Weekend Reads

Over the past two months I’ve had three people work on my furnace. In order to use both outlets on the nearby drop box, one of these people unplugged the sump pump, then neglected to plug it back in.

Have I mentioned that it’s been raining a lot lately?

In order to take our minds off the joy of clean-up, I offer these links of interest. How much interest I can’t say, but definitely more than you would have in cleaning up a flooded basement.

  • How to Leverage Twitter When You Have Little Time

    I have a general distaste for the idea of maximizing anything. Books or people who encourage me to get the most out of everything from my in-between moments to my entire life are invariably asking me to heighten my already heightened sense of awareness to the point of overload. I understand that time-saving procedures and efficient processes can produce benefits, but only if they are themselves simple to understand, implement and practice. As such, this link passes the minimalism test.

    Twitter can take a while to understand precisely because you can’t really understand it until you’re using it. So take what you want here and ignore the rest. It will help.

  • “World Press Photo” Contest Winners Gallery 2010

    Found this link via my good friend, Jurie. I was particularly drawn to the images of street fighting from Kiev, Ukraine — a city I visited in 2008 while working on an interactive title.

    I didn’t get to see that side of town.

  • Art Is Everywhere

    Note: this is an image-intensive site, and as such may take a while to fully load.

    Back when the internet first burst onto the scene, this is what it was like. You’d find a site where someone had dropped anchor in order to look around, and it was invariably interesting to experience that person’s point of view. Today the average garden-variety site is sophisticated, breathless, trendy and slick, in keeping with a culture that cares more about being looked at and talked about than doing or saying anything of interest.

    Give me a point of view any day:

    I started this blog to show that Art is Everywhere.

    That’s site-owner Ashley Spencer’s mission statement. And she’s right: it is.

  • Roger Ebert: The Essential Man

    Speaking of sophisticated, breathless, trendy and slick, it’s clear that Esquire magazine lost its way at some point. Now a caricature of its former self, Esquire currently rides the cutting edge of metrosexuality, cutting ever closer to the bone. If you know what I mean.

    Real men don’t objectify women, and particularly not under the pathetic pretext of ogling revering them. If you can’t tell me why a woman is interesting as an individual without also showing me a two-page, soft-focus flesh-drape across a $9,000 divan, then your pictures are not actually worth thousands of reverential words.

    Which brings us to the eternal problem of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In this case, the baby is a profile of Film Critic Roger Ebert, which answered a lot of questions for me. I knew he was sick, and that he’d lost the ability to speak, but I didn’t really know what hand he’d been dealt. I don’t think I ever really thought of the man as tough, even when it looked like he was going to come out of his chair and punch Gene Siskel in the mouth, but the man is tough.

    Like men used to be.

Stay dry.

— Mark Barrett

Professionalism and Quality

After my weekend ride I spent most of Sunday catching up on non-writing news. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t stopping thinking about professionalism and amateurism, and whether there was any useful distinction between the two. As noted in previous posts, the corporate book business insists that amateurs cannot produce works of commercial quality or literary merit because amateurs are inherently unqualified to do so. But is that right? Is professionalism — whatever that word means — an inherent arbiter of quality?

I found myself thinking about that question while I read a New York Times piece on Toyota’s implosion as a brand synonymous with quality. While I already knew about the problems with the Pruis and runaway acceleration, I wasn’t surprised to run across this as well:

It also said it had avoided an investigation into the Tacoma, a pickup whose undercarriage could be affected by rust. Toyota offered to repair or, in some cases, replace damaged Tacomas built from 1995 to 2004. Toyota also said it had saved millions of dollars by delaying federal safety rules affecting other models.

Years ago I made enough money on a screenplay gig to buy myself the first new vehicle I’d ever owned. I took a long time picking it out, paying particular attention to ratings for quality as well as my all-season needs in the (then) upper-Midwest. The vehicle I settled on was a Nissan Pathfinder, which served me faithfully for close to a decade.

At which point the frame disintegrated:

Read more ]

We’re All Amateurs Now

I took a long ride on Metaphor (my imaginary horse) over the weekend, wandering more than aiming for anything in particular. On Saturday night we ended up in a little seaside town that would have been intolerable during tourist season, but was welcoming and sheltering in the windy gray of February.

After boarding Metaphor at the local stable just down the street from my hotel, I walked along the block-long main street, looking at the various storefronts and window displays. On the upwind leg I found the usual knick-knack shops and t-shirt shops, along with the local office of a national real estate brokerage, and the local office of a nationwide bank where you used to be able to borrow money to buy local real estate. On the downwind leg I surveyed the menus for fancy eateries — both promising to open again when people flew north for the summer — and one take-out joint that looked like it had died. There was a dentist’s office up a side alley, and a closed ice cream store that sold hand-packed and soft-serve, which seemed like both a commitment to customer service and a failure to commit at the same time.

And then I came across a gallery, and it was open.  Read more ]

Taking Stock: Ditchwalk at Six Months

Six months ago I put up my first post on this blog. My goals at the time were pretty straightforward:

  • Re-establish an internet presence for myself as a writer. I had a professional web site for years that was devoted to my interactive work. I took it down when I stepped back from interactive in the middle of the 90’s. (Blog posts and documents from that site have been added to Ditchwalk, and can be located via the Archive and Docs tabs on the main nav.)
  • Investigate the (r)evolution taking place in publishing, how the self-publishing/online movement is impacting traditional publishing, and any opportunities this presents.
  • Get up to speed on the new wave of social networking tools. In a few short years, online forums and e-mail groups were out, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter were in.
  • Get up to speed on new tech, including e-readers, online publishing sites, self-publishing service providers, and print-on-demand (POD) technology.
  • Get up to speed on issues facing writers and storytellers in this brave new world. (Google’s deal with the Authors Guild quickly caught my eye.)
  • Identify opinion leaders and stress-test their opinions.
  • Network with others who share any or all of these interests.

Six months later I feel good about what I’ve learned and accomplished. There’s more I want to do, and more I need to know, but today I feel as if I’m on the crest of the breaking publishing wave rather than paddling behind it.  Read more ]

Open-source .epub vs. Adobe .pdf

Over the past few days I’ve been reading up on e-book file formats. I have a collection of short stories I want to publish, and I have a working understanding of the technology that readers will use to embrace that content, but until recently I haven’t worried too much about delivering content to that technology. (The main reason for my delay is simply the pace of change. Time spent trying to understand or master e-content technology six months ago would have put me at buggy-whip risk.)

As luck would have it, Mark Coker just released data about the file formats most in use on Smashwords, his e-publishing site. At the same time, Joel Friedlander pointed me to a useful video tutorial about formatting content using Adobe’s InDesign software, which seems to be the tool of choice for many people. From these two sources of information I was able to understand and easily navigate the first fork in the road on my own publishing journey.  Read more ]

Weekend Reads

Call it the President’s Day long-weekend version. Speaking of which, a historical reminder: the single most important president in the history of the United States is George Washington. Standing apart from all of his other accomplishments, which were considerable, was his decision to relinquish power after two terms — a decision which created a tradition of orderly transfers of power which has sustained this country for over two hundred years. If you’re lucky, you’ve met one person in your lifetime who had that same combination of vision and selflessness.

(Bonus question: in the history of the United States, who was the single most important person? Answer below.)

  • Buzz off: Disabling Google Buzz

    Whatever you think of Google these days, it’s abundantly clear that they have fully transitioned from internet icon to corporate bully. Between their ongoing attempt to hijack the copyrights of millions of legally-protected works, to the opt-out, Big Brother, Microsoftesque we-know-what’s-best-for-you rollout of Buzz, Google has decided that it’s time to take the gloves off and go down swinging as just another morally-bankrupt company bent on leveraging its available cash. (Here Google plays the role of Godzilla, while you play a citizen of Tokyo.)

    Gone is any previous expression of sensitivity to the fact that Google has been collecting personally identifiable data on you for years, all with the promise that it would be treated with discretion. You’re now just an exploitable data point in a desperate advertising-driven bid to remain relevant in an internet world that is increasingly segregated on social networks. (Just as Microsoft didn’t see the internet coming, Google didn’t see the social-network threat.)

    More on turning off Google Buzz here. A slightly confused article about Google’s plans for global Buzz domination here.

    Update: Google makes privacy changes to Buzz based on “feedback”.

  • Read more ]

Richard Nash and the Vision Thing

I ran across an interview today with Richard Nash. If you meet any of the following criteria, you should read it:

  • You are a writer.
  • You are an editor.
  • You are a publisher.
  • You are a living organism.

As regular readers know, Richard is putting together a start-up called Cursor. I believe this venture is the right idea at the right time, and I hope Richard makes a go of it precisely because Cursor is not simply another publishing vanity. It is, rather, a proof-of-concept for a new, internet-age publishing model that emphasizes the reader-writer relationship.

That’s precisely why I’m here. Because I can write these words and you can read them without anybody else getting in the way or taking a cut or telling me I need to spice up my dialogue or throw in a torture scene or a vampire. And Richard Nash knows this:

The way I sort of think about this philosophically is that the reader pays a certain price for something. And everybody who takes a piece of that on route back to the author has to justify it. A lot of us have been failing to justify that big chunk of the reader’s money. It’s partly the reader’s money and partly the writer’s money. It’s the money the reader wants to give the writer for that experience. And typically, 10 to 15 percent of it actually makes it there.

The new reality is that writers do not need publishers in order to connect with readers. Publishers may be helpful in scaling up a writer’s readership, or in providing editing and publishing services, but they are no longer necessary intermediaries between writer and reader. And I know that’s true because this blog doesn’t have a publisher. Or rather, I’m the publisher.

This change is so great, so complete, that what everyone is looking for right now is a compass heading. Even if the destination is beyond the horizon, even if it’s going to be hell getting there, what everyone wants to know is that they’re at least on the right course. Maybe not the exact course, but headed in the right direction.

Richard Nash is headed in the right direction. You won’t agree with everything Richard says, but when you’re done reading the interview you’ll have a much better sense of where you are, and where you should be going.

— Mark Barrett

Site Seeing: The Book Designer

For the past six months or so I’ve been trying to learn everything I can about the publishing industry. A lot of that knowledge is political: it’s about business decisions that people are making in order to protect their interests, and how they’re leveraging others to achieve those goals.

There’s another kind of knowledge to the book business, however, and that’s the practical knowledge of how things are made. On the traditional side there’s book binding and printing; on the electronic cutting-edge there are document formats and presentation issues to confront. Because I know nothing about any of that, and because I need to know at least a minimal amount in order to make my work presentable in the literal sense, I’ve kept my eye out for useful sources of information.

Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer is one such site. Not only does Joel know a lot about how books are made, he makes that information available in language that anyone can understand. Straddling the transitional divide between print and online document preparation, Joel’s blog posts and site documents have already filled in a lot of blanks. And as I get ready to put together a collection of short stories for online publication and distribution, I find myself going to his site, and following his links, more and more.

— Mark Barrett

Site Seeing: Joe Konrath | JAKonrath.com

When I first started trying to understand the tumult taking place in the publishing and self-publishing industries, one of the sites I ran across was a blog called A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. Written by author Joe Konrath, the site provides useful commentary on the transitions taking place in publishing, and how writers may profit from these changes. In the past I referenced several of Joe’s posts here and here, but today I want to encourage you to take both a closer look at the Newbie blog and a broader look at the JAKonrath.com empire.

If your writing platform equals your celebrity (and it does), there’s still the nagging question of how you become celebrated. Various authors have reversed the process entirely, building up a persona first, then capitalizing on it by writing a book, but that’s not what most authors are going to do. For most authors the question is more mundane: how do I let the world know where I am?

Part of the answer today is undoubtedly technological. Whether you choose to have a blog or a web site or both or more, that’s going to be part of your solution. It’s certainly a big part of what Joe is doing — as one click here will demonstrate — and that’s another reason to keep track of both the site and the blog. Someone is actually doing the stuff you may decide that you want to do, and they’re giving you a chance to learn by their example.

If you’d prefer a more hands-on approach to marketing, Joe’s also been down that road:

I was the guy who sent out 7000 letters to libraries, who visited over 2000 bookstores, who blog toured over 100 sites in a single month, who gathered 10,000+ names for his newsletter, who talked about social networking before anyone knew what Facebook was.

I think all of this has had a positive effect on my career. I’ve made some money. I’m still selling books.

I’m not advocating that you do any or all of that — I certainly won’t be — but that’s not the point. The point is that Joe Konrath doesn’t seem to be kidding around as an independent author, and there aren’t a lot of people you can say that about.

— Mark Barrett

Publishing is for Professionals

It’s all well and good that people want to take advantage of the internet as a means of displaying their home-made arts and crafts, but as any veteran of any industry will tell you, there’s a big, big difference between being an amateur and meeting an industry’s standards of professionalism. For example, in the publishing industry professional authors and big-name publishing houses sift, vet, analyze, check, double-check, fact-check, double-fact-check and otherwise proof every single word on every single page. Editors scrutinize each line as to factual truth, house style, and grammatical validity, both as a service to readers and as a means of protecting the stature of the author’s and publisher’s names. To be sure, not everyone gets equal treatment, but as the price of a book goes up, you can bet more and more assets are thrown at the text to make sure it lives up to the names associated with it.

This is what it means to be professional, and it’s rightly why professionals look down on amateurs who think they know anything about publishing something important or good. For example, former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin recently published a memoir titled Going Rogue, for which HarperCollins paid her millions of dollars — which she in turn paid someone else a lot less money to actually write. Because publishing is a serious business, and because editors are serious people, and because the difference between amateur-hour and professionalism is always in the details, Going Rogue received the kind of professional, nitty-gritty scrutiny that your average amateur author (or fake author) could only dream of.

All of which, at first blush, would seem to make this gaffe surprising:

In her new book, “Going Rogue,” former vice presidential nominee attributes a quote to UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden.

The only problem is that he didn’t say it.

“Our land is everything to us…I will tell you one of the things we remember on our land. We remember our grandfathers paid for it — with their lives.”

It’s a nice quote, but it really doesn’t sound like something that Wooden would say. It was actually written by Native American activist John Wooden Legs in his essay “Back on the War Ponies.”

To the uninitiated it undoubtedly seems as if this kind of mistake undercuts the claim that professionals and amateurs are differentiated by the quality of their output. Unfortunately, this is the kind of uninformed opinion that defines amateurism.

It’s well known in the publishing industry that when a major publisher shells out millions of dollars in order to exploit the celebrity of a rapidly-burning cultural candle, it’s only doing so as a public service so it can steer some of the resulting revenue toward serious books by serious people. HarperCollins was really only patronizing Sarah Palin and her followers as a means of leveraging cash that could be used to fund the publication of cutting-edge literary fiction and nonfiction of cultural significance. What the amateur eye sees as hypocrisy, the professional understands as a savvy in-joke.

So remember: this kind of egregious, high-profile embarrassment does nothing to change the fact that you’re not worthy of professional status in the publishing industry. When you inevitably include a typo or a bad fact in something you ‘publish’ on the internet, you have defined yourself as a failure, a pretender, an amateur. And the publishing professionals will be the first ones to tell you so.

— Mark Barrett