Books and blogs: Hereabouts, we

Books and blogs
: Hereabouts, we all have been spending a lot of pixels ‘n’ bits debating the impact weblogs have (or do not have) on news media: newspapers mainly, and also magazines and TV.

But I am coming to believe that weblogs and the Web may have a greater impact on books.

My own relationship to books has changed since September 11. Part of the reason for this is simply the impact of the day itself. Since then, I have not had much patience for self-indulgent writers showing off their petty emotions and precious observations (I’ve written before how I was reading Jonathan Franzen‘s The Corrections that day but I have not managed to crack it since; it’s not the only one). I suppose I just don’t have enough sympathy left over for made-up pain and fear when I saw too much real pain and fear that day.

Weblogs have also had an impact on my view of books. Since I started writing this weblog a week after 9.11 and since I became addicted to reading the weblogs of so many good writers in this fairly new medium, I find that I have less patience for authors in the oldest medium.

I get impatient with books that drag themselves out to justify book length and the book deal. Weblogs get to the point a lot faster. I read Christoper Locke’s Gonzo Marketing in hardback and it was worth the price — I’ve written about ideas it inspired, including the Weblog Foundation (more on that later) — but the truth is that the book’s real payoff came in a few pages at the end and the points made there just as easily could have been delivered on (for for all I know were delivered on) Locke’s weblog.

I also get impatient with books that are stale by the time they come out, as so many have to be simply because the process of publishing — pitch to agent to editor to committee to writing to editing to production to marketing to distribution — takes so long (and costs so much) that freshness is impossible.

And oddly, books exhaust me more now. Maybe the Web shortened my attention span. But I don’t think so. It’s a value judgment — about the value of my time. On many an evening, I look at a book I should read, a book I want to read; it seems to stare at me, shaming me like an unread pile of old New Yorkers. Then I look at my laptop. Book/blogs? Book/blogs? I weigh the choice and more often than not, blogs win.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love books like a mistress; I obsessively wander bookstores to see what’s new, to read random passages, to discover diamonds; I buy more books than I ever could read; I love Amazon so much that I bought the stock (and, more of a testament, never sold it); I stuff my house with books; I love books; I still want to write a dozen. I’m not suggesting or wishing for a second that books are doomed (God forbid!), only that change is on the way.

I have a different relationship to books now and I bet I’m not alone.

You see, weblogs and websites can one-up books in many ways.

First, when I find an author whose writing I like — Rossi or Lileks or Layne or Pierce — reading his or her weblog is like reading a book that never ends. What joy.

Reading their weblogs is also as close to watching an author create as you can get; can’t get fresher than that.

Weblogs can be far more current than books.

They can have more variety; they can have more surprises.

They can even link to more about a topic when I want more.

Even books online — dismissed as they’ve been — have some advantages over books in print:

You can search online books. You don’t kill trees. You don’t have to lug them. They don’t take up shelf space and thus don’t have to fight for that space in stores and at home. They don’t have shipping costs. And they can be up-to-the-minute — witness John Dean’s Deep Throat book released online — really just an overlong weblog.

Though it’s not online — it’s being published in a magazine in three parts — witness, too, William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center published in the current Atlantic before it becomes a book this fall (see my post on this below). It is quite hot off the presses, much hotter than a book could be.

There seems to be a search on for better ways to make books. And maybe there needs to be. The book business has seen better days.

Books will be affected by all this. Authors will be. Publishers will be. Bookstores will be.

And libraries will be affected, too. Imagine what happens when their content becomes digital, when you don’t need to go to the library, when the library — any library, from anywhere — can come to you.

One more thing: The Web is stealing the time, attention, and passion of lots of good writers who otherwise would be writing books. When I had coffee with Bill Quick, he said that writing his weblog presents him with an opportunity cost; he could be writing a book instead. A few months back, Layne was torturing himself writing his ‘log when he should have been finishing his novel. There are a lot of talented people right now who are writing for the web instead of paper — bound or glossy or pulp. That will have an impact on the craft.

But that impact will cut two ways. If I were editing anything in print today — if I were the new editor of Rolling Stone, say — I’d be finding new voices, new views, new ways to write among writers online, some of them listed over there on my right column. I’d steal them away from the Web.

Of course, there is one problem with all of this, the fatal flaw: Money. Real books don’t pay much these days but the Web certainly pays less. John Dean sold his book online but it won’t be a best seller. Bill Quick can tell you how to publish and get paid for an e-book on the Web but it won’t pay the rent. Apart from Matt Drudge (trumpeting record traffic of five million page views a day now) and apart from Andrew Sullivan’s Enron-like accounting of his weblog profit (is it really profitable if you pay yourself even minimum wage, Andrew?) you can’t name a weblogger or online-journal writer who makes real money. I’m not suggesting that the Web and weblogs pose the slightest financial competition to books today.

No, but the Web and weblogs do compete for the attention of readers — and writers — and that will cause change, one way or another.


Read this book
: I’m in the middle of reading William Langewiesche’s American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center, a remarkable book that is being published first in three parts in The Atlantic; it will come out as a hardcover this fall.

Langewiesche was the only writer allowed complete access to the work at the World Trade Center after 9.11. He was a great choice for the privilege.

He is turning the story of what happened there into a compelling and informative drama.

In this first part, he concentrates on the engineers who worked there, whether poring over blueprints to figure out exactly what happened or mapping the dangerous caves of destruction under the pile the buildings became or grappling with the loss like so many others. They’re engineers but they’re human, too, he says, as he explores both the emotions and the science of the event in amazing detail.

I cannot recommend the piece highly enough. You can get it only in the magazine, not online — but at least you’re getting it before you would if you had to wait for the book.

I Want Media
: I’ve been remiss not linking to I Want Media by Patrick Phillips. It’s a very-well-packaged, latter-day Romenesko but more complete and more business-oriented. I rely on it every day. This is an NPR kinda thing: I use it and so I should link to it; the least I can do.