Vincent Writes

Welcome to Vincent van Wylick's Website

Category: publishing (page 1 of 4)

The State of Individual Websites

These last few weeks, I’ve really been thinking about one main topic to write about (I’ve also experienced two of the most severe flus in my life): the state of individual websites in an unwelcoming ecosystem. I started with thinking about the evolution of social networks, which for me are more and more becoming professional media-based, rather than friend-or connection-focussed. As I came across an article on the disappearance of the blog due to both a change in consumption and in how Google ranks websites, my thinking evolved to that level and what it meant for me.

We all represent sub-cultures that exhibit different behaviours to how we add value to our intellectual lives. My consumption pattern for media is perhaps like yours the reader (there is the likelihood of a perception bias), but it could also be completely different. As a blogger since 2004, I’ve read a lot of blogs and found ways to organise that reading through dedicated readers. The jump to podcasts was not hard, because it’s essentially the same world in audio-format (independent authors, collective players instead of readers). Social media was always more experimental for me, because of the random nature of what you would get out of it (I have a good idea what Daring Fireball will write about tomorrow, but not necessarily my brother or girlfriend). Because I already had a dedicated reading environment, I was very slow to add (semi-)professional media to social platforms, and it still feels like something I should not mix.

Nowadays, we see social platforms everywhere and the idea of a dedicated reader has been pushed into the dark, forgotten corners of the web. A new user of the Internet will more likely have heard of Twitter and Facebook, than know that Google Reader once existed, was replaced by Google Plus (a Facebook clone that has no real value), and other much smaller readers tried to take Google Reader’s place (Feedly being the most well-known).

Next comes the problem of discoverability. While searching for blogs or other ‘independent content’ was always a little tricky—Google once had a dedicated blog search as well, but that was hidden off the main page—we now operate in an era where searching for any individual content will reveal either adverts or collective results. Think about the following:

  • Search for any book: you’ll probably find Amazon as the top-result.
  • Search for any job: you’ll get Indeed.com as a top-result.
  • Search for a restaurant or hotel: Trip Advisor or Yelp.

This list can easily go on for any search term out there. All of the above-mentioned websites have been around for over a decade, but another trend arose within this decade, that of single-serving sites that exploit individual searches. I don’t have to visit dishwasher.com or headphones.com to know that very likely it comes with a significant amount of buy here links to dishwashers or headphones. Owners of these domains don’t need to possess any domain-specific knowledge either, they just need to repeat a specific set of keywords many times on their websites to earn its title (note to self: write a blog post that repeats the words ‘Vincent’ and ‘writes’ over and over again…). The same trend is happening in job searching as well: search for CRM jobs and you will find a search site dedicated to these jobs, the same for analysis, IT, sales, etc. etc.

The overal point is that the idea of search is no longer aimed at specificity, but has been supplanted by collections of results. The underlying thought is that search is overwhelming, we need curators, but these curators are not in it for the common good either. The Internet is a commercial place and there is little potential for blockbusters—rather it’s little pockets of money, best catered to by these mini-specialised-sites.

I feel there is a loss associated with this, but it’s hard to describe that loss in general terms. As I said, we are all sub-cultures, and each of us becomes happy in our own way. So my idea of discoverability may be less valuable to you.

The loss for me is the conversation, which would in the past come from other bloggers seeking commonalities (and traffic) by leaving a comment behind. There is this feeling of being one tree in a  very large forest, and when a branch grows, it does so quietly.

Granted, the world has changed. We all hear this phrase “In my day…,” and I’m no longer sure whether there’s even a point in reflecting because the “my days” continually seem to be replaced by new realities. The new reality of publishing a book is growing an audience before any publisher becomes interested. The same applies for venture funding (even though that is currently on a peak) and for many other areas. We each make our own luck and only the suckers stick to the traditional, passive path of expecting favours. But that too isn’t sustainable. An author with an audience doesn’t need a publisher anymore. A company can self-fund. The weirdest market is that of job searchers, who are expected to network to enter the hidden job market, but even that seems like a shot in the dark.

Traffic for a blogger has never been easy. From the beginning of time the story went that the more you give (in the form of comments and guest posts on other sites), the more you get back. This hasn’t changed, except that many blogs are becoming even more obscure than they were before. Instead, the “marketing” happens on LinkedIN and other social platforms.

I’ve always been in this space for the purpose and satisfaction of writing, and that will likely not change. But I’m more and more thinking that writing on a “blog” is about as useful to the world, as writing in a text file on my desktop is. We are cluttered with information and whether I keep the clutter to myself or throw it out into a noisy world, there doesn’t seem to be much difference. These may be the words of a tired writer (recovering from the two flus I mentioned) and should probably be ignored. They may also be true.

To be evolved…

 

Lin火: Why Sherwood Smith chose to self-publish her latest book

Sherwood Smith is the co-author of Stranger and its sequel, the now self-published Hostage, neither of which I have read. I discovered her writing a guest-post on Charlie Stross’s blog. She (Sherwood) gives a revealing insight into the contemporary publishing model—at least in their experience—where the focus is on books as products, rather than literary pieces.

Their first book in the series was published via the traditional model, something they sought not to replicate because primarily the time factor:

But, as publishing often does these days, that process took three years from the time she expressed interest in the project (September 2011) to publication (November 2014). From Viking’s end, it was 2.5 years, i.e. from the time we signed their contract, in March 2012. But from the writer’s perspective? That wonderful “I’m interested” call came after the long period of submission, and then was followed by half a year of contract negotiation.

What the next step looks like from the writer’s end is that, once the offer is made, the writer gets notes that take a few weeks to rewrite or polish or proofread the manuscript before turning it back in to the publisher. Then they wait, and wait, and wait, until the next stage, and then wait again. From what we have been hearing from other writers is that the gaps between getting editorial feedback at each stage of the process may be anywhere from a few months to nine months to over a year—or longer. In those cases, the book’s release may be delayed, then delayed again.

Why the delays? My understanding is that publishing houses have changed a lot in the past forty years, partly because they’ve been scooped up by mega-corporations who regard books as product units, meant to gain instant profit or be dropped. And at minimal cost at their end, which means no more editorial staffs: editors are doing what used to be three and sometimes four people’s full time jobs, which means reading actual manuscripts on their own time. Rather like teachers, who correct and lesson plan on their own time. As I know from my own experience, they are paid for their classroom time, but they put in at least as much unpaid time behind the scenes.

As a result, manuscripts languish unread, or bought but unedited, for years, because one human being can only do so much in a day.

It’s an interesting case study, as you more hear about writers self-publishing their first book, then getting discovered, and entering the more traditional model. Pricing issues aside, which she describes in her blog-post, I think the most telling reason of why it’s easy to make the shift, is that authors are expected to generate their own publicity, something that publishers seem less willing to do. Publicity is already half the battle towards getting name recognition, the production of books, electronically or physically, is notably easier. Take that with the two possibilities of writing a book on your own time/money or funding more complex projects via Kickstarter and other sites, and the role of the traditional publisher is by and large diminished.

Lin火: Talib Kweli on why he left major labels

Talib Kweli is a hip-hop artists that I’ve known from the band Black Star, a collaboration between Mos Def and him. In this piece he recounts the process of going independent and the kinds of influences he has today.

So the question for the artist who is making a living from their art is: how do you monetize cultural relevancy?

It’s generally agreed that this is a problem for the artist, not the consumer of art, to solve. To find the answer I began to pay attention to indie artists with integrity who still make a good living, and I found myself paying attention to comedians. When Louis CK filmed a stand-up concert and made it available for stream and download on his website for $5, he made a cool million and gave half of it away to charity. I thought it was a genius idea, but when I tried to apply the realities of releasing a hip-hop album thru this kind of platform, the task seemed daunting. Louis CK comes up with jokes in his head and delivers them solo, on a microphone to an audience that is paying for seats. His only costs were probably the filming, the streaming and getting the website built, but the money he made from the concert could have probably covered these things. Louis’ hit show on FX and the success of his past comedy specials did the marketing for him, so he didn’t have to spend a lot of money in that department. He had no producers to pay, samples to clear, studio time to pay for, engineers, musicians, etc. There are no royalties that he has to pay out to anyone once the product is released as well. I scrapped the idea of being a hip-hop version of Louis CK, until singer/producer Ryan Leslie tracked me down to share an idea with me.

Lin火: Zoë Keating on the power of Youtube

What if, for years and years, you use social media as a tool to interact socially with your fans and friends? And what if that tool suddenly presents you with a big fat contract outlining who the boss is? Well, as Zoë Keating discovers that Google is boss, at least where it concerns publishing your content on it. The only problem is that the type of people like Zoë Keating… the type that woud use YouTube because it’s a convenient medium to reach many people… these types of people don’t necessarily believe with that dogma.

I found these words particularly striking.

The catalog commitment is the biggest issue for me. All these years I’ve yet to participate fully in any streaming service although I’ve chosen to give a handful of recordings to a few of them. If anyone wants more and they balk at paying for it, they can always stream all my music for free on Bandcamp(*2) or Soundcloud or they can torrent it (I uploaded my music to Pirate Bay myself many years ago). I’ve heard all the arguments about why artists should make all their music available for streaming in every possible service. I also know the ecosystem of music delivery made a shift away from downloading last year. Streaming is no longer advertising for something else, it is the end product. It’s convenient. Convenience is king. Yup, got all that, thanks.

This is the important part: it is my decision to make.

Is such control too much for an artist to ask for in 2015? It’s one thing for individuals to upload all my music for free listening (it doesn’t bother me). It’s another thing entirely for a major corporation to force me to. I was encouraged to participate and now, after I’m invested, I’m being pressured into something I don’t want to do.

P.S. Zoë Keating is one of those few artists that I bought music from just via her website. Powerful music, maybe not for every moment, but an artists that deserves serious recognition.

On Publishing vs Platforms part two

When I linked to the Harvard Business Review article about hybrid Publisher-Platform strategies a few days ago, I didn’t actually say that I find the strategy a little outdated in this day and age. We have established platforms with huge audiences and we have publisher with huge qualitative content capabilities. Yes, everything changes, and yes, once upon a time we said great things about MySpace (arguably a hybrid strategy that failed) as well, but the trend is really towards platforms becoming (stable) utilities and publishers to embrace those now established mediums. Facebook’s and Twitter’s (and Google’s) ‘connect with’ buttons are everywhere, eliminating much of the friction of integrating services with those platforms (I forgot LinkedIN in this, also a big one).

Publishers are rising to the challenge, (hopefully slowly abandoning old media and) embracing publishing where people read stuff: not in glossies or old tree canvasses, but in a feed.

The missing part is targeting. Of the big three, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, only the last one is pursuing a clear value proposition: for professionals. Facebook asks me to add my CV on a regular basis (not going to happen) and Twitter is a little bit of everything and nothing. So now I have Harvard Business Review in my Facebook and on LinkedIN, one of those two is going to lose. This represents a dual effort that can only come out of a continuing uncertainty of where content will be read (Arguably, tablet and mobile platform-interfaces are adding to this developmental overhead).

The Publisher as a Platform strategy may seem outdated, but it’s clearly a desire to control both content and audience, something that may not be as frictionless using other platforms. It’s public knowledge, for instance, that Apple does not share much user data with app developers (thank you Apple), but I don’t know whether this communication break is common practice with other platforms. I assume that due to the business model (it’s free, but someone is paying for it, usually with our user data), it isn’t.

So why does a publication choose to embrace so many platforms if, for instance, Facebook encompasses a good audience already? It may be for a couple of reasons, some more relevant than others.

  • One would be hedging bets on the future of a platform: history has proven that nothing lasts forever
  • Two may be that the overhead isn’t as large as imagined: at least for the web-based-platforms the programming tools will be similar. Platforms also have an incentive to make building apps easier.
  • Three could be differing audiences: LinkedIN and Facebook clearly aren’t the same, there is some overlap, but there are also people that only use one of the two. Same with Twitter and Facebook.
  • Four could be relevance: There’s a reason why old media is called Old…
  • Five could be learning: about platforms, audiences, differing business models, etc.

The list is probably endless and my bet is that at least half were mentioned in strategic discussions about publishing on platforms.

With all these challenges, however, it makes less and less sense to reinvent the wheel, unless your content or your platform vision is truly unique. Medium was an example mentioned in the article I previously linked to, but even that is risking much by some of the changes it is making, namely opening up the gates to the masses (I assume it did this because the masses were not reading enough). I hate end these thoughts on Publishing vs Platforms with time will tell, but it always does.

Kottke.org & the evolution of Link Aggregation

I probably started reading Kottke.org 5 or 6 years ago, but realise that in its near 17-year history, it has survived through some pretty radical changes on the Internet. Jason Kottke writes about this in a, perhaps inadvertently, revealing blog post on the topic of links—the essence of what makes the Internet the Internet.

I could write a lot about what I think defines Jason Kottke’s website as a go-to site for me. Yes, it’s not focussed on a particular topic-area (what are the liberal arts really, except everything), but generally the content is interesting, intelligent and, as a result, rewarding to read. I also appreciate the commercial direction that Kottke.org has taken. On a podcast-interview some years ago, Kottke said that he can’t have a similar sponsorship model to sites like Daring Fireball, because that site is focussed on a particular popular and profitable area (again, that indefinability of ‘culture’). Recently, Kottke.org took on a new sponsorship model revolving around Kickstarter projects, which seems like an excellent fit for the site and are ‘advertorials’ that I actually enjoy to read.

In the blog post that he entitled “The return of the remaindered links (sort of),” Kottke writes about the importance of links to Kottke.org’s initial growth and the subsequent commoditisation of links as the web evolved:

The links gave the site a velocity it didn’t previously have. I hadn’t really thought about it until I sat down to write this post, but that increase in velocity made it possible, more than two years later, for me to quit my job and do kottke.org full-time. But the web has changed. Sites like Reddit, Digg, and Hacker News and services like Facebook and Twitter are so much faster than this one man band…trying to keep pace is like racing an F1 car on roller skates. So, I’ve traded that velocity for quality (or, if you’d prefer, fussiness). I no longer post 10-12 things per day. Instead I post 4-6 of the most interesting things I can share with you on that given day.

With Twitter, things are changing for him again, but I understand the following sentiment quite well:

As my remaindered links experience shows, going fast without a plan can be beneficial in unexpected ways. With different tools and media delivery channels available to me now, I wonder: how fast can a one-person site go while still maintaining that choosiness?

To translate this into something more innovation focussed, we see phases of Kottke’s development:

  1. One of several blogs on the Internet.
  2. An increase in content and audience through the aggregation of links.
  3. Rise of link aggregators (along with, I believe, changes in the way Google weighs them) leads to a devaluation of the link concept.
  4. Refocus of site on quality over quantity again.
  5. Rise of Twitter as a personal link aggregation site (previous aggregators had much less identity associated with them).
  6. Attempt to reintegrate that into the Kottke.org brand.
  7. Next…?

There is no telling if his experiment will work, but my bet is that as long as he associates it with his unique vision about what goes onto the site, it will be somewhat successful. It’s important to note that his current advertising model (just referring to the sponsorships) is long form and therefore perhaps less suitable for a site that posts short links exclusively, if that is a possible direction he is considering.

In the end there is no such thing as sustainability, at least not in the “stay the same and make money” sense. Everything has diminishing returns as the rest of the “competition” eventually catches on. The key is to balance experiments with opportunity cost analysis (risks of jumping on wrong (technology) bandwagon, of alienating audiences or paying customers).

Lin火: “Don’t Try to Be a Publisher and a Platform at the Same Time”

Harvard Business Review has an article discussing some of the complexities surrounding hybrid publishing platform or “platisher”strategies:

Typically, publishers are considered to have editorial judgment, while platforms lack it. From this perspective, the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, and The New York Times are classic “publishers” — they present highly-curated content, and their editors invest a lot of time in its creation. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are classic “platforms” — they distribute other peoples’ content without as much editorial oversight. But these differences are largely cultural. It’s not technologically difficult for publishers to add platform-like elements, and vice versa.

Making these hybrids work over the long term is difficult, because their incentives work against each other. Toward the end of last year, one of the first platishers, Say Media, announced it was selling off its publishing properties to focus on its technological platform. CEO Matt Sanchez explained the decision to jettison its publisher properties as an inability to do both tech and content at the same time.

As more platishers mature, they may find themselves facing similar conundrums. Platform and publisher incentives are better aligned when a platform is new. A new platform that’s intended to host user-generated content has one overriding goal: Attract users and convince them to create content. High-quality, carefully-edited content is great for pulling in an audience. Well-thought-out content can also “seed” the platform for new users, shaping their understanding of how they use the tool.

The answer is perhaps blindingly obvious. Publishing platforms work well, but less so for individuals publishing, like on Medium or most blogging engines. Rather they work well for groups of people forming all the best ingredients for a publication: research, writing, editing, revenue.

I have yet to see a platform encouraging such groups (apart from the basic functionalities) in the form of how-to’s and easy structures taken from traditional publishing houses.

I envision a world where filters are no more

What if this drama resulted in every newspaper (and weblog) publishing content that provokes… thought? What if by everyone becoming ‘the enemy,’ we all end up laughing about it becoming friends? What if…?

Je suis charlie

Lin火: an interview with David Grann, New Yorker author

For those that do not know David Grann, he’s a writer for New Yorker and author of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (a favourite read of mine), as well as The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. To me, he has the best job in the world, but that’s mostly because I enjoy reading his work so much. In this interview on the Longform podcast, he reveals a lot about his process and how he ended up where he did.

It becomes pretty clear from his words that the news publishing business is not easy. He admits that he is not cut out for the fast writing pace required for certain types of news stories and time is less of an element for his kind of writing. At the same time, it is pragmatic world that revolves around doing as much preparatory work as possible, requires (over)selling your stories to your backers (the publisher), and of course timing plays a role as well. On a personal note, I found it interesting that he comes from a creative writing background, which is different from that of a news writing one—the latter being much more focussed on brevity and speed of writing.

The nature of his stories are very different, but as he highlights, it’s about finding authentic voices, designing a narrative around them, and, of course as a non-fiction writer, of triangulating the truth from what he hears. He discusses several of them in the interview, as well as the complexity around writing these stories.

Wikipedia has a nice overview of the articles he wrote in his career. If you added all of these to your Instapaper, you’d have a nice reading list for the holidays. I greatly recommend The Lost City of Z, an adventurous and romantic tale about an explorer’s fascination with a mythical city in the Amazon and his eventual disappearance.

On Writing (Lin火): Steven Pinker on Style


In what’s quickly becoming my favourite intellectual podcast,  Radio Open Source’s Christopher Lydon interviews Steven Pinker on his new book “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.” Having read “The Elements of Style” at least a dozen times (I still haven’t mastered it), I’m interested in reading this supposed counter to the reductive advice given in Shrunk’s guide.

Pinker celebrates the more floral way of writing (in this writer’s point of view), which has its merits, but can tire the mind if over-used. I agree that the key to good writing is to read good (and bad) writing, but believe myself that all good things must be used in extreme moderation. Much like Darwin’s last line in  “The Origin of Species” (quoted in the podcast description), which leaves the reader inspired, but only after reading what I hope is a much more to the point description of evolution.

Publishing: Is free content an opportunity or a threat to scientific publishing?

Similar to last post from last Friday, there are other trends that are threatening the raison d’être of the traditional publishing model. This specifically being about publicly funded publishing, i.e. the scientific kind, being asked to become free content. What I find interesting is that this is not really for reasons of disruptive technologies like the Internet (even though Bill Gates is one of the initiators), but rather a much broader idea: that knowledge is important and must become free for the maximum benefit of societies.

The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation published a new manifesto / open access policy on their site a few days ago. It lists 5 stipulations that publishers associated to research sponsored by the foundation must follow:

  1. Publications Are Discoverable and Accessible Online. Publications will be deposited in a specified repository(s) with proper tagging of metadata.

  2. Publication Will Be On “Open Access” Terms. All publications shall be published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Generic License (CC BY 4.0) or an equivalent license. This will permit all users of the publication to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and transform and build upon the material, including for any purpose (including commercial) without further permission or fees being required.

  3. Foundation Will Pay Necessary Fees. The foundation would pay reasonable fees required by a publisher to effect publication on these terms.

  4. Publications Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately. All publications shall be available immediately upon their publication, without any embargo period. An embargo period is the period during which the publisher will require a subscription or the payment of a fee to gain access to the publication. We are, however, providing a transition period of up to two years from the effective date of the policy (or until January 1, 2017). During the transition period, the foundation will allow publications in journals that provide up to a 12-month embargo period.

  5. Data Underlying Published Research Results Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately. The foundation will require that data underlying the published research results be immediately accessible and open. This too is subject to the transition period and a 12-month embargo may be applied.

Of note, this is not a new movement. In 2012, the British government announced that tax-sponsored research would be freely accessible as of last year. The European Union followed suit, and some American institutes (the Gates foundation included) are requiring it too.

Having studied scientific publishing models for some years now, I believe that this will in fact become an unopposed reality. The reason being that scientific publishers are transforming into becoming providers of decision making tools for scientific advancement. They are still dependent on new publications, but having access to so much raw data means that they can create intelligence on top of that, making it more accessible to practitioners. That is becoming their new revenue stream, therefore reducing their dependence on the traditional model.

Whether this should be a universally accepted way of publishing, arguably it already has in some parts, since this and many other blogs are free to read. I have a feeling that book publishing is heading into a different direction, though still more and more cutting out the middle-man, i.e. the publishers. Where it leaves the latter and how this will translate to other publishing media is a big question I hope to get the answer to in the future.

Publishing Lin火: “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers”

In a decidedly inflammatory article, Matthew Yglesias writes on VOX:

When all is said and done, the argument between Amazon and book publishers is over the rather banal question of price. Amazon’s view is that since “printing” an extra copy of an e-book is really cheap, e-books should be really cheap. Publishers’ view is that since “printing” an extra copy of an e-book is really cheap, e-books should offer enormous profit margins to book publishers. If you care about reading or ideas or literature, the choice between these visions is not a difficult one. The publishing incumbents have managed to get some intellectuals sufficiently tangled-up to believe that it is. But ask yourself this — do you regret the invention of the printing press? Of the paperback? Do you think public libraries devalue books and reading? The idea is absurd.

I don’t agree with everything he writes here — while one ecosystem is clearly losing ground, is a new Amazon-run ecosystem necessarily better? — but I do find some of the arguments regarding the more empowered stature of authors compelling.

In addition, the increase in authorship also creates a power-distribution problem. A publisher might have been willing to take a risk on a new author a few decades ago, but there is ample supply of writing out there, meaning that publishers become more conservative in their selection. The only reason this is happening is because of the investment that a publisher makes into authors, which is nice, but not if it restricts consumer choice. As is increasingly becoming clear that investment is available elsewhere also and the remaining services that publishers provide to authors can be replaced by a number of alternatives (distribution, marketing) or are no longer as necessary (printing).

On Publishing: Christopher Nolan’s creative process

In this article in the NY Times, Christopher Nolan, creator of Interstellar, the Batman trilogy, Memento, and many more movies, gives some insight into how he works. In terms of ambition, he’s one of my favourite auteurs, though not one that I expect to like all the time. On a side-note, that is what I hear makes for a successful movie, one that people either rate highly or rate lowly, but not consider mediocre.

There were a few tidbits in the article that stood out to me, regarding how he designs physical landscapes (a key quote: “The genius of [Ridley Scott’s] “Blade Runner” […] is that you never feel like you’ve gotten close to the edge of the world.”), how he uses collaboration within the studio system to his advantage, and how to create that very ambiguity of interpretation that makes him an interesting auteur.

The key differences between the creative process in movies and that in other mediums, is perhaps most strikingly the physical aspect that drives the visual medium. From the article:

[Nolan] tries to build maps the size of the territory, whole cities from the ground up in disused airship hangars (as he’s done for four of his movies at a former R.A.F. facility outside London), even if he’s going to shoot just a few street-corner scenes.

It’s hard to imagine this, both for a non-industry-insider and for an aspiring filmmaker (with a lower budget than Nolan). But it also makes sense. Some of the most striking movies, the aforementioned Blade Runner, Star Wars, Terminator, not to mention outside of the sci-fi genre, used low tech mechanical effects, not CGI, resulting in movies that stood the test of time and perhaps, like Nolan says, create the effect of a real world.

He also discusses the collaborative nature of this process and how to use it to his advantage…

“The single-most important thing was the art of working in the studio system,” Nolan told me of his experience with “Insomnia.” “It takes time to learn how to take notes. In the corporate structure, the people giving you the notes are not responsible for the final product. You are. It’s not their job, it’s yours. When you’re taking notes, it’s possible that you’re having an interesting conversation with a very smart individual and everything they’re saying is correct. But they’re wrong. So you have to go back and approach it from a different angle.” He continues to treat executives as, essentially, representative filmgoers. At a development meeting — at, in other words, a conference-room table — before “The Dark Knight,” he had to explain the Joker’s motivations. “Execs are very good at saying things like, ‘What’s the bad guy’s plan?’ They know those engines have to be very powerful. I had to say: ‘The Joker represents chaos, anarchy. He has no logical objective in mind.’ I had to explain it to them, and that’s when I realized I had to explain it to the audience.”

What I find interesting about movies, very similar to how games are made, is that you can’t really do anything alone. Sure, you can take your Canon DSLR and go shoot some footage and sure it’s technically a movie, but really these creations involve complex tasks, different actors, locations, and many other links in the complex chain that connects creation to consumption in the cinema or at home. Writing sometimes feels a bit more independent (or isolated), but it’s important to keep in mind that that too is part of a value chain, from working with editors and publishers, to perhaps being the script for a movie, all of which creates that magical experience for the audience.

Last, but not least, he discusses ambiguity, which is arguably a part of most of his creations.

Nolan is known for making movies that hold themselves open to various interpretations, but it’s an effect that can be created only when the director knows, in his own mind, exactly how he sees it. For the director’s commentary on “Memento,” Nolan recorded three different, equally plausible interpretations of the final scene that the DVD serves at random to viewers. But he insists he has a full, definitive interpretation that he keeps to himself. “The only way to be productively ambiguous,” he told me, “is that you have to know the answer for you — but also know why, objectively speaking. If you do something unknowable, there’s no answer for the audience, because you didn’t have an answer. It becomes about ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. There has to be a sense of reality in the film. If you don’t have rules, then what I’m doing would be formless. I feel better with consistent rules.”

Now, at this stage, I’d like to say that there are scenes in Interstellar that definitely bothered me (I think I wrote about this yesterday), the reason being because they are a little light on the exposition. Not everything needs to be explained, but there needs to be a payoff at some point (I did not really get that in this case). Key here, however, is to understand that Nolan is in the unique position to determine the creative path of his movies. Often, within the collaborative studio system, previously discussed, we see a design by committee effect, simplifying and exposing to the least common denominator. That is, thankfully, not a criteria of Nolan’s movies.

 

On Writing: Nihilistic Characters


“It’s a trap!” ~ Admiral Ackbar

When you write a character without motivation, it can seem like you found an endless well of inspiration. Go left, go right, go back, go forward, but whatever you do, don’t explain.

But the risk you run is a frustrated and confused audience. The risk you run when writing such a character is that after a while you forget your original reasons for creating that character. Someone said—I may have quoted that person on this site in the past—that you must love your characters to bits. But a nihilistic character absorbs that love to the point of perfect osmosis, it passes straight through without giving the needed feedback to the love-giver.

I digress and it is time for some examples.

Most recently, I watched Matthew Mcconaughey in Interstellar. There is a scene that bothered me throughout the film, of him deciding to head into space and “save the world,” without really giving a second look at his daughter, which he leaves behind crying in her room. We witness his many adventures throughout the film, but we never understand what drives the character. He is as cold as the antagonist revealed later in the story.

In the book Leviathan Wakes (Book 1 in the Expanse series), we are introduced to a washed out detective Miller, who fits the very definition of nihilism. He loses some pretty important elements to his life (trying not to spoil it), but his emotions are non-existent, the only expression is movement of the character throughout the story. Which is fine, except that his choices also appear at random or at least as those of a very depressed person.

Exhibit 3 is Vanessa Ives in the TV Show Penny Dreadful (Amazon link), which I also previously expressed my admiration for on this site. What I liked about this show is the melding of different mythologies into a shared adventure. What nearly drove me out was Vanessa Ive’s descent into her own darkness, one entirely devoid of meaning. The character is haunted, ever since she was a child, by an image of her mother cheating and later invokes that pain onto her mother’s lover, by seducing his daughter Mina’s fiancé. That leads her to being possessed by some kind of devil and we witness the scenes of her combatting that demon.

The salvation to nihilism is some kind of overarching faith or goal. Interstellar’s goal is to save the world and for a father to rejoin his daughter. The driving engine for this is the protagonist’s thoughtless (nihilistic?) bravery. In Leviathan Wakes, Miller entire focus is on solving a case, which is what drags him out of the various messes he creates or is a part of. But we also see this drive to destruction, which is hard to digest. Vanessa Ive’s “engine” is her faith and the overal goal is save Mina, the woman whose life she destroyed at some point.

A character does not need to be loved and understood always, but he must have a meaning to his actions. Some of the examples above showcase that this meaning can be lacking and must be compensated over time. But it also risks to frustrate the audience throughout the story and absolutely must be paid off.

The new face of Publishing… through Facebook

(…and other visual social media platforms like LinkedIn)

I have long held a philosophical stance about Facebook, as the “social enabler,” or disabler in some cases. Many of its core audiences, me included, struggle with finding a good use case for the platform.

  • Regular users like me wonder what to share (especially in an environment where privacy is more and more valued) and whether your online friends aren’t over-/undersharing themselves.
  • Corporations struggle with integrating it into their marketing mix, especially if they are already engrained into other marketing channels.
  • News seems like the most logical use case for this platform, but comes with some problems as well.

There is a major risk with publishing on a social media platform: it positions regular users on the same level as corporations, publications, and advertising. Everyone becomes the competition.

My social media education happened on Twitter. It taught me to not confuse the newsfeed with an RSS feed, because you would soon lose oversight of the “real” people you were following. As a result, I was a slow adopter of Facebook as a newsreader and continue to be careful. Recently, as a fan of Harvard Business Review on a professional level, and inspired by a “social suggestion” from my friends, I decided to give it a shot after all, and subscribed to the HBR feed. The results were surprising.

It turns out the publication has figured out how to integrate Facebook as a publishing medium. HBR is a monthly periodical, as a print publication, and has both its website and mobile (iPad) apps as online alternatives. I was surprised at the content being shared via Facebook, which both felt relevant and premium (you can buy many of the articles as a PDF), and was infrequent enough not to bother. It takes a discerning editorial team to ensure that both the quality of the writing, the thematical content, and the mix are of a good quality to its audience. Somehow, likely to having a dedicated social media editorial team, HBR figured Facebook out.

It’s an encouraging development, but one positioned on brittle ground for the same risk factor I mentioned above. Facebook, its users and content providers are continually evolving and thus requires continuous attention to the engagement metrics and other qualitative aspects of each shared item. It is clear that social media is an investment, which is why so many companies fail at it. And, more importantly, the return on that investment must somehow be quantifiable also. It’s for every company or individual to figure out whether it is worth it.

What Facebook and other social media platforms must absolutely do is to make using their services more transparent. They cannot handhold publishers and marketeers as they publish on the platform, but they can provide accurate information about how they are positioned for each news item within the overal newsfeed. That, in combination with link tracking, and a both coherent marketing strategy and dedicated social media team, should make a big difference to social media success.

On that even-keeled conclusion, I am still happy to read HBR on Facebook, as well as a limited amount of other news publications (The Big Picture is a good one). I am very interested to see where social media and news reading continues to evolve to, as we are clearly not done.

Publishing: Steve Albini on the Music industry

Via the Guardian (and Waxy.org), Steve Albini on the history of the modern (1960s to now) music industry, the roots of independent music, John Peel, the problems and opportunities of the internet. I collected some quotes.

That’s where I cut my teeth, in that independent scene full of punks and noise freaks and drag queens and experimental composers and jabbering street poets. You can thank punk rock for all of that. That’s where most of us learned that it was possible to make your own records, to conduct your own business and keep control of your own career. If a bunch of pimply glue sniffers could do it, we reasoned, then anybody could.

The number of records released this way was incredible. Thousands of small releases made their way into the “mom and pop” independent speciality stores, which then provided a market for independent distribution. It was the beginnings of an alternative to the label paradigm. It was cumbersome and slow but it was more efficient than a shotgun approach with the big labels, whose answer to every problem was to spend more of the band’s money on it.

It was the beginning of what we would call the peer network. By mid-90s there were independent labels and distributors moving millions of dollars of records and CDs. And there was a healthy underground economy of bands making a reasonable income owing to the superior efficiencies of the independent methods. My band, as an example, was returned 50% of the net profit on every title that we released through our record label. I worked it out and that earned us a better per-piece royalty than Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna or any other superstar operating concurrently. And we were only one of thousands of such bands.

So, that was the system as it was. That’s what we lost when the internet made everything available everywhere for free.

On the internet, the rise of consumer choice and of much easier production and distribution mechanisms:

There’s a lot of shade thrown by people in the music industry about how terrible the free sharing of music is, how it’s the equivalent of theft, etc. That’s all bullshit and we’ll deal with that in a minute. But for a minute I want you to look at the experience of music from a fan’s perspective, post-internet. Music that is hard to find was now easy to find. Music to suit my specific tastes, as fucked up as they might be, was now accessible by a few clicks or maybe posting a query on a message board. In response I had more access to music than I had ever imagined. Curated by other enthusiasts, keen to turn me on to the good stuff; people, like me, who want other people to hear the best music ever.

This audience-driven music distribution has other benefits. Long-forgotten music has been given a second life. And bands whose music that was ahead of its time has been allowed to reach a niche audience that the old mass distribution failed to find for them, as one enthusiast turns on the next and this forgotten music finally gets it due. There’s a terrific documentary about one such case, the Detroit band Death whose sole album was released in a perfunctory edition in, I believe, 1975 and disappeared until a copy of it was digitised and made public on the internet. Gradually the band found an audience, their music got lovingly reissued, and the band has resurrected, complete with tours playing to packed houses. And the band are now being allowed the career that the old star system had denied them. There are hundreds of such stories and there are speciality labels that do nothing but reissue lost classics like that once they surface.

Now look at the conditions from a band’s perspective, the conditions faced by a band. In contrast to back in the day, recording equipment and technology has simplified and become readily available. Computers now come pre-loaded with enough software to make a decent demo recording and guitar stores sell microphones and other equipment inexpensively that previously was only available at a premium from arcane speciality sources. Essentially every band now has the opportunity to make recordings.

And they can do things with those recordings. They can post them online in any number of places: Bandcamp, YouTube, SoundCloud, their own websites. They can link to them on message boards, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter and even in the comment streams of other music. “LOL,” “this sucks,” “much better,” “death to false metal,” “LOL”. Instead of spending a fortune on international phone calls trying to find someone in each territory to listen to your music, every band on the planet now has free, instant access to the world at its fingertips.

On faux problems and solutions (garbage in, garbage out):

Let’s start at the beginning. “We need to figure out”: the subject of that sentence, the first-person plural, sounds inclusive but the context defeats that presumption. Who would have the power to implement a new distribution paradigm? Who would be in the room when we discuss our plans for it? Who would do the out figuring we need to do? Industry and consumers? Consumers is a likely response, but did the consumers get a vote about how their music would be compressed or tagged or copy protected or made volatile? Did anybody? Did the consumers get a choice about whether or not Apple stuck a U2 album on their iTunes library? Of course not. These things were just done and we had to deal with them as a state of being. Consumers rebelling or complaining about things – “market pushback” – isn’t the same thing as being involved in the decision to do something. Clearly the “we” of this sentence doesn’t include the listener. I believe any attempt to organise the music scene that ignores the listener is doomed.

How about the bands? Do the bands get a seat at the “we” table, while our figuring-out needs are met? Of course not. If you ask bands what they want – and I know this because I’m in a band and I deal with bands every day – what they want is a chance to expose their music and to have a shot at getting paid by their audience. I believe the current operating status satisfies the first of these conditions exquisitely and the latter at least as well as the old record label paradigm.

So who is this “we”? The administrative parts of the old record business, that’s who. The vertical labels who hold copyright on a lot of music. They want to do the figuring. They want to set the agenda. And they want to do all the structural tinkering. The bands, the audience, the people who make music and who pay for it – they are conspicuously not in the discussion.

It’s really powerful stuff and if these lengthy quotes haven’t put you off, please read the whole article, which is a gazillion times longer.

On Publishing: The Podcasting Revival

I’m largely in agreement with Marco Arment here about the NON-revival of podcasts. I was there during the earlier days of podcasting, 10 years ago. There was TWIT.tv (this week in tech), when the discussions centered around what are the best microphones to get for podcasting, all the way until Leo Laporte decided to go full-pro and build a studio for his business. Then again, there was the 5by5 network, which launched a great number of tech people into podcasting: John Gruber, Marco Arment, John Siracusa, and The Prompt’s line-up, which again transformed into new networks or podcasters going independent.

All the while there were several trends in podcasting, namely university lectures (now more formalised into iTunes U), news outlets like NPR and most of the mainstream ones, and other smaller podcast networks (e.g. Revision3) and independent podcasters (e.g. Kevin Smith’s Smodcasts) that have been going strong since the beginning.

I like Marco’s take on this, because he’s in this business as both a podcaster (and blogger) and as a podcast app developer—my app of choice since a month or three. He is decidedly anti-establishment, so his words are somewhat coloured by deciding to stay independent. And I’d like to see some real stats if they are available—however there must be some real quantifiable advantages for this medium for mainstream news outlets to keep releasing podcasts for nearly a decade.

But, apart from podcast apps, bluetooth integration, a strengthened podcast advertisement movement, and the rise of some (slightly) prominent podcast-networks, I think the most interesting thing that has happened to this business is Serial. The fact that a podcast can become a blockbuster, which I define as both generating significant buzz and download numbers, is a pretty amazing thing.

Will podcasts ever be a “big thing?” Well if we let’s look at the analogy of other prerecorded media, TV shows, the answer is decidedly yes. But the conversation shouldn’t be muddled by the term “podcast,” just like it seems to be for “tablets vs the PC market” or for “streaming vs the rest of the video industry.” Nowadays, you can watch any TV program or listen to any radio show later via legal website services. They are just not called podcasts. The difference is perhaps that many podcasts only exist as recordings, though some are streamed live on the internet.

In essence, the technology that podcasts are based on is becoming bigger,  more and more used and consumed by major media outlets and mainstream audiences. Are podcasts a part of that wave? It seems so and that’s a great thing.

Quote on Writing: Neil Gaiman motivates

Embrace the fact that you’re young. Accept that you don’t know what you’re doing. And don’t listen to anyone who says there are rules and limits.
If you know your calling, go there. Stay on track. Keep moving towards it, even if the process takes time and requires sacrifice.
Learn to accept failure. Know that things will go wrong. Then, when things go right, you’ll probably feel like a fraud. It’s normal.
Make mistakes, glorious and fantastic ones. It means that you’re out there doing and trying things.
When life gets hard, as it inevitably will, make good art. Just make good art.
Make your own art, meaning the art that reflects your individuality and personal vision.

Via BrainPickings.

In Movies: Scriptnotes talks Superhero Movies

Superheros are mainstream now, so like many of you, I have witnessed this pretty amazing blending of visual storytelling, innovation in the effects area, and allround blockbuster-money-exploding movie releases. The Scriptnotes podcast, in light of the recent “forecast” for when what 30 superhero movies will be released until 2020 (MarvelDC), is pretty insightful in explaining what “pillars” made all of this possible.

They begin with Brian Singer’s X-men, released in 2000, which was perhaps the first non-cheesy looking mainstream (!) comic book movie. He brought these characters on screen, focussing less on costumes and more on characters we care about.

Secondly, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, released in 2005, which again brought a realistic, but hard-to-replicate gritty tone to the superhero scene. To me, this Batman is like the Indiana Jones of adventure films—an impossible character (in a good way) in a well-written adventure. If X-men was characters, I think writing is the key contribution here.

Third, Joss Whedon’ and Kevin Feige’s the Avengers, which really brought together the universe of these characters, much more so than X-men did. Craig Mazin says on Feige:

He’s like, you know, you have to go all the way back to like, I don’t know, Thalberg, and guys like that to find these really powerful, very smart guys that actually made like a good creator-like impact on the movie business. He may be our generation’s, I don’t know, whatever you want to call it, Zanuck or Thalberg. One of those guys.

… which I thought was really powerful stuff!

It’s hard to argue with John August and Craig Mazin, these two “pillars” of movie podcasting and scriptwriting, so I won’t. Like Lost or Battlestar Gallactica lead audiences into watching science fiction, something amazing has happened for comics as well. It’s nice to hear an analysis of what these contributing factors were and perhaps a discussion point for another time.

Lin火 on writing: Charlie Stross’s on Urban Fantasy

Writers have long been frustrated about the pace of technology. It’s moving so fast, that writing speculative fiction like those that came from Jules Verne and from Neal Stephenson is becoming less and less attainable. The coolest most recent piece of such fiction came from Greg Bear in Darwin’s Radio.

Writers are embracing a new term, that of Urban Fantasy. It essentially gives more leeway in how you write and less of a pressure to really predict the future, which has arguably become too fragmented and requires several PhDs. Charlie Stross explains his reasoning behind it quite well and also brings forth this other interesting tidbit: the technology of just 5 years ago was drastically different from today, in the sense that it was user-serviceable.

In addition to the redrawing of the plausibility/implausibility frontier, we have other factors to consider: notably, our relationship with technology and science. As Vernor Vinge remarked in his novel Rainbows End many modern technologies come with no user serviceable parts inside. Back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, personal computers were (by modern standards) a bit crap, but they offered an unparalleled opportunity to open the lid and learn by tinkering. For example, the BBC Micro in the UK—which sold by the million—had an analog i/o port, user-accessible DMA ports, and ROM sockets into which users could install additional firmware; it was designed for learning. The Apple II similarly featured a fairly simple expansion port architecture. But today’s personal computing devices (with very few exceptions) come as shiny sealed boxes; their expansion options exist but are complex and require considerable expertise to develop: they’re not designed for learners and tinkers but for users or highly trained developers.

Similarly, in other fields our technologies have developed in a way that’s hostile to monkey-see monkey-do learning. You can’t credibly learn to service a modern automobile in your own garage. You can’t formulate a new pharmaceutical preparation in the back of your dispensary (which, believe it or not, actually happened right up until the late 1930s: even in the late 1970s/early 1980s it was possible for a medium-sized company with perhaps 20-30 researchers to develop and bring to market new medicines).

I would love to go on a rant now about how it’s not about the hardware stupid—in my experience, hardware design is so complex and rigid, that it makes sense to provide completely integrated solutions—and that software is the new tinker-zone. But will there be fiction speculating about software? I suppose Snow Crash has done it, as has Tron and the Lawnmower Man.

Lawnmower Man

Lawnmower Man

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