Category Archives: Authors

Breaking news: Hachette joins Macmillan, Justice Dept. still doesn’t like the Google Book Settlement

Two pieces of breaking news tonight:

Hachette joins Macmillan

David Young, the CEO of Hachette Book Group, announced that Hachette is adopting the agency model for ebook pricing. Here’s the GalleyCat article, which includes the text of Young’s letter.

For those keeping score, there are six major U.S. publishers: Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Random House. Five of the six (all except Random House) made a deal with Apple to sell their ebooks on the iPad using the agency model. So now that Macmillan and Hachette have publicly committed to adopting the agency model for all of their ebooks (and with HarperCollins likely to as well, based on statements Rupert Murdoch made yesterday), it’s probably only a matter of time before the rest join in. But when will Amazon stop boycotting Macmillan books?

The Justice Department doesn’t like the amended Google Book Settlement, says “class certification, copyright and antitrust issues remain”

The Department of Justice submitted its views to the court on the amended Google Book Settlement. (The fairness hearing is on February 18th.)

James Grimmelmann summarizes:

The United States has filed a new Statement of Interest. The tone is balanced, but the conclusion is clear: the Department of Justice thinks the settlement is beyond the court’s authority and still problematic on antitrust grounds. It’s a careful, detailed brief, that raises fundamental objections to the settlement. These issues will not be resolved with quick patches, even if the parties were in the mood to revise and resubmit a second time.

The battle has been truly joined.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release issued by the Department of Justice:

The Department of Justice today advised the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York that despite the substantial progress reflected in the proposed amended settlement agreement in The Authors Guild Inc. et al. v. Google Inc., class certification, copyright and antitrust issues remain. The department also said that the United States remains committed to working with the parties on issues concerning the scope and content of the settlement…

In its statement of interest filed with the court today, the department stated, “Although the United States believes the parties have approached this effort in good faith and the amended settlement agreement is more circumscribed in its sweep than the original proposed settlement, the amended settlement agreement suffers from the same core problem as the original agreement: it is an attempt to use the class action mechanism to implement forward-looking business arrangements that go far beyond the dispute before the court in this litigation.”

Here’s the link to the Justice Department’s full “Statement of Interest of the United States of America.”

Here’s the New York Times article about it, noting: “While the Justice Department did not explicitly urge the court to reject the deal, as it had the previous version, its opposition on copyright, class action and antitrust grounds represented a further setback for Google and the other parties to the deal.”

For more on the Google Book Settlement, see my earlier posts.

And now for something completely different…

Today is day 7 of Amazon’s boycott of Macmillan print books and ebooks. John Scalzi summarizes the current state of affairs in a very entertaining way in his new blog post, “A Quick Interview of Me, By Me, To Catch Up With Everything Amazon.” And Matt and I spotted this today in a full-page ad in the New York Times for Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto:  “Available at booksellers everywhere except Amazon.”

I realize that not all of my readers are as obsessed with this subject as I am, so I will give you a break and blog about some other things today:

Google Book Settlement

The Google Book Settlement fairness hearing will finally be held on February 18th, and the deadline to opt out or object passed on January 28th. James Grimmelmann has been posting lots of great links about the GBS on his Laboratorium blog:

Clarion and Clarion West Writers Workshop deadlines approaching

Applications are due by March 1st for the 2010 Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle, “an intensive six-week workshop for writers preparing for professional careers in science fiction and fantasy.” The 2010 workshop will run from June 20th to July 30th, and the instructors are Michael Bishop, Maureen McHugh, Nnedi Okorafor, Graham Joyce, Ellen Datlow, and Ian McDonald. See the Clarion West website for more information.

Also due by March 1st are applications for the 2010 Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UC San Diego, which runs from June 27th to August 7th. The 2010 instructors are Delia Sherman, George R.R. Martin, Dale Bailey, Samuel R. Delany, Jeff VanderMeer, and Ann VanderMeer.

Library budget cuts

Small Beer Press

Kelly Link and Gavin Grant’s Small Beer Press will bring back into print two books by writers Matt and I really like– Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life in October 2010, and Kelley Eskridge’s Solitaire in January 2011. They are joining a fine group of other writers published by Small Beer Press, including John Crowley, Elizabeth Hand, Geoff Ryman, Sean Stewart, and Kelly Link, among others.

And finally…

Introducing the iCodex:

Today, St. Stephen of Jobs announced the newest creation from the monks at Abbey Apple: the iCodex, which he believes will revolutionize the way people work and play…

With the iCodex, people can now store multiple items in one, easy-to-use package. A user could, for example, enjoy both cooking recipes and psalms, or mappa mundi and instructions on marital relations. Since the iCodex’s pages are bound together in an easy-to-turn format, things stored at the end of an iCodex are as easy to access as the beginning…

Excitement for the product could be felt all over the literate world. At the Library of Google, scribes were busy transferring hundreds of years of scrolls onto codices. “We hope to copy the entire history of human writing into codex form within the next few decades,” said Larry the Page, Google’s founder….

Go read the whole thing on Tom Elrod’s Wordism blog.

Will Amazon boycott HarperCollins’ books next?

According to this Galleycat report, Rupert Murdoch today “hinted that HarperCollins will join Macmillan in negotiating higher eBook prices.  All Things Digital reporter Peter Kafka has been liveblogging an interview with Rupert Murdoch about News Corp.’s fourth quarter earnings this afternoon. The company owns HarperCollins, so talk turned to eBook pricing.”

Here’s Kafka’s “on-the-fly transcription and paraphrasing of Murdoch’s comments re: Amazon, Apple and e-book pricing”:

We don’t like the Amazon model of $9.99….we think it really devalues books and hurts all the retailers of hardcover books. We’re not against electronic books, on the contrary, we like them very much,” because they cost us less to distribute, “but we want some room to maneuver.” The Apple deal…”does allow some flexibility and higher prices” though they will still be lower than print. And now Amazon is willing to sit down with us again and renegotiate.

Well, that didn’t take long. Anyone want to place bets on how long it will take the other big publishers to join them?

I wonder whether Amazon will also “temporarily” boycott HarperCollins’ print and ebooks for leverage in the negotiation process. HarperCollins‘ imprints include  HarperPerennial, William Morrow, Eos, and Ecco, to name a few.

Disclosure: HarperCollins is the publisher of Matt’s two most recent novels (Bad Monkeys and Set This House in Order) and his current novel-in-progress (The Mirage).

Day 5 of Amazon’s boycott of Macmillan books (and authors)

This is day 5 of Amazon’s boycott of Macmillan print books and ebooks. (See my two previous blog posts if you are still catching up.) There has been no statement from Amazon other than Sunday’s unsigned post on the Kindle forum, and the “Buy” buttons have still not been restored.

John Scalzi’s new post, “A Call for Author Support,” highlights the damage this is doing to authors and notes that the best way to support authors is to buy their books. You have lots of choices as to how/where to do this.

Dennis Johnson at MobyLives has a good roundup of the latest reactions to the ebook war.

Kassia Kroszer at Booksquare continues to post new links of interest.

K Tempest Bradford has a post about “ebooks, eReaders, and why you need to keep up with the tech.”

And be sure to read Laura Miller’s excellent Salon piece on some of the less-understood elements of all this.

Update 1: The New York Times “Bits” blog has a new post titled “Macmillan Books Still Mostly Absent from Amazon.com,” which notes that “the battle is still raging… ‘We are talking,’ said John Sargent, chief executive of Macmillan, of discussions with Amazon. An Amazon spokesman declined to comment. Amazon is most likely withholding the books to maintain its leverage in negotiations, trying to get the best possible terms under the new agency model. Stay tuned.”

Update 2: Nicola Griffith has commented below that “Amazon wins, no matter what,” and she has linked to an interesting paidContent.org article by James McQuivey titled “In Amazon vs. Macmillan, Amazon is the Winner.

Agent Nathan Bransford’s new post, “What Should an E-Book Cost?“, discusses in detail the costs of producing ebooks and print books and various pricing issues.

Update 3: Tech writer Glenn Fleishman’s article, “Is the iPad a Kindle Killer?“, directly compares the Kindle and the iPad. Here’s his take on the Amazon/Macmillan ebook war:

For major publishers, Amazon pays 50 percent of the list price of the current cheapest print format book. If a book is only in hardcover – a new release like a Dan Brown blockbuster – the cover price might be $30 and Amazon pays $15. When that book goes into paperback format and sells for $12, Amazon pays just $6.

However, Amazon wants ebooks to be cheap, and thus charges $10 for books still available only in hardcover. It subsidizes the price of these books to set the overall price low, and reaps its profit margins from cheaper books for which it makes its full 100-percent markup – or even more. Since Amazon is the dominant ebook seller, it may be marking up books higher that are cheaper for it to license…

As I write this, Amazon is fighting a public battle with Macmillan… Macmillan wants to set a higher list price for newly published books as they appear in electronic form (that $13 to $15 mentioned earlier) and give Amazon 30 percent of that list price. If Amazon doesn’t want the new terms, Macmillan would offer a far smaller catalog than it currently provides when it starts its new ebook pricing system in March 2010…

Macmillan is in part trying to prevent the erosion of revenue from the big push for new big books in hardcover. If Amazon can sell such titles for $10, even at a loss, even if Macmillan makes $15 from Amazon selling at that price, it sets the wrong expectation, and overturns some of the economics for both blockbusters and mid-range books. (The blockbusters’ margins make possible more interesting books that sell vastly fewer copies.)

Amazon balked, and not only pulled Macmillan’s ebook titles, but also stopped selling all Macmillan print books temporarily. That’s the biggest hissy fit I’ve ever seen a company pull…

On the face of it, this seems like a bad deal for consumers. Wouldn’t you rather pay $10 than $15 for a book? Absolutely. But in the long run, Amazon would achieve a de facto control over book pricing, which would hurt small and large publishers.

But it’s not that Macmillan wants to sell books for $13 to $15 forever; rather, “Pricing will be dynamic over time.” That is, Macmillan can price books in response to demand, instead of being stuck either in whatever pricing system Amazon wants to impose, or the heavily discounting books off cover price in print.

With more control on the supply side, Macmillan can reduce prices as demand lessens. Those who desperately want a book immediately might pay $15 at its launch; Macmillan would also guarantee print and ebook editions would be issued at the same time. If you can wait, you might pay less and less…

This is good for readers, writers, and publishers, as well as the ebook distributors including Amazon and Apple. More books will be sold this way, and more revenue directed at the creators, not the middlemen….

The morning after

Amazon has still not restored the Macmillan print books or ebooks to their inventory, so though it is being widely reported that Amazon has conceded, their boycott of Macmillan books and authors continues. (For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, see my previous blog post or this New York Times article, “Publisher Wins Fight With Amazon Over E-Books.”)

According to this Shelf Awareness article, “The Macmillan ban went beyond Amazon’s website: reportedly without notice to Kindle owners, Amazon went into the devices and removed Macmillan titles from wish lists and removed sample chapters of Macmillan titles. This move was reminiscent of the retailer’s quiet pulling last year of some e-titles whose copyrights were in question.”

Here are links to some new and interesting blog posts, analysis, and commentary about all this:

Amazon declares war on Friday, concedes on Sunday (updated)

Well, this has been an unusually interesting weekend. For those who haven’t been glued to the interwebs, on Friday Amazon stopped selling all print books and ebooks published by Macmillan and their many imprints, including Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Tor, Henry Holt, and St. Martin’s Press.

This is the first shot with real bullets in the war over the future of ebook pricing. It can’t be a coincidence that it happened this week, after Apple announced the iPad and the iBooks app/bookstore and its deal with five of the six major U.S. publishers–of which Macmillan is one. Amazon has gained ebook market domination by selling many new ebooks for its Kindle at a loss. (Under the wholesale model, for new books (print or ebook) big retailers like Amazon pay the publisher 50% of the hardcover list price but can sell it for whatever price they want.) Amazon set the retail price for many ebooks at $9.99 even though it often had to pay the publishers more than that in order to drive sales of its Kindle and the Kindle-only formatted ebooks. Most other ebook retailers can’t afford to take a loss, so their prices are higher than Amazon’s, which convinced more people to buy the Kindle and increased Amazon’s market share. (This is the same thing that happened with print book pricing in the Amazon vs. independent booksellers battle.) But publishers feared that once Amazon completely dominated the ebook market, it would start putting pressure on them to lower their wholesale prices so that they could continue to sell ebooks at $9.99 and make a profit, but push the losses onto the publishers and authors. To try to regain a bit of control, some publishers began to withhold their ebooks from Amazon or delay them until a few months after the release of the hardcover.

Then Apple comes along and makes a deal with the publishers to sell their ebooks on the iPad. Publishers could set their own prices (ebooks would be priced individually, according to a formula tied to the print price, with most new ebooks between $12 and $15 and lower prices for backlist titles) and Apple would take 30% (this is the agency model, to be explained below). To the publishers, this seemed like a much better (more sustainable and profitable) idea, especially since Apple is one of the few companies that could take on Amazon and open up the ebook market to some real competition. If publishers could sell their ebooks profitably through Apple’s ebook store, they could resist Amazon’s push to lower their prices to a level that publishers believe would be disastrous to the industry.

So now that publishers have found an ebook pricing model they can live with, they want Amazon to agree to it as well. It would allow everyone (including Amazon) to make a profit, ebooks will still be priced significantly lower than print books so the ebook market would continue to grow, ebooks would be available simultaneously with the hardcover publication, and the price of ebooks will drop throughout the life-cycle just like print books do. Amazon, however, might lose their market advantage if they can’t significantly undercut everyone else on price. If Amazon chooses to stay with the current wholesale model and set their prices below everyone else to gain market share, publishers can accordingly choose to withhold or delay the release of the Kindle ebooks. As my husband commented this morning, it’s the clash of the monopolists, and he’s strangely unsure who to root for in this fight.

Apparently Amazon has decided to make an example out of the first publisher to try to renegotiate ebook terms. As recounted by John Sargent, the CEO of Macmillan, in a letter released yesterday:

This past Thursday I met with Amazon in Seattle. I gave them our proposal for new terms of sale for e books under the agency model which will become effective in early March. In addition, I told them they could stay with their old terms of sale, but that this would involve extensive and deep windowing of titles. By the time I arrived back in New York late yesterday afternoon they informed me that they were taking all our books off the Kindle site, and off Amazon. The books will continue to be available on Amazon.com through third parties.

I regret that we have reached this impasse. Amazon has been a valuable customer for a long time, and it is my great hope that they will continue to be in the very near future. They have been a great innovator in our industry, and I suspect they will continue to be for decades to come.

It is those decades that concern me now, as I am sure they concern you. In the ink-on-paper world we sell books to retailers far and wide on a business model that provides a level playing field, and allows all retailers the possibility of selling books profitably. Looking to the future and to a growing digital business, we need to establish the same sort of business model, one that encourages new devices and new stores. One that encourages healthy competition. One that is stable and rational. It also needs to insure that intellectual property can be widely available digitally at a price that is both fair to the consumer and allows those who create it and publish it to be fairly compensated.

Under the agency model, we will sell the digital editions of our books to consumers through our retailers. Our retailers will act as our agents and will take a 30% commission (the standard split today for many digital media businesses). The price will be set for each book individually. Our plan is to price the digital edition of most adult trade books in a price range from $14.99 to $5.99. At first release, concurrent with a hardcover, most titles will be priced between $14.99 and $12.99. E books will almost always appear day on date with the physical edition. Pricing will be dynamic over time.

The agency model would allow Amazon to make more money selling our books, not less. We would make less money in our dealings with Amazon under the new model. Our disagreement is not about short-term profitability but rather about the long-term viability and stability of the digital book market.

So, Amazon is punishing Macmillan by refusing to sell its ebooks or printed books and is sending a message to the other publishers as well. (Yes, you can buy Macmillan books and ebooks elsewhere, but considering Amazon’s market dominance, this will still hurt the publisher and the authors.) Right now, Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla, so they are acting now before the iPad comes out to try to shut down this publisher rebellion before it gains traction. But if the publishers hold firm and rally together behind this new 30% commission/agency model, Amazon is faced with a problem. Are they really going to banish all of the major publishers from their site? By refusing to sell books their customers want, Amazon’s revenue will suffer and customers will be forced to shop elsewhere. As my grandmother would say, they are cutting off their nose to spite their face. With Apple looming on the horizon, it seems like an act of desperation.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere over ebook pricing, which I won’t rehash here (see the TeleRead blog or the various publishing/book blogs in my sidebar for background). However, I do think a dynamic pricing scheme for ebooks makes sense. In most cases, a book is published first in hardcover at a higher price (usually between $24 and $28, though Amazon and the other big discounters sell them at 30 to 50% off that price). About a year later, the book is published in trade paperback at a lower price (usually between $12 and $16, with fewer/smaller discounts). If you want to read a book when it first comes out, you have to pay a premium for it, as you would when a movie is first released. If you don’t want to pay this premium, you have to wait to buy it at a lower price or borrow it from your local library. As most ebooks are priced below the price of a trade paperback or discounted hardcover, you can see why some publishers don’t want to make them available until after the hardcover has run its course. (It’s the hardcover sales to the public and libraries that allow publishers to recoup much of their costs, and authors receive far more per book from hardcovers than they do from paperbacks.) But in the same way you release the book twice–first in hardcover at a higher price, later in paperback at a lower price–why not release an ebook at the same time as the hardcover at a lower price than the hardcover (for example, the price of a trade paperback, to account for lower production/distribution costs and the fact that unlike a paper book, you don’t really own it because of DRM and can’t resell it)– say $12 to $15– and then lower the price of the ebook to $10 or less when the trade paperback comes out.

With a dynamic pricing model, consumer behavior will eventually set pricing levels. If consumers are willing to pay more for immediate access or are willing to wait in order to pay less (like with print books), then that will become the standard. If consumers demand immediate access to ebooks but will only pay $10 or less, publishers may have to reconsider their entire model–perhaps abandon the hardcover and release new books in trade paperback to keep the prices between print books and ebooks more in line with each other. Consumers would love this, as it would lower book prices, but the publishing industry would have to change significantly, much as the music industry was forced to.

Authors, of course, are the collateral damage in this fight. Here are some blog posts of note, some by authors whose books are no longer for sale on Amazon:

Update 1IndieBound, the collective website of U.S. independent bookstores, has posted a reminder that “Macmillan books available here – and at thousands of independent bookstores across the country!” You can search for your local independent bookstores on the IndieBound website. If you are looking for an online bookstore, check out Powells.com, which sells new, used, and out of print books and ships worldwide.  By the way, Powells and IndieBound also have affiliate programs, in case you are thinking about switching your book links away from Amazon.

Update 1.5: Another option for those looking for online booksellers who have affiliate programs and will ship internationally is The Book Depository, recommended by Cheryl Morgan. The Book Depository (.com for the U.S. or .co.uk for the rest of the world) offers free worldwide shipping.

Update 2: This just in from Nick Mamatas’ blog. The following announcement about Macmillan was posted on Amazon’s Kindle community board at 2:22pm (PST) today, signed by the Amazon Kindle team:

The Amazon Kindle team says:

Dear Customers:

Macmillan, one of the “big six” publishers, has clearly communicated to us that, regardless of our viewpoint, they are committed to switching to an agency model and charging $12.99 to $14.99 for e-book versions of bestsellers and most hardcover releases.

We have expressed our strong disagreement and the seriousness of our disagreement by temporarily ceasing the sale of all Macmillan titles. We want you to know that ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan’s terms because Macmillan has a monopoly over their own titles, and we will want to offer them to you even at prices we believe are needlessly high for e-books. Amazon customers will at that point decide for themselves whether they believe it’s reasonable to pay $14.99 for a bestselling e-book. We don’t believe that all of the major publishers will take the same route as Macmillan. And we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an opportunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.

Kindle is a business for Amazon, and it is also a mission. We never expected it to be easy!

Thank you for being a customer.

I just checked, and Macmillan books are still not available for sale on Amazon. I wonder how long this “temporary” boycott of Macmillan books and ebooks will continue.

The news of the announcement is racing throughout the blogosphere and Twitter. Here’s the New York Times blog post, titled “Amazon Concedes on Electronic Book Prices.”

I’ll give John Scalzi the last word:

Dear Amazon,

Now that you’ve admitted that you’re going to accept Macmillan’s pricing proposal on ebooks, would you mind turning the “Buy Now” button back on for all my Tor books? Pretty please? The longer you wait, the more I’ll have to think you’re just being petulant and foot-stompy about it.

Kthxbye,

JS

P.S.: Come here, have a hug. Let’s never fight again, okay?

No, seriously. Let’s never fight again.

Thanks.

110th birthday of the University Book Store and more on the Espresso Book Machine

On Sunday, January 10th, the University Book Store in Seattle is celebrating its 110th birthday with a party and a book created for the occasion titled 110/110:

To commemorate our first 110 years as an independent bookstore, we are pleased to present this book of 110 original 110-word compositions by a group of authors we consider members of our University Book Store family….

Beginning January 10, 2010, copies of the book will be available to all who purchase any single title by a contributor to the collection. Click here for a full list of contributors and see below for a sneak peek at the book!

Contributors include a wide and interesting range of local authors, including Matt Ruff, Greg Bear, Tom Robbins, Terry Brooks, Molly Gloss, Nancy Pearl, Dan Savage, Wesley Stace, Maria Dahvana Headley, Matt Briggs, Ivan Doig, David Guterson, Stephanie Kallos, Jess Walter, and many others.

There will be cake. If you can’t visit the bookstore in person, you can still get a copy of 110/110 by ordering online any book by one of the contributors using the promo code posted on the website.

By the way, the arrival of the University Book Store’s Espresso Book Machine has been delayed until February. For those who can’t wait, Ginger, the Third Place Books Espresso Book Machine, is up and running. Here are some related links:

I have treats for you…

* Last night I spoke with Stesha Brandon, the events manager of the University Book Store in Seattle, and she told me that they are getting an Espresso Book Machine in January. (See my post “…an ATM for books” for more about the Espresso Book Machine, including video of it in action.) That makes a total of three EBMs in Washington state (University Book Store, Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Village Books in Bellingham), more than any other state. Decisions, decisions…. Which public domain work should I print first?

* Thanks to the LiteratEye blog, I’m having great fun browsing through LibraryThing’s “Legacy Libraries” project, in which members of the “I See Dead People’s Books” group enter the libraries of famous dead people as LibraryThing catalogues. There are nearly 70 completed libraries, including  John Adams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, Katharine Hepburn, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Johnson, T.E. Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and George Washington. There are also over 50 libraries in progress, including  Charles Darwin, John Dee, Emily Dickinson, C.S. Lewis, Mary, Queen of Scots, Herman Melville, Adam Smith, Leonardo da Vinci, and William Butler Yeats.

* For those who are total Shakespeare geeks like me, behold the new Shakespeare Quarto Archives, containing digital reproductions and transcriptions of 32 copies of the five earliest editions of Hamlet published before 1642. Here’s a video introduction to the Shakespeare Quarto Archives:

* There are lots of end of the year lists, but I always look forward to those by Craig Silverman on his Regret the Error blog. For your reading pleasure:

Crunks 2009: The Year in Media Errors and Corrections

2009 Plagiarism Round-Up

* And finally:

Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.

Ceiling Cat creats teh universes and stuffs

Yes, Virginia, there is a LOLCat Bible. I discovered the LOLCat Bible Translation project through Steve Wiggins (Neal Stephenson’s brother-in-law), a scholar of ancient and modern religions with a blog named Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

People I like have been doing interesting things

Though I haven’t blogged much of late, people I like have been doing interesting things that I wanted to share:

Nisi Shawl posted her essay “Transracial Writing for the Sincere” on the SFWA website, in which she gives great advice on doing research (using people and primary sources) and writing characters of different races and backgrounds. The essay is part of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, the companion book to Nisi and Cynthia Ward’s “Writing the Other” fiction writing workshops. Last year Nisi published Filter House, her award-winning short fiction collection.

Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge started Sterling Editing to offer editing, mentoring, and coaching for writers. Their website has excellent advice and links to resources for writers, and I particularly like their “editcasts.”

— Speaking of Kelley, she’ll be teaching a six-week class called “The Whole Story” at Richard Hugo House starting January 27th. Her class will “explore essential elements of good short fiction: structure, point of view, plotting, character development, description and dialogue….” Other notable Winter 2010 Hugo House classes include Geoff Ryman’s December 19th one-day class “Writing Story, Writing Plot,” and Nancy Kress’s six-week class “Writing Fiction: A Critique Class.” Details and registration information can be found here. (I will not be teaching at Hugo House this winter, but I will probably be teaching another all-day “Creative Research for Writers” class there in the spring.)

Justine Larbalestier came to Seattle on book tour for her new novel, Liar, and we spent an enjoyable evening with her and Ted Chiang.

John Crowley received a wonderful birthday greeting on December 1st from Garrison Keiller’s Writer’s Almanac. An excerpt:

His books are sometimes called fantasy or science fiction and sometimes just fiction. John Crowley said, “It’s probably central to the nature of fiction altogether, to try to enter into lost worlds, or enter into ‘the lost’ in some way.” And he has created many strange and lost worlds in his fiction, worlds that are on the one hand recognizable to us, and on the other slightly altered, filled with magic… When the critic Harold Bloom was asked to write about one book that changed his life, he mentioned writing by Shakespeare, William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson, but the book he finally chose was Little, Big. He said: “So perpetually fresh is this book, changing each time I reread it, that I find it virtually impossible to describe, and scarcely can summarize it. I pick it up again at odd moments, sometimes when I wake up at night and can’t fall back asleep. Though it is a good-sized volume, I think I remember every page. Little, Big is for readers from nine to ninety, because it naturalizes and renders domestic the marvelous….”

Linda Stone, the fascinating thinker, writer, and speaker who coined the terms “continuous partial attention” and “email apnea,” has a new blog/website at lindastone.net. Go explore and join the conversation.

Matt Ruff (my husband) has sold his novel-in-progress, The Mirage, to HarperCollins. He’s been too busy writing the book to blog about it, which is why I’m mentioning it here, but he promises he’ll eventually post more details on his blog.

Update: Matt blogged about The Mirage on December 15th.

Google Book Deal 2.0

Late last night the revised Google Book settlement was filed with the court.

So what’s changed? From the New York Times:

The revisions to the settlement primarily address the handling of so-called orphan works, the millions of books whose rights holders are unknown or cannot be found. The changes call for the appointment of an independent fiduciary, or trustee, who will be solely responsible for decisions regarding orphan works.

The trustee, with Congressional approval, can grant licenses to other companies who also want to sell these books, and will oversee the pool of unclaimed funds that they generate. If the money goes unclaimed for 10 years, according to the revised settlement, it will go to philanthropy and to an effort to locate rights holders. In the original settlement, unclaimed funds reverted to known rights holders after five years.

The changes also restrict the Google catalog to books published in the United States, Britain, Australia or Canada. That move is intended to resolve objections from the French and German governments, which complained that the settlement did not abide by copyright law in those countries.

The revised settlement could make it easier for other companies to compete with Google in offering their own digitized versions of older library books because it drops a provision that was widely interpreted as ensuring that no other company could get a better deal with authors and publishers than the one Google had struck.

Google’s blog post about the revised settlement has links to their summary of the changes and FAQ.

James Grimmelman has a detailed analysis of the revised settlement and notes: “My instant reaction is that it makes a number of meaningful, if modest, improvements, but leaves unaddressed the central issue that led me to worry about the settlement in the first place.”

The Open Book Alliance is, of course, unhappy with the revised settlement:

Open Book Alliance co-chair Peter Brantley said, “Our initial review of the new proposal tells us that Google and its partners are performing a sleight of hand; fundamentally, this settlement remains a set-piece designed to serve the private commercial interests of Google and its partners. None of the proposed changes appear to address the fundamental flaws illuminated by the Department of Justice and other critics that impact public interest. By performing surgical nip and tuck, Google, the AAP, and the AG are attempting to distract people from their continued efforts to establish a monopoly over digital content access and distribution; usurp Congress’s role in setting copyright policy; lock writers into their unsought registry, stripping them of their individual contract rights; put library budgets and patron privacy at risk; and establish a dangerous precedent by abusing the class action process.”

Resource Shelf has an excellent  link roundup and press review here.

Judge Denny Chin will soon announce the timeline for the notice period, objection hearing, and final fairness hearing.

I’m sure the debate will rage across the blogosphere in the days and weeks to come.

Update, 11/15: James Grimmelman has posted the proposed GBS schedule on his Laboratorium blog:

* Notice begins: Monday, December 14, 2009.

* Opt-out/objection/amicus deadline: Thursday, January 28, 2010 (45 days later).

* DOJ files its response: Thursday, February 4, 2010 (7 days later).

* Plaintiffs move for final approval: Thursday, February 11, 2010 (7 days later).

* Final fairness hearing: Thursday, February 18, 2010 (7 days later).

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale.”

Nicola Griffith blogged yesterday about the historical novel she’s writing and different approaches to writing historical fiction:

There’s the hey, anything goes, just use the period as window dressing around a fab story camp, and there’s the never, ever, don’t evereverever, contravene what is known to be known people. (There’s an article in MACLEANS.CA that lays this out by illustrating the difference between the attitudes of Hilary Mantel and Kate Pullinger.)

Here’s an even more interesting piece from Magistra et Mater: an historian explains why she no longer reads historical fiction.

Me? Well, I love getting things right. I’ve done a lot of research on Hild and her time (some casual, some deep and complex). But I’m a novelist; I also occasionally can’t resist just fucking with things. Sometimes, though, it seems I fuck with things in just the right way–and those are fabulous moments when I know I’m really beginning to get a feel for the period. (At least in some senses.)

This seemed like a good opportunity to mention some related issues I’ve talked about in my classes on creative research for writers:

  • The research process is completely different for each writer and project. Some authors do the minimum necessary and fake the rest, others completely immerse themselves or become experts on their subject or period. There isn’t a right or wrong way–you have to figure out what works for you.
  • Think carefully about what you really need to know, why you need to know it, and what you can just make up. What degree of accuracy and authenticity are you trying to achieve? What can or should you fictionalize?
  • Decide what game you’re playing. Make conscious choices about straying from history or reality when it serves your story and your characters, but understand that some readers and critics will be unhappy about it.

John Scalzi touched on this in his recent blog post about science fiction worldbuilding. For him it’s about plausibility, keeping “the audience engaged all the way through the work without once saying, ‘now, wait just a minute…'”:

Other worldbuilders will have to answer this one when talking about their own works, but as for me, in general, I try to build my worlds at least two questions deep — that is, you make your creations robust enough to stand up to a general question and then a more specific followup question….

And for about 90% of your readers, that’s going to be sufficient rationale. For about 10% of your readers, it won’t be, but at some point, and simply as a practical matter, you realize that some folks aren’t going to be happy with your worldbuilding no matter how far you drill down, and that you can just sort of accept that as the cost of doing business in a geek-rich field like science fiction. To a very real extent, what you’re aiming for is sufficiency, not completeness.

Here are a few other links about writing historical fiction:

An interesting August 2009 BBC radio broadcast in which “Mark Lawson examines the differences between factual and fictional writers of history and between academics and populists in the telling of stories from our heritage. Writers Antonia Fraser, Margaret MacMillan, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Dunant and Tristram Hunt join Mark to discuss the best ways of exploring the past.”

Susan Vreeland’s thoughts on writing historical fiction.

A 1998 essay by Anne Scott MacLeod, “Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction,” about revisionism in historical novels for children:

But people of the past were not just us in odd clothing. They were people who saw the world differently; approached human relationships differently; people for whom night and day, heat and cold, seasons and work and play had meanings lost to an industrialized world. Even if human nature is much the same over time, human experience, perhaps especially everyday experience, is not. To wash these differences out of historical fictions is not only a denial of historical truth, but a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past.

And on a lighter note, there’s History-Spork, a very funny blog in which historians review Hollywood movies.

By the way, the title of this post comes from a quotation attributed to historical novelist William Martin:

The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.

Does anyone happen to know the original source of this quotation?

Update, 11/13: I emailed William Martin directly to ask about this quote, and he says it is indeed his, and it appears in the February 2000 issue of The Writer magazine. Thanks to the Seattle Public Library’s electronic databases, I was able to find his essay, which is titled “First-Person Narrators in Historical Fiction.”

Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

Matt and I recently had the opportunity to spend some time browsing through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which has just been published by Oxford University Press.

I began by reading the introduction. He began by looking up curse words. Once he had satisfied his curiosity about when certain very popular profanities first entered the English language, he turned his attention to the more unusual words within the inferior persons, as abused subcategory that have fallen out of use, such as windfucker (1602 to 1616), hog-rubber (1614 to 1621), chuff-cat (1653), shit-sack (1769 to 1785), and son of a sea-cook (1806 to 1977). This led to an animated discussion of the common themes that connected many of the words—comparisons to animals, sex with relatives or objects, and the inability to control one’s bowels.

That’s what happens when you put the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary within reach of a writer.

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time.

It took forty-four years to bring the HTOED to publication, overcoming what the editors politely describe as “a series of intellectual, financial, and domestic challenges.” About 800,000 meanings from the OED were transcribed onto slips of paper and organized into a unique classification system with over 236,000 categories and subcategories. A fire in 1978 would have destroyed a decade of work but for the fact that the paper slips were stored in a metal filing cabinet. They could have finished making slips by 1980, but the decision was made to add new material from the second edition of the OED and the supplements. Computers were eventually used to enter, store, and retrieve data, but much of the work continued to be done by hand.

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

The classification system of the HTOED is mind-bogglingly complex, forming a hierarchy of meaning from the general to the specific. At the highest level are the three main sections—the external world, the mental world, and the social world—which divide into 26 major categories, such as the earth, life, emotion, society, morality, faith, armed hostility, and communication. These branch into more detailed categories like food, clothing, people, animals, transport, love, moral evil, and sexual relations. More specific categories and subcategories lead to the synonyms and related words, which are organized by part of speech and listed chronologically with the date of the first recorded use in English and, for obsolete words, the last recorded use. (I recommend reading the “guide to the use of the thesaurus” to get your bearings.)

Each level in this hierarchy of meaning is assigned a two-digit number, which when combined creates identification numbers for every word in the thesaurus. Some words have many identification numbers because they have numerous meanings or have changed their meanings over time and thus appear in different locations within the thesaurus.

For example, in the alphabetical index, the first identification number for the noun serendipity, one of my favorite words, is 01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01, locating it in the thesaurus within these nested categories and subcategories:

01                                                         the external world
01.05                                                  existence in time and space
01.05.05                                           action/operation
01.05.05.10                                    endeavour
01.05.05.10.02                             searching/seeking
01.05.05.10.02.01 (n.)              finding/discovery (noun)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10               accidentally (subcategory)
01.05.05.10.02.01|10.01        faculty of making happy discoveries by chance

Here you’ll find that the noun serendipity was first cited in 1754. After the finding/discovery (noun) category is the finding/discovery (adjective) category, in which serendipitous (01.05.05.10.02.01|03) dates from 1958.

The HTOED will clearly be important to the study of the English language, but it also could contribute to other subjects, especially history, literature, and culture. The descriptions of life and the earth over centuries are like crash courses in the history of science and medicine. Cultural historians will look for clues in our language to our attitudes about gender, race, and class, as with the words used to describe women based on animals (mare, hen, cow, heifer, bird) or clothing (skirt, smock, petticoat). Advancements in technology are reflected in subjects like travel, tools, telecommunications, and computing. Shakespeare scholars will be able to compare the words in use during his lifetime and argue about the reasons for his word choices. Even a category like clothing can reveal shifts in morality, as when underwear became unmentionables in 1823.

I believe the HTOED could be a rich source of inspiration and world-building for writers. Historical novelists could gain insight into the past and how people lived, what they knew and believed, and how they described their own world. And they’ll know whether the words their characters are speaking were actually in use at the time. (Elizabethans would not have called a packed meal a picnic, as it was first cited in 1748.)  Fantasy writers may unearth ideas in forgotten names or descriptions of supernatural beings and mythical creatures. Poets can reintroduce lyrical and imaginative words that have fallen out of use, such as candel (Old English to 1634), luminair (1456 to 1560), or streamer (1513 to 1647), all of which once described heavenly bodies. Eclectic writers like my husband who have a strong love of word-play and enjoy collecting unusual bits of knowledge will find it addictive.

Let’s say you’d like to take advantage of the current craze for vampires or literary monster mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The HTOED can tell you when different monsters first entered our nightmares and what we called them at distinct points in time. Follow the hierarchy of categories from the external world to the supernatural to supernatural being/spirit to malignant monster (noun). Here you’ll find that the word vampyre was first cited in 1734, followed by vampire in 1796. Though vampire is still in use today, the last recorded OED citation for vampyre was in 1847. Referring to vampires as undead didn’t begin until 1897. Werewolves trace all the way back to the Old English werewulf, lycanthrope was first cited in 1813 and is still in use, but the more poetic turnskin entered the language in 1831 and exited forty years later. Oh, and zombie was first cited in 1819, two years after the death of Jane Austen.

The editors have included all those words that have been too controversial for some other dictionaries and thesauruses. Curse words, sexual slang, and offensive slurs for racial and sexual minorities appear dispassionately in their chronological place among their less inflammatory cousins. Reading certain entries may cause shock, disgust, or pain, but there is value in putting these powerful words in their historical context. If you are easily offended or prefer your works expurgated, consider yourself warned.

Priced at $395 (on sale at Amazon for $316), the HTOED will unfortunately be out of reach for many of the writers and word lovers who might appreciate it, so keep it mind if you are looking for a fabulous gift for your favorite logophile.

For more information, check out this OUP website for the HTOED and this OUP blog post with “fun facts and figures” about the work. Here’s the link to a sample page from the work at the OUP website.

UPDATE, 10/28/09: I received an email from Christian Kay, editor of the HTOED. There are indeed plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away. There are no plans for a CD version. So it looks like the books will be the only option for quite some time.

NEW UPDATE, 6/18/10: The Oxford English Dictionary Online will be relaunched in December 2010 and will include an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. See my blog post “Word lovers rejoice” for more information.

NEW UPDATE, 11/30/10: The new OED website has launched, fully integrating the online Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

Registration is still open for my October 25th class

There’s still time to register for my October 25th Creative Research for Writers class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle:

Creative research can help writers of fiction and nonfiction with inspiration, storytelling, and world-building whether they are writing about the past, present, or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. We’ll discuss the relationship between research and writing, different types of research writers may need to do, practical tips and advice on doing research, and how and where to find useful and unusual sources of information on the Web, in books, databases, and libraries, and in unexpected places.

The class will be from 10am to 5pm on Sunday, October 25th, and the cost is $127.80 for Hugo House members or $142.00 for non-members. You can register online, by phone (206-322-7030), by fax or mail, or in person. The fall 2009 course catalog and registration information are here, and my original August post about the class is here.

Google Books settlement being revised, plaintiffs want October 7th hearing rescheduled

Breaking news from James Grimmelmann’s blog:

The author and publisher plaintiffs filed a motion to adjourn the [October 7th Google Books settlement] fairness hearing, together with a short supporting memorandum. Google does not oppose the motion. The executive summary:

* The parties are renegotiating the settlement (with each other and the DOJ).

* The issues are too complex to present a revised settlement by October 7.

* They’ve requested a status conference for November 6 to discuss a future schedule, so they may have a revised settlement by then.

* The parties don’t yet know whether the changes will require a renotice.

This is clearly the result of the Department of Justice’s recommendation that the settlement be rejected by the court and renegotiated. (See my previous blog post for more information and links.)

Update: Reaction from the Open Book Alliance:

This is a huge victory for the many people and organizations who raised significant concerns that this settlement did not serve the public interest, stifled innovation, and restricted competition. It’s also an enormous loss for Google, which had been saying for months that no changes were necessary to the settlement. Now, that settlement, as we know it, is dead.

Justice Department recommends the Google Books settlement be rejected and renegotiated

Late last night the U.S. Department of Justice filed a 32-page “statement of interest” regarding the proposed Google Books settlement.  In short, the DOJ recommends that:

This Court should reject the Proposed Settlement in its current form and encourage the parties to continue negotiations to modify it so as to comply with Rule 23 and the copyright and antitrust laws.

This Resource Shelf post has a long link roundup of news reports and reactions. Here’s today’s New York Times article about it.

Law Professor James Grimmelmann has posted a detailed summary and explanation of the DOJ filing in his Laboratorium blog, which begins:

This is a really, really good brief. The Department of Justice appreciates both the potential and the dangers of the settlement. They’re clearly trying to lay the groundwork for a constructive way forward, while protecting copyright owners and competition.

The DoJ, speaking on behalf of the United States, has two broad areas of concern: fairness to copyright owner class members and protecting competition. It also strongly notes the public benefits from making out-of-print works more available, from creating accessible versions for the disabled, and from expanding distribution options for books. Their bottom line is that the settlement as it now stands is untenable, but that with modifications, it could be much better. It indicates that the parties are trying to negotiate (with each other and with the DoJ, it would appear) some of those changes, and the DoJ gives the court suggestions for how it ought to encourage the parties along….

Grimmelmann’s blog is a great source for detailed information about the Google Books controversy, with lots of useful links and interesting analysis.

The fairness hearing on the settlement is on October 7th. The court has received over 400 written filings in the case, and The Public Index has a list and links to them. These include objections, amicus briefs, letters of support, and letters raising concerns, from corporations, organizations, libraries, universities, publishers, individual authors, and even countries.

Here are a few other links I’ve been collecting over the past few weeks:

Here are links to my previous blog posts about the Google Books settlement.

My October 25th “Creative Research for Writers” class

On Sunday, October 25th, I’ll be teaching an all-day “Creative Research for Writers” class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. Here’s the description:

Creative research can help writers of fiction and nonfiction with inspiration, storytelling, and world-building whether they are writing about the past, present, or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. We’ll discuss the relationship between research and writing, different types of research writers may need to do, practical tips and advice on doing research, and how and where to find useful and unusual sources of information on the Web, in books, databases, and libraries, and in unexpected places.

Matt Ruff will be my special guest and share his experiences with using research in fiction.

The class will be from 10am to 5pm (six hours of class and a lunch break). My May 9th “Research for Writers” class was four hours, but my students and I felt that wasn’t enough time, so I arranged for my next class be longer.

The cost is $127.80 for Hugo House members or $142.00 for non-members, and enrollment is limited to 15.

Registration begins August 18th for Hugo House members and August 25th for non-members. During the first week of member registration, you can register by telephone (206-322-7030) or in person. Once general registration begins on August 25th, you can also register online or by mail or fax. Here’s the link to the registration information.

Here’s the link to the Fall 2009 Hugo House class catalog. Of particular note:  John Crowley will be teaching a one-day class called “The Further In You Go The Bigger It Gets: Using the Deep Structures of Fantasy” and Nancy Kress will be teaching a six-week class called “Writing Fiction: A Critique Class.”

Please email me if you have any questions about my class or if you would like information about customized private classes/workshops for groups or individual coaching.

Writers and their rooms

Through LISNews, I discovered photographer Kyle Cassidy’s new project, Where I Write: Fantasy & Science Fiction Authors in Their Creative Spaces. The website contains 20 photographs of writers in their rooms and a description of the project:

I spend a lot of time thinking about people’s environments — the places they build around themselves, the things they choose to live with. Is there a connection, I started to wonder if there was a connection between the places that writers work and their work itself.

Why not find out?

Where I Write will be featured as eight pages in the 2009 Worldcon program guide. A much larger collection is being compiled into a book featuring Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, and many others along with interviews about their spaces.

Here’s Cassidy’s photograph of Michael Swanwick:

wiw-swanwick

This reminded me of Eamonn McCabe’s photographs for The Guardian’s Writers’ Rooms series, though his are of the rooms without their writers.  There are over a hundred of McCabe’s photographs on the website, with commentary by the writers. Here’s Colm Tóibín’s room:

toibin

And JG Ballard’s room:

ballard

There’s also an interesting slideshow of many of McCabe’s photos, narrated by him, on the BBC website.

Update 8/13/09: This morning Cory Doctorow blogged about Kyle Cassidy’s photo project on BoingBoing and posted a photograph of himself in his London office taken by NK Guy:

Doctorow

No, I won’t be posting any photographs of my husband (Matt Ruff) in his room– he writes at his desk in the dark (lights out, shade down), lit only by the glow of his computer screen.

Patricia Wrede’s list of worldbuilding questions

While browsing through the new SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) website, which launched this week, I discovered Patricia C. Wrede’s list of fantasy worldbuilding questions to help create believable imaginary settings. (The list is not new, just new to me.) I highly recommend it, especially since many of her questions would be useful for detailed worldbuilding in general, regardless of genre.

SFWA’s Information Center contains articles for writers grouped into categories: advice for new writers, contracts and copyrights, the craft of writing, and the business of writing. (There isn’t a lot of content in this section yet, but the SFWA blog noted it will take time to transfer material from the old site to the new.)

Another resource on the site is Writer Beware, containing “warnings about literary fraud and other schemes, scams, and pitfalls that target writers.”

For teachers, the site offers a science fiction Lessons Library (in partnership with AboutSF.com), containing course outlines and lesson plans, teaching tools, and reader’s guides.

In the New York Times, Janet Maslin calls Chris Anderson “crass, reckless and lazy”

In today’s New York Times, Janet Maslin demolishes two books in one review– Chris Anderson’s Free and Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap. Here’s an excerpt:

Consider Ellen Ruppel Shell’s “Cheap,” Chris Anderson’s “Free” and the story of the one-cent Hershey’s Kiss. This story appears in both books, but the versions are different. Both come from the same source, but these two authors can’t even agree on what to call him….

Mr. Ariely did an experiment that used chocolate to dramatize the difference that a small shift in pricing could make. According to “Cheap” he offered his subjects a choice between the 1-cent Kiss and a 26-cent Ferrero Rocher hazelnut. At those prices the test subjects were divided 40 percent to 40 percent, with 20 percent opting for neither. Then the prices came down by one penny each, and 90 percent of the subjects took the free chocolate. Only 10 percent chose the higher-priced brand.

Off we go to “Free,” playing fast and loose with different facts and telling the story in somewhat zingier fashion. “Note: behavioral economists have limited budgets and limited time,” writes Mr. Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine and author of “The Long Tail.” “So a lot of their experiments involve a folding table, candy and random college students.”

In its “Free” version the non-Kiss candy is a Lindt truffle initially priced at 15 cents while the Kiss cost a penny; 73 percent of subjects chose the truffle and 27 percent picked the Kiss, with nobody abstaining. Then the prices were lowered by 1 cent each, and 69 percent of the subjects chose the free Kiss. Mr. Anderson doesn’t bother to account for the rest of the sample group, but he does use a quotation from Mr. Ariely to bolster the case that his “Free” makes: “Zero is not just another price, it turns out. Zero is an emotional hot button — a source of irrational excitement.”

Irrational is an apt word, what with the above-mentioned discrepancies. But what’s the upshot of either version of the experiment? And which book can be trusted? Bear in mind that Mr. Anderson has lately been called to task for making uncredited use of free Wikipedia material….

So neither author is entirely to be trusted. Neither was well-advised to use that chocolate story. And neither has written a book that is as sharp as its one-word catchy title….

Mr. Anderson peers into the future and aims his arguments at the business world. Here is what he means by “Free”: If you want to know what he really thinks, you’re going to have to pay for more than his book. He acknowledges that he is giving his book away online, as well as selling it at the not-free price of $26.99, so he can be hired for much more lucrative speaking and consulting jobs.

“I’ve got a lot of kids, and college isn’t getting any cheaper,” he writes. He is sufficiently crass, reckless and lazy to have had someone else read the science-fiction books he uses to illustrate the perils of scarcity and abundance.

Still, Mr. Anderson has come up with a lively conversation piece. Even when the particulars of his argument are easily assailable, the gist is clear: Now that a cornucopia of Internet material has been made available without fee, and in some cases without scruples, the smart business must find ways to adapt to that new reality….

But after beating the drum for giveaways throughout most of his book, Mr. Anderson eventually acknowledges that his idea is in fact not viable. Such are the perils of his sloppily constructed sweeping argument. No, he doesn’t envision an economy based entirely on giveaways. “Free may be the best price, but it can’t be the only one,” he says. He advocates the balancing of differently priced versions for different markets, acknowledging that this tricky balance is not easily achieved….

Here are links to my two previous blog posts about Chris Anderson:

“Can’t decide which is more embarrassing– failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

“Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism”

UPDATE 7/23/09: Today the New York Times printed a correction to Janet Maslin’s review:

The Books of The Times review on July 6, about “Cheap,” by Ellen Ruppel Shell, and “Free,” by Chris Anderson, referred incompletely to experiments involving chocolate conducted by Daniel Ariely and cited in the books. The experiments, in which subjects were offered two different chocolates at different prices, and then offered one at a lower price and one free, were similar but not the same. The books did not describe the same experiment.

Since the original combined review was published, the Times has also published positive separate reviews of each book by different reviewers:

Virginia Postrel’s July 10th review of Free

Laura Shapiro’s July 16th review of Cheap

“Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism”

There’s been a lot of commentary in the blogosphere about the “Chris Anderson plagiarizing from Wikipedia” kerfuffle. (See my previous post for a recap.) There are too many apologists for Anderson and his use (or misuse) of Wikipedia, and even some criticisms have missed the forest for the trees. Let me spell it out:

  • It is simply not acceptable to quote or paraphrase from Wikipedia when writing a book or doing serious research. Wikipedia is a tertiary source, and a deeply flawed one at that. If high school students aren’t allowed to quote or paraphrase from Wikipedia or traditional encyclopedias, it is absurd to think that it’s acceptable for the author of a book to do so. It is not only intellectual laziness of the highest order, it ignores Wikipedia’s own warnings about its limitations and appropriate use. As I quoted in my previous post: “Most educators and professionals do not consider it appropriate to use tertiary sources such as encyclopedias as a sole source for any information… Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research. As with any community-built reference, there is a possibility for error in Wikipedia’s content — please check your facts against multiple sources….”
  • If you insist on using Wikipedia, you must track down the original reference sources cited and verify the information. Errors (including transcription mistakes) in the original Wikipedia entries that Anderson used are reproduced in his own writing, meaning he never looked at the original cited sources, and he apparently didn’t verify or fact-check the information with additional primary or secondary sources. [Note to Chris Anderson:  If you don’t have the time to do the research and check sources yourself, you can hire a freelance researcher or journalist to either do it for you or check your work before publication.]
  • It is ridiculous for Anderson to claim that he removed his footnotes because he was “unable to find a good citation format for web sources.” As I mentioned in my previous post, there are many authoritative citation standards which can easily be found in style manuals and websites. Even Wikipedia itself gives you nine different citation formats (including Chicago and MLA) for each entry. Anderson says his publisher insisted on a timestamp for each URL, which Anderson found “clumsy and archaic,” so he cut out the footnotes. WRONG!  And don’t even get me started on the whole “write-through” thing.
  • Given Anderson’s background and his role as editor-in-chief of Wired, I find this all rather shocking, and it makes me wonder about the editorial standards of Anderson himself, his magazine, and his book publisher (Hyperion).

Yesterday Seth Simonds, in a delightfully snarky post titled “Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism,” demonstrated (with screen shots and step-by-step instructions) what Anderson could (and should) have done to find a source listed in a Wikipedia entry. Here’s an excerpt:

Anderson took a last-minute 5th grade approach to writing. He found the Wikipedia listing for “Usury” and pasted the text into his manuscript…

5 Steps From Wikipedia To A Reliable Source…

Step 1: Find the citation link for the portion of the Wikipedia article you’d like to quote. (Don’t quote it. Not even if you’re a famous editor and you’re really busy.)

A. Click on citation link in the Wikipedia article.

B. Identify the key portions of the citation. In this case, author last name and date of publication.

Step 2: After finding the citation, launch a web search including the author name and original search term. Many bloggers would stop at the citation of Moehlman and use a “^Moehlman, 1934, page 7” attribution. As a professional editor conducting research for a print publication, I’m holding Anderson to a higher standard. Note: pasting from Wikipedia is a bad idea because you’re trusting a stranger’s transcription. Don’t be lazy…

“Can’t decide which is more embarrassing — failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

From the Virginia Quarterly Review blog, a post by Waldo Jaquith titled “Chris Anderson’s Free Contains Apparent Plagiarism”:

In the course of reading Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion, $26.99), for a review in an upcoming issue of VQR, we have discovered almost a dozen passages that are reproduced nearly verbatim from uncredited sources. These instances were identified after a cursory investigation, after I checked by hand several dozen suspect passages in the whole of the 274-page book. This was not an exhaustive search, since I don’t have access to an electronic version of the book. Most of the passages, but not all, come from Wikipedia. Anderson is the author of the best-selling 2006 book The Long Tail and is the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The official publication date for Free is July 7.

Examples of the passages in question follow. The words and phrases that are found in both Free and the apparent original source are highlighted…

Though reproducing words or original ideas from any uncredited source is widely defined as plagiarism, using text from Wikipedia presents an even more significant problem than reproducing traditional copyrighted text. Under Wikipedia’s Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license, Anderson would be required to credit all contributors to the quoted passages, license his modifications under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license, note that the original work has been modified, and provide the text of or a link to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Anderson has not done any of these things in Free.

Anderson responded personally to a request for comments about how this unattributed text came to appear in his book, providing the following remarks by e-mail:

All those are my screwups after we decided not to run notes as planned, due to my inability to find a good citation format for web sources…

This all came about once we collapsed the notes into the copy. I had the original sources footnoted, but once we lost the footnotes at the 11th hour, I went through the document and redid all the attributions, in three groups:

* Long passages of direct quotes (indent, with source)

* Intellectual debts, phrases and other credit due (author credited inline, as with Michael Pollan)

* In the case of source material without an individual author to credit (as in the case of Wikipedia), do a write-through.

Obviously in my rush at the end I missed a few of that last category, which is bad. As you’ll note, these are mostly on the margins of the book’s focus, mostly on historical asides, but that’s no excuse. I should have had a better process to make sure the write-through covered all the text that was not directly sourced.

I think what we’ll do is publish those notes after all, online as they should have been to begin with. That way the links are live and we don’t have to wrestle with how to freeze them in time, which is what threw me in the first place….

5:15 p.m. update: Hyperion has provided us with the following statement.

We are completely satisfied with Chris Anderson’s response. It was an unfortunate mistake, and we are working with the author to correct these errors both in the electronic edition before it posts, and in all future editions of the book.

Hyperion says that they intend to have the notes online by the time that the book is published.

Make sure you also read the comments to the post, which are fascinating, especially the smackdown between Chris Anderson and Edward Champion.

Carolyn Kellogg, in the LA Times Jacket Copy blog, comments:

As citations for Web sources have been established for some time, this seems an odd explanation from Anderson, who is no publishing novice. His previous book, “The Long Tail,” was a bestseller, and he is currently editor in chief of Wired magazine…

The lack of attribution may indeed have been a combination of mistake and lack of oversight. But as one commenter on Gawker lamented, “Can’t decide which is more embarrassing — failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”

Wikipedia is one of the resources Anderson lauds — in “The Long Tail,” he called it a phenomenon. In this one, he writes, “there is the amazing ‘gift economy’ of Wikipedia,” later explaining, “Wikipedia makes no money at all, but because an incomparable information resource is now available to all at no cost, our own ability to make money armed with more knowledge is improved.”

The whole point of Anderson’s “Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price” is to explore what he calls “the paradox of Free,” in which “people are making lots of money and charging nothing.”

Anderson’s hardcover costs $26.99. Wikipedia is still free.

And within hours, Anderson’s Wikipedia’s entry had been updated — with attribution — to reflect the charges of plagiarism. Updates to “Free” are expected to take a while. Which proves Anderson’s point — I think.

Edward Champion decided to investigate himself:

Unfortunately, I have learned that the VQR’s investigations only begin to scratch the surface. A cursory plunge into the book’s contents reveals that Anderson has not only cribbed material from Wikipedia and websites (sometimes without accreditation), but that he has a troubling habit of mentioning a book or an author and using this as an excuse to reproduce the content with very few changes — in some cases, nearly verbatim.

By the way, recent editions of style manuals contain detailed information on how to cite websites and online sources, most notably the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. (See my post “The writer’s bookshelf (part 3)” for more information on style manuals.)

Update 1: Today Chris Anderson posted an explanation on his blog:

First, as readers of my writings know, I’m a supporter of using Wikipedia as a source (not the only one, of course, and checking the original source material whenever possible). I disagree with those who say it should never be used. But the question is how to use it.

In my drafts, I had intended to blockquote Wikipedia passages, footnoting their URL. But my publisher, like many others, was uncomfortable with the changing nature of Wikipedia, and wanted me to timestamp each URL… which struck me as clumsy and archaic… [I]n most cases I did do a writethrough of the non-quoted Wikipedia text, although clearly I didn’t go nearly far enough and too much of the original Wikipedia authors’ language remained… This was sloppy and inexcusable, but the part I feel worst about is that in our failure to find a good way to cite Wikipedia as the source we ended up not crediting it at all. That is, among other things, an injustice to the authors of the Wikipedia entry who had done such fine research in the first place, and I’d like to extend a special apology to them….

This is totally lame. Somewhere Research Cat is crying…

Update 2: My husband pointed out that every Wikipedia entry has a link called “Cite this page,” which contains permanent page links and nine different citation styles, including Chicago, MLA, etc. Here’s the citation page for the Wikipedia article on Chris Anderson. Please note what’s written at the top of the page:

IMPORTANT NOTE: Most educators and professionals do not consider it appropriate to use tertiary sources such as encyclopedias as a sole source for any information — citing an encyclopedia as an important reference in footnotes or bibliographies may result in censure or a failing grade. Wikipedia articles should be used for background information, as a reference for correct terminology and search terms, and as a starting point for further research.

As with any community-built reference, there is a possibility for error in Wikipedia’s content — please check your facts against multiple sources and read our disclaimers for more information.

Unlike Jeff Bezos, I love the physical book

I live my life surrounded by books. My husband and I have thousands of them, old and new, in bookcases covering the walls of nearly every room of our house.

Our books are more than just texts. They are artifacts that express who we are and what’s important to us. They are time capsules that can take us back to a particular memory or moment in time. They are symbols of our relationships– with each other, with friends, and with the authors who inscribed their books to us. They are unique, collaborative works of art, a marriage of ideas, language, typography, illustration, and design.

Yes, physical books are heavy and sometimes awkward to handle in bed, but they do have certain advantages over ebooks. They can be read anywhere, anytime, without a special device– no worries about breaking or losing your reader or the batteries dying. There are no problems with formatting, DRM, technological obsolescence, or preservation for future generations. When I am finished reading a book, I can give it to my husband to read, donate it to my local library, or sell it and use the money to buy more books. When doing research, I can have multiple books open in front of me at the same time and easily browse through them.  (Browsing is very different from searching, and it often leads to unexpected and valuable discoveries. Format has an influence on the reading experience and the way we find and process information.)

I am not anti-ebook– I would love to have a Kindle DX if I could afford one. It would be a pleasure to travel with a Kindle instead of bag full of books, or to be able to download digital books instantly. But ebooks could never completely replace all of my physical books. I can’t replicate on a digital reader the experience of browsing through a facsimile of Shakespeare’s First Folio or a book with beautiful illustrations or photographs, or reading a colorful children’s picture book with my niece and nephew. I wouldn’t be able to share books I love or useful reference works with Matt unless we both have readers and there aren’t DRM restrictions on the works. And I just can’t imagine not having a bookcase filled with every different edition and translation of my husband’s novels, with their colorful and wildly different dust jackets, or the books inscribed to us by our author friends.

There are books you just want to read, and there are books you want to collect. Physical books and ebooks have different advantages and disadvantages, so there shouldn’t be a fight to the death between the two formats– there’s room for both. It would be great to always have both available and be able to choose each book in whichever format would be best for the individual reader. And I can see a lot of situations where I’d want both. I love the beautifully designed and illustrated first edition of Quicksilver that Neal Stephenson inscribed to me and Matt, but it would be great to also have a digital copy of the text to read on vacation, as his books weigh a ton. If I had a Kindle, the first things I’d download would be my favorite public domain works, like Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre and the works of Shakespeare, but they wouldn’t replace my physical copies. The real danger to someone like me is that the instant access Kindle gives me to thousands of books, old and new, would be hard to resist.

Why do Jeff Bezos and others who have fully embraced the ebook feel it necessary to dismiss or trash the physical book? Given the state of publishing and the rising influence of digital natives, I can’t help but worry about the future of not only the physical book, but also bookstores and author readings/signings, which help connect authors with readers, and readers with authors.

“We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be…”

In honor of Bloomsday, today’s New York Times has an essay by Colum McCann about how reading Joyce’s Ulysses helped him come to know his grandfather, who died when McCann was 10. It’s a nice expression of the transformative powers of fiction:

The messy layers of human experience get pulled together, and sometimes ordered, by words.

Soon my grandfather was emerging from the novel. The further I went in, the more complex he got. The man whom I had met only once was becoming flesh and blood through the pages of a fiction. After all, he had walked the very same streets of Dublin, on the same day as Leopold Bloom…

The book carried me through to the far side of my body, made me alive in another time. I was 10 years old again, but this time I knew my grandfather, and it was a moment of gain: he was so much more than a forgotten drunk.

Vladimir Nabokov once said that the purpose of storytelling is “to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”

This is the function of books — we learn how to live even if we weren’t there. Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.

“I am drawn to borderlands and to the people who inhabit them…”

The io9 website, in an article called “4 Authors We Wish Would Return to Science Fiction,” has interesting statements from Nicola Griffith, Karen Joy Fowler, Mary Doria Russell, and Samuel R. Delany about the role of genre in their writing. (I am a big fan of all three women and their books, but I confess I have not yet read anything by Mr. Delany.)

Here are some of the quotes I found particularly interesting.

Mary Doria Russell:

SF and historical fiction make similar demands on an author. They both require you to imagine as fully as possible a time and place that are not your own. In all my novels, there is an ironic and distanced narrator who knows a lot more than the characters about their past and future. And there is always an awareness of the contemporary limitations of technology and ideology, and of how those limitations affects lives…

[I]ntellectually, I am drawn to borderlands and to the people who inhabit them: marginal natives, newcomers, travelers, people who don’t fit and who therefore have an interestingly slanted view of the cultures they inhabit. Remember: I was an anthropologist long before I was a novelist. We are trained to seek out marginal natives; no one can give you a better perspective on aspects of culture that statistically normal people simply accept as, well, normal.

Admittedly: I have turned out to be kind of a genre slut. I will stand on the literary street corner and get into any genre that drives by and offers to take me to a good par-tay. And sometimes I don’t go home with the one who brung me to the dance…

So I guess what this all adds up to is: who gives a shit about labels? I write about what fascinates me, and I use whatever tools seem best suited to do the job at hand. What happens after that is marketing.

Karen Joy Fowler:

1) I don’t set out to write in any genre; that’s just not my working method. I start with whatever I have, some tiny incoherent image that I hope to make into a story. And then I take what I need to make that story work. Maybe what I need comes from science fiction, but maybe not. I won’t know until I write it.

2) I’m really interested in genre and draw a lot of energy from it. So even if the things I write aren’t, strictly speaking, genre piece, they all seem to be in conversation with genre in some way. (I like mysteries as much as I like sf, by the way.)

3) What I love most about science fiction is the short fiction. Almost all my short fiction spins around a science fictional idea even if the resulting story isn’t quite sf. Charles Brown of Locus told me once that I’m a science fiction writer because I think like a science fiction writer and I was enormously flattered and hope that’s true.

4) But even if it is, mystery writing with its emphasis on plot and sf writing with its emphasis on tech don’t really play to my strengths…

…I’m always writing for sf readers. Science fiction readers enjoy figuring things out and don’t mind being puzzled for long stretches. They read in a very active way. And that’s the way I read and those are the readers I’m trying to please…

Stan Robinson says we all live in a science fiction novel now and it’s clearly true. So I truly believe that science fiction is realism now and literary realism is a nostalgic literature about a place where we once lived, but no longer do.

Nicola Griffith:

I’m a native of sf. You can’t leave that kind of thing behind. Just as everyone I meet in the US knows I’m English, everyone who reads my work knows I’m a skiffy geek. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been away; my English sf upbringing colours my accent, my attitude, my vocabulary. It’s who I am…

*****

These writers, like many of my favorites (including my husband), write across different genres so they can tell the stories they want to tell, in the way they want to tell them.

I remember there was a bit of controversy when Matt won the 2003 James Tiptree Jr. award (for works that explore gender in science fiction or fantasy) for Set This House in Order, as some people questioned whether the book was science fiction. Matt addressed this in his acceptance speech, first with a joke (“Is Set This House in Order science fiction? Or as Margaret Atwood might say: ‘Hey! Where’s the spaceship?'”), then with a detailed explanation of what he was trying to do with the book and why he believed that “though it may not be SF in the strictest sense, it is at least SFnal in its methods and its goals…”:

[The premise of the novel] lit up all the same enthusiasm circuits that a good science-fiction premise would have… I decided early on to write the book as a  “what if” novel: to simply accept certain premises as true, and focus my creative energy on exploring the implications of those premises. My goal was to tell an entertaining story that was believable and internally consistent. I’d take accuracy if and where I could get it, but the point was to provide food for thought, not definitive answers…

Another strategy, which I learned from science-fiction writers, is to write the speculative parts of the story in such a way that they remain intriguing even if the premises on which they are based ultimately turn out to be fantasy. As Ray Bradbury demonstrated with The Martian Chronicles, and as Mary Shelley demonstrated way, way back in the day with Frankenstein, the logic of dreams can remain compelling even after we have awakened….

“The small details of common life give actuality, aliveness, and thickness to a historical story…”

John Crowley, the author I blogged about last month, has written an excellent essay for the Powell’s Books website on doing historical research for his new novel, Four Freedoms. Here’s an excerpt:

How much did a condom cost in 1944? What did the package look like? Where could one be bought? Were there machines in the toilets (we called them toilets) of bars, as there were in the late 1950s? I was writing a novel about the U.S. home front in World War II (Four Freedoms, just out), and I needed to know. Why not just skip the detail, and say, “He bought a condom” or “He produced a condom”? Because the small details of common life give actuality, aliveness, and thickness to a historical story in the same way they do to a present-day story. The difference is you have to go find the details of the past; you can’t just draw on experience.

The writers of historical fictions, just like real historians, do (or ought to do) a huge amount of research before beginning on their works, and then continue doing research until the very end. They are, however, often looking for different stuff. The reasons for things, the reasons that people believed they had for acting as they did, the forces pressing on them that they dimly grasped or didn’t, a chronology that puts cause before effect — that (I imagine) is what the historian spends her research time looking for. Except when tiny details of action matter very much (at exactly what hour was that telegram sent?), the minutiae of dress and dinner, how a character spent his morning or evening, the maker of her gown and how much it cost, aren’t the goal. The fiction researcher’s work is the opposite, or mirror image (as historical fiction is the mirror of history — the same stuff but not). What the fiction researcher wants is masses of actual detail, whether pertaining to his characters (if his characters are historical) or to others like them. He cares less what everybody did, or what masses of people did, than about what was possible to do. He cares less about what an actual person did than what any person could have done: could someone like the one I am imagining have thought this thought, owned this gun, remembered this event, worn this hat? He needs the stuff to help him make a world of the past that is as believable as one made out of the present.

Of course, writers of fiction can be more or less conscientious about their research. (Though, they can’t be exposed as frauds if they get the details, or even the big picture, wrong; they start out as frauds.) Some care a lot, others less; Walter Scott, who in a sense invented the historical novel, often footnoted his stories, to back up his inventions with evidence. Fiction writers can always claim that detailed research is unnecessary or peripheral to their work — but they can no longer claim that it’s too hard. I don’t know if the Internet in all its glory and some of its shame has changed things utterly for professional historians — if it has, they may not be telling — but it has made research for a writer of historical fiction a piece of cake: that sweet, that delightful, that filling.

And it’s not only Google and Project Gutenberg and JSTOR. I used those tools almost every day, following leads from place to place and having strange adventures with collectors, memoirists, visionaries, merchants, and obsessives (try writing anything about old cars, railroads, airplanes, World War II, or comic books, without turning them up). But I also had the help of the readers of my blog (John Crowley Little and Big on Live Journal), who are an inordinately smart bunch, I think, and ready to go look things up and bring them in. We’ve had some wonderful interchanges — like the time I needed to know how much a condom cost in 1944…

The great danger in all historical research, for the lover of trivia and oddity, is distraction; it’s one of the rewards, too….

You can read the whole essay, titled “The Accu-Thump of Googletarity,” here.

Are you a Bad Monkey?

“So in your job with Bad Monkeys,” the doctor asks, “what is it you do? Punish evil people?”

“No. Usually we just kill them.”

My husband, Matt Ruff, has just announced via his blog that the movie rights have been optioned for his most recent novel, Bad Monkeys. (WOOT!)

You can read more about the book (including the first chapter, reviews, and Q&A) on the Bad Monkeys page of Matt’s website.

“That’s one of the many reasons I love writing historical fictions. The research is fun.”

The fabulous Justine Larbalestier has been blogging and answering questions from readers about her research and writing processes. She’s currently working on a novel set in 1930s New York City, so she’s been immersing herself in historical research and having lots of fun (well, except for the Lindy Hop situation).

Here are links to a few of her posts for your reading pleasure:

I really enjoyed Justine’s last YA novel, How to Ditch Your Fairy, and she has a new YA novel coming out in September called Liar.

“I just love looking at old pictures of people who are now dead.”

My thanks to Gwenda Bond for the tip about the fascinating interview with author John Crowley in the current issue of The Believer magazine.

John Crowley has been a major influence on so many writers (including my husband, Matt Ruff), and he’s written nearly a dozen novels, including The Translator, the four-book Ægypt cycle, and Little, Big, one of Matt’s favorite books, which he described as  “a sprawling family chronicle that William Faulkner might have written, if he’d written about fairies.”

Here are some of John’s comments on research from the interview:

BLVR: So many of your books have a strong research element to them, whether it’s written into them with characters who are themselves researchers, like Pierce Moffett, the main character of Ægypt, who scours the world finding materials for his own book, or simply because the novels themselves are obviously the result of meticulous, extensive research. What’s the relationship, if any, between research you do for your novels and doing research for documentaries? Do they feed off one another in any way?

JC: Maybe I just have a taste for research. Most of the films that I have worked on and enjoyed doing have been based on archival footage. And I’ve found that I just love looking at old footage. I just love looking at old pictures of people who are now dead. There’s something intensely attractive and gripping in looking at these pictures of people who are gone…

I don’t know whether this research actually combines with my writing, but I do know that there is a real thrill to it. I’ve completed a book [Four Freedoms] set in the 1940s about people who are building a bomber in a war production plant, and the research I’ve done for that offers the same kind of fascination with the lives of ordinary people. You can find lots of memoirs of people who worked in these factories, especially women, how they felt about it, what they did every day, how their husbands viewed it, how scared they were to go to work, how they learned to do things they thought they never would. It’s enormously touching.

BLVR: Did you dig through even older materials for the Ægypt quartet? Did you look at old manuscripts? Was there any tactile element to your research?

JC: [Laughs] Not really. I did handle a few old books but I never went into it to that degree. There was never the kind of experience that I ascribe to some of the characters in those books, where they actually go in and palpate old books and turn old dusty leaves and things like that. Most of that, I have to say, I constructed for them to experience. Most of my research for those books came out of secondary sources; a lot of the books I read are full of printed reproductions of old imagery and texts, and I enjoyed looking at those. But I never did the kind of deep manuscript research that might have given me that kind of a thrill. Somehow I felt I was doing enough just creating all the universe around them!

John has more to say on research, genre, his books, and other subjects, so read the whole interview.

By the way, John has a blog, and his new novel, Four Freedoms, will be published at the end of this month. Matt and I heard John read from the manuscript when he came to Seattle last year, so we are very excited about reading the book.

Google and antitrust and censorship, oh my!

Lots of interesting book-related news, articles, and posts over the last week or so:

You can still register for my Research for Writers class

Registration is still open for my May 9th Research for Writers class at Richard Hugo House in Seattle.

Here’s the class description:

Research is an important part of the creative process for writers of fiction and nonfiction. Research can help with inspiration, storytelling and world building whether you are writing about the past, present or future, about life on earth or an imaginary world. The instructor will share advice about research, discuss the kinds of research writers may need to do and help students find useful sources of information in print, on the Web, in libraries and in unexpected places.

The class will be from 1pm to 5pm on Saturday, May 9th, and the cost is $95 ($85.50 for Hugo House members).  You can register online or by phone, mail, or fax.  Here are links to the spring 2009 course catalog and registration information.

Update (4/28): Thanks to Cory Doctorow’s BoingBoing post, my May 9th class is almost full. I checked with Hugo House this afternoon and there is one spot left. (Due to a glitch, their website lists the class as full, so you’ll have to call them at 206-322-7030 to register.)

“Let the wild rumpus start!”

Here’s a cute video of President Obama reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are to a group of children at the White House on Easter:

Wouldn’t it be great if Obama could do this every week? A Presidential book club for kids!

Thanks to MobyLives for the tip.

Amazon acknowledges its “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error”

On Monday afternoon, Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener released this statement about the AmazonFail fiasco to the LA Times and other media outlets:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

Various sources are reporting that rankings have been restored to some of the affected books. I just spot-checked the specific titles I mentioned in my last blog post, and as I write this some have had their ranking restored, but most have not. Let’s see how long it takes to fix them all. Fixing the damage to Amazon’s reputation and restoring the trust and goodwill that’s been lost will take a lot longer and require more than just this PR statement. That Amazon has not handled this well is a monumental understatement. It would help if they issued an actual apology that showed some understanding or acknowledgment of why the Internet and Twitter exploded. It may have been an unintentional error, but the results and implications of that error and Amazon’s late and inadequate response caused pain to authors and readers alike and felt like a betrayal to those of us who’ve been Amazon customers for years. You can fix this, Amazon. Please try. Hard.

I’ll leave you with one last link for now: Kelley Eskridge’s great post on her Humans at Work blog about the management lessons to be learned from Amazonfail.

Update: On Monday night the Seattle P-I posted “AmazonFail: An inside look at what happened“:

I’ve spoken to an Amazon.com employee who works closely with the systems involved in the glitch… On Sunday afternoon at least 20 Amazon.com employees were paged alerting them that items, possibly many, were incorrectly being flagged as adult. The employees also received links to the Twitter discussion AmazonFail. Thousands of people were angry that gay-themed books had disappeared from Amazon’s sales rankings and search algorithms…

By this time, Amazon.com had upgraded the problem to Sev-1. (Amazon.com breaks down its operational issues in terms of severity levels. Sev-3 means a problem affects a single user. Sev-2 is a problem that affects a company, or a lot of people. Sev-1 is reserved for the most critical operational issues and often are sent up the management chain to the senior vice president level.)

“People got pulled away from their Easter thing when this whole thing broke,” the employee said. “It was just a screwup.”

Amazon.com employees are on call 24/7, and many began working on the problem from home. It didn’t take much digging to realize that there was a data error.

Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as “adult,” the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from ‘false’ to ‘true.’)

“It’s no big policy change, just some field that’s been around forever filled out incorrectly,” the source said.

New Update (April 14): All of the books I listed in my original blog post have had their sales ranking restored.