22 April 2008

Fugitive pieces

Blogs vs books, from a writer’s point of view

Who needs books, anyway? One interesting kind of response to my previous post about the “experiment” of giving away my book Trigger Happy for free was to point to the financial success of many bloggers, and to say that this was the way forward. Writers should, essentially, forget about the “outdated” model of writing a whole “book” and then figuring out how to sell it. Instant web publishing is what people want: it’s groovy and immediate, edgy, now. In that case, though, what happens to the quality of writing overall?

Any facile comparison of “quality” across different media is asking for a kicking. But I’m going to do it anyway. It seems to me that blogs are the perfect medium for discussing highly topical matters in, say, technology or politics. There are many blogs that I admire and read regularly, and they often provide brilliant demolitions of official narratives, or superior analysis to that offered by complacent and/or flat-out dishonest “professionals” in the corporate media, or just better jokes. That said, I would take everything I read in the blogosphere last year, load it onto a cheap thumbdrive, and happily swap it, in an instant, for a single copy of Denis Johnson’s mind-bendingly magnificent Tree of Smoke. For me, there’s just no contest.

Why should this be so? Is there any reason why some future Denis Johnson couldn’t publish a masterpiece serially on the internet? I think, actually, there might be. There are factors inherent to the different media that militate against such a possibility, even if they are not cast-iron reasons. It boils down to a combination of:

1 The technology of the medium,
2 The social structure of production in the medium, and
3 The perceived durability of the medium.

Well, I’m someone who writes books, journalism and blogs.1 So let me explain how it works for me in each of those formats.

When I write a book, the timescale is months or years. I pile up words in chapters, revise and cut them, then send them to friends to have them mercilessly ripped apart and gleefully stamped on, then I have a tantrum, then realize my friends were right, and revise and cut the chapters again. Then they get sent to a full-time editor, after which there will be more revisions or reorderings or additions. A copy-editor will also go through the entire text with a fine-tooth comb to point out that I use the word “thus” too often,2 and a house lawyer may also have her say,3 after which there will be more revisions. I will then read the entire thing again in proof, on paper, and make the final revisions and corrections before going to press. After that, the book will stay in collections such as the British Library with my name on it for a long time — effectively, from my point of view, for ever. If I’ve made any really embarrassing mistake, I can only correct it in the next printing — if there ever is one.

When I write a long book review or feature, the timescale is hours or days.4 With a pre-commissioned length, I over-write by 50% or 100% and then go through numerous revisions, cutting as I go, to reach the agreed word-count. After it gets sent to the paper as .txt, I might get a phone call or an email from the editor or sub-editor with one or two queries, allowing me to clarify a nonsensically muddled sentence or correct a spelling that I got wrong in two different ways; or I might hear nothing until it appears in the paper a few days later. If I’ve made any really embarrassing mistake, it can be corrected by the paper’s ombudsman in the Corrections & Clarifications column, but not everyone who reads the original article will see the correction, and the correction won’t show up with the article in a Lexis-Nexis search.5

When I write a blog post, the timescale is minutes or hours. Coffee goes into my mouth and is transmuted into excessive typing speed in my fingers. I make a couple of revisions, but since there is no constraint on length I don’t cut as much while revising. No one else sees it until I smack the “publish” button and start obsessively checking my traffic. If I’ve made any really embarrassing mistake, someone will point it out, with more or less hostility or sarcasm, in comments, and if I like I can update the original post with a revision, leaving the error in strikethrough, so that all future readers will instantly see the correction. To me, the point of a blog post is not to try to nail something perfectly, but to provoke an interesting discussion. It’s shooting from the hip.

It follows from the above that I take the most care with my writing for books: there is essentially only one chance to get it right, and the sheer number of other eyes on the text as it goes through the process provides a lot of constructive challenge. I take slightly less care with journalism, and (as you can no doubt tell by now) much less with blogging.

Now, here I speak only from my personal experience, and I don’t claim it’s the same for everybody. Perhaps there are bloggers who lavish as much attention on drafting a blog post as I do on drafting a book chapter. Certainly there are book authors who evidently don’t try any harder in their books than they do in their journalism, which is not very hard to begin with.6 And of course there are entire books made out of blog posts, edited lightly if at all. So the distinctions are fluid.

They have been fluid historically, too. Legend has it that Dostoyevsky wrote The Gambler in only twenty-six days, in order to pay off gambling debts. And plenty of writers over the ages had to survive through the hackwork of pamphleteering or dashed-off serials. The great counterexample to my argument, often cited by champions of web publishing, is Dickens, who published serially in magazines for decades, and didn’t change much for the bound volumes (with the famous exception of his revision of the ending to Great Expectations). On the other hand, Hardy revised his serially published novels extensively for the print editions of The Mayor of Casterbridge or Tess of the D’Urbervilles, considering them to represent the definitive versions.

I think that at least potentially (and demonstrably for many authors), the prospect of the writing appearing in book form makes a writer try her very best, because of this confluence of timescale, technology and social context. The very permanence of the physical book format has for centuries pushed writers to raise their game. The prospect today of blogging elbowing out other forms of writing is comparable to the prospect of an 18th century known to us only through its pamphlets, and none of the great long-form satires and novels. That would still keep a few houndstooth-jacketed academics in business, but would anyone else really care?

Very possibly, the book as we know it might well turn out to have been a contingent historical phenomenon, based on a particular technology, that lasted only half a millennium. If so, we might regret it. Conversations between bloggers last hours or days, but conversations between books can last for centuries.

  1. The last mainly at unspeak.net rather than here, at least so far.
  2. Thanks Iain.
  3. In case I accidentally libel any woozy torture-loving “public intellectuals”.
  4. Sometimes longer: this obituary for Jean Baudrillard took two weeks.
  5. Although the Guardian is very good about updating web versions of articles with notes about subsequent corrections.
  6. I’d love to provide names here, but it might be impolitic. You’re welcome to drink from my Guardian book-review firehose.
  • http://last-straw.net Christiaan

    From your previous post you wrote:

    If the breathless advocates of “the free distribution of ideas” are serious, they need either a) to come up with a realistic proposal as to how I am to keep feeding myself while giving the fruits of my labours away for free; or b) come out and say honestly that they don’t think any such thing as a “professional writer” ought to exist, and that I should just get a job like anyone else.

    Partipatory Economics (Parecon for short) is a possible answer to A, as you’d be giving it away for free only in the sense that it would be free as in freedom, not free as in beer, because you’re remunerated for effort and sacrifice, not output. People would have to actually want to read your stuff for you to be remunerated, of course.


  • Gregor

    Hi Steven

    Thank you for the email that you recently sent, and which I will reply to when I get something that I want to scan. But I think that this is relevant to what you said about Op ed writing.

    My own view is that there is no dichotomy in print and internet publishing and that most print journalists have a distant relationship with academic publishing and will just parrot the cliches of the day. Subsequently I half hope that newspaper editorials may be on the way out.

    Shortly after reading Unspeak I looked through a book which looked good, but was ultimately depressing called Flat Earth Publishing, which spoke about the dismal quality of op ed science journalism. In America (and probably here) 90% of peer reviewed literature supports the Global warming hypothesis but 50% of opinion articles are ‘global warming sceptic’. From personal experience I also notice that broadsheet newspaper journalists have appalling knowledge of geography and history.

    As it is there is one country of contemporary mainstream interest where I have some knowledge and that is Russia. Knowing a bit about Russia and then reading articles by op ed journalists (who would probably write about Iraq and globalisation in the same week) was a distubing indicator of how strong recieved wisdom and stale thinking is in the mainstream press. Putin. Weimar Republic. Appeasement. Oil Bubble. Stalin. Tsar. Jealousy. Munich. Soviet Nostalgia. Nationalism. Fossil fuel dependency. I could write a standard broadsheet newspaper op ed about Russia in five minutes, though it would all be nonsense.

    For this reason, I think that the blog Da Russophile (http://darussophile.blogspot.com/) is far superior to any British broadsheet newspaper when it comes to coverage of Russia, precisely because it links to so many academic articles, and because it provides intelligent criticism of ‘kremlinologists’. I disagree to a large extent with the editorial stance, but its use of figures demonstrates why print editorials are of very poor quality.

    All the best

  • Picador


    I agree with much you have written in favor of publishing a book as a book. There is very little evidence, however, that making it available online as well, free of charge and free for adaptation and quotation, has a negative impact on book sales. (NB: This is probably more true for novels and works of scholarship than, say, reference books.)

    I buy lots of books. I also wish that every book were available and searchable online, as that would not only make my life and my work much easier, but would create significant economies and new uses for this content that we can’t even imagine today.

    It is unfortunate that the publishing industry pretends not believe this. It means that they are doomed to follow in the tracks of the music recording industry instead of embracing the universal sharing of human knowledge that the Internet has made possible. Many new business models are emerging in this new world, and the old ones are failing despite their best efforts to turn back the clock. It is a terrible mistake to think that money can’t be made from writing and printing in a world with no enforceable copyright laws. I hope you don’t fall into this trap.

  • http://stevenpoole.net/ Steven

    Picador —

    There is very little evidence, however, that making it available online as well, free of charge and free for adaptation and quotation, has a negative impact on book sales.

    I did it myself, and I agree it doesn’t harm book sales right now. I don’t know whether to agree with your last paragraph until you specify what these “many new business models” are, exactly. But this is discussed at length in a previous post.

    Gregor —

    I half hope that newspaper editorials may be on the way out.

    I think that some newspaper opinion journalists might have realised already that they are the most vulnerable and dispensable part of the operation, given the vast available evidence that bloggers can actually do their job better than they do. Hence a lot of the kneejerk anti-blogging rage in newspaper opinion columns, perhaps.

    On the other hand, bloggers can’t replace the reporting operations of well-financed newspapers, despite all the guff talked about “citizen journalism”.

    Thanks for the link to Da Russophile.

  • http://www.elberry.wordpress.com Elberry

    Interesting article (or ‘post’, if you like). i’ve read some blogs that i thought good enough to be put into book form, with some editing. Most aren’t that great but the immediacy of the form, as well as the ability to leave & read comments, make it more exciting.

    i wonder that some people don’t seem to even casually reread their posts before publishing them – so they’ll have obvious & hideous typos. It usually puts me off, as it bespeaks a slovenliness, a lack of concentration or care, that hardly encourages the reader to concentrate or care in return.

    i reread everything i write before clicking ‘publish’, often several times. i don’t see the point writing if it’s going to be shit.

  • http://www.GoodieBag.tv Kirby Ferguson

    As a filmmaker, I think the mediums of film, television, and web video equate almost identically to books, magazines, and blogs.

    What I wonder is what will happen when all these mediums come through the same pipe: the internet. (Sure, people will still see movies in theatres, but most films are already viewed on televisions and I don’t see the trend letting up.) Publishing will face a similar future as digital distribution methods mature.

    Will this flattening of prestige among the forms diminish the talents of creators?

  • http://stevenpoole.net Steven

    Kirby, that’s a very interesting point. It also raises the question of whether large collaborative teams of specialist technicians etc will still continue to be the norm in filmmaking. Economically at least a one-man-band would seem to make more sense.

  • Glenn Charles

    It’s interesting that this is all the subject of a long-standing debate on the ‘Net. Quite possibly the real point is what the writing concerned is meant to accomplish. I ended up “publishing” a manuscript on the Internet because of (call it what you will) laziness or a realization that I was much more interested in writing than publication. I have no way of knowing how many times it’s been read. Quite certainly for a number of reasons I’m not particularly eager to be acknowledged as “_”, whatever that might be. I must say I agree with Douglas Adams and his equation of leaves with money.

  • codepro02

    Publishing will face a similar future as digital distribution methods mature.