Thursday, April 25, 2013

Too Late To The Party...

You may recall my screed-ish blog  from yesterday (I'd link to it, but hell, it's right below this one...) singing the praises of journalism's Brave New World. Uh, just never mind all that. I was drunk and optimistic when I wrote it. Now I'm sober and realistic, and I realize we're all doomed.

Anyway, I was doing some additional perusing on the Amazon Kindle Singles website last night while drinking and charting out the rest of my life, when I discovered, much to my chagrin (because it was an idea I also had) as well as my delight (that someone else thought it was a good idea, too, and jumped on it) that a story idea I'd been kicking around in my head for a while had apparently been kicking around in someone else's head, too...

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline has enflamed the bitter fight over America's energy future. Opponents of the 1,700-mile pipeline, which is designed to bring oil extracted from Canadian tar sands down to the US, say it represents a furthering of a dead-end oil-based energy policy that is unsustainable and poisonous, and have turned the permit requests to build the pipeline into an environmental litmus test for President Barack Obama. Supporters of the Keystone XL say it represents a step toward America's energy independence. Beyond the Beltway, the real story of this pipeline is one about American frontiers - the lengths to which we go for oil and the intrusive effects that quest causes all the way down the line. Steve Mufson, a reporter for The Washington Post, journeyed by car along the length of the proposed pipeline to see what this policy debate looks like at the ground level. Each segment of his trip touched on different issues: climate change and the oil sands; the U.S. energy trade with Canada; the North Dakota shale boom and its woes; prairie populism in Nebraska and pipeline politics; the Ogallala aquifer and the threat of leaks; Native Americans and their desire to protect land, water and burial sites along the old Trail of Tears; the fight of ranchers and farmers against a Canadian company’s right to eminent domain; and why both oil sands producers and Texas refiners want to see the pipeline completed. As long as the world relies on fossil fuels for transportation and industry, we will face unappealing choices. The Keystone XL pipeline serves as a larger metaphor, illuminating the vast energy infrastructure it takes to sustain the American lifestyle and the debatable choices we must make in pursuit of short-term comfort. Which risks, now and in the future, are we willing to take?

It's a great concept, and I'm glad someone did it. My idea (which, BTW, is not the story pitch I alluded to in yesterday's blog) was similar, but I wanted to start at the Montana border where the pipeline will enter the US, then travel the length of the proposed route down to the Texas gulf coast. My plan was to begin in the early fall during Montana's upland bird season, with the dogs in the truck and a kayak strapped to the cab, hunting, fishing, photographing and interviewing my way as closely along the pipeline route as possible, taking a look at the issue in much the same way, but with a slightly different, more outdoorsy, hunting/fishing-based conservation perspective.

But now such a story looks a bit redundant (although I hasten to add that if there are any cash-infused editors reading this who think otherwise and would like to send me on such an odyssey, feel free to call me...). Seriously though, this looks like a good read, and a good example of the kind of journalism the format is capable of. Think I might check it out... 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Revolution Will Be E-Published

 "The past is never dead. It's not even past. Unless you're a book or magazine publisher."

                                                                                      Fake William Faulkner

I have often bemoaned (and often on this blog) the alleged decline of the printed word. I've mocked and/or bitched about e-books, I've mocked and/or bitched about the general state of journalism and publishing, and I've mocked and/or bitched about the current state of magazines. In general, I suppose I just like to mock and/or bitch.

But I'm rapidly changing my tune, at least in regard to publishing. It's becoming increasingly clear to me that reports of the death of good journalism, and the opportunity for writers to do said journalism, are greatly exaggerated. It's also becoming evermore clear to me that in this new paradigm, writers wield more power and influence, as well as sharing more of the profit, than they ever did in the old and increasingly-terminal traditional publishing model.

Here's an interesting story (via The Passive Voice) in the New York Times about the rise of Amazon's Kindle Singles, which is a unit within Amazon that publishes novella-length journalism known as e-shorts.

From the story

David Blum does not have a regular table at the Four Seasons or host celebrity parties at the top of the Standard Hotel. He does not get a lot of fawning press. After he was fired by The Village Voice and left The New York Press, Gawker Media in 2009 pronounced him “a sad bumbling doctor for dying New York City weeklies.”

But four years is an eon in the digital realm, and in that time Mr. Blum has transformed himself from doctor of the dying to midwife of the up-and-coming. As such, he is a man whom authors want to court.

Mr. Blum is the editor of Amazon Kindle Singles, a Web service that is helping to promote a renaissance of novella-length journalism and fiction, known as e-shorts.

Amazon Kindle Singles is a hybrid. First, it is a store within the megastore of, offering a showcase of carefully selected original works of 5,000 to 30,000 words that come from an array of outside publishers as well as from in-house. Most sell for less than $2, and Mr. Blum is the final arbiter of what goes up for sale.

It is also a small, in-house publishing brand — analogous to a grocery store that makes an in-house brand of salsa to compete with other manufacturers. Mr. Blum comes up with his own ideas or cherry-picks pieces from the more than 1,000 unsolicited manuscripts he receives each month. He then edits them and helps pick cover art. 

Amazon Singles usually pays nothing upfront to the author (there are rare exceptions) and keeps 30 percent of all sales. Yet it is an enticing deal for some authors, because Singles now delivers a reliable purchasing audience, giving them a chance to earn thousands for their work. (A quick calculation shows that the authors make an average of roughly $22,000, but the amount varies widely by piece.)

“Every day I become more obsessed with how brilliant the concept is,” Mr. Blum, 57, said over coffee at the Lamb’s Club in Manhattan, crediting the idea entirely to Amazon. For him, the brilliance is that authors can now share in the profits instead of getting a flat fee. “The idea that writers would participate in the publishing model is just very bold,” he said.

The rest of the story is well worth a read. I have to admit that I had never heard of Amazon Singles. If I'm understanding it correctly, it's sort of the same model that Byliner is using for its longform journalism and fiction offerings. I'm sure the selection process is fairly subjective, but for those authors chosen (and who have the coin and time to do what amounts to a spec piece, with no guarantee of payment) it could be a great opportunity to do the kind of deep journalism that is increasingly disappearing in the traditional publishing world. And share in the profits if it sells well.

But what's really exciting, to me, anyway, is the fact that we haven't really begun to scratch the possibilities this new publishing reality can offer, possibilities that are often squelched by the endemic lack of vision, creativity and originality shown by many editors. As an example, here's a verbatim response I recently got to a feature pitch I sent the editors of a publication that shall remain nameless to protect the stupid.

Sorry's a nay. Basically, the feedback I got boils down to -- a pitch on that kind of story has to be much more specific...i.e. it can't be framed as an adventure piece that will tell a story about the area, unless there's a specific angle to the area that we can turn into a searchable headline. Or you have to be able to pull a tips and skills or gear story out of it. Sorry, I fought for it.

Without giving too much away, because I like the idea and plan to pitch it elsewhere, this was a story I envisioned as a sort of reported first-person account of an ecologically unique and threatened area, told through the lens (or literary device, if you prefer) of a bird-hunting road trip. I was thinking a high(ish) concept literary non-fiction piece. The New Yorker, with a shotgun. Pretentious, maybe, but an important and worthy story. But all they saw was no searchable headline and a fatal lack of appropriate gear and tips sidebars. 

And these publications wonder why they're struggling? I responded and said thanks, but that I obviously just don't get the business model XYZ is using, because the day I pitch a story idea based solely on its merits as a searchable headline rather than its merits as a story is the day I should probably just take up something enjoyable, like woodworking.What's that old saw? "Against stupidity even the gods contend in vain"...

And the thing is, I and every other writer have reams of such examples. Seriously, some smart, snarky writer really needs to start a Slushpile Hell-inspired blog, but with dumbshit/weird/outlandish editor responses instead of dumbshit/weird/outlandish writer queries. It'd freakin' kill...

But I digress. The point is, I look at entities like Amazon Singles, Byliner, or even the regular Amazon Kindle Publishing, and I see so much potential to get good, worthy and important work out there without having to deal with the idiots who still control so much of the traditional publishing world, especially in niche publishing genres (like outdoors titles) that have largely turned their backs on real, meaty journalism in favor of brainless, single-serving crap. 

Take my rejected story idea, for example. This is just an example for the sake of example, but rather than continue beating my forehead against the drawbridge of the dunces (they prefer to be called "gatekeepers") why not just say screw 'em and go find a way to get it done on my own? Pitch the story to Amazon Singles or Byliner, or publish it entirely on my own? And if I don't have the money to do it on spec (and who the hell does?) then go find myself a patron for a literary grubstake to get the idea off the ground, maybe go to the the stakeholders (there's another PR term) that have a vested interest in seeing such a story published and pitch a partnership with them. 

Or, for a slightly different example for the sake of argument, if you're a non-profit, say a conservation group, and you've been stymied and frustrated by not being able to get your message into the pages of the magazines that make up your key demographic (for example, see my experience above), then give them the finger (most of them, hemorrhaging money, advertisers, readers, and influence, are becoming utterly irrelevant, anyway) and go partner with a talented freelancer to write your story, publish it electronically and then promote the hell out of it online. Bypass the antiquated system that is failing you in favor of one that serves you. Be nimble, creative and open to experimentation and new ways of telling and distributing a story. You know, basically everything that traditional publishing isn't. 

Freelance independent advocacy journalism. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? But I think it's a coming thing. Or not. But what's painfully apparent is that the primacy of the traditional publishing model is most assuredly a going thing. As in going away. And I'm increasingly thinking that, for many writers that's not a bad thing at all.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

What a dog bite looks like...

I've lived with and owned dogs all my life, and while I've been nipped at, growled at, and accidentally bitten a few times while breaking up dog fights, I've never been flat-out attacked by a dog. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about my oldest son, who was chased down and attacked by a neighborhood dog a few days ago. The two puncture wounds are deep and nasty. So deep and nasty, in fact, that our doctor put him such a high antibiotic dose that when I tried to get his prescription filled, my pharmacist looked at it, looked again, and said "He wants him to take both of these at the same time? I'm going to call and make sure."

He's doing OK, but the leg is obviously sore, and we've got to keep a close eye on it to make sure it doesn't get infected. Scary stuff. The dog's owners are neighbors, our sons play together, and they were naturally horrified and deeply apologetic. I don't think the dog will be running free any more.

Bad News, Everyone!

 One of the smartest, funniest shows on television has just been cancelled, again...

From Slate's excellent Bad Astronomy blog

There is a hypothesis—out of favor now, but it had its heyday—that the universe was cyclical. Big Bang, expansion, slowing, stopping, shrinking, Big Crunch … and then kaboom, another Big Bang, and here we go again.

Art imitates life. The TV show Futurama exploded in to the geek community, rose in popularity, then was canceled. Then it was reborn, only to be canceled again. And then for a second time it was reborn from its ashes. But this cycle may be the last. Perhaps it’s entropy. Perhaps it’s a network executive who thinks Scruffy hits too close to home. Whatever the underlying mechanism, Futurama has seen its last cosmic expansion. It’s been canceled again. Again. And probably for no raisin.

To say I love Futurama is like saying Nibbler loves to eat, and that Popplers are tasty. How often do you get a geeky, hugely scientifically based cartoon that is also incredibly funny? And it wasn’t just funny, it was smart. But that’s no surprise, given that executive producer David X. Cohen has degrees in both physics and computational science. Many of the writers had degrees in science and math, and that was reflected in the show. Not that is was all science all the time. When was the last time an animated show made you cry? If you answer “never,” then you have either never seen “Jurassic Bark,” or you have had your soul surgically removed. Chunks of granite weep openly at the end of that episode.  

Over its long run, Futurama has had way too many incredible scientific joke and plot points to point out individually. It is one of the few TV shows to actually respect the edicts of time travel. (Heck, it set up a massive later time travel plot line in the opening scene of the pilot.) It featured black holes, exploding stars, galactic governments, and more.

What the hell? I am crushed like a girder in Bender's hands. I've loved Futurama since its first run on Fox lo these many years ago, and my oldest son is a huge fan as well, despite my wife's parental disapproval of Bender's gratuitous use of the word "ass" in virtually every episode.

It was smart, it was funny, it was subtle and it was sharp: high comedy masked as low, which meant that it was doomed to never do well with that vast, all-important lowest-common-moron demographic. And unlike "The Simpsons", which I stopped watching or caring about years ago, Futurama has been consistently excellent throughout its run.

I'm not a big TV series DVD collector, but like "Arrested Development", this might be one to make an exception...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Makes Perfect Sense To Me...

 "Twelve Million Americans Believe Lizard People Run Our Country"

  From The Atlantic Wire  via  BoingBoing

About 90 million Americans believe aliens exist. Some 66 million of us think aliens landed at Roswell in 1948. These are the things you learn when there's a lull in political news and pollsters get to ask whatever questions they want. Public Policy Polling has raised weird polls to an art form. During last year's presidential campaign, the firm earned a bit of a reputation for its unorthodox questions; for example, "If God exists, do you approve of its handling of natural disasters?"

Today PPP released the results of a national survey looking at common conspiracy theories. Broken down by topic and cross-referenced by political preference, the results will not inspire a lot of patriotism. If you need to defend your fellow countrymen, be sure to note that the margin of error is 2.8 percent.

You mean they don't? I thought we all knew that giant lizard people ran the country? Come on, the proof is everywhere...

Monday, April 15, 2013

Maiden Voyage of the SS Yet-To-Be-Named

Truth be told, I'm not much of a motorized boat guy. I own one, but for the most part they're noisy, intrusive, expensive, unreliable, complex pains in the ass, especially when all you want to do is get away for a few hours of fishing or duck hunting smaller waters without making everything such a huge, time-consuming production.

Which is why for years I've been wanting one of those specialized fishing and hunting-specific kayaks. They appeal to both my sense of the aesthetic as well as my preferred means of fishing, which is for the most part slow and contemplative rather than fast and frenzied. Nothing appeals to me more than easing along close to the water in blissful solitude and silence, far from the madding crowd.

So when a story assignment requiring a kayak came my way, I used it as an opportunity to get this...

She's a Wilderness Systems Commander 140, and after fishing in her for the first time, I am smitten. Not only is it an absolute blast to fish out of, I cannot wait to get it out on the lake this fall for duck season, if for no other reason than it will allow me to get the hell away from the legions of assholes who, by their mere presence, made this year's waterfowl season so miserable for me. Yes, I am a wholly unsociable person in the field, and no, I make no apologies for it.

As kayak rigging goes, it's fairly conventional: milk crate tackle box with homemade PVC rod holders attached (plus two flush mounts on the side), and an old cooler behind that to store more tackle and various stuff. Up front I have a soft cooler for drinks and ice and a Garmin Echo 550c fishfinder mounted on a tray with two Scotty holders on either side. I rigged up the Garmin to a 12-volt deer feeder battery and I use a suction-cup transducer mount. So far it works like a charm. It paddles and tracks easily, is stable enough for me to stand (albeit tentatively right now) and I can load and unload it by myself and be on the water in just a couple minutes, anywhere at all, quickly, quietly, and with no boat ramp drama whatsoever.

There is, admittedly, a learning curve to paddling, steering and casting from one, but it's a fairly short curve, and this complete kayak newbie was casting and navigating my way around in no time at all. And even catching a few fish...

My first-ever kayak fish, which means in,'yak parlance, that I have now officially "slimed" my new boat. Personally, as christening acts go, I think it beats the hell out of a bottle of champagne.

When the weather warms up and the thought of accidental dunkings no longer elicits chills, I'll start taking Tess out in it to get her (and me) some practice in riding in and retrieving out of a boat. Should be fun...

Friday, April 12, 2013

Refried Mallard: Close Waters

From a blog post I did over on the Mouthful of Feathers blog a long while back. If you haven't read the Mouthful of Feathers blog, check it out. Aside from my meager offerings (which I hope to add to in the future) it's Really Good Stuff that needs to find, should find, a wider audience amongst the hook-and-bullet set...

It is, despite any charitable stretch of the imagination, a shithole. Plastic bags undulate like jellyfish in the tepid brown water. A thick layer of trash rings the shoreline. Thick wads of yellowed monofilament, snelled hook packages, beer cans, Styrofoam worm tubs, broken and discarded ten-dollar spincasting rods, cigarette butts, crooked sticks stuck in stinking mud, an abandoned flip-flop; the detritus of the don’t-give-a-shit demographic is everywhere. In a land where public water and open space for dog training and fishing is scarce and precious, I marvel, repulsively, at the fact that I can hardly bring my dogs here for the shiny matte of broken glass they must run over.

Last year someone dumped an old mattress and recliner in the pond. For a few months the waterlogged mattress floated aimlessly across the water. I used to aim for it when throwing marks for the dog, the bumper making a gelatinous thunk when it hit. She would climb up on the mattress, grab the bumper, briefly survey the world from her quivering ship and swim back to me. I once caught a bass from under it before it finally sunk into the filthy, inscrutable depths.
But it is the only water I have, so I fish it, throw bumpers into its water for my retriever, let my setter chase the tough, cat-wise urban quail that live on its edge. There are trade-offs to living on the plains -  the fishing, music and friends of the past for birds, solitude and unfettered horizon of present. This lack of decent water is just one of them. Someday – if the birds continue their slide and what few remain are found behind fences to which I will never be afforded a gate key – those trade-offs will become too much to bear and I will leave this place, but until then I keep coming here to fish and train. Better thin gruel than no gruel at all.
The bass I catch are pale and colorless, like most bass from muddy, turbid water, but they take a spinnerbait readily enough, and they’ve indulged my recent obsession for flyfishing by obliging me with the occasional thrill in that endeavor, despite my incompetence. As a reminder of what I’ve lost for what I’ve gained, they do their job, and as a touchstone for what keeps me sane, well, they do that, too.
So I come back here to find what comfort I can in what the water, the dogs and the bass offer, because water is water wherever it may be and as one who has always been obsessed with water, I have no choice but to seek it out when I hear its call.
While fishing here I once found a used syringe and a little black fake leather bag with traces of what the cops in the affidavits I used to read as a beat reporter always referred to as “a white powdery substance.”
I walk up to the water, look down and there it is, just lying there at my feet. I pick it up, carefully, and put it in the fake leather bag, wrap it in a McDonalds bag (there’s always a fucking McDonalds bag handy) and stuff the whole thing into the overflowing trash can at the parking area. As I walk back to the water, I think about how miserable that person’s existence must be to seek out this shitty, polluted spot and take – in such a hopeless manner – what fleeting solace they can find in this world.
I make a cast and do the same.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Maggie's Last Party...

I'm not being rude, that's really what it's called...

I'm not British, and therefore never had to live under Margaret Thatcher's severe presence, so I'll not touch the question of whether a majority of Brits are mourning or dancing right now, but when I saw the news I remembered this song from years back. I can't even remember where I first heard it, most likely some primitive, long-gone Internet radio station I was perusing for the kind of Brit rock you can't get in Oklahoma.

Wonder what Billy Bragg is singing today?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A Self-Publishing Cautionary Tale

 If you are an aspiring writer it can be easy to get overly optimistic about the potential of self-publishing, especially after reading the blogs of extremely successful, extremely wealthy self-published genre fiction authors like JA Konrath.

But here's a painfully funny account of the other side of the coin (or lack thereof) detailing one aspiring writer's first foray into the world of self-publishing. Dreams, meet earth...

From Salon

I am contorting myself in front of the bathroom mirror, iPhone in hand, a porkpie hat on my head and a pair of black-framed Jonathan Franzen glasses perched on my nose. I am trying to capture an image of myself that does not look like me. Sans these accouterments, I am balding and thin faced with perpetual bags under my eyes – sort of like the father on “That ’70s Show” in need of a nap. Conversely, the look I’m going for is “intellectual cool.” I have a long way to go.

I share the photo with some friends, and the verdict is universal. “A slightly more effeminate version of Truman Capote,” is perhaps the best summation. I stick with the picture, post it, and release my new website to the world. No one notices, though I fear lawyers from the Capote estate may one day send a cease-and-desist order.

Thus began my life as a published author.

An article in the New York Times claims that 81 percent of us believe we have a book in us. This sounds painful – both anatomically and for the readers of this potential deluge. In fact, extrapolated across the entire U.S., this 81 percent equates to 200 million books. Most of them no doubt about beloved dogs or written by celebrity chefs. I confess I was long among these wannabe authors. My cabinets and drawers are littered with more pages of fiction than the archives of the Nixon Library. However, recently I completed my first novel and subsequently set out after that dream of every writer: publication, followed by royalty checks of the six-figure variety.

I shopped the manuscript around and there was some mild interest from an agent or two, but mostly I collected rejection slips, which I set afire like I imagined Hemingway would, nearly burning the curtains in my writer’s garret. Ultimately, I consoled myself that the publishing world was in such a state of flux these days agents were taking chances on nothing less than works of the highest literary quality, like the latest from Snooki or books by celebrity chefs.

It was about this time I considered joining the hundreds of thousands of writers who in recent years have self-published their work. Hence the website and Capote photo, as well as the hundreds of dollars and many hours about to go down the drain.

The rest of the story is worth a read, although you may not want to if you're either seriously contemplating or definitely planning (as I am) to try publishing your own work through Amazon. For every success story out there (and of course "success" means different things to different people, but it usually involves money in some capacity) there are thousands of accounts similar to the author's.

This reality has led many writers, both published and un, to discount self-publishing (and by self-publishing I mean e-books rather than traditional vanity presses) as a less-than-viable option. But you know what? It sounds pretty much like traditional publishing. There are winners, there are losers. And you can't find out which one you are until you try, right?

I haven't had any luck with traditional publishers and, truth be told, have been less than impressed with the contracts I've seen from most publishing houses, anyway. So what the hell? What do you have to lose besides a little pride? Not to mention that if you do flop, you can then channel that pathos into a story assignment on Salon that humorously plugs your failed book. Smart marketing, there...