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December, 2014:

The Year of Writing Dangerously

My mother always told us when we were kids that however we behaved on New Year’s Eve, we would behave for the entire year, so for pete’s sake just behave. And so we did, more or less. As 2014 winds down I’m trying not to be too grouchy, lest my outlook get stuck in one unflattering state for the next twelve months. It’s 11 below in Colorado Springs as I write this, which doesn’t help. Maybe if I get it out of my system before midnight, next year will be better.

(Midnight? asks Shrek. Why is it always midnight?)

The worst of it is, I can’t be too specific. But I’ll summarize this way: 2014 was a real lousy year for technical publishing. I’m pretty sure it was a lousy year for publishing generally. This isn’t new news; the last really good year for publishing may have been 2000. The 90s were a spectacular decade for publishing, and although it may not be entirely fair to compare recent years to those in the 90s, the functional difference is that (quality being held constant) publishing is cheaper and easier now than it’s ever been in human history. Less remarked on, but no less important: So is reading.

Traditional publishing companies were gatekeepers because the creation of books was difficult and expensive. I’m old enough to have spent all night helping my art director finish laying out a magazine issue on cardboard sheets, to which strips and blocks of text and even isolated letters were glued with hot wax. (I also remember upending the art department wastebasket on the floor at 2 ayem and digging through typesetting discards because Karen needed a 6-point “q” to complete a spread.) As laser printers replaced typsetters, and then purely digital layout replaced laser printers, smaller and smaller groups could do better and better work for less and less money. Skill still matters. Capital, not so much. With a proven book style template in hand, I can take an 80,000 word .docx file and turn it into a printable book in an afternoon without hurrying, using a six-year-old PC and a ten-year-old release of InDesign. I don’t have to print 10,000 books to make money. I can print them as readers buy them, and recoup the cost of my time with sales of just 25-30. (This is about layout and doesn’t include the cost of writing the book, which is much harder to quantify.) Yes, it takes more ebook sales to recoup layout costs because cover prices are lower, but since it’s easier to sell a $3 ebook than an $18 trade paperback, the time taken to recoup costs is roughly the same, all else being equal, with ebook sales pulling steadily ahead.

What this means is that technology has kicked the gates down, and the gatekeepers are left beside a pile of kindling, blinking and wondering whathehell happened. Conventional wisdom holds that the fall of the gatekeepers means that a flood of worthless, badly written books is turning the public off to reading. I don’t think this is true; more people are reading than ever. The real problems are these:

  • Finding good books amidst the torrent of sludge is difficult. (This is not a new problem!)
  • Sludge aside, the number of worthwhile books is growing faster than the number of reader-hours available to consume them.

These two problems interact in an interesting way: Readers who happen on a good writer tend to stay with that writer as a way of keeping their nostrils above the sludge torrent. If you find a writer who writes a lot of what you enjoy, you don’t have to look as hard for things to read. This selects for writers who are hyperextroverted, tireless self-promoters with the ability to summon ferocious energy and apply it to their writing. Writing three decent novels a year isn’t remarkable anymore. It’s survival. You’re not competing against crappy writing. You’re competing against excellent writing in a market that is approaching saturation.

Traditional publishers are looking for writers with “platforms,” which basically means writers who have already established a following somehow. Creating a solid platform is difficult and energy-intensive, and with self-publishing as easy and inexpensive as it is, writers have begun asking whether signing increasingly dicey contracts with publishers after they’re well-known really makes sense. The platform is the new gatekeeper. The bad news is that a platform takes a great deal of time and work, much of which does not involve writing. The good news is that you don’t have to kiss publisher ass to create a platform. (My agent has written a very good if slightly scary book about creating platforms.)

This, more than anything else, is why self-publishing does make sense, and why traditional publishers are struggling. It’s not all bad news. However, it’s not all good news, especially for careful writers of a certain age who can’t knock it out quickly enough to get a platform up to critical mass.

Hence my grumpiness, which may be fatigue more than nostalgia for my days when selling books to print publishers was easy, and the process–and money–reliable. I could summarize 2014 this way: It was the year that I truly lost my taste for traditional publishing. Again, I can’t yet explain in detail, but my inner circle knows what’s going on. (Note that this is about my core competence in tech writing; fiction is a whole ‘nother world.) Sooner or later the dust will settle, and you’ll get the full story.

Beyond that, the year was actually decent enough: Carol can dance again, we took two tropical vacations, we bought a nice new car, and we’ve begun our search for the Door Into Summer During Winter. 2015 could well be a lot happier than what we’ve just been through. Granted, what I write and how I publish it going forward are still unknown. But man, 2014 has been giving me some hints.

A hearty 73 from Carol and me and the Pack. See you on the flipside.

Odd Lots


yoga 2-500 wide.jpg

“Hey, Contra Boy! Are you dead or something?”

Me? No. C’mon, if I were dead I would have mentioned it. So I’m not dead, though I am something, and while I can tell you it isn’t ill-health (for either of us) I can’t say much more about the something beyond that.

It’s certainly gotten in the way of other pursuits.

Anyway. For the first time I am hands-up-to-the-elbows in Windows 8. Carol wanted a new ultrabook-class laptop for Christmas, and we shopped together. She chose the 11.5″ version of the Lenovo Yoga 2, which (like my Transformer Prime) attempts to be both a loptop and a tablet. Unlike my Transformer Prime, I think it actually succeeds. The pivoting display (see above) lets it work as a tablet, and while I’m still not used to grabbing keys on its virtual backside while gripping the little slab in tablet mode, the machine ignores the keypresses. If the keys themselves are robust, no harm will come of it. The 1366 X 768 display isn’t retina-class, but it’s gorgeous and good enough. It’s got a 1.5 GHz Core i3 and 500 GB hard drive, which is more than sufficient for how we intend to use it.

Like all retail machines, the Yoga 2 is loaded with crapware, some of which I’ve never heard of and haven’t looked up yet, like the Maxthon Cloud Browser. Some of the crapware is crapware by virtue of being preinstalled; Evernote is a worthy item but I do not want it on the machines I buy. Ditto Zinio. Doubtless a lot of the other dozens of thingies cluttering up the display are there for Lenovo’s benefit and not ours; remember that crapware slots on consumer machines generate lots of money for their vendors through sales conversions, and Lenovo gets a cut.

My biggest problem is that I will eventually have to replace the MacAfee crapware with something that works. We standardize on Avast at our house, but getting rid of security suite crapware is notoriously difficult. Most people eventually just give up and pay for it. Not me.

I’m spending considerable time on the project not only because Carol needs a machine that works well, but also because I need a new laptop myself. A 13″ Yoga might do the job, assuming I can learn to love Windows 8, or at least hold hands with it. A big tablet would be useful for reading PDF-format technical ebooks. Now, having been set up the way Carol likes, it goes back in its box, the box gets wrapped, and it joins the pile under the Christmas tree. Much better that way than trying to figure out what’s crapware and what isn’t on Christmas morning.

Quick summary of what I’ve been reading:

  • The Call of Distant Mammoths, by Peter T Ward (Copernicus Books, 1997.) Why did the ice age mammals vanish? It wasn’t simply human predation or climate change. It was a combination of things, especially human predation and climate change. (Wow! The brilliance!) Cost me a buck plus shipping, and the gruel was thick enough so that I won’t claim the time spent on it was totally wasted. Still, not recommended.
  • Neanderthal Man, by Svante Paabo (Basic Books, 2014.) It seems like carping, but the book is mis-titled. It’s not about the Neanderthals themselves but rather the sequencing of their genome, which the author spearheaded. Paabo’s writing style is solid and amiable, and he does a good job explaining how DNA can be found in very old bones (with tremendous difficulty and peculiar luck) and how it was teased out over a period of almost twenty years. I must emphasize that if you have no grounding at all in gene sequencing, it will be a bit of a slog. However, if you pay attention, you will learn a lot. Highly recommended.
  • 1848: The Year of Revolution, by Mike Rapport (Basic Books, 2008.) My Duntemann ancestors arrived in the US in 1849 or 1850. We haven’t found the crossing records yet, but we have a strong hunch why they left: the European upheavals of 1848. Like WWI, 1848 doesn’t summarize well. The people rose up against their elites, who were in many cases so afraid they were facing Jacobin 2.0 that kings resigned, constitutions were given, and (alas) the roots of commoner suffering remained misunderstood and mostly uncorrected. Again, this may be a slog even if you have some grounding in European history. History doesn’t always make sense. Sometimes you just have to describe the squirming details of what will always remain chaos. Cautiously recommended.

The odd lots are piling up too. Will try to get some posted tomorrow.