Table of Contents
- Tick-TOC: Optimism Ahead
- What We Leave Behind: ‘There Is No Midlist’
- But More Optimism: An International Startup Showcase
- Bookstores: Low Road and High Street
- Craft: Tips for Technologists
- Craft: Transmedia on the Hoof
- Oh, Those Conferences
- Last Gas: Don’t Say “Bartleby” to Me
Tick-TOC: One Week To Go
It would be enough to know simply that the eponymous Tim O’Reilly is going to give the opening keynote address, himself, next week at the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, or “TOC,” in New York City. O’Reilly hasn’t made an appearance onstage in recent years at the flagship conference.
But what will pique the curiosity of many is O’Reilly’s February 13 title: Some Reasons for Optimism.
On the previous day, authors, as well as others less central to the new paradigm of publishing, will have followed the February 12 inaugural Author (R)evolution Day program closely. (It’s hashtagged #ARDay on Twitter. TOC is #TOCcon.)
And while that daylong author conference-within-a-conference is focused on the needs and resources of a new class of entrepreneurial writers, no group may be more ready for “some reasons for optimism.”
Bookish is LIVE! Discover a new book & check out author exclusives from Michael Connelly, Elizabeth Gilbert & more! bookish.com
— Bookish (@BookishHQ) February 5, 2013
After all, you can only get all goose-bumpy so many times hearing, “This is the best time in 200 years to be an author!” — while handling the R&D, the writing, editing, design, marketing, distribution, and sales of your own inventory, yourself. Authors are having to beat their own papyrus on the hoods of their cars, as is.
So it’s no wonder that practical and good-natured but serious comments led the exchange in last Friday’s tweet-chat with speakers of the upcoming Author Day program. Chat participants were adamant in their concern, their healthily skepticism about much guidance today for authors online and off.
- Entrepreneurial writers, they were told, must have their goals and strategy worked out well.
- “Indie” publishing is not actually independent, but requires team, community alliances.
- One of the toughest tasks is assessing which marketing tools are worth investment.
- Authors must “keep up, stay in tune, get educated.”
- Writers must develop a kind of “internal” manager to be sure they retain control of their work.
- An agent-manager for writers should function in “radical advocacy” of the work.
- Editors must understand the author’s vision. And without good work to sell, marketing is useless.
Many of these points can be found in tweets retained in an Epilogger file tracking #ARDay and #TOCcon from Friday (February 1).
Authors are a group of workers whose business “muscles” have largely atrophied, as conference co-chair Kristen McLean puts it in her Author (R)evolution Day, the Manifesto. They have labored, or prepared to labor, in an industry that largely took the workaday details away from them — along with the rewards. Now they’re grappling with a lot to learn very fast.
The third of three Friday-afternoon tweet-chats with speakers at this authors’ conference is planned for February 8 at 4 p.m. ET, 2100 GMT, with Peter Armstrong of Leanpub. The theme this week is “Lean Publishing for Authors.” And in the Author Day program, Armstrong joins a panel titled “How To Put it Together: Choosing a Production and Distribution Service.” Use hashtag #ARDay to join the chat, hosted by conference co-chairs Kat Meyer and Kristen McLean. If you miss the chat, you can review the tweets and other pre-ARDay/TOC materials on our Epilogger tracker.
What We Leave Behind: ‘There Is No Midlist’
Before leaping into the do-it-yourself (but-hire-help-when-you-need-to) challenges of the self-directed writer, it’s worth noting Shawn Coyne’s meditation on what’s been lost in a once-structured world.
So how can a book-a-year genre writer — stories that abide the conventions of only one particular genre category—make a living these days while improving her craft? She has to do it all herself — write the book, blog about writing the book, blog about promoting the book, tweet about the book being available, etc. — until such a time that a big publisher comes in and makes an offer she can’t refuse.
Coyne is author Steven Pressfield’s partner in the Black Irish Booksself-publishing venture. (Turning Pro is the new program’s first book, a Pressfield follow to his own The War of Art.) Coyne is a veteran of more than 20 years in formal, big-house publishing. One of the few drawbacks of his frequent presence at Steven Pressfield Online — he writes entries in the “What It Takes” column — is that it’s hard to find a simple bio on the guy. His career has taken him from Delacorte Press to Dell publishing’s Expedition line, to St. Martin’s Press and Doubleday (where he acquired Pressfield’s Gates of Fire). He set up his independent publishing company Rugged Land Books in 2001, and since 2007 has worked largely as an agent-manager.
And in his essay No One Cares, Coyne is reacting to a question put to him.
I was asked how one might become a writer who makes his living with a Big Six publisher. Not a flavor of the month big deal first novel writer, nor a blockbuster bestselling novelist, but a blue collar, book a year, kind of writer. Writers that used to be referred to derogatorily as “midlist.” The ones who once were a vital part of the business.
He was asked this by writers who, like the #ARDay tweet-chatters, aren’t taking easy answers. “The ‘just work hard on your craft’ line is not very helpful for people twenty years younger than I,” he writes, “like the ambitious guys who were buying me dinner.” Coyne describes writers from the viewpoint he had of them as an acquisitions editor.
They weren’t getting rich, but they were able to make ends meet and do the thing they loved without having to do much else. There was no Internet so they didn’t have to maintain a web presence or respond to people from Facebook or Goodreads or any of that. They wrote in a vacuum and for the most part were able to write whatever they wanted without having to worry about cultivating an “audience.” Their work spoke for itself and because there were limited book racks around the country, just getting an annual place in one of those pockets threw off a little green. Once these writers were chosen to fill a slot, while they never coasted, they could make a living.
Hello??? — Patrick McEnroe (@PatrickMcEnroe) February 4, 2013
Not so much today, of course.
The Big Six aren’t in the midlist business anymore. They aren’t “growing” writers out of their paperback original mystery or romance or horror programs like they once did. Plenty of great writers came out of those gardens…Elmore Leonard and Harlan Coben and Janet Evanovich and Lawrence Block and just about every bestselling romance writer came out of them.
What’s changed? The same tectonic market forces that have enabled entrepreneurial writers:
They aren’t doing it because there is no mass market $7.99 paperback business anymore. Readers who want a fix of solid standard genre don’t have to buy a disposable paperback anymore. They can get it for $.99 or free as an eBook today. And free just isn’t a very good business model for a legacy publisher.
This could be important reading, both for authors headed for the Author (R)evolution Day conference in New York on the 12th, and for others struggling to grasp what’s possible today — and what isn’t.
— jonny geller (@jonnygeller) February 5, 2013
We focus so relentlessly at times on the pressures writers face today to find their footing as self-starting (and maintaining) business people that we can forget to take a moment and clarify just what’s not available. And not coming back. Coyne does us this service:
There aren’t “slots” anymore in big six book publishing. There are full court press “we’ve got to get Barnes and Noble and Wall Mart to come on board or we’re sunk” books. You can’t throw anything out there and see if it sticks. It will get ignored. Period.
At 3 pm we’re launching our new 4 pt series feat music culled from our open call for new music straight from composers bit.ly/XqKmuv
— Q2 Music (@Q2music) February 1, 2013
— Matt Marks (@mattmarks) February 1, 2013
But More Optimism: An International Startup Showcase
At the risk of giving you an Ether-esque whiplash here, the industry! the industry!is simply in the grips of some very up-and-down emotional constructs these days.
One set of ideas comes from Kassia Krozser in Tools of Change 2013: What Excites Me Right Now. She starts with an interesting comment that resonates, somehow, despite the log-flume feel of the business’ recent months:
In many ways — while I know there has been exciting innovation — I’ve felt like we’ve been at a standstill. (Or, to misquote my friend Eoin Purcell, publishers feel like they have this whole digital thing sorted. Done and done.)
Krozser does allow, “It is hard to run your core business while transforming part of it into an R&D operation. Particularly when “the future” is something nobody can define.”
But she points to Tools of Change’s annual Startup Showcase on February 13 (1:40 p.m. ET), where the conference gives “groundbreaking startups a chance to show their stuff to the world.” This is one of the elements of TOC best aligned with the O’Reilly Media mission, sorting out innovation-incoming, if you will, while it’s still being developed. While the prognosis for the many startups popping up like mushrooms around publishing isn’t always great, this kind of recognition — and healthy industry curiosity — is an important feature of a tools-and-technology-based vision.
Krozser singles out Arthur Atwell’s Paperight among the 10 finalists in this year’s showcase:
We talk about publishing, particularly here in the United States, as if it is something we can take for granted. As Arthur Atwell, the brains behind Paperight demonstrated, in places like sub-Saharan Africa, there is a serious challenge in getting reading material to people who desperately want it. Local bookstores, much less Amazon, aren’t even potential solutions. Atwell and his team instead utilize existing infrastructure to deliver reading material to readers. And by “existing infrastructure”, I mean telephone lines and copy shops. Customers purchase legal, low-cost books. Publishers and authors get paid. Information is shared. Goals are accomplished.
There’s a quick video here, urging merchants to “turn your copy shop into a book shop” demonstrating how the Paperight program works. And she holds out some much-needed hope of happier purviews to come:
I think you’ll have your entire perspective changed by what Paperight is doing.
Bookstores: Low Road and High Street
If there were, like the “Arab street,” a “publishing street,” the word on it about Barnes and Noble would not be good. The timing on this is particularly interesting, as we get ready for the Foyles “Bookshop of the Future” workshops in London, being conducted with the support of The Bookseller. I’m glad to say I’ll be at the workshop on February 15 and will play back to you from Charing Cross the discussions and debates in this innovative approach.
Taking advantage of an upcoming move in the spring of 2014 to the former location of Central St. Martins College, Foyles will decamp what has been its home since 1929—and, if a way can be found, leave behind the trappings of today’s bookstores that weigh so heavily on them in a digital age. Felicity Capon wrote it up for the Telegraph in Foyles plans bookshop of the future:
In a radical move customers and industry experts will be able to take part in workshops to discuss and design what the new shop should look like. The workshops, held in partnership with The Bookseller, will take place in February 2013, once the building’s foundations and departments have been fixed.
She quotes Bookseller Editor Philip Jones:
“I do not believe the bookshop is dead, economically or in any other way. But we do not have to rehash The Booksellers Association’s membership numbers to know that high street shops are under severe stress: some of this may be down to the recession, and some of it because of the shift to digital…While words are our stock-in business, we also need practical solutions to real-world problems: and this is what we’ll achieve, in what is essentially a trade-wide initiative to reinvent and reinvigorate the high street bookshop.”
And so, pulling in the project’s architects, publishing professionals, and others, the company is searching for a ground-up model that might hold promise for other brick-and-mortar corporations.
This would be a good time for Barnes and Noble to pay attention. Because, getting back onto that “publishing street,” things don’t look good, and particularly in the realm of tablets, the domain that the Nookwas supposed to have addressed so forcefully.
Eoin Purcell, in The Extent of B&N’s Weakness in the Tablet Space, helps sort out just how troubling things seem to look by checking the International Data Corporation’s (IDC) figures on who is shipping what.
From a charted section, “Top 5 Vendors, Worldwide Tablet Shipments, Fourth Quarter 2012,” Purcell is able to distill some compelling figures in wonderfully clear and worrisome terms:
- B&N went from shipping 1.4 million tablets in 2011, to shipping only 1 million in 2012 (an almost 28% drop in units shipped). That would be bad enough in a stable or falling market, but the market GREW by some 75% over the same period.
- B&N was crushed by its closest competitor, ASUS who went from shipping 0.6 million units to shipping 3.1 million units! Or from less less than half of what B&N sold to shipping three times more.
- Amazon moved decisively away from B&N, shipping six times as many units.
- >Samsung, who only sold 600,000 more tablets than B&N in 2011, shipped 6.9 million more tablets than B&N in 2012.
- Even Microsoft, whose tablets were new entries to the market (and who have partnered with B&N in the Nook/Newco venture) is said to have shipped 900,000 units./li>
Poking around Bookish, it’s nice enough, but it’s going to be a tough road from novelty to becoming a destination site. Good luck! — Guy L. Gonzalez (@glecharles) February 5, 2013
Bear that in mind and check Rich Fahle’s (Bibliostar.TV) tape of GigaOM’s Laura Hazard Owen on some of the concern being felt last month at the Digital Book World Conference (#DBW13). Fahle has the video and a writeup at The Barnes & Noble Elephant in the Room at DBW 2013. Among Owen’s comments:
It’s really scary to think that I covered the bankruptcy of one major bookstore chain last year and to wonder if I’m going to be doing the same thing next year, in a couple of years from now? I’m worried about Barnes and Noble, especially when we see that their digital business is splitting off, but their digital business also isn’t doing very well. The international expansion doesn’t seem to have produced much yet. And the stores are turning into places where Barnes and Noble has to sell a lot of other products like toys and games, cards, not just books…And it’s not like if Barnes and Noble goes away, a great independent bookstore is going to rise up in its place.
And, speaking of DBW, the conference chair, Mike Shatzkin has weighed in since the conference, himself — which included a largely happy-talk presentation from B&N’s Jim Hilt. Shatzkin’s article, More thoughts about the future of bookstores, triggered by Barnes & Noble’s own predictions for itself, plays off the news of B&N retail group CEO Mitch Klipper’s announcement that Barnes and Noble looks to close some 20 stores per year for the next 10 years. For one thing, Shatzkin questions the likely accuracy of Klipper’s forecast.
They had a net reduction of 5% of the stores in the past five years and he’s suggesting a further 30% reduction over the next ten. That calculates to net closings at about triple the recent rate. Is that realistic? Frankly, I’d be concerned that it isn’t.
And then he also goes to a key point Owen was touching on: even in stores in locations that are in no danger of being closed, fewer and fewer books are being sold: more and more other products are coming in. Shatzkin:
Please tell me how much shelf space for books will diminish, not just how many stores will be closed. The piece reports that B&N peaked with 726 stores in 2008, which means a net reduction of 37 stores in the past five years. That’s a five percent reduction in locations. But publishers know that shelf space at B&N has contracted considerably more than that, as space in the stores that used to be devoted to books now merchandises NOOK devices and a variety of non-book items.
Which gets us back to how things look from the high street in the UK, and Foyles’ effort to reinvent the bookstore for an age that so far looks very unkind to it.
In his blog post Margin matters, The Bookseller editor, Jones, covers the very interesting open letter issued by Foyles CEO Sam Husain — whom, Jones points out, is calling for more publisher support for bookstores. Jones writes:
Big publishers have not exactly rushed forward to engage, many have simply declined to comment for our news piece this week. Some may think that Husain is simply railing against the wind, that the high street is in terminal decline as sales drift online or to digital, and an aloof government refuses to budge on rates. Some may think that booksellers need to help themselves, not rely on others.
The text of the full letter from Husain is here (PDF).
And Jones is eloquent in explaining the level field Husain is calling for:
Margin matters. Bookshops add value, they operate on expensive high streets, and need to offer environments attractive to literate customers. This all comes at a cost. There is a good recent example to turn to. One of the first things James Daunt did on becoming m.d. of Waterstones was to negotiate new higher flat terms. Some of the conversations were painful, and not all publishers were happy; but one year on and the results are in. Waterstones has been able to refurbish many of its stores, it has been able to be competitive where it needed to be, and has sold more books this Christmas than last.
And he leaves us with a cautionary note that publishers watching Barnes and Noble’s struggles might bear in mind:
Husain’s arguments may be not be wholly altruistic, but keeping competition healthy is one way of countering the growing might of Amazon. In other words, giving an inch now may mean not having a mile taken later.
wearing 3 shirts, about to put on a fourth and fly to Los Angeles. — Jen Doll (@thisisjendoll) February 2, 2013
Don’t run away, I promise this won’t be boring!
That’s how Nick Ruffilo opens one of his latest in a series of columns here at Ether for Authors host Publishing Perspectives. Obviously, he knows his readership. In Tips for Technologists #8: Know Your Boolean Math, Ruffilo’s ongoing series takes on the task of teaching you — as a publishing person, mind you, he’s a brave boy — the “basics of Boolean.” Yes, you may have to lash yourself to your ergonomic desk chair at this point, I realize, but it’s worth letting him have a little time with you. Boolean comes from the name of English mathematician George Boole, who died in 1864 but whose name lives on a subset of algebra. For bookish types dog-paddling on the Internet, this comes into play in searches and how we filter results.
- AND — And will return true when both conditions are met. Big Bird is Big AND Yellow. If (Big AND Yellow AND Bird) “We most likely have a Big Bird”. In programming languages this can be represented as “&&”
- NOT — Take the opposite of whatever you have. If our result is true, NOT makes it false. Not is represented in many languages by the use of !. If (Big AND NOT Yellow) “We don’t have Big Bird.” In programming languages this is represented usually as !.
- OR — Returns true when at least one of the conditions is met. False when none are. If (“Logged in to facebook” OR “logged in to twitter”) “I’m not going to get work done today.” In programming languages this can be represented as “||”
- XOR — Short for exclusive or. Will return true when only ONE of the conditions is met: If (“Nick is talking” XOR “Ed is talking”) “We can understand what is said”
It must be pretty embarrassing to be a news organisation that wasn’t hacked by the Chinese — Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) February 2, 2013
Other installments from Ruffilo so far have dealt with Excel, HTML, setting up a workspace, and more. How many times a week do I hear an author telling me that she or he just isn’t up to speed on various technical elements of daily computer work? Enough to know you should be reading these posts, and so should I. As Ruffilo teaches us, in Boolean, it’s all true or it’s false. No wonder programmers seem like such happy people.
First experience with Bookish on my iPhone: browser not supported. Srsly? twitter.com/JaneFriedman/s…
— Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) February 5, 2013
Clarification: Bookish works on iPhone Safari browser but warning appears if you access it inside Twitter app.
— Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) February 5, 2013
Craft: Transmedia on the Hoof
Faber has teamed up with publishers from different sectors to create an interactive version of John Buchan’s classic thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps, which is described as bridging “the gap between literature, film and gaming”.
The Bookseller’s Joshua Farrington had this report, Faber co-publishes interactive ’39 Steps,’ in December, and now we get a couple of glimpses of aesthetic assets from the project. The basic details, per Farrington:
Created by interactive content developer The Story Mechanics, the adaptation will be released for iPads, Mac and PC, with Faber, software developer and publisher Avanquest Software, and management company Kiss Ltd all publishing the title. Release date is 15th March 2013.
And now, from that Glasgow-based interactive content developer, The Story Mechanics, we have an installment in a series of posts: Secrets of The 39 Steps, a project based on John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, which appeared first in 1915. Simon Meek explains something of the approach:
In our digital adaptations we don’t explicitly show characters – instead allowing the fusion of words and location art / audio to bring the story to life. However, there are moments where we break our own rules…Occasionally, Richard Hannay, Franklin P. Scudder and a few other characters in the story embark on self-contained stories about themselves – digging into past events, which might be true, semi-true or just plain made-up.
Meek goes on:
We feel these moments are actually projections from the characters’ minds – not necessarily the reader’s – and as such, we thought it would be right (and fun!) to depict these in a way that reflects the media of the time (ie 1914). So, for The Thirty Nine Steps, we decided that we would use an early stop-frame animation approach. Stylistically, this also allows us to match the tone of the book, which never quite takes itself seriously – never being afraid of using a touch of humour to keep reader interest and the pace going.
This clearly is interesting work, and Meek is careful to credit, as I want to do, too, Silje Eirin Aure, whose artistry is helping The Story Mechanics develop “out of card, pen and ink — sets, characters and objects that we then took to bring alive (huge thanks to the very talented Thomas Pollock!).” The project also features “original silent film music” from Dunan Hendy. And what many of us will be watching in this case is for a sign of that transmedia breakthrough that, so far, seems extremely hard to achieve: the arrival of a new work dependent on its transmedial elements, not just decorated by them. There are folks following every step of the Thirty Nine to see how this effort fares. Back to Table of Contents
We don’t have the answers to publishing’s issues. We barely know the questions to ask at this point. — DonLinn (@DonLinn) February 2, 2013
Sometimes I do stuff I regret. — Chris Kubica (@ChrisKubica) February 3, 2013
Oh, Those Conferences
February 12 New York City at the Marriott Marquis New York in Times Square. A first-ever author-dedicated daylong conference from the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change team, led by Joe Wikert, Kat Meyer, and Kristen McLean.
TOC Author (R)evolution Day: “This one-day conference-within-a-conference from the thought leaders at Tools of Change and Publishers Weekly is designed specifically for professional authors, content creators, agents, and independent author service providers who want to move beyond ‘Social Media 101’ to a more robust dialogue about the opportunities in today’s rapidly shifting landscape.”
Note: The third of three Friday-afternoon tweet-chats with speakers at this authors’ conference is planned for February 8 at 4 p.m. ET, 2100 GMT, with Peter Armstrong of Leanpub. The theme is “Lean Publishing for Authors.” And in the Author Day program, Armstrong joins a panel titled “How To Put it Together: Choosing a Production and Distribution Service.” Use hashtag #ARDay to join the chat, hosted by conference co-chairs Kat Meyer and Kristen McLean. If you miss the chat, you can review the tweets and other pre-ARDay/TOC materials on our Epilogger tracker.
Looking through Bookscan stats at US cities in which I’ve only ever sold one book. Come to the party, Miami, Omaha and Dayton. Among others. — Andrew Mueller (@andrew_mueller) February 1, 2013
February 12-14 New York City (again at Marriot Marquis Times Square) O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change for Publishing Conference: “Every February, the publishing industry gathers at the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing Conference (TOC) to explore the forces that are transforming publishing and focus on solutions to the most critical issues facing the publishing world. TOC sells out every year — don’t miss its potent mix of fabulous people and invaluable information.” Under the direction of Joe Wikert and Kat Meyer. Hashtag: #TOCcon
March 6-9 Boston AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs: AWP last year drew 10,000 attendees to icy Chicago, and, per its copy on the site this year, AWP “typically features 550 readings, lectures, panel discussions, and forums, as well as hundreds of book signings, receptions, dances, and informal gatherings.” The labyrinthine book fair is said to have featured some 600 exhibitors last year. The program is a service-organization event of campus departments, hence the many readings by faculty members.
April 17 New York City paidContent Live: Riding the Transformation of the Media industry: Brisk and bracing, last year’s paidContent Live conference was efficient, engaging, and enlightening, not least for the chance to see many of the talented journalists of Om Malik’s GigaOM/paidContent team work onstage — Laura Hazard Owen, Mathew Ingram, Jeff John Roberts, Robert Andrews, Ernie Sander, et al. Among speakers listed for this year’s busy day: Jonah Peretti, Jason Pontin, Chris Mohney, Erik Martin, David Karp, Mark Johnson, Aria Haghighi, Matt Galligan, Rachel Chou, Lewis D’Vorkin, John Borthwick, Andrew Sullivan, Jon Steinberg, Alan Rusbridger, Evan Ratliff, and, of course, Dominique Raccah and Michael Tamblyn.
When you think you’re in good shape, try going to yoga class and holding side plank pose for a while. Humility ensues. — Chris Guillebeau (@chrisguillebeau) February 2, 2013
May 2-5 Oxford, Mississippi Oxford Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference & Workshops Susan Cushman follows her Memphis Creative Nonfiction confab with this year’s gathering at the shrine. Among faculty members: Neil White, Leigh Feldman, Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, Beth Ann Fennelly, Bob Guccione Jr. and Lee Martin. Pre-conference workshops or just the creature itself, your choice.
What’s on your mind, if you will allow the overstatement?Fred Allen — James Scott Bell (@jamesscottbell) February 2, 2013
May 3-5 Boston The Muse & the Marketplace 2013 is a production of Eve Bridberg’s fast-rising non-profit Grub Street program. Its material tells us that organizers plan more than “110 craft and publishing sessions led by top-notch authors, editors, agents and publicists from around the country. The Manuscript Mart, the very popular and effective one-on-one manuscript reviews with agents and editors, will also span three days. We expect nearly 800 writers and publishing professionals to attend, while maintaining the conference’s wonderfully intimate, ‘grubby’ energy that we love.” Back to Table of Contents
Last Gas: Don’t Say “Bartleby” to Me
A “Bartleby” is someone who does their job just as asked until one day he decides there are certain tasks he simply won’t do. He gets away with it because:
- You work at a small, understaffed organization and no one has time to argue with him.
- You work for an enormous company and no one but you has noticed.
- Or, the most likely these days, he has special skills that make him difficult to replace.
Being one of those people who gets onto Twitter on a given day with “Good morning,” Kevin Smokler is someone to whom I normally give respectful, but wide berth. So upbeat, my God. But here, in Do You Work With a Bartleby?, an essay at Virginia Quarterly Review, he’s got me seething, revisiting the small battalion of do-nothings I’ve suffered over the years, some as colleagues, some as employees reporting to me, and — many more times than once — some as bosses.
Anyone who has submitted a project to the design or engineering department and had that department do 71% of what was asked with no explanation as to the missing 29% knows what I’m talking about. You’ve just interacted with a little bit of Bartleby sprung loose from pre-Civil War Manhattan, filling a cubicle here in the 21st century.
No Bartleby, himself, Smokler has just released a book, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books you Haven’t Touched Since High School. His article for VQR has some interesting background.
[Herman] Melville was having a hard go of work when he wrote the piece. Finishing Moby-Dick had exhausted him and the book had sold only moderately. His next novel, Pierre (1852), had been a flop. The prevailing theory of biographers on what Melville meant by Bartleby was that of a writer both stuck with a project he has given up upon (Bartleby refuses to copy after copying morning and night at the beginning of his employ) and who cannot fit into an increasingly commercial society (why Melville called it “A story of Wall Street” even though Wall Street plays a supporting role at best). In the mysterious scrivener, Melville may have seen a version of himself, a frustrated artist, who cannot find space for or welcoming amongst his creations.
Smokler dismisses that warm fuzziness pretty quickly and slams the beast back into the payroll-sapping horror box where it belongs:
A valid theory but not a very useful one. “There’s no place for an artist like me!” seems an anachronistic, uptown problem in a time when there’s a URL (if not an income) for just about every creative flight of fancy imaginable. But Bartleby as a kind of workplace wraith seems far more relatable.
This is an entertaining, welcome read that bodes well for the new book, especially if you don’t have to be around a fuming malcontent like me on the topic. Have I mentioned how much I despise people who don’t like work?
Melville has set up Bartleby as a room with a locked door. Bartleby unexplained is the source of the story’s power. The narrator’s flailing attempt at an explanation only underlines its futility. Which is one of the things I think Melville was after: The sadness of not really knowing something, the pain of connections severed and relationships left incomplete.
I say fire his ass, then we’ll talk “sadness.” Have a nice day.
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Ebooks, Yeah! This is the F**king Future of Publishing! twitpic.com/c0f11p
— Sebastian Posth (@sposth) February 2, 2013
Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. His Writing on the Ether is read Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com. More at PorterAnderson.com
Main image / iStockphoto: Sergey AK