to the play. Hates it. Leaves at intermission. Goes to the paper. Writes a scathing review that makes it sound as if he saw the whole thing. Goes home. Theater burns to the ground in the second act. Critic is fired the next morning and never heard from again. They swear this actually happened. I’d actually love to dig up the details. Remind me when I see you at Conference No. 82. In fact, I should ask Virginie, she’s coming to TOC from Paris, I just found out. But I digress.

    Up near the top of your comment now. Yes, it’s about honesty.

    The problem we see in Amazon reviews, though, is the problem we see in so many elements of digitally fed industries right now — amateurism.

    Many, many folks now come into various industries — news, publishing, music — without the underpinning of ethical behavior and understanding that professionals have, and they come in because, as we know, digital lowers barriers, runs over gatekeepers. There’s no need to bemoan lost glories of gatekeeping, lol. But what falls away are the standards, often not because people are being evil but because they simply have never studied, learned, lived in the culture of a professional version of their field. Thus, they don’t know. And this means problems on all sides as folks who never have understood what critical protocol is and means — and why it’s important — are suddenly functioning as critics. (Or as “citizen journalists.” Or as “curators.” Etc.)

    I wouldn’t want to say this to too large a roomful of authors, but being an author does NOT make you an expert of other authors as a critic. True criticism is a discipline of its own. Painter A is not the perfect critic for Painter B because they’re both painters. One of them needs to actually study and learn criticism, not painting. Then she or he will be the critic of the two. The other will be just a painter. Authors who don’t know better don’t understand this easily.

    The participatory empowerment of digital floods every field with untrained players — many well-intended but few actually prepared to understand the lines they’re crossing. So to many authors, “I’ll review you if you’ll review me” may carry no ethical dilemma at all. Might even sound like a perfectly logical deal. People like me come along and say, “What’s the matter with you? You’re all pots and kettles calling each other black.” And they hate me for suggesting they’re out of line. And they hate Amazon for taking the actions it MUST take to purify, to whatever degree is possible, what was meant all along to be exactly what they call it: Customer Reviews. Not Buddy Reviews. Not Fellow Vendor Reviews. Not Authors Who Want Good Reviews, Themselves, Reviews. Certainly not Authors Pretending to be Customer Reviews nor Authors Paying Other People for Good Reviews. But Customer Reviews.

    You’re right. Negative but forthright, informed, and actionable criticism can actually be useful, including at times in quotes. I had a poster for years that showed a Broadway house marquee covered in horrible lines. “The show sucked!” “Hated this dog!” “Run the other way!” Huge line at the box office, of course.

    In a Facebook entry a little while ago, I proposed to a whole line of folks who came down hard on Amazon (“authors know more than anyone about books!” etc.) that they do the simple exercise of putting on Jeff Bezos’ shoes for a few minutes. Consider that your allegiance is first and foremost to your customer. And that you have created those reviews to be a customer function by and for other customers. And suddenly the vendors get in and start messing with the customers’ reviewing program. AND you find out that some of these vendors are really scamming the system, too. What do you do? You throw the f—rs out. Amazon isn’t there to coddle authors or provide history’s biggest critique group. It’s there for customers (which is why Bezos keeps an empty chair for The Customer at every exec meeting), and the company is in the dominant position it is because it’s ruthless about protecting its mission. I can’t blame it for its current purges of reviews, even if the system at times mistakes a valid review for a bad one, accidents will happen. I’m much more embarrassed to think I’m in a camp of people who might believe that cronyism is fine and that conflict of interest — or appearance of — is no big deal.

    I wish the complaining authors would put the time they spend venting about Amazon into proofing their books. Or studying literature. Or getting into some good conference courses and deepening their craft. What a waste, these years and years of carping about Amazon, still the best friend an author has ever had, if that author wants to sell a book.

    Keep the faith, you’re doing it right, and whatever commentary comes to you as legitimate, free-will, reader criticism will be worth your taking the high road. You’re lucky enough, and experienced enough in many walks of life, to be able to recognize the ethical principles here far better than many of our associates can do. That counts, don’t give it up. Especially in a field like yours of humanitarian/caring theory and practice, the last thing you can afford is to be associated with the parade of ignorance going by us these days. It’s a rough stage in the dynamic. Just hang on.

    -p.

  • SK Figler

    On author reviews of other authors’ books: I began reading Jane’s post believing that authors should be allowed to review others’ books…and concluded at the end of the post that they/we should not do so. I guess that’s called effective communication.

  • SK Figler

    Porter,
    I’d like to add one question to your Interesting and otherwise thorough response to Viki. Does a legitimate critic who writes a book in the area he/she critiques, then give up the right to further critiquing? (That seems to be what you are suggesting.) Or should the critic avoid writing in that genre/field?

  • http://twitter.com/Victoria_Noe Victoria Noe

    I don’t think they should give up the right to critique. But I think it’s naive to assume that they can be 100% objective in their criticism.
    My background is theatre, mostly musical theatre. When I saw the recent revival of “Anything Goes” at Roundabout I was annoyed through most of the show. Not because it wasn’t good – it was. But because I would’ve directed (and cast) it differently. Unless I could rely only on my knowledge of the genre and separate my personal feelings from the choices made, I would not be a good person to review the show.
    Personal biases often come through in reviews, sometimes deliberately. If a film critic begins their review of “Les Miserables” with “I hate musicals”, it’s a pretty sure bet it’s going to be a negative review. But it’s not always that obvious and that’s the problem, I think.
    Your turn, Porter. :)
    Viki

  • Brian O’Leary

    I don’t want to undermine the nice things that Porter and you have said about my work, but .. I really don’t have that much of an audience :) Break down the site statistics in the post and you’ll find that about 90 visitors come by on an average day. There are oodles of publishing blogs that have many more followers.

    In responding to Paul’s comment, which was effectively “make it easier for me to tweet your post by making the headline fully describe the content”, the point I hoped to make parallels one that Porter extracted: I don’t want to chase traffic. In fact, I find that doing so comes with inherent risks.

    The first of these is writing what sells. I understand that publishing works that way, and I’m not attacking the industry for it. But I’m not selling my writing; I am developing a set of ideas that I think could help us as an industry. In that context, playing to a mass audience feels like a mistake.

    The second is believing that the measure of the quality of my ideas is related to how many people tweet them. If I wanted a lot of visits, I could write something pithy about piracy, DRM and eBooks every day. I would also not write about book, magazine and association publishing; I’d pick one and bang on it until the cows came home.

    The last of these risks is not writing what might not sell or get you hired. The most widely read post this past year, “50 shades of DRM”, certainly had a tweetable headline, but it also took the IDPF to task for proposing the development of a new DRM standard linked to the EPUB format. When I wrote it, I hadn’t seen any public criticism of the IDPF’s proposal, and I’ve seen little since. I’m an outlier on the issue, in an industry that doesn’t care much for outliers.

    Certainly, I want people to read my work. I would definitely get that to happen more if I changed my headlines, blurbs and writing style to make each more accessible. Honestly, I’m giving serious thought to all three, but not to make it easier to get picked up in Paul Biba’s tweet stream.

    The “listicle” approach to writing (embodied in the headlines that generated traffic for Maria Popova) is appealing, and it probably is okay for a lot of bloggers. It doesn’t work for me, because I’m trying to work through a set of issues that don’t boil down to a set of bullet points (much as I wish they did).

    In a comment, Eric Hellman described my shorter posts as a kind of “writer’s notes”, showing my sources, building up over time to a set of longer works. I think that’s a helpful way for me to look at my work. Three of the 10 most widely read posts in 2012 were more than 3,500 words, all of them drawn from thinking that preceded them in posts that probably averaged 300 words each.

    “Innocence and magic” is as much an exception as an example. I wrote it in a single sitting, less to make an industry point and more to recreate a time when I loved the potential of publishing. Writing that post was a creative act. It had no news you can use, and slapping a prosaic headline on it would have diminished its value for me as a writer. That’s why I told Paul I was not going to change it.

    I agree that being more SEO- and tweet-savvy is not an either-or decision. It probably will become less of an issue over time. Very few people are Porter Anderson; no one dedicated as much time this year to reading my work. I really appreciate that, more than I’ve been able to express.

  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    @d8bf31b5d997c7a4f95112f56a9d64f9:disqus

    This is very kind of you! Thanks for the good words.

    Just for clarification (to be sure the right person gets the blame, lol), I’m the author of Writing on the Ether, which Jane is generous enough to host here at her site each Thursday. (I’m also at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays with a parallel column, Ether for Authors, if you’re really brave.)

    Thank you again for reading and for such an open-minded approach. We could all use a lot more receptive, thinking souls like that around! :)

    -Porter
    @Porter_Anderson

  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    @d8bf31b5d997c7a4f95112f56a9d64f9:disqus

    @twitter-240542789:disqus

    Hey again, Steven, and Viki, very good question.

    Technically — best of all possible worlds, etc., mind you — the critic should recuse him- or herself from critiquing an area of work in which he or she has participated as a creator. And that’s about as oblique an answer as I could have come up with, so let me get more specific.

    Viki is saying some right things here, but the comparison of theater to book reviewing is not seamless in this case. In effect, though, Viki, your important point is that critics SHOULD say “I hate musicals” right up top, if that’s the case, so that you have a chance as a reader to know that serious bias.

    In theater, the very best critics, are people who have acted/directed/designed costumes and/or sets, etc. But the changeover to criticism needs to be complete and exclusive, by which I mean that an actor should never write criticism, even of shows he’s not in. You’re either a critic or you’re a theater artist. (I made this precise transition, myself, moving from being an Equity actor — which immeasurably helped me as a critic with many years of practical inside knowledge of the workings of production and the art — to being a critic. It was a great day for my audiences, I believe, when I switched over to criticism, suddenly safe to go back into the theater because I would not be able to work onstage once I’d “gone over” to journalism covering the art.)

    Now, people will try to conjure all sorts of loopholes here: What about a male actor hired to critique an all-women’s show or vice-versa? Then, one might say, there can be no conflict of interest because the critiquing actor cannot have been cast or played in such a production, he or she is the wrong gender. Etc. etc. etc. — slippery slope and never worth it.

    In fact, the critical function, is not the same as the function of that artist. A critic needs to learn and deploy his or her own talent and craft in elucidation and evaluation of the talents and crafts of artists — who are busy doing their own thing, not that of the critic. Church-state separation is still the winner. Train the critic every way possible in the art, then lift that critic OUT of the art and keep that critic out of the art.

    Should the critic ever decide he/she must go back onto the stage? Goodbye, criticism. You’re either one animal or the other.

    Now, in publishing, there are two cases to consider, one more proscriptive than the other.

    (1) Quite like the theater artist who needs to avoid cavorting around onstage once he becomes a critic, an author, say, of mysteries, should not critique other authors of mysteries. Even if the author has the purest heart in the land, how can we tell? How can we know that Agatha Christie doesn’t covet the success of Dorothy Sayers? Dame Christie really mustn’t write books by day and critique others writing similar books by night. It’s not cool. It just doesn’t look right for one fine author in the field to critique another fine author in the same field. This is when an author needs to recuse him or herself, as a judge will recuse himself from the bench when he has an interest in a case.

    Technically, authors shouldn’t critique each other, period, even if they’re not in the same genre. In the cleanest critical environment, that would be the rule. Nevertheless, as we know, major media frequently will engage one author to critique another author — this is not an unusual practice. And in such cases, at the very least, we have to hope (and require — you can say this to a news medium in letters to the editor, etc.) that they’re not asking authors of the same type of content to sit in judgment on each other.

    (2) In areas of expertise, however, there can be a distinction made. This largely pertains to nonfiction. Let’s say Author A has put out a new book on landscape gardening’s early development in Britain, and Author B is a renowned expert in the field who has published a book or two of her own on the subject. In this case, there can be made a good case for asking Author B to critique Author A’s new book on the matter, because Author B has the track record and status of expertise in the field to know the terrain (sorry for that pun) and handle it well. Nevertheless, this is when a good editor’s note is very important, explaining to the reader who Author B is and why she’s being asked to critique Author A’s effort. That disclaimer is absolutely necessary and should appear at the very top of the review, not as a footer.

    Once again, however, the better option would be not Author B but an expert in the field of landscape gardening who is NOT an author. A professor, a renowned landscaper, etc. A non-publishing expert would be the very best way around the issue because there would be no author-author critical action in play.

    Now, beyond that, let me bring up one more point that vastly complicates the current debate about Amazon (and other) online reviews, and that is that they are not assigned. These are self-appointed “reviewers.”

    (These are not critics, by the way, in that a critic never says “go” or “don’t go” or “buy” or “don’t buy” — a critique is an evaluation, a review is a consumer device. Critics don’t offer consumer guidance, reviewers do. We use the terms interchangeably, but they’re not actually the same jobs. If I critique a new Ferrari as a work of art — my friend Paola Antonelli has hung one on the wall at MoMA, I kid you not, she’s Senior Curator of Design there — then I am critiquing, not reviewing. If I review that new Ferrari for Motor Trend and tell you whether I think you should buy it and how good your gas mileage won’t be, I’m now reviewing. Different role, and a role that should be done by a different person — critics and reviewers should not do each other’s jobs.)

    The difficulty of this online consumer reviewing issue is that everybody can just jump up and claim the proper credentials to review everybody else. It’s a free-for-all.

    Mind you, this is not necessarily “bad” in the world and ethos of the Internet and its open sorcery, as I like to call it. But it’s anathema to actual critical function in more formal, legitimate settings. There, a critic is chosen for her or his credentials (training, experience, practical application), inclusive of an understanding that she or he will stand down from critiquing friends or former or present colleagues. In the online commercial marketplace, neighbors weigh in on neighbors, relatives claim to be bias-free about relatives, and there are no controls, not even the requirement of an actual name. (On Amazon and other sites, you can choose the name attached to your reviews, which of course is why sock-puppetry and other grotesque unethical efforts can succeed unless an Amazon steps up its systemic detection systems — as it has done — to block reviews that have connections we may not be able to discern from the outside to various products. We hear anecdotes of reviews taken down “for no reason,” but we don’t actually know the backgrounds in those cases — Amazon does. I believe we might be surprised if we knew some of the stories behind these instances.)

    We actually can’t ask the commercial retailers like Amazon to actually assign credentialed critics as newspaper features editors do. Not least because the purpose and intent of these reviews are different. In fact, as I was saying in the post, the key thing to remember here is that the intent is CUSTOMER review. The one real criterion the site should try its best to enforce is actual, genuine consumer status — and Joe Wikert at O’Reilly Media has written well to this in suggesting that ONLY a buying customer should be allowed to review a product. http://ow.ly/gyA5H

    With my own background in stringent, legitimate criticism, my advice to the retailers would be to enhance that customer-only suggestion from Joe with an additional pass over the names of reviews coming in to be sure they didn’t include other authors (of any genre). So I would up the ante of Joe’s suggestion by saying that books should be reviewed by (a) only customers who have bought those books (the issue of ARCs, etc. to be handled separately), and (b) only buying customers who are not, themselves, authors.

    Only then would you be sure you had actual customers without a collegial conflict of interest.

    Very high bar. Guaranteed to make me really unpopular at author luncheons, lol. Easier for me to say than for others to stomach.

    It’s disheartening, though, I should tell you, to find so many people, including authors, who find these standards so hard to accept. While my own explication of them sounds complex (steeped in so many years of really doing this in very controlled settings for media), the bottom lines are so simple. It’s exactly this:

    You can’t be fair when you review somebody who’s doing what you do.

    In the business of professional criticsm, we never say we’re “objective.” The lay public uses that term, an “objective review.” Humanly impossible. And professional critics are the very first to say so. What we strive for is not objectivity but fairness. And you need a lot of distance — steady, consistent, carefully cultivated distance — to be fair.

    None of us is so angelic that we can pull off reviewing each other fairly. And if I think for one minute that I might have been cast as that Hamlet, I can’t be fair to the guy who was. And if I think for one minute that I could have written someone’s book better than they did, I’m not able, despite my best efforts, to be fair to that author. And if anybody reading me thinks for one minute that I might not have had the cleanest slate possible, then I’m in “appearance of conflict of interest,” and I’ve just neutralized myself. Otherwise known as shooting oneself in the foot.

    We are creatures of opinion, it’s one of our grandest features. But handling this is much harder than we like to concede, and once we’re in sectors — like the commercial marketplace on Amazon or in the theater-going public at a Broadway house — we need to temper and contextualize what we do with our opinions in ways that are appropriate to such public settings in which livelihoods and decisions can be affected by our comments.

    -p.

  • http://twitter.com/hotelalphabet Hotel Alphabet

    Over at Goodreads, myself and another indie author instigated the Review Group. Here authors can get non-reciprocal, honest reviews in return for reviewing different authors’ works. Books are allocated randomly so we usually end up reading outside our genres.

    Members have been incredibly honest and constructive in their criticism (plenty of 2 or 3 star reviews as well as 4 and 5) and I can’t see how this differs from the standard peer review system for academic articles/books. Let’s get over the paranoia and support fellow authors by reading their work.

  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    @twitter-46882249:disqus

    Hi there, and thanks for your input.

    I’m very glad to hear of this system you’re using with your Review Group at Goodreads, in that it sounds as if you’re taking good, strong, conscious measures to limit the problems of author-on-author reviews by randomizing and making the process non-reciprocal.

    It does differ from the standard peer review process in the Academy, in that the format there involves known scholars — their curricula vitae are not only visible but used to select their peerage — and the process there is overseen. This in NO way impugns what you’re doing. You can hardly be expected to come up with an Academy-grade reviewing system at a commercial shared-reading site like Goodreads, nor should you feel you have to. I’d simply advise against over-reaching in the comparison: you have no need to do that, you’re doing a good thing right where you are.

    The real key to what I like about what you’re doing is that it’s CONSCIOUS. You and your associates in this group have thought about how to attempt to achieve fairness in the review process there and are cooperating with a set of guidelines to enable that. I like this very much and thank you for telling me about it.

    I’ll just ask you to bear with me on your final line. As much as I like your process, it is, in fact, something you’re doing as a response to “paranoia” about far less ethically defensible practices. While “paranoia” is not the term I’d have chosen — I think “concern” or “responsibility” might be better — I would not like to see us, basically, “stop worrying and support fellow authors by reading their work” without thinking these things through in the good way you and your fellows have done.

    Worrying about making any review system better is a very productive worry, a very positive worry, a very constructive worry — excellent “paranoia,” if you prefer, or my favorite phrase, Andrew Miller’s “ingenious pain” — and if your good attempt to create fairness in a group like this is the result, then I do not want us getting over that worry.

    I say we keep worrying so that we remember that support among authors is worth nothing if it’s not built on a strong floor of honest, well-made procedures like yours.

    Congratulations, and please stay paranoid, you’re doing great things with it. :)

    -p.

  • Anne R. Allen

    The reason authors find these rules “hard to accept” is Amazon’s rules ignore the entire history of the publishing industry. Without authors reviewing authors, we would have no New York Times Book Review, no New York Review of Books. No Times Literary Supplement. I think you’re listening to the wrong people. Some very dangerous people. I’ve blogged about this today http://annerallen.blogspot.com/2013/01/online-book-reviews-games-people-play.html

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  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    @google-cdd662dbbf570b08f57074b311216f88:disqus

    Hey, Anne, sorry I missed this until now.

    As I said in my comment you followed, media have assigned authors to critique authors as long as anyone can remember. It’s not an unusual practice. In the best settings, though, it’s handled very carefully to keep author-on-author criticism from being directly confrontational (same genre, competitors, etc.) when possible. And it’s not always done well.

    The purest critical stance — and I’m talking here as a Fellow of the National Critics Institute — is simply the most distant possible one and, in best practice (though not always the norm) this means authors reviewing authors can be problematic.

    The point of these discussions, though, is not “the entire history of the publishing industry,” lol. It’s the latter day arrival of CUSTOMER REVIEW (not criticism, review) in commercial settings such as Amazon — and the participation in that consumer exercise by authors. A very, very different thing.

    I’ll check your post, thanks –
    -p.

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