What Is the Lifespan of an Error?

There has been much coverage lately of a new book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal called The Lifespan of a Fact. It relates the years-long debate between D’Agata, an essayist, and Fingal, a fact checker, about whether artistry and accuracy can cohabit in the same nonfiction essay. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the book itself, as Craig Silverman says, “isn’t, you know, factual.”

Picture of a Broken Window by Fen OswinWhat interests me here about the book, though, is the obverse question implied by the evocative title:  What is the lifespan of an error? Rightly or wrongly, we tend to believe that the truth is eternal, that facts live forever, and that, by contrast, mistakes sooner or later die off unaided. Hence our attitudes about errors tend to be lax. But on the Internet, at least, errors are surprisingly resilient.

Some online errors seem to be beyond fixing. In a compelling article yesterday, Ars Technica writer Nate Anderson told the story of how the owner of a Spanish campground has struggled to get Google to de-emphasize search results for the camp. Those results highlight grizzly photos from a disaster that struck the camp more than 30 years ago when a passing fuel tanker exploded, killing 200 campers.

The issue is particularly tricky because the event did happen and is historically important. But is it highly relevant to a search for a camping spot? No one seems to think so. For a variety of understandable reasons, however, the search results live on.

This example is not an error of fact, of course, but of emphasis and context. That’s why it’s hard to fix. Errors of fact should be, by comparison, easily righted. And yet too often they aren’t, mostly because no one cares enough.

There are, unfortunately, abundant examples of this problem, but I’ll restrict myself to just two.

As Rebecca Hoffman happened to remind me yesterday by linking to it from her blog, I wrote last June about the problem of malignant typos. In my post, I noted that prominent blogger and journalist Frédéric Filloux had left uncorrected for two weeks an egregious misspelling of New York Times reporter Brian Stelter’s last name as “Settler.” Yesterday, in a new post, Filloux wrote of the importance of “proper editing and proofing,” giving me hope that his own error might by now have been fixed. But no. A quick check showed that the misspelled “Settler” appears permanently settled.

Filloux’s careless typo is, I suspect, a lost cause. I have higher if slowly diminishing hopes for a more recent error that I noticed last Thursday and shared with its publisher. In a post comparing the print-on-demand services from CreateSpace with those from Lightning Source, the CreateSpace cost per page was stated to be 12 cents per page. If that were true, a 100-page book would cost at least $12.00 to print, and legacy publishers everywhere would be smiling. In fact, though, the cost is 1.2 cents per page, or $1.20 for a 100 page book (not counting the cover). After five days, the mistake has not been corrected. But it’s early yet.

Is it rude or petty of me to point out so publicly these seemingly minor errors? I’ll let you decide. But my belief is that the future of the Internet may depend on how we react to such small mistakes. The situation calls to mind the broken windows theory of the recently deceased James Q. Wilson, which posited that tolerance of small crimes leads inevitably to bigger ones.

Though controversial in criminology, Wilson’s theory may prove true on the Internet. The more complacent we are about small errors, the more likely it is that we will eventually be plagued by large ones.

Photo by Fen Oswin.

5 Things I Learned from Self-Publishing

A Printing Press in 1568If nothing else, self-publishing is a learning experience. You learn not just about the process, but yourself. It’s not for everyone, certainly, but don’t count yourself out as a self-publisher until you give it some serious thought. Thanks to e-book and print-on-demand technology, the risks are low and the potential for rewards—though not perhaps of the kind you’d expect—high.

Now that I’ve mostly finished my first self-published book, the New-Media Survival Guide (only the print edition remains to be done), I’ve had time to identify a few initial lessons from the experience. Some of what I learned I knew already, some surprised me. I’ll have more to share later, but here are my first 5 lessons.

1. Don’t count on making money. As Seth Godin says of non-fiction book publishing, it’s an organized hobby, not a business: “The return on equity and return on time for authors and for publishers is horrendous. If you’re doing it for the money, you’re going to be disappointed.”

I knew this already, in the most casual way, and money was the least of my motives in making the effort. But I can see now that if you want a direct monetary return, your chances of making anything substantial are slim.

Although that conclusion might at first glance seem discouraging, it’s in fact quite liberating. Once you accept that you won’t make much money, you’re free to enjoy all the other rewards of self-publishing—the satisfaction of building something substantial of your own, the technical knowledge you gain, the benefit to your brand, the value you share with your readers, and much more. For me the process was great fun, and well worth the time and effort.

So, you might ask, if I’m not in it for the money, why, instead of giving it away, am I selling it (for the bargain price, I might add, of $2.99)?

Well, first, for the experience. I can’t really explore all the dimensions of self-publishing without selling the book. Second, it somehow feels more genuine to charge for it. If you pay a small but measurable amount for my book, it makes for a more meaningful exchange. Giving it away just wouldn’t feel the same.

2. Self-publishing is both easier and harder than it looks. I’d be the first person to suggest that if you have the slightest interest in self-publishing, you should do it. It’s really not that hard. Armed with, say, Carla King’s excellent three articles on the topic in MediaShift, a helpful primer like Mark Coker’s Smashwords Style Guide, and just a dash of patience, even a motivated technophobe can overcome the modest hurdles involved.

On the other hand, once you get ambitious and want to go beyond the barest, simplest text, self-publishing gets tricky. Unless you’re an experienced designer, you’ll quickly realize you need help to achieve the look and reading experience you’re after.

As a tech geek and small-scale hacker, I’ve enjoyed the challenges, but it didn’t take me long to hit the limits of what I could readily do. You will most likely get acceptable results on your own, but if you want to surpass that level of quality, you’ll need a professional.

3. Multiple sales and distribution channels might be overkill. I’ve aimed to make my book available via as many outlets and in as many formats as possible, within reason. You can buy it on Smashwords in a variety of formats, on Amazon in Kindle format and, soon, print, and on Apple’s bookstore. Again, using all three venues was good experience, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it for most people.

To supply all these channels and formats, I ended up using three different word processors (I’ll explain why in another post), making sure I kept my three versions all in sync as I continued to make changes to the text. After submitting the book, I had to make changes or corrections via three different web sites. And, of course, my potential readers have to decide which of three venues to purchase it from.

If you were to ask me right now, I’d probably advise you to choose between Smashwords and Amazon for your own self-publishing venture. What you lose in potential sales and exposure—probably not much—you’ll gain back many times over in simplicity.

4. Print still has its allure. Now to contradict myself. Though it will complicate rather than simplify your experience, print may be worth the inevitable frustrations. As I wrote last week, I wouldn’t be surprised if self-publishing leads to a modest revival in print. I’m not going to do a Jonathan Franzen here, mind you, but bear with me: print is and forever will be very, very cool. You’d be cheating yourself and perhaps even a few of your readers if you don’t offer your book on paper.

As Carla King and others have suggested, you can avoid some of the complication by starting with print rather than, like me, ending with it. Through CreateSpace, you can simply pay $69 to have a Kindle version produced from your finished print file.

5. Focus on shipping. If you decide to try self-publishing, don’t dawdle the way I did. I spent five or six months coming up with a variety of drafts and approaches, all of them worthy and all of them fatally incomplete. It wasn’t until I made a fairly detailed writing and publishing schedule and committed myself to it that I was able to produce the book. Even then, I ran about a month late.

Your schedule should be realistic but also fairly tight. If you don’t pursue a project like this with some sense of urgency, you’re not likely to finish it. And if it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count.

Intrigued? Then why not try it? And if you’re not sure, or you have a different take on this than I do, share your thoughts and questions in the comments. I have, I admit, become a self-publishing enthusiast. Perhaps someone should talk me out of it….

Will Self-Publishing Save Print?

Last month in this blog, I made a statement that at the time seemed obvious, but now seems rash. “Most writers,” I wrote in declaring that print is effectively dead, “don’t care in a meaningful way about the physical presence of a book. They just want to tell a story, or convey information, or to create works of art out of their words.”

Since then, I’ve had cause to rethink my position. Print, it seems, isn’t dead, but just retired. Though diminished, it still has vital roles to play—especially for writers.

This realization came to me last week as I attempted to lean back and survey my achievement, such as it was, in publishing my first e-book, the New-Media Survival Guide. The leaning back was satisfactory; the surveying less so.

As a vehicle for conveying information, the e-book is superb. But as a device for signifying to yourself or others that you’ve written a book, it is dismally disappointing. The physical heft of a book that is an outmoded and inefficient drawback for traditional publishers and booksellers is, for authors, one of its most precious traits. Just try weighing an e-book appreciatively in your outstretched hand. It can’t be done.

That’s one reason why I spent many hours this weekend formatting my e-book for print-on-demand via CreateSpace (more on that experience later). Until I have a volume, however slim, that I can put on a bookshelf, I won’t feel that I’ve truly published it.

That’s why I suspect self-publishing may end up sparking a modest renaissance in printed books. In terms of units the quantity of printed books will grow ever smaller. But the number of printed titles may well explode as self-publishing grows. No matter what their motives for publishing, most book authors will want at least one printed, bound copy.

Though I plan to put the print version of the Survival Guide up for sale, I don’t expect to sell many copies. For most readers, the electronic version is ideal (ahem: why not buy a copy and find out for yourself?).

But for most authors, I now see, e-books lack one thing that only a paper book can provide: tangibility. A small thing, to be sure. But like print, it still matters.

Can Printcasting Print-on-Demand Work for B2B?

One of the memes at work in the new-media transformation involves the way print can play an ongoing role in the increasingly digital world of publishing. Last week I covered two options, print-on-demand from Magcloud, and digital editions that try to recreate the print experience. Both of these efforts have been marketed heavily to traditional magazine publishers.

Those publishers are less likely to be aware of a similar experiment being developed in the newspaper world, called Printcasting. Driven by Dan Pacheco of the Bakersfield Californian, Printcasting aims to allow virtually anyone to produce a PDF magazine from one or more hyperlocal blogs or other online sources. The Printcasting project was kicked off last year with a grant from the Knight Foundation. While it started as a project for the Bakersfield area, it has now expanded around the world.

As Pacheco explained last year in an FAQ on the project, Printcasting is a do-it-yourself form of publishing:

Continue reading

Expanding Choice with Print-On-Demand

It is, or should be, a basic new-media mantra that people want content when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it. The rise of new media does not mean that print is dead. Rather, it means that print is just one of many ways people will choose to get information, depending on their preferences and circumstances.

This point was reiterated for me by today’s announcement that new-media icon Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has made a deal with Hewlett-Packard to use its MagCloud print-on-demand service for his commercial wiki network, Wikia. The concept, in brief, is that a user can assemble content from a Wikia wiki into an electronic proof of a custom magazine and then use Magcloud to print, bind, and mail one or more copies. The Wikia magazines won’t win any design awards, to judge by the example provided , but it gives the user another option for how to format and use content.

A more traditional approach to using Magcloud’s service comes from the Atlantic magazine, which has created a special 60-page issue of archived articles by “the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Woodrow Wilson and Vannevar Bush” for a price of $6. Each issue is printed on demand, so the expense to the Atlantic is limited to the cost of creating the layout PDF.

Continue reading