Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 11, Number 5: May 2011


Writing about Reading (continued)

If you have yet to read the first portion of this essay (in Cites & Insights 11:4, April 2011), you should read that first—it’s less snarky and probably a lot more useful than most of this segment, which descends more deeply into universalist nonsense.

How Ebooks Will Change Reading and Writing

Some of the items discussed here may not really belong, and some may be admirable—but you’re going to see a higher percentage of what I might charitably call meretricious nonsense. In any case, here’s a whole bunch of determinism for your reading pleasure—if you still read, that is. (An audiobook version is not yet available, but I have never disabled the text-to-speech functions of PDF or, for that matter, your PC’s operating system. Would this all seem more amusing if “read” to you by, for example, a young Scottish woman? Make it so.)

A New Page

This essay, which appeared August 3, 2009 and is by Nicholson Baker, is entitled “Kindle and the future of reading” as a browser title. The tease: “Can the Kindle really improve on the book?” This is a New Yorker article, not a blog post, and at 6,000 words, make no mistake: It’s the kind of essay that makes me almost want to subscribe to the New Yorker. But it’s also Nicholson Baker, who has a talent for mixing reasonable speculation and batshitsomewhat extreme notions.

He ordered a Kindle 2. “How could I not?...I was being steered.”

Everybody was saying that the new Kindle was terribly important—that it was an alpenhorn blast of post-Gutenbergian revalorization.

There it is: Everybody. Nicholson cites two sources, both asserting that writing will never be the same, one that “Printed books…are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.” Nicholson also quotes from Amazon user reviews and accepts rumored sales figures. So, you know, Baker had to buy the thing. Amazon made him do it.

He leads us through the unpacking process in a literary fashion—”the plug…was extremely well designed, in the best post-Apple style. It was a very, very good plug.” OK, I’m jealous: I’ll never get anybody to pay me $1 a word or better for deathless prose like that. Then comes the anticlimax, again in Baker’s style:

The problem was not that the screen was in black-and-white; if it had really been black-and-white, that would have been fine. The problem was that the screen was gray. And it wasn’t just gray; it was a greenish, sickly gray. A postmortem gray. The resizable typeface, Monotype Caecilia, appeared as a darker gray. Dark gray on paler greenish gray was the palette of the Amazon Kindle.

This was what they were calling e-paper? This four-by-five window onto an overcast afternoon? Where was paper white, or paper cream? Forget RGB or CMYK. Where were sharp black letters laid out like lacquered chopsticks on a clean tablecloth?

Baker wasn’t enchanted.

And yet, you know, many people loved it. To be fair to the Kindle, I had to make it through at least one whole book. Jeff Bezos calls this “long form” reading. I had some success one morning when I Kindled my way deep into “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Erotic Romance,” by Alison Kent…

Maybe I should stop there. I attempted to read Baker’s essay online. That may be a mistake. I also tried to give Baker the benefit of the doubt, taking him seriously. That may also be a mistake. I trust he was being paid by the word, since in this essay he is one wordy son-of-a… Ah, but who am I to complain of someone else’s wordiness?

Baker seems to fall for Amazon silliness. He has a rambling story about the development of e-ink and associated devices. He goes through form factors on the Kindle and the Kindle 2. He uses “un-ergonomicism,” which shows more courage (or something) than I’d be willing to display. He moans about the Kindle DX’s effect on e-delivered newspapers. “It diminishes and undercuts them—it kills their joy. It turns them into earnest but dispensable blogs.” And apparently he thinks iPods are great and better reading devices than Kindles (I may have read that wrong; my eyes were glazing over).

In the end, he does manage to read a page-turner novel on the Kindle. And, hey presto, there’s the end of the essay. Thoughts delivered on “the future of reading”? None that I could find, or maybe they’re buried in Baker’s prose. I’ve quoted roughly 170 words out of some 6,000. You may find the whole essay wonderful. You may even find that it offers some worthwhile notions on the future of reading. Me? Not so much.

Books will survive, but not on paper

No namby-pamby equivocation here. Susan Hayes says it flat out in this September 4, 2009 piece at The Australian. After all, she sat down with “US digital guru Bob Stein” to discuss the future of the book—Stein calls books “user-driven media,” which tells me more than I need to know—and they both agree that “the paper book, as we know it, will gradually disappear from our shelves over the next 10 years.” Just watch them fade away…

Now that these two great minds have established a universal truth, she can tell Australian publishers they must be ready. Everything’s going digital and the transition is harder for small publishing houses: “Setting a manuscript in user-friendly digital format is not simply a matter of pressing a few buttons.” Really? Once a manuscript has been turned into a designed book? There’s more about author contracts and self-publishing, some of it possibly valuable, but given the wholly unsupported absolutism in the title and first paragraph, I’m hard-pressed to pay much attention. It’s fair to say some commenters aren’t convinced she’s made a coherent case. One was at the session Hayes apparently refers to and says, “It left me thoroughly unconvinced.”

Oh, and Bob Stein? She probably means Robert Stein, founder of The Voyager Company and the Institute for the Future of the Book—and I regard his credentials as a surefire prophet on publishing’s future about as seriously as I do Nicholson Baker or, say, Nicholas Negroponte.

Rebooting the Book (One Apple iPad Tablet at a Time)

Here’s Mark Sigal writing on September 22, 2009 at O’Reilly Radar. He sees stagnant book sales, the sad state of Borders (even in 2009) and “a world devoid of bookstores.” He quotes approvingly two authors who claim the primary function of a book is to “fulfill its promise as a transmitter/inspirer of ideas, art, thoughts, story, entertainment.” From all this, he arrives at the notion that the iPad—not tablet computers in general, not ereaders, but the iPad—”could be a best-of-breed solution” for what he seems to see as the real functions of books.

Why? You’ll have to read that directly. A lot has to do with Apple being The Perfect Company that Everybody Loves and Can Do No Wrong. Here’s a great sentence:

Flashing forward to the present, I see Apple coming up with tools that allow prosumers, long-tail media, and publishing houses to create world-class e-books that take advantage of the native capabilities of the iPhone Platform.

Prosumers. Long-tail media. World-class something, to be sure. I find the article embarrassing as I reread it, even down to the final paragraph:

Do people even read anymore? With Apple’s iPad Tablet device, my sense is that they will.

The Book That Contains All Books

Another one where the page title, “Why the International Kindle Will Change The Book As We Know It,” is different than the essay title—this time by Stephen Marche at The Wall Street Journal on October 17, 2009. The tease: “The globally available Kindle could mark as big a shift for reading as the print press and the codex”

Marche’s second sentence (after announcing the global availability of the Kindle 2) is:

The only other events as important to the history of the book are the birth of print and the shift from the scroll to bound pages.

Marche offers his informed comments on those two earlier developments and the pundits of the time who railed about them. And, of course, makes the point that all technological change is inevitable. Marche owns too many books and seems thrilled with his assurance that print books are, at best, obsolescent. He has a proper literary name for the ereader: “transbook, by which I mean that it is the book which can contain all books.”

Marche says it’s obvious where the “transbook” is headed: “It will eventually provide access to all text that is non-copyright, and to the purchase of every book in or out of ‘print.’” “A single object will contain the contents of all the world’s libraries. It’s just a matter of when that will happen.” Oh, and it’s a matter of “what the book wants to be.”

It wants to be a vast abridgment of the universe that you can hold in your hand. It wants to be the transbook.

Well, damn, I’m convinced. Since the book wants to be the transbook (which, 16 months later, is now the universally preferred name for ebook devices), the discussion’s over.

Stupid Ideas Are Still Stupid Even When Amazon Does Them

Yes, this Whatever post by John Scalzi from October 28, 2009 appears in this section—not because I think Scalzi’s an extremist, absolutist or nonsensical. It’s because Scalzi nailed this in one: An Amazon patent for a system to change each copy of a downloaded ebook—the text in the ebook—to watermark it.

The patent suggests that “the modification to an excerpt performed by the synonym substitution mechanism may not significantly alter the meaning of the excerpt to a human reader,” which sounds just like the something that someone who doesn’t actually write in human languages for a living might suggest. Perhaps we should suggest we should go into this software engineer’s code and swap some of the code around. Oh, sure, it might not significantly alter the meaning of the code. But then let’s run it and see where it gets us.

As Scalzi points out, this isn’t a new idea—a former SFWA VP, one I’ve long since stopped quoting, made the same silly proposal years before. When he did so, he was bemused when SFWA members pointed out that “actively corrupting their texts was not really a smart idea.” It was a dumb idea then; it’s a dumb idea now—although it does give us more insight into the attitude Amazon has about that unimportant content within the echunks it wants to sell us. (As usual with Whatever, there are many, many comments, some well worth reading. “Address me as Ishmael” is one of those comments, and it’s hard to argue with that. Or, for lovers of more basic prose, comment #23: “It was a poorly shaded, and slightly overcast evening.”)

Writing in a canyon

I’m possibly even more bemused by absolutist thinking from librarians than I am from pundits and gurus, and here’s Michelle Boule at A Wandering Eyre on February 17, 2010, and the very first paragraph:

It seems like often when I am talking to my friend, Jason Griffey, we end up talking about the print format and how it is going to die. Notice I did not say if. I think we always circle back to this because usually one or both of us are in the middle of some kind of writing project or other and we are frustrated with the process or the medium. Both, usually. [Emphasis added.]

There it is: Not if, but how—apparently Jason Griffey and Michelle Boule have some omniscience the rest of us lack. She backs off a bit, although in a somewhat demeaning manner:

I do think print books will be with us for a long time to come but I believe their purpose will be collection and vanity printing, not for reading and certainly not for most research.

Why? I’m trying to dig that out of the rest of the post (which is mostly about Boule writing a book). She’s used to immediate feedback in online venues and she doesn’t get that from a book. She finds writing in the absence of “the wisdom of the crowd” boring and unsatisfying.

You might argue that I am just accustomed to social media, I have ADD instead of writer’s block, or that I need instant gratification. Perhaps you are right, but I am not the only crazy person who feels this way and it is one of the reasons why print books are going to go away. And it will happen sooner than we think.

Boule may not be the only writer who feels that way, but claiming it’s a reason books will disappear “sooner than we think” is a remarkable universalism: “I don’t like writing books. Therefore nobody’s going to write books.” Ah, but there’s another reason [copied without modification]:

Most books it is out of date as soon as the first sentence is typed, let alone edited, typeset, printed, delivered, and actually read by a consumer. Add to that equation a book that involves a discussion of technology and you are in serious trouble.

And the other side, another universalism: As I am, so the world is:

As a consumer, I believe the print industry is just not a sustainable model in its current iteration.

Which presumably means no other iteration could be sustainable? The evidence for that lack of sustainability is, well…hmm. Print book sales aren’t rising as rapidly as they were in the early 21st century, although they’re still at near-record levels.

The book is apparently about “the wisdom of crowds”—and Boule believes “The wisdom of crowds is changing the individual.” I won’t comment on that, since I believe we’ve always learned from others—and I learn a lot more from other individual people than I do from mass “wisdom.” (In comments, it turns out Boule’s reason for believing that fiction print books—which aren’t part of this “wisdom of the crowd and instant obsolescence” loop—will disappear is because hardcover books are currently “prohibitively expensive for many” at $30+tax. Which may be why most books sold aren’t hardcover and why many of us use communal sources—public libraries—for most of our hardcover books.)

Books in the age of the iPad

This threnody for print comes from Craig Mod (, dated March 2010. He opens: “Print is dying. Digital is surging. Everyone is confused. GOOD RIDDANCE.” He’s thrilled by the idea that mass-market paperbacks are going away. Some of the wonders we get from the death of (most) print books because, you know, everybody owns an iPad or soon will:

You already know the potential gains: edgier, riskier books in digital form, born from a lower barrier-to-entry to publish. New modes of storytelling. Less environmental impact. A rise in importance of editors. And, yes—paradoxically—a marked increase in the quality of things that do get printed.

Really? Editors will be more important when anybody can publish their own ebooks? That’s remarkable. But that’s just the start of what’s a fairly interesting essay on future possibilities, once you filter out Mod’s attitudes. (He throws in a wholly unwarranted slap at Danielle Steele along the way, but never mind.)

The gist of Mod’s argument is, I believe, that print books should be reserved for books where the layout—the “form”—is vital to the content. Along the way, we get inevitability:

One inevitable property of the quality argument is that technology is closing the gap (through advancements in screens and batteries) and because of additional features (note taking, bookmarking, searching), will inevitably surpass the comfort level of reading on paper.

Oh, but wait: He was saying that you should only print books where the form is vital to the content, but the iPad changes even that. Not that you should replicate the form of a book. After all, flipping pages “feels boring and forced” (his emphasis) already on the iPhone and will feel even more so on the iPad—to all of us, because Mod is everyman. Mod expects that there will be new forms of storytelling because everybody owns an iPad. Maybe; new media should yield even more forms of content. Then he tries to establish what few books might still be allowed physical form. It’s a manifesto of sorts. You can read it in the original. I’m not buying it.

The Carr Cluster

Arranging the sources in this section chronologically results in a cluster of five items from April and June 2010 either by Nicholas Carr or about Carr’s writing (the Atlantic Monthly 2008 “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and the more recent book The Shallows). I think it makes sense to look at all of them—and more pieces from later in 2010—together. My feelings about Carr are complex. He’s sometimes a good writer but sometimes a really sloppy thinker, very fond of the “As I am, so is everyone” trope—or, just maybe, good at milking extreme ideas for the income-producing articles and high-selling books that can come from them. But he’s also sometimes pretty good at pointing out the absurdities of other folks.

The pieces under consideration here are, in chronological order, “The post-book book” (Carr’s Rough Type, April 1, 2010), “Burying the book” (Rough Type, June 3, 2010), “The internet ate my brain” (The Boston Globe, byline Wes Stephenson, June 6, 2010), “nick carr & the species of reading” (Matthew Battles, library ad infinitum, June 24, 2010), “shallows: dusty voices & the plastic fantastic” (library ad infinitum, June 28, 2010), “The medium is the…squirrel!” (Rough Type, August 22, 2010) and “Interactive storytelling: an oxymoron” (Rough Type¸ December 8, 2010).

“The post-book book” appeared on April 1, and maybe that’s significant—or maybe not. Carr says “the model of book reading (and hence book writing) the iPad promotes seems fated, in time, to become the dominant one.” To Carr, this model is “an app, a multihypermediated experience to click through rather than a simple sequence of pages to read through.” And, sigh, he quotes Steve Jobs’ infamous “People don’t read anymore” statement—then quotes the CEO of Penguin Books who sees “all sorts of cool stuff” that, he says, Penguin anticipates adding to everything they do—audio, video, streaming.

He foresees sprinkling movie clips among Jane Austen’s paragraphs in future editions of “Pride and Prejudice.” No need to conjure up a picture of Lizzie Bennet in your own mind; there’s Keira Knightley stomping through the grounds of Netherfield, cute as a mouse button.

My first response is “Holy crap.” My second is to wonder how much more you’d have to pay for a version of the novel that allows you to create your own mental pictures instead of some movie director’s version. Carr refers to The Shallows and his assertion that “When a printed book is transferred to an electronic device connected to the Internet, it turns into something very like a Web site.” He quotes some other pundit on books being merely delivery systems for text with the medium having no significance, and counters that “history shows” each change in medium has resulted in a change in reading and writing habits (which might or might not be true). The finish:

Jobs is no dummy. As a text delivery system, the iPad is perfectly suited to readers who don’t read anymore.

Great snark but, in my opinion, considerably wide of the mark. One commenter takes the whole idea seriously and wonders what happens to imagination when reading novels and just where the multimedia-fluent authors are to be found. I certainly resemble this commentary (by Eric London):

I think it is difficult enough to develop the wordsmithing skills to produce a novel, at least, one others want to buy and read,. But now I must learn Gimp and video cameras and CGI and sound editing? Wouldn’t these ‘books’ be something more like a film than a novel? Perhaps closer to graphic novels, but with more moving parts. Seems to me it would require more creators than a lone fiction writer. If so, wouldn’t the funding be closer to the Hollywood or game models?

London also asks why, if the “iPad novel” is such a natural thing, there aren’t more of them already out there. Hyperfiction’s been tried for many, many years. It’s mostly failed.

Carr touts The Shallows in the June 3 “Burying the book”—pointing to NPRs feature of an excerpt from the book and how, you know, this time for sure: Even though pundits have been proclaiming the Death of the Book for two centuries, this time it’s real. “The continued existence of the codex, though it may provide some cheer to bibliophiles, doesn’t change the fact that books and book reading, at least as we’ve defined those things in the past, are in their cultural twilight.” Why? The usual stuff: We devote “ever less time to reading printed words” and when “we” (all of us!) read, it’s “in the busy shadow of the Internet.” Sit down and read a magazine, newspaper or book without a browser open alongside? What kind of Luddite are you? The NPR excerpt is long—and, frankly, mostly convinces me I won’t be running out to buy The Shallows. It’s fair to say that commenters at NPR’s site are not uniformly kind to Carr’s thesis. I like this one, from Bo Sson:

What a blatantly self serving article! An author that has a problem with the new medium. Like all things in life, personal choice is just that. Nothing more. Information is absorbed in different ways by each individual. One would think that with the ability to have hand held devices that can deliver instant information would be a boon, but for the royalties of the printed word.

Although there are certainly those who basically said “Hey, who has time to sit and read a book these days?” All of us, if we choose to. None of us, if we choose not to.

Stephenson’s piece in the Boston Globe points to the supposed neuroscience evidence for Carr’s claims that our brains are being irrecoverably changed by the internet and Carr’s seeming assertion that, to quote the Borg, resistance is futile. The thing is, the same malleability of the adult brain works the other way: If you choose to focus, you maintain and regain the ability to focus.

Carr sells short our ability to choose our fate. In the face of the digital onslaught, I can curl up in a fetal position and let my mind waste away, or I can stand and fight. The fact is, I can still decide how—and how much—to use digital media. Perhaps I’ll belong to an ever smaller slice of society that moderates our use. Or perhaps more will join in the resistance. I don’t know, but I wanted to see Carr grapple with these questions.

Books and the Internet, literary culture and digital culture have coexisted for many years. It may be that an engaged intellectual life will now require a sort of hybrid existence—and a hybrid mind that can adapt and survive by the choices one makes. It may require a new kind of self-discipline, a willed and practiced ability to focus, in a purposeful and almost meditative sense — to step away from the network and seek stillness, immersion.

Indeed. But, you know, that wouldn’t make for a provocative best-selling book. It would be too close to the complexities and choices of real life.

Battle’s first essay (“nick carr & the species of reading”) takes on the “golden age” view of the last five centuries of reading portrayed in Carr’s book as being wrong on most counts, especially when Carr credits Gutenberg as a critical turning point. Battle says Gutenberg was trying to corner the (existing) market in Bibles; that moveable type is not what made book reading a popular pursuit (you could just as easily say increased book reading encouraged the rise of inexpensive printing); and, primarily, that “there is no unitary mind at work in history,” either in the past or present.

[I]f the modern mind truly is the direct descendant of Gutenberg’s invention, then so is the Internet. And like the host of cultural innovations that partook of the possibilities of the press—humanism, the Reformation, rationalism, the modern novel—critics fear its disruptive powers. In retrospect, we mistake those innovations for the charted course of history; to our counterparts in their respective eras, they looked like the Internet does to Carr: exciting but disruptive, soothing but dangerous, seductive but corrosive.

Battle is bothered by Carr’s “simplistic definition of reading”—that is, deep or literary reading as the only reading that matters.

[H]e writes as if these are all that reading has been (ever since Gutenberg, anyway), as if the kind of reading he ascribes to the Web—quick and fitful, easily distracted—is a new and disruptive spirit. But dipping and skimming have been modes available to readers for ages. Carr makes one kind of reading—literary reading, in a word—into the only kind that matters. But these and other modes of reading have long coexisted, feeding one another, needing one another. By setting them in conflict, Carr produces a false dichotomy, pitting the kind of reading many of us find richest and most rewarding (draped with laurels and robes as it is) against the quicksilver mode (which, we must admit, is vital and necessary).

There it is, applying my own biases: Carr assumes a single past and single future, a single mode of reading, creating a false dichotomy. It has always been the case that deep reading accompanied shallow reading. I spend more time reading magazine articles (somewhere in the middle) and internet stuff (mostly on the shallow side, but not entirely) than I do reading books, and I don’t sense a dichotomy. Unlike Nicholas Negroponte (see later), I don’t find it difficult or impossible to read long-form narrative, but that’s not the only form of text I read or find worthwhile.

Battle’s next post (in a longer series—you may want to read the whole series) goes further into Carr’s I-am-everyman transformation from deep reader to one unable to edit on the page. Battle’s discussion here is charming but needs to be read in the original. He notes that books aren’t always “quiet counselors” (there’s no more a single model for The Book than there is for The Blog or The Written Word). There’s an interesting take on Carr’s claim that neuroplasticity is making us shallow (all of us, and it’s a one-way journey?):

The susceptibility to transformation that Carr discusses in The Shallows is real. It’s our native endowment—what the brain evolved to do. It is the vogue among scientists to call it neuroplasticity; before that, it was called learning.

Ya’ think?

Carr’s little post on August 22, 2010 is mostly a quote from Nicholas Negroponte’s latest nonsense, not only telling us that print books are dead but now also that long-form reading is dead. The direct quotation:

I love the iPad, but my ability to read any long-form narrative has more or less disappeared, as I am constantly tempted to check e-mail, look up words or click through.

I’ll buy that. Negroponte has an attention problem, and maybe people should stop listening to him. My sense is, though that Carr is quoting him approvingly as a high-profile example of what’s happening to All Of Us (that is, Nicholas Carr). One comment is particularly interesting: Tom Panelas points out that Negroponte earlier reported that he was dyslexic and never much liked reading—so now he predicts that “the thing he never liked is going away.” As Panelas says, “How convenient.”

Finally for this cluster, although it’s less directly related to Carr’s book, he takes on Craig Mod in a December post—specifically, Mod’s claim that “e-storytelling” will and should be substantively different. Quoting Mod:

The biggest change is not in the form stories take but in the writing process. Digital media changes books by changing the nature of authorship. Stories no longer have to arrive fully actualised ... [Ultimately,] authorship becomes a collaboration between writers and readers. Readers can edit and update stories, either passively in comments on blogs or actively via wiki-style interfaces.

As Carr notes, that’s not new—there was enormous enthusiasm among literary theorists in the 1980s and 1990s for hypertext fiction and other multimedia storytelling, and even the “death of the author” concept (where the author’s simply one participant in the storytelling). Didn’t much happen then, for the same reason it’s unlikely to happen much in the future:

Digital tools for collaborative writing date back twenty or thirty years. And yet interactive storytelling has never taken off. The hypertext novel in particular turned out to be a total flop. When we read stories, we still read ones written by authors. The reason for the failure of interactive storytelling has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with stories. Interactive storytelling hasn’t become popular—and will never become popular—because it produces crappy stories that no one wants to read. That’s not just a result of the writing-by-committee problem… The act of reading a story, it turns out, is very different from, and ultimately incompatible with, the act of writing a story. The state of the story-reader is not a state of passivity, as is often, and sillily, suggested, but it is a state of repose. To enter a story, to achieve the kind of immersion that produces enjoyment and emotional engagement, a reader has to give up not only control but the desire to impose control. Readership and authorship are different, if mutually necessary, states: yin and yang. As soon as the reader begins to fiddle with the narrative—to take an authorial role—the spell of the story is broken. The story ceases to be a story and becomes a contraption.

As a universal truth, that’s as silly as most other universal truths: Of course there will be some successful interactive and multimedia stories. Maybe the final sentence is appropriate:

An encyclopedia article can be “good enough”; a story has to be good.

I wonder why this Nicholas Carr seems so removed from the other Nicholas Carr, but such is life. (One comment of many is truly strange: “True art is never about story telling, and science…isn’t story telling at all.” Really? Boy, does that narrow “true art.”)

the end of writing

Although this little post by “caleb” at a blog I can only render as control-f appeared on August 7, 2010, I’m inclined to believe it was intended for four months and six days earlier:

Eventually, the intellectual and technological elite, which includes me, and you also, is going to have the same arguments about writing as we are now having about reading.

People will shift away from keyboards to produce written words. We’ll speak into microphones, at first clumsily and eventually efficiently with our own individual shorthands. Words commonly mistransformed by software will enter formal and spoken language. Academic papers will be written about it, this time not without irony.

There will be backlash. Writing is a lost art, we will say. Anyone can put text on a screen, but real writing is done with fingers pressing on keys, with keys pressing back on fingers in kind but ultimately yielding. Our new writing, in contrast, yields to the computers representing it.

Then we will stop writing altogether.

It’s conceivable that Caleb is serious, but I choose to believe otherwise.

The Future Of Reading

I know, I know: This is shooting fish in a barrel—it’s on a Wired blog (by Jonah Lehrer on September 8, 2010), so the perspective is predictable: Not only “I am the world” but “It’s inevitable” and “there’s only One Way.” The first paragraph—which, oddly, takes almost precisely the opposite tack from Craig Mod:

I think it’s pretty clear that the future of books is digital. I’m sure we’ll always have deckle-edge hardcovers and mass market paperbacks, but I imagine the physical version of books will soon assume a cultural place analogous to that of FM radio. Although the radio is always there (and isn’t that nice?), I really only use it when I’m stuck in a rental car and forgot my auxilliary input cord. The rest of the time I’m relying on shuffle and podcasts.

The future—period. Oh, and the only use for FM radio today is rental cars. Lehrer claims “I love books deeply,” but it’s the kind of love we might be able to do without. He recognizes “the astonishing potential of digital texts and e-readers”—and how does that potential spell doom for print books? Because there can only be one kind of book?

Clearly, for Lehrer this is the case: “My problem is that consumer technology moves in a single direction.” Oh, there’s more—the heart of the post is cognitive “science” claiming we’d understand text better if it was harder to read. As I read this, it appears that Lehrer is saying the Kindle offers higher-quality text than print books, which makes me wonder.

Publishers take note: the iPad is altering the very concept of a ‘book’

Here’s a case—John Naughton on December 19, 2010 in The Guardian—where with just a small change or addition to the text, I’d applaud rather than criticizing. Change “altering” to “expanding” and I’d say that, while we’ve been getting expanded varieties of books for years, tablets might yield even more expansion of possibilities. But an expanded range does not negate traditional forms, and there’s not a word in this column that suggests otherwise.

Naughton talks about The Economist as a fine magazine and a form of “appointment reading,” how he finds it easier and more pleasant to read the iPad version (and basically ignores the print version) and how much he likes one book-as-app that he purchased on his iPad. All of which is fine, until he generalizes—after saying most print publishers have been lulled into a “false sense of security” that the Kindle is just another way of presenting text.

If that’s really what publishers are thinking, then they’re in for some nasty surprises. The concept of a “book” will change under the pressure of iPad-type devices, just as concepts of what constitutes a magazine or a newspaper are already changing. This doesn’t mean that paper publications will go away. But it does mean that print publishers who wish to thrive in the new environment will not just have to learn new tricks but will also have to tool up. In particular, they will have to add serious in-house technological competencies to their publishing skills.

If Naughton really means the concept of a book, I regard that as nonsense, without a shred of evidence. If he means a concept or several concepts, he’s probably right—but, just as magazines and newspapers aren’t vanishing overnight because of iPads, linear text in narrative form isn’t likely to go away as a major form of book just because other forms are becoming more plausible. The comments are interesting, including notes that there have been four decades of experiments with new book forms, mostly unsuccessful—which doesn’t mean new forms on tablets will also fail, but does suggest that there’s nothing here that would spell certain massive change in existing forms. (There are also bone-stupid comments from both extremes, including “anyone using ipad and kindle for reading are not book readers…they are fashion/gadget freaks,” the kind of comment that strikes me as even more idiotic than it is ungrammatical.)

Ads in ebooks

Two related items here: Joe Grobelny’s “Ads in ebooks and why silence matters,” posted August 22, 2010 at all these birds with teeth, and switch11’s “What happens when there’s advertising in books?” posted January 16, 2011 at Kindle Review.

Grobelny’s post begins, interestingly enough, citing a faketv post from August 18, 2010 that seems to refute Nicholas Carr’s thesis. This person took a beach vacation, two weeks with “minimum internet,” and found that in only two weeks, “My attention span grew back, from about 10 seconds to several hours. I could read half a novel at a time, without the itch to look at something new.” (Their peripheral vision also improved, they learned to enjoy ignoring email for long stretches and they now regard Twitter as “an insufferable commotion.”) Wow—so maybe brain elasticity works both ways—we can go from the shallows to the deep if we decide to?

Grobelny calls the novel “the sacred retreat of those who are regaining their abilities to focus on one task” and says that, thanks to ebooks, “content providers” are likely to “try and leverage every tiny bit of space to try and sell you something.” A different Carr—Paul this time—worries that we’ll find product placement within books. I suspect there’s been some product placement for years, and that’s not really Grobelny’s primary concern:

What concerns me the most about both ads in ebooks and product placement advertising in print and other forms is the impact it has on our attention. While it can just be a quick semiotic love-note from the author to the reader, it can also be a lovely mental jumping off point that would lead somebody into a little internet-link-clicky jaunt. So much for avoiding the “new tab” syndrome that haunts us. While it could just be inevitable, and the advertisers might win a place in our novels, it would still bug a lot of people. Namely those who still would like a small part of their lives to be free of the interests of commerce, or at least a place where they can derive pleasure from doing one thing at a time.

Good points—and I’m hoping (and guessing) that hyperlinked ads in ebooks will be no more inevitable than are interspersed ads throughout print books (some mass-market paperbacks have had ads for years, but not integrated into the text itself). The “silence” part? That comes in the last paragraph, where Grobelny—a librarian—was talking with others about noise levels in part of the library and the need for some silent spaces. The final sentences:

If you are quiet, and you listen instead of talking, it gives others the chance to have a voice, and it allows you to hear them. That is what Carr is worried about, and what libraries provide.

“Silence” in this case may mean the absence of internet interruptions, other media, advertising and regular noise; it’s the optimal situation for truly deep reading (which is not what most reading is or needs to be), and I don’t see it going away entirely.

With switch11, who believes all books will be ebooks in the very near future, it’s not a matter of if but when there are ads “in books.” The first two paragraphs:

The first question – Is there any way to avoid advertising in books?

The Answer: Not really.

Why? Because publishers are desperate, because Google needs to offer something different, because “most online companies have begun to feel advertising is the answer to everything.” That means—wait for it—”It’s inevitable that some company will deliver books subsidized by advertising. There’s little we can do about it.”

Then, with all doubt wiped away by The Magic Inevitable, switch11 turns to the question of what happens with advertising in books—and whether books with advertising will “take over.” The rest of the post considers various scenarios, all of which appear to be posited on the fixed notion that all books will be ebooks real soon now—and switch11 concludes that “The most effective ads will start being included in all books.” Not some books, not just ebooks, but all books.

As it happens, switch11’s view of advertising itself is as bizarre as their view of future books: they claim people “shy away” from ads when they know they’re advertising. That is pure nonsense: At least in print magazines and newspapers, well-made ads are attractive additions, not nuisance interruptions. Even in TV, there are people who watch the Super Bowl as much for the ads (which are clearly identified as ads) as for the football.

The rest of the post is so dystopian and bizarre you’ll have to read it for yourself. I can’t bring myself to fisk it.

Undergraduates and E-Books: A Marriage Made With a Shotgun

At this point, it’s nice to have a big dose of common sense and uncommonly good writing, as in this January 19, 2011 library babel fish column by Barbara Fister at Inside Higher Ed. She notes the big increase in ebook sales and includes this wonderful paragraph:

We also can tell from comments posted to virtually any news story about e-books that people feel passionately about them, both pro and con. For some, this is not just a wave of the future, but a tsunami of progress; for others, it is a catastrophe. For many on both sides, it seems inevitable: we will have e-books, and nothing but e-books, like it or not. I see this as being rather like the fuss kicked up when mass market paperbacks were first introduced to the market and many predicted the End of Publishing as We Know It. In fact, it became just another option, one that profoundly affected the marketing and distribution of books, but didn’t put an end to what we had before, and I suspect that will be the case with e-books.

Gee, Barbara, so ebooks might be another kind of book, not The End of Publishing as We Know It? That kind of thinking will get you nowhere on the pundit circuit.

It’s also not the point of the story, which begins with a survey relating receptiveness to ebooks to age. Sixty percent of readers over age 60 weren’t tempted by ebooks—and 58% of readers under 30 also had no interest in ebooks. “Of that group, price wasn’t the biggest issue. They just prefer the experience of a printed book.” (Greatest interest was among readers in their 30s and 40s.)

How can that be? Isn’t this the digital generation, the kids who never read print books in the first place and despise dead trees?

Fister teaches as well as being a librarian, novelist and columnist. She had her students conduct a “wholly unscientific survey” of other students, 176 of them. A minority of those had bought or read ebooks—and of those who had done so, print was preferred to ebooks ten to one. (The others preferred print by similarly huge ratios.)

This is, of course, just a self-reported prejudice among a convenience sample, not an indicator of actual behavior. Students are sentimental about books, but maybe they’ll grow out of it. As another librarian pointed out to me, it’s not particularly useful information for academic libraries as we decide what to acquire. Neither of these surveys addresses students’ preferences when doing research, and many students resist using books altogether when writing papers if articles and Websites will do the job. Printed books are long and complex, and worst of all, you have to leave your computer to go find them on the shelves…

There’s more here, some of it a trifle depressing—but one key is that, while academic libraries may find it necessary to favor digital over print, it’s not because students prefer ebooks. Different situations and uses favor different media and methods. And, well, go back to the last few sentences of the paragraph quoted earlier.

All Singing! All Dancing!

That some folks would rather watch movies than read books is not news. That some folks believe all books should, in effect, be movies isn’t news either. That some folks have the audacity to suggest all books will be multimedia spectaculars: that’s news of a sort. Here’s a little more material I could write off as silly season stuff.

Books that sing and dance

That’s Doug Johnson at The Blue Skunk Blog on November 16, 2008. Johnson’s a school librarian, and maybe this applies primarily to kids and children’s books. He attended a panel on digital books for children, one in which commercial reps showed digitized books made available on a subscription basis, with many of them “taught to sing and dance through clever programming and design, creating materials that are meant to be ‘played’ more than read.”

These products have much to recommend them and great potential. Such collections may well give more children greater access to more quality literature. Books that are more interactive in nature may well attract and engage reluctant readers. Stories that read themselves aloud may well be a boon to struggling readers. This is a market (as much or more targeted to the classroom/reading teacher as the school librarian) that will mature and expand. Get used to it.

He focuses on two questions. The first is, basically, “who needs libraries and librarians?”—and Johnson appears to be one of those who believes school (and, unfortunately, public) libraries as physical collections are and should be doomed. The second:

Does experiencing literature in highly interactive, multimedia formats actually lead to more reading? Or does it simply create a desire for more multimedia experiences? If the print book is vanilla ice cream, the electronic book that sings and dances is the whole hot fudge sundae with cherry and whipped cream. Who’s going to want the plain vanilla anymore?

Johnson then makes the logical leap to “a post-literate society.” I’m not buying it—not because some books won’t become multimedia but because we’ve had the answer to that last question for years. There have been highly attractive multimedia books (Dorling-Kindersley’s CD-ROMs and many other forms) for more than a decade. They haven’t doomed plain text any more than movies have. (One comment notes that multimedia books probably aren’t the way to encourage reluctant readers—whereas, you know, reading to your child and with the child seems to work. Oddly enough, Johnson says “it doesn’t have to be either or” when it comes to online stories and personal reading—but seems unwilling to make the same assumption as regards online multimedia books and print books.)

Digital Independence Takes A Step Closer…

Bill Hill runs a blog called The Future of Reading. This appeared October 19, 2009, and it’s clear right off the bat that Hill has a single-minded view of the future. Not a future, not part of the future, but the future:

There’s no question now that if reading does have a future—and it must—then that future is digital.

There’s no question: Isn’t that easy? Because Bill Hill says so, and since he helped develop ClearType, he should know. He wrote a “Digital Declaration of Independence” because that’s so clear and, I guess, inevitable:

We hold this truth to be self-evident: That every human has an equal and unalienable right to the means to create, distribute and consume information to realize their full potential for Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—regardless of the country they live in, their gender, beliefs, racial origin, language or any impairments they may have.

That’s strong stuff. Not only do you have the right to create, you have the same right to distribute as any other person or corporation. How is that going to happen? You got me—and, in fact, this post really isn’t about books and reading at all. It’s about that inalienable right of every human being to high speed access to the Internet. Supposedly, Finland has made broadband a legal right. Will it be free? Will the gummint provide computers as well? Really? Well, since we now have universal access to and affordability of health care, quality education, clean air and healthy food, I guess this is the next step toward utopia.

Forget E-Books: The Future of the Book Is Far More Interesting

That’s Adam Penenberg on December 25, 2009 at Fast Company—and I wish I could say he’s having some fun with his readers. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. I think he believes this stuff.

Take a long hard look at a book, any book. Pull a favorite off a shelf, dust off the top--maybe it’s the Bible, the Koran, a novel by Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy…. Now say your goodbyes, because there will soon be a day that you may view such analog contrivances as museum pieces, bought and sold on eBay as collectibles, or tossed into landfills.

What replaces the book? Not the e-book, “which is, at best, a stopgap measure.” Nope. “We are on the verge of re-imagining the book and transforming it something far beyond mere words.”

You got it. “Mere text on a screen…won’t be enough.” The neobook will have “authors acting more like directors and production companies than straight wordsmiths” as we replace “stagnant words on a page” with video, photos, hyperlinks, social networks…

There’s more here, and it’s a bizarre vision, with nonfiction authors creating “the proverbial last word on a subject, a one-stop shop for all the information surrounding a particular subject matter.” Isn’t that what we all want? The one true source of information, and the hell with narrative.

It’s not just nonfiction:

A novelist could create whole new realities, a pastiche of video and audio and words and images that could rain down on the user, offering metaphors for artistic expressions. Or they could warp into videogame-like worlds where readers become characters and through the expression of their own free will alter the story to fit. They could come with music soundtracks or be directed or produced by renowned documentarians. They could be collaborations or one-woman projects.

Ah, but then, as Penenberg possibly realizes that most of us are saying “What a load of…” he cautions us that he’s not predicting the end of immersive reading (even though he’s predicted the end of books and mere text), he’s seeing “a future in which immersive reading coexists with other literary, visual and auditory modes of expression.” Not because there would be text-only books and other forms—you know, like music recordings, movies, TV, other futuristic possibilities like that—but because you could ignore all the other stuff that would be in every book.

And ask yourself: Which would you rather have, the hardcover book of today or this rich, multimedia treatment of the same title? Suddenly mere words on a page may feel a bit lifeless. And remember that today’s youth are tomorrow’s book buyers, and they have been brought up on a steady diet of entertainment on demand, with text, photos, and video all available at the click of a mouse. I’m skeptical that simple text will cut it for them.

I was wondering when Today’s Youth would appear. There they are, and they’re all smart enough not to stand for boring old text. The last line? “And besides, it’s inevitable.” Maybe Penenberg is getting paid for a bad joke. Or maybe he’s deluded.

The idea that some “future books” will have multimedia elements is as new as the 1980s, and certain to be true in the future. The idea that all books will or should be these vast arrays of nested content might have one consequence some folks would consider favorable: It would reduce the number of new books, probably by more than 99%, since each book would require the resources of an indie movie at the very least. Don’t have a production team and a $million or so to put this all together? Then, sorry, but you’re not going to be an author. (One of the comments, from an author of 13 novels, says none of those books would ever have seen the light of day in this singular future.)

If you want to make a movie, make a movie. If you want to make a hyperlinked website or publication, make a website or a title CD-ROM. Just don’t tell us every book needs to be a movie or hyperlinked website: That’s nonsense, and it’s dystopian nonsense at that.

As books go beyond printed page to multisensory experience, what about reading?

Whoops. Here the assumption is right there in the title—not “if,” not “when some,” but as books… The author, Monica Hesse on December 28, 2009 in the Washington Post, starts out commenting on a (shudder) Vook, a video/book hybrid from Simon & Schuster.

Interspersed throughout the text are videos and links that supplement the narrative. In one chapter, the Greek ambassador receives a mysterious DVD, and readers must click on an embedded video to learn what’s on it.

That’s right—the future is here! Only, according to Hesse, it’s wrong: The mental image she formed of one character is dashed by the “accompanying video” showing an entirely different image.

Hesse seems convinced there will “certainly be more ofthese multimedia books, and apparently Vooks are done on the cheap (“thousands of dollars, not even tens of thousands of dollars” for each project, which must yield some really first-rate video!) And, sigh, we have good old Bob Stein telling us that “the dominant mode” will be “multi-modal and multilayered”—yep, there it is, traditional novels and nonfiction books are dead.

There’s more here, including descriptions of other Vooks and hybrid books. They don’t do much for me, but that’s just me:

If readers visit every hyperlink, watch every video and play every game, it is possible for the experience of consuming a single book to become limitless—a literal neverending story. It’s also possible for the user to never read more than a few chapters in sequence, before excitedly scampering over to the next activity.

Maybe it’s not book become movie; maybe it’s book become videogame? In any case, Hesse seems to think these are great for “modern life” with their “instant gratification.”

What they don’t feel like, at least in certain examples, is reading.

Because they’re not. Instead of immersion into a fictional world, creating your own mental images, it’s all right there—no imagination required or allowed. And, of course, those digital natives who don’t like books anyway are the natural market. So what if Vooks don’t free you to use your imagination? Who has time for imagination?

Towards A World of Smaller Books

This comes from Henry (Henry Farrell, I assume) on February 9, 2010 at Crooked Timber—and in part it’s an interesting set of suggestions for ways “ebooks” can increase possibilities. Except that, in niche markets at least, much of this is already happening even with print books.

Henry thinks most of the non-academic nonfiction books he reads, those he does not find “a complete waste of time,” are padded: At least twice as long as they should be.

They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself.

That’s clearly true for some nonfiction books I’ve read and just as clearly false for some others. In some areas (best-selling Big Business Books, for example), the padding is more extreme. There’s a reason two different companies peddle 24-page synopses of Big Business Books, and I’m guessing those synopses contain all that’s actually useful in the BBBs. He thinks this is especially true for books that spring from articles written for The Atlantic or similar magazines, but assumes that these overlong books are there because of print economics: Publishers assume readers will only pay “book prices” for thick books.

All this may be changing as we move towards an electronic book publishing system. The economics of electronic text production are not the same as the economics of book production (as best as I understand either), and there aren’t the same pressures towards standardization of length. I suspect that people who would feel cheated if they paid ‘book’ price for a long essay (say around 20,000 words or so) will feel less so if they buy an electronic version. Ideally, we will end up in a world where people won’t feel obliged to pad out what are really essays to book length in order to get published and compensated.

If we set aside “as we move towards an electronic book publishing system” or substitute “as electronic publishing becomes a feasible alternative,” then—given that Henry admits to not understanding the economics—he might be right. But would people who grumble about paying $20 for a 40,000-word book be any less upset about paying $9.99 for the same-length ebook? I don’t know. (I should note that the library book I’m reading at the moment, Steve Martin’s The Shopgirl, is a novella and stated as such on the cover—“too short” to be a book, but it sure does look like a book.)

I’d like to see some of the results he suggests: A lot more essay-length e-publications, possibly an explosion of very short “books,” a decrease in books of “standard length” (he uses 60,000 to 90,000 words) and rough stability for long books, which cost a lot to write and edit. I’ll choose not to comment on his note about future print books becoming more expensive and more beautiful because “their main value will be as display items rather than use items,” but otherwise this is an expansionary perspective that I rather like.

Except, except. Trade paperbacks in the 30,000-40,000 word area (novellas and nonfiction equivalents) aren’t unusual. In library publishing, as one example, they’re becoming the norm for some publishers. For that matter, even shorter books aren’t that uncommon. It’s also true that previous attempts to make e-essays financially viable haven’t worked that well, but maybe the future will be different. I’d like to think so.

Some comments take this farther. One commenter finds that substantive book reviews frequently substitute for the books themselves; another notes that some self-help books reveal very little beyond the title. One person fears “an exciting world of epublished 20K-word books” would preclude those 80K-word books that need to be that long. There are a lot of other comments; they may reward your reading. That includes at least one who strongly disagrees with the concept that most or all books will be “e” in the future:

I think it somewhat narrow-minded, to use the politest word I can think of in this context, for the post to assume that everyone shares the same preferences and that everyone would rather read all the time on a screen rather than a page. I cannot believe I am alone in taking strong exception to this assumption.

Henry says he doesn’t see where the person’s getting this from, that he implied nothing of the sort. I got the same implication. Which is the only thing that keeps me from being wholly enthusiastic about the post, since the concept of “appropriate length” is one I find attractive. There is, to be sure, one issue that’s mentioned by several commenters: It’s harder to write short than it is to write long.

Writing about Writing

Let’s end this journey with a few items focused more directly on the writing side of the equation. If these seem a little miscellaneous, you’re not missing anything.

Charitable Writing

Iris Jastram posted this on March 17, 2009 at Pegasus Librarian. She starts with a phrase I have trouble with: charitable reading, which she defines as “read what people write and assume that those people meant well and that they are not stupid.” I’ve probably been accused of uncharitable reading as much as anybody, perhaps because I assume people mean to say what they write and that they are not stupid—that they have in fact written what they meant to say. The way it seems to get interpreted, for certain writers, charitable reading seems to suggest you’re supposed to look past what the person actually wrote and come up with the most favorable possible version of what they might have intended to write. To me, that carries the implication that the writer is, if not stupid, at best semiliterate—that they’re incapable of expressing a thought clearly. I’m unwilling to make that assumption, which I regard as highly uncharitable.

But that’s not what the post is really about. Jastram offers a new term, charitable writing—and it’s an interesting one. Here’s her definition:

Assume that your audience is not stupid, that they mean well, that they are probably trying to do the best they can or think carefully or otherwise conduct themselves well, and that they wouldn’t be reading and interacting with you if they didn’t want to.

She finds herself unsubscribing from blogs and feeds that might have potentially useful content but present it in a condescending tone.

Somehow that tone of writing screams “I’m pretty sure I’m smarter than you!” so loudly that it drowns out the calm murmur of the authors’ interesting ideas. This tone forces to me to work far harder at Charitable Reading than feels fair. It eventually wears me out. And so I unsubscribe and trust that others will point me toward the truly important posts.

Jastram regards charitable reading as hard and charitable writing as even harder. I think she’s on to something. I think about science writing—or, rather, attempts to write about science for nonscientists. There’s Isaac Asimov, among other things a brilliant popularizer. There’s the magnificent 90-year-old science editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, David Perlman. Both writers assume intelligence on the part of their readers, clarify without talking down and explain complex subjects without dumbing them down or getting them wrong. There are others—but there aren’t a lot of others. In technology, it’s worse: Writers who Know Better than You Do but will Patiently Explain the Truth are legion.

It’s about respecting your audience. It’s also about recognizing that other people aren’t you, that you really are not the model for the universe. It’s tough to do.

Free as in “Me”

The article cited here is by Merlin Mann. It appears on his website, 43 Folders. It is dated April 10, 2009. I do not claim to have written this article; nor am I attaching any ads to it or suppressing Mann’s byline.

In some ways, it’s not really about writing. It is about ethics and the freedom of a writer to decide whether it’s OK for somebody else to reuse their material en masse—especially without attribution. I know my answer to that last question: In the absence of a CC0 or Public Domain license, it’s plagiarism, unethical and just plain wrong.

Mann calls the article “This unbelievably long article”—but it’s only 3,250 words, which is on the long side for a blog post (albeit shorter than the average In the Library with the Lead Pipe post) but fairly typical for an article. And boy, is it readable, blunt and worth reading. What does make it longer, to be sure: He tells you to read seven other posts and tweets (unfortunately, not all the links work) before continuing—all related, apparently, to a Dow Jones-owned website that started “featuring” material from other websites without permission and with accompanying ads, in a manner that made the material appear to be contributions directly to the site.

And that’s as far as I’m going to go. Go read the article—by Merlin Mann, on his website. I don’t really have more to say.

Why New Novelists Are Kinda Old, or, Hey, Publishing is Slow

John Scalzi offered this essay on June 24, 2009 at Whatever. He starts with an email he received:

Whenever I hear about a “new” novelist, they turn out to be in their 30s. Why is that? It seems like you hear about new musicians and actors and other creative people in when they are in their 20s.

He offers some reasons—setting aside “the mechanics of why it pays to be young in the music and acting industries.” As always with Scalzi, you should read the whole post, but here are the key points, with very little of his elaboration (my notes in parens):

1.      Writing an entire novel is something most people have to work up to. (Lots of people abandon early novels for good reason and learn the craft through short stories first…and that’s probably fine.)

2.      Most people’s first novels well and truly suck. (He says you’ll find that most “debut novelists” wrote two, three, or four novels before finally writing one worth publishing. “Debut novels are almost never first novels; they’re just the first novels you see.”)

3.      The physical act of writing a novel takes a long time. (It’s not just banging out the words; it’s developing plot, character, dialogue, etc., and quite possibly research—meanwhile taking time for your day job and life. So those three or four “practice novels” will likely take years.)

4.      Selling a novel takes a long time. (Agents will open the door to more publishers, but first you have to find an agent—and if you submit without an agent, you can anticipate a long wait even from publishers who will work with “slush piles.” Baen Books estimates nine to twelve months.)

5.      Publishing a novel often takes a long time. (He describes all the steps involved, some of which have very little to do with one particular book and lots to do with the publisher’s overall schedule.)

Scalzi offers himself as an example—noting that he’s lucky, as his “debut novel” is only the second novel he wrote. He started “learning to write well enough to write a novel” in 1969, and wrote his first novel-length manuscript in 1997. He wrote his debut novel in 2001; the contract was signed in 2003; it was published in 2005—and, by the way, it was good enough to win the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2006, by which time Scalzi was 37. He says 37 is pretty much the average age of Campbell winners over the last 35 years. (One commenter looked at the nine of ten most recent winners who have birth years listed. With one exception, Cory Doctorow at 29, everyone was between 35 and 40 when they won.)

There are exceptions—there are always exceptions—and, of course, there’s self-publishing.

But for the folks who do it the old-fashioned way—and, currently, the way that still affords them the best chance for notoriety and a chance at a long-term career as a novelist—the combination of writing skill development and the mechanics of contemporary publishing conspires to drive the age of most debut novelists into the thirties. It doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.

Great stuff if you plan to be a young novelist or a novelist of any sort—but then, you’re reading Whatever already. Aren’t you?

I didn’t read through all 173 comments—that would be a long read. Given that it’s the Whatever audience, I have no doubt it would be worthwhile.

How the Internet Changed Writing in the 2000s

That’s Kevin Kelleher on January 3, 2010 at gigaom, and you have to wonder about a blog post that starts by summarizing a 45-page passage in Ulysses—a “famous” passage that those of us who are educated are doubtless familiar with.

I’ll read charitably and assume Kelleher isn’t just showing off his erudition, even though the introduction adds almost nothing to a remarkably lightweight discussion of how Kelleher believes the internet has changed writing. He says writing itself has transformed, no small feat, in “a dramatic and subtle way.”

It has something to do with all the casual writing people do in the internet. Kelleher asserts “all of that practice is making online writing better.” Really? He admits to YouTube comments as a counterexample; I’d add Yahoo! comments, IMDB reviews, Flickr comments, many blogs, most tweets… His proof of his assertion? “Many of the thoughtful people I know are producing some great stuff on the web.” OK.

What he really applauds is that the “open structure” of the internet “pressures us to write in a way that’s at once more concise and flexible”—and points to Jakob Nielsen’s argument that web writing should map Nielsen’s concept of web reading, which basically means bullet lists, highlighted keywords, short and simple paragraphs and brevity. In other words, writing meant to be scanned, not actually read—which, to Kelleher, seems to be a good thing. Oh, and “people are mastering more kinds of writing” because of IM, blog comments, Twitter. Mastering? Really?

Kelleher undermines his own “transformed” assertion when he says “The informal writing we do on the web doesn’t supplant formal writing, it complements and influences it—and is influenced in return.” In other words (ahem), the internet encourages additional ways of writing: Not transformation but extension.

I don’t see a transformation in traditional modes of writing. I do see new media and methods complementing, not supplanting—as Kelleher says. Influencing? That’s hard to say. The same writers who tweet away at 140 characters or less seem fully capable of churning out 6,000-word articles and blowing them up into 60,000-word books if there’s a market. The comments are interesting—and one takes issue with Kelleher’s statement that “The best way to learn good writing is to write a lot.” This person has been told, correctly I believe, that the best writers read a lot. (This commenter thinks most writing on the web is making people into worse writers. I’m not sure I buy that either.) I’m tempted to quote one comment in full because it’s such a (probably unintentional) lovely summary of what the web does to some writers:

Thank you for posting this excellent article. I plan to tweet it so others can read this. I like to use bullet points and lists to call attention to important sections of Web copy. They are visually appealing and make it easy to quickly find pertinent information.

Let’s hope that’s not the endpoint of web-influenced writing. (There’s another comment praising the post and discussing how web forms have “progressed” this person’s writing. I wonder whether it’s another example of what the web can do to writers…but that’s snarky, and Kelleher informs us that a little snark goes a long way.)


Conclusions? The same ones I began with:

·         We’re adding new ways of reading (and maybe writing), which may encourage different additional ways of publishing—more essays, hyperlinked and multimedia stuff when that works, and so on, and so on.

·         These new ways complement existing ways of writing and reading. There’s no credible evidence to suggest that they supplant existing ways—just as there’s no credible evidence to suggest that ebooks will sweep print books off the face of the earth.

·         Gurus will continue to make generational generalizations that are not only unsupported by facts but in direct contradiction to facts, to assume that everybody else is the same as they are, and to get big bucks for little thinking with pat slogans.

·         Thanks for reading, if you got this far. This sprawling essay is roughly half the length of a “typical” book, whatever that might be: something over 32,000 words between the two parts.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 11, Number 5, Whole # 140, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford.

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