This is not what we look like

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…writers have looked like other people even when they write (though sometimes their lips move, and sometimes they stare into space longer, and more intently, than anything that isn’t a cat); but their words describe their real faces: the ones they wear underneath. This is why people who encounter writers of fantasy are rarely satisfied by the wholly inferior person that they meet.

“I thought you’d be taller, or older, or younger, or prettier, or wiser,” they tell us, in words or wordlessly.

“This is not what I look like,” I tell them. “This is not my face.”

— Neil Gaiman,
*The View from the Cheap Seats*

Want

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It’s just a typewriter. But it’s also red, sleek, stylish, and did I mention it’s a typewriter? Just looking at it makes me want to take off for the weekend to Key West, hide under a shady tree in Hemingway’s yard, and not leave until I’ve finished at least a dozen short stories.

Art Matters, So It Shouldn’t Be Free

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In a previous life, I worked as a wind energy developer. It meant lots of long trips to exotic places where people are usually not (at least, not in great or even middling abundance): places like Sweetwater, TX; Minot, North Dakota; Ozona, TX; and Santa Rosa, NM. Don’t get me wrong — these are all lovely places with very kind, welcoming communities. But wherever there is plenty of wind to support industry-scale wind projects, there is typically not much in terms of population.

Anyway, I remember vividly one day trip I took to some North Texas county (I can’t remember which one anymore, but it was a very rural, remote area with a lot of trees and, as we soon figured out, not as much wind as we’d hoped) one spring day. The company I worked for had sent over a young intern named Adam from Irish HQ, so as an educational experience and for some company I took him with me.

During the long, two-hour drive to the meeting, we somehow got to chatting about artists (musicians in particular), creativity, and the bubbling tension between the need for these artists to make a living and the demand of their fans for free content. This was a post-Napster, pre-Spotify world, when Pandora was just starting to find its audience and YouTube was exploding with illegal uploads of both official and “unofficial,” fan-made music videos.

Adam believed that artists should make their work freely available on the Internet and suffered not an ounce of guilt from downloading copyrighted content without paying for it. He genuinely believed that because his generation (he was about 19, and this was the mid-2000s) had grown up accustomed to paying little or nothing for music, movies and books because of their wide availability on bootleg sites, they shouldn’t be expected to suddenly pony up for access to them. Sure, he was happy to pay a few hundred dollars for an iPod, but for the music and other content he would actually play on it and without which the iPod would just be an outrageously priced paperweight? Nada. When I asked him how in the world he expected these artists to survive and continue to create without compensation, he said, “They can get a full-time job and create in their spare time.”

Artists have always, always struggled for respect and an adequate income for their work. Distributing content without artist compensation is a longtime tradition — it’s why copyright law was invented in the first place. But with technology making it so incredibly easy to distribute any creative work on a mass, global scale, it’s become even harder for artists to control their work and earn a living wage from it. If even musicians with vast financial resources and the power and influence of corporate money behind them can’t make money solely from their creative output but must hustle to make themselves into a “brand”, is there much hope for the “independent artist” who would rather spend their time and energies actually making art and not shilling t-shirts and plastic wrist bands out of cramped apartments?

I could never convince Adam that artists deserve to be paid every single time their music is downloaded, their film is viewed, and their book is sold. But while the conversation happened nearly a decade ago, it stuck in my head and comes out periodically whenever I read articles like this one, which calls for basically an overhaul of society and more expansive public investment in artists and their art.

Despite what I just wrote above about the importance of compensating artists for their work, I’m of two minds about the idea of devoting public funds to support artists. The Depression-era programs put to work thousands of writers, photographers, filmmakers, and visual artists left an astounding legacy of documents, films, and artwork that serve as a rich repository of content about a particularly critical time in American history.

On the other hand, the content, while voluminous, wasn’t exactly created solely for the sake of art. As this article carefully points out, “Nothing was published that was not first approved by Washington and the entire process required that the author remain anonymous.” Government money is rarely offered without strings, even today, and while I consider myself fairly liberal, I hesitate to endorse any arts program or idea that relies so heavily on government largesse. Socialist art has rarely produced anything of lasting cultural value and more often than not serves as a propaganda tool. The artist should only ever be beholden to their creative impulse, never to an outside agency with its own agenda.

Still, I also don’t think that we can expect the “masses” (who my former political science prof often referred to as “asses”) to suddenly have a change of heart and refuse to download anything without ponying up a royalty to the artist. One program I find appealing is Ireland’s Artists Tax Exemption. Rather than requiring artists to submit exhaustive applications and compete with their peers for a limited amount of earmarked funds — a process ripe with bias and the stifling of free speech and creativity — the program offers a simple blanket benefit to all artists who make money from their work. It’s not a perfect program: the government is still the final arbiter of what it considers “of cultural merit” and thus eligible for tax exemption. But it does strike me as an easier and more liberal means of supporting artists by removing or at least minimizing the burden of supporting oneself through one’s art. Like everyone else in society, the artist must still organize her paperwork and receipts to prepare for filing the appropriate returns, but at least she’s not enduring the soul-sucking business of filling out reams of grant applications, writing one more goddamn essay about why her work should be funded, and gathering reference letters and budget forecasts.

I’ve not spoken to Adam since I left the company in 2006, but I wonder what he thinks now, a decade later and 10 years older, about the state of the music industry. Folks wanting unlimited free music have never had it better — I listen to Spotify all day long and have never paid for it. But as a writer who works hard for every word and every page, I’m terrified of what the future holds for creatives who want and deserve to be paid for doing what they love and doing it well.

The ‘great and cursed work’ that was the Encyclopédie – Ideas – The Boston Globe

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Here’s the great difference between the Encyclopédie and the Internet, between what reading meant then and what it increasingly passes for today. While Diderot encouraged differences of opinion and perspectives among his closest contributors, he knew that all of them — from Voltaire to Rousseau, Baron d’Holbach to the Chevalier de Jaucourt — took the act of writing as seriously as did those who read it. No activity was more noble.

via The ‘great and cursed work’ that was the Encyclopédie – Ideas – The Boston Globe.

Amazon to pay Kindle authors only for pages read – Telegraph

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Amazon’s new system will cut the royalties for self-published authors who fail to hold a reader’s attention until the final page

via Amazon to pay Kindle authors only for pages read – Telegraph.

This is horrifying and a terrible precedent. Frankly, I don’t understand the position of author Kerry Wilkinson, who is quoted in the article as asking, “If readers give up on a title after half a dozen pages, why should the writer be paid in full?”

If I go to the emergency room with a heart attack and die on the operating table because the EMTs didn’t get me to the hospital in time, is my family still liable for the bill?

If I buy a dress but then take it altered to my favorite tailor because I think the hem should be 2″ shorter to truly flatter me, should I get a refund from the designer for whatever percentage of the dress I cut off?

If I book a flight to Paris, but then fall in love with someone while on layover in London and decide not to continue my journey, should I demand that the airline reimburse me for the percentage of the flight that I didn’t complete?

And yes, as Peter Maass is quoted as saying in the article: “I’d like the same in restaurants — pay for how much of a burger I eat.” Or a glass of wine I drink. Or if I walk out of a movie halfway through, I only want to pay half the bill. Or better, yet, hell, just give me all my money back.

Yes, it’s true that writers can “opt out” of the Kindle Select program, and frankly, it’s not that great a deal anyway since you’re essentially getting pennies so that someone can read it for free. But it sets a terrifying precedent to a future in which writers are mere commodities in the same way that education has become a commodity, valued only for what it can produce for in a free market.

I used to think that I wanted to live forever, but now I just want to die before it all goes to hell and writers will be mere content producers, not the scribes of an age.

Have you Pressed Publish yet?

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Press Publish in Portland, OR.

Press Publish in Portland, OR.

I’ve been on WordPress since at least 2007 (maybe earlier, but my aging memory doesn’t go back that far), but in all honesty my blogging journey was really launched on Google’s Blogger.com. In fact, it wasn’t until well into my tenure here as a Happiness Engineer at Automattic that I finally took down my Blogger site and moved everything here to WordPress.com. I still have a few self-hosted sites that I maintain (namely this one), though, and have been passionate about WordPress and its credo of open source software since I built my first, admittedly primitive self-hosted site in the mid-’00s.

Still, until I volunteered at last year’s WordCamp San Francisco, I’d never attended a WordCamp or even a WordPress meetup. I’d been evangelizing WordPress for years and built client sites exclusively on the platform, but the WordCamp universe always eluded me. It wasn’t just the fact that I was running a business, volunteering, taking care of a busy household with a professional spouse and 4 active dogs, and otherwise living a pretty full life – I still found plenty of time to attend networking events and even the occasional out-of-town client meeting or conference. But a local meetup of fellow WordPress enthusiasts? I dunno, it just didn’t appeal to me.

I figured out pretty quickly that it wasn’t so much the busy schedule that kept me from attending, but rather this perception that the meetups and WordCamps were all populated largely by technically savvy developers and designers, the kind of folks who literally spoke a different language and generally dwelt in the deeper parts of a software that I wouldn’t dare go.

Sure, I’d built plenty of sites, but I used premade templates and taught myself basic php — just enough to add a function or two, maybe tweak a design feature here and there. But my sites — all for small, local businesses or microentrepreneurs with miniscule budgets — were a result of some basic hacking on my part and a little help from a more tech-savvy developer friend.

I couldn’t imagine what I’d have in common with the folks who attended a WordPress meetup. I’m a writer. What do I know about plugin development and APIs?

Of course, now that I work closely with developers and designers in my everyday job, they’re not so mysterious anymore. Sure, 75% of what they talk about whiz right over my head (insert whooshing noise here), but my comfort level just being around them is so much higher now. I don’t mind asking questions, pleading ignorance, and sometimes even diving in and exploring some bits of code when it drifts by my desk. I have no desire to ever be a programmer, but it’s not quite the black box it used to be. Now, I’ve not only attended a few WordCamps but have even spoken at a couple of them. In fact, god forbid but I’m also part of the organizing committee for the DFW WordCamp coming up in the fall.

And yet.

I’m still a writer at heart. Not a content contributor or content marketer or whatever Fast Company uses now to refer to words or text strung together to deliver a message or tell a story. I like reading blogs, writing posts, and meeting other bloggers. One of the best features of WordPress.com is the Reader, which makes it so easy to keep up with my favorite bloggers and even discover new ones via the Freshly Pressed and Recommended Blogs sections.

And now, with the Press Publish series of WordPress conferences exclusively devoted to the storytellers and bloggers who use WordPress, I’ve found yet another reason to be excited about being a part of the community.

I not only attended but also spoke and helped out behind the scenes at both the inaugural event in Portland in late March as well as the most recent one in Phoenix this past weekend. The organizers packed each one-day event with a tight, carefully curated schedule of brilliant speakers and workshops, all focused on providing attendees with both information and inspiration on how they can become better bloggers and writers.

My own talks were on social media, DIY PR, and a little bit on how to make money from blogging (affiliates, ads, ecommerce). I’d like to think that most attendees found some useful tidbits of information from my presentations, but really, every workshop, tutorial, and speaker presentation was well-attended. I’m not sure that a lot of folks were especially interested too much in the monetization aspect of blogging, which is so alien to me, coming from a heavily PR- and marketing-focused universe where everyone wants to become the next Dooce.com and rake in a million dollars a year in advertising fees. In other words, I loved it. Thank god they only gave me 15 minutes for the monetization session. I don’t think I got more than one question about that topic in each city.

Yes. Writers. I so ❤ that it was all about writers.

Automattic is evaluating the Press Publish series to see if it’s something that we can and should continue, but in the meantime the videos for each event should be online very soon. If you’re a blogger and are interested in attending a future event — assuming we have others — be sure to follow the event’s official site to get the latest updates.