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On the Internet, with the Exploded Text
Posted By Jessamyn West On March 9, 2011 @ 6:00 am In Uncategorized | Comments Disabled
I wrote a book in 2009 and 2010. It’s getting published this year (2011) sometime. Let me tell you about what it’s like writing a print book for a large trade publisher during the long leisurely sunset of print. It was different from what I thought it would be.
I teach people how to use computers as one of my many jobs. While I mostly do this in a high school setting lately, the lessons I’ve learned are applicable to libraries. I do a little public speaking about this for libraries and librarians, giving tips and examples and suggestions. I’ve also maintained a library-oriented blog since 1999 and I’ve written for many of the major library publications. Libraries Unlimited, a division of ABC-CLIO, asked me if I would consider writing a book, assembling some of my tech instruction suggestions with the research I’ve done into digital divide and library issues. I said yes. What’s a little more writing about a subject I’m passionate about? I’m happy to say that I’m still passionate about digital divide issues and now also passionate, in a somewhat different direction, about writing for print. Here is my story.
I’ve been following the hand-wavey “Is print dead?” discussions that have been going on online pretty much since there was an online. I’m a print fan myself, for no particular reason. I have an online job so I like getting offline to read a book in bed. I like having something on the plane that I can use during takeoff and landing. I like the fact that most of the books that I want to read are books that I can get through the library or paperbackswap.com and are free as in beer. I also like owning, not licensing, the books that I purchase. You like digital books, that’s fine with me, a lot of people do. iPads and Kindles are making readers out of people who don’t otherwise read much, giving voracious readers one more platform for content, and starting new debates in the perennial “What is a book?” discussions that have plagued library schools since time immemorial.
I am personally very interested in watching how libraries manage the shift to having more digital content in their collections. This is partly because I’m interested in how the world of content licensing and DRM will shake itself out over time, but also because interacting with digital content is itself a digital divide issue. When I saw in my book’s publication data that it was “available on the World Wide Web as an eBook” I was curious. Not just because of the terribly antiquated phrasing and capitalization of that phrase, but also because I had no idea what it meant. Was it available for Kindle? Or in epub format? Could I get a digital copy of it? Would I have to pay for it? Would my copy of my book expire?
I’ve been looking for the tipping point, the point at which people in my personal peer group are interacting more with digital texts than print texts. I’m interested in the idea of “exploded texts,” the idea that when you take excerpts and blurbs and pullquotes from larger works and start zipping them around the internet, the individual sentences and phrases take on a life of their own. This fascinates me from a postmodern perspective, but I’m also concerned about the impact that it will have on research and how we look at the idea of a “work” and associated concepts like authority and citations. One of the things my editor required from me when I did this book was footnotes to the resources I mentioned (in addition to the bibliography) done up in full formal citations. I did some grousing about this at the time—I wanted to just include a list of URLs since most of it was reports that were online—but was happy when I was finally done with the citation formatting. My work looked like research. It looked real.
There are some strong voices claiming that the “exploded text” construction so prevalent in Twitter and Facebook updates, the churning only-sometimes-cited reblogging encouraged by platforms such as Tumblr, are doing a grand disservice to both our attention span and the nature of reference and research. Michael Gorman, former ALA president, went on a bit of an anti-2.0 crusade a few years ago. His issue was not, in and of itself, about print vs. electronic texts. He stated:
The difference is not, emphatically not, in the communication technology involved. Print does not necessarily bestow authenticity, and an increasing number of digital resources do not, by themselves, reflect an increase in expertise. The task before us is to extend into the digital world the virtues of authenticity, expertise, and scholarly apparatus that have evolved over the 500 years of print, virtues often absent in the manuscript age that preceded print.
His argument was that many if not most digital venues lacked the authenticity and gravitas that print bestowed almost automatically. Personally, I think the more likely scenario is, similar to the ongoing expansion of what it means to be a library, we’re having to reconceptualize the idea of what it means to do research. I remember being in the U.S. post-9/11 and listening to people talking about the “research” they were doing online into what happened, or their particular interest area surrounding current events. I admit, my first response was, “Doing exhaustive Google searches isn’t research!” But then I eased into a more relaxed, “Doing exhaustive Google searches isn’t all there is to research.”
I’m not threatened by other people getting good at searching Google, though I like people to understand that the actual world of research is complex and sometimes means going somewhere where you have to find things with your eyes and not your keyboard. I recently went to visit a library in Massachusetts that had an extensive genealogy section. I have some relatives from the 1800s who lived in Massachusetts and I went poking around in some of the local history books. I was delighted to find an entry for my great-great-grandfather, with accompanying pithy quotations and information about his several wives.
I was all set to make a photocopy and perhaps stick it in a folder somewhere in a filing cabinet when I realized that it was the same book that I’d accessed earlier in the year via Heritage Quest, and in fact I’d taken a screenshot of the same pages I was now holding in my hands and uploaded it to Geni.com. While I was surrounded by many other print resources—cemetery listings, local phone books—that I’m sure were not in Heritage Quest, it was interesting for me to note that the most relevant document to me in the entire library was online and keyword searchable, if I knew where to look for it. Which I did. And it’s this sort of thing that makes me unconcerned about the future of our profession. We know where to look.
Relatedly, I had put a few other old family photos and scans up on Flickr. I received an email from a woman who was the great-granddaughter of my great-grandfather’s childhood friend. She had found my photo while doing a Google keyword search for a place her family used to own and found a photo I’d uploaded using a relevant word in one of the tags. She emailed me a few photos of my great-grandfather when he was a boy, photos that no one in my family had ever seen before, photos that had never been published in any book, photos that I could upload and share with my family. So, this is a roundabout way of saying that I think there are benefits to the atomization of content and the Googlization of everything, provided that we’re properly contextualizing everything. And we know what we’re doing.
Back to the book. I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to write for print anymore. In the tech circles I travel in, people just don’t buy or read print books, especially textbook or non-fiction titles. Heck, I suspect most people won’t even read this, and it’s 3% the length of my book. At the same time, the public libraries I work in are doing a brisk and growing business circulating all manner of print and digital media. More often during my computer drop-in time lately, I’ll be interacting with an adult student with a Kindle or an MP3 player and a host of related questions that are tough to answer if you don’t know anyone else with a similar device.
That said, the tech world changes rapidly and I was wary of spending a lot of time writing something that would be out of date by the time it was actually in print. This was not a totally out-there presumption. I was initially contacted about this book in April 2009. Facebook wasn’t yet in the black and had just purchased FriendFeed. The iPad was almost a year away from production. And yet, I figured novice users would still be novice users, librarians would still be helping them, and general information and encouragement would still be useful. Also I was confident that someone wasn’t going to suddenly invent an email system that was free and easy for everyone to use. Sure enough, they haven’t.
Here is the timeline for the project, so far. The publication date is estimated but approximate.
My last concern at this level was just motivation. I’m lucky in my choice of avocations. I’m well-paid and compensated. We all know that outside of a few best-selling authors, no one writes books to get paid. However you do still often write books to get tenure; I do not, however, need tenure. This month, March 2011, marks the first month since Revolting Librarians Redux was printed in 2003 that I have not received some sort of a royalty check. That is, I received a note saying there would be no check this half-year cycle. I’ve made $2,371.65 writing that book, and we had a decent contract in my opinion. My current contract is fairly standard in the library world. Nothing up front, a percentage of the cover price, oh and I have to either write my own index or pay to have someone do it. I was lucky with Revolting Librarians Redux in that my co-editor was a handy indexer and he did our index himself. A good index costs in the $750 range and I feel somewhat guilty for getting a friend to do mine for cheap. Guiltier as time went on and the pages got rearranged even after she was already at work on them.
After I said yes and received the contract to sign, I did what any writer should do and had a lawyer friend look it over for me. I mentioned this to my publisher-to-be and they reminded me that “we are just a small professional publisher.” I found this amusing since, to my mind, they were the big corporation and I was the small independent writer. My lawyer said the contract was okay. I made a few changes such as refusing “derivative database rights” and disallowing republishing the work in “condensed or abridged” formats. I also secured the rights to use my own style guide for spelling and formatting of technology terms. I had spoken recently to a friend who had gone through a fairly troublesome time with her copyeditor who rewrote a lot of her text using some antiquated style guide which made all her technology writing appear stilted. It’s a tough position. Style guides tend to reflect what’s been codified and yet especially with tech writing, the language is evolving more quickly than the guides. Though we need some standards, don’t we? I’ve written recently for a major library publisher whose in-house style guide requires the use of http:// before web addresses that don’t start with www and no http:// before web addresses that begin with www. This makes list of URLs look crazy. And, to my mind, unprofessional.
I had been asked to do a book on a similar topic previously by another publisher, and the sticking point was that they could offer no guarantees that they’d be able to publish the words the way I wrote them. I appreciated their candor but I decided I needed somewhat more control. Libraries Unlimited offered to let me use my own stylesheet, as long as I used it consistently, and while they didn’t let me give final approval on the cover (Revolting Librarians Redux almost had a cover designed by an intern described as “a really good drawer” before I stepped in and did it myself) they were nice about letting me know what they had in mind. I love the cover, as it turns out.
The larger issue turned out to be, no surprise, a copyright one. Even though my contract was crystal clear about my being responsible for any illegal thing my book did or suggested, I was still asked to get permissions for all of my screen shots. For those of you with a background in copyright issues, there’s this thing called Fair Use (pdf) that allows for this sort of thing in a fairly codified set of circumstances. That said, the only way to really be sure your use qualifies as Fair Use is for it to withstand a legal challenge. My publishers are, unsurprisingly, lawsuit-averse. I, on the other hand, am not. I am in fact waiting for the day when the MPAA sues a public library for putting the name of a movie they’re showing in the newspaper. That will be a nice PR circus. So my publisher and I had a bit of a stand-off when I asserted
I went through the motions of trying to get permission for screenshots anyhow. Someone at ALA insisted, when asked, that I needed permission to publish a screenshot from their website. I went the “If Mom says no, ask Dad” route and found someone else at ALA willing to allow me to use it as long as I gave proper credits. Ultimately we were left with one contested screenshot: Facebook. I went through Facebook’s forms asking for permission. I got a note back a week later saying I hadn’t filled in the form correctly. I filled it in again and waited. My publisher wanted to hold off using the image until we heard from them. They asked if I’d just consider not using the image “to make things easier.” I said no, I’d wait. And we waited. And at some point they got tired of waiting and said okay (or didn’t say no) and the book went into production. I never heard back from Facebook. At some point I also noticed that my contract had a typo and said I was supposed to deliver 250,000 words instead of the agreed-upon 90,000. I emailed a cautious query: this was wrong, right? My editor assured me it was a misprint and that I should just cross it out and write in the correct number. So my legally binding document was maybe a little suspect. The rest of it looked fine though… pretty sure.
The funny joke about all of this, really, was how many technical issues we ran up against in this process. I’m the computer lady and yet I was adrift in a sea of new technologies and expectations, often working with people who only knew the software well enough to use it, not explain it. I use a Mac and my publisher appeared to be using a PC so their very specific instructions to me such as “Click on the ‘comment’ button in the lower left” didn’t actually map to the version of the software that I was using. I suddenly realized why there were still authors who wrote in longhand: they could skip this whole process.
I tried to be the most gracious tech novice that I knew how to be, but I was a little surprised that the main mode of sending manuscripts back and forth was as a set of documents—I’d sent in one long manuscript and get back eleven individual chapters at varying times—with “track changes” turned on. Sometimes in addition to the track changes feature I’d get certain paragraphs highlighted in various colors. And additional notes in email. It was confusing but I was determined to soldier on. The publisher was also happy, as the process went on, to send me hard copies of the draft I was working on. I have always been a “paperless office” and “save the trees” sort of person, but by the time I was copyediting my second draft the only thing I wanted to do was get away from my computer. So I had my publishers send me my 300+ page manuscript, double-spaced. Twice. I am not proud.
I didn’t own a copy of MS Word. I got one. I didn’t own a copy of Adobe Acrobat Pro. I got one. I am aware of all the free and/or open source alternatives to these pieces of software but I didn’t know, and my publishers didn’t know, if they’d work exactly the same way, and we didn’t have a lot of time to experiment. So I learned, on the fly, how to use track changes and how to make comments on a PDF and how to politely inquire whether the notes I was making could, in fact, be read by the people I was sending them to.
And there were some glitches. I firmly believe that we need to own tech support problems, that it helps no one to say “The computer has issues.” At some point between my second draft and my copyedited draft, my footnotes disappeared, reverted to an earlier version, and appeared at the end of each chapter instead of the end of the book. I had my suspicions about how this happened—something to do with the “by chapter” method of distributing the document—but ultimately what mattered was whether we could fix it. And in order to get the ball rolling, I needed to say, “This needs to be fixed,” and not wonder aloud, “I wonder what happened.” Changes at this point in the game cost money. In fact, I was originally told that changes weren’t allowed, when in fact they were just strongly discouraged.
But let’s talk about money for a bit. One of the other issues that affects the digital divide is money: lack of it, need for it, the power embedded in it. I’m aware that I was able to take the time to write a book because I didn’t have to scramble every day just to have a job to pay my rent. It’s a position of privilege to even have the time to get to tell other people what you think (here as well as in the book). I was also able to eat the costs of new software, postage, phone calls, and especially getting the index done once I’d determined that my doing it myself would be crazy. I did communications and corrections from my various on-the-road locations which, again, I was able to do thanks to ubiquitous wifi and the fact that I own a laptop. If I wanted a good index, people told me I’d need to pay a professional, not just give it my best shot. And so I did (Amy Ranger does top notch work) and then I paid her some more when it became clear that some of the pages were going to move around between the page proofs she got and the final page proofs. Maybe not my fault. Definitely my responsibility. Royalties, when I see them, may show up by the end of 2011, if at all. Maybe next time I’ll ask for an advance, but I don’t really see the library publishing market being really generous with the advances. I suspect that this book will, if I’m lucky, net me enough money to pay my indexer, pay for software, and maybe get me to ALA to tell people why they might want it.
And I became hyper-aware that I was doing this in order to help people who didn’t have this level of luck or access. The people who are still struggling for access, they have money concerns, too. They are concerned that they need to “know computers” to get a job, to file taxes or unemployment, to save money, to access goods and services that they can’t get at home. They are often unable to get high-speed internet access at home because it’s not cost-effective to service them and, ultimately, the government has left that decision up to the free market.
Speaking of the free market, it’s worth mentioning that once my book officially went into production, it was handed off to a company, PreMediaGlobal, with offices in the US and Chennai, India. It was clear from the timestamps on the emails I received from my contact at PMG that I was working with the offices in Chennai. I had reservations about this, mainly as a result of having had a lot of bad tech support interactions with outsourced IT support. I was pleasantly surprised, for the most part. My contact at PMG was a great communicator, prompt, and all-business. The guidelines I received were clear and no-nonsense. The deadlines were adhered to strictly and professionally. Due to the timezone thing, I’d send off emails at night and receive answers by the time I woke up. This worked great unless I actually needed something immediately, which was just flat-out impossible. Sometimes this was better than sending a query and getting a hastily typed Blackberried response which may or may not have answered my question.
People who work in offices know that if you’re going to get some urgent action item on your desk, it’s going to appear on the Friday before a three-day weekend and my project was no different. The week I was writing this article, I was also looking at my page proofs, which I would hopefully make small corrections to and then send back to be printed. In fact, I learned that thanks to some somewhat understandable miscommunication my book needed some attention. (I had asked for certain text to be set aside in boxes; the book designers read that as making it okay to reposition those boxes; I looked at my chapter with the paragraphs out of order and did this: o_O) At this point, I’d sent the proofs to the indexer who was furiously indexing away. And I realized, Friday night after everyone had gone home, even in Chennai, that despite their entreaties that “anything that affects page flow can not be altered” a few changes needed to be made.
I’ve gotten better at turning my own personal panic attacks into constructive discussions that don’t make my emotional reactions into the crux of the problem. I adopted a “certainly these errors will be repaired before the final printing?” tone and wrote up a list of concerns: reordering the out-of-order paragraphs, placing the images on the pages with the text that describes them, making the font that was used for the URLs in the webliography smaller so that most of them didn’t wrap to the next line (ALA, I am looking in your direction here). And then I waited, nervously, realizing that if they said no, that I’d have to make a choice. In the work I do with Ask MetaFilter, we get a lot of people asking relationship questions: how to deal with a partner who does this or that thing that you don’t like. And while people give a lot of constructive advice to help people work on prioritizing and better communication and that sort of thing, the last step is always considering, “Is this problem a dealbreaker?”
My position in the world makes it possible for me to walk away from almost any situation that I don’t like. As I said earlier, I don’t have to worry about tenure and my multiple-job situation means that no one job is mission-critical to my entire life. I am not a parent. I can be somewhat cavalier. That said, as I get older I try to only walk away from situations that are bad, not situations that are merely complicated. This was only complicated. While it is too early to tie this up in a bow—”And it was published. And it is lovely!”—all signs point to this whole thing working out at least decently, if not well.
I’ve written the least about the actual writing part. I know that for many people just the idea of writing 100,000 words on anything sounds like something so impossible it’s better left unexplored. And I have to say that it stood before me as an unscalable wall for longer than I’d like to admit. Long enough that I had to set myself a daily goal in order to make sure I met my deadline. I had a few solid months where my routine was to wake up and write until I’d met my daily quota and the goal was to get out of the house before the post office closed. There were days, possibly weeks, where my only motivation was just “If I don’t do this, who will? Someone has to do this…” and so I kept chugging along. Like exercise or other dreaded tasks that can be tough to complete, I knew being finished would feel terrific. I kept this poster taped above my monitor.
I also had some nice friends who sent me some “Attagirl!” emails that I printed out and stuck on my wall. I mention this not to be all “It was so HARD” about the process, but to indicate that this sort of thing is difficult for everyone. The advice that most people gave me, “The best way to get started is to begin,” was the best advice.
I always told people that the reason I became a librarian is because I felt surrounded by people who, when faced with the unknown, would just conclude, “Huh, I guess you just can’t know some things,” and they’d ruminate over the unknown. I was convinced you could know a whole lot of things, given the right application of effort and resources, and I think time has proven me right in some ways.
However, there’s one other variable, and that’s time. Things you knew a decade ago may no longer be true today. Things in my book in June of last year—screenshots of websites, statistics from surveys—are likely dated, if not outright wrong. At some level I have to trust that the people who will be reading it are going to be able to do their own reality-checking. It’s easy to over-qualify your writing so that people can’t take issue with it, but then wind up not taking a strong stance on anything. As someone who comes from a perspective of having fairly strong advocacy positions on a number of topics, many of which I touched upon in this book, I was surprised at a few things:
I was and am happy with my decision to write this book, and my editor was a joy to work with. All morning-after quarterbacking is just me being nitpicky after asking myself, “Would I do this again?” Since people have options in 2011—self-publishing is a viable alternative; blogs get a lot of attention; mainstream media is always starved for content—it seems somehow quaint to be writing for print. And yet, while this is my perspective with my heavily-online self, to the bulk of people in my town, getting published by a “real” publisher is the real deal, an impressive accomplishment. The concerns over atomized text still mostly exist in a small subset of internet-aware academics, bloggers, and writers. And this concern—what is real and what you need to know to be a citizen or a contributor to your culture—is at the heart of why we still and may always have a digital divide. Stepping through the publishing hoops was ultimately a great way for me to see another side of this multifaceted issue, and from a different perspective than my usual one.
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