Non-Fiction

Uncle Sam wants YOU to read ‘popular’ scholarly books

29 July 2015

From The Washington Post:

If all goes as planned, there’s a fascinating book about Diderot in your future — and one about the history of photographic detection and another one about the economics of addiction.

Think that’s too heady for you? Think again.

The Public Scholar program, a major new initiative from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is designed to promote the publication of scholarly nonfiction books for a general audience, and the first round of grants has just been announced: a total of $1.7 million to 36 writers across a broad collection of disciplines. The grants range from $25,200 to $50,400. (Full list at bottom.)

The winners include Pulitzer Prize-winner Diane McWhorter, who’s working on a book about the Moon landing and the civil rights era in Huntsville, Ala.,; National Book Award-winner Kevin Boyle, who’s writing about an early 20th-century anarchist; and National Book Award-winner Edward Ball, who will return to the territory of his bestselling “Slaves in the Family” to write a biography of his great-great grandfather.

. . . .

This program is a priority for NEH Chairman William D. Adams, who has just completed his first year in office. He’s determined to push back against the forces that make academic writing and research inaccessible to lay readers. Applicants for Public Scholar grants were told that they must aim “to engage broad audiences in exploring subjects of general interest . . . in a readily accessible style.” At $1.7 million, the Public Scholar program represents about 20 percent of the NEH budget for fellowships and other scholarship.

“Over the years,” Adams said, “some of the humanities disciplines became much more technical and much more professionally oriented. Their audience became much more internal to the profession. With this program, we’re trying to send a message that would legitimate scholarship that aims outside the profession with topics that have resonance more broadly.”

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Dave for the tip.

12 Lost American Slangisms From The 1800s

27 July 2015

From NPR:

Phrases phase in and out of everyday usage. Especially in the global hodgepodge that is American English. Sometimes, however, there are phrases forgotten that perhaps should be sayings salvaged.

Informal words and expressions that popped up in popular parlance, especially in the 19th century, says Lynne Murphy — an American linguist who teaches at the University of Sussex in England — are “going to stay fairly local, and so there can be a lot of variation not just between countries, but between cities, between social classes, et cetera.”

Murphy, who also oversees the language-watching blog Separated by a Common Language, says: “English has a rich variety of means for making new words — and then a lot of slang is just giving new meaning to old words.”

. . . .

1) Too high for his nut — beyond someone’s reach. “That clay-bank hog wants the same pay as a Senator; he’s getting too high for his nut,” according to a grammar-corrected version of the Oakland, Calif., Tribune on Jan. 12, 1885.

. . . .

3) To be Chicagoed — to be beaten soundly, as in a baseball shutout. “Political corruption … if the clergy only keep to that topic, Lincoln will be Chicagoed!” from the Plymouth, Ind., Weekly Democrat of June 7, 1860.

. . . .

12) Wake snakesget into mischief. “So I went on a regular wake snakes sort of a spree, and I went here and there turnin’, twistin’ and doublin’ about until I didn’t know where or who I was,” a man testified in court as to why he was intoxicated, according to the New Orleans, La., Times Picayune of Aug. 15, 1842.

Link to the rest at NPR and thanks to Julia for the tip.

How Kindness Became Our Forbidden Pleasure

20 July 2015

From Brain Pickings:

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful 1957 letter.“Kindness, kindness, kindness,” Susan Sontag resolved in her diary on New Year’s Day in 1972. And yet, although kindness is the foundation of all spiritual traditions and was even a central credo for the father of modern economics, at some point in recent history, kindness became little more than an abstract aspiration, its concrete practical applications a hazardous and vulnerable-making behavior to be avoided — we need only look to the internet’s “outrage culture” for evidence, or to the rise of cynicism as our flawed self-defense mechanism against the perceived perils of kindness. We’ve come to see the emotional porousness that kindness requires as a dangerous crack in the armor of the independent self, an exploitable outward vulnerability — too high a cost to pay for the warm inward balm of the benevolence for which we long in the deepest parts of ourselves.

Kindness has become “our forbidden pleasure.”

So argue psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and historian Barbara Taylor in the plainly titled, tiny, enormously rewarding book On Kindness.

. . . .

Taylor and Phillips write:

In giving up on kindness — and especially our own acts of kindness — we deprive ourselves of a pleasure that is fundamental to our sense of well-being.

. . . .

 Kindness’s original meaning of kinship or sameness has stretched over time to encompass sentiments that today go by a wide variety of names — sympathy, generosity, altruism, benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy… The precise meanings of these words vary, but fundamentally they all denote what the Victorians called “open-heartedness,” the sympathetic expansiveness linking self to other.

. . . .

 We usually know what the kind thing to do is — and kindness when it is done to us, and register its absence when it is not… We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us. There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

The Secret World of Kindle Gold Rushers

17 July 2015

From The Hustle:

So there’s a group of people who make a living churning out dozens of lowbrow Kindle books a month. I call them Kindle Gold Rushers. Some of them make hundreds of thousands of dollars selling ebooks on niche categories.

In this week’s story, we hear from one of the top selling Kindle Gold Rushers. He’s 26 years old, sells 6,000 books a month, and nets $150,000+ a year.

On the surface it’s a badass story of success: a young professional quits his job, becomes a self-published author, and earns six figures per year. Except for one thing: he doesn’t actually write the books he publishes. Instead, he has a team of outsourced writers and creatives who pump out dozens of books a year to game Amazon and dominate various book categories.

. . . .

Before my life as a semi-famous, best-selling self-help Kindle author, I was an corporate cog in the wheel with a meaningless graduate degree. I was grinding out 70 hours a week in an office with no sunlight, focused on becoming a senior associate and eventual partner.

By the time I was 24 years old, I was bored and unhappy. Something had to change in my life. After reading an article on Kindle authors and how their income was pretty much passive after the book launched, I thought, “What the hell. Maybe I should give writing a try.”

After checking out the self-help section in the Kindle store, I noticed how godawful the writing was. I couldn’t tell if someone had outsourced their book to a non-native English speaking writer (which is common), or if it was actually someone’s legitimate effort at a book. I was shocked that anyone (a) put this stuff for sale, and (b) the books actually sold.

. . . .

Before writing, I created a three-page outline based on the tables of contents I had seen in other books. My first book was 18,000 words (40 pages). It was on how to be more persuasive, something that I know quite well. It took two weeks to write.

Since it was non-fiction, I didn’t have to fact check or cite anything/anyone, which was one of the reasons it only took two weeks to write. That’s the beauty of writing self-help books (and why it’s easy to game) – there’s never really a wrong answer.

After writing the draft, I had a cover made on Fiverr. A graphic designer in the Philippines created what I wanted for $5. Then I uploaded the book to the Amazon Kindle store.

11 copies sold the first month and 30 copies the second, netting 35 cents from each sale. The sales came organically from the Amazon search. Not much, but I enjoyed the prospect of being a published author, so I kept writing. After all, whose first effort ever hits the mark? I applied everything that I had learned about the process to my following books.

. . . .

I wrote 8 books within a few months, all on similar topics. Two of them were each making $1,000 a month, and I was netting over $4,000 per month from Amazon. I literally did nothing to get a sale after the initial writing and launch.

. . . .

I was spending a ton of time — about two weeks — writing and editing each book. I’d heard that a ton of other Kindle authors hired ghostwriters so they could churn out a dozen books a month. To scale up my process and start making real dollars, I needed one myself.

. . . .

I tried eLance and Craigslist, but Warrior Forum was the winner. I was only making $3000 a month, so I couldn’t afford a premium ghostwriter, which costs around $1000 per book. Plus, the actual writing wasn’t that important.

. . . .

I auditioned 8 writers by sending them an outline for a book. They sent back 2,000 word essays. The person I chose deviates as he pleases to fit his vision of my outlines, which I like. He has great English, can fill space (which is all I need), and most importantly, he lives in the Philippines, which means he’s cheap. For $150 per book, I send him a 2,000 word outline and 7 days later he sends me a 20,000-word book. I spend about a week editing those 20,000 words It’s that easy.

I make (net) around $1,000 each month per book.

. . . .

I have a best-seller on gardening, an activity I’ve literally never done. These books are only about 20 pages and simple to create. I find books that are selling well, check out their tables of contents, look at the negative reviews to see what they missed, and then do a little research on the web. I create a 20 chapter outline, filling each chapter with 4-5 bullet points about main ideas, angles to explore, and specific things to mention. Once I have an outline, I send it off to the ol’ ghostwriter. one week later, I get my manuscript.

. . . .

After publishing a book, Amazon gives you the option of giving it away for free for up to 5 days. This is when I used to send the book to 20 friends to review. I’d write each review for them, so all they had to do is copy and paste.

This worked well, but it was also a pain in the ass, so I recently started paying someone to find reviewers for me.

I found my fake reviewer on Craigslist after I posting an ad looking for a content writer. He ended up being a part of some kind of review circle that I still don’t really understand, but I pay $3 per review that he gets me.

Link to the rest at The Hustle and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Non-fiction publishing in the UK is in fine health, actually

5 July 2015

From The Guardian:

In his article last week, Sam Leith deplored the state of mainstream trade publishing, saying it was “getting dumber by the day”, in contrast to the university presses which are apparently enjoying a “golden age”.

I hate to criticise Leith, because he chooses to publish his serious, lively and illuminating non-fiction with Profile Books, of which I am the managing director. I am also his editor, and like any good editor, when one of my authors is wrong, I must correct his facts.

First, I admit it: all publishers produce some stinkers. That is because we take risks and we make mistakes. We survive, even thrive, if we get it right often enough. But just like theatres and film studios, we end up backing both winners and losers. And the bad books, the poorly-judged ideas, the authors who aren’t up to it, are – or should be – quickly forgotten, because their words will never change the world or win over readers.

. . . .

It’s true that the success of Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Pinker and co has spawned a crop of imitations – some of which are impressive and intelligent, and others which are less so. But to suggest that this is makes up the majority of trade publishing houses is like looking at the success of Fifty Shades of Grey and saying that contemporary literary fiction is dead. One imagines that Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro would disagree with that idea, just as I think that Owen Jones, Helen Macdonald, Atul Gawande and Margaret Macmillan would disagree with Sam’s contention here.

It’s also true that these are tough times for publishing. But far from luring publishers into putting out ever-blander mash-ups of previous ideas, it’s forcing us to be better, leaner and more competitive. Now, more than ever, there’s no space for dead wood on a list, and we have to be more selective about the quality of the books we publish.

. . . .

There is a good reason why trade publishers get more review coverage than university press titles – and despite what Sam says, this is the case even in his own journal, the Spectator – and why our authors appear far more at literary festivals and in the media. We much more work into publicising and marketing them, and we also make sure that the books are in the bookshops. When did anyone see a British university press book on the front tables at Waterstones? Or in a good independent bookshop? In part this is because university press books are often eye-wateringly expensive, because they do not expect to sell many, and are therefore off-putting to readers and booksellers.

The presses themselves are hardly in great shape. In the UK there are only two university presses of any significance: Oxford and Cambridge.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Prior rejects ‘out of date’ industry image

3 July 2015

From The Bookseller:

Tackling an outdated image of publishing as a closed world unreceptive to the digital future is a key challenge Joanna Prior has set herself as president of the Publishers Association for the coming year.

In an interview in this week’s issue of The Bookseller, the Penguin General m.d. has said that publishing has “so many good stories to tell” but still needs to get home to the wider public, to potential new recruits, and to politicians both in the UK and Brussels, that it is has moved on completely from its old-fashioned image.

Particularly crucial is to combat “this dichotomy that perhaps exists in people’s minds between traditional publishing and digital technology – as though one is opposed to the other. One of the truly impressive things about our industry is how we have responded to the changes in technology and the new ways that readers are accessing entertainment.”

. . . .

“We’re not a closed world that is difficult to get into, we’re open to innovation, to doing things in new ways.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”  Hamlet, Act III, Scene II

The crisis in non-fiction publishing

27 June 2015

From The Guardian:

Amid the ambient wails of doom about the publishing industry, I’d like to enter a note of encouragement. The mainstream may be getting dumber by the day, but we are living in what looks like a golden age of publishing for, of all people, the university presses.

At the moment, I don’t think there’s a trade publishing house producing high-calibre, serious non-fiction of the quality and variety of Yale University Press; and snapping at its heels are Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, Cambridge and Chicago. As the literary editor of a middlebrow news magazine I’m finding ever more of the reviews I commission are from such presses.

Where 15 or 20 years ago the big trade publishers were, oddly, swamping the market with sort-of-scholarly micro-histories of salt or longitude, they now seem, with exceptions of course, to be tiptoeing away from specific, knotty, deeply researched and nuanced books about things. The sorts of book on which they tend now to rely are investigations of “big ideas”. Their lodestars or exemplars are the Malcolm Gladwells and Daniel Kahnemans and Nicholas Carrs. I do not mean to denigrate those individual authors, rather to say that they produce a particular type of work.

These are talking-point books. They are easily imitated; their headline conclusions tend towards the categorical, and can be summed up in a dinner party one-liner or a 900-word newspaper op-ed; they lean on a vogueish but vague pop-theoretical or neuroscientific framework. They often have in their titles, or imply, a big question answered; or they have a flavour of self-help or how-to. They like to offer us things in the forms of lists. And – did I say this before? – they are easily imitated. Because imitated they are. From William Carlos Williams’ notion of “no ideas but in things”, we’re moving towards “no things but in ideas”.

The imitation books are, unsurprisingly, not as good as the originals. Their argument often seems appropriate to a compelling 10,000-word magazine article, but has been expanded to fill a full-length study. We have a flock of books arguing that the internet is either the answer to all our problems or the cause of them; we have scads of books telling us about the importance of mindfulness, or forgetfulness, or distraction, or stress. We have any number about what one recent press release called the “always topical” debate between science and religion. We have a whole subcategory that concern themselves with “what it means to be human”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Will Book Publishers Ever Start Fact-checking? They’re Already Starting.

25 June 2015

From Slate:

Another spring book season has come to pass, and with it another set of factual mini-scandals. Earlier this month, the New York Post found major inaccuracies in Primates of Park Avenue, Wednesday Martin’s “study” of Upper East Siders and their wife bonuses, prompting Simon & Schuster to slap a quick disclaimer onto its best-seller. A Salon.com writer found that a key statistic in David Brooks’s The Road to Character was badly mangled and wrongly sourced. (Random House will correct it in future editions.) And last week, New York’s Jesse Singal fact-checked On the Run, Alice Goffman’s immersive, quasi-academic account of Philadelphia lawbreakers, which has come under fire for its shakiness on details.

None of these flubs belongs in the pantheon of hardcover frauds and fabricators whose names must by law be dropped in a piece like this: James Frey, Jonah Lehrer, pretend–Native American gang member Margaret Seltzer. Nor have they prompted five-alarm hand-wringing over the utterly shocking revelation that books aren’t fact-checked. Thanks to Oprah, we all know that now. Or do we? In fact, the practice of checking books is fairly common, though it’s also expensive. This fall, for the first time, one publisher is even promising to pay for it. Which is a pretty radical departure. Until now, authors have not just cut the check but decided whether to hire a checker, found one themselves, and directed the process. That’s probably not the most effective system, since it means that the most cautious writers are the ones likeliest to end up with fact-checker support, while the writers who need it most are the least likely to get it. That includes, almost definitely, the next big fraud that comes slithering in.

By tradition and by default, books aren’t verified to anything near the standard of a magazine piece. Publishers don’t even consider verification their business. (Nor do newspapers or most websites, which don’t have the time for it; magazines are actually the anomaly here.) Every nonfiction book contract contains a standard author’s warranty: that every fact is true, and that its accuracy is the writer’s sole responsibility. Thus indemnified, the editor focuses on style and narrative, while a copy editor checks basic dates and names. Outside experts are occasionally consulted (but rarely paid) just to ensure that, say, some counternarrative of Napoleon’s death isn’t completely wacko. The publisher’s lawyer will review it, but only to flag libel, copyright infringement, and the like. If a writer wants to hire a fact-checker, she’s on her own. The house won’t supply one, help find or pay for one, or even build a fact deadline into the publication schedule. Any checker is effectively an employee of the writer, working on the side, and any writer who’s taken the trouble to hire him already has more than the average level of integrity and research funding. The rich get richer; the poor and the duplicitous just get printed.

. . . .

“The publisher functions more like an executive producer on a movie,” says the nonfiction author Susan Orlean. A New Yorker writer steeped in its culture of obsessive fact-checking, Orlean has had the converse publishing experience to Shane’s. “I remember being absolutely flabbergasted when I turned in my first book and they said, ‘Terrific, we’ve already typeset it.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? What about the tortured process of fact-checking that comes next?’”

Orlean soon realized it was up to her; she hired an expert to cover the finer points of botany in The Orchid Thief. No editor ever talked to her about checking. “Publishers assume that writers do their own fact-checking,” says Orlean, “but that’s a little bit like having an internal-investigation department that’s run by the people being investigated.”

. . . .

Writers who want to be investigated—and can afford it—tend to opt for either a young research assistant (as David Brooks did) or one of a small but growing band of elite checkers. The latter group, mostly connected to The New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine, will usually offer a menu of services—anything from trumped-up copy-edits to a rereporting Cadillac plan. They charge authors and magazines between $50 and $70 an hour, but usually agree on a flat fee for books. Most fall between $5,000 and $25,000.

. . . .

“It’s called self-selection,” says David Rosenthal, the publisher of Blue Rider Press (another Penguin Random House imprint). He thinks in-house fact-checking on a large scale would be “logistically impossible.” When it comes to outright frauds or extremely fast-and-loose memoirists, he believes “common sense is the best answer. There needs to be more diligence, and whether it’s on the part of the editor, the publisher, the author, the agent—that can be discussed. Whether you need to formalize it as a fact-checking thing, I’m skeptical about that.”

Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Even this art project to print Wikipedia can’t actually print all of Wikipedia

20 June 2015

From The Verge:

Some people might call it a waste of time, others, “a poetic gesture toward the futility of the scale of big data.” Either way, it’s clear that printing out Wikipedia is hard. The latest person to attempt this feat is Michael Mandiberg, an interdisciplinary artist whose exhibition on the subject — titled From Aaaaa! to ZZZap! — opens at New York’s Denny Gallery this week.

The exhibition doesn’t actually feature a complete, printed copy of Wikipedia. Instead, according to the gallery’s description of the work, it “draws attention to the sheer size of the encyclopedia’s content and the impossibility of rendering Wikipedia as a material object in fixed form.” Mandiberg’s approach has been to code software that renders the online encyclopedia into book-sized chunks, and then upload these to self-publishing platform Lulu.com. Fans will then be able to order individual volumes for $80 a pop. This sounds relatively reasonable, but it does mean that buying the entire set — estimated by Mandiberg to eventually cover some 7,600 books — will cost $500,000.

Link to the rest at The Verge and thanks to Jan for the tip.

Alice Goffman’s Heralded Book on Crime Is Disputed

6 June 2015

From The New York Times:

Since her book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” was published last year, Alice Goffman has achieved a measure of fame that is rarely visited on a young sociologist.

“On the Run” won attention because of its timely subject matter — the lives of low-income black men and their interactions with the police — and vivid storytelling, based on six years of immersive fieldwork. It was the subject of dozens of articles and often-glowing reviews in publications including The New Yorker and The New York Times. An impassioned TED talk Ms. Goffman delivered in March has been viewed more than 800,000 times.

But all that enthusiasm has curdled somewhat, as critics, in published reviews and anonymous online critiques, have debated not just her facts, interpretations and methods, but the fraught politics of privileged white outsiders’ studying minority communities.

Now, Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University, has added a jolt to the already charged conversation with a blunt question: In her book, did Ms. Goffman not only describe street crime but also admit to having committed a felony herself?

Mr. Lubet’s charge, made in an article in the online book review The New Rambler and reposted in condensed form by The New Republic, concerns an anecdote that appears at the end of a long appendix in which Ms. Goffman describes how she spent six years observing and sometimes living among a group of young men in a Philadelphia neighborhood she calls Sixth Street.

In that anecdote, Ms. Goffman describes driving the car when a young man named Mike went looking for the man who had recently killed their close friend Chuck. In Ms. Goffman’s account, Mike, with a gun tucked into his pants, gets out of the car to approach someone. The man turns out not to be the killer, and no shots are fired, but Ms. Goffman describes being deeply shaken by the recognition of what she calls “my desire for vengeance.”

No matter that nothing happened, Mr. Lubet writes. According to legal experts he consulted, Ms. Goffman’s actions, as described in the book, “constituted conspiracy to commit murder under Pennsylvania law.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Jenny and several others for the tip.

Next Page »