Category Archives: journalism

Forgot I owned it: Train

Day 7: “Forgot I gave it away” is more the norm, but I’ll look in the bookcases for a surprise. Thank goodness there will be physical evidence of my absent memory.

Train, by Pete Dexter (hardcover)Five minutes later: Oh, right. Déjà vu. I’ve been meaning to read Train. Now, I will. Finally. And I’ll stop shelving unread books.

This is the opening paragraph of Train, Pete Dexter’s sixth novel:

At this point in the story, Packard had never fallen in love, and didn’t trust what he’d heard of the lingo (forever, my darling, with all my heart, till the end of time, more than life itself, with every fiber of my being, oh my darling Clementine, etc.). It sounded out of control to him, and messy.

Train, by Pete Dexter (paperback)Pete Dexter hasn’t written enough books. I refuse to tear through all eight, because who knows when there will be more? You know the feeling—that clutching, overkeen anticipation you experience only when the author is one of your favorites.

In 2011, Pete Dexter and Pete Hammill discussed their early careers as newspaper journalists. You can read Part I and Part II of their Q&A on the Mullholland Books blog. Both men were drawn to the work for which they’re best suited, and then years of doing the job intensified their essential qualifications for it.

Every ambitious writer is impatient to achieve these two authors’ level of expertise. A few will reach it, after decades of practice, and then understand what the effort took.

BookADay-The Borough Press

Practical business strategies for freelance writers

home office

  Photo courtesy of Louis J. Hall

If you want to make a living as a freelance writer, then you’ll need a realistic perspective of the writing endeavors that pay best in relation to the amounts of time they require. Having recently faced financial reality when filing your income tax return, you ought to know exactly how much money it takes to support your household for 365 days.

I’m in the midst of reading Chris Higgins’ $2.99 ebook, The Blogger Abides: A Practical Guide to Writing Well & Not Starving, but it’s not too soon to recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to make a profession of freelance writing. Based on the author’s experience as a paid blogger, the book is filled with succinct advice that’s logical and easy to understand.

The markets for different types of writing will fluctuate, but the laws of supply and demand remain predictable. Lower barriers to entry (digital publishing and online distribution) enable and increase suppliers (writers). If the demand (from readers) for the product (written work) remains steady (it has!) and does not increase along with the supply, then prices for the product (written work) will decrease. Whimpering and wallowing in self-pity will not change this.

In his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky makes the point, “If everyone can do something, it is no longer rare enough to pay for, even if it is vital.”

Advances in free or inexpensive web editing, blogging, or content management software have all but removed the technological barriers that existed when the Web was new. Now that virtually everyone can publish their written work, publishing per se gradually is shifting from a professional to an amateur endeavor. Some say the transformation already has occurred.

Web-based content is distributed globally and is more easily retrievable than printed materials, which means the best and the most widely discussed writing on the Web can be reproduced and shared with few obstacles. If “published” no longer distinguishes the professional from the amateur writer, then perhaps “widely read” and “paid” have become the new criteria. How to find readers and get paid are the problems a freelance writer needs to solve now. It should be some consolation that being a good writer matters as much as it ever did.

Additional resources on this topic

Isn’t advertising actually the oldest profession?

It’s challenging to see the subtle transformation in publishing brought about by the migration of advertising to the web. Advertisers, instead of figuratively owning a publication because their ad money paid a supposedly editorially independent newspaper’s or magazine’s bills, now can and do own and produce the publication. The advertiser is the parent corporation.

The bigger the corporation, the more likely it is to own a magazine—or online channel. The publication doesn’t need to take the form of a magazine, and eventually we’ll use another word for it. Smaller companies can enlist the services of an innovative advertising firm that owns/publishes a magazine, but the effect is the same.

We were better at noticing advertisers’ influence in print and even broadcast media. Certain magazines, we could tell, were nothing more than junk mail posing as news or entertainment. Now that we can separate the components of an online magazine and share them individually, it’s not as easy to see the whole picture.

I’m not opposed to this trend. It’s an inevitable efficiency. I simply want to be aware of who’s doing the talking.

Two things.

One: Dark Rye, which is where I found this video, is a slick example of an online magazine that originates as advertising for a corporation (Whole Foods Market). A Spoken Dish is another.

Two: McClure’s makes the world’s absolute best Bloody Mary mixer. No kidding. And I wasn’t paid to say it.

Want publicity? Be discoverable.

The following tweet appeared in my LinkedIn updates today:

Authors (esp. Chicago area), if you don’t have website I can’t easily contact you for library program & will often just give up.

@Bluestalking is the Twitter ID for Lisa Guidarini. On LinkedIn, she lists the following as her current occupations:

  • Book Reviewer/IPPY Award Judge at Independent Publisher
  • Book Reviewer/Author Event Reporter at – Algonquin, IL
  • Book Reviewer at
  • Book Reviewer at Booklist
  • Book Reviewer at Library Journal
  • Book reviewer/critic at National Book Critics Circle
  • Adult Program Coordinator at Algonquin Area Public Library

If you’re a new author, particularly one located in the Chicago area, Lisa Guidarini is someone you’d probably like to know. She can take you places. But if you’re stuck in the 20th century, perched behind a security wall on Facebook, or otherwise hiding out like a fugitive, then you are defeating yourself. Readers can’t find you, and neither can people who are willing to make the effort to connect you with readers.

Want publicity? Be discoverable.

  1. Have a website or blog that lists your books, your contact information, and your publicist’s name and contact information.
  2. Check your email and voicemail daily.
  3. Respond to professional inquiries within 24 hours. (That’s 24 hours from the time the inquiry was sent, not 24 hours from the time you received it.)
  4. Be prepared to send a press/media kit and a copy of your book without delay.

Nice interface for book reviewers seeking ARCs

BookExpo America always renews my interest in the ways publishers are marketing and publicizing their books. Simon & Schuster has a new user interface designed for booksellers, librarians, and book reviewers who won’t be attending BEA but would like to request advance reading copies (ARCs) of forthcoming titles at no charge while supplies last. The invitation to the Atria Books Galley Grab comes from Judith Curr, Atria’s executive vice president and publisher. It’s a terrific idea, because the website is so easy to use. The Galley Grab also introduces Atria’s publicists to new contacts who can help with promotion, as bookstore employees, librarians, and book critics in all media opt in through the Web interface. If the reviewers register to receive galleys, maybe they’ll also begin a productive dialogue with Atria.

I’m looking forward to the reviews of God Sleeps in Rwanda. Fifteen additional titles are included in the Atria Books Galley Grab while supplies last.

How next-generation schools and news media might be funded

As I write this, Kelly Centolella is only $200 short of the goal described by last week’s guest blogger, which is the purchase of a document camera she can use as a teaching aid in her Los Angeles charter school classroom. Fundraising on the Web is efficient. I’m happy for Kelly and her students, and I’m pleased that as a byproduct, I witnessed the impressive effect of grassroots participation. I appreciate the lesson.

Lately, I’ve been receiving enthusiastic promotional email messages from David Cohn, who recently launched Spot.Us, a nonprofit online venture supporting grassroots-funded journalism in the Bay Area of California. David was among the few identifiable talents involved in the (disastrous, let’s be honest) online journalism experiment that 900 unwitting volunteers, including me, participated in almost two years ago. He struggled tirelessly to keep that sinking ship afloat in 2007, before most traditional news media organizations looked up to see there was a storm on the horizon. Now David is the wiser, though not wizened, and ever optimistic commander of a new vessel. (T.T., if you’re reading, I hope you appreciate the resuscitation of the naval metaphors.)

Spot.Us, David’s latest endeavor, is the result of a healthy Knight Foundation grant that is allowing him to conduct a journalism experiment of his own. Spot.Us permits any donor to select a story of interest to Bay Area residents and then contribute to a fund that will pay a reporter to cover the subject. The public can suggest stories that should be reported, and journalists can post online pitches requesting funding for stories they claim to be willing and qualified to report. Donors consider the essential value of covering the story, as well as the skill of the reporter offering to investigate and write about or broadcast it. The story pitches and assignments occur on the Spot.Us website for all to see, as though it were a transparent newsroom.

According to Spot.Us, the reporting funded by the public through its site is normally licensed under Creative Commons, which means it can be reprinted for free with proper attribution. However, if a news organization partners with Spot.Us and contributes at least half of the funds required to cover a story, then the news agency can claim first rights to publish the resulting report. If a news organization purchases exclusive rights, then the donations from the public are refunded by Spot.Us, as I understand it.

My generation needs to heed the online networking of the succeeding generation. Having observed the outcome of Kelly Centolella’s project to raise funds for classroom equipment online, through, I believe David Cohn’s concept of community-funded reporting, Spot.Us, might just float.

Making pretty ebooks

A new document publishing service called Issuu transforms PDFs into attractive ebooks and hosts them on the Web for free. The site is streamlined and very easy to use. I dredged up a paper I wrote back in 1999, inserted hyperlinks, converted it to PDF, and uploaded it to Issuu. I then copied the embed code Issue provided and added it here, so you could see the result:

A preview version of the document should show up here on the blog. Unfortunately, only the link to the publication appears. I’m not sure why.

I’m also disappointed that the hyperlinks in the published document aren’t functional, though you can see the underlined blue text. Nevertheless, Issuu is a nice option if you want to publish a free illustrated ebook or ‘zine.

What would you ask a literary agent?

Jeff Jarvis blogged (here, here, and here) about the shortcomings of BusinessWeek columnist Sarah Lacy’s interview of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the South by Southwest (better known as SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, this week. Lacy appeared to make superficial assumptions with a distasteful arrogance. She approached the interview with Zuckerberg in an overly casual, self-assured manner that caused some observers to sense her conclusions about Zuckerberg and Facebook were uninformed. It looked as though Lacy wasn’t listening to Zuckerberg or wasn’t on the same wavelength, which turned some vocal members of the audience, including Jarvis, against her.

Jarvis later suggested:

If I were up there [on stage], I’d have blogged a week before asking SXSWers what I should discuss with Zuckerberg. And if things still went sour with my own questions, I’d have opened up the discussion to the floor with the simple question: What do you want to know?

Jarvis is usually right about these things. He wants journalists like Lacy to serve their audiences, not their own or their interviewees’ egos and not the media conglomerates’ agendas. Jarvis understood that many of the SXSW attendees were accustomed to getting news and information from blogs rather than, or in addition to, print and broadcast media. They were already extremely well informed, and they expected to take away new knowledge from SXSW.

Like a panel discussion at a professional conference, a blog has the potential to be more civilized than news reporting, more like a salon. Thoughtful discussions and debates among blog commenters can allow time for rational thought, diverse participation, and the introduction of supporting evidence, because blogging need not occur in the heat of the moment. In some ways, blogging has established a higher standard for news media by eliminating the mediator.

Earlier this year, Chuck Sambuchino, an editor for Writer’s Digest Books, gave me the enjoyable assignment of interviewing literary agents for his Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog. The interviews are posted online as Q&As, so their value depends far more on the personalities and expertise of the agents I contact than on my skill as a blogger. A little research helps me choose which questions to ask, but it’s not investigative journalism. The Q&As are good exposure for literary agents, they drive traffic to the Writer’s Digest site, and they offer useful information to readers. There’s virtually no downside.

Jarvis, of course, would tell me to ask you to suggest questions. What would you ask a literary or script agent? Which agents do you want to read about on the Guide to Literary Agents Editor’s Blog, and what general advice do you want from them?

You can post your questions and interview suggestions here or send them in an email message to To ensure I recognize your email for what it is, please include “Agent Question” in the subject line. Frankly, I’m reserving the right to decide which questions are appropriate, but I have a feeling you won’t disappoint me.