In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Modernizing the Mideast | Main | Immigration Update »

January 24, 2004

More on Making Books

Dear Friedrich --

Interesting tales about what it's really like to make a book: Andy Kessler writes for the WSJ about self-publishing his book, here. David Sucher recalls what it was like to bring his own excellent book to the public here. Philip Greenspun lays out the details of his own publishing story here.

Reading these accounts got me thinking: If I had a nonfiction project that might be a book, I'm not sure a book is what I'd choose to turn it into. Why? Because books aren't electronic, and these days most information is accessed electronically. If I thought that by turning my material into a book I might change my life in a good way -- by making a zillion dollars, say, or by earning tenure -- I might well decide to publish a book. But if my book prospects looked more typical -- pathetic advance, few reviews, many frustrations, lousy sales -- I'd choose to put my material online instead, where it could at least be found, looked at, and made use of. If the real point of writing is to contribute to the larger conversation, why consign your work to a dusty, lonely shelf when you can give it a public life instead?

A note here: I'm as lousy a predictor of the future as the next guy. But when I do get lucky and connect, I find that I hit on a topic about 2-5 years before it turns up as a subject of general discussion. And I gotta say that I'm feelin' the heat here about this particular line of thought.

So I'm going to go out on a limb and make a Blowhardish prediction: in a couple of years, you'll start noticing that numerous nonfiction writers are agonizing out loud about whether they should be turning their material into books, or into online resources instead.



posted by Michael at January 24, 2004


Okay, smart guy, here's a query for you. There's been tons of ink spilled on this site (oops--make that pixels lit up I guess) over the future of the book blablabla....mea culpa for joining in the fray. Now, I'm a nonfiction guy, and a very part-time blogger, and to me the real deal will always be books, while supplemented in a meaningful way by a web presence...and here's what much of it comes down to: money.

Sell a ton of books and you get a lot of money. It's excruciatingly hard to do this, but that's kinda the goal.

Tell me how to convert this same type of response into something to live on...on the web. How will these projects make money? Which leads me to a question I feel compelled to ask on this board: why aren't you making money with your site? I admire the pristine and uncluttered and unaffiliated essence, but don't you ever think about how to convert this great resource into something that generates some money for all the work you have put into creating and maintaining it?

Posted by: Tom on January 24, 2004 10:27 PM

Tom, trust in the kindness of strangers. If they like it well enough, if it speaks to them well enough, if it moves them well enough, they will pay. But you're better off providing not just that single work, but a whole body of work.

Michael, I know of a fellow who published his work on the web. It came to people's attention, among them a small time publisher. Said publisher and the author came to an agreement and the work was formally published. It's been awhile since I last visited the site, but last I did it was at Nyambe. It's an RPG sourcebook covering a fantasy version of Africa. He also has links to sites in and about Africa.

As the years go by you can expect more writers to 'audition' their books via a web site. Some will see their works then optioned for publication by a publisher large or small.

Check out Baen Books sometime. They have a number of their books (including a few in print) available for free download. They've learned that people would much rather buy the book in print than read a free copy on screen. With some people downloading an electronic copy to see if it is something they'd like to buy. A sort of 'shareware' for books.

Changes are coming. Those who will adapt will survive and may even prosper.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 25, 2004 12:43 PM

Update: Try instead.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 25, 2004 12:49 PM

Tom -- More interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences, to be honest. As far as my point goes: probably 80-90% of books published tank, are terribly disappointing experiences for their authors, and then disappear. (Incidentally, I'm probably a lot more aware of this than most, having followed publishing closely. Most author wannabes probably have big, big hopes for their books and don't realize what's likely to become of their work.) If -- and it's a big "if" -- someone's writing a book in order to get some information, research, thinking and writing out there, and the project isn't likely to change his life or enhance his career or whatever, why not give all that work a chance to live, and to play a role in the world other than gathering dust?

The bookbiz, it's fun to note, is going thru the kind of crisis many businesses seem to go through when the digital wave crashes. What are they selling, exactly -- both to readers and to authors? Because of the romance of books, they've been able to go on in something like their old way. Tons of people still think it's a big deal to publish a book, and still imagine that their lives will be changed for the better, and they'll be justified as people, and they'll be participating in this big making-books thing, which meant so much to them as bookish kids, etc etc. They don't think practically about what they want from a publisher, or even really from entering into the project in the first place. Publishers reject tons of projects, and then, even when they've got themselves an actual list of books they're publishing, leave about 4/5 of them to die and focus on the 1/5 that they think is likely to make them some money. So authors (and other people who make books) often get crushed by the process -- often for very little money -- and then watch their beloved work turn yellow and crumble. Sad, but common.

My suspicion is that books aren't going to be meaning much to younger people coming along. They live in a world of electronics - books are just one media option among many. The romance of books will thin or disperse some. I'll be fascinated to see how the bookbiz itself adapts to this. My hunch is that authors and publishers will become more frank and practical about what's become the true nature of their relationship (business partners), and that a lot of the old smoke and mirrors will break down. At which point, I think some author types are likely to think, Sheesh, if that's what they're offering, screw 'em.

Alan -- Thanks for the thoughts and the pointers. Fun to see people experimenting, isn't it? Very Darwinian -- all these attempts. I wonder which forms will catch on. Any hunches? I don't tend to find reading fiction online very satisfying but maybe that's me. On the other hand, for nonfiction browsing-and-grazing online can be hard to beat...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 25, 2004 4:56 PM

I agree. I can't think of a better way to publish non-fiction than electronically. Unlike fiction, non-fiction demands that the author have an easy way to update any changes in the topic, answer any critics and provide links to the many sites that supply supporting or elucidating evidence. Its true that people prefer print, but advances in technology will certainly provide a way to download the book onto a tablet or the promised "e-paper" that will be acceptable to the average reader. Also, the technology for text to audio translation will be much improved and the freaky computer voice we know today will be replaced with a more pleasing sound. Imagine being able to push a few buttons and have to book burned onto an audio CD that you can listen to in the car.

Posted by: Bill on January 25, 2004 7:40 PM

Sigh. Against my better judgement I'll share a bit more. Thanks, MB, for your interest. Here's where I'm coming from. After about 15 years as a professional journalist writing about business with jobs at major magazines, I wrote sold and published my first book a few years ago, The Startup Garden--meant to be somewhat of a What Color is Your Parachute for people starting jobs (forgive the shameless self-promotion.) It came out in 2001--three weeks after 9/11 as a matter of fact (ouch)--and has not fared well. I'm not complaining. There are many reasons, but I'm simply doing my best to figure out how to sell the next one, and increase the chances of its success.

I cling and will always cling to the book as a book and believe many others will for a number of reasons. First off, I guess, is this: simply because. There's almost as much bad writing about book-loving as there is about baseball, so I'll just say that I love them and know that many others do and that the experience cannot be replicated in any other medium. It's been true since Gutenberg and won't change soon.

Second, and this has to do with my real question about how you make money on a website (and how you Blowhards might--and why aren't you considering it?)--books still represent a much more realistic opportunity for folks to earn a living.

Note the word "opportunity" here. Publishing is a shitty business with terrible margins and it galls me no end that the company that probably makes the most money from books today is Amazon, whose highest margins come from the books which it doesn't ever touch--those that it sells through the Marketplace feature (in other words, the used copies of books that now compete with the new ones I'd prefer were sold...)

So yeah, structurally, there's a lot of inefficient factos in the publishing industry that force most books to flop. This does not dissuade me from continuing to strive to write a great book. Like a lot of other writers, I am still writing for a living, seeking to feed my family, and so writing a book is a calculated risk. The challenge is to make the right choices to find a way to increase your odds of success while clearing out the clutter so as to write the stuff you want to write. After all, I also write because I love to write, and am grateful every day that I can.

I love the web and love this site. I admire your wits and above all your energy; my website is obscenely sporadic because I don't have the time, I just can't afford it. But I fervently believe that all writers must be smart about using the web to create and speak to an audience. The act of writing is not complete until the words are read by someone else; and the technology/media should ideally help the writer reach the right audience. So any active web presence that provides interactivity, links, supplemental material, and the like, is excellent. There are few good author websites (with the exception, intriguingly of several childrens book authors like Jan Brett and Dav Pilkey, both of whom recreate the playful experience in their books on an electronic manner.) Over time I think authors will figure out a shrewd way to use both in an additive manner.

But again, until you've reached this critical mass of an audience, spending hours creating a website does not create a living.

A few other thoughts of web/book. First of all, I harbor a sentimental attachment to a book audience more than an electronic one. I know I'm irrational that way, but there's nothing more exciting than happening upon someone reading your book. Also, because I am intimidated by the technology of posting on a website, I know only enough to post new additions to my blog. For people who are comfortable doing their web stuff, it seems common sensical that it will be easy for everyone else. It isn't and won't be.

Finally, I sometimes feel quite skeptical about the online community. Yeah, the web is everywhere, but there are days when I still feel like part of a CB radio crowd. And I'm barely active.

Okay, forgive the long post. Bottom line: I doubt the romance of books will ever vanish. I doubt the economics will improve and that yes they will deteriorate and publishers and writers will need to adjust. Like major film studios vs. independents there will be cycles of big players locked into increasing folly whose error of ways will be exposed by successful independents, creating a new cycle. I doubt that the-product-formerly-known-as-thebook will become a web entity. It will have a web component but until someone cracks the code of making a living there they will still hold out for the fortunes of a bestseller.

Posted by: Tom on January 25, 2004 9:32 PM

Tom, I prefer hardcopy because it's easier on the eyes. Monitors today are not meant to be looked at for extended periods of time. This will change in the future, but that change is some time off.

Still, when used right a web site or PDF document can offer advantages a print version can't. Links to related sites and/or documents. The opportunity to comment on the work and/or provide feedback to the author or authors. How the author interacts with his readers has already changed. (I'll check and see if Tad William's Shadowmarch site is still up. If it is I'll provide a link to it in this thread. A good example of a community site where the participants can engage in 'conversations' with a writer.)

I see a lot of online 'books' getting added to the web as the idea spreads. We may even see web hosts catering to the 'book publishing' trade. But I see only a rare few actually being formally published. Then again, many could hook up with print-on-demand agents who'll do up a copy of the work in question and ship it to the customer. The folks at RPGNow already have this as an option if you'd much rather get a hardcopy of a purchase. Expect more online merchants to offer this feature as time passes.

More later when I've more to add to the discussion.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 26, 2004 10:32 AM

Damn, linking aint working right in these comments. You can find RPGNow at:

That should work better.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 26, 2004 10:35 AM

Tom, Alan -- Many thanks again for interesting thoughts, links, experiences, etc. We may move in different circles, but from what I see my suspicion is that the romance of books is already dead for many under-30s, who seem to see the world as a menu of media options, books being just one of them. So (continuing to speculate semi-groundlessly), my reasoning goes a little like this: the trade book industry has always run to an amazing extent on the naivete, eagerness and credulousness of book-lovers. It's maybe the only industry I can think of where many of the people who produce the industry's product (ie., writers) often do so at a loss. To some amazing extent the business model is based on the notion that people just love books so darned much that there's always going to be a ton of people so in love with the idea of being an author of a published book that they're willing to work for next to nothing. Now, what happens if that changes? What happens if being the author of a published book stops seeming like such a big deal? What happens if people with fewer stars in their eyes look at what the publishing industry is offering them and think "that's not much." I think they're going to turn elsewhere instead, and probably most quickly to the web.

But the big complicating factor is what Tom says it is: the dream and determination some people have to make an actual living writing books. It can be done, but not by many -- both because there aren't that many who have it in them, and because there just doesn't seem to be room for all that many fulltime book-writing pros -- and it takes a ton of work, discipline and luck (let alone brains, energy and talent).

I'm just repeating what I've read in other discussions of the impact of digi-tech on various media, but it looks likely to me for a variety of reasons that there'll be a class of people who produce (or who compete to produce) highly successful books, who make good money at it, and then there'll be a lot of people who don't make any money at all. (Isn't this one of the guesses about what'll happen in the musicbiz? That the music companies will exist entirely to create and promote a handful of big acts, while nearly everyone else will be off on their own?) Which leaves me wondering: why, if you're going to make no money anyway, would you put up with what you have to put up with to get a book published? Why not instead publish on the web?

But of course I could be all wrong about this...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 27, 2004 1:13 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?