Posts from June 2002

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.

Motherland Security: I’m one of

Motherland Security
: I’m one of the apparently few who actually likes Homeland Security as a name for the department charged with protecting us.

But in the interest of (rare) open-mindedness I will propose an alternative.

Tonight, I was listening to Natalie Merchant‘s latest album — Motherland — and it came to be:

Motherland Security.

It works on so many levels: Don’t mess wid my Muddah. Mother and apple pie. Mother nature. The feminist version of Fatherland.

And besides, I like the song:

Motherland, cradle me

Close my eyes,

Lullaby-me to sleep.

Keep me safe,

Lie with me.

Stay beside me,

Don’t go,

Don’t go…

Motherland Security II
:My colleague Joe Territo (the guy who turned me onto The Week, below) has a good suggestion regarding our Homeland/Motherland Security Department: The Washington Post says:

A possible complication in recruiting a secretary for the new department was revealed by a senior administration official, who said most of the department might be located outside the Washington area for security reasons.

The official said a new Homeland Security building could be located in Maryland or Virginia, well beyond the Beltway. “We think it’s something that at least should be discussed,” the official said. “We should be thinking differently about this department.”

Joe’s suggestion: “Maybe they should put it way beyond the Beltway, in lower Manhattan, providing a symbolic and economic boost and putting Rudy in charge.”

Amen to that.

(I think this counts as Joe’s first blog post; he’ll join the cult soon.)

WiFi goes wide
: From my Fierce Wireless newsletter:

According to a report in today’s BWCS, both Toshiba and IBM are said to be planning their own 802.11-based wireless networks. IBM is currently planning to launch a national Wi-Fi network and is gathering members for a consortium to work together on this plan. No word yet when IBM’s network will make its debut.

Meanwhile, Toshiba is planning to launch a “public spaces initiative” in which the company will set up hotspots in malls, coffee shops, and possibly supermarkets. All of these will connect back to Toshiba’s hosting site, effectively turning the company into an ISP. Toshiba plans to launch its Wi-Fi initiative on June 25 at PC Expo in New York.

Big doings. WiFi everywhere…. It’s the next big thing. But we learned lately not to trust the next big thing until we see it….

: Kuro5hin raises $10k in its tip jar in one day and decides to go nonprofit (via Metafilter).

: Speaking of nonprofit…

I owe you all an update on my thinking on the Weblog Foundation: coming soon. I’m not a nonprofit; I have to work and that has gotten in the way.

Join the club
: Another Rossi fan: Asparagirl.

: Marc Weisblott has started a blog reviewing fall TV pilots. It’s cool. It’s useful. It’s blogging about something other than politics, which is good.

It’s also deja view for me: I used to spend the end of summer getting and watching all those tapes and coming to grand conclusions about them for TV Guide and People before that.

I do miss those days.

But what I really miss are the days a few decades ago when the new season really meant something, when shows didn’t die in a week, when we all watched and talked about the same stuff. That was fun. I’d still take the wealth of choice we have today over that — and the new seasons that come year-round (what’s more important: the new season on ABC or the new season of The Sopranos?) — but still, those days were fun.

Deep Link
: Josh Marshall is ever-more convinced that Pat Buchanan is Deep Throat. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking this one through. But the one thing I wonder is: If Buchanan is DT, why wouldn’t he announce it and make political hay as the one honest man in American politics? Marshall argues that he can’t because his fellow conservatives would consider him a traitor. But it’s not as if they do him any favors anyway. And running on a third-party ticket is a worse form of betrayal to them. So why not put yourself on a pedestal and nya-nya all those below?

Science is amazing
: An artificial lung.

Why I love The

Why I love The Week
: The Week is a magazine born of the Web era.

It is a weblog on paper, a brilliant weblog at that. The only problem is, paper doesn’t come with links.

For me, the appeal of The Week is the same as that of weblogs: These people read the news, all the news, from all over the world, so I don’t have to. They find the best. They discover the things I didn’t discover. They give it to me in quick, witty, pithy bits. They know I’m busy. They also know I’m smart.

This is not like the magazines that came before it. Time and Newsweek stopped summarizing the news decades ago; now they thirst to break news and when they don’t, they turn current events into news for dummies, so well pasturized and homogenized and smoothed out that it might as well be frozen yogurt (vanilla). Reader’s Digest is the magazine our grandparents read because they didn’t like to read.

On the other hand, The Week, like the Web, recognizes that there is a tremendous wealth of information out there that we just don’t have the time (though we do have the intelligence and need) to absorb. So it helps us by finding the best reports and not only summarizing them but also quoting them; it doesn’t try to be smooth like Time and put everything in its voice and under the umbrella of its authority; it repackages the best sources in media and relies on their authority. This, I believe, is a new form of news packaging inspired by the Web and we’ll see more of it. The Week is just leading the way.

I am little surprised I’m saying all this. When my colleague Joe said he was dying to see this magazine before it was launched, I rolled my eyes; the thing sounded cheesey: news lite. But I respect Joe and so I gave The Week a chance and soon became an addict.

It’s useful and informative, provocative and entertaining.

Felix Dennis, the publisher, says it is designed to give you “all you need to know about everything that matters” and do it in an hour and 10 minutes a week. What’s amazing is that it succeeds.

I start each week reading the editor’s note; I can’t say that about any other editor’s note (and I used to have to write them). This one is only two graphs long, about as long as a good blog post. Short is good. That’s what I said when I started Entertainment Weekly: It’s harder and smarter to write short. And every week, The Week Editor William Falk shows it.

Next I read the magazine’s one-page briefing — its backgrounder — on a major story of each week. Sometimes, I miss the beginning of a big story and then I’m too embarrassed to ask about what I missed and newspapers too often don’t fill me in. The Week takes a topic like Kashmir and explains how everybody got in this pickle concisely and smartly and after reading this one well-packaged page, I’m up to speed. It’s a fine service.

Then I read summaries of other major stories with important reporting and commentary from papers around the world.

Next: On three pages, the magazine gives us short squibs on the major stories in countries around the world.

Then I turn to the best columns, letters to the editor, editorial, and editorial cartoons.

I read the best of gossip: “It must be true… I read it in the tabloid.”

I read summaries of current reporting on business, science, health, and sports. I read short features on travel, food, and shopping. I read summaries of reviews of books, plays, movies, and music.

And I always lust after pictures of posh homes for sale around the world ($3.995 million for a nice joint in McLean, Va.).

The Week does all this and more in just 40 pages (only six of them ads).

And it does all this with a tiny staff, the size of which should be the envy of every magazine executive in the country. The masthead of The Week is a marvel of efficiency.

My only criticisms: The magazine is near-impossible to find on newsstands. The design is too British (this is a spin-off of the British publication) and might put off American readers. And it might as well not have a web site. I fear these things limit its growth.

I’m writing all this because I’ve seen that some bloggers are curious about The Week and others haven’t even seen it.

So go looking for it. It is a magazine a blogger should like.

Homeland Defense defense: Glenn Reynolds

Homeland Defense defense
: Glenn Reynolds may not like “Homeland Security” as a moniker but, like me, he defends it:

I’m certainly among the large number who regard it as creepy. But perhaps it’s a good thing: given the ineffective-yet-intrusive nature of the domestic-security approach to date, why give it a popular name? One that sounds creepy and slightly unAmerican may, in fact, be perfectly appropriate.

Face time: Nick Denton has

Face time
: Nick Denton has created a compelling gallery of bloggers.

It’s just like radio: You always want to know what the face behind the voice looks like.

Ditto weblogs: I always wonder what they look like. Now, I know.

I just have to say it
: I enjoy Richard Bennett. We should all be half as opinionated.

: Oliver Willis argues that the Democrats should become the antiterror party.

Cool is still cool
: All hail Pyra/Blogger. It is Fortune’s coolest media company of 2002.

Nothing destroys productivity like blogs, the frequently updated online diaries that have exploded in the past year. Blogs, short for Web logs, run from the personal (dating life in St. Louis) to the political (views on Arafat) to the arcane (diseased bees in Virginia Beach). The company behind the trend is Pyra, a minuscule operation in San Francisco that runs, the most popular tool for hosting and posting blogs, with almost 600,000 registered users. Pyra’s CEO, Evan Williams, 30, talked to Fortune from his apartment-cum-office in San Francisco….

Q: Where do you see Pyra in five years?

A: I have a hell of a problem thinking five years out. The whole reason that I started a company was to build cool s–t that matters. I’d like to be a player in how the Web is evolving.

Ev should be in Hollywood. I’ve never known anyone (this side of Denton) who can get such great publicity. If only publicity were money.

But give Pyra credit: It is amazing for an Internet company today to be (a) alive and (b) growing. That is cool.

: I can’t resist a bit of proud-uncle bragging. In the entire Internet go days, I successfully touted three investments and I’m happy to say that they are all still alive and doing well: Pyra, Moreover, and Cassiopeia. Whew.