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Chuck Klosterman Speaks Bleakly About Publishing Newbies

The company I currently work for has a subscription to the Portland Business Journal, so it’s a paper I have access to each week that I probably wouldn’t read otherwise. It doesn’t have a plethora of pieces that I can use for work, which is theoretically why we receive it, but I frequently find information that’s interesting to me personally. There might be news of a building sale in my neighborhood or a local company getting off the ground that might be relevant to my interests.

In the August 23rd, 2019 issue, there was an interview with author Chuck Klosterman that caught my attention. His name sounded familiar but I was surprised I hadn’t encountered his work before, especially since he moved to Portland a couple of years back.

One specific answer he gave in the interview caught my attention.

PBJ: What is it like being a working author now?

I think it’s extremely difficult for a new person to enter the publishing industry at this point. But I’ve been doing this now for 18 years. I’m kind of inside the gates.

Frankly, with the growing disinterest the public has in reading, the middle class of writing has disappeared. If somebody wants to buy a book, they almost have to know what that book is and who wrote it before they even look for it. In the past when Barnes and Noble and places like that became really popular, people would go to bookstores almost as a social extension of their life, which they still kind of do at Powell’s.

Now, it’s hard to be a writer who exists by selling 20,000 copies of your book. It seems as though you have to sell 300,000 copies and almost work as a kind of celebrity or your book sells less than 5,000 copies and you have to do it as a hobby.

Read more of the Portland Business Journal’s interview with Chuck Klosterman here.

WHEW.

The “growing disinterest the public has in reading” bit hit me like a brick, yet I can’t argue with the perspective. And I certainly can’t forget the local publisher who thought I was overqualified for their open position when I was fresh out of my publishing program back in 2012, looking less at job title and more at gaining actual paid experience at an operational publishing company. Portland has so few of them.

While I can’t argue with a single thing Klosterman says here—it is indeed the state of the industry—the bleak sentiment really got to me. I suppose the angle I’ve taken over the last 20 years has been that publishing books isn’t the only avenue where editorial work—writing, editing, photo research, and the like—is needed. I’ve worked on museum exhibits, multimedia projects, company websites, but also printed books as well.

Young publishers, things may feel increasingly like an idiocracy but that just means your skills are needed even more in this world.

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My E-reader Died!

It started so innocently. Multnomah County Library ran an online ad encouraging people to check out an e-book. I decided to try it out, as I had never attempted to use the e-reader I had gotten for free from the breakroom at my office for anything other than free, public domain titles.

Halfway through Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, my e-reader wasn’t sparking very much joy. It had randomly died, then apparently forgot I had loaded any books on it at all! When I tried to connect wirelessly to sync up with my Kobo account, the device was stymied.

I had gotten this device for free about a year and a half earlier. It was sitting on a table in the breakroom of my office, and I was drawn in by the cheery red case. In MPub e-books were a hot topic (some of my colleagues even did some actual real-life work with them!) but I was solidly unconvinced that they’d ever be a part of my life. After all, users had already started learning about the down-side of digital rights management when Amazon digitally yanked 1984 from e-readers without notice to their customers. When the e-reader hadn’t been claimed by my next visit to the breakroom, I nabbed it, thinking I could experiment with creating ePUB files of my own. Kobo, after all, was a Canadian company and I knew they didn’t require a proprietary file type like Amazon devices did.

I read one whole book on the device—Anne of Green Gables—long before loading the library book.

Once I started having issues it wasn’t long before I was in an epic back-and-forth with Kobo support techs—one of whom eventually became far more helpful than the others. It took a while, but the helpful tech ultimately decided that the device was done for. Which is what I had suspected weeks before.

Thus ended my e-reader experiment. I did put some effort into procuring another Kobo but it wasn’t too long before I figured out the newer models were far too fancy for my liking. These devices had color screens, some played video, and the cost was far above the budget I was willing to spend on such a thing.

Ultimately I decided that it wasn’t worth the modest utility I got from it—being able to stir a pot and read, or go on a trip and have a variety of titles to read, from Northanger Abbey to the gargantuan Ulysses. Paper will still be my go-to…for now, anyway.

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“They” as a Personal Pronoun and Subject-Verb Agreement

They want to eat pizza.

A couple of weeks ago my opinion was sought about a very 2019 kind of question. Steven had been pondering the verbal intricacies of our new gender frontiers and asked about which verb conjugation one would use with the singular “they…”

They run for exercise? OR They runs for exercise?

They like it? OR They likes it?

It was a great question, and one I hadn’t recalled being specifically addressed in recent years as big style guides have announced changes. Research opportunity beckoned so I grabbed my handy Chicago 17 and got searching.

In Section 5.48 Chicago recommends against using the singular “they” in formal writing but notes “like singular you, singular they takes a plural verb.” A few sentences later they give the same advice for non-they pronouns: “a number of other gender-neutral singular pronouns are in use, invented for that purpose; forms of these are usually singular and take singular verbs.” In other words, ze/zim/zir gets the same treatment.

The Chicago advice seemed perfectly reasonable to me although I do have a counterpoint. If we use a singular verb form with “they,” then that could eliminate confusion to an audience about whether you’re talking about an individual or a group.

They want to eat pizza. OR They wants to eat pizza.
If we use the second version, our audience would know we’re referring to one person!

In the past I think I’d have felt completely comfortable with what society at large was trying harder to grapple with—back when I was in high school and college it was the acceptance of people who weren’t straight. A couple decades have passed and we’ve come a long way. Our new societal frontiers have more to do with gender: accepting people at different places along the gender spectrum and people whose gender identity may not match what another person dictated when they were born. (Sadly, our challenges with skin tones seem to be evergreen.) These days I’m feeling more like I’m figuring it out along with other people yet doing my best to make it look easy.

It hasn’t been smooth though, at least not verbally. Two summers ago Steven and I had regular interactions with a person named Lew, whose preferred pronoun was “they.” There were several times when I stopped myself in mid-sentence to pause and say “they,” or sometimes I’d just default to “Lew.” It felt awkward to say “I need to call them to tell them we’ll be late” so I might opt for “I need to call Lew to say we’ll be late.”

Just a day or two after I was pondering Steven’s gender-neutral question, NPR ran an op-ed titled “Even a Grammar Geezer Like Me Can Get Used to Gender Neutral Pronouns.” It gave a nice summation of how we got to where we are and a gentle encouragement that we can all adjust. Scientific American writers point out that announcing pronouns may enable gender bias and discrimination.

Just as we got used to referring to unmarried women as Ms., just as we’ve now got popular television shows with gay main characters and lesbian hosts, with time things will shake out and we’ll collectively figure things out. In the meantime though, it’s better to ask respectful questions than angrily make pronouncements, whether you’re talking to an individual or a addressing a large group.

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The Chicago Manual of Style Announces 17th Edition

Today in word nerd news, the world learned that September will bring a new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)! The University of Chicago Press is already taking pre-orders. Spoiler alert: it costs $70.

More spoiler alerts: e-mail will be email and Internet will be internet! Gender fluidity will the conversation, too, as they report “use of the singular they as a preferred personal pronoun [will be] accepted in formal writing.” The times, they are a-changin’.

I managed to nab a $25 used copy of the 15th edition at Powell’s about five years before I was forced to upgrade to a new copy. MPub required us to have a copy of 16, which had just been released, so I purchased one at full retail price. (Of course there’s also my early edition of CMOS I scored in for $1.50. I wouldn’t part with it for the world!)

We’ve been through a lot, me and ol’ 16. There was at least one late night I needed to read most of the first chapter for editing class, which describes details about publishing as a whole. (Quick, someone quiz me on verso and recto!) As a reference, it felt a little awkward to be reading the book in front-to-back style.

Sadly, my current workplace just doesn’t beg the kinds of style questions I ache to research, so I haven’t been relying upon 16 as regularly as I have in the past. What do I do? I could sell the tome back to Powell’s now for maximum cash (which would then in turn be used to pre-order 17). Or maybe it’s time to start a CMOS collection, so I can research subtle changes that happened between editions.

What’s a word nerd to do?

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What I’m Reading: Radical Figures, Life Management

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Abigail Scott Duniway, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Thursday night I reached the epilogue of Evicted, so I’m in the home stretch of finishing that book. Honestly, I’m probably not going to read the backmatter of footnotes and such, which take up the last 20% of the thickness of the book, so I’ll likely be moving on to the next selection in my towering to-read stack.

Related to Current Political Shenanigans

Over the last couple of weeks certain historical figures have been on my mind. Figures such as Frederick Douglass, who the current occupant of the Oval Office recently referred to as if he was alive (Douglass died in 1895).

When I was attending Lewis and Clark College I was in a course where we read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. One of the details that stuck with me over the years is that Douglass didn’t know the day he was born, something that most of us consider to be basic information about ourselves. Of course it’s worth reading for more reasons besides that, and it’s public domain so it’s pretty easy to find. Highly recommended—after all, POTUS says that Douglass guy is really going places!

Conservatives Sure Love Progressives and Radicals—At Least After They’re Dead (Salon)

Most of my favorite historical figures relate to social history—the revolutionaries, the people who fought for their beliefs despite negative pushback from others. Here in Oregon we have Abigail Scott Duniway, who fought for women’s suffrage in Oregon alongside national figures such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. An announcement recently informed Portland that the local Hilton Hotel would be renamed after Duniway, which I can only think ties in to the above Salon article. A few years ago I created a Facebook page for Duniway, hoping to start a campaign to rename SE Division street for her…but it looks like the profiteers have now discovered her too.

Finding Time to Read

What would Bookish be without reading? I’ve seen a few articles about making time to read over the last few weeks. They all have something interesting to say.

Making Time to Read (Unclutterer)
In the Time You Spend on Social Media Each Year, You Could Read 200 Books (Quartz)
Books You Can Read in the Time It Takes to Watch the Super Bowl (Minnesota Public Radio)

The Importance of Saying No

Finally, this week I took on another short-term commitment that I probably should have said no to. Obviously I ran across this reminder later in the week…

One Critical Time Management Technique: Saying No (Unclutterer)

Although I admit I should have said no, I’m not entirely sorry because I’ve accepted the opportunity to learn the choral part to the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th, aka “Ode to Joy.” It seems pretty flipping timely to me to sing Schiller’s “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” again and again. Loudly.

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What I’m Reading: Current Affairs

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There’s a lot going on these days, am I right? This month, in addition to regular dispatches on Rain in the Forecast (which involves taking Rain to agility class and practicing our homework),  I’m learning to knit by a class I’m taking at local knit shop Starlight Knitting Society, I’ve returned to a regular yoga class after an unexpected two-month absence, and I’m cooking up fundraisers (see above and below). But I’m still reading.

A friend says this journal article came out of her lab. One can read the full piece if you have library access to a service like JSTOR:

Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study (American Journal of Epidemiology via PubMed)

There’s a new occupant in the Oval Office this year, and if you’re having as hard a time adjusting to that as I am, perhaps this piece will be of interest to you. It’s long-form, but largely worth it.

A Short History of the Trump Family (London Review of Books)

After you’re done with that, you might need a dose of comedy to cleanse the palate…

This is Why We Have Photoshop (Cake Wrecks)

Inspired by the amazing things happening these days in US government, I’m selling some pencils. Proceeds will go to the Center for Investigative Reporting in Emeryville, CA.

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What I’m Reading: Evicted

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City is the book selection for the Everybody Reads program at one of my local libraries this year.

Why Evicted? Portland’s popularity has lead to a housing crisis in the last few years. Home sales prices have shot up, making ownership even more out of reach for many. An influx of newcomers (some perhaps attracted by the Portlandia mythos, others escaping drought in California) has meant rental prices have become insane. A friend was renting an inner-SE basement apartment about ten years ago that was priced around $895 per month—while that seemed too expensive for me to sustainably afford at the time, a similar apartment might now go for $1300 or more.

Considering this environment I’m glad to own a house with no mortgage, although the condition is not that far from the housing described in Evicted. If my house ever becomes completely uninhabitable, it’s likely I’ll need to move to another part of the region. Or Tulsa—it always seems cost of living is reasonable in Tulsa.

The theory behind Everybody Reads is that if a community has one book they’re reading around the same time, it can spark connections among strangers and a larger public discourse. The library also uses the opportunity to schedule several related events—this year the author will be giving a lecture event in Portland and there are many opportunities for community members to participate in book discussions, learn about local renters rights, and participate in a poverty simulation.

It seems to me that this book is in some respects picking up where The Jungle left off, with the author writing in order to spur social change. That said, rather than creating a fictional account, Evicted was crafted after author Matthew Desmond conducted plenty of interviews and information gathering. A note in the front of the book points out that all the situations really happened, although names have been changed for anonymity.

And it’s a good thing, too. I’m only about halfway through the story and I already feel compelled to write a nastygram to one of the landlords in the book! If this is any recommendation, I promise you’ll feel so moved as well. Evicted does a great job of pulling the curtain back on a system that we should all engage in changing, in the name of human rights.

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