Note to Russell Smith: Start Thinking, Stop Generalizing

I am mildly annoyed by Globe and Mail writer Russell Smith's latest column, Note to Canadian Writers: Stop Tweeting, Start Writing for a bunch of reasons:

  1. The title of his piece is click bait at its most obvious - controversial just for the sake of it, not because he has anything particularly enlightening to add to the conversation. 
  2. He's used my friend Dianne's picture at the top of his post, which infers that she somehow shares his perspective. Dianne doesn't Tweet or Facebook, but I suspect that her reasons for not doing so are quite a bit more thoughtful and considerate than the ones Smith presents. Also, Dianne did do an extensive 'blog tour' of her book when it first came out, which is pretty social media clued-in. I don't like that he associated his column with her just because she doesn't tweet (but note: I don't speak for Dianne in any way here).
  3. The column doesn't say anything valuable or new and offers no indication that he's done even a tiny bit of research to back up his assertions.
It's not so much the basic premise of his assertions that bugs me (although some do) as the condescending tone and implication with which he tries to make his point. You can read the article yourself, but here are the basics:  

Publishers are increasingly putting the responsibility of self-promotion on writers because they believe that writers with a greater profile and relationship with an audience might sell more books.

I'm sure this is true and there and it makes pretty good sense. Canada isn't unique in the reality that the arts are underfunded, that old publishing models aren't making money anymore, that large bookstores have taken the place of small local shops (which means they buy huge quantities of books in bulk to sell cheaply - and everyone on the food chain makes less money) and with the advent of digital technologies such as E-Readers, the entire trade is changing much like it did in the music industry when MP3s first became popular. 

Writers, even writers with award winning books, usually can't make a good living off of writing. They can teach, take on freelancing writing gigs to supplement their income, give talks, act as consultants ... but they generally can't make a living off of writing alone - this is especially true of short story writers and poets. I wonder how many writers in Canada can actually say, "I live off of my writing alone to a standard where I'm not worried about paying the bills and have some money in a savings account". Probably not many. Even Dave Eggers, who Smith refers to as an impresario of self-branding, runs a range of businesses to make ends meet and by his own estimation, is still pretty broke. In a March 2010 interview with The Guardian Eggers says, "Vendela [his wife, author and editor of one of their publications] doesn't get paid. If we are genius tastemakers we wouldn't be running this broke company. I mean, we're not going to fold any time soon but I wish we were what you say." Dave Eggers was on the New York Times Bestseller list and was a finalist for a Pulitzer for A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius . Dave Eggers is not living off his writing.

Smith writes for The Globe and Mail, which is itself still figuring out how to monetize in a new world that wants its content online and wants it free. Despite this, surely even he realizes that traditional modes of promoting the work of writers are not as relevant anymore. Print advertising is dead, the new mega book store is really only interested in promoting the latest bestseller by big names like Stephen King or Nicholas Sparks and fewer people have cable or listen to radio because they get to pick and choose what they want to listen to online. Pretty or not, social media is increasingly a place where people get their content and where they find interesting links to books, authors or music to check out. It is one of the only surefire places left to reach potential consumers.

Publishers increasingly want writers to do some of the marketing legwork on Twitter and Facebook. This could be because they are lazy or underfunded, or it could be because they understand the medium and know that people are less interested in receiving marketing tweets from a monolithic, impersonal publishing house than from the unique, individual voices of the artists themselves. I probably wouldn't pay attention to tweets by Random House but I would definitely want to hear more from any number of its writers. Russell Smith might not realize this. When looking at the Twitter feed for the online men's magazine he co-founded, The DailyXY, it's obvious that whoever is managing it thinks that Twitter is for broadcasting, not for conversations. Captain, we have a problem.

Unpublished writers in particular are taking this advice from publishers to heart and are spending time building up a following even before they have a book deal, in some cases, even before they have a book.

If you want write a novel, it probably won't pay off to spend all your time on Twitter or Facebook. But does he think writers, even the great unwashed, unpaid and unpublished, are stupid? The people who are really serious about writing will find time to write, whether they are doing it while Tweeting, Facebooking, working two full time jobs or raising a family. It's always been this way and will always be so. Others will have all the time in the universe and will never get down to business. Participating in self-promotion via social media and the act of producing brilliant writing are not mutually exclusive. 

Given how hard it is to get an agent and a publishing deal even with a range of great work in your wake, many young writers likely see self-promotion as one way they are able to potentially by-pass the traditional publishing bureaucracy. Self-publishing has come a long way and although it will certainly result in a lot more junk than you get through the traditional system with all of its gatekeepers and mediators (though anyone who's read a Harlequin or a Danielle Steele novel may disagree with me), there are occasionally big successes through alternative modes of publishing. Although now published by HarperVoyager, Canadian writer (now residing in the UK) Cory Doctorow has seen huge success through self-publishing and making his work available using the Internet. Even now, with a big publisher backing him, Doctorow releases free e-book versions of his work and encourages people to repurpose his content for educational or artistic uses. 

In the non-fiction world there are lots of examples of people who have built up a relationship with followers using social media tools and then have gone on to sell a book to a publisher that has seen huge sales. Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project and Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It are two examples from the last year that have been on the New YorkTimes Bestseller List. 

Many writers who are signed with publishers will tell you that when their book comes out, there is almost no attention given to marketing or promoting it. Just because a publisher signs you, does not mean they are going to invest any money in making your book a success. If you're someone who has the inclination to take on social media so that you are not completely at the mercy of other people to see your book properly marketed, I think that's great. And it doesn't have to happen at the expense of your writing.

Canadian bestsellers are determined by prize juries (like the Giller and Governor General's awards) and many of the writers who win these awards have not been participants in self-promotion using social media. 

Yep, probably true. But let's be honest, as much as they are talented and deserving, the writers who have won the prestigious awards are lucky. Fucking lucky! There are plenty of really wonderful books out there that will never win an award because awards are based on a jury system and juries are a crap shoot. Do you want to base your future success on roulette?  

For five years I worked for an arts funding agency in Saskatchewan and for some of that time I handled the administration of grants. I organized applications, I sat in on juries, I recorded their findings and I found that the results varied wildly depending on the composition of the jury. An application could come before one jury and it would be criticized and ranked incredibly low, six months later the exact same application would be put before a different jury and would be lauded and receive funding. Unfortunately, writers hoping for a big literary prize have it even harder because their book will only go before each jury one time - there is no re-submitting it to a different set of jurors a few months later.

Jurors are human beings and even with strict adjudication criteria as their framework, they bring their own set of biases to the table. I think it's an intelligent writer who decides to not put all her eggs into that one extremely unreliable basket. Telling a writer to replace self-promotion with hoping for a high profile prize is like telling someone to quit their job in the hope of winning the lottery. It's stupid advice.

Self-promotion won't make any difference to the success of your book so just focus on writing a good book and hope for the best.

If this were just about telling people who wish to become writers that they should write first for love because it's highly unlikely that they will ever make a living from the sales of their books, I wouldn't disagree. People who are driven to write because they believe that they are going to be the next JK Rowling are sentencing themselves to a path of disappointment and likely poverty. First off, write because you love it and accept that you'll be lucky to get paid. 

But Smith's column is all about book sales not about the motivation to write. He says that writers should "stop wasting their time on self-promotion because it has not been proven to make any difference whatsoever to one's sales." Smith's proof? His research? Well, if he's done any, he doesn't mention it. 

I would love to see formal research done to really examine what the impact of social media promotion is on book sales, but I suspect it would be difficult because unlike the centralized model of traditional book marketing and publishing, social media is all over the place. It exists on blogs that are all created on different platforms, twitter accounts, Facebook, Tumblr memes and reblogs ... It isn't neat and tidy, which makes it an easy target for someone like Smith who seems to have discounted these tools just for the sake of being contrary.

Despite the lack of hard evidence, there are lots of anecdotal examples of how social media has helped sell books. Last month Edan Lepucki released her novella called You're Not Yet Like Me via a teeny publisher called Flatmancrooked. Many people 'know' Edan by following her Tumblr, which is only writerly in that she occasionally talks about books and literary things but mostly it is just about little daily happenings in her life. I suspect that a lot of us found her blog because she writes for The Millions, a popular online literary journal. The Millions does not come out in hard copy print and promotes itself mostly via social media channels yet they have thousands of visitors and actually pay money to real published writers - like Emily St. John Mendel who wrote the critically lauded piece of Canadian fiction Last Night in Montreal - to contribute interesting criticism and reviews. I wonder whether Smith's social media bias is applicable to publications like The Millions - are they wasting their time with social media despite the fact that it has enabled to them publish literary content that some might argue is more arresting and unique then what's published in papers like The Globe and Mail? As traditional, stodgy literary journals falter, the web and social media has enabled a bit of a renaissance of literary criticism and online journals that publish new work - for the first time in a long while, people (under the age of 40!) are excited about reading work by new authors and are engaging with literature in a critical way. 

Back to Edan. Is her novella on the New York Times bestseller list? No, but why should aspiring to sit at the head of old school hierarchies be the only yardstick for measuring success? Using social media, Flatmancrooked and Edan sold out the first edition of 400 copies of her book in only a few days. They did this by Tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, Tumbling and by promoting the book using a movie-trailer style video uploaded to Youtube. DIY culture is back baby and it applies to more than knitting socks. 

I doubt that the sales of Edan's novella are making anyone rich, but they've helped to fund a small independent press, have given Edan some monetary compensation for her time (more than many writers receive) and if you consider that these books were not created with the philosophy of mass production but instead with the principals of "low run, high quality collectibles" at heart, I would say that social media has helped to make Edan's little novella a smashing success. 

If you tweet or twit, you aren't smart enough to write.

The above was one of the comments left on Smith's article and I think it sums up my biggest problem with the entire premise - although Smith isn't as obvious as the anonymous commenter, his underlying message is that writers who are self-promoting on social media are somehow less serious. 

Social media has taken down some of the barriers that used to exist between artistic producers and consumers. Although there is still a role for the traditional gatekeepers of the publishing industry, increasingly that industry is being forced to work out how to remain relevant as a generation of people who have never known life without the Internet begin to force changes to this decades old model. Change makes people feel uncomfortable - particularly the self-appointed arbiters of taste who find themselves increasingly irrelevant to a world filled with people that continue to put greater emphasis on trusting people with a connection - even a tenuous one via social media - instead of so-called expert critics. 

People like Smith can continue to preach the luddite view that social media is a waste of time but he's really only talking to other luddites who are feeling just as threatened about their role in the new publishing economy. The establishment has an interest in protecting its boundaries and one way of doing this is by trying to make the people who feel like they can do it themselves feel lesser. 

Meanwhile, people like Edan Lepucki know better and are quietly building their careers outside of the system using social media. I'm sure the goal is still to someday win the lottery, but like my grandmother always told me - clever people always have a plan b. For artists with talent and drive, social media isn't a bad place to start. 

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Travel Plans Sometimes Change

For those of you who were worried about me after I posted that quote yesterday - don't be. I just thought it was beautiful but yes, a little intense.

Things here are good but a bit stressed. We are working on wrapping up about four projects and are just really looking forward to taking some time in December to relax. Having too much work is really a good thing for people in our situation (freelancers without a stable paycheck), but we're both feeling a little bit burned out. Also, we're half way through our last week in Tokyo and try as I might to stay calm, I always get a little tense as I begin to emotionally prepare to move on to a new apartment, a new city. We've gotten really comfortable here - we have our little corner store, our favorite local pub (Standing Bar Clover in Shinjuku - we love you!), our nightly ritual of ice cream - and as much as I love this vagabonding life style, you do give up that warm comfort of the familiar every time you move on. Occasionally it all feels very sweet and I begin to feel a little less like Kerouac in On the Road and a little more like the protagonist in Last Night in Montreal (a good book - go read it).

On Sunday we'll be taking the train south to Osaka and Kyoto where we'll intersperse working with taking in the stunning turning of the leaves and enough shrines to last a life time. I'm looking forward to it - but I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the things we're working to get done in the meantime.

In other news, today there was an escalation in the conflict between North and South Korea. North Korea bombed a small South Korean island and South Korea responded in kind. All is quiet at the moment but of course the international heavyweights (America, the UK and China) have all weighed in and it remains to be seen whether this is just a blip or something to be worried about. We are due to take the ferry to South Korea on December 10th where we were planning to stay, mostly in Seoul, until January 3rd. Now we're kind of second guessing ourselves and wondering if we shouldn't just spend the holidays somewhere cheap and cheerful like Laos. I'm going to sleep on it.

For those of you who are interested, we've been involved in a few interesting projects lately:

  • Last week the Groubal Customer Satisfaction Index website launched. It takes social media data from places like Facebook and Twitter and analyzes sentiment to determine how satisfied the customers of over 200 brands are. The data updates hourly. It's pretty cool. 
  • To complement the game, we also worked on a stock market like Facebook game that allows players to try to anticipate how companies will rank, earning or losing game currency depending on whether they make the right bets. 
  • Yesterday I published an article on Contentini called Micro Copy: Content Strategy and Writing the User Interface, which is getting quite a bit of web love. For the most part, I find the content strategy community really encouraging and connected. It feels like we're forging new territory and instead of fighting for a piece of a pie, we're working together to try and build the best knowledge base possible to do truly outstanding work. 
  • I try to update A Tramp Abroad once a week. My last three posts have gotten 18, 36 and 20 comments and it's great to be able to connect with such a great group of travelers over there. 
Good night Internet. 

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"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” — Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum

Quote found on Slaughterhouse 9021 0.
Photo by me.

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Music Will Save Your Life


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Still Enchanted, Still Busy

Although I doubt it's scientifically provable, I am almost completely certain that time moves faster in Tokyo than anywhere else in the world. I feel a bit like I'm in a time lapse video where time is flowing instead of ticking, shadows are swimming in and out and light moves a bit too quickly from day to night and then back to day again. It's a conundrum because it is one of the most magical cities in the world - I want to be here - but time slips away too quickly. I feel like a girl trying to catch water in my hands.

We've been busier than usual, partly due to a lovely visit from some UK family during the past few weeks. Dan's aunt, uncle and cousin swung by Tokyo following a short holiday in China. Though I haven't felt at all lonely during our travels, it was almost surprising how nice it felt to see familiar faces again. While they were here we pulled ourselves away from laptops and work a little more than usual and took in some great temples, smaller towns and Tokyo sites. Although I am definitely a city girl, it was so wonderful to get out into the country where the trees are all turning gold and red and just sit and take in the less hectic pace. Japan is such a contradiction. It's all bright lights, big city, overwhelming technology and modernity, but it's equally ancient, spiritual and traditional. I've seen a lot of Shinto and Buddhist shrines over the past few weeks and there will be much more of that when we eventually make our way to Kyoto.

In between being tourists, we've been working like crazy people. We've got a few big projects launching this week and we're in that frenzied, last minute stage of tying up loose ends and testing and then retesting again to try and avoid any bugs or glitches. I can say with complete honesty that, at the moment, we've got more demand for our services than we can possibly take on. I know that times are hard in a lot of industries but I suspect this might translate to some small gains for the freelancer - where companies are afraid to hire someone full time, which is a commitment, they are quite willing to fill their gaps with those of us looking to take on interesting, short term projects. Our plan is to take off most of December and focus a bit on some of our own ideas, which have take the back burner as we work on other things. It's a hard balance though, because we've also had some enquiries lately that are pretty amazing in scope and scale - some of these things would be pretty hard to pass up.

We'll be spending Christmas and New Years in Seoul. I'm excited about it, but it's kind of bittersweet. I do think I'll miss the turkey dinner and the quiet, insulated way the holidays usually feel. If anyone knows where to find a traditional Christmas dinner in Seoul, please speak up!

I think we'll try to have a quieter week this week. We've got a little grocery store across the lane from our flat and I've been cooking a bit in our tiny kitchen, which consists of one hot plate, one microwave, one frying pan, one pot, two bowls, two plates and some cutlery. The only thing I've missed a little it is having an oven, but even that is negligible. I can remember when I moved into my solo place in Cardiff and I felt the need to buy a ton of dishes and cooking things from Ikea. I was so used to having hand blenders and all kinds of pots and dishes that I thought I needed them. If and when we ever settle in somewhere again, I really think I'll feel quite differently about what I really do need. Although two burners would be nice, we've made due really well in our small Tokyo kitchen. I think the key is to clean as you go because there's no room for a mess and no extra dishes to allow for it.

And when we don't want to cook, we can pick up fresh sushi across the street for about £2. Not bad at all!


All photos by me. 

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