Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Archive for January, 2012

Fanning the Flames

I recently read an article about Jonathan Franzen claiming that e-books are damaging society (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/9047981/Jonathan-Franzen-e-books-are-damaging-society.html and http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2012/01/30/jonathan_franzen_ebooks_are_not_for_serious_readers_.html). Franzen asserts that e-books are impermanent and too open to alteration and change. He enjoys the durable quality of books, that if you spill water on a book it’s still readable (usually) and that most of the things in our lives today are so fluid that we need an unchanging medium. The ability to alter an e-book concerns Franzen, and he contends that “serious readers” aren’t satisfied with the malleable and temporal nature of the e-book; serious readers are enjoying a specific text in a specific time and place that was meant to be printed in ink, not read on a screen.

I’m probably allowed to see myself as a serious reader, and I have a Kindle, so I take a little offense to Franzen. I have to make a concession to Franzen: he sold three million copies of his first book, so I’m going to give him his due. A man of his skill is allowed some latitude in making such proclamations, and his expertise makes him somewhat of an authority on the subject. In short, he’s a serious reader and writer, so I’m not going to question his personal opinion.

But I am going to take issue with his blanket generalization that all serious readers are dissatisfied with the e-readers. I read both on my Kindle and print books. Each have their merits and their drawbacks. I received my Kindle as a Christmas present back in 2009. I love my Kindle; it’s light, cute, and portable. For someone with so many books, I like knowing that when I pack my bag to travel (which I do quite often), I’m not going to be weighted down by several books. Writers who do serious amounts of research for their books such as Eula Biss and Amy Tan enjoy the iPad and Kindle, because they can travel with massive amounts of books and articles on a single lightweight device. As a CNF writer, I do a fair amount of research for my essays, and sometimes I just can’t keep all the necessary materials with me.

When I told my friend that I received a Kindle for Christmas, she was temporarily incredulous. “You? A Kindle?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Are you still going to buy books in print?”

“Of course. I’m not planning on switching exclusive to an e-reader.”

“Okay good. Because a writer like you just wouldn’t seem right without a lot of books in your home.”

I believe that no room is truly complete without a few books. I believe that books in printed form are beautiful, living things and holding them in our hands and reading them is to connect to the human experience.  Reading taps into the human story, the one story that encompasses what it means to be human and alive. Print books are important to preserving cultural heritage and staying connected to thousands of years of human history. From cuneiform to hieroglyphs to the alphabet, the written word is enduring, what links the past to our present.

And of course I believe we should still continue reading print books. We do miss something when we read from a screen and lose the interaction with the page. We sacrifice some of our relationship to the books, when we press a button instead of turning a page, when we highlight with a cursor rather than underline with a pen, when we set aside a book by flipping a switch rather than closing a cover. The physical connection between our hands and the printed book is delicate and precious. We should do what we can to preserve the magic of that feeling.

But at the same time, “serious readers” (I’m not even sure what that means) can still engage a text, even if it’s on a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad. One could even argue that serious readers benefit from the advent of the e-reader–they can buy books more quickly and more easily with less money. Browsing is easier online (although I do sometimes miss my frequent trips to the bookstore), and downloading a book happens almost instantaneously. Maybe we should have to work more to acquire a book, but I think breaking down the barriers between discovering a book and reading it is worth the transition.

Although I don’t know if I qualify as a “serious reader,” I think my attachment to books might put me into that category. I’m a writing major; I read both on my own and for school on a regular basis. I have a life-long love affair with words, so yeah I’d say I’m a serious reader. I do miss being able to loan out books I like; you can’t just say, “Here, take my Kindle for a few weeks and read this book.” But still, the Kindle is a way to read many books at once and not break your back in the process.

Franzen also talks about how those who e-publish don’t put the same painstaking effort into getting the words just right and making the language appear just so on the page. He believes e-publishing makes room also for “sprinkling” classic works with advertisements and liberal editing. Those who publish online won’t put as much thought and effort into correctly formatting and modifying a classic text for e-consumption. I’m not a publisher, and I don’t work with re-formatting print text to e-text, but blaming publishers for taking a classic and essentially perverting it for profit is unfair to the publisher and the consumer. And on the subject of classics–books should be accessible and enjoyed; I dislike classics worship as though they’re sacred and untouchable. The reason classics are classics is that they effectively tap into the human experience that I mentioned earlier. They can adapt with the times; they’re meaningful and applicable years later. Maybe they should be put into e-reader form so that they can continue to reach and affect future readers.

Plus, those who self e-publish view the work they’re publishing as their brain child, their opus. They will not skim over the details or cut corners for the sake of being on the Internet. Your credibility is on the line when you e-publish; lots of major errors put your reputation in jeopardy because your ethos as a writer is at stake. Franzen underestimates the dedication of those who self-publish online and the amount of effort and labor writers lovingly pour into their work.

So here’s what I have to say to Jonathan Franzen: make your own Luddite opinions on the e-reader revolution, but e-readers are probably here to stay. The publishing world is currently experiencing serious growing pains as it acclimates to this new reading environment. Speak for yourself, Jonathan Franzen, because the serious readers of the world remain dedicated, devoted, and faithful to the written word, no matter the format.

Yes, No, Maybe

I currently have an internship at the TCU Press (http://www.prs.tcu.edu/ for more info) where I do a little bit of everything: copy editing, copy writing, office administration, etc. But my main role in the Press is helping handle acquisitions. I wrote the following paragraphs as part of an article at editingandpublishing.wordpress.com:

The Acquisitions Process

When an acquisitions editor decides to pitch the book for the publication green light, marketing and sales factor into the equation. Oftentimes, the decision to publish a book comes down to the numbers: how many books will sell and at what price compared to the cost of actually publishing, promoting, circulating, and distributing the book. The information goes into a formula—a profit and loss (P & L) sheet. In essence, the marketability of a book comes down to numbers: how many books will actually sell, and how does that number compare against the cost of publication?

Determining P & L

Authors often must provide information to help calculate the P & L—who the audience is, what the market is, and why that market is profitable. The publisher will likely compare the manuscript or proposal with similar books already on the market—i.e., the competitors. The publisher will also likely discuss what season the book belongs in and what line the book should be published with. Editors and financial analysts use this information to determine the number of books that might sell and at what list price, if the book might have rights to sell (foreign, book club, movie), and what kind of royalties the author should receive. All the cost information is fed into the P & L, and if the book is projected to be more than marginally profitable, the project will probably proceed.

University presses operate under a different model. Because university presses rarely make a profit off the books they publish, they consider more about furthering a body of knowledge and publishing good works. Less time is given to P & L and more about how the book will fit in to their general focus and readership.

My job at the Press is slightly less involved. Basically, I read the cover letter, the proposal, the chapter outline (if there is one), market/competitive analysis (if existing), and the sample of text provided. TCU Press focuses on publishing literature of Texas and the South(west). So, many of the proposals we receive focus on cities in Texas and the South/West, Southern/Western culture, and Southern/Western history. We do occasionally publish works that aren’t Southern/Western-oriented, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. We try to preserve local history and specialize in regional literature. A good amount of the proposals we receive fall into the South/Western category, so my job then is to sort out the wacky/zany proposals from those we could actually publish.

At eleven40seven (www.1147.tcu.edu), we would review submissions to the journal and sort them into three piles: yes, no, and maybe. The “yes” pile consisted of those that were of high quality and we knew we wanted to print. The “no” pile included those works that after one read we knew we didn’t want to include in the publication. The “maybe” pile included the borderline ones that we might put on our online edition of the journal and not in print. Depending on the number of acquisitions, we could spend hours deciding how to manage those three categories. Some pieces are a definite “yes.” They stand out in quality, and you know after one read that they’re well written, well thought out, and well executed. Many of the “no” submissions are similar–after just a couple lines/paragraphs, you know that this piece just isn’t quite there style-wise, quality-wise, or otherwise.

But the process listed above is for an undergraduate, student-run journal. I’ve just started looking at acquisitions for the Press, and I realized that I needed a more discerning eye than “yes, no, maybe.” Although we have editorial standards at eleven40seven, I knew I needed to come up with a way to look at these proposals and write up an assessment/recommendation to the head of acquisitions at the Press. For ethics and privacy, I won’t include any specific texts, authors, or titles. The following are the basic questions I ask myself when looking at a text (in any genre):

1. What is the author’s objective/purpose? What is the author trying to do?

2. How well is the author achieving that objective? Why or why not?

After these questions, I have to divorce the content from the style. I can’t care about what is written; I must focus on how it’s written. I may be reading a political treatise (for lack of a better word) with views completely contrary to my own–I may be offended, angry, and indignant. But instead of rejecting it on the basis of its content, I have to see how well they’re building their ideas and their argument. Is the rhetoric strong? Is the writing clear and concise? Are the paragraphs well organized and structured?

I may intensely dislike the topic of a story or find it boring because I don’t really care about military history or esoteric writings about obscure topics. I have to ask if the writing is fitting with the audience–easy-to-understand writing for a commercial audience or more difficult, specific topics for an academic audience.

After this initial process, the question breaks down by genre. Some of the questions overlap from genre to genre, but here are the major ones I look at for each genre.

Fiction

1. How is the author developing the characters? Are the characters flat, rounded, or dynamic?

2. Is the author showing or telling us about the characters? Is the author hand-holding the audience? (In creative writing terms, showing versus telling is one of the major phrases you hear. A lot. Showing means that you are demonstrating something about a character or a relationship by their actions, their thoughts, or through dialogue, not through telling us what the character is like. Additionally, hand-holding means you’re over telling or over explaining a concept that the reader would be able to infer on his or her own. A major principle I’m looking for: Is the author trusting the reader to understand? Audiences are smarter than one might think, and they get the point without explicit explanation.)

3. How does the author construct scenes? How does the author use sensory detail to describe physical parts of appearance and setting?

4. What is the chronology of the timeline? In media res? Lots of flashbacks? How do these transitions work from past to present or present to past? Does this approach to chronology serve a specific purpose? Does it help the reader understand the nuances of the situation?

5. What kind of figurative language does the author use? Metaphor? Simile? Symbolism?

6. How is the narration? Does it flow smoothly? Is it confusing? Is the prose interesting and compelling?

7. After a few pages, do I want to keep reading? Am I interested?

8. Is the dialogue strong? Is it stilted? Unnatural? Overly formal? Consistent with the characters’ personalities and backgrounds?

Poetry/Prose Poetry

1. What is the structure of the poem? Is it stanzaic? If so, do the structures of the stanzas serve a specific purpose?

2. Is there a rhyme scheme? If so, does the rhyme scheme act to heighten the poem, or is it arbitrary?

3. What kind of rhythm does the author use? Pentameter/tetrameter? Iambic? If there is a specific rhythm/meter, why is the poet choosing this form? Is the poem in free verse? Why?

4. What sort of sound devices does the poet use? Assonance? Consonance? Alliteration? Do these sound devices add to the meaning of the poem? Do they work well together?

5. Is the diction of the poem strong? (To many poets, poetry is language distilled to its most vivid form without over telling.) Is any of the diction shocking/appealing?

6. What kind of figurative language does the poet use?

Creative Nonfiction

1. What is the form of the essay? Epistolary? Essay? Memoir? Short nonfiction? Personal essay/narrative?

2. How well is the text constructed? What is the structure? How is it organized? How are the transitions?

3. Is the prose compelling? What is the diction and the word choice? Is the writing lyrical or not?

4. What is the tone? How well is the author  conveying that tone?

5. What figurative language is there? How effectively is it used?

6. Is the writing clear, concise, and to-the-point?

7. Does the writing address its intended audience well?

I’m sure there are more questions that I’m forgetting, but those are the basics. Once I answer those questions (either mentally or by actually writing them down), I am able to write a brief summary and brief assessment of the quality of the writing and whether or not people would actually buy/read the book. There are, of course, other processes to the acquisitions process apart from what I’ve listed above, and I plan to address them in later posts. But for the sake of simply reading a manuscript and making a decision to recommend or not, these questions are my starting point. I am not an expert in any genre, nor I am well versed in all the conventions of each genre. I simply use some basic “criteria” to start thinking about the quality of a piece, whether I like its subject matter or not.


The Method in the Madness

Just a little over a week ago, my friend and I were standing in front of a painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The painting looked more or less like a bunch of random, schizophrenic scribbles–babbling, rambling artistic squiggles that were akin to a magic eye drawing. I have no strong aversion or love toward modern art, so this interpretation is up for debate. My friend and I had been discussing writing, as we are wont to do. She’s a fiction writer, focusing in the short story and young adult fiction. We spend a lot of time discussing our writing, focusing on the similarities and differences in crafting our respective genres.

I pointed to the painting, my finger following the curve of the wiggling lines, and said, “That’s pretty much how my notebook looks before I write something.”

She looked surprised. “Really? But your writing is so straightforward and structured.”

“Yep, pretty much. Once all the crazy is out on paper, it all comes together when I start typing up the final product. The structure comes from a lot of mulling and pondering and jumbled up thinking in my head, and then once the ideas come out in the end, it’s all neat and pretty.”

This conversation, of course, wasn’t the first discussion I’d had on the writing process. As a peer consultant (read: tutor) at the Center for Writing at TCU, I spend a good deal of my time discussing how to brainstorm, how to write a first draft, how to revise and edit, how to include sources, how to use run-in versus block quotes, and on and on and on. I try to avoid the formulaic, five-step process when talking to other students. They’ve heard it before, and they’ll hear it again. Repeating that step-by-step process is nothing more than white noise, so introducing new approaches to the same old, same old helps keep attention. But this writing process is for formal, academic prose and is intended to create genre- and area-specific discourse for the sake of passing a class.

In contrast to straightforward academic writing, my discussion of my creative writing process is vastly different. My boyfriend, who has a BFA in film, writes screenplays and once asked me about my writing process, whether it came in bursts of inspiration or from studied, drawn-out linear thought or through just sitting down and hitting the keys until something worthwhile appears on the page.

My answer?

All three.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to discuss my creative process in regards to the essay. I write poetry and prose poetry, but since those aren’t my focus in creative writing, I’ll let you use your imagination for how I write in those conventions. In short, the main difference is that poetry and prose poetry are for cathartic, emotional purposes, and the final product rarely, if ever, makes it outside of my file folders on my laptop. And usually, almost always, I get my ideas from sudden inspiration that just hits me. I have to write down whatever I’m thinking at that very second; otherwise, I’ll lose it. This necessity has led me to write the first few lines of a series of prose poems on my phone while walking over narrow stone streets in New Orleans. I almost broke an ankle and got hit by a car, but I had to write down the lines in my head that instant. Damn broken bones and human-versus-car accidents, I had ideas.

But back to creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction for me is an intellectual exercise, a playing with ideas and thoughts I’ve had churning and burning in my mind for weeks, months, even years. It feels like the back of my head is kind of like a cement mixer–always turning, always mixing, always folding ingredients together until a final product comes out. Oftentimes I don’t even realize the idea is in there and has been all along until I sit down at the computer and just try to get it out there. For example, the majority of these blog posts are from things I’ve been musing on a little bit at a time until the half-baked thoughts come out in a semi-coherent, semi-comprehensible process that I record on the page.

My admissions essay to TCU is a good consideration of this principle. I chose a prompt that read, “Go forward or backward 100 years and tell us about your day.” I later found out that most of the students who choose this prompt end up talking about 100 years in the future and their robotic cat. At 17, I had no interest whatsoever in discussing the massive advances in technology or the equivalent of dystopian flash fiction. Instead, I chose to go backwards 100 years to 1908. I looked through the list of major historical events that occurred that year and chose Gandhi doing his first demonstration against the registration of Indians in South Africa. I chose this topic back in early September but didn’t actually begin writing the essay for another month. Without fully realizing it, I was deciding how to structure the essay, figuring out how to tie the topic back into me, and doing research on the topic. My parents thought I was procrastinating, but when I finally stared at that blank screen in front of me, I wrote 500 words in about 15-20 minutes without breaking a sweat. The result of that essay as part of my application was a four-year full scholarship.

Other times, this semi-subconscious thought process takes months, even years to complete. I’m currently working on four or five forty-page essays for a senior thesis to graduate from the honors college at TCU. I began thinking about what I wanted to do for this project during the second semester of my freshman year, two years ago. I knew I wanted to write CNF, and I knew I wanted to focus on the essay, but other than that, I had no idea what I was going to do. During the fall of that year (2010), I stumbled across an idea while writing a short essay for class about feeling like an outsider when I’d grown up so much in the majority of my hometown. I was trying to examine feelings of alterity and otherness that I’d so rarely felt during my somewhat sheltered upbringing. This idea led to a thirty-page essay that meandered through topics that had already been discussed and explicated ad nauseum. After about three or four months of banging my head against a wall, I met with my advising professor to talk about the direction of my thesis. Forty-five minutes later, after having sifted through the hot mess of my essay, we came up with the project I have now–essays on the places I’ve traveled, my experiences in those places, and the history of those locales. I got to combine my ability to write sensory detail, my love of history, and my strength at explicating without having to rehash tired ideas already explored. Once I had the idea, the rest was easy. I wrote about 40 pages in less than a couple months.

But if the idea isn’t fully formed and no divine inspiration comes, you’re forced to sit and keep on typing until you write something even slightly useful. Taking that scrap of useful writing and expanding on it until it becomes a full-fledged essay takes a little time, but to make it a product you’re happy with? Well, let’s just say lots of writers have the philosophy that pieces are never finished, only abandoned. And if you’re stuck with twenty pages of okay writing that you want to transform into something else, to twist and meld and mold an un-malleable piece and bend it to your will? That kind of falls into the whole idea that you should wait a year between writing something and editing/revising it. Stay away from it for a good, long while, then come back when you’re fresh and have a clearer sense of your objective, once you’re not so entrenched in just typing it all out.

When I’m traveling, I try to keep a travel journal and take lots of photos of what I’m seeing so that when I go back to write, I have a clear memory of what I did and saw and thought to translate into an essay. These lead to the schizophrenic notebooks full of little drawings, hastily-written anecdotes, messy notes from museums and exhibits, and little thoughts I jotted down in the margin while I was out. This notebook is the physical manifestation of the mental process that seems to be going on all the time without my even realizing it, the crazy recording of the meandering, wandering lines that my brain follows when classifying and reorganizing cluttered thoughts. Out of the coffee-stained, water-logged pages comes something almost worth writing, something I can push and knead and flatten into the written word.

Walks with a Dinosaur

To understand this post, you need to know something first: I’m twenty. I’ll be twenty-one very soon (a month and a half, not that I’m counting). I can’t legally drink or rent a car, but I already feel obsolete. I have a year and a half left of college, and I already feel behind the times. I recently read an article stating that children have little to no preference learning from e-readers than they do from actual hard copy print books. Comprehension-wise, as long as the story doesn’t have too many distractions through applications and games, children retain and comprehend books on e-readers just as well as print books. (For more info, check out these links: http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/for-reading-and-learning-kids-prefer-e-books-to-print-books/ and http://www.marketwatch.com/story/study-finds-e-readers-equal-print-for-childrens-reading-comprehension-2012-01-11)

Fourth-grade children comprehend and remember e-books better than I do. I’m primarily a visual and kinesthetic learner, but with an important focus on the kinesthetic: I remember from writing things down, pointing to things on a visual page, remembering the location of a word in a book–left or right side of the pages; top, middle, or bottom of the page; beginning, middle, end of the book. As mentioned in an earlier post, I have a Kindle, and trust me, I’ll address that issue at a later date. But here’s my issue with reading from screens and e-readers:

I rarely remember books I read on the Kindle as well as I remember books that I read on print. Ask me to summarize a book I held in my hands and physically turned the page, and I have no problem relaying the story back to you. Ask me about a book I read on my Kindle, and I’ll be able to recall some of the major details, but not as clearly or concisely. So this technology has affected my reading. I lose the kinesthetic feel of where information is on a page, how it’s physically organized.

Reading from a computer screen is similar. Because there is no sense of spatial organization, I tend to skim. Scrolling pales in comparison to flipping a page, running your fingers over text, imprinting the memory of the image of the words onto your mind. You can’t interact as well with a screen as with a good old-fashioned print book. You can’t annotate; you can’t underline or highlight; you can’t bookmark or dog-ear pages.

I’m currently taking a cyberliteracy course where we’re trying to examine whether my generation’s preference for print is from habit and upbringing or from how humans must learn. Most of my peers, when assigned a reading online, print out the reading and use the hardcopy to underline and make notes. I do this. I just printed out a 55-page white paper on children learning through technology. I printed front-to-back, but I still took the time to print out 28 pages just so that I could read better. When we read from a computer, we skim. Reading from a computer requires bullets, shorter sentences, a get-to-the-point, hurry-it-up chase to the message. We tend to read the first few sentences of a web page then scroll quickly through the rest, so if you have something important to say, say it at the top of the page.

I think the preference for print is probably from habit and taught modes of learning. Students learn to take notes physically, to annotate books for class, to read from hard-copy textbooks. I had the option of buying an e-textbook for significantly less than the print version, but I sprung for the print version just because I knew I wasn’t going to remember an e-book as well as the print version. It’s the way I learned, and I’m not going to break easily the surface, superficial learning I do from online sources. It’s going to take some time.

But back to my feeling old at a young age. Yes, my generation grew up learning to use computers and came of age during the myspace and Facebook revolutions, but we still learned primarily from a traditional pen-and-paper classroom setting. I have a feeling we’ll have trouble keeping up with students who are learning from computers, who will have more training in comprehending from a screen, who will (maybe) be better able to concentrate and control the distractions inherent in learning from a computer. I’m not sure I’ll fully be able to do this within the next few years. I feel obsolete and behind-the-times, and I’m still waiting for my twenty-first birthday.

A Ticket to the Literary Rodeo

I was in New York last weekend, and one of my favorite things to do there is explore little independent bookstores in the East Village. I live in Fort Worth, Texas, so most of my bookstore experiences are at Barnes & Noble or Half Price (and Borders from time to time back in the day). Although the large chain bookstores are great for book browsing of popular titles and seeing the newest and bestselling books immediately in your face, there’s something enticing and entrancing about diving into a little shop–maybe a converted studio apartment–and finding books that may be out of print, that may not find their way into popular bookstores (small press distribution, the odd textbook, etc.) and digging deep into the shelves to find gems. For example, I found a deluxe copy of Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie. I was sorely tempted to buy it before realizing how low on funds I was. These treasure troves dot the urban landscape of Manhattan, and I wish I had more time to go spelunking in the petite mines of indie bookstores, the shelves shafts of papery mines.

Occasionally these stores will hold events for readings and book signings. Up until recently, many of these events were free and open to the public. Now, however, bookstores are charging for admission to readings and signings–often you have to buy the book, buy a gift card for a certain amount, or pay a small fee. The reason? Sales in bookstores are decreasing while online sales are increasing. I read an article in the New York Times that details this new trend in bookstore events (for the full article see: www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/business/media/22events.html). Part of the issue involves the fact that many customers now treat bookstores as libraries or a place to browse before going online and buying a cheaper e-reader version of the same book. Customers will walk in, browse, write down titles, and leave without buying anything. This practice is part of the reason that brick-and-mortar stores have seen book sales suffer in print while online sales have increased dramatically. Stores must now turn to other sources of revenue in order to stay afloat.

While bookstores are important, as are books in print (no one wants a Fahrenheit 451 situation on our hands), the charge to get in to events hurts those who have already bought a book or can’t afford to pay admission such as students or the elderly, and authors worry that they will lose potential readers. However, these events are often publicized and might boost book sales anyway. Publishers resent the fact that bookstores charge when they are the ones footing the bill for the author and the production of the book itself. But the main concern remains that charging will discourage readers, seem unfriendly to the public, and hinder the community sentiment so often found in independent bookstores.

I see both sides. Hosting an event costs serious money, and bookstores must look for other sources of revenue when so many sales are going online. I’ll admit that I’ve gone into bookstores several times to check out books, write down titles, and go home to find the books online. But I have to add that I do still make a regular habit of buying books in print. I can’t help it. As a bibliophile, I act like a junkie in the presence of books, and when I’m jonesing for that book in front of me, I need my fix and I need it now. My apartment is proof of this impulsive behavior, where I’m running out of shelf space at an alarming rate. Anyway, I digress. Bookstores need to make money from more than print sales, and events are great ways to get publicity and make a profit at the same time.

But I’m also a student. I have a part-time job that doesn’t pay well, so I often can’t afford to pay $25-30 for a hardback book, and I’m a little unwilling to pay for something that was once free. Fortunately, my university has a reading series through the English department (www.liveoak.tcu.edu), which is free, but I’ve attended other readings to learn more about the author, get a sample of their work, hear how the writer intended the work to be read, or connect with others in my community who appreciate reading. Smaller bookstores can act as an integral part of a community, whether it be a small section of Manhattan or part of Boulder, Colorado. Either way, charging for events fractures with  community feel and divides what might have been a closer community.

So here’s my call-to-action: even if you have an e-reader that you love and cherish, consider going out and buying a couple print books every now and then, buy gift cards, go sifting through the shelves of bookstores for gold that may not be available online. There’s something enticing about the smell of books, the feel of the paper underneath your fingertips, the rustle of pages, the look of an open book. We may live in a digital age, but I’m here to advocate for the continued consumption of the printed word. We need to keep print books and bookstores alive. As Ray Bradbury wrote in Fahrenheit 451, “Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores.”

Single and Ready to Mingle

I recently received an Amazon gift card. I was about to go on long flight, so I decided to do some browsing on Amazon to get some books for my Kindle (yes, I have an e-reader, but that’s a discussion for another post). I tend to browse through the Kindle store rather than just the books department, because I get a little sad when I find out that that great book I just discovered doesn’t have a Kindle version yet. So anyway, I’m in the Kindle store, browsing to my heart’s content, when I stumble across a feature I hadn’t encountered before–the Kindle Single. I hadn’t been on Amazon much over the past year, so I was a bit puzzled by this new-fangled Kindle Single. What’s the  Kindle Single, you ask? Basically, a Kindle Single (from here on out KS because I’m too lazy to type out the whole thing over and over) is longer than a magazine article but shorter than a novel or full-length book. Think a few chapters of a book, a novella, or a long essay. The KS tries to provide an outlet for writers who have great ideas that need to be expressed in a medium that allows for a piece in that pesky in-between length; Amazon’s tag line for this new product is “Compelling Ideas Expressed at Their Natural Length.” Amazon’s Russ Grandinetti puts it as, “Ideas and the words to deliver them should be crafted to their natural length, not to an artificial marketing length that justifies a particular price or a certain format.” This way, works can be fully developed, researched, and written in a format that does not squeeze out important content for printing space (magazine article) or require a long, drawn-out expansion of ideas that slowly becomes boring (full-length book). Prices range around a few dollars–significantly less than the average Kindle book around fourteen to fifteen dollars.

A KS should be around 30-90 pages or between 5,000 and 30,000 words. I write personal essays around 30-50 pages in length, and although I don’t check the word count on those bad boys, I think possibly they might fall into the KS parameter. I’ve been working on a series of essays entitled I’m Not From Around Here and Other Essays, which hopefully once I’m done in 18 months, will comprise four or five 30-50 page essays. Before, I thought that if I did want to publish them (I don’t), I would have to publish them altogether as a book, because there was no way really to submit them for publication otherwise. At 40 pages, an essay wouldn’t fit comfortably into The New Yorker but couldn’t stand alone as a book. I could, potentially, submit my work as a KS, either in a serialized format or just one particularly well written essay.

As a writer, I could submit my work to Amazon for publication (submission guidelines can be found at http://www.amazon.com/gp/feature.html?ie=UTF8&docId=1000700491), see if Amazon accepts it, and be published online in the KS format. I’d be part of the growing trend of writers who bypass the traditional publisher–through the Big Six, small press distribution, or otherwise–and self-publish (albeit through the giant Amazon). Amazon hopes that many writers will submit their works, and Amazon can offer a unique, creative, and versatile market full of options for its consumers. Amazon is trying its very best to expand its e-reader marketplace, and the KS is the next step in providing variety. And because I would self-publish, I could receive up to 70% in royalties per sale, a significantly higher percentage than what an author might receive from a traditional publisher. But in return for getting a high royalty, authors lose some of the perks of going old school: publicity, typesetting, cover art and design, copyediting, fact checking, permissions, etc. Authors now must self-promote, work with a freelance copyeditor/designer/typesetter, and polish their work without a development editor or a creative team dedicated to producing the work at a high-quality level. It’s a trade-off–more work on the writer’s part for more share in the profits. But, one more factor tips the scale toward self-publishing on Amazon: the writer retains the rights to his or her work.

So, would I try and get published as a KS writer?

In a word, no. I’m all for the free exchange of ideas and an arena dedicated to the dissemination of information and writers having more room to share their work, but I’m wary to publish through Amazon, whose tactics in dealing with the Nook, the iPad, and the Big Six concern me. I’ll discuss Amazon as a player in the publishing market in another post. Plus, I need more info. Although the Kindle Single became available well over a year ago and big names such as Dean Koontz and Stephen King are appearing on the KS page, I’m waiting to see how the market develops. And maybe part of the issue is my fear of self-publishing. I mentioned in my first post that fear of finding a mistake or error in your work after it’s been put on the market and the daunting tasks of typesetting, designing, fact checking, indexing seem overwhelming. Writing the damn thing was hard enough in the first place.

But as a reader, I’m beyond thrilled. These KS works are a bargain. I bought “Up the Down Volcano” by Sloane Crosley for $1.99, and the average price for a KS is around two dollars. All I can think is, “Hooray!” to the money I might save. In the past, I’ve had to buy an entire book of essays or magazine articles that couldn’t stand alone on the book shelf. I only wanted to read one of the essays/articles within the book but had no other choice but to buy the whole thing (think back to before iTunes when you had to buy the whole album rather than the one track you really wanted). Now, I don’t have to get bogged down reading other pieces within a compilation/anthology; I feel I have to read them because after all, I did buy them. This mentality is how I never finished The New Kings of Nonfiction compiled by Ira Glass. Even though I had read the piece I bought the book for, I was determined to read each essay in order, and I’d be damned if I didn’t. I got stuck in a piece by David Foster Wallace. For starters, I despise DFW’s writing. I can’t stand it. Maybe it’s because he’s as pretentious as I am and that irks me, but more likely it’s that I have a philosophy about foonotes: if a footnote is longer than four or five sentences, it deserves its own paragraph within the actual text. If you need that much space to extrapolate, add it in to the actual text and spare us the half-page of tiny text. Additionally, the Kindle is great except for how it handles footnotes–constantly clicking back and forth between DFW’s page-length footnotes and the actual piece got old, fast. So, I never finished the book. I know; I know; I should finish it anyway and just skip over DFW. It’s on my to-do list. Now, maybe a piece that might have sat next to a DFW essay in a book before might stand alone on the KS platform.

As a writer, I’m not ready to take the plunge into the world of the KS, but as a reader, I’m excited to see what other works become available and if some of my other favorite writers will make an appearance on the KS page. The possibilities are enticing.

Oh Yeah, I Totally Forgot

I just realized in that my haste to write my first post, I failed to introduce myself. So, here’s a short little bio about me.

Hi, I’m Rachel Spurrier. I’m a Writing and French double major at Texas Christian University, scheduled to graduate in May 2013. I’m a peer consultant at the William L. Adams Center for Writing at TCU, where I help students with their writing to become better writers. Additionally, I’m about to start an internship at the TCU Press. I’m not sure yet what my role will be, but I’ll probably be copyediting while possibly dabbling in acquisitions. I’m also the president of the Bryson Literary Society, TCU’s creative society (bls-tcu.tumblr.com). I’ve been published in as well as edited for TCU’s undergraduate student journal of the arts, eleven40seven (www.1147.tcu.edu).

On a less formal note, I’m a lover of words and language in general, both English and French. I’m primarily a creative writer, mostly of creative nonfiction essays. I do write some atrociously bad poetry here and there and shamefully hide it in a folder on my computer. I’m not particular about the genres I read, but I focus mainly on contemporary American writing, mostly fiction and essays.

I’m just getting started in looking into the editing and publishing world. After I took a course in, what do you know, Editing and Publishing, I realized that there was a potential career path in publishing for me. Hoping to develop an online presence and my own website, I started this wordpress. On this site, you can find my résumé and online portfolio for both creative writing and copyediting.

Anyway, thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy my somewhat pretentious writing about writing!

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