Decorum

Alan Jacobs offers another nice, brief post with several thought-provoking observations. (He does that often enough that I’m kind of jealous!) It centers around an email exchange with Miroslav Volf, who James Davison Hunter mentions prominently in his discussion of how the defining characteristic of a Christian life should be faithful witness.

Volf has just written a book about how Christians should relate to Muslims, and Jacobs emailed Volf a question:

If it is often necessary to seek common ground, do rhetorical situations arise when it’s important for a religious believer to emphasize what’s unique about his or her own religion?

Miroslav’s first response to this question was that emphasizing uniqueness as such is not a value for religious believers, or for Christians anyway: rather, we must strive to be faithful to our beliefs and commitments, and let uniqueness come as it will. A very wise response, I think, though one that had not occurred to me. [Emphasis added[

How many celebrity evangelical teachers do you think would agree with that!

And then this second observation, on writing in particular and communication in general:

One of the most fundamental principles of rhetoric has always been decorum, that is, suiting one’s language to occasion and audience. Those of us who teach writing typically think it vital to get our students to think in these terms — to see that they must adjust style and diction, evidence and argument, to reach the readers they most want to reach.

I did not know that this is what decorum means, but it sure does. And this got me to thinking about turning the concept around, and using a writer’s style as a diagnostic for who he is actually trying to reach.

Too often I’ve heard the excuse that when brash, flippant writing turns off the intended audience of, say, an apologetic argument, it is actually the reader’s fault for nitpicking at the delivery rather than facing up to the argument being delivered. I’ve never bought this, since I think it is a writer’s job to communicate successfully, and the failure to do so is the writer’s failure. But it didn’t occur to me that the “failure” might actually be deliberate, and that the intended audience might not be the ostensible target but someone else—in this case, a cheering section who is entertained both by brash, flippant writing and by seeing the target turn away in disgust.

Jacobs continues:

Such imperatives will never cease to be important. But it also seems likely that we will have to train students to be aware — and will have to train ourselves to be aware — that much of what we say and write can find audiences we never intended. And the consequences of our words’ extended reach will not always be positive ones.

I’d add a corollary to this. We need to also train students to understand the true objectives of any writer whose style they strive to emulate, so that they aren’t fooled into using that style when they genuinely want to achieve that writer’s publicly stated objectives. Just because your favorite apologetic writer uses horse laughter extensively does not mean that horse laughter is an effective apologetic technique—it may be that apologetics is not his true objective.

Circumventing the gatekeepers

Just because a revolution fizzles doesn’t mean the occasion wasn’t revolutionary. While watching events unfold in the Middle East over the past few weeks I haven’t even tried to guess at the outcome. But a popular uprising is a popular uprising, and even if circumstances conspire to quash this one it tells us something about everyday life in those countries, and how tenuous the grip of the ruling institutions turned out to be.

Recently I’ve stumbled across something that was way off my radar, but looks revolutionary to me and may even eliminate a major institution, traditional publishing. If this doesn’t surprise you and you want to cut to the chase, first read this brief interview with Barry Eisler, a bestselling writer who turned down a half-million dollar advance after deciding he could make more money self-publishing ebooks. Then read this astonishing conversation between Eisler and Joe Konrath, the ebook pioneer who inspired him to go that route. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation:

Barry: There’s a mentality in publishing about who has the power as between publishers and authors generally. There are exceptions–I doubt Stephen King’s publisher thinks it has the upper hand in that relationship–but overall, publishers look at authors as needing publishers more than publishers need authors.

Joe: That’s changed. And they don’t seem to realize it.

Barry: Right. Before the digital revolution, there was some basis for this viewpoint. But today it’s antiquated, and publishers are starting to need authors more than authors need publishers. If for generations you’ve been the lord of the land worked by your peasants, and you suddenly find yourself needing the peasants more than they need you, if you find them making new demands you don’t have the negotiating leverage to resist, you’ll probably find yourself resentful because damn it, this just isn’t the way God ordered the universe!

Joe: And despite all this, legacy publishers don’t realize a revolution is afoot.

Barry: I think they’re aware of it, but in an abstract way. I talk to a lot of people in the business, and when most of them talk about digital and the changes it’s causing in the industry, you can tell they’re imagining a future that’s safely abstract and far off. Something you acknowledge in conversation, of course–you’re not in denial, after all–but that fundamentally still feels to you like theory. Because you’re still having your Tuesday morning editorial meetings, right? And you just launched a new title that made the NYT list, right? And signed that hot new author, right? Sure, there are rumblings in the provinces, but here at court in Versailles, the food is still delicious and the courtiers still accord deference appropriate to your rank. When you live in the palace at Versailles, the rumblings in the provinces always sound far away. Right up until the peasants are dragging you out of your bed in the middle of the night and setting fire to your throne.

Joe: Sounds like Egypt.

Barry: It is Egypt. You think Mubarak had any idea of what he was facing at any time before he was being escorted from the palace? At one point, he actually believed that offering to fire his cabinet was going to appease protesters. And at some point, publishers will believe that offering authors 25% or 30% of digital retail instead of 17.5% will put down the rebellion. In fact, this is probably their current backup, hail-Mary, worst-case plan. But it’s already too late. [Emphasis added]

If this sounds like crazy talk to you, I’m not surprised. I’ve followed both writing and publishing for many years, and ebooks struck me as at most a change of format, technologically interesting but socially neutral or mostly so. In music I’ve lived through the shift from vinyl to cassettes, from cassettes to CDs, from CDs to MP3 players; in video it went from broadcast TV to cable to videotape to DVDs to online streaming. The ways we consumed music and video changed, but the basic nature of the activity stayed the same, with large corporations charging big bucks for mediating between producer and consumer. I figured that publishers would struggle with the changing economics that ebooks would create, and the roster of players would shift. But I didn’t expect they would become irrelevant.

Then three weeks ago I stumbled across this news item about Amanda Hocking: previously unpublished twenty-six year old writer sells 100,000 copies of her ebooks in one month. The rest of the article was a short education on the economics of ebook publishing, most of which I already knew. But it was Amanda Hocking’s experience that taught me something new.

Until this I had been thinking in traditional numbers. Even a good book by a new writer might sell a few thousand copies over its life when published traditionally. Selling that many ebooks would not be worth the extra effort and risk of going it alone, even if you got to keep more of the money from each book. But 100,000 copies? In one month? This requires a complete rethink.

Fortunately Amanda Hocking was keeping a blog as these events unfolded, and was forthcoming about them in real time. The timeline is incredible:

  • March 2010: wants to raise money for a summer weekend trip to Chicago, decides to put two unpublished books on Kindle. Sells 45 books in two weeks.
  • May 2010: adds third book to mix. Sold 38 books on one particular day. Total for month: 624 books, nets $362
  • June 2010: gives free copies to book bloggers, who review them. Sells 4258 books, nets $3180.
  • July 2010: puts her "important" book on Kindle (for $2.99 rather than $0.99). Sells 3532 books, nets $6527
  • August 2010: releases another book, sells 4873 books, nets about $10,000.

The trend continued, and people began talking. To combat misnformation that was spreading, on Feb 28 she posted a list of facts. The two most important items on the list:

  • Three of my full length novels are priced at $.99 in ebook, and my novella is priced at $.99. The other five books are priced at $2.99. All my paperbacks are priced at $8.99 and $9.99.
  • I first published two books in April 15, 2010. Since then, I’ve sold over 900,000 copies of over nine different books.

Nine hundred thousand books! Heady stuff for a young woman who just recently gave up her $18,000/yr job as an assistant for the disabled. And the saga continues. Just this past Thursday she announced that she had accepted a $2 million advance from a traditional publisher, St Martin’s Press, for four new books she will write.

What is striking to me about Hocking’s story is not the numbers—other young people have hit bigger jackpots—but the fact that she did not achieve this by trading on celebrity. She was unknown last March, hasn’t had time to make herself into an internet "personality," and seems to shy away from that in any case. Instead, people are buying her books because they want to read them, and don’t mind pushing a "Buy Now" button that for $.99 or $2.99 will instantly deliver a copy to them in their easy chair. Lots of people.

The lesson I am tentatively taking from this: people will spend between $1 and $5 on impulse for some promising reading material. And if they like a particular book, they will easily spend $20-30 to buy the writer’s entire backlist.

Hocking writes series fiction, a genre where it doesn’t take years of preparation and research to create the next book, and also a genre I have no interest in. But this rings true to me, and I think the market for “consumable” writing can be more broadly conceived. I read almost exclusively non-fiction, and there are some writers whose work I follow avidly. If I could buy, say, Malcolm Gladwell’s books for $3 apiece I would probably buy them all, just to have them around when I wanted something good to read.

A more interesting example for me is Michael Lewis, the finance writer. I loved his first book, Liar’s Poker, and followed his work throughout the 90s in magazines like The New Republic. I’ve read some of his other books. And even though I was very current on the global financial collapse and not interested in learning more, I was excited when Lewis started a series of articles for Vanity Fair visiting the countries hit hardest by the collapse (Iceland, Greece, Ireland) and couldn’t wait to read them. Why? Because I like the way he writes, and, more importantly, I like the way he thinks. One of the most profound things I’ve read about the nature of the Christian life was something that Lewis (an agnostic) wrote in passing about an encounter with a Greek Orthodox priest. I keep reading Lewis because I can count on reading such things regularly.

People like Lewis and Gladwell undertake big, expensive, time-consuming projects to feed their writing. I wouldn’t recommend to an aspiring nonfiction writer that he hop a plane to Iceland or Greece in search of compelling material for an ebook. Nor would I recommend a seven year stint at the Library of Congress. So is there an approach which might provide the regular stream of writing which series fiction provides?

I think there is, and that is involves writing a simple, thoughtful account of some aspect of your life—not a how to, but a how it happened with you. I think people will always be hungry for straightforward accounts of how an intelligent, interesting person approaches common situations. If they like you and trust you, they want to know more about how you think, and how that outlook developed. None of the episodes have to lay out deep theological or sociological truths. A good writer won’t be able to keep from touching on those issues in the telling, though, and cumulatively it will have both interest and value to the reader.

Thinking about this, I wrote down a surprisingly long list of topics I might write on, not worrying about whether any of them could support an entire book:

  • How I wasted nine years in college
  • Working for computer companies
  • The two times that God provided me with a job hours after I had quit on principle.
  • How I was converted in a Unitarian church
  • My time among the liberal Episcopalians in the People’s Republic of Austin
  • How we were turned down as missionaries with Wycliffe–in Duncanville, TX!–including my one and only supernatural experience
  • Helping to plant a seeker-sensitive, mildly charismatic Episcopalian church
  • How we became Presbyterians
  • The summer I met with two Mormon (girl!) missionaries
  • Our family church experience in Colorado, in the shadow of Pikes Peak
  • Quitting corporate life
  • Our time in an intentional Christian community
  • Our decision to move to the farm
  • Misadventures in farming
  • Our decision to leave the farm
  • How Chris and I became musicians
  • Our approach to child-rearing
  • Deciding to have four more children after the first three
  • Having a seventh child with Downs
  • Building a network of bluegrass music teachers

Of course, I’m now fifty-seven years old and have a decent backlog of life experience to draw on. Can someone without a backlog intentionally create the material to feed the writing? I think so. I had Chris read the conversation referenced above, and not being into moony teenage vampirism he asked me what sort of books he could possibly write. I told him that he should just write something about one of the many things he’s learned in the past few years—not a reference work, but a story about the experience. Music, farming, car repair, blacksmithing, electronics, programming, wood gasification …. Even better, I told him if he liked it and it came easy to him, he could take a George Plimpton approach and learn to do different things specifically so he could write about them afterward. I think that young men might very well enjoy reading about the experiences of other young men with similar interests.

As I mentioned earlier, in this case the pieces seem to be fitting together so that a technological shift might actually lead to a social shift. It didn’t happen with CDs and MP3s; people still want their music produced by large, expensive operations. Even more so with video. And despite the promise of the internet, it is the advertisers and corporations that continue to control content, and to make money off it. But ebooks might possibly be different. A writer is just one person, and readers are now able to get enough money into his hands without the help of an intermediary. For the first time in 500 years the transaction is dead simple—I’ll write something you’ll want to read if you and the other readers will pay me enough to keep writing.

This is different.

Another view of conversion

Garrison Keillor writes about his stroke for the first and last time. Among other interesting observations:

But the truth is, I don’t think about death at all, because I thought about it all the time when I was young. I wore it out.

I was raised fundamentalist and from early childhood sat under hellfire preaching in which the prospect of imminent death was a main selling point. Preachers stood and perspired freely and told about the Titanic, the ship Morro Castle, the wreck of the Old 97 and its unbelieving engineer who was scalded to death by the steam, the unbelievers who left the revival meeting in scorn and moments later were ushered into Eternity by the North Coast Limited. At every funeral, a man in a dark suit stood by the corpse and cried out, “What if your life were required of you this very day? Where would you go?”

I sat and trembled. And said a silent prayer, asking Jesus to save my shriveled soul, and the very next day went back to reading fiction, joking around, singing pop songs, flirting with girls—all my worldly ways.

Conviction, Confession, Relapse, over and over and over, like a man jumping off the shed with the big wings strapped to his arms that he’s sure will make him soar over the trees, and kersplat…down he goes one more time. But he picks himself up and straightens the wings and trudges home, and that evening decides the problem was the spacing of the feathers.

The next morning he jumps off the roof again.

Eventually you tire of this experiment, and then you go to the big city and see a 747 land at the airport. Wowser. You can throw away your feathered wings and simply buy a ticket. That happened to me. It’s called divine grace.