Monthly Archives: April 2010

  •    Slate’s got a fascinating piece on Agatha Christie’s notebooks. I particularly enjoyed this paragraph:
    Her less-than-refined writerly day began with finding her notebook, which surely she’d left right there. Then, having found a notebook (not the one she’d used yesterday), and staring in stunned amazement at the illegible chicken scratchings therein, she would finally settle down to jab at elusive characters and oil creaky plots. Most astonishing, Curran discovers that for all her assured skewering of human character in a finished novel, sometimes when Christie started her books, even she didn’t know who the murderer was. Ah! It makes sense—a brilliant mystery writer must first experience the mystery! Or does it?
    Which goes to show that even the best of us are only human. #
  •    Kottke on the extinction of paper children’s books:
    However, I’d like to assure the childless Rose that if paper books ever go extinct (they won’t), paper children’s books will be the last to go, particularly among the pre-K crowd. E-books are “broken” in several ways that are important to kids, not the least of which is that paper books are super useful as floors in really tall block buildings.
    Amen to that. #
  •    US government finally admits most piracy estimates are bogus. At long last. #

Paper Houses

Diana Kimball is a writer, thinker, and all-round enthusiast. Paper Houses was originally written as a research paper, on the problem of credibility in self-publishing. She has kindly allowed me to republish the entire essay here, on Novelr.

Early in autumn, in the year 2000, members of the American Printing History Association gathered at the Rochester Institute of Technology to consider the precipice between centuries. The conference: “On the Digital Brink.” Among the figures invited to address the assembly, Robert Bringhurst stood apart. As a typographer and poet, Bringhurst was intimately acquainted with the forms words take, and the ache that accompanies shepherding one’s own work toward print. Asked to issue an epitaph for the twentieth-century book, Bringhurst approached its apparent demise with caution; sensible, for at the turn of the twenty-first century, the book in its familiar form retained a certain indeterminate allure.

On a Friday evening in October, Bringhurst issued a forecast. “The book,” he first said, “is poised to move, in the coming century, from its familiar paper house to a kind of handheld movie screen.” But, he continued, “I assure you that I see no reason to be worried by any of this. For while it does look to me like a part of our future, I expect that part to be short-lived. Wherever human beings live their own lives instead of somebody else’s, stories form in their hearts and in their heads.” Finally: “stories and people nourish each other. Where that occurs are the seeds of the book, some of which are certain to sprout.” Expressing sympathy for the impulse to publish while remaining vague about what form that impulse would come to inhabit in the future, Bringhurst drew his epitaph to a close. Stories, he suggested, were going nowhere. But nowhere did he promise that the houses they inhabit would not change.

Tradition

In 2005, a scandal broke. At issue was the definition of “tradition”; the controversy involved a print-on-demand publishing outfit called PublishAmerica, a mass of frustrated authors, and the troubled state of the novel in a digital age. PublishAmerica, The Washington Post reported, had lured authors to sign over rights to their manuscripts with the assurance that their work would be produced by a “traditional” publishing house. PublishAmerica identified itself as “traditional” to distinguish itself from vanity presses, which—historically—charged authors for the privilege of seeing their work in print, rather than paying authors for the privilege of publishing it.

PublishAmerica did not charge, but it barely paid, either; worst of all, authors who believed they were legitimizing their work quickly discovered that they had instead condemned their manuscripts to collective disdain. When one PublishAmerica author stopped by a local bookstore to schedule a book-signing, “an assistant manager checked her computer, ‘looked at [the author] and said, “That’s POD,”’” a compact and often derisive acronym for print-on-demand. The author was told that the bookstore did not do signings for POD authors. She was devastated.

Technology complicates tradition. The publishing industry as it existed in the twentieth century was a masterpiece of systematized inefficiency. Publishing houses routinely printed thousands of copies of a book so that enough people would see it that a few might choose to buy or read it. The enterprise was, of necessity, surrounded by an ecosystem of quality control and promotion devoted to recouping the massive cost of that inefficiency. This ecosystem included the apparatus of the book review, the role of the editor, and the specialty of creating cover art. Bookstores, given limited shelf real estate, carefully chose which books to stock; publishers, given the tremendous cost of publishing a volume in quantities that would enable certain economies of scale, took great care to bet only on books they thought bookstores might stock. The advent of online merchants such as Amazon.com altered the equation slightly, offering a new outlet for books unconstrained by the limitations of physical display space. The ease of desktop publishing, and the undeniable efficiency of print-on-demand technology at managing supply and demand, hold the potential to alter the equation further.

  •    Markos Moulitsas’s iPad is now his primary mobile writing tool:
    For me, all I care is whether a device makes my life easier. I could give a shit about whether the hackers love or hate it, or how much hype something has. The iPad filled my needs seamlessly, with only minor hassles. It was better than a laptop, allowing me to travel more efficiently.
    He spends most of his time surfing, writing, and emailing. (via) #

Fictionaut Reviewed

Screen shot 2010-04-10 at 11.23.32 PM.pngFictionaut is Flickr for writers. Which, really is to say that it’s a social network built around writing – sometimes drafts of novels, sometimes flash fiction – and so you go to Fictionaut to friend people, and leave comments, join groups, and submit stories, and so on so forth.

In the few months since Fictionaut’s release, a number of writers have described the service as a breath of fresh air. Some use it as a stage before publication – throw the drafts of your latest novel on Fictionaut, and you’re guaranteed a discerning audience. Most striking, however, is this love-letter by James Robinson, who says: “Fictionaut provides a round-the-clock, faithfully attentive audience. Bless its founders.” I saw that, thought for a bit, and emailed founder Jürgen Fauth for an invite.

Here are some thoughts, loosely connected, on Fictionaut.

Community

I’m must say that I’m most surprised at the level of community on the site. The majority of writing websites that I know have communities that aren’t particularly … nice. Fictionaut’s, however, not only seem to be consistently nice, but tend to also refrain from commenting on works they do not like. (If the writing is horrible, you keep quiet and go somewhere else). The net effect is that you feel – when you’re writing there – to be part of this welcoming, supportive group. And that’s a rather refreshing thing to have.

From experience, I’m not sure if such ‘supportive writer culture’ can or will last forever. The culture exists naturally, at the moment, bubbling up from the community, but if at any point Fictionaut opens its doors to the general public, the influx of new members may seriously undermine the tone and pitch of the site. And that’s something I pray won’t happen, though I’m not sure how they’re going to do it. Fictionaut will have to be very careful when they expand; my hope is that they’d get the formula just right.

(I suspect that the solutions for maintaining quality discussion would have to be technological at heart, the same way Paul Graham has programmed several clever things into Hacker News, in order to maintain intelligent discourse. But how exactly this applies to writing I’m not particularly sure.)

Readability baked right in

Fictionaut forces its writers to publish stories according to a standardized, highly readable format. I posted a short story on the site and came away impressed with the quality of the user experience. Reader comments are placed in the sidebar, there’s a section for author notes, and the element placement leads me to suspect that everything you see on-site is deliberately designed to be that way.

There are little flourishes, too, like the beautiful popups that appear when you add someone as a friend, or when you’ve had a failed login:

Javascript Popup

I realize I’m a being a bit of a design geek here, but it’s hard to miss: someone has spent a lot of time making sure everything works intuitively on Fictionaut. I applaud his (or her) attention to detail.

Superb writing

Writing is good on Fictionaut. I sometimes spend hours on the site, reading newer, cooler, better stories – and I can say with some confidence that there’s a high standard to which most Fictionaut writers adhere to. At the very least, there’s a base level of competence that you don’t usually find anywhere else.

A large chunk of the site’s stories are flash fiction, followed by poetry, short stories, and a sprinkling of books-in-progress, posted chapter-by-chapter.

Screen shot 2010-04-10 at 11.31.09 PM.png

I should note that this quality didn’t happen by accident. Fictionaut’s founder, Jürgen Fauth, has a PhD in English/Creative Writing from USM’s Centre for Writers. The core community of the site was handpicked, I think – and new memberships are still dependent on invitations. Accordingly, the site currently leans towards literary fiction, and it feels – at times – like a literary magazine.

At the moment you either get in on invitation, or you apply for an invite. The application page leads me to suspect that Fictionaut enforces a filter for writers – you’ll either have to be competent enough, or established enough to get in (or you’ll have to know someone who’s already in, I suppose). This sounds scary and slightly elitist, but it probably explains the quality of the community and writing on the site today.

There’s a paragraph in the Venuszine Fictionaut review that says:

Pia Erhardt, a seasoned writer from New Orleans who recently had the “most favorited” story, “Ambulance,” agrees that it’s sometimes “terrifying” to post her unedited work, mostly because she respects what her fellow members are writing.

Quality begets quality, and so – again – I’m not particularly sure how they’re going to maintain this without the current invitation system.

(My favourite story on Fictionaut so far is Gold, by Ethel Rohan. To be fair, though, all her stories are just as good.)

Closing Thoughts

Fictionaut’s a little like an oasis, at the moment: it’s quite rare to find a such a large community of good writers online – even at its current size – who’re so supportive of each other. Despite my doubts with Fictionaut’s scalability, I must add that writing and reading on the site has been one of the more enjoyable things I’ve done, lately.

And so – while I’m not sure if Fictionaut can keep it up, or even where they’re headed, I really am quite grateful for the site, for what they’re currently doing for writers. I merely hope that Fictionaut ages gracefully, without the worst of teething problems that so often follows a growing – and social – community. I wish Fictionaut well.

  •    Mark Barret’s at it again – this time he asks: what makes for a successful publisher? Devasting, and to-the-point:
    Publishers at every level need to define why they’re doing what they’re doing. Leaving that task to the miserable soulless scorekeepers will always result in the inevitable charge that you’re a failure, because that’s the point of keeping score.
    Will have to keep this in mind for Pandamian. #
  •    Tim Carmody suggests that book lengths were largely influenced by shape and nature, as opposed to content:
    Assuming all [other factors] are equal … you probably buy on weight, because you subconsciously anticipate a longer reading experience and, all things considered, good experiences that last longer are better than short ones. Remember that the actual cost of the paper and ink is only a small component of the retail price of a book — around 10-15%. Increasing a book block’s size from 150 pages to 180 pages is cheap. And so, from the 1960s to the 1990s, publishers unconsciously trained readers to expect longer novels.
    This, of course, begs the question: what is the ideal length for a digital novel? I suspect that lengths would vary according to type of digital medium: short for the web, 300-500 pages for pdf, and possibly infinity for iBook/Kindle books. Hold that thought; I think it’s worth coming back to in the near future. #

Why Editors Are Important

Two days ago web fiction writer MCM posted a well-written argument against the book editor. He argued, approximately, that book editors have become obsolete in this day and age, for reasons somewhat related to the way writers are now chosen for publication by most major publishing houses. I’d like to present a counterpoint: I believe that editors will become increasingly important as publishing becomes digital, and that this change will happen over the next five years or so.

Writers in publishing houses have taken the editor for granted. Part of it may certainly be – as MCM suggests – due to the decreased investment editors have in writers, but I suspect a majority of traditionally published writers trust their publisher to bring quality to their work. More often than not such quality is attributed to book editors.

In the relationships between writers, editors and publishers, however, the balance of power seems to be shifting towards the writer.

Never before has the writer been presented with so many alternatives to the traditional publishing house. With the Internet, the iPad, and the increased competition from Apple v. Amazon, writers are now able to skip publishers entirely and deliver straight to the reader. It is likely that publishing in the future won’t be so much about publishing writers as it would be about empowering them.

With writers now able to write online – why, then, are editors still so important? The incorrect assumption to make here would be to say that the quality of writing in a post-publishing world would decline, and would happen due of a loss of editorship. But that assumption is merely that – baseless. There is nothing to suggest that editors would have to die along with publishers (if the publishers even die at all, which is unlikely) – rather, it is likely that writers will need editors all the more. To wit: here’s an example of an editor hiring a publisher. Absolutely impossible just a couple of years ago (not to mention crazy) but there it is, clear as day.

Craig Mod believes that editors will become increasingly important as writers become more empowered. I think this is true. But an interesting corollary to think about here is the changing nature of the editor. If the publishing equation has changed to favour the writer, then an editor’s loyalties will no longer lie with the publishing house they belong to, and instead change to favour the writer instead.

Why Writers Need Editors

Perhaps a more important question to answer is: do writers really need editors? Web fiction writer Lee L. Lowe turned to online publishing for the simple reason that she couldn’t stand being edited, and there’s something rather valid in that (another friend of mine told me recently that he was increasingly bitter at the way his publisher-appointed editor was treating his work … for ‘marketability’). If writers turn to the net because they can’t stand the nature of editing in a traditional publishing house, why would they want to hire an editor today?

The answer lies in the nature of writing. When you finish a book you’ve spent a year with, your first urge is to share it, almost immediately, with friends and family. This isn’t ideal, of course. Some of your friends know nothing about writing, and most won’t be able to give constructive feedback of any usable sort. (In fact many – my sister, for instance – will deliver judgment with a four word response: “Yes I liked it”.)

Writers tend to become wiser over time with whom to take their advice from. Most writers I know have a small group of friends and family they go to, after they’ve finished writing a piece. These people are the ones whose opinions they trust the most. Today – a portion of those people are likely to be Internet buddies, or writers clustered in small communities like this one.

When you hire an editor, what you’re essentially doing is that you’re paying for an extra pair of eyes. (A pair with good writerly instincts, of course.) And this is different from asking your writer friends for feedback. Hiring an editor is to force him or her to be on your team, to see you through the publication of your book. Stephen King once described writing as rowing a bathtub across the Atlantic, and what you’re doing, really, when you hire an editor is to invite someone else into your bathtub, some five hundred meters away from shore.

I’m not sure about you, but I think the monetary reimbursement is justified.

Editors of the Future

I suspect that the editors of the future will be exactly as MCM described, in the closing paragraphs of his post: smart, keen editors who still value quality and nurturing authors. The problem we might have, however, is for an easy way for writers to evaluate and choose good editors. There may be a technological solution to this (job boards for editors, anyone?) but by and large, I think this kink would work itself out, over time.

The more writers sufficiently capable of publishing on their own, the more demand for professional editing there would be. And you know what they say about necessity and the mother of all invention …

I look forward to the editors of the future. I hope you do, too.

  •    Betraying Salinger:
    The first letter I got from J.D. Salinger was very short. It was 1988, and I had written to him with a proposal: I wanted my tiny publishing house, Orchises Press, to publish his novella Hapworth 16, 1924. And Salinger himself had improbably replied, saying that he would consider it.
    Probably the last publisher to see Salinger alive. #
  •    Marco Arment on iBooks and private APIs:
    I won’t be able to offer some features that iBooks has (such as a true brightness control), but my customers will expect them, making my app inferior to Apple’s in key areas.
    Assuming you want to build an app, that is. Seems there’s two ways onto the iPad at the moment – either a) you upload an ePub ebook onto the iBook Store, or you build your own book/reader app. Will have to wait to see which of the two is better. #
  •    Keep the pointy end forward. So wonderfully written. (via) #