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Monday, March 19, 2012

An Encyclopedia Of Knowledge Torn To Bits and Bytes

Let me establish one key premise to this blog: I love books and bookstores and cherish printed books over e-books. But I totally see value in digital books and understand that the book industry and society are changing. News of Encyclopedia Britannica ceasing publication did not surprise me but it disappointed me. It should make you fearful as well.

I probably haven’t looked at an encyclopedia in a decade or more. I’m 45 and haven’t written a research paper since college. But I fondly recall reading portions of the encyclopedia as a teenager and young adult, purely for pleasure. It was an outlet to discovering new things. Not only did I look things up that I was curious about – I would just randomly thumb through a volume and turn the pages until something caught my eye.

I lament that this will no longer be possible – for me – or for my kids. They will never know what an encyclopedia is.

The demise of the encyclopedia was inevitable. If anything benefits from digitization it is a book of facts and history. Online, one can access more information (space isn’t a factor), get it without leaving home, get it updated more often, and have it to print in two seconds. However, a great loss comes when we move from a print-only encyclopedia to dual print/electric to e-only.

First, out of sight, out of mind. With no physical presence in a library or house, the idea of picking up an encyclopedia to flip through is lost.  People tend to use something that is in front of them. Discoverability is lost.

Second, through Encyclopedia Britannica reported that at its height it sold 120,000 sets in 1991 but now sells a half-million subscriptions online, the vast majority of people use Wikipedia and other unsubstantiated, unedited, unfiltered services. The significant danger inherent in using an unreliable source without professional gatekeepers is that bias and errors quickly invade the materials.

There are individuals and groups seeking to put forth revisionist history, to invade fact with opinion, to thrust a political or religious agenda onto the public.  Do I really want my encyclopedia to be nothing more than a tool of corporations, celebrities, and politicians pushing their propaganda? 

Wikipedia skews to the present. It’s more of a who’s who than a what’s what. It has entries on companies, individuals, and groups that would otherwise not see the light of day in a real encyclopedia. I lament the physical loss of the encyclopedia, on a selfish level. To think in one generation’s passing, something that I and many generations grew up with, no longer exists boggles my mind. Sure, businesses come and go and sometimes we say goodbye to hundred- year-old brands, but in the case of a whole industry disappearing, that is harder to swallow. We gain and lose with every change, but I fear the downside is potentially greater when the print encyclopedia vanishes.

The way everything is moving into one little box frightens me. I feel empowered on one hand to know my smartphone holds more information, ideas, facts, entertainment and news than anything that came before it. It’s mobile, 24/7-ready, cheap and efficient. But it also is blinding, overwhelming, and riddled with inaccuracies.

It’s overwhelming because we’re exposed to too much at once. Searches don’t always bring up the best selections and one often has to dig to uncover what he or she thinks they want. The problem is that there’s no way to get an overarching view of the data out there. For instance, you hold a 1200-page paper almanac in your hand and you can get an understanding via the index and a quick flip-through of what is in there. But if you do a search online a zillion sites, many irrelevant, pop up and you get lost in a sea of data with no real way to discern what to give value or priority to. It becomes a job in itself to have to validate who’s a legitimate source and who isn’t.

The other drawback is I feel like a blind person. Imagine being blind and people trying to explain the real world has trees, oceans, dogs, TV, etc., but the blind person has no concept of these things until he gets individual explanations on each item or until he gets to put each one into context so the pieces relate to one another. The smartphone is like that world – everything is in there. I’m in the dark looking to swim through a sea of billions upon billions of images, sounds and words I can’t see.

We won’t go back to pre-Internet days, but I want a balance. There should be options. Seeing printed books vanish poses a loss and a threat. Even if 95% of people chose to go online to use the encyclopedia I would be comforted to know that others have a printed version available. There’s a checks and balances approach that way. Someone will be sent out there to guard information. The more information that goes digital and the less that is printed puts us at risk. It may sound a little crazy but here’s what can happen to online data:

·         It can be lost – by accident.
·         It can be hacked and manipulated.
·         It can be distorted by revisionists with an agenda.
·         It can lose its stature or legitimacy to something more popular but not necessarily better.
·         It can be destroyed intentionally.

Our cultural, economic, social and political history is in danger when everything about it is streamed through a single source, a single location. When you lose power or can’t get a signal, you are literally cut off from the world. Usually such a thing is temporary. But imagine a prolonged attack by another country, a terrorist, a crazy person, a disgruntled Google employee, a greedy Facebook CEO, or something that disturbs the flow of energy to power the grid. It is possible, even imminent, that our world of knowledge, commerce, and communications will be disturbed. Possibly destroyed.

We need a backup plan. And getting rid of the printed encyclopedia is not it. I weep today for all that is lost, for all that will be lost, and for those who don’t even know that something is missing.


Interview With The CEO and Founder of Creative Writing Institute

Deborah Owen is the CEO and founder of Creative Writing Institute, a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity that sponsors cancer patients in writing courses. CWI is now creating a writing program for the blind and will organize a picture book/writing program for children with cancer (ages 5-14) in 2013. Public courses are also available. Each student receives a private tutor. To inquire about writing courses or a free and honest evaluation, see http://www.creativewritinginstitute.com or contact Deb at deborahowen@cwinst.com.

  1. As the CEO of Creative Writing Institute, what do you make of the new publishing landscape? It's disastrous, but inevitable. The publisher is no longer the dividing line. I'm all for vanity presses, but most Ebook self publishers skip the learning curve (along with the education, hard knocks, rejections, and all the rest) and jump into a huge literary vat that now stirs both good and bad writing together. The reader is the loser. He/she has no clear-cut way of sorting it out. As an example, I once wrote to an up-and-coming public speaker about his Ebooks and pointed out numerous errors. His reply was that he didn't care as long as they sold. In my opinion, he is degrading his gift.

Today's experienced writers are about to lose something very precious - the ability to compete against one another, sell to publishers, and physically caress their stories/articles/books in their hands. They will lose the opportunity to display their work in bookstores, schools, and libraries - but the disaster goes even further than that. Unlearned writers can tout unprofessional material with a snappy book cover and a good blurb, but the reader won't know (until it's too late) that they've wasted both time and money on a story poorly told. More often than not, they will find absence of literary structure, too little development of character, inadequate climax scene, and sometimes, no theme at all. The reader will slug through trite cliches, passive voice, unbalanced rhythm, mixed tenses, vulgarities, and cheap sex scenes. Worse yet, they won't be able to separate the good from the bad until they've invested in the product.

Suddenly, the experienced writer that has devoted him/herself to the craft of writing now finds himself pitted against rank amateurs.

It isn't fair to the reader. It certainly isn't fair to published writers. Nor is it fair to the naive Ebook writers that have been promised overnight fame and fortune. They don't know they have to invest in art work, book covers, and publishing costs. I've already heard the cries of Ebook writers that have gone through the process and can't sell enough Ebooks to break even. It seems the smooth-talking marketer forgot to mention a little thing called "platform" and how long it takes to establish it. He forgot to mention things like working at social media day and night, flow charts, and split-level testing. So who wins? Not the Ebook writers. Not the writing industry. Certainly not the serious writer that sweats blood and tears to print searing words on a blank page. Not the reader, who can't tell whether an Ebook is good or bad until he/she has already invested time and money. The winners are the marketers that misrepresent the difficulty level and the Ebook publisher.

Is there a way to stop this shift? Writers would have a better chance at stopping a tank with a B-B gun. And to think - they call this progress. The only answer is for serious writers to adapt to the change, join the crowd, and build their following. For the most part, I would guess that 85% of the Emarketing newbies will either lose a pile of money and time, or will eventually crash and burn, but if experienced writers thought marketing was hard before, they ain't seen nothin' yet. As always - the most knowledgeable and persistent will win.

  1. What advice do you have for struggling authors? Learn proper writing skills. Be knowledgeable about today's markets before you get into the fray. Count the cost and be sure that you're willing to pay in blood before you lose an arm or a leg. Trust education to get you where you want to go. Every new writer is a bright star waiting to be discovered and there's still time to compete in the tried and proven method. The editors are the gods of the writing kingdom and thousands of new online markets have opened in the past few years. If you know what you're doing, you can find publication quickly and easily online. Hint: don't write your material first and then try to sell it. Learn how to market first and then write for the market that matches you best. 

There are no shortcuts. None. Zilch. Zero. Nada. I know. I tried. I skipped fundamental classes in favor of advanced ones and determined that I would be the first to keep my own voice and avoid the influence that editors would force upon me. Ten years later, I had a filing cabinet full of unsold material. I returned to take the course I had skipped, and wrote to please the publisher. Guess what? It worked. Duh.

Things I Wish Someone had Told Me:

1. Give up your state of rebellion and follow tried and true methods.
2. Concentrate on a good foundation.
3. Self-learning will lay a sandy foundation and you will never see the full picture that way.
4. Take a nonfiction course first, as it outsells fiction 5-1, writes quicker, has less rules, and pays more.
5. Next, take some kind of Creative Writing course as it builds on nonfiction.
6. Third, take a Short Story course, which will build on the Creative Writing course. Do it in that order and you'll have a rock solid foundation.
7. From that point on, you can work into advanced writing - fantasy, romance, sci-fi, novel writing, or anything else, but get your foundation first.
8. You can get your training in one hard year of study and for about $1,000. Cheap education!
9. If you aren't cut out for it, you'll know before you finish your second course.
10. If you are cut out for it, you can find publication within a few months, but it will take years to break into the higher-paying markets.

  1. What do you love most about the process of writing? The release! Writing is a healing balm, a place to empty the depths of your soul. The real fun comes in mixing your deepest secrets with fiction... and the reader can't one from the other. Just think about the power you possess! You can create a life into existence, maim it, or kill it. You can create anything you can imagine. You can feed the reader red herrings (false clues) and pull the rug out from under him with a twist ending. You can build new worlds, trade dimensions, drive your characters insane, keep the reader guessing, or just journal your heart and hide it away. Writing is one of the greatest powers on earth.

  1. What makes for a great writer? A great writer keeps him/herself open to all the developments of life and literature. Great writers read a lot. They dig into their deepest emotions and bare their souls. Don't be afraid to let someone influence your voice or style. You will always be you. No one will express a story or article quite like you. You are your own individual, with your own fingerprints, footprints, iris, and writing voice. Don't be afraid to let that grow by reading and studying freshly published authors. Never quit learning. Never become satisfied with who you are. Stretch yourself to reach your star.

  1. Which skills must a writer possess? Knowledge, persistence, patience, a hard shell, and marketing know-how are absolute essentials. Never share your work with family and friends. Nine times out of ten, they (who have never written a word) will be your worst critics. They will dash your dreams to bits and grind them into powder. To find others like yourself, join writing forums and let other writers critique your work. Two good sites are writing.com and mywriterscircle.com. Subscribe to good writing magazines to stay up on the latest trends. Personally, I like The Writer Magazine.

  1. Can creativity really be taught? The Free Dictionary says creativity is possessing the ability or power to create, characterized by originality, expressiveness, and imagination. Let me give you some interesting figures:

  • Out of 100 people, approximately 80% will want to write at some point in their lives.
  • Out of those 80, only 40 will complete one story/article and actually submit it.
  • Out of those 40, only 20 will submit a second time.
  • Out of those twenty, five won’t follow the guidelines, five won’t follow general writing rules, and at least two will use poor formatting, grammar, and punctuation. All of those will hit the trashcan.
  • Out of 100 people, we now have 8 people remaining. That 8% is the competitive group of writers that will keep learning and keep submitting - and they will succeed. The formula is simple: success = knowledge + perseverance + constant submissions.

So... can creativity be taught? Yes, if the learner wants it bad enough. We could just as easily say, "Can anyone become a mechanic?" The answer would be, "Probably, IF they stick with it long enough." Wanna-be writers who aren't really cut out for it will quit at some point and thus eliminate themselves. I have met people who can write much better than yours truly, but they don't have the desire and persistence.

  1. Why do so many people want to be writers? For a variety of reasons.

    1. For recognition.
    2. To build self-esteem.
    3. To help others avoid painful life experiences, or to help them survive. 
    4. People write because they have something important to say and no one else will say it quite the same way.
    5. They write for vanity and ego.
    6. Some writers want to leave their mark on earth just to say they've been here.
    7. Some write because they're competitive.
    8. But most write because of the release. Serious writers have  two choices: either write and release, or blow up like a pressure cooker that has no escape valve.

    Just as Whitney Houston had to sing, Michael Jackson had to dance, and Michelangelo had to paint, writers must provide an exit for their smoldering flames or be consumed by them. Years ago, I taught piano and I told my students, "If you can be happy without playing piano, don't play." I said that because respecting the art is urgent. Any gift is precious. If you accept the gift, you must accept the responsibility to develop it properly so as not to disgrace that which you love. Today I tell some writers - if you can be happy without writing, don't write, but if your soul burns with words that must escape, don't shame your craft or yourself by giving it less than your best.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person.

1 comment:

  1. Good article, sounds like Deb really knows her stuff.

    ReplyDelete