• What publishers should do

    You can't work at a book publisher for more than five minutes without someone telling you what publishers should do. You know, "to survive." "Be relevant." Something.

    Even literary agents, who should know better, will get in on this action. One of the most prominent agents in New York, seated next to me at an event a few years back, took the opportunity to lecture me through the appetizer course on how book publishers should band together and "build their own Amazon" to sell books. Digital disruption = solved.

    "Ma'am, you may have a point. You don't, for All The Reasons, but let's say you did. The book publishing industry is made of book people. Book people as a class pride themselves on knowing about everything—except computers, with a vengeance. They still edit 100,000-word manuscripts with pencils. I could count on one finger the number of people in this business who could program a coffee-maker. How in the world would the people in charge hire a single competent developer? If you'd seen the technological boondoggles, the 7-figure white-label 'content management systems,' these rubes have fallen for…"

    If you really enjoy unsolicited opinions about what publishers should do, go work at Amazon to help build a New York book publishing imprint from the ground up. The book people who still talk to you afterward will be happy to tell you what you're doing wrong. (Guys, I'm not working at Amazon anymore. Can we be friends again?)

    All that said: I know what publishers should do.

    Some of you are probably familiar with TempleOS, the computer operating system designed by Terry Davis on, according to him, God's instructions. (Rob posted about it a couple of years ago here.)

    At first, I wasn't sure what to think. I didn't have the technical knowledge to figure out what TempleOS actually was: A real, functioning operating system along the lines of Windows or Mac OS X? Or just a strange piece of software for making your screen look like DOS crossed with Be Here Now?

    Worse, was Davis faking the God-talks-to-me stuff? Making a "statement" on something? Was this…art?

    Calculated oddness masquerading as art is a pox on civilization—think Joaquin Phoenix in I'm Still Here or Crispin Glover's infamous 1987 appearance on David Letterman.

    More research on my part revealed that Davis, who admits to being schizophrenic and to having manic episodes, actually spent a decade building a functioning, though limited, operating system on the instruction of the Almighty. Among other things, it runs a program called AfterEgypt that allows the user to communicated with God through an oracle.

    I won't go further than that—others have written about TempleOS and you can see videos of Terry demonstrating it on YouTube.

    TempleOS screenshot

    It would be easy to dismiss Davis and his creation. Beyond the retro look of TempleOS and the apparent incoherence of much of the text, Davis himself sometimes says regrettable, even racist, things online, which may or may not be a symptom of his mental illness.

    It would be easy to dismiss most things at first glance, though. Dismissing context, facts, and experience in favor of first impressions and easy answers—it's kind of an American hobby in 2016.

    Instead, what I wanted to call out was this thoughtful essay by software engineer Richard Mitton—it's Mitton's attempt to look at TempleOS as a work of programming, without any preconceived bias about religion or mental illness, without an angle or an axe to grind, simply as software. Gosh, is it a refreshing read in 2016:

    There are many bad things to be said about TempleOS, many aspects of it that seem poorly constructed or wouldn't work in the "real world". I'm going to ignore them here. It's very easy to be negative, but you will never learn anything new by doing so…

    Perhaps we should instead look at TempleOS as a research operating system: what can be accomplished if you're not locked into established thinking, backwards compatibility, and market demands.

    What can we learn if we are only willing to listen?

    For me, this is what publishers should do, whether they are publishing books, websites, conferences, or, well, operating systems: "Look at this. I'll put a frame around it, because the creator cannot truly frame the work. Here is what you need to know to appreciate this. Here is how you should think about this. Consider."

    A good publisher is that amazing, life-changing professor from sophomore year at scale.

    The need for this work—publishing—is more desperate than ever, and most book publishers don't even bother to pay lip service to this essential role of their business.

    Thankfully, technology makes publishers of us all, if we choose to accept the responsibility. Your blog can be your publishing house. Put together a Medium collection of your favorite essays on a subject, with commentary.

    Don't just share. Frame your selection. Offer rich, well-researched context. Stand over my shoulder and point out where I should direct my attention, what opinions and attitudes I should consider. Call out my preconceived notions. Challenge me to really look, really think, really learn, and judge for myself.

    Today, I challenge you to go beyond the retweet. Find work—a notion, an argument, a story, a work of art—that excites you and challenges you and that you believe deserves broader attention, and give it a frame, some context, and a little push.


    If you're a writer interested in making your ideas and knowledge public—writing, speaking, sharing—without hating yourself in the morning, sign up for my weekly newsletter here.

  • How to write a book that holds your reader's attention

    User experience design is a holistic field that touches on every aspect of the experience the user has with your product, all the way down to opening the box. As a book editor, I've found it useful to apply the principles of UX to crafting books that grab and hold a reader's attention.

    Reader experience design (or ReadX) is about building a book beginning with the experience you want the reader to have and working backward from there.

    Obviously, crafting the reader's experience is something we writers, editors, and publishers have struggled with since the heady days of the Egyptian papyrus industry, a time with remarkable similarities to our own (the primary difference, in fact, was that using your "mouse" to "scroll" down when reading an article wouldn't have been any fun for you or for the mouse). Problem is, we often prioritize other goals above the reader's experience, like proving another expert wrong or impressing our peers.

    In my experience, people who write books to share their domain knowledge with others usually suck at ReadX. It's next to impossible to un-know something, to think like someone who knows less about your subject than you do (or simply sees it differently). You must constantly remind yourself that your reader is both smarter and less knowledgeable than you assume. (The smarter bit is important. You don't talk down to your reader. You just explain your topic like you would to an intelligent friend in a totally different line of work.)

    To get this right, this means going to the other side of the table and putting yourself in the mind of your reader over and over again, to make sure you've dropped your assumptions and that you're actually getting through.

    Remember, learning material in an entirely new area, without previous context or a professor or a study group (as readers of general nonfiction are often asked to do) is incredibly difficult. Have you ever tried to learn a little computer programming? Smart folks—like Doug Rushkoff in Program or Be Programmed—often counsel that all of us, regardless of role, should pick up a least a little code.

    I think it's great advice, but what happens when you try?

    Look anywhere online for a primer for "beginning" programmers. You'll quickly find that programmers consider you to have reached beginner status once you're a third-year comp sci student familiar with all the opaque conventions of the command line. The number of assumptions made about your starting knowledge as a "beginner" can be mind-boggling. I've read "beginner" guides written by computer programmers that begin by calling out this very problem (!) in other guides before jumping to "step 1: log in to your git repo and sudo your stack exchange. Beep boop beep boop."

    As a reader approaching a new subject, it doesn't feel good to encounter this blithe disregard for what "beginner" really constitutes. And we like our readers happy and engaged. So, how do we design for an improved reader experience?

    • Explain your topic to a smart friend unfamiliar with it, record what you say, and transcribe the recording
    • Instead of building your book from an outline, build it from an FAQ, so that you can never stray far from addressing an actual, concrete question
    • Outline the book's arc and each chapter's arc not by the logic and organization of your subject but by the journey you want the reader to take, from what (you think) they currently know or believe to what you want them to know or believe. (This means you need to look closely at what your intended readers actually know and actually believe.)
    • Work with an experienced developmental editor who will flag all your false assumptions—I see the heart of the editor's role as playing the part of an intelligent but uninformed reader

    I frequently encounter the following logical fallacy in experts: "Idiots (people who know less about my area of expertise than I do) write successful books about my area of expertise, ergo any idiot can write a successful book."

    Writing a successful book—figuring out what many people want to read, writing a book that will satisfy that desire, and marketing it properly—is an area of expertise, completely separate from the one you're writing about.

    If someone's a bestselling author, it's entirely possible they don't know the first thing about their subject; meanwhile, being a genuine expert does not mean you know the first thing about sharing your expertise effectively in the form of a book.

    So, when next you sit down to write, let go of your assumptions and begin to intentionally design the experience you want your readers to have.

    If you're a writer interested in making your ideas and knowledge public—writing, speaking, sharing—without hating yourself in the morning, sign up for my weekly newsletter here.

    (For recording purposes, I highly recommend the Sony ICD-UX533 (also the Wirecutter's pick) paired with a telephone mic for capturing both ends of any conversation. You'll never be clearer or more articulate on your subject than when you're explaining it to someone over the phone. (Ask permission, of course.)

    Image: Carl Larsson

  • I take it back – New Media isn't a cargo cult. Click here to find out why!

    "Like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own." — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

    You may have read my previous article on Boing Boing, Escaping the New Media Cargo Cult. Well, I take it back. To find out why, keep reading

    If you have knowledge and experience to share, your heart's desire is simply to find a decent audience and make a modest living at talking to it; meanwhile some schmuck who drinks Soylent 2.0 racks up a MASSIVE LIST HELL YEAH with slickly baited copy and bulleted tips he found on the first page of Google results.

    One obvious response to this conundrum is to learn how to bait better.

    Way down on the other end of this particular spectrum, you've got Matthew Butterick.

    Polymathically — it's a word! — Butterick is an attorney, a typographer, and a programmer, among other things. I first discovered his work when he shared Typography for Lawyers, a fascinating primer on how to design stand-out legal documents. (While ostensibly for lawyers, it clearly applies to non-legal documents too.)

    Later on, Butterick created an online book for a general audience: Practical Typography. I love it; it's the first resource on typography that I've actually enjoyed reading. Hundreds of thousands of people have visited the site—hand-crafted by Butterick — to learn the difference between kerning and leading.

    Nowadays, people creating content for mass consumption devote most of their attention to the marketing and monetization. After months of crafting the perfect newsletter drip campaign, it often seems like experts spend ten, maybe fifteen minutes tops whipping up the content people are supposed to buy at the end of the funnel.

    Not Butterick. From the site, I couldn't blame you for assuming that getting paid for his work is the last thing on Butterick's mind.

    If it actually does occur to you to give Butterick money for Practical Typography, you can click on the second subhead beneath the fifth menu item, "how to pay for this book," and read a somewhat cranky essay that starts off by complaining about how almost no one pays, followed by a request to purchase his fonts or, failing that, to just send money. He doesn't even offer a bonus download for shelling out. Just "send cash, you typographically inadequate crash dummy."

    After the first year, Butterick wrote a recap on this approach:

    I es­ti­mate that about one in 650 read­ers has sup­ported the book with a payment or pur­chase. The other 649 have not. Maybe they will later. Maybe they don't know they can or should. Or maybe they just think infor­ma­tion on the In­ter­net should be free. In­de­pen­dent of my in­ter­ests as an au­thor, I continue to find this view cor­ro­sive and dan­ger­ous. Last year I gave a talk suggesting that we'd traded good gov­ern­ment for banner ads. But the rip­ple ef­fects are wider still.

    A guy whose entire message is that typography is a powerful tool for directing a reader's attention can't seem to get any of his visitors to click a link.

    In terms of sheer feist, Butterick's report for year one pales next to his report for year two:

    How did I change the book to encourage more direct payments? Not as much as I could have, I con­cede. In how to pay for this book, I re­duced the num­ber of sug­gested op­tions. I made it eas­ier to make a di­rect payment with a credit card. But I didn't do the thing I knew would be most ef­fec­tive: namely, load­ing up the rest of the book with links to the pay­ment page, along with in­ces­sant nag­ging and wheedling. Have you paid yet? No you haven't. Here's how you pay. Click here. Hey, you're not click­ing. Please click. Please please please. PLEEEEEEEEAAAAA—

    Is Butterick's tone coming across? This is some of the raging resentment simmering among tradition-oriented artists of all stripes in 2015 (and which spurred me to write my Boing Boing post on the New Media cargo cult). For the musician in a basement with a copy of Reason who writes ballads about supporting characters in classic NES games ("Luigi's Lament," etc.) the ability to fund a first album via Kickstarter is a miracle. To Madonna, it's a reason to stock up on sleeping pills.

    Butterick at his hrumph-hrumphiest sounds pretty much like most professional authors I meet. (That's right. I know professional authors. The kind with fancy pens. Deal with it.) It's understandable to feel this way, but is it productive to yell at your readers about it?

    You don't have to embrace the Dark Side to monetize your work, but you do have to change the way you work as the way we consume changes. If you want to go back to illuminating manuscripts by candlelight, toss the iPhone 6S and start carrying large leather tomes on the subway. The medieval kind with chains on them.

    The peculiar thing about Butterick is that he's no Luddite. He developed his own online publishing system for his book, Pollen, and unlike most of the self-proclaimed artists complaining about the pernicious effects of BuzzFeed and Medium, he actually makes things and shares them online regularly. This isn't a case of blaming the demise of print for not having finished your first novel. This is a creator authentically grappling with a very real problem.

    In his report, Butterick trashes readers of "viral news" sites like Hacker News (which I read regularly) for being the worst when it comes to throwing a little scratch his way, despite the fact that many of its readers visited his site. The moochers! Naturally, this drew some attention on HN. Nathan Barry responded on that site to Butterick's first annual recap:

    Whenever someone creates something this valuable I like to see that they get paid for their work. Based on my experience Practical Typography could, without too much effort, make $100,000 per year… My blog actually averages a similar amount of traffic. I wrote three books and each one of them made $100,000 within the first year. That tells me with the same amount of traffic — which is probably better targeted than mine — it's reasonable that Matthew could make $100,000 off of one book.

    Nathan goes on to recommend crafty and manipulative monetization strategies such as "have a price" and "build an email list."

    Here's the thing: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Look back at pretty much every publishing phenomenon since Gutenberg's Bible, you'll find sleazy copy and manipulative marketing shenanigans.

    Allen Lane, founder of Penguin? Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House? Fuggedaboutit. These guys would be first in line for the most pernicious marketing techniques available. Yes, even the ones that hurt puppies. (Good thing I know folks in the legal department at Penguin Random House.) Once you're top dog and you have a monopoly on prestige (and distribution), you can afford to sit back on your haunches and expect the customers to come to you and only you.

    It's only when you can't figure out the new tools of selling faster than the upstarts can that morals make their appearance.

    "What ever happened to the quality?!"

    Let's remember, Butterick's an attorney. He can afford morals when it suits him. He can afford to keep his hands clean and turn up his nose at the eyeball-grubbing content-hustlers who beg for PayPal donations like common boardwalk buskers. (Unrelated note: have you checked out the Boing Boing store yet today? There's a sale on mechanical keyboards, chunky black glasses, and pomade.)

    I respect Butterick's unwillingness to bend the knee to the New Media Gods, and he can get away with it, but if you find yourself similarly raging into the social media void about the plight of authors who just want to write without worrying about the commerce side, this resentment at having to sing for your supper is your own worst enemy. With humility, you can find a middle path, an ethically acceptable way to get and monetize attention on the Internet with quality content.

    (Soon as you find it, let me know what it is. And thrown in a PayPal donation while you're at it.)

    If you're a writer interested in making your ideas and knowledge public — writing, speaking, sharing — without hating yourself in the morning, sign up for my weekly newsletter here.

    Image: Shutterstock

  • Escaping the new media cargo cult

    Like the great magazines of yesteryear, Boing Boing lets really smart people tell us about the things they find interesting. When Boing Boing went from 'zine to blog, it was able to amass a huge audience with anything-but-mainstream material, as did many other sites that aggressively stuck to their own voices and their own interests in the early golden age of online writing.

    That was the appeal of the Web to me from the start—that what seemed too niche for the "mainstream" could flourish because you had a mechanism (search, links) for reaching all the oddballs on your frequency. To paraphrase (and reverse) William Gibson, your readers are already here, they're just evenly distributed. The Web brings your true fans together. I call it gerrynerdering.