Thursday, May 28, 2009

Teh Internetz: #BEA09

Today kicks off Book Expo America at the Javitts Center in New York City. BEA is the largest book convention in the country, though this year is smaller than others.

This year's vibe, I'm told, is going to be somewhere between "we're effed" and "where do we go from here?" Interesting discussions will hopefully happen and break ground for new business models in publishing.

You can follow the chatter on Twitter by watching the #BEA09 hashtag.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Forage Oakland Anthology CFS

You don't have to live in the east bay to participate in this project! Forage Oakland is a neighborhood bartering food underground, allowing those with extra fruit trees to share with their neighbors. Those on the east coast might not understand that the streets of Berkeley and Oakland are LITTERED with free fruit for the taking...meyer lemon trees, orange trees, persimmons, figs, plums. Not to mention the rose geranium, lavender and rosemary that substitute for shrubbery.

You can find out more about the Forage Oakland project here, but if you write about the intersection of food and comunity, please consider submitting.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Interview with Chamber Four--Part II

Here's the conclusion of our interview with Chamber Four:

Aside debates about the value of ereaders, and clips of other sources discussing the value of ereaders, what type of content are you trying to publish?

Sean: We're really trying to promote the book reviews as a source of book information for readers by readers. The database is growing steadily, and our ambitions for it are big; we'll be importing it to a searchable, cross-referencing database at some point, hopefully soon. We're also planning to launch a digital magazine soon.

Nico: I've always been frustrated with the way book reviews are done. Music and movie reviews are geared toward telling people if the music/movie is good or not, why aren't book reviews the same way? On the blog side, we also post about literature and reading, as well as ebook issues. I think our best posts are the more sprawling, big-picture pieces, because we're all in the midst of figuring out this tectonic shift in a medium that's been stable for almost 600 years, so I find pieces that can encompass the magnitude of that shift to be the most compelling. And while we do repost some big news items, we filter a lot of stuff out: our goal is to keep the lay ereader/literature aficionado informed without overwhelming him or her with the details of all the minutiae of either ereaders or publishing.

Is Chamber Four available for eReaders?

Sean: Right now the whole site is in a blogroll format, which can easily be compiled and added to ereaders through programs such as Calibre. When we launch the magazine it will be available for free in an ereader friendly download, probably as PDFs and ePubs.

As MFA students/graduates, how do you see eReaders changing the way writers try to publish?

Nico: I think the big difference is that anybody can publish their own ebook. One thing we need, as more and more books are published every year, is a filtration system…In a world of digital distribution, hopefully there will be a lot more room for small press books to get a more equivalent share of notoriety because the cost of distribution will be leveled out. For writers, it means that simply getting published will no longer be a goal in and of itself.

Sean: Right, but hopefully writers will remain focused on creating the best art they can. We know good authors will still be good, regardless of the format their books are delivered in.

Nico: Another great thing about digital publishing is that it allows for more experimentation. If we start seeing more ebook-only publishers, their books won't necessarily need to all be 300 pages anymore, and their books won't need to have huge audiences because the costs of production will be much lower.

What is your take on self-publishing?

Nico: I just want to read good books, I don't care where they come from. I think the biggest problem with self-published books is that the good ones can easily be missed.

Sean: The prohibitively steep costs of publishing make things especially difficult for unpublished writers. Self-publishing can help dedicated writers get their stuff out there for all to read, even if a firm won't take a risk on it. eBooks certainly help in this regard. Of course, the volume of poor quality self-publication will likely increase with ebooks (it already has), but like with their deadtree counterparts, if it isn't good, no one will read it anyway.

Currently, your site is ad free. Will that be changing in the future?

Sean: We're going to try our best not to change that. We toyed with ad space, but with our focus toward unbiased reader advocacy, we didn't want a bunch of Kindle and Sony ereader ads popping up all over the place. When the Kindle 2 came out, Amazon gave a 10% cut of any sale to the site that referred the buyer. This caused a weird imbalance in Kindle reviews, despite the fact that in the best light it is no better than its competition. We didn't want to be a part of that.

When does Chamber Four plan to start a literary magazine? How do you hope to distinguish yourself from other literary magazines? How does starting a literary magazine fit into the site's overall mission?

Sean: Our hope is to launch the first issue in the autumn of 2009. Each issue will be available for DRM-free download at no cost. Too often, stuff printed in lit journals tends to read as if it was written on only for other writers, perhaps because they are mostly read by other writers. We want to do something different.

Nico: To a certain extent, it's us putting our money where our mouth is. We think digital publishing is the way of the future, so we're going to get into it, and see what we can do. We're going to have to stay quiet on specifics for now, but the magazine will definitely be reader-centered, like the rest of Chamber Four.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Interview with Chamber Four--Part I

Fringe has been collaborating with Chamber Four on an interview swap to exchange information about digital literature. It's been an interesting dialogue--the interview with Fringe's Editor-in-Chief Lizzie Stark can be found here. Now it's Chamber Four's turn to answer some questions! Lizzie sat down with Chamber Four founders Sean Clark and Nico Vreeland (Eric Markowsky wasn't available, due to a little thing called his thesis) to talk about writing and reading in the digital revolution.

Part I now, Part II will be published tomorrow.

Why did you decide to start this site? How did you come up with the name? Who are its founding members and how long did it take you to get the site up?

Sean: The three of us (Eric, Nico, and Sean--all from Emerson College's MFA program) came up with the idea while discussing books and Nico's new Sony e-reader. We actually got the first build put together after a long week of work, but some of our planned improvements are still being worked on. I think an enormous disconnect seems to exist between readers (and to an extent writers) and publishing as a business. Since finishing school, I've longed for a better way to discuss and share good books. The name references William Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Nico: I had a whole lot of trouble finding good information about e-readers, especially the Kindle. After a lot of research, I found out that the Kindle has a lot of downsides: you can't borrow digital library books with it, you can't buy any book not sold through Amazon, and you can't buy much of anything that isn't crippled with DRM. So a big part of Chamber Four is detangling the mess of e-reader information out there. The other parts, like our book reviews, evolved out of that desire to inform readers, and our frustration as readers ourselves with the publishing and e-publishing industries.

There is endless debate about the role of e-books in literature. How does Chamber Four contribute to this dialogue?

Nico: We all like ebooks. We try to analyze how readers will be affected by the digital publishing revolution. A lot of sites and organizations look out for authors and publishers and publishing professionals, but very few honestly break down the effects all of this will have on readers. For example, a lot of publishers tell you that digital rights management (DRM) is necessary to protect their investments or stop piracy. But DRM drastically limits the way people can use ebooks compared to paper books, and there's no research to support claims that DRM actually prevents piracy.
Sean: The less difference people see between books and ebooks, the better. In any format, literature is words placed together in a precise order by a writer. However, there are a lot of opportunities for books and book distribution to flourish and improve in a digital environment, and readers will have unprecedented access to everything ever written. Basically, our stance is that people should read more, and in what manner they choose to read is secondary to that.

E-readers are slowly becoming more mainstream, but don't seem to be there quite yet. What do you think will be the tipping point?

Nico: It's important for ereader skeptics to actually see one. That said, the technology isn't quite there yet. Another few years of development will do wonders. Other than that, I'm not sure there will be a tipping point, exactly. Ebook readership picks up every year, and I think that will continue until basically everybody reads ebooks.

Sean: The term we (well, Nico) coined for this moment is the Great eReader Adoption. And Nico's right about actually seeing and manipulating an ereader. I still do most of my reading on paper books, but I actually find reading on an ereader quite comfortable. For me the turn off is the DRM. The tipping point for ereaders will likely be most evident when schools and textbooks make the switch. Younger readers will lead the push towards these devices being an everyday necessity.

Nico: Yeah, getting rid of DRM is one of the drums we bang. There are already horror stories of Amazon locking people out of the books they paid for and they can do that because almost everything they sell you is crippled with DRM, which means that you don't own it, you only license it.

Is DRM really all that bad? In this media market, where the demand for books, and for literary fiction in particular, have been dropping, when fewer people than ever are willing to shell out $25-50 for a hardback, why should publishing companies (and authors) give the public an infinitely replicable file for less than $10? Wouldn't doing so make the already not-very-lucrative profession of book writing even less appealing? Authors need royalties in order to continue writing.

Nico: Yes, it's that bad. First of all, DRM does not prevent piracy, which is ostensibly the whole reason it exists. What DRM does do is cripple media by locking music and books to specific machines by brute force. There are also horror stories about Kindle users getting locked out from their books and music buyers losing the DRM keys to their music.

Essentially, DRM means that you don't own the music or ebooks you buy; you only license them, and at some point that license will expire. I've personally had a lot of trouble trying to put old DRMed music onto new computers, or different mp3 players—and I've had trouble moving ebooks from one ereader to another. And you can forget about borrowing a friend's book like we're all used to.

DRM exists because media companies see every illegal download as a lost purchase. But I don't believe that's true. As Neil Gaiman said in a talk a while ago there's a long history of people discovering new writers or artists by borrowing books and music from their friends. There has to be a lot of experimental downloading—people trying new music or movies that they would not purchase otherwise—which is a good thing for authors and musicians, especially struggling ones for whom notoriety is of the highest importance. Plus there's new research out that suggests downloaders buy more media than non-downloaders.

Sean: I'm the type who obsessively organizes iTunes, makes sure every album has cover art, a genre, etc. A big reason why I haven't made the shift to a digital library is that DRM prevents me from doing this with my ebooks. A lot of DRM systems also feed into proprietary formatting, which is especially frustrating, and fragments the market in a way that isn't good for readers or writers. DRM forces a situation where nobody wins besides the guys selling machines for twice the cost of production. And don't forget, right now anyone can read any book they want, totally free and legally: just walk into a library. DRM does nothing to help authors (exposure helps them more than anything); it merely perpetuates a failing business model.

Do you see a place for ebooks in bookstores, or will bookstore giants suffer for the cause?

Nico: My heart doesn't quite bleed for Borders. When big corporate bookstores try to dictate which books readers buy, the whole publishing industry suffers. I sincerely hope ebooks reduce the power those bookstore chains have.
Sean: If Amazon, Borders, and other big corporate bookstores strong arm their way to exclusive deals (both ebook and deadtree) and forgo the publishing houses altogether, I think we'll see a real decline in quality publication, as good literature makes for risky sales.

We're already seeing bookstores set up digital kiosks for selling ebooks. E-books can provide publishers the opportunity to produce more great titles at a fraction of the cost. My hope is that ebooks help them produce and sell stuff we want to read that will also make them the money to keep in the ring with the big boys.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Target Women

While surfing the internet in the name of procrastination, I stumbled upon my favorite new comedian: Sarah Haskins

She takes a look at the way advertising targets women, and the result is hilarious. I recommend you spend the next 45 minutes-4.5 hours watching you tube clips.

The Play's The Thing

I took Theories and Methods of Cultural Studies in grad school, so I have read Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak on the theoretical complications of first world writers "representing" colonial and postcolonial groups; these problems range from stereotypes and race/class-based assumptions and paternalism to simply projecting Western cultural emotions and motivations onto Others, just to name a few. My feeling on the subject back then was that it would be better for a writer not to try to speak for the Other at all, rather than to try but get it horribly wrong and come out looking like an elitist or racist.

"Little did she know," a narrator might say, since several years later I am an expat and legal resident in Malaysia, and I'm really starved for the company of other people interested in writing. I was excited then when I saw that the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Center is inviting submissions for a short play festival. I have written several short plays, so I looked through my DRAMA file and found that my plays are all based on assumptions and cultural norms for the U.S. and particularly Louisiana where they were performed. I believe that good drama has the potential to speak beyond its own space and time, but I never claimed to be Shakespeare or even David Mamet. Besides, I think an event like this is a good impetus to write something new.

For the past two months I've been drafting a play in dialogue with Malaysian life and culture. Enter the concerns I listed in the above paragraph. Is it culturally sensitive? Are the characters authentic in terms of avoiding stereotype while presenting immediately recognizable personalities? Am I being so politically correct as to water down the aesthetics? I had a couple of Malaysian friends to read it for me, although even with them I wonder what the difference might be between how they represent themselves to expats, versus to each other. I get the feeling there's an entire other world I live in the middle of but am insulated from, and I am sure that's what causes some of the problems with representation listed in paragraph 1.

I'll have to wait a while to find out if my play is going to be performed, but it's been fascinating to write far, far outside my comfort zone. The hardest part has been considering my audience, mostly Malaysian with a few expats judging by the crowd at KLPAC events I have attended. What do you think about such a writerly cultural situation as mine?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Is 30 Rock Feminist? Or, my eternal love for Liz Lemon.

Recently, in the recesses of the interwebs, people have been discussing the feminist merits of every nerdy girl's favorite show, 30 Rock.

A few weeks back Jonah Weiner, of Slate, called out 30 Rock for being anti-feminist and secretly conservative here. The Pursuit of Harpyness (one of my favorite blogs!)weighed in, and Bitch Magazine's blog joined in on the discussion, too. (There was also a Maxim article bemoaning Liz Lemon's low libido and the affects this will have on their female audience. Gasp! Horror! Bring back Sex & the City.)

The question at the heart of this discussion seems to be: Is Liz Lemon a feminist? Unfortunately, everyone is banging their heads against the wrong door. The real question we need to ask is this: Is 30 Rock a feminist show? This is a very significant difference. Liz Lemon doesn't need to be motivated by feminism, nor Tracy Jordon by civil rights for the show to be a smart critique and satire of gender and race relations.

Jonah Weiner (note: his last name is Weiner) writes:
Flawed people are funny, sure, but why does Liz Lemon have the traditionally gendered flaws she does? Elaine Benes and Murphy Brown, for example, were strong, feminist-friendly characters and funny, to boot.

She's a real woman. Woman have flaws. Some of those flaws are, gasp, "traditionally gendered". Weiner is giving preference to Jack Donaghey as the more-perfect character because his flaws are gendered male (endless ambition, stunted emotions). Liz Lemon's flaws are worse because they are "feminine" problems. (baby hungry, hungry hungry, in love with night cheese). The underlying argument here is that the only way to be a feminist is to be like a man. Masculinity is still better than femininity. Isn't this precisely what we're trying to undo?

I love Murphy Brown and Elaine; they are some of the great t.v. female characters of our time. But to privileged them for their "masculine" characteristics and "masculine" flaws is, to say the least, problematic.

Furthermore, to answer your question Weiner, it's SATIRE. Liz Lemon's gendered flaws are serving a purpose within the narrative of 30 Rock. Indeed, if you look at all the characters of 30 Rock (which some of these articles--I'm looking at you Weiner and Bitch--are hesitant to do), everyone is a caricature of their character/a stereotype. Tracy Jordon? Jenna Maroney? Frank? Toofer? Jack? Kenneth?

They are all absurd. They are all mocking the stereotypes of sitcoms before them, and of our cultural stereotypes. The satire of 30 Rock is about mocking the system from within. The danger with satire, of course, is that people, like Weiner, will miss the joke. You run the risk of people missing the tongue firmly planted in your cheek.

Is Liz Lemon a feminist? She'd say yes, but it doesn't matter. Is 30 Rock a feminist show? I say, while cuddled in my slanket, yes.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Teh Internetz: Browsers and Jewelry

I'm hoping that 98% of y'all won't need me to tell you this, but I'll do it anyway: STOP. USING. INTERNET EXPLORER.

OK, so the latest version of IE isn't too bad, and as far as customization goes, Microsoft's browser of choice is greatly improved from its past versions, but still. All the cool kids are using Firefox. Don't you want to be using what all the cool kids are using?

There are tons of browser options out there: IE, Chrome, Opera, Safari. But Firefox will always be my baby because of its amazing range of add-ons.

Add-ons are kind of like accessories in Final Fantasy games. Ribbons protect you from status ailments, sprint shoes help you move faster, that sort of thing. If you aren't using add-ons for Firefox, you're seriously missing out on the best you could have.

Here are some of my favorite add-ons:

Adblock Plus will get rid of all annoying ads. If you feel frisky, get the Add-Art bundle that replaces all ads with modern art.

SearchStatus will give you the Google Page Rank and Alexa Rank of every page you visit so you can tell what's an awesome site and what's lame.

There are tons of Twitter clients but I like TwitterFox for its simple, out-of-the-way appearance in my Firefox toolbar. It also makes retweeting and sharing a breeze.

HYPERWORDS. Seriously, download it now. Hyperwords allows you to highlight any text on a web page and, with a simple right click, open up a world of possibilities. Instantly Google, Wiki, share via all types of social media, translate, or compare prices. You can instantly Google Map an address, you can price compare a brand of camera, you can find out what the Russian word for "love" is. It has seriously changed my life.

Just like there's an iPhone app for everything, there is a Firefox extension for everything. I'm sure there are a billion awesome ones that I'm missing. Let us know in the comments if I passed on your do-or-die add-on.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Vernacular Spring Gala--THIS Friday!

The members of Emerson College’s literary blog, VERNACULAR, are proud to present:

Vernacular Spring Gala
An evening of live music, food and drink, and social networking

Join us on Friday, May 15th from 7p.m.-10p.m. at GRUB STREET (160 Boylston St, Boston, 4th floor) for a chance to mingle with local publishing professionals, writers, bloggers, students, and Emerson College faculty. Check us out at for details about the event, and to purchase discounted advance tickets! ($3 advance / $5 door) Free booze and food included in ticket price-- yes, really!!

Live music provided by Gentlemen Hall and Heinz Healey Schaldenbrand; food provided by Teele Square Cafe; drinks provided by Narragansett Beer and Equal Exchange Cafe.

I challenge you to find a better deal in the city this weekend! See you there.

Note: You must be 21 years of age to consume alcoholic beverages. Food and drink will be provided while supplies last.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Mission: Accomplished!

Thanks to all of you, Fringe has reached our fundraising goal (and then some)!

You can look forward to a hot new design coming to Fringe in June. We hope you're all as excited as we are.

Monday, May 4, 2009

social networking in modern times: or, what happens when your folks join facebook

A couple weeks ago, my roommate was lamenting that her mother had joined MySpace. Worsesaid my roommate, she wants to friend me. I'm going to have to reject her. I don't want to be friends with my mom on MySpace.

Years ago, employers were apt to fire people for talking about work on social networking sites such as MySpace. Today, for better or worse, your boss is more apt to be signing up for such sites. So are Mom and Dad. And underage siblings.

I keep tabs on my mother, aunts and little brothers via Facebook, and though none of them read my blog they could certainly find it with little difficulty. Yes, there are all sorts of awkward negotiations that go along with this kind of family sharing. My mother tends to ask me what Every Single Status Update means.

While my mother employs Facebook primarily for its social uses, she also uses LinkedIn, the business-oriented networking site that allows you to "tag" personal and professional connections, and recommend past employees. LinkedIn is refreshingly professional, a form of social networking that's focused on sharing less, not more. Or rather, on sharing only job-specific accomplishments.

Recently I accepted a consulting gig from an older gentleman (78, to be precise) looking to take advantage of social networking for his business. He asked if he should join LinkedIn. Then Facebook. Then Twitter. When I mentioned MySpace, he said sure, why not? If it's valuable

I almost wanted to laugh...I'd spent maybe fifteen hours with this man and knew he'd either be really frustrated by Twitter or incredibly, exhaustedly addicted to it. Then, seriously, I told him he should only join LinkedIn, and Facebook if he wanted to keep in touch with far-flung relatives or colleagues.

More and more, it will be people my age and younger inviting people past a certain age into the technological wilderness of blogging, social networking, and new-media marketing. Inasmuch as we may owe it to them (to anyone, really) to give them skills they'll find useful, what specifically should we be teaching them? Should we make the judgment over what we think they would understand and enjoy? Should we invite them to share in our own digitized lives? Who is welcome at the party?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Reflection on Cinco de Mayo in Malaysia

For my husband and me Cinco de Mayo means margaritas and fajitas served under a pinata and flanked with paper mache flowers, and we decided to bring an evening of Mexican yummy goodness to Malaysia. We didn't even know what the holiday actually stands for until checking on Wikipedia when our first guest confirmed attendance and asked what Cinco de Mayo was about since she's Indian. As the confirmations and regretful declines poured in, so did the questions about our holiday which Malaysians, Australians, and the British had never enjoyed. In the parts of the U.S. I have lived, this holiday means less anything about the outnumbered Mexican army's defeat of the French and more about enjoying a contextless tribute to Bacchus in the form of tequila, jalapenos, and cheese on everything.

While party planning, the little devil on my left shoulder that spent a lot of time reading cultural studies theory in grad school whispered that I was appropriating culture and serving it up for consumption as though Mexico could be condensed to a playlist of Mariachi bands; shouldn't I use this opportunity to raise awareness about Mexican immigrants, drug cartels, or the missing women of Juarez? Or would my espousal of any activist sound bites be equally reductive, albeit with noble intent?

There is a weird multi-level of nostalgia wrapped in all this for me. My fifth of May is a bright, enjoyable picture of what Americans imagine of Mexico, and to bring the celebration to Malaysia I have to create the idea of Mexico for the guests while also creating the nostalgia. My interpretation becomes a double level of nostalgia for the way Americans celebrate nostalgia for Mexico, but I can only succeed in it if I make abject the pieces of Mexican culture that didn't fit into the party mold.

All my mental meandering isn't stopping us from hanging red, yellow, and green balloons from the ceiling and making quesadillas, Mexican cornbread, and 7-layer bean dip, but I don't think that means these aren't questions worth asking. What will you be thinking when you raise your Corona on Tuesday?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Drink in a tasty cup of word coffee

Greetings fellow Fringe fans; I return from my brief but fun-filled travels (cut short by icky hot weather) and have thrown myself into the choppy waters of the publishing world once more – or, to be a tad more accurate, I am trying to dive back into them in what, admittedly, has become my rather badly timed job hunting adventure.

My frenzied rummaging around the interweb has thrown up all sorts of little treasures in regards to independent publishers and relevant news pieces in general, amongst which I discovered a slick little outfit dubbed Bookkake, a self proclaimed ‘new’ type of publisher of ‘transgressive literature’ which appears to have an erotic bent. They use a handy-looking outfit called Lightning Source to print on-demand, when (and only when) someone orders a title. Sounds like good idea in terms of minimising waste/saving some trees and not being burdened with a costly warehouse of books to push onto already chock-full market.

I later stumbled upon another piece of oldish news – a magical photocopier that squeezes out whole books in minutes. The Espresso Book Machine has been winging their way around the US/Canada/Australia for a while now, but only made their UK debut at the London Book Fair last week, so this is shiny and new to me.

So what does all this speedy book making mean? For one, obscure and out-of-print titles can find their way back into the hands of those who want them, plus it also means smaller presses can hopefully continue doing what they do best; publishing riskier titles which range from the sublime to the shocking, keeping that door to a viable future propped open for niche markets.

This potential freedom may also open up the way for almost endless choice, which bodes less well for new writers yearning for that big break, as one would imagine it’s trickier to get your voice heard in over a increasingly noisy rabble, no matter how fresh or dazzling that voice might be. But then if your heart is still pure and you’re not in it for the money or the glory anyway, there’s nothing new to fear.

Next week: the dirty world of self-publishing