Three writers who show us why we need indie publishing — not least, from old-fashioned professional scribblers — to save civilisation

Santas for sale in March? Why not, if she is sure that they will find buyers? Shouldn't writers be as brave, setting out their own stalls? - photograph by MIL22

Santas for sale in March? Why not, if she is sure that they will find buyers? Shouldn’t writers be as brave, setting out their own stalls?

- photograph by MIL22

Insisting that the rise of indie authors and self-publishing spells the death of high culture — or raging at Amazon as their supreme enabler and champion — the anti-indies only ever invoke the spectre of talentless amateurs driving literature down the sewer.

Why do they almost never mention what excellent, necessary — even essential — books by fully qualified professionals could be be spared a waiting-for-Godot struggle to be admitted to the publishing pipeline?

In this post, we offer three examples that should shock honest and open-minded denouncers of the publishing revolution — if they exist — into reconsidering their position.

… But first, for Amazon-bashers, a quick announcement of a constructive reaction to publishers’ understandable fear of the Seattle retailer’s growing power. Anglo-German Haus Publishing in elegant Mayfair, at the heart of London, has launched a web site with an irresistible offer: ‘We guarantee to match amazon.co.uk prices when you order online or we’ll refund the difference. We’ll post your purchase free to anywhere in the UK or you can pick it up from us … enjoy a cup of coffee on us, a chat and browse of the shelves.’ Amazon unquestionably needs competition, a point underlined in an earlier entry on this blog. Instead of complaining about its terms for doing business with them, other publishers can follow Haus’s example – and, while they’re at it, start supporting indie authors, which brings us back to our topic …

… professional writers for whom serious indie publishing is not being born a moment too soon:

• a trans-cultural and trans-disciplinary genius baring his soul in his tenth decade;

• an intrepid explorer in the unfriendly Middle East brutally punished for his curiosity; and …

• an editor near the summit of The Economist.

carl djerassi IN RETRO COVER

Carl Djerassi, aged 91, is in the first stage of publishing In Retrospect, his third autobiography. Yes, you read that right, and there are not many examples of living historical figures — let alone anyone else — publishing more than one. Sceptics about the greatness of this scientist usually referred to as ‘the father of the birth control pill’ should do a quick search under his name on an Amazon site and have smelling salts on hand, as they inspect the staggering list of novels and plays credited to him. His imaginative literary works have won prizes. His plays are being performed in theatres across the world, in several languages. His scientific accomplishments listed in his Wikipedia entry, though incomprehensible for a non-chemist, look like the work of several gifted scientists (and yes, he has an ego — and charm — to match).

Presumptions of the smallest loss of mental acuity because of his age — by anyone who has not received tightly argued email replies from him at speeds rivalling a texting teenager’s — are instantly dispelled by reading two of his contributions to the 25 September edition of The New York Review of Books: an essay about the divorce of sexual reproduction from coitus, and a deeply erudite, acerbic letter to the editor scolding two biographers and their reviewer for not knowing that an interpretation by a celebrated cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, that links a Paul Klee painting to Hitler is the reason why this work — Angelus Novus — is famous (and partly a subject of an earlier post on this blog.)

Now for the show-stopping news: his new book about his life is not being published by any of the famous names in trade (general-interest) publishing but by Imperial College in London. A small gathering for a discussion in its honour was arranged at Cambridge University earlier this month.

Such a narrowly academic launch makes no sense at all for a true story oozing high emotional drama; whose historical backdrops include Kristallnacht and the Anschluss in Vienna; a tale that could easily supply enough material for two films — biopics or fictionalised versions of the truth — with lots to spare. With unflinching directness, he tells about being the only child of parents who divorce; enforced expatriation, as a Jew fleeing the Nazis; adjusting to life in the American Midwest; adultery; more than one suicide; being chronically threatened with suicide by an emotionally suffocating parent; and dealing with every form of rejection and vicious competition in parts of five outrageously successful careers: research scientist; university professor; manufacturing entrepreneur; literary artist in several genres; large-scale philanthropist specialising in the arts.

Why did conventional publishers decline to make an offer for a reconsideration of this particular personal history? Because – as he told us at post-Gutenberg, they thought that book buyers would be confused by being given this third version with its predecessors still in print, whose sales would be cannibalised by a new volume. He had to field these ridiculous objections by himself. The literary agents you might expect to be delighted to offer representation were apparently put off by his vast age. They were afraid, he said, that he would die on them.

But … were he publishing himself — if his autobiography were an e-book offered on, say, Amazon.com, he would be free to revise it ad infinitum. For each round of major alterations, he could use his blog to tip off readers with a special interest in his work – and their original purchase price would pay for all the updates.

We will be returning to this book and its author, and the parts of it we found especially rewarding to read – on another site. For the moment, we offer just one clip from In Retrospect justifying its publication. It would deserve wide attention merely for being intensely self-critical and raw in ways that scientists almost never permit themselves, and for its accessible conversational style:

… [O]nly if one has already published some self-reflections or autobiographical accounts two decades earlier, is it worthwhile to revisit them and reinterpret some of their deeper meanings as the end of the author’s life is rapidly approaching and with it a recognition of how big a role discontent has played in it. This is hardly original, considering what Flaubert once said: “An autobiography?…Wait 20 years to write about a painful experience.” What I shall be saying in this book about the topic of discontent—a painful synonym for the darker shadows in life ̶ is likely to be the last word, given that I am now approaching the age of 90. Furthermore, a lot has happened in my last two decades—in many respects a totally new life as an author and playwright rather than as a scientist. The reasons for such a transformation are worth describing, partly as useful examples to others in a progressively more geriatric world to demonstrate that it is never too late to transform oneself and even grow, but also as warnings, because there are many things I would not do now if I had the chance to start all over again.

nyt THEO PADNOS cover … 02cover_type-blog480Theo Padnos. Though his keen powers of observation, gift for metaphorical thinking and emotional honesty should have made his passage to publication an easy one, this writer found himself on the cover of The New York Times magazine last month for the worst of reasons. The standfirst for his contribution read:

In 2012, an American journalist went into Syria to cover the civil war. He was kidnapped and held for the next two years by an affiliate of Al Qaeda. After months of beatings and torture, he was certain he’d be executed. Instead, he lived to tell this tale.

Those of us who were adults in 2003 remember the debate about whether the world was being misled by a British prime minister, Tony Blair, and an American president, George Bush, insisting that declaring war on Iraq was unavoidable because of vast stores of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ being concealed and prepared for deployment by the country’s ruling dictator, Saddam Hussein. The memory is painful because the West had practically no reliable information about what was happening in Iraq — and certainly no proof of whether the WMD stockpile was real or a myth dreamt up by propagandist leaders of the Anglosphere. Article after article by learned military experts and scholars drew our attention to the lack not merely of competent observers on our behalf in the entire Middle East, except in Israel, but of spies, military observers or even mere civilians with connections to and experience of everyday life in the region. Worst of all, there was an alarming shortage of skilled interpreters and translators of languages spoken there.

A decade after we learnt all that, you might imagine that a good writer willing to sign on for the hard labour of filling in some of those gaps might have publishers falling at his feet, competing to serve as midwives for his discoveries. Think again. Here is what his article said in part:

In 2004, when the United States was mired in the war in Iraq, I decided to embark on a private experiment. I moved from Vermont to Sana, the Yemeni capital, to study Arabic and Islam. I was good with languages — I had a Ph.D. in comparative literature — and I was eager to understand a world where the West often seemed to lose its way.

[…]

At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, I wrote a few articles from Damascus, then returned to Vermont in the summer of 2012. Just as the Islamists were beginning to assert their authority in Syria, I began pitching articles to editors in London and New York about the religious issues underlying the conflict. By now, I could recite many important Quranic verses from memory, and I was fluent enough in Arabic to pass for a native. But these qualifications mattered little. The editors didn’t know me; few bothered to reply. Perhaps, I thought, if I wrote from Syria itself, or from a Turkish town on the border, I’d have better luck. On Oct. 2, 2012, I arrived in Antakya, Turkey, where I rented a modest room that I shared with a young Tunisian. I tried pitching the editors again. Still nothing. I began to despair of publishing anything and cast about for something else to do. Should I try teaching French? I wondered. Coaching tennis?

Of course, indie publishing was a path he could have taken, in 2012. But many otherwise brave writers were – are — cringing inwardly about the stigma of self-publishing, even if it is fading rapidly and will soon be as incredible as the snobbery about books published in paperback, in the first half of the last century.

Too many wars and destructive conflicts of every sort are caused and escalated by ignorance and misunderstanding. Middle East tension has been at or near the top of many people’s anxieties about the planet going up in flames, for most of our lives. Who would disagree that impediments to sharing the information Theo Padnos gathered threaten our safety, peace and civilisation?

When those obstacles are decision-makers in a print publishing industry guided almost exclusively by profit-or-loss considerations, doorkeepers whose knowledge and expertise is inevitably limited – just like everyone else’s – we need another way for writers to reach readers. Fortunately, it already exists, and some occupants of lofty rungs on old print publishing ladders are eagerly seizing the freedom in e-publishing to make their own decisions about what facts and opinions should be be getting out there. For example, …

ed lucas snowden cover

Edward Lucas. Serving as international editor of The Economist when the news of the Snowden leaks broke, he quickly found himself isolated in his opinions about them. As he recounted in an article for The American Interest in February,

It’s now exactly eight months since the Snowden Affair broke, and I daresay that last June few would have been able to predict the ample fallout. One development, in particular, though not perhaps the most important, has been particularly surprising: Snowden’s elevation, in the eyes of many of my friends, colleagues and counterparts around the world, into a secular saint.

Refusing to accept the majority opinion as correct — and rightly so, given his privileged understanding of Russia, acquired as The Economist’s Moscow bureau chief from 1998-2002 — he published his own short book about the leaker, The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster, at the start of this year. In an earlier version of this post, we mistakenly interpreted his change of responsibilities at the magazine — from ‘foreign editor’ to staff specialist in energy coverage and a raft of other subjects, including cyber-security — as the price he accepted for refusing to pretend that he did not see grave flaws in the media reporting and analysis of what Snowden did. He says that, in fact, The Economist gave him time off from his work as ‘international section editor’ to write his e-book and ‘threw a huge party on publication.’ … That certainly speaks well for the magazine that prefers to call itself a newspaper, but makes him no less courageous.

We are guessing that it has not escaped his notice that opposing the majority opinion of the most sensational political story of 2013 in the media establishment on both sides of the Atlantic and taking the indie author route; presenting your reasoning and facts to readers independently; virtually guarantees shunning by the professional book-reviewing community.

That has indeed been the fate, so far, of The Snowden Operation – even though a third edition of Lucas’s brilliantly timed The New Cold War: Putin’s Threat to Russia and the West was launched almost simultaneously by its respected conventional imprint, Bloomsbury (best-known as the home of the Harry Potter books on publishers’ row).

You, reader, must decide whether indie publishing does not represent a critical marker of cultural progress when it gives an expert writer a chance to set out arguments like the following excerpts from the Lucas justifications, arguments mostly suppressed by the oldest and most famous names in old-fashioned journalism. You do not have to agree with or approve of them to concede that they should have been balancing the endless column-inches of Snowden canonisation in those newspapers.

Snowden’s published revelations include material that has nothing to do with his purported worries about personal privacy. They reveal how countries like Norway and Sweden spy on Russia. Why is it in the public interest to reveal how democracies spy on dictatorships? The Snowdenistas’ outrage is based on the fact that this spying takes place in cooperation with the NSA, the Great Satan of the intelligence world.

[...]

It is fatuous for Snowden’s allies to say that they are keeping the stolen material safe: they lack the knowledge and skills to do so. With equal fatuity, they assert that redact the published material in order not to breach security. How can they possibly know what will be damaging and what may be harmless? Seemingly anodyne pieces of information can be gravely damaging when combined. Whether the documents stolen by Snowden number in tens of thousands, or 1.7m (sources differ) the combinations—and the damage—are almost beyond measure.

As I argue in the book, the damage done by Snowden’s revelations neatly and suspiciously fits the interests of one country: Russia. The sensationalist and misleading interpretation of the stolen documents has weakened America’s relations with Europe and other allies; it has harmed security relationships between those allies, particularly in Europe; it has corroded public trust in Western security and intelligence services; it has undermined the West’s standing in the eyes of the rest of the world; and it has paralysed our intelligence agencies.

In the Scottish referendum’s brilliant success, there was a crucial message for everyone designing the future of publishing

from The Canterbury Puzzles - Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

The Canterbury Puzzles and Other Curious Problems – Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

While everyone else ruminating about the Scottish referendum has been preoccupied (or horrified) by the inevitable demands for English devolution that followed it, post-Gutenberg has been transfixed by the 84 per cent turnout in Scotland last Thursday. This is stunning when you consider the rules for who was allowed to vote – amounting to an invitation to participate that could be unique in the history of national referendums:

everyone aged 16 or over, even though the age requirement is usually 18 years in general elections

 alongside Scots, British citizens and those from the European Union and Commonwealth countries who live permanently in Scotland

We call this radical inclusiveness. The only competition we can think of was in an experiment in Switzerland in 2011 (‘See ‘E-votes for all! Switzerland looks to the web to integrate immigrants,’ Prospect, 12 February 2011).

What Scotland’s voting eligibility spelt out for people there is: your opinion counts, and you really can make a difference. We remember sixteen as an extraordinarily impressionable age, and Scots teenagers who seized their first chance to use a ballot box might well be more actively engaged in political decision-making for the rest of their lives. As Jonathan Freedland said in his commentary on the referendum in a Guardian blog post, ‘If what started in Scotland this late summer is not to disappear by midwinter, it is its spirit that has to be nurtured and replenished. … [I]f you want people to come up with the biggest answers, you have to trust them with the biggest questions.’

How might this apply in publishing? If our regular readers will kindly excuse us repeating ourselves ad nauseam, we have set out

… an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing in a Networking Age in which readers want to be more than passive audiences – to do more than influence stage management and be free to perform themselves. [It is] a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites …

With eye-popping Scottish inclusiveness on our minds, we stumbled on an observer most struck by extraordinary exclusion in the post-referendum debate. Tim Garton Ash hurled these thunderbolts:

The absence of references to Europe in the barrage of first reactions to the Scottish referendum result was gobsmacking. Ukip leader Nigel Farage told the BBC that the issue now is how we create “a fair, federal United Kingdom”, which he explained as “a fully devolved, federal UK”. So federalism, the dreaded F-word, trademark of all those nefarious Napoleonic designs of beastly Belgians, is now suddenly a good thing. […H]ow on earth can we talk about a federal settlement for Britain without discussing the powers that belong to Europe?

How indeed. The trouble is, citizens of EU countries do not seem to think of each other very much, from day to day. They know remarkably little about each other’s lives in terms of intimate – mundane – details. That requires frequent contact, which tends to deepen acquaintance and can inspire some degree of identification. Instead, there are language gaps that explain obliviousness and ignorance. Too often, national and cultural pride tend to encourage head-in-the-sand chauvinism.

…(ahem) Can the British man and woman in the street be expected to think of themselves as European when, for instance, knowing about the temperament of an ordinary species of farm animal a mere Channel-hop away still probably means you have to be a near genius like the mathematician Ernest Henry Dudeney, a hundred years ago – even after decades of virtual travel by television? See his last line, below, in his puzzle illustrated at the top of this post:

Catching the Hogs

In the illustration Hendrick and Katrün are seen engaged in the exhilarating sport of attempting the capture of a couple of hogs.

Why did they fail?

Strange as it may seem, a complete answer is afforded in the little puzzle game that I will now explain.

Copy the simple diagram on a conveniently large sheet of cardboard or paper, and use four marked counters to represent the Dutchman, his wife, and the two hogs.

At the beginning of the game these must be placed on the squares on which they are shown. One player represents Hendrick and Katrün, and the other the hogs. The first player moves the Dutchman and his wife one square each in any direction (but not diagonally), and then the second player moves both pigs one square each (not diagonally); and so on, in turns, until Hendrick catches one hog and Katrün the other.

This you will find would be absurdly easy if the hogs moved first, but this is just what Dutch pigs will not do.

- The Canterbury Puzzles and Other Curious Problems, Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

 

Notes from the post-print transition, 2: astonishing confirmation — from medicine — that cooperatives fit the 21st-century’s zeitgeist

postgutenberg@gmail.com
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Media resisting the unavoidable bow to the democratic future of media ownership are being shown up in Britain by, of all people, the bean-counters of medicine — the traditionally conservative, cautious and slow-moving top managers of the country’s most cherished public institution, the roughly £100 billion ($171 billion) National Health Service.

The pinch-me-I’m-dreaming headline at the top of The Independent’s home page on Monday read: ‘New government policy for the NHS could allow doctors and nurses to “own” hospitals’.

Before we get to the reasoning behind that proposal, let us quickly say that inviting readers and commenters – reader-commenters — to become part-owners of media organisations through subscriptions that would also be financial shares — making them small-scale co-owners – is an actual need in this sector, though not in British medicine. The flow of cash into the NHS is assured. It comes from taxpayers. But, as last week’s entry in this blog noted, the advertising revenue on which print journalism depends to pay its bills looks increasingly shaky as a supreme cash cow for online publishing, as it elbows print out of the way.

Moving towards co-ownership — or ‘mutualisation’ — is the one step that the boldest experimenters with new media structures are resisting. Declining to go that far, we pointed out last month, is the single disappointment in the otherwise wildly impressive reports about De Correspondent – the new Dutch publishing enterprise putting commenters at front and centre-stage in its publishing scheme. Nick Denton, the serial online media entrepreneur – most famous for co-founding Gawker in 2003 with Elizabeth Spiers – has perfectly expressed what we also believe, in describing his many excellent adventures in media redesign to Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab:

“Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers. … And at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”

These smartest readers are most likely to devote all the time they can to the success of an online publishing enterprise – whether a startup or a famous name in the news business ‘flipping’ co-ownership of a part or the whole of its web site to commenters – if they can justify that to themselves with the hope of sharing in its financial success, some day. Denton’s schemes allow reader-commenters to share the stage with professional writers and journalists. They are designed to make readers feel part of a larger family or club, and – as in the De Correspondent plan — to improve the quality of information disseminated on his sites, and the range of expertise on which it draws.

Giving performance and efficiency a gigantic boost is the ambition behind the remarkable news about the proposal for British medicine:

Ministers are drawing up plans to allow doctors and nurses to own and run the hospitals they work in as part of a radical blueprint to change the way the NHS is run.

Under proposals to be floated tomorrow, staff could be able to take over hospitals and other NHS responsibilities and run them as new mutual companies in the style of the department store chain John Lewis.

Staff would then become “shareholders” in the new company with the power to dismiss the chief executive and board members as well as set policy and targets for the new organisation.

Ministers are not ruling out the possibility that staff could even be given a financial stake in the organisations for which they work – sharing bonuses if their hospital makes a profit on NHS work. The new policy comes after an independent review, led by the independent think-tank the King’s Fund, found what it described as “compelling evidence” that NHS organisations with high levels of staff engagement delivered better quality care. […] Ministers have been particularly taken by the success of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire, which had been losing £10m a year and had very low levels of patient satisfaction until taken over by the private provider Circle, which manages it for the NHS. Circle is owned jointly by the staff who work for it and private-equity funders.

… We hope that the people in charge of making the rules for the ‘mutualised’ British hospitals will take care to head off any possibility of repeating one grave mistake in American medicine — allowing doctors to invest in medical testing laboratories, rightly blamed for countless unnecessary tests ordered by many of those doctors. These are notoriously a large part of the explanation for America’s expensive and inefficient health care.

The chief fear for the democratic redesign of media is that it will lead to the collapse of cultural standards; that it will usher in a depressing age of mediocrity. Again, the right rules have to be drafted to ensure that this does not happen. Who says that any such effort would lack supporters? Who says that the least talented co-owners of a media enterprise will not wish to celebrate and promote their most talented comrades, attracting honour, fame and new members?

A few weeks ago, there was news of opera-lovers panicking about performances in some places accompanied not by live musicians but digital recordings. A New York Times reader said, in a letter to the editor:

Live music is being performed by an ever-shrinking elite corps of musicians. This trend cannot be reversed. But it will bottom out. There will always be a market for elite musicians … On some level we want to see humans demonstrating their mastery.

 Who would disagree?