Alison Baverstock on self-publishing vices and virtues

In the Guardian, self-publishing academic Dr. Alison Baverstock addressed some misapprehensions about DIY publishing. Partly this meant addressing general prejudices (all self-published books are rubbish, etc). Partly it involved a reality-check for those who publish or intend to publish.

Among the key points:

Self-publishers often don’t think before hitting send:

Material made available without sufficient thought damages not only the writer’s reputation but that of self-published work in general. Typing is not the same thing as writing.

They often don’t think about layout and presentation

Publishing is a different skill from writing, and laying out content to ensure it is easy to read takes research and practice. Effective publishing is not just pressing a button.

The commercial success of self-publishers (aside from the poster boys and girls) is often hard to track

Self-publishing authors tend not to get in included in surveys of authors’ earnings, but Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, says: “Many of the association’s members are earning significant salaries now. I’m not talking here about the outliers, like the Kindle millionaires, but the many who are earning enough to leave their day jobs, feed their families, pay their mortgage, afford comforts and luxuries. And let us not forget that sales doesn’t just equal money, it equals readers. It’s one of my great delights to witness what this does for their confidence in themselves and in their work.”

Traditional and independent publishing can be complementary:

At its best [self-publishing] offers the traditional industry a new source of writing talent and a chance to take on material with readerships already established. In the process, it cultivates the kind of author proactivity that publishers need if they are to reach markets that are no longer predictable, due both to the proliferation of new media and the challenge to reading of so many other alternative leisure activities.

Value in self-publishing is much wider than sales or even readership:

Interviews with many self-published authors have taught me that there are often issues of more importance than sales. For many, the material they want to publish has long burned inside them and the process of self-publishing delivers a profound satisfaction.

See also Maggie Brown’s Observer piece on the female stars of self-publishing.

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io9 comment thread on the durability of the printed book

io9 hosted an interesting discussion about the dogged persistence of print. Arguments included:

  • Many people just prefer the sensual experience of print (tactile, scent, heft)
  • E-books aren’t yet available in all markets
  • Print books don’t rely on power (a point also made by Margaret Atwood)
  • You can drop/spill things on print books
  • Libraries actually find it cheaper/easier to acquire loan print books
  • Trading/reselling/loaning of e-books is restricted
  • Electronic distributors can discontinue/edit your library
  • Availability of titles remains limit in electronic format
  • Some books (graphic novels for example) work much better on paper
  • People have ‘a special place in their heart’ for print books
  • Formats change — will an e-book be easily accessible in 100 years (Umberto Eco also makes this point — how many computer games from the 80s are now easily playable?)
  • Giving an e-book as a gift versus a wrapped physical book
  • An e-book won’t stop a bullet. UPDATE: the Paris Review just featured a genuine book-stopping-bullet news item(!)

Probably my favourite comment on the physicality and sensual pleasure of printed books came from nickmagoo

I have something like 7,000 books. I collect them, I sell them, I buy them, I read them, I give them as gifts, I treasure them as works of art, I dig them. Some I buy for purely aesthetic reasons – can an ereader in anyway convey the beauty of holding and perusing a book illustrated by the likes of NC Wyeth, Aristide Maillol, or Maxfield Parrish? No. Can an ereader exude the dense, almost truffle-esque mustiness of old books? No. The 3 dimensionality of a “real” book also comes into play – I appreciate the ease of use of a digital copy for folks, sure, but I find myself going back to earlier pages quite often when reading, whether to remind myself of a character or rethinking a previously introduced concept that suddenly takes on a new meaning, and it’s just easier to do flipping through a hard copy. Books, real honest to dog books, are simply awesome, literally and figuratively.

Work on the history of the book did not sustain Rick Gekoski

In the Guardian, Rick Gekoskiannounced that he is abandoning his attempt to write a history (or biography) of the book.

I spent the last two years toiling away, increasingly aware that, to subvert a subject, to rewrite and to redefine it, you have to know a lot about it. And there’s too much to know. Try as I did, and read as I did, little caught my attention sufficiently to spark my imagination. I felt as marooned and thirsty as an art lover forced to read nothing but books about paint, and canvas, and the nature of perspective. But of course – and here the analogy between the fields breaks down – you cannot talk about the history of art without reference to works of art, and you can talk about the history of the book without reading many books.

He is writing a novel instead.

Annotation sharing e-reader launched

Techcrunch reports on Glose a new app for Web and IOS which enhances e-book annotations.

I can see myself highlighting a lot more content in Glose than in other readers because of how easy it is. It’s like double tapping a photo on Instagram to like it — after a while, you forget how you lived without this shortcut.

Ease of annotation is perhaps the least of it. Annotations are can be rich:

When you annotate something, you can add text, photos or even videos.

and they are social by nature:

Other people can upvote or downvote your annotations so that the next readers can easily find the best annotations.

Yet again, link found at thepassivevoice.com

The gatekeeper problem — acknowledged but not really addressed

From a piece at goodereader.com:

So as a reader, how do you insure that you do not fall into the trap of unwittenly purchasing indie eBooks and only buy from reputable publishers? The first, check out who actually published the book. If it has an authors name or says “published by Smashwords, or Published by LULU” or another indie publisher you should avoid it. Smashwords is notorious for having a laissez faire acceptance policy and distributes thousands of poorly written titles to every major bookstore every month.

The article suggests that ‘reputable publishers’ provide the only real guarantee of quality. It offers strategies for finding books (not all of which involve cutting out indie authors). Advice includes:

  • Go direct to publishers’ sites
  • Sort listings by price from most to least expensive (because indie authors sell cheap).
  • Look at publisher name in listing — avoid self-pub companies like Smashwords and LULU
  • Check to see if a print version is available (an e-book without a print version is a ‘serious red flag’).
  • Look for reviews on Goodreads et al.

Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Kobo all have self-publishing programs where any writer can submit an eBook and have it instantly visible in their stores. There is no editorial curation or anyone vetting out books that have overt sexual themes, bestiality or are rift[sic] with spelling mistakes, or poor grammar. Unsuspecting customers are duped into purchasing them because they might have a similar name to a bestselling title, or come up in the “if you liked book X, try book Y and Z.)

Is it really the case that writers who publish only in electronic format, and not via an established publisher, are peddling cut-price pornographic tat? It seems unlikely.

Still, there clearly is a tide of dross out there. What models are growing up to complement the validation of traditional publishers?

[Link discovered at thepassivevoice.com]

What will the Hemingwrite be for?

There has been much buzz online recently about the prototype Hemingwrite typewriter . This is an internet-enabled device deliberately hamstrung so as to deny the writer distraction. It also, in the obvious resonance of its name as well as its design, attempts to conjure a pre-internet romance. It evokes, perhaps, the unplugged whisky-chugging foreign correspondent, or the butcher-roll beat typist.

Actually, it reminds me of the last gasp range of electronic typewriters that overlapped the first PCs — the sort with a little LCD buffer that gave you a Twitter’s-breadth of space in which to catch and correct your errors. A doomed attempt to innovate in the face of word processors and desktop publishing packages and their inexorable typewriter-killing rise.

This machine both speaks to our anxieties about attention span and stokes our nostalgia. The fact that a netbook or a phone and keyboard arrangement can easily achieve the same functionality suggests, in fact, that the device is almost solely about its design, and what its design says about its user. My user is a real writer, it says. She does not play Angry Birds. Except on her smart phone. When no-one is looking.

UPDATE – A nice piece in The Observer about this — mentioning some of the more popular distraction-killing apps for writers and, somewhat tangentially, the problem of mining the digital archives of deceased writers.

Oldish TTBOOK show on the future of reading

Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of Our Knowledge is almost always compelling. I used to listen to it on Sundays in San Francisco. Here in exile, I have it in my podcast mix alongside a good few other NPR/PRI shows. This edition, How to Read a Book (only a year old.. but I got to it when I got to it) offered a few items which turned out to be a good match for this blog.

The first interview is with Jason Merkoski, author of Burning the Page: The Ebook Revolution and the Future of Reading.

Merkowski was in at the beginning of the Kindle, by no means the first e-reader, but arguably a catalyst for the current revolution. He speaks of e-books ushering a ‘minor Renaissance’ in reading, but also worries that books might be cheapened now that words are just media like any other kind of digital content.

Despite his love for traditional books, for their heft, even their smell, he maintains that the benefits of digital books outweigh the risks.

At the heart of these benefits, he suggests, is a step shift in reading which is under way if not already with us. This is reading 2.0. For the past few hundred years reading has been stable. In the West, a left to right, front to back affair.

Among the features of reading 2.0 he mentions are.

  • Non-linearity – the ability to search for for the content you want.
  • Analytics inside books. Who reads, who recommends, what is read.
  • Shared and social aspects.

In the interview, at least, I’m not sure he gets to the guts of how this might change reading. We have always lent books and shared opinions (and in fact, DRM and questions of ownership might arguably have a deadening rather than a leavening effect). We have always dipped in, and read at random, or from back to front. I’d also be interested to know who the increased availability of reading analytics is likely to ultimately benefit.

Merkowski speaks of a Facebook for books in which the existing subtle or explicit references between volumes are made real and navigable. This will allow readers to hop contextually from one book to another, based on subject matter, comments, etc.

This vision of an intertextual future reminds me of the library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose:

Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.

David Mikics talks about his book, Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. This is a polemic against the tyranny of choice and our ever-shortening attention spans. He warns against “shallow blotching blundering infectious information”. One cannot help but remember the Facebook of books at this point.

He advocates patience, persistence, and rereading. “Rise up,” he says, “you have nothing to lose but your electronic chains.” Reject the “shallow promises of digital technology”.

“Getting lost in a book may the surest way to find what we need.”

There is a bit of pleasant nonsense from Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin about their book Novel Cures.

Doug Dorst discusses S — his novel, inspired by an idea from JJ Abrams, which is made up of a core story and marginal notes. This kind of game is far from new, of course. Nabokov’s Pale Fire springs to mind. It is interesting nonetheless, especially when one considers the way that annotations may evolve around digital books in the future. It is possible to imagine some texts that might become lost beneath far more interesting stories and debates.

Tom Standage talks about his book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media — The First 2,000 Years. He describes the way that Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses spread organically with short print runs driven by reader demand from town to town, until its reach covered Germany in two weeks and the whole of Western Europe in a month. Effectively, he says, Luther ‘went viral’. The rate of spread of his work itself indicated to Luther the viability of his own ideas.

Standage argues that top down mass media structures are only really a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to technological advances in the Nineteenth Century, limited print runs meant that ideas were spread on a networked basis.