Monday, February 23, 2009

Time Magazine, New York Times both report on self-publishing

Time Magazine has an interesting article in the “Entertainment” section (dated Jan. 21, 2009), “Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature.” The link is here
The article discusses Lisa Genova’s graduated success with her book, "Still Alice", first published in print-on-demand by iUniverse, and eventually, after it picked up an audience, picked up by an agent and then Simon & Schuster. She made #5 on the New York Times best seller list in January 2009.

The article goes on to discuss how the business model for trade publishing, often based on pre-publication payments to established authors who earn a big living off their writing, has changes. The economy is part of the reason, but the digital revolution and ease of production is another.

The article goes on to compare “Old Publishing” to “New Publishing” and calls self-publishing “Web 2.0 vibe finally washing up on publishing's remote shores.” But, going beyond just vanities (without a bonfire) it is becoming respectable again. Back around 1973 or so, self-publishing of a major novel would have cost about $15000 and the author would have limited control of his work. It has recently become a bit more expensive at iUniverse than it was around 2001 or so, but it is still affordable for most people of middle class means.

Some compendiums, however, will not review self-published books. And, in the past at least, (I'm not sure if it is still true) Author's Guild would only accept for membership authors who could gain advances from traditional publishers. There is some self-interest in trying to preserve that old model.

However Motoko Rich has an article in the January 27, 2009 New York Times, “Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab”, link here.

Rich starts out by saying, “The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them..” It goes on to explain the explain the practical appeal of print-on-demand, as well as other possible opportunities like Kindle.

One problem with traditional printed books is that events move so quickly that many non-fiction books become obsolete (hence their material is kept current by blogs), and many novels with modern settings cease to remain timely. Many authors plots (including mine) were destroyed “creatively” by the sudden fall of Communism. Maybe we do need to go back to the classics.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tony Blankley's "American Grit": a call to expect "duties" as well as "rights" and to "bring back the draft"!

Author: Tony B. Blankley.
Title: "American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century."
Publication and Description: Washington, Regnery, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59698-519-3. 215 pages, indexed.

The author is an executive with Edelman Global Communications, and created a bit of a stir a couple weeks ago when The Washington Times ran a couple of the more controversial passages in this book as op-eds. On passage dealt with supporting wartime censorship, and another urged a return to military conscription.

In fact, the chapter “Bring Back the Draft” is the second, but in doing this review I’ll save the appetizer as dessert, and approach the main part of the book pragmatically.

Yes, Blankley is urging is own brand of “country first,” and up to a point a lot of his points make sense. Again, I’ll take up the “moral” points later. Sometimes there is some real pragmatism in his arguments, which he set up by talking about Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatic commitment to country and union early in the book.

He’s right in that we need to become more self-sufficient in all forms of energy. Yes, we can drill offshore safely, and yes, oil companies need a stable enough price that they will get at the more difficult domestic sources of oil and gas. Predictions of peak oil may not be as dire is we face economic realities on energy production. But I disagree with him on climate change and global warming. There really is no credible debate any more. We must do something about producing less carbon. Why aren’t we investing in producing more energy locally with solar and wind?

He is right in that the threat of global terrorism is dire, and that we run a substantial risk of a WMD or nuclear attack on a major western city (or plural). He is right in that radical Islam and its brand of asymmetric warfare is novel, and that it targets western consumerism in a somewhat unprecedented way (even compared to communism and fascism in the past). Citizen preparation is important, but the real issue is getting good intelligence and in reigning in on nuclear and biological raw materials available around the world (particularly in the former Soviet Union). So Sam Nunn’s approach, as well as the current president’s, of accounting for all this material seems critical.

He offers interesting perspectives on wartime censorship and on the due process rights of people identified as enemy combatants. It is certainly true that America has had much more vigorous censorship (and surveillance) in the past than anything practiced by the departed Bush administration. At various times (especially during World War I) we have prosecuted people for violating sedition laws (in WWI that meant criticizing the draft), and such laws seem arguably unconstitutional to me. He is critical of some “anti-war” movies like Brian de Palma’s “Redacted”, “Rendition” and Tom Cruise’s “Lions for Lambs”, but I personally didn’t experience these as anti-war. But he is right in that during WWII anti-war films and speech were not tolerated much. And I wasn’t aware that Hawaii was under martial law during WWII.

He is critical of the media’s behavior in compromising security (he goes into the Valerie Plame affair) and would question journalists’ demands for shield laws, probably. He gives an example where media intervention led to the shutting down of a radical Islam website when it could have provided good intelligence. But he overlooks the opportunity to discuss “amateur” media, which may contribute a lot to the tone of the debate (on radical Islam, for example), but which could also inadvertently serve as a nuisance or as a target for exploitation, for example, by steganography.

He gives a sobering discussion of the “threat” of calls for dual legal systems, like urging Sharia law in Britain, and discusses the problem of “libel tourism”, particularly with the case of a book about Khalid bin Mahfouz (relating to a book by Rachel Ehrenfeld), which he says has eased somewhat with a New York State law – but Congress still needs to give this attention.

This brings me back to his treatment of conscription, which he traces back to colonial times when some states, he says, did conscript men into militias (for George Washington, the length of enlistment contracts was a big issue). A number of other people have called for resuming the draft, more often liberals (like Rangel) or academicians (like Charles Moskos) who see it as a moral matter regarding not just sharing sacrifice but as a pragmatic measure of attracting better talent to the military. Indeed, Blankley argues that the Pentagon badly needs more troops on the ground, and doesn’t want to admit that it needs a draft again. Blankley admits that in the current political climate it’s unlikely that arguments to resume the draft will get much traction. He thinks that Obama’s plans for strong carrots for national service have little real effect (he’s not that clear as to why), and goes on to spell out his suggestion. At graduation from high school, we have universal draft registration, and the Pentagon selects the people it needs and wants. The remaining people serve in civilian areas, which might include ideas like civil defense, but could also help with eldercare and nursing homes. That idea is interesting because it suggests that interpersonal care is everyone’s responsibility (whether married with kids or not), but it could also take up some of the slack in the debate on controlling entitlement expenses for seniors. At one point, he says we will have to make painful decisions about how much support (outside the family) to give people who have already lived their lives. I suppose that’s just being candid. I don’t recall that he specifies gender (I think he would draft females, as does Israel). Several times he admits to sounding anti-libertarian, and characterizes his plan as “service” and not “involuntary servitude.” (I guess there won’t be any 20 year olds who become billionaires without paying their dues first, in his world.) Also, in the chapter on the draft, he doesn’t mention how restoring the draft would interact with “don’t ask don’t tell” for gays. I was disappointed in that lack in the chapter.

However, he revisits the military service issue later in Chapter 9: “Back to Basics: Reading, Writing and ROTC”. You can imagine the tone of such a chapter. (Actually, I recall seeing a junior ROTC drill in the Arlington Ballston Common during the time that Presdient Clinton’s plan to lift the military gay ban was triggering such angry debate.) On p 171 he says that “pro-gay” and other (like anti-military) forces oppose Junior ROTC, and on p 172 he expands his thought to admit that opposition to Junior ROTC (and college ROTC in general) comes from opposition to the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. On p 179 he supports the Solomon Amendment. But he never goes into the issue of lifting the ban itself. I can imagine that his view on gay rights is not very favorable and imagine that he sees family values as part of “paying your dues” but that might be speculation.

It's well to remember that the Republican Platform in 2008 (on which Senator John McCain ran), with all the talk of "Country First", insisted on keeping the all volunteer military (perhaps it was soft on the stop-loss or "backdoor draft"), and denied that there would be compulsory national service; but it also wanted to keep "don't ask don't tell".

He does, in his first chapter, provide a welcome and blunt statement about the importance of duty as well as rights. On p 8 he writes:

“Currently, the best interest of the nation requires us to consider rolling back our attachment to personal rights and entitlements, and attachment that has become self-indulgent.”

I perceive this whole question of “duty” (or “bill of responsibilities”, a term that I coined in my first book) as “out there” in a separate space. It invokes questions about karma and “justice” at the individual level: we don’t like to see people gain on the unseen sacrifices of others. But in a democracy that’s inevitable (indeed, that’s what Communism pretended it could prevent). So that gets closer to notions of “community” or even nationalism and patriotism. One’s expression as an individual is supposed to be predicated on putting community first. In fact, ironically, some of the calls for “sustainable living” and less globalization, in response to climate change (which he rejects), call for the same kind of sense of ethics (look at the “End of Suburbia” films). It raises philosophical questions about how much personal interdependence is good and necessary, and whether personal expression should be predicated on real interactions with others or family obligations. Some of the particularly Christian notions of “fellowship” derive from this mix of ideas. The problem with giving so much attention to “country” or “community” is that it does invite abuse by leadership, and in the past it has covered up a lot of tribalism, racism, and other gross group injustices—problems with libertarians have good answers, if they are willing to let individual “non-performers” within the family or community drop off. But, then, maybe that’s what debate in a democracy is all about.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mike Jones: "I Had to Say Something: The Art of Ted Haggard's Fall" (review)

Author: Mike Jones (with Sam Gallegos)
Title: "I Had to Say Something: The Art of Ted Haggard's Fall."
Publication and Description. Seven Stories Press, 2007. 256 pages, hardcover. Ten Chapters and a Postscript. ISBN 1-58322-768-7.

Recently, HBO aired a short documentary “The Trials of Ted Haggard” (my movie review link is here), and this book by Mike Jones tells the bigger story. Here, Mike tells the story of his own life and career as a male “escort” in Colorado, with his repeated contacts with “Art”, who he would one day discover to actually be Ted Haggard of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. That would happen through television (with the help of the History Channel) followed by the Internet. He would be particularly angered by Ted's own statements, that even if gays were born, they had an obligation to remain silent and abstinent, second-class citizens at the behest of "God" (really, at the behest of their biological families). Ted's statement, as quoted, resembles the Vatican's (which Mike discusses).

Mike’s story makes the entire picture make much bigger that the film about Haggard’s life after his exposure, and the book would make good indie film. He talks about his psychological gender non-conformity, but nevertheless he discovered body building as a teen. Around 19, he discovered, by accident, his “market” which evolved as he became a young man.

The book describes his business quite graphically. He had cancer patients, a ninety year old man with amputated legs, military men, and priests as customers, both in and out. Body shaving or clipping was routine for him, and he sometimes gave customers advice on “grooming” (which would probably result in a tip off for their wives for the married ones – which so many were). He describes one encounter where he avoided a possible police undercover setup. He also describes an inappropriate approach to him by an unnamed Colorado teacher (when he was in high school) followed by events at the teacher's house: he says nobody talked about it then and blows it off as innocent. I recall occasionally stories of teachers getting busted in the 60s, but it seemed to catch the public attention around 2005 suddenly with the "infamous" NBC Dateline series.

The story of his interaction with Art is intricate. He says, starting on p 62, that Art asked about and then apparently brought methamphetamine and sometimes used it (or at least it seemed to be meth; Ted Haggard has always denied that he used any illegal drugs). The meth use comes up at least a couple more times in their encounters.

He agonized over his decision to go to the media, and he contacted several sources, with whom he worked back and forth. It was no longer big news for a pastor to be gay, but he gradually convinced the media to go into this seriously because of Haggard’s hypocrisy. Much of the media reluctance or convoluted action relates to their need for strict fact-checking and to journalistic standards. He admits (and was warned by media) that there could be grounds for prosecution of either him or Haggard, but apparently nothing has come of it, and it’s hard to say what the standards of evidence would be for meth possession.

After he went public, he had no income at all and had to command the generosity of others, at least until he got the book deal and more public attention. It’s not totally clear what his circumstances are now.

Amazon shows the book as "in stock" now but when I ordered it (in very early February) I had to wait over a week for it so ship.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bjorn Lomborg's "Cool It": A practical approach to climate change?

Author: Bjorn Lomborg.
Title: "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming".
Publication: New York: Vintage, 2008. ISBN 978-0-307-38652-6.
Description: paper, 252 pages, indexed, five chapters with preface and foreword.

is associate professor of statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and has made numerous television appearances arguing for a pragmatic approach to global warming. He looks younger than he is (44).

The book is relatively brief, the main text ending on p 164, and it remains focused on getting practical results from energy policy: a higher standard of living for most people, relatively sustainably. He discusses some of the alarming data presented by Al Gore and others, the cap and trade and carbon tax proposals. He argues that most of these proposals would produce relatively little effect on eventual world temperature or little benefit, although he does favor relatively modest carbon taxes. He also goes into the international politics of the Kyoto agreement.

He also criticizes our style of thinking about many of our mega-disasters related to warming. Damage and loss from hurricanes and floods have a lot to do with government favoring coastal development, building not completely adequate levees but encouraging people to settle in risky areas (a problem in central California now as well as the Gulf Coast and New Orleans). He also questions the science between other proposals, such as how the Greenland ice cap's melting would disrupt the Gulf Stream and suddenly cause northern Europe to freeze, and references the silly "Day After Tomorrow" film. He has an interesting explanation for the numbers of the global warming "coal mine canary"-- the polar bear.

Instead, he (somewhat like Thomas Friedman) argues for relatively pragmatic investments that solve real problems. A good example would come from pondering the current financial crisis (much of which unraveled after this book went to press). Instead of inviting financial instruments to fool us into believing we could afford bigger houses than we really needed, we could have been investing in solar panels and windmills, or even electric recharging stations for future cars.

Another example I can think of could come from other environmental dilemmas. China’s policy of building dams and developing hydroelectric power sounds right for climate change, but it may have contributed to the 2008 earthquake in its mountains.

He is somewhat critical of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC. He mentions the talk that people, in order to achieve sustainability, need to “localize” their lives, give up most travel and global interdependence. (This was the viewpoint in the recent “End of Suburbia” films.) Such talk often seems “politically” or, more correctly, psychologically motivated by a desire to set up local power structures demanding loyalty from others. In this line of ethical thinking, people must view themselves as members of families and communities, loyal to leadership, before they can experience themselves as individuals. It is a disturbing notion that the scare talk on climate change can bring back.

Update: Feb. 14, 2009

Liza Mundy, a Washington Post writer living in Arlington VA, has a "small book-length" article about her family's own home experiences with conservation in the Feb. 15, 2009 Washington Post Magazine, on p. 8, "Can One Household Save the Planet? No, but the planet can't be saved without it," link here. She points out some interesting observations: CFL bulbs have sometimes failed early (they have for me) and sometimes don't work in all sockets in some older houses, without some professional rewiring. Eating locally grown produce does not always reduce energy consumption: a truck bringing produce from New Jersey to Arlington might use more energy per ounce than a train from California. She goes farther than Oprah Winfrey's cloth shopping bags to say she uses cloth napkins at home when setting the family dinner table. She says that about 37% of our carbon emission is under control of consumers.

She recommends the Nature Conservancy's carbon footprint analyzer, here.

Update Feb. 15, 2009

The Washington Post, on p A03, Sunday Feb. 15, has an important story by Kari Lydersen, "Scientists: Pace of Climate Change Exceeds Estimates," link here. There is a lot of discussion of "feedback loops."

Update: Feb. 17, 2009

The March 2009 issue of National Geographic has a cover story "Energy Conservation: It Starts at Home," p. 52, by Peter Miller with Tyrone Turner, link here.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Book Rights Registry and Book Search Settlement Agreement: some remarks and observations (mine, that is)

There is a lot of discussion about the settlement regarding the Book Rights Registry as a solution to the issues posed by the Google Book Project. The Registry is a component of Google Book Search Settlement Agreement with the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers, and some other authors and publishers. The major link is here and the text of the settlement, with all of the legal documents, can be downloaded conveniently from this link.

There is a philosophical piece in New York Books by Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library, here, an essay that discusses the tension between two public goods: “the diffusion of light” and the reasonable economic incentive for content creators to create and publish their work. The end result, the professor says, is an “accidental monopoly” of access to information. He points out that, up to the Enlightenment an even afterward, access to literature was still primarily a privilege for the rich or well-connected, and that literature did have an influence on political matters (a “Republic of Letters” became a “Republic of Learning.” He thinks that the monopoly is benevolent (not like Stationers' Company in London and the booksellers' guild in Paris, he says). But we should have done better. We could have created a National Digital Library, something akin to the ancient library at Alexandria, Egypt.

James Grimmelmann has an essay “How to Improve the Google Book Settlement” online in a PDF here. This is a draft of an article to appear in the Journal of Internet Law (some extracts available at “Access My Library” here. Dr. Grimmelmann is a New York Law School professor and at one time interned at Electronic Frontier Foundation. He requests that anyone citing his article also cite his publications list, here.

At this point, I have to punt and refer to a very effective summary of Grimmelmann’s points (some dealing with monopoly or antitrust concerns) already provided at Electronic Frontier Foundation by Fred Von Lohmann, here.

Rather than re-paraphrase the summary, I’ll go on to my own perception of all this, which is probably what matters most to the contributors of these two pieces.

I do think that author income and compensation is a real issue for people who depend on writing for a living. But the business circumstances under which people write and publish today are so varied that it is almost impossible to make useful generalizations. I noticed this up to ten years ago (while in my “honeymoon” period of life in Minneapolis), after self-publishing my first two books (“Do Ask Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back” and the little supplement “Our Fundamental Rights” a year later. I had a little income from these, but not much; I was still working in information technology as an individual contributor and depended on that for salary and benefits. I had very different circumstances from other people, as I found out as I networked with groups like the National Writers Union. I was naïve about their expectations in the beginning.

My own entry into self-publication was motivated by a wish to make an unusual argument regarding the “don’t ask don’t tell” issue and then all the other social issues that link up to it. My own personal circumstances were such that I felt that a bit of “notoriety” on my own part would affect the debate, and I honestly think that it has. So any development in the software industry and surrounding legal environment that encourages free entry and the free display and searching of information was favorable to “newbies” like me having an “influence.” In time, as shown on my other blogs, I became involved in litigation against the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (COPA), because I saw that as a particular threat against free entry. I got to network with the folks at EFF as much as those at SLDN. I’ve even already had informal discussions about all of this with some in “Tinseltown” and I think that this can go somewhere.

But much more typical are situations of authors who, for example, ghost write for others (I guess I could do this, but haven’t tried, yet), or, particularly, novelists who make their careers at B&N, Borders (Amazon, not so much) and in the supermarkets and CVS paperbook stands, and who fear that their careers end if they become perceived as “midlist” novelists instead of the bestseller, Stephen King or Nora Roberts fame. The current economic climate is probably not good for them.

And there is the whole world of non-fiction public policy books written largely by celebrities or by authorities who have made their marks in specific fields (such as finance). The trouble with books about the Bailouts and the Crash of 2008 (and, yup, those credit default swaps) is, of course, that they very quickly become passé with time anyway. So the long term interest of both the public and writers probably a favors a balance toward putting as much in a Public Commons as possible.

A book, James Boyle’s “The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind", reviewed on this blog Jan. 14, 2009 has covered many of these same points.

I’ve discussed “search inside the book” issues on my main blog, on July 17, 2008, here.

My second DADT book “Do Ask Do Tell: When Liberty Is Stressed” (2002) takes up self-publishing in Chapter 9, with the free view text link here. See, I’m quite willing and eager to have others find my content, even if it is displayed for free viewing. Like most writers, I have a “normal” understanding of fair use. I expect attribution, but not plagiarism.