Where the Brain Goes, So Go I. Sort Of.

This is interesting -- unintentionally inspired by news that Google Reader is leaving the house. (Don't worry if you don't know that story. Not needed here.) (I've so far tried four alternatives to GR. Haven't settled on a replacement.)

Here's the part that intrigues me:

Today I realized that I'm devoting a relatively large amount of time to finding a replacement. I'm surprised that it's that important to me. Apparently it's a tool that's as valuable as my wordprocessing program, my Mac, my iPad. Big punch-in-nose jolt of awareness of how much both my life and the way I "spend" time have changed.

Then tonight, while hunting for something unrelated to my search for a GReader replacement, I discovered, by accident, that Wordpress offers a "reader." It's easy-peezy: Import your sites from Google Reader, and 60 seconds later: Voila! You're good to go with your new Wordpress Reader.

Its interface is mesmerizing. It delivers each item in the feed in "magazine" style: Large, colorful "cover images" introduce, as it were, each story on the Reader. (#1) It's lovely.

But - there's always a but - within 12 or so seconds I'd rejected it as a potential replacement: my brain needed five times longer than usual to process necessary information about each item in the feed ("necessary" meaning: gleaning just enough information to decide if I want to read the entire piece). Magazine-style presentation, visually rich and image-laden, is too rich to be useful for a Reader. (*2)

Dear reader, my brain has changed in response to my online interactions. It's learned to process "screen"-based information at hyper speed.

What's slightly scary is that I didn't realize just how efficient this part of my brain had become until I looked at the Wordpress Reader.

That discovery prompts this question: What would our net/web encounters be like if we moved at a more leisurely pace? What if we lived like elite, way-upper-class Romans did, lounging in togas, dipping into plates of grapes cultivating leisure in the way that they did? (*3)

Because whatever else we moderns, do, we don't cultivate leisure. Elite Romans treated leisure as an art form. We moderns, especially we Americans, cultivate labor and utility. They're our art forms.

But they're art forms that we enjoy at the expense of a more textured life. We've taught our brains to move at warp speed whenever we're "online." But are we doing enough to balance that warp speed with a slower, more leisurely place when we're "offline"?

Yes, that sounds embarrassingly cliched: we're all moving too fast. Slow Food, etc. etc..

But experiencing that warp speed in such a  . . . tactile, immediate way startled me. Made me a bit wary. (And made me glad that I long ago made a conscious decision about how I'm living my off-line life.) (*4)

Anyway. My two cents, or less, on Life In These Times. More to come on leisure, work, and so forth in the days to come (now that I'm out of Meat History Manuscript Prison).


#1. I would be remiss if I failed to mention what I was looking for when I ran across the WordPress Reader: A way to support Wordpress more directly than the fee I pay now. It's a valuable resource for me. I don't want to do volunteer work for them, but I'd give them some dough. Anyway, I found nothing. No "help us" buttons. I gather that means that they've moved beyond that stage, and I'm glad for them.

Also: It's interesting to note how accustomed I've become to practicing socialism. You know: Spreading my money around. Great thing about the net/web is that I can find interesting ways to do that. I love the ease with which I can give ten or twenty bucks to someone working on "work" that's outside the conventional strictures of "work," jobs, mortgages, etc. Yes, I pay taxes to various governments and I buy stuff from big companies, etc. Because in that sense, we're all socialists. (Socialism = traffic lights, people.)

*2: New project! New project! I gotta learn to "read" that specific kind of info much more quickly. Not there yet. Wonder how much faster a 27-year-old can read that kind of visual stuff? Seriously. I'll be sixty this year. My brain and reflexes have slowed from when I was in my twenties. New project! Learn to speed read magazine style!

*3: Oh. Wait. We iPad-owning, thought-pondering modern ARE like Romans....

*4. I've made a conscious (not always easy) decision to seclude myself from the world -- to retreat as much as possible -- when working.(*5) I don't go out, don't talk to people, spend an inordinate amount of time looking out the window and staring into space. Intentionally avoiding anything and anyone who moves faster than I want to move. So part of my brain is definitely operating on low gear. But apparently part of it is able to crank up to warp speed in an instant. (And yes. I'm fortunate. I know that. Odd thing is that I suspect many of us could afford far more leisure of this sort if we made decisions in that direction. And I say that as someone who lived a long while on other side of the fence I'm on now.)

*4: My husband used to fret that I was becoming agoraphobic because it's not unusual for me to stay in the house for days on end, except to walk or run (and I often do that late at night). It's not agoraphobia. I choose to avoid, as much as possible, unnecessary signal noise, if you know what I mean. That includes television, for example. I watch less now than ever, because it's so ... noisy (and I don't mean its decibel level).

I May Live To Regret This . . .

UPDATE: The comments section for this post is FAR more interesting than the post itself. I'm grateful for all those who've stopped by to comment. I'm learning a lot from it, and what I'm learning makes me even more eager to see someone from The Human Wave get out there in front and tell the rest of the world what they do and how they do it. Because honest-to-god, folks, the rest of us DO. NOT. KNOW. UPDATE #2: Kate Paulk has taken my challenge and made a first stab at a "here's what we do" piece. Read it here.

. . . because I said that I rarely write about writerly stuff. But, damn! Again: from my point of view as a historian, these are exciting times. VERY exciting. So this is more the historian speaking than the author.

A bit of background: as I noted in a blog entry a few days back, publishing is in total disarray at the moment thanks primarily to the power of the digital. Thanks to that, it's now possible to publish a book without the middlemen who have long held sway.

This isn't a bad thing, and as I also said here, I wrestle every. single. day. with what to do with my own work. (That was the point of my original post about this: When your work consists of 85 to 90 percent research, and only 10 or 15 percent "writing," it ain't easy to give up the subsidy that traditional publishing offers.) (*1)

No one knows how the disarray will shake out because that's how "history" works: We don't know the end until the end gets here. (Unless you're a writer of historical fiction, in which case you can make things turn out any way you please, lucky you!

The ramifications of the "new" publishing are being felt by everyone in the business, as evidenced by this absolutely bizarro article in the New York Times a few days ago. That in turn prompted this response from a group blog I'd never heard of but somehow stumbled across in pursuit of who-knows-what, and there I found a link to this thoughtful commentary on the nature of "writing." 

But I digress from my main point, which is this: My original post about publishing generated, um, a response. (Not one I expected. I assumed no one would read it.) The response was, well, interesting, not least of which was this.

That got me thinking. Yesterday when I was walking, I contemplated the snarkitude of the response and thought "Wow. This is what a revolution feels like!"

This kind of rage is what, for example, the rich of Moscow likely felt as rebellion gained power and heft in 1916 and 1917. This is what ruling classes feel when the fury of the "oppressed" takes form and turns into outright revolution.  (Not, I hasten to add, that I'm either rich or a member of the "ruling classes." Rather, my point is that the self-publishing crowd regards people like me as elitist and they wanna see me suffer.)


But then today, I was out walking (again; yeah, like most walkers/runners/swimmers --- I do all three --- my best ideas come when I'm in motion) and I thought "Well, okay. This is definitely what a revolution would feel like. Except --- they've already won!"

The self-publishers have won both the battle and the war. They've won. The spoils are theirs. They're making money. They call the shots. They're building audiences and did I mention they earning money from their work?

And no, I'm not being snarky. They've won. I'm the loser, as is anyone else who still clings to traditional publishing. (Which is why I a great deal of time pondering how and when I should move to The Other Side.)

So here's my question: Why are the winners so angry? I only follow one blog devoted to self-publishing, and its proprietor is a mostly mild-mannered guy; full of snark and condescension toward us losers (which, again, seems normal to me), but through his blog, I've landed at plenty of other self-publishers' blogs, and man! These people are ANGRY. (*2)

Is this normal human behavior when the oppressed finally gain power? They lash out at their former oppressors? (Again, I'm hardly an oppressor. I'm a mild-mannered, middle-aged historian. But in their eyes, I'm an elitist, whiney jerk with an overly developed sense of entitlement.) (*3)

So please: someone 'splain this to me, because I don't get it. And I swear this is my last take on writers' crap for awhile. It IS fascinating to me, but it's not something I can take a lot of time to ponder because, well, I've got to ponder equally historical shifts in the American food system and, hey, a girl's only got so many hours in the day.


*1: I've thought about this often enough that I'm daunted by the prospect. Should I opt for self-publishing, I'd have to get a job, obviously. The only thing I know how to do other than "history" is waiting tables. So I could do that and then use my off-time to research. By my calculation, and under those circumstances, the kinds of books I write would take 10 to 15 years to complete, and that includes giving up any other kind of leisure activity. (Bye-bye, husband!) (*1.1)

*1.1: The self-publishers scoff at such calculations. According to them, people like me simply don't work hard enough. I think what's really going on is that they simply don't know what historians do, and for that, as I've said on many occasions, I blame the historical profession for its unwillingness to engage with the public.

*2: I inadvertently got a load of that contempt/condescension/rage myself a few days ago. And again: I get why the self-publishers are smug about their success. I would be, too! But angry? What the hell are they ANGRY about? They've won! They should be happy, not angry.

*3: I must say: that's the other weird thing about the response from the self-pubbers who responded to my blog entry: They somehow got that idea that I believe I'm entitled to some kind of public subsidy. To which I say: Huh? I'm not asking taxpayers to fund my work (something many, many writers do, I might add). My arrangement with my publishers is entirely legal and private and takes nothing from anyone's pocket.

If Publishing Is Dead, What Happens to Non-Fiction?

UPDATE: See my long, and related, comment at this post. (As in: It's in the COMMENTS, not the blog entry itself.) I rarely write about the publishing side of my life; frankly, it’s not that interesting and it’s more insider baseball than anything else and how boring is that for those who aren’t on the inside? (Bohhhh-rriiiiing.)

So indulge me. Just this once. (I’m a historian and a writer and am living through a once-in-a-millennium paradigm shift. What’s not to love??)

For those of you who don’t work in “publishing,” a bit of background: The industry consists of publishing houses, both big and small; literary agents; and writers (aka the Big Mob At the Bottom of the Totem Pole).

Gleason's printing operation, in: Gleason's Pi...

Until recently (like, oh, coupla years ago), writers wrote, then tried to find an agent who then sold the writer’s work to a publishing house. The agent takes a percentage of the author’s royalties, and everyone involved hoped for the best (meaning: hoped readers would want to buy the book the writer had written. Most of the time, they did not.)

“Self-publishing” --- when a writer acted as her own publishing house --- was looked on as the resort of hacks, the untalented, the losers.

No more. Now anyone can write a manuscript, create a digital version of it, upload it to Amazon or wherever, and wait for readers and their wallets to come running.

For authors, the advantages are obvious: There’s no time lag between finishing a manuscript and “publishing” it. (In contrast, assuming all goes well, my meat book will come out in about ten or eleven months.) There’s no agent to take a chunk of the profits. The writer becomes a one-woman publishing industry.

For many writers, this has become the road to riches. Authors who never earned anything on books published the old-fashioned way swear that, thanks to self-publishing, they’re raking in the dough.

The self-publishing king- and queenpins are relentless in their mockery of those of us who cling to agents and publishing houses. According to them, we traditionalists are losers of the first order. We’re world-class fools for letting agents take our money, and dumbasses for letting editors and publishing companies call the shots on our behalf.

The self-pubbers canNOT wait for the day when the entire traditional publishing complex falls into a huge hole in the ground. The self-pubbers have the funeral all planned. (If the self-pubbers spent as much time writing as they do gloating over the slow death of publishing, they could easily crank out another book or two each year.)

Okay. Fine.


But I’ve noticed: The new self-publishing king/queenpins are almost entirely novelists, meaning they write fiction rather than non-fiction. (*1)

They crank out a novel or two (or three) a YEAR. I’m sure that many of them have to do research for their books, but for MOST fiction writers (not all of them), that research is minimal and is the kind of thing that can be taken care of with good googling or a trip or two to the public library.

As a result, they don’t understand that for people like me, the “traditional” publishing industry is my only lifeline, my only means of support.

Consider: I started working on the meat book in early 2007. I finished it in early 2012. You do the math.

I spent five years researching and writing the beer book, and of that, a great deal of money and time was spent on traveling to specialized libraries. The Key West book took me two years to research and write.

How did I pay for that? By entering into a partnership with a traditional publishing house that provided financial support.

It works like this: My agent sells my book IDEA to a publishing house. The house pays an “advance”: a sum of money upfront that I can live on while I research and write the book. It’s not much money --- in fact it’s an embarrassing amount of money and I also am fortunate enough to receive financial support from my spouse.

Without that assistance, I couldn’t do what I do. Period. Again, it’s not much money, and it’s the ONLY money I earn from my books. (If I were lucky enough to write a bang ‘em up bestseller, I’d earn more than the advance, but I’m not that lucky. Er, um, not that talented a writer.)

The self-publishers, in my opinion, have a distorted view of “books” and of “publishing.” In their minds, every writer is cranking out novels that don’t require much time to research and write, and the lag time between creation and payoff is short.

So I ask them: What happens when the agents, editors, and publishing houses go away? Who will write non-fiction then?

Library book shelves

And yes, sigh, all this ruminating led to that single simple question. I TOLD you I was long-winded.

UPDATE/OTHER LINKS: For more on non-fiction in this brave new world of books, see this post by Sarah Weinman, a long-time industry insider, and this article in the Wall Street Journal. (The latter link may evaporate.) And another update: This take from a writer who's been on both sides.

___________________________ *1: I say “almost entirely” because among the self-pubbers are a small but vocal group of non-fiction writers who, having earned beaucoup bucks from their work, are now Famous and Rich and can afford to dump their publishers and agents and publish their own work.

The Wall Street Journal's Take On E-Readers

Okay, so nothing to do with anything, but . . .

Today's Wall Street Journal has a brief take on the state of e-readers (you know: Kindle, Nook, etc.) There's also a great graphic in the sidebar that's a side-by-side comparison of the current contenders. Nice!

My favorite part, however, is that the reporter notes that, ahem, this first crop of readers may go the way of the eight-track. Which is precisely why I've not bought one. There are too many flaws in all of them.

So until Mr. Jobs enters the fray, I'm keeping my checkbook closed (my debit card unscanned? my paypal account unclicked? whatever). Not that Jobs will come up with a perfect e-reader, but a) I'm guessing it'll be better than what's available now; and b) its arrival will surely spur even more competition and some kind of standard for the device. And when it comes to stuff like this, standards are where it's at.

On The Subject of the Future of the Printed Word

While I'm here (before I resume my task of breaking the back of this chapter) (I've succeeded in smashing its kneecaps; the back awaits....), two pieces worth reading on the subject of, um, reading. And writing.

First, this in last Sunday's New York Times Business section, in which columnist Randall Stross asks if books will be "Napsterized." The, uh, punchline comes at the end. Yeah, I'll start giving it away alright. Just as soon as I win the Powerball.

Second, Anne Trubek weighs in at Good on the subject of "speed publishing." Anne is a terrific writer, and I have nothing to add to her comments. Except to ponder my fate as a wordosaur: a dying species that needs years, not weeks or months, to study a subject and then write something coherent about it. Sigh.

Tip o' the mug to Astute Reader Dexter for reminding me of the Stross column.

Dissection of A (Failed) Attempt at Digital Journalism

One quick, drive-by post (I want to get back my other job. Today: Explaining how Philip Armour made his zillions so I can get this chapter FINISHED.) A

nyway, wanted to pass along this  fascinating dissection of a failed attempt at "online" journalism. Stoltz does not present any hard evidence for his claims about the speed at which people read online (yes, I clicked over to his "source," but the source simply presents the date as fact, without any supporting evidence.)

But I think we agree that there is an inherent difference between reading paper and reading a screen, and so his basic argument --- that print journalism can't be a one-for-one transfer from paper to screen --- is true. Anyway, completely worth reading.

And once again, I curse Twitter: I learned of this piece via @boraZ while doing an "Okay, I'm just going to turn on the computer for fifteen minutes and do a quickie scan of Twitter" and of course found ten things I want to read. Sigh.

But back to Mr. Armour. And hey, some day I'll heed the experts' advice, apparently supported by fact, that blog entries need to be SHORT, damnit, SHORT. Because, ya know, no one wants to read these long rambling semi-disquisitions.