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Posts Tagged ‘publishing’

13 JANUARY, 2014

19th-Century German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer Presages the Economics and Ethics of the Web and Modern Publishing

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A 19th-century critique of the moral failures of linkbait, cat slideshows, and needless pagination.

With the timeless quality of his writings, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) has influenced such celebrated minds as Nietzsche, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Freud, Jung, and Tolstoy. Despite — or perhaps because of — the pessimistic nature of much of his work, Schopenhauer presages with astounding precision the troubled ethics and economics of writing today, particularly in online publishing, in an essay titled “On Authorship,” found in the altogether excellent The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature (free download; public library).

He begins with a taxonomy of writers, one that divides them based on the age-old question of what motivates writing:

There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognized by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating; then also by their love of evasion, so that they may seem what they are not; and this is why their writing is lacking in definiteness and clearness.

Schopenhauer’s distinction and his distaste for the second kind seems particularly prescient in the Buzzfeed era of vacant “writing” that exists solely for the sake of filling (web) pages and selling pageviews. He admonishes:

The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing. What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. It seems as if money lay under a curse, for every author deteriorates directly [whenever] he writes in any way for the sake of money. The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.

It is curious to note contemporary versions of this affront to the reader by way of “filling up paper.” What might Schopenhauer say of online publishers who paginate their articles unnecessarily and create mindless slideshows that force us to click “next” over and over in order to get to the point or payoff, assuming there is one in the first place?

Indeed, though Schopenhauer, in his characteristic glibness, perhaps unfairly lumps all journalists into his censure, he is remarkably right about a lamentable majority of publishing today, from the entire content farming industry to various forms of Buzzwashing:

A great number of bad authors eke out their existence entirely by the foolishness of the public, which only will read what has just been printed. I refer to journalists, who have been appropriately so-called. In other words, it would be “day laborer.”

His critique of this failure of motive and its consequent failure of substance applies equally to the economics and ethics of online media as it does the state of traditional book publishing today, where the droplet of quality writing has to fight a flood of highly marketed mediocrity:

The deplorable condition of the literature of to-day … is due to the fact that books are written for the sake of earning money. Every one who is in want of money sits down and writes a book, and the public is stupid enough to buy it.

But one of Schopenhauer’s most prescient points has to do with the presentism bias and news fetishism of our culture, something I’ve long lamented. As someone who spends an enormous amount of time and energy on excavating yesteryear’s timeless and timely ideas about issues we grapple with today — those immutable concerns of the human soul, ranging from love to education to happiness to science and spirituality to the meaning of life — I am constantly astounded by how much more thoughtfully, thoroughly, and effectively many of these issues are addressed in older writings than in what we see on the news today. Schopenhauer, in a perfect meta-example, writes:

No greater mistake can be made than to imagine that what has been written latest is always the more correct; that what is written later on is an improvement on what was written previously; and that every change means progress.

At the root of this Schopenhauer finds the same failure of motive, which prioritizes money and ego over substance and cultural value:

An old and excellent book is frequently shelved for new and bad ones; which, written for the sake of money, wear a pretentious air and are much eulogized by the authors’ friends.

Caricature of Arthur Schopenhauer by Wilhelm Busch

What’s perhaps most interesting is that Schopenhauer was writing in the 19th century, a time when the economics of knowledge — knowledge being at the heart of literature — came down to overcoming the scarcity of information, a problem diametrically opposed to our present predicament, which is concerned with ameliorating the abundance of information. And yet Schopenhauer was ahead of his time in predicting that what separates good writing from bad isn’t the information, or “matter,” presented but the “form” of its presentation, interpretation and contextualization, wherein lies the writer’s true claim to merit. He reflects on the substance of great writing:

The subjects may be of such a nature as to be accessible and well known to everybody; but the form in which they are expounded, what has been thought about them, gives the book its value, and this depends upon the author. Therefore if a book, from this point of view, is excellent and without a rival, so also is its author. From this it follows that the merit of a writer worth reading is all the greater the less he is dependent on matter — and the better known and worn out this matter, the greater will be his merit. The three great Grecian tragedians, for instance, all worked at the same subject.

[…]

It is on form that we are dependent, where the matter is accessible to every one or very well known; and it is what has been thought about the matter that will give any value to the achievement; it will only be an eminent man who will be able to write anything that is worth reading. For the others will only think what is possible for every other man to think. They give the impress of their own mind; but every one already possesses the original of this impression.

Returning to the “foolishness of the public” (after all, people do want cat slideshows, don’t they?), Schopenhauer makes an observation that, while on the surface correct, somewhat tragically belies the responsibility of the great writer:

However, the public is very much more interested in matter than in form, and it is for this very reason that it is behindhand in any high degree of culture.

[…]

This preference for matter to form is the same as a man ignoring the shape and painting of a fine Etruscan vase in order to make a chemical examination of the clay and colors of which it is made.

(To be fair, Schopenhauer might have benefitted from talking to Richard Feynman in building a better metaphor here.)

In another especially insightful admonition, Schopenhauer presages the “hater culture” of comments and anonymous trolling online, affirming the idea that publishers who host such parasites are just as culpable as the commenters themselves:

The man who publishes and edits an article written by an anonymous critic should be held as immediately responsible for it as if he had written it himself; just as one holds a manager responsible for bad work done by his workmen [who] would be treated as he deserves to be — namely, without any ceremony.

An anonymous writer is a literary fraud against whom one should immediately cry out, “Wretch, if you do not wish to admit what it is you say against other people, hold your slanderous tongue.”

The entire The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature collection is well worth the read — and regular reread — and is available as a free ebook here. Complement it with Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling’s critique of journalism and E.B. White on the responsibility of the writer.

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28 OCTOBER, 2013

Thoreau on Not Finding a Publisher and What Success Really Means

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“Sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever.”

A century before Anaïs Nin’s prescient discontent about the state of publishing and 160 years before our present-day grumblings, Henry David Thoreau — one of the most celebrated minds in the history of letters, who penned some of the most enduring and influential texts in Western literature — confronted the tribulations of publishing as he completed A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his moving elegy for his brother John. Unable to find a publisher for the book, he paid out-of-pocket for a print run of 1,000 copies — but only 300 were sold. True to his belief that success comes from within rather than without, the legendary poet, philosopher, and abolitionist considers the experience in this funny and poignant diary entry from October 28, 1853, found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 (public library) — the same timelessly fantastic tome that gave us Thoreau on why not to quote Thoreau and his irresistibly quotable wisdom on friendship and sympathy.

Rain in the night and this morning, preparing for winter.

For a year or two past, my publisher, falsely so called, has been writing from time to time to ask what disposition should be made of the copies of “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” still on hand, and at last suggesting that he had use for the room they occupied in his cellar. So I had them all sent to me here, and they have arrived to-day by express, filling the man’s wagon, — 706 copies out of an edition of 1000 which I bought of Munroe four years ago and have been ever since paying for, and have not quite paid for yet. The wares are sent to me at last, and I have an opportunity to examine my purchase. They are something more substantial than fame, as my back knows, which has borne them up two flights of stairs to a place similar to that to which they trace their origin. Of the remaining two hundred and ninety and odd, seventy-five were given away, the rest sold. I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself. Is it not well that the author should behold the fruits of his labor? My works are piled up on one side of my chamber half as high as my head, my opera omnia. This is authorship; these are the work of my brain. There was just one piece of good luck in the venture. The unbound were tied up by the printer four years ago in stout paper wrappers, and inscribed, —

H.D. Thoreau’s
Concord River
50 cops.

So Munroe had only to cross out “River” and write “Mass.” and deliver them to the expressman at once. I can see now what I write for, the result of my labors.

Nevertheless, in spite of this result, sitting beside the inert mass of my works, I take up my pen to-night to record what thought or experience I may have had, with as much satisfaction as ever. Indeed, I believe that this result is more inspiring and better for me than if a thousand had bought my wares. It affects my privacy less and leaves me freer.

The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861 remains one of the history’s most rewarding and notable diaries. Complement it with Thoreau’s philosophy adapted in a picture book and his ever-timely reminder of what success really means.

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05 MARCH, 2013

Publishing and Its Discontents, 1948 Edition

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“Keeping up with present-day costs is as tough for a publisher as for an author, and there does not seem to be an end towards the increase.”

There is little doubt that the economics of publishing and the arts are being dramatically disrupted today as we grapple with the challenges of post-industrial creativity — from individual crusades like Amanda Palmer’s brave quest for creative crowdfunding to the many models with which publishers are experimenting as alternatives to ad-supported media. Yet, like most problems that appear unique to our time, these issues are anything but: Take, for instance, book publishing and its discontents.

In 1942, dealing with many of the challenges authors face today and unable to find a publisher for her short story collection Under a Glass Bell (public library), Anaïs Nin started a small publishing house called Gremor Press, taught herself the art of letterpress and type-set the book by hand, printing a limited-edition of 300 copies with gorgeous engravings by her husband, which she sold via an innovative subscription model. But while the book became a prized collector’s item, exhibited in galleries and museums, it wasn’t bound for the kind of commercial success that would allow Nin to make a living, so she continued to look for a mainstream publisher. Eventually, Gore Vidal, whom Nin had befriended and enchanted, convinced his publisher, Dutton, to give Nin a chance.

In early 1948, writing in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947 — 1955 (public library) — the tome that gave us her meditations on embracing the unfamiliar, escaping from city life, and the role of character and personal responsibility — Nin records the following exchange with the president of Dutton, which mirrors many of the backward economics of contemporary publishing:

I asked Dutton for an advance on Under a Glass Bell.

* * *

My dear Anaïs:

Nick tells me that like the rest of us you are in need of some extra pennies. One of these days when we are really scratching the bottom of the barrel I think I will write to five hundred of our authors and suggest that they send us $100 each. That will come to $50,000 and help no end. Keeping up with present-day costs is as tough for a publisher as for an author, and there does not seem to be an end towards the increase.

At any rate, I enclose a check for $250 which is the amount of the initial advance due on November 1 1947 on Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories.

I hope that you are well and happy. With kind regards,

Sincerely,
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
Elliott [Macrae]
President

Under a Glass Bell went on to become Nin’s first entry into the upper echelons of the literary world and is still regarded by many as her finest work, on par with her prolific diaries.

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15 AUGUST, 2012

A Lesson in Entrepreneurship, Perseverance and Publishing from Iconic Chef Julia Child

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“Don’t for the love of heaven let anybody rush you into anything.”

On March 8, 1952, Julia Child, (August 15, 1912–August 13, 2004), sat down at her kitchen table in Paris and penned a fan letter to American historian and author Bernard DeVoto, discussing the peculiarities of French and American kitchen knives. But the letter was answered by DeVoto’s wife, Avis, described by one of her husband’s students at Harvard as “very good looking and very sexy-seeming and the only faculty wife who might have said ‘horseshit’ even to [Harvard] President Lowell.” This was the beginning of an epistolary friendship that unfolded into a rich and wide-spanning relationship, exploring the two women’s deepest thoughts and feelings as well as their most passionate professional pursuits and aspirations, as Avis became Julia’s confidant, great champion, and unofficial literary agent.

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto (public library) isn’t merely a collection of the 200 letters exchanged over the course of this extraordinary correspondence — it’s a powerful portrait not just of two visionary, worldly women who traveled extensively, read voraciously, and inhabited endlessly stimulating intellectual and social circles, but also of the sociocultural landscape of the 1950s and 1960s, including the evolving role of women and the changing stakes of creative entrepreneurship.

Avis Avis (left) and Julia Julia (right)

Buried in the correspondence are nuggets of Julia’s visionary culinary sensibility and cultural ethos as they were beginning to take shape. In a letter dated January 5, 1953, Julia writes Avis:

You display the true marks of a Great Gourmande … which always includes the warmest and most generous of natures … and is why people who love to eat are always the best people.

On January 19, 1953, some etiquette advice:

The young hostess should be advised never to say anything about what she serves, in the way of ‘Oh, I don’t know how to cook, and this may be awful,’ or ‘poor little me,’ or ‘this didn’t turn out’… etc. etc. It is so dreadful to have to reassure one’s hostess that everything is delicious, whether or not it is. I make it a rule, no matter what happens, never to say one word, though it kills me. Maybe the cat has fallen in the stew, or I have put the lettuce out the window and it has frozen, or the meat is not quite done … Grit one’s teeth and smile.)

A letter from December 1, 1955, bespeaks Julia’s remarkable work ethic:

Only wrote 16 notes and letters today, with three long calls in the morning and one in the afternoon, so I am exhausted and will go to bed on my electric pad and read a whodunit.

Perhaps most fascinating of all, however, is the absorbing insider’s look at the publishing industry that the correspondence reveals as Julia and Avis navigate the maze of bringing Child’s culinary ideas to the mainstream with the publication of her seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which Avis steered first to Houghton Mifflin and eventually to its home at Knopf. It was at last released on October 16, 1961. Filled with romantic idealism about how publishing ought to work, they consistently brush up against barriers to creative freedom and integrity, shedding light on how much has changed and how much has remained the same in the half-century since.

While the Childs were in Oslo, Julia taught cooking classes to small groups of her 'Wegian' friends and diplomatic wives.

On Christmas Day 1952, while trying to persuade Julia to leave Ives Washburn, a smaller publisher with a questionable reputation who had offered Julia a book deal, in favor of Houghton Mifflin, Avis passionately writes of a kind of integrity rare in the Fifty Shades of Grey era:

HM Co. is a monument of integrity and frequently loses money by refusing to descend to the sharp practices of some other publishers I could mention.

Julia writes back on December 30:

As you can probably gather, we don’t know beans about the publishing business, but want to avoid as many stupidities as possible.

[…]

[Family friend Paul] Sheeline had talked to his father-in-law, Donald Moffat, and Moffat felt that almost any deal which can be made by a budding writer with a publisher was a good one, in that the publisher is taking considerable risk. Although the news about Ives Washburn was discouraging, I have never been at all impressed with the fact that we are unknown writers … as I am convinced that if we can get the book into the hands of someone who knows about cooking, it will sell itself. So, although Ives Washburn appears to think they’ve got us in the bag, we are not committed to them in any legal way.

Julia proceeds to send Avis the beginning stages of the book manuscript and, in a letter from January 2, 1953, Avis exults:

Dear Julia: This is just to report that your second installment arrived this morning and I have just finished reading it through. I must say I am in a state of slight stupefaction. I am so keen about this proposed book that I am also feeling it can’t possibly be as good as I think it is. And knowing the publishing business, I am in a state of despair at the time it is going to take to have Houghton Mifflin make up their minds — I am nothing to them except wife of one of their authors, friend of most of the executives, and occasional reader of [manuscripts] and consultant. I am now trying to get Dorothy de S. on the telephone and she is still out to lunch and also it is that horrible week right after holidays and she may not be back this afternoon. I want to take the manuscript in to her house tomorrow afternoon and spend a couple of hours with her, showing her correspondence and so on. I know she will take fire as I have.

Later in the same letter, Avis reiterates her faith in Houghton Mifflin and concludes with some timeless advice, all the timelier for first-time authors in today’s go-go-go publishing grinder:

Certainly a border-line publisher may take advantage of a new writer, which is why you must stay out of the hands of any publisher who isn’t long established and absolutely first-rate. But there are twenty firms who rate that way. And a good publisher like HM or Harpers or Knopf or Little Brown and so on will give you the standard undeviating contract, pay you what advances are necessary, advertise as much as they can afford, even gamble on advertising appropriations if they believe in the book enough.

[…]

But you must resign yourselves to TIME. I don’t know how much of this you have written down, but the editing job alone is going to take months and months and months. Here I am talking as if HM had already signed a contract. And that will take time too. Don’t for the love of heaven let anybody rush you into anything.

Two days later, Avis speaks with a kind of idealism that casts a bittersweet lens on how publishing, or perhaps our cynicism about publishing, has changed in the past half-century:

No established publishing house ever takes advantage of a budding author… Any publisher who takes advantage of any kind of author is on very shaky ground indeed. The legal contract is on a sliding scale, ten percent, twelve and a half, fifteen after so many thousands sale, or was when I looked last. And any author who pays to get anything published is a mug and deserves what is coming to him — no reputable house ever engages in anything of the sort. Don’t dream of questioning any contract you get.

Julia's letter to Avis after Houghton Mifflin rejected her cookbook.

Over the following few years, however, Avis and Julia faced a series of hurdles in publishing the book in the form they had desired, dealing with a series of disappointments. Houghton Mifflin rejected the book in 1959, prompting Julia to write to Avis:

We must accept the fact that this may well be a book unacceptable to any publisher, as it requires work on the part of the reader. NOBODY has ever wanted to publish ANY of our recipes in any publication whatsoever thus far. So that may well indicate something. In fact it does indicate that we’re not presenting things in a popular manner. I am frankly not interested in the chauffeur— den mother type of cooking, as we have enough of it.

Indeed, underpinning Julia’s cool and composed professional communication to publishers was a turbulent restlessness articulated in her letters to Avis and her other partners in the book project, including — lest we forget that frustration is integral to the creative process — this line from a 1958 letter that captures the very essence of entrepreneurial stubbornness:

HELL AND DAMNATION, is all I can say. WHY DID WE EVER DECIDE TO DO THIS ANYWAY? But I can’t think of doing anything else, can you?

Bearing the mark of a true friend, Avis is always there to console Julia in moments of insecurity, like when she reminds her, in a letter from March 25, 1958, of the usefulness of useless knowledge:

Well, all I know is this— nothing you ever learn is really wasted, and will sometime be used. You have come nearer to mastering a good many aspects of cooking than anyone except a handful of great chefs, and some day it will pay off. I know it will. You will just have to go on working, and teaching, and getting around, and spreading the gospel until it does. The alternative, that Americans do not give a damn about fine food and refuse to learn how to make it, is one I simply refuse to face.

On the set at WGBH, Child's crew, out of camera range, waits to hand up ingredients and finished dishes to the star for her first show, The French Chef.

The rest of As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto (published, by the way, by Houghton Mifflin), traces how the book concept went from shaky manuscript to cultural and culinary triumph as Mastering the Art of French Cooking was finally published on October 16, 1961 — a feat that wouldn’t have happened without Julia and Avis’s remarkable friendship and unflinching faith in one another. Their correspondence thus stands as a testament not only to the power of passion and perseverance in entrepreneurship, but also to the monumental grounding force of a truly great friendship.

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