Monday, September 26, 2011

From the Starving Artists File

"The financial success of an author is inversely proportional to the literary worth of the book. Take the authors of the Bible. Those garment-rending saps ate cockroach dung in caves in the Gaza desert and scrawled tortured epiphanies on papyrus before being stoned to death or dying of plagues. Or Herman Melville, who barely staved off debts by assessing tariffs on crates of imported wool in New York Harbor for twenty years. Meanwhile Pamela McLaughlin, whose books can be read and forgotten in the time it takes for ordered Chinese food to arrive, flies in a private helicopter to the Caribbean island she owns. She named it-- and this is not a joke, I read it in Vanity Fair-- 'Bellissima Haven.'"-Steve Hely, How I Became a Famous Novelist

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sunday, September 11, 2011

First Church of Bootstrap-lifters, Scientist

Now their propaganda is everywhere triumphant, and year by year we see an increase in the rewards and emoluments of the prophets and priests of the cult. The ground is covered with stately temples of various designs, all of which I am told are consecrated to Bootstrap-lifting. I come to where a group of people are occupied in laying the corner-stone of a new white marble structure; I inquire and am informed it is the First Church of Bootstrap-lifters, Scientist...

the priests of all these cults, the singers, shouters, prayers and exhorters of Bootstrap-lifting have as their distinguishing characteristic that they do very little lifting at their own bootstraps, and less at any other man's. Now and then you may see one bend and give a delicate tug, of a purely symbolical character: as when the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Bootstrap-lifters comes once a year to wash the feet of the poor; or when the Sunday-school Superintendent of the Baptist Bootstrap-lifters shakes the hand of one of his Colorado mine-slaves. But for the most part the priests and preachers of Bootstrap-lifting walk haughtily erect, many of them being so swollen with prosperity that they could not reach their bootstraps if they wanted to. Their role in life is to exhort other men to more vigorous efforts at self-elevation, that the agents of the Wholesale Pickpockets' Association may ply their immemorial role with less chance of interference.
-Upton Sinclair, The Profits of Religion

Something to Read When You're Down and Out

A couple of weeks ago Flavorwire posted a list of "truly magnificent novels written about the penury and deprivation that can arise in allegedly first-world societies, books that are crushingly depressing but also with a lot to teach about the way our world treats those who have less than we do."

Read the whole list and make some notes for your next library visit.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Beyond Jobs

Douglas Rushkoff writing for CNN asks whether our problem is really "jobs" or should we instead be re-envisioning our entire social economic structure:

The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with "career" be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?

Instead, we are attempting to use the logic of a scarce marketplace to negotiate things that are actually in abundance. What we lack is not employment, but a way of fairly distributing the bounty we have generated through our technologies, and a way of creating meaning in a world that has already produced far too much stuff.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Philosophical Look at Amazon's New @Author Program

Amazon has recently launched a new Kindle feature, in Beta, called @author. It allows readers who have a Kindle, to tweet questions to the author directly from within the Kindle platform. When I heard about it I immediately wanted to sign up to be an "@author." Turns out I'm not famous enough. They're just trying it out with a few big wigs for now. People like me are fairly easy to reach at any rate.

It's easy to see why a writer would want to do it though. Most of the time you write a book, it goes out into the world, and you have no idea what anyone thought of it. Hearing from readers would satisfy the natural curiosity of authors.

Nieman Journalism Lab has an article on how Amazon is changing what the book is all about.

I hated much of the tone of this article because it is written in my least favorite language: market speak.

There are a couple points to note here. First, most obviously: @Author represents yet another step in, yep, the personalbrandification of the publishing business — book-wise, news-wise, otherwise. The title of Amazon’s new feature, after all, isn’t @book or @genre or @publishinghouse; it’s @author. The identity of the author herself — as defined and measured and bolstered by her ability to create a community around her content — is, here, itself a kind of product.


Having people who respond to what you write, and who develop and interest in what you might put out, is not "creating brand identification." It's building an audience. In simpler times, what they are calling a "brand," or a "product," Dear Reader, we once called "a reputation."

The idea that readers would connect with authors rather than publishers is nothing new. I venture to say that even in the brick and mortar days of book selling people did not go in looking for a book from their favorite publisher.

My perspective on the whole publishing industry is quite simple: authors and their stories, in whatever form, do not exist to support an industry called "publishing." Publishing is the industry that came into existence to fulfill the desires of readers to have access to literature, to support writers enough so that they could create said literature. The successful business models of the future will be the ones that keep that original mission-- connecting readers to literature.

I do realize that my backwards take on things-- that the money making part of business is a byproduct of making products and services available to society, rather than the other way around-- is probably why I wrote a book called "Broke is Beautiful" and not "How I Became a Millionaire Through My Idealism."

In any case, the Nieman article proposes that this assumption, that the author will continue to be available to the reader after completing the book, changes expectations about what a "book" is about. A book becomes a dialogue, never entirely finished and closed. It seems likely that the ways we conceive of "books" and literature will evolve because of this technology. This is an interesting development and we'll see where it goes.

One potential problem I do see with this "digital commodification of authorship that takes place by way of community and conversation," as the article puts it, is that letting readers ask authors whatever they want, ironically, risks diminishing the role of the reader in the literary process.

Here is what I mean: The writer of a book, especially a fiction book, is only half of the literary equation. Much of the meaning of a book comes not from what the author intended, but what the reader brings to it. There are as many takes on Hamlet and Jane Eyre as there are readers to come into contact with them. The writer might have a strong idea of what a character's motivations are, beyond what is literally present in the text, and the reader might have a different idea. Who is to say that the author's idea is the right one?

Being encouraged to ask the writer limits the role of the reader by bringing the author back in to "settle" some of the questions raised by a book. Sometimes the questions are more interesting than the answers.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Not Making Employees Happy Interferes with Your Ability to Use them As Part of Your Machine

I'm all in favor of creating better workplaces that allow employees to be happier, healthier and more engaged with their work. Yet is the only way to frame this argument a financial one? Worker wellbeing is important because our business will earn more if we can keep them well?

The New York Times today ran yet another story about a social value framed entirely in market terms- how do these pesky humans influence our productivity and bottom line?

Here is the premise of today's article Do Happier People Work Harder?
Employee engagement may seem like a frill in a downturn economy. But it can make a big difference in a company’s survival. In a 2010 study, James K. Harter and colleagues found that lower job satisfaction foreshadowed poorer bottom-line performance. Gallup estimates the cost of America’s disengagement crisis at a staggering $300 billion in lost productivity annually. When people don’t care about their jobs or their employers, they don’t show up consistently, they produce less, or their work quality suffers.

This framing has the interesting effect of advocating on behalf of workers while still treating them as cogs in the wheel of corporate machinery, only valuable to the extent that they are increasing profits for the company.

The article speaks from the perspective of owners and managers and asks us to assume that we, the American people, the readers of this article, are the managers rather than the managed. For this most part this is not true. The vast majority of the American public is made up of those unhappy workers, not the managers.

Can't anyone argue that we should try to improve people's quality of life because then they would have a better quality of life?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Happy Capital Day

Washington Post reporter E. J. Dionne, writing for The Moderate Voice, argues that we should just go ahead and change the name of Labor Day to Capital Day.

Imagine a Republican saying this: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

These heretical thoughts would inspire horror among our friends at Fox News or in the tea party. They’d likely label them as Marxist, socialist or Big Labor propaganda. Too bad for Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, who offered those words in his annual message to Congress in 1861.

...In scores of different ways, we paint investors as the heroes and workers as the sideshow. We tax the fruits of labor more vigorously than we tax the gains from capital — resistance to continuing the payroll tax cut is a case in point — and we hide workers away while lavishing attention on those who make their livings by moving money around.

Consider that what the media call economics reporting is largely finance reporting... Workers are regarded as factors of production. At best, they’re consumers; at worst, they’re “labor costs” cutting into profits and the sacred stock price...

With the worker disappearing from our media and our consciousness, isn’t it only a matter of time before Labor Day falls off the calendar? As long as it’s there, it should shame us about our cool indifference to the heroism of those who go to work every day.

Read the full article via the link above.

Is Modern Culture One Big Commercial for Consumerism?

Thought provoking article by Justin Lewis on Our Kingdom on the power of advertising when taken collectively.

Advertising has became our dominant creative industry – what Stuart Ewen calls ‘the prevailing vernacular of public address’. It sucks up our talent for art, design, creativity and storytelling. It has become such a routine part of everyday life that we rarely stop to think about its significance.

...the prevailing orthodoxy is to treat each advertisement on its individual merits. The larger question – the cumulative impact of this deluge of commercials - is rarely asked...

For all their diversity, advertisements share one basic value system. Advertisements may be individually innocent, collectively they are the propaganda wing of a consumerist ideology. The moral of the thousands of different stories they tell is that the only way to secure pleasure, popularity, security, happiness or fulfilment is through buying more; more consumption - regardless of how much we already have.

New Form of Ego Surfing for Authors

For my birthday, I got a Kindle ereader. (I have mixed feelings about it. Being able to take a full library on tour with me is a plus. The marketing focus, long term questions of book ownership--could my whole library become technologically obsolete or require an expensive upgrade or repurchase to be read again?-- and the fact that you can push a wrong key and suddenly be in the wrong part of your book are minuses.)

One of its features allows you to see the popular highlights in a book you are reading. I find this distracting, and turned it off. Someone pointed out to me, however, that an author could look up her own books and see what readers had highlighted. Amazon has a web page where you can look up books available for its device and see the highlights in it. A new form of ego surfing for authors!

Only one of my books, Broke is Beautiful, is new enough to have picked up any popular highlights. If the three dudes who highlighted it are taken to be representative, here is the best line in my book:

"When we are chasing after financial goals, we usually think we are seeking self-improvement. Yet we’re actually more motivated by a fear of loss than the dream of gain."

Kind of fun, but to be honest, after writing more than a dozen books, I was hoping the public might have highlighted a few more lines.