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


Selection from Cites & Insights 6, Number 7: May 2006


Perspective

Books, Blogs & Style

When I was starting work toward my first published book, MARC for Library Use, an older librarian friend who had finally published a book cautioned me: “It’s harder to write a book than it is to write a book’s worth of articles.”

Rachel Singer Gordon reports that, when she became a consulting editor with ITI’s Book Publishing Division, one of the first people she talked to asked, “Why would I write a book and wait a year or more to see my writing in print, when I can blog and get my words out there immediately?”

Horst at The Aardvark Speaks writes about the desire to do some writing: “Some real writing, not like the stuff I’ve done recently…” followed by examples of what real writing could be (his MSc thesis, the remaining short stories for a collection) and aren’t.

Dorothea Salo at Caveat Lector talks about her problems “writing in formal-publication register” and her preference for “blog register,” although she’s certainly written in both registers.

Chris Armstrong at info NeoGnostic asks “when is a book not a book?” and says “it is—and will remain—useful to be able to distinguish between the different forms of communication: informal, formal, scholarly; and short-term importance, long-term value, heritage value, etc. One of the ways this is done is by distinguishing between an e-mail, a blog posting, a newspaper article, an article in a magazine, an article in a scholarly journal, a textbook, a monograph, and so on.”

Because I made self-deprecating remarks about my own writing style in one blog conversation, Laura Crossett at lis.dom pointed me to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English language.”

Mix in Richard Poynder’s post “The basement interviews” at Open and shut? about a book project that became something else, “blooks,” and a few other blog posts, and you have the makings of an essay.

I’m going to cite a few tips and comments from some posts that you should definitely read if you haven’t already—and I think this essay will be meaningful, or at least interesting, for many C&I readers. But it’s “all about me” in at least one respect: These comments are filtered through the lens of my own experience as a writer, and I make no claim for objectivity. This isn’t just a synthesis; it’s a personal essay.

Books without End

Consider the process of writing books and getting them published, and how that might interact with blogs. Read Gordon’s April 11, 2006 Liminal librarian post “On books and blogs” (www.lisjobs.com/liminal/) and Poynder’s March 6, 2006 post noted above (poynder.blogspot.com/).

Rachel Singer Gordon

Gordon says “blogs and books scratch a different itch” just as “online and print publication complement each other.” Her topical headings on why a blogger might consider a book, in brief (her key sentences in bold, my comments following except when quoting her directly):

Ø    Blogs are a huge plus in marketing your book. I’m guessing that’s true, and when (if) I write another book, I’ll try to do better in that respect. “If people like what you blog, they are likely to want to read more, and a book gives them a nice big chunk of your work.” The same could be said for Walt at Random and Cites & Insights—except that this journal has, I believe, a much larger readership than the blog.

Ø    Form follows content. Some topics deserve the kind of extended examination that results in a formal article or a book. Such extended examination could grow out of a series of blog posts, but “writing a book lets you go more in depth and to include content that might be overkill on a blog.”

Ø    Books reach a different audience. True—and they reach the same people in different roles. I read books differently than I read blogs. “A large cross-section of the library community is more comfortable picking up a book rather than turning to a blog when they want to know more on a given topic.”

Ø    You get paid for writing books. True, most of the time (unless you’re self-publishing), although (as Gordon says) you’re not going to get rich writing for librarians.

Ø    Seeing your name on a book is just darn cool. There’s no way around that—and your name on the spine of a book is different from your name in the table of contents (or even on the banner) of a journal.

Ø    Writing a book offers a certain permanence. “People get tired of blogging, move on change URLs, change interest, take their writing offline.” I got email this morning asking whether I thought a $10 used copy of MARC for Library Use (2d. edition) was still worth having, 17 years after publication. That may not be immortality, but it’s not bad.

Ø    Writing a book looks good to others. “Others, in this case, being a tenure committee, potential employers, your mom, your colleagues, conference organizers, what have you.” One caveat: Don’t be surprised if your mom doesn’t read your second or third book.

Ø    Writing a book lets you work with nice people. My experience with the folks at ALA Editions has always been positive; I consider my editor and the designer both friends. My experience with Knowledge Industry Publications people was positive as well; problems occurred with G.K. Hall, but those were corporate issues. I don’t know that all book people are good people, but there are a lot of good book people out there.

Ø    Writing a book helps you write anything else. And vice-versa, to be sure. I’m not sure that conference presentations are inherently easier than books, but at least they’re shorter.

Ø    Writing a book helps the profession. Even for those of us who aren’t entirely part of the profession.

Ø    You can do both. Yep. My failure to write any books since 2003, and only three books in the last 13 years, has nothing to do with Walt at Random and very little to do with Cites & Insights. Gordon cites cases where authors are using blogs to support book projects or expect a book to grow out of a blog; in other cases, book writers use blogs to say the things that don’t work in the book.

The comments are also interesting, including those from a couple of active blogging librarians who feel they’re too new to the field to be book writers. That’s how I felt when I was writing MARC for Library Use (without a contract), but I did it anyway: Sometimes the need is just there.

Richard Poynder

Richard Poynder, an experienced journalist and freelance writer, offers a slightly different perspective: What happens when a good idea for a book becomes a contracted book—and the contract comes unglued even though the idea still makes sense?

His idea was to interview some of the key people in various “open” movements, turn each interview into a chapter, and “top and tail the interviews with an opening chapter introducing the various movements, and generally setting the scene, and a closing chapter in which I would try to sum up what I had learned from the interviews.”

Poynder drafted a proposal and sent it to several publishers. Some publishers wanted “balance” from companies and organizations whose business models are being challenged by the “open” models. Poynder couldn’t see doing it that way (and I think he’s right). O’Reilly, however, “had built a formidable reputation as a supporter of the Open Source Movement” and their website “actively canvasses for books with ‘Big Picture Technology, Social Impact, and Geek Culture’ themes.” So Poynder emailed O’Reilly a proposal. His “six rules” pick up from there—and I won’t detail the whole odd story, since Poynder tells it eloquently. Here are the rules themselves, stripped of Poynder’s commentary, with the caveat that rule three makes very little sense without the commentary:

Ø    Rule one: e-mail is a very precarious way of communicating with potential publishers.

Ø    Rule two: e-mail can nevertheless be a very effective way of reaching inside a publisher, if you can find a direct path to the top guy.

Ø    Rule three: as we continue to make the transition to a global networked economy publishing business models are increasingly vulnerable; and nice guys clearly finish last!

Ø    Rule four: no one yet knows the right formula for online publishing, and every new project is a step into the unknown.

Ø    Rule five: in the age of the Web anyone can be a publisher.

Ø    Rule six: If you have something you really want to publish, just do it. It’s that easy now!

In Poynder’s case, it’s about a tentatively-contracted book gone south and Poynder’s eventual decision to do the interviews anyway, publish introductions to each interview on the blog, offer a link to each full interview in PDF form (they’re long interviews), and invite a small voluntary PayPal contribution if the reader thinks it’s warranted. “Of course, I don’t know if anyone will pay, but I am hopeful some will.”

It will be interesting to see how it turns out and whether Poynder eventually chooses to produce the book itself either as a PoD self-publication or through a publisher willing to take a chance on material that’s available through a Creative Commons license.

Chris Armstrong, Walt Crawford and others

Chris Armstrong posted “And when is a book not a book?” on April 5, 2006 (i-a-l.blogspot.com); I’ve already noted his central point. He also quotes Momus on “blooks” (books that began as blogs):

What is a blook? It’s a blog that turns into a book, the way, in evolution, mammals went back into the sea and became fish again. Except they didn’t really do that, although undoubtedly some of us still enjoy a good swim.

OK—so there is going to be evolution amongst these forms, and strange hybrids will emerge. OK; but they are still named and distinguished from each other. I think there is a qualitative difference between a book, a blook and an ‘intelligent conversation in networks.’ And I think that readers have to be able to recognize and respond to this difference.

A bit of background: This sentiment emerged after Momus visited The Institute for the Future of the Book, which produces the if:book blog. I had if:book in my Bloglines list for some time but finally dropped it—because, as Momus says, “it seems they’re assuming that the book itself is already over.” Maybe this Institute has it right, maybe the self-standing linear story printed on paper and bound between covers is archaic and has no future—but I’m not buying, and it turns out that what IF seems to be selling didn’t interest me enough to keep following. (Caution: That may be me, not them.)

What of blooks? There’s a prize for them now, courtesy of Lulu, a PoD self-publisher. I’m not going to say they can’t be worthwhile, any more than I’d call books consisting of collected columns or articles or short stories worthless; I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned from such collections.

For that matter, a blog could turn into a book that is as seamless a narrative as the best science fiction novels that began life as series of novellas and novelets. Sometimes the authors paste the pieces together such that they become a seemingly unified whole; sometimes the seams are as obvious as on Frankenstein’s creation. Would a book created from blog posts as (part of the) raw materials, that emerges as a well-organized linear story, be a blook? I don’t think so, although the author might find such a claim useful for marketing purposes.

A BusinessWeek online article, “’Blooks’ are in bloom,” discusses a few successful blooks—but also the notion that “every single blogger” could choose to self-publish their blog as a book, a distressing vision of Blurb.com’s CEO. Blurb.com and Blogbasedbooks.com both expect to make money doing little more than turning blogs into blooks. Thirtysix million books made up of blog posts, with 75,000 new ones each day? Are we ready for that?

Meanwhile, if you have something in mind more coherent than a few hundred miscellaneous blog posts, think about Poynder’s last three rules. I don’t know whether Richard Poynder reads Cites & Insights or is even aware that it exists (although the latter is likely, given overlapping interests in open access), but this here journal is certainly an example of rules four and five. I didn’t intend it to be unique when I started it, and I’m not sure it really is—but this print-formatted web-based mostly-topical single-author library-oriented free-to-the-reader periodical is certainly part of a small group. (Ex Libris isn’t print-formatted. Library Juice ceased publication, as did New Breed Librarian—and that wasn’t a one-person show. The closest counterpart may be SPARC Open Access News.) So far, C&I makes sense from a standpoint of economics and reach, more sense than any alternative I’ve thought of. I hope Poynder’s unusual experiment also succeeds—which may depend on how Poynder defines success.

If you have something you really want to publish, just do it. And “publishing” can taken any number of forms, including PoD self-published books, a series of articles disguised as a blog, a growing bibliography with updates issued as blog entries…

I’ll add some of my own notes about writing and publishing books:

Ø    Every book can (and maybe should) be a wholly different process. Except for two cases in which I wrote second editions, I believe that’s true of all my books to date. Each one was fundamentally different, from start to finish. That’s not always the case, to be sure, and for some kinds of fiction it shouldn’t be the case (would you really want each Travis McGee novel to have an entirely different structure and tone?). Some publishing trends encourage books written to a template. I suspect very prolific nonfiction authors churn out new books “just like the last book, but on X instead of Y”; and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Still, template books will never be as fresh or original for the reader or writer as books done as true originals.

Ø    You can write a book without a contract. There are advantages to preparing a proposal, taking it to a publisher, and getting a contract before you’ve written the book. There are also advantages to doing the whole bloody thing “on spec” (speculating that you’ll be able to find a publisher). I couldn’t imagine writing my first book any way other than “on spec”: Set deadlines or lengths or whatever might have deep-sixed the entire project, and the lassitude of the first publisher in responding at all would certainly have discouraged me.

Ø    You don’t need an agent and may not want one. That’s for books within librarianship, certainly not for mainstream fiction. The publishers I’ve dealt with don’t really want to deal with agents—and no sensible agent will do much work for 15% of the sums that library books typically earn.

Ø    Learn to work with editors, designers and indexers. This one’s tough, especially if you have skills in any of these areas. Your acquisitions editor—the person you deal with directly at a publishing house—should always be a source of good advice. Otherwise, you’ve chosen the wrong publishing house. Copy editors may be freelance contractors and may not really understand the topics you’re writing about; in such cases, remember that copy editing is usually advisory, not final. Indexers? If you can do your own professional-quality index, you may save some of your advance—but an index is vital to a nonfiction book, and indexing is tough. As for design: I love typography, I did camera-ready copy for quite a few of my books (including Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality and Being Analog) in consultation with the publisher’s designers; and I also know that good book design involves special expertise. The best-looking book I’ve done is the most recent, First Have Something to Say—and I did not play any part in designing that book, which was laid out and composed at ALA Editions. Your mileage will vary. If you know more about good typography than your publisher appears to, see if you can make that knowledge work to improve your book. But if your publisher has good book designers, work with them, not against them.

Finally, note that another library wiki has started up, this one for library authors: LISauthor wiki (www.blisspix.net/lisauthor/) from Fiona at blisspix.net. It’s young and still a bit sparse, but it’s a plausible place to gather and add information for the community of library-related authors.

Blogs and Style

Angel, The gypsy librarian, had some thoughts on “knowing when not to post” in an April 12, 2006 entry. Go read it (gypsylibrarian.blogspot.com).

CW at Ruminations (one of that growing band of interesting Australian libloggers worth reading) wrote about “blog burnout” on April 9 (flexnib.blogspot.com), when she found that a regularly read blog “seemed to no longer exist.” She sent email to the blogger, who answered that all was well, except for the blog: “I killed it.” Turns out the blogger had been writing something like a blog for over six years and was “well and truly over it.” The blogger feels “kind of liberated now.” Blog burnout does happen.

As was reported on April 19 in Sarah Hepola’s Slate column, “This is my last entry.” She begins:

One morning last month, I woke early, finished a book I’d been reading, and shut down my blog.

This blog had run for nearly five years and included lots of stuff “which I hoped, eventually, might lead to a novel.” For Hepola, the recognition was clear: “Blogging wasn’t helping me write; it was keeping me from it.”

She’d realized this before—but the moment would pass and she’d have more stories to pass along. She couldn’t help but notice successful bloggers-turned-novelists (or at least blook-writers). But somehow, instead of blogging being a run-up to a novel, “it had…become a major distraction.” She’d sit down to work on the novel—and come up with five different blog entries. And so on. Hepola suspects she’ll come back to blogging eventually. “Now, if I could just turn off the TV, I think I could finally get started.”

That resonates in some ways. I’m fortunate that it’s mostly the blog that suffers. When I was writing three columns (two monthly), I’d use one column as an excuse to “postpone” another, and C&I as an excuse to “postpone” that one (postpone in quotes because I always stayed ahead of deadlines as a matter of self-preservation). With one monthly column gone and another changed to every other month, I could use blog entries as a way to put off C&I—but so far that hasn’t happened. Books? A different problem.

CW commented on the Slate column in an April 24 post with the same title as the column, quickly followed by “Did that get your attention? Sorry, this is not my last entry.” CW then discussed a response to her questionnaire for libloggers (which I responded to, and am eagerly awaiting the results of) and her own experience. For CW, blogging isn’t “keeping me from anything.” So far, it’s helped her to write. She treats blogging as a daily writing routine; as with most such routines, that’s improved her ability to write.

All of which means…I’m not sure what. I can see why people shut down blogs, either as distractions or for other good reasons. I can see that an active blog could be a distraction from larger projects, unless you turn it into a support for the larger projects.

I’m going to close with a quick note on the George Orwell piece mentioned near the beginning of this not-so-brief commentary, the one Laura Crossett pointed me to. I had commented on my writing style, “Asimovian” but without his elegance and creativity. I use short words and a relatively simple vocabulary. It’s intentional, if by now also habitual. (Short sentences—that’s another issue, along with consistent and correct punctuation.) Specifications for EContent column length are, like most such specifications, based on word count but intended to support printed page length. In 2006, you’d almost expect that publishers would switch to character-count specs, since it’s not that difficult to get a character count and that count has a lot more to do with fitting a column on a page. Anyway, I use short words: The “700 words” of the contract turned out to be way too short. I now provide 820 to 850 words, and I don’t believe the editor trims that much from my copy.

George Orwell’s essay is on obfuscation through language. He writes of dying metaphors, verbal false limbs (“render inoperative”) and eliminating simple verbs, pretentious diction, meaningless words—and some guidelines for keeping writing clear and straightforward. My guess is that Orwell was disturbed by trends he saw as general and worsening. My guess is also that Orwell would be delighted by blogs, at least some of them. There’s a return to simple, clear, fresh diction. Maybe there are too many one-sentence paragraphs; maybe simplicity can be taken too far. But you see less polysyllabic blather in blogs than you do in scholarly articles, and I think the tendency toward clear, direct language is spilling over into other media.

As one who no longer knows how to write suitably pretentious prose, and as one who never cared to read it, I love Orwell’s essay and like the blogging trend. Having your own style is a good thing. Basing that style on clarity and simplicity doesn’t hurt.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 6, Number 7, Whole Issue 77, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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