Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Moving to a Blog Near You

Readers, I will be suspending this blog, and trying to set up anew with some other hosting service. The reason is Google's new privacy policy:

"When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones."

That is a whopper. I'm not comfortable publishing any work through a service that claims a "worldwide license to . . . reproduce, modify, create derivative works . . . publish, publicly perform, publicly display, and distribute such content." The last sentence does modify it a bit, true, but I think Google's lawyers could find away around language they wrote. In any event, even such "promotional" rights as translation are rights traditionally reserved to authors, to be alienated by choice, not by Google fiat.

As I've been saying in regard to piracy, it's not about potential financial losses, but my free-speech rights—my right to control when and where my words are published.

For the record, let me state here clearly that I do NOT grant Google any of these rights in anything I've published on this or any other blog prior to the publication of this new policy.

I will close with a link to a much better argument about copyright than any I've made here, by the great Caleb Crain:


Friday, January 27, 2012

In Praise of Digitization (Really!)

I have gone on record as an opponent of piracy. I know, many of you argue that piracy doesn't actually hurt authors. In terms of sales, you may even be right. But it's the principle: My speech is mine, to publish as I choose. If you want to publish for free, it's very easy for you to do so. I'll defend your right to do it, and defend your right to say any damn thing you want. Give me the same courtesy.

But I do love the free flow of speech afforded by the new digital world. After all, as a nonfiction author, I consume information as well as provide it. So let me say a few things in favor of e-everything.

Google has done me a huge favor by digitizing and making available books that are no longer copyright-protected. The New York Times deserves great praise for making its archive searchable (though its search engine stinks). Private companies have helped us all with digitized newspapers and documents, in various Proquest or Readex databases, for example. Since this is all public-domain material, I would like to see the National Archives, Library of Congress, and public libraries compete with these firms, whose databases are available only to deep-pocketed research libraries and universities. But these companies are providing great products, I must admit.

And I like the fact that people are carrying their love of books into age of the handheld device, and that buying e-books is so easy. I don't retreat from my support for public libraries and independent bookstores in the face of predatory Internet booksellers, but I don't pretend that the situation's all bad. People are buying and reading books—that's good.

I do hope the codex—the traditional printed and bound book—survives, that it will be economically feasible to keep printing them. I find them useful, especially when reading for research, when I have three fingers holding three different places simultaneously. I find them beautiful, and love scanning the spines of my library. Most of all, I find them to be lasting. Operating systems change. Code gets rewritten. I don't know how much software I've bought over the years that is completely inaccessible now. I don't want some engineer in two or five or twenty years making some "improvement" that seals the door on my library.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Parsing PIPA

I've noticed that the attacks on PIPA (I'm going to disregard SOPA, an inferior bill) have not referenced the actual content of the bill; they reference exaggerate claims made by hysterics. So here, my readers, is the bill itself. Read it and judge for yourself:


First, let me say that, were I given the power to write an anti-piracy law, I would focus on stopping the flow of money to piracy sites, not on taking down the sites entirely. But let's address the complaints about PIPA.

1) Complaint: It was written by congresspeople who don't understand the Internet.
Really? Senators and Representatives actually delegate the writing of bills to their staffs. Do you really think their staff members don't know anything about the Internet? In any event, point something out in this bill that reflects a lack of understanding of the Internet, and I will apologize for taking issue with this claim. I've given you the link: Find the section, quote it to me, and explain why it reflects a lack of understanding of the Internet.

2) Complaint: This bill was custom-written by the big movie industry so they can protect their profits. 
In terms of wealth and power, the Internet industry has Hollywood beat. Would you rather own stock in Google or Paramount? Which is the bigger, more profitable, and more influential company? Why are one set of lobbyists and interests worse than the others? Do you really think there's no legitimate public interest in fighting piracy, just because piracy hurts Hollywood? In any event, this is simply a rumor. Even if it is true, point out the section of the bill that is objectionable because it was purportedly written by Hollywood. I gave you the link: Exactly which part is evil because of this supposed fact?

And, as I have said, this isn't just about the movie and music industry. They are the biggest players, in terms of money, but the interests of thousands of individual authors are in peril. Ignore us in your fight to protect piracy, and you are making Stalin's argument: To make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs. I, my friends, am the egg in this analogy.

3) Complaint: This bill would destroy innovation, and allow YouTube and Facebook to be taken down.
The bill specifically says that it applies to foreign sites "dedicated to infringing activity." On both points, YouTube and Facebook and the vast majority of sites on the Internet are safe. Nor does the bill include anything endangering individuals who post links, or even upload material. The bill says it imposes no new criminal penalties for copyright infringement. Individual uploaders would be as safe as they ever were.

4) Complaint: This bill would silence speech, and allow un-Constitutional prior restraint of speech.
If PIPA does this, then no law against piracy would stand scrutiny. But it's not true. By being aimed at foreign sites dedicated to infinging activity, the bill targets sites that are stealing other people's speech—that are actually doing harm to freedom of speech—not sites that provide original speech of their own. This is why the "prior restraint" claim is hogwash. You can't be guilty of restraint of speech, when the target isn't making any speech—just selling someone else's. In fact, the bill requires a hearing before a judge before any action can be taken, and specifically allows the target to fight any take-down in court.

Imagine if this protection were allowed to burglars and thieves of physical property. Imagine a truck being backed up to a bookstore, and thieves broke into the store and began hauling out books and software boxes, and putting them in the truck. The police would have to say, "OK, keep stealing while we find a judge and have a hearing. If you're still here when we get approval to stop this operation, then you'll have to give up the books, but we won't be able to arrest you."

Of course, what happens in the real world is, if police happened on the scene, they would arrest the thieves without a prior hearing. If police discovered a chop-shop or fencing operation, they would shut it down immediately, impound the property, and arrest the perps running it; only then would it go to court. I'm often told that the Internet has changed things. Yes: with the Internet economy so large a part of the overall economy, intellectual property should be treated as fully the equivalent of physical property, deserving of the same protection. PIPA actually provides less protection for intellectual property in digital form than existing law does for intellectual property in physical form.

5) Complaint: This bill would give moral support to the censorship efforts of China and other dictatorships, which block access to sites they find politically objectionable.
This is the silliest of all arguments against PIPA. Read PIPA. There is nothing in the bill allowing the blocking of sites because of their content. The act is specifically and clearly aimed at sites that are "dedicated" to stealing copyrighted material. The aim is to support the publication of material, by protecting copyright. Again, to use an analogy, this is like saying we can't criticize China for censoring the publication of certain books, because we have laws against the theft of physical books. Ridiculous.

Kim Dotcom. Credit: 3News in New Zealand
I'll say it again: Piracy destroys freedom of speech. The pirate takes away my right to control the publication of my work. The pirate, by distributing my work for free, damages my ability to profit from it, and profit allows me to create new work. Piracy tends to silence me. And who profits? Felons like Kim Dotcom.

I'm a little tired of the argument that has been spoon-fed to the public by the Internet giants: "Yes, piracy is a problem, but I offer no solutions, and in the meantime let me keep pirating." 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Piracy Destroys Free Speech

There's a big fuss going on in Internet circles about SOPA and PIPA, two bills now being debated in Congress that would allow the Justice Department to shut down websites involved in the piracy of intellectual property—movies, music, books.

To be specific, the Internet industry hates these bills.

The Internet industry is huge, but it makes it sound like they are the little guys, fighting rapacious capitalists. According to ABC News, Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing said, "If you want an Internet where human rights, free speech, and the rule of law are not subordinated to the entertainment industry's profits, I hope you'll join us."

As you might guess, I have a different view.

Let's be clear: I am not endorsing SOPA or PIPA. The bills are still being amended, and we don't really know what they will ultimately do. Personally, I think Congress should focus on stopping the flow of money to pirates, rather than shutting down websites. But the details of the bills don't matter to the Internet giants. They don't think piracy is a problem. They are trying to dupe you into thinking that any attempt to stop piracy is hostile to freedom of speech.

And that has it exactly backwards.

First, drop the demagoguery about the movie and music industry. Yes, they have by far the biggest amount of money in play, and sure, many of them are big businesses. I'm not here to defend them, but to shift the focus. My point is that they aren't the only ones hurt by piracy. Piracy actually damages the little guy, the individual author, more than anyone. Big movie studios can absorb some piracy. An author can't.

The fact is, piracy destroys freedom of speech. By stealing my work, distributing it for free, you make it impossible for me to profit by writing. Yes, to profit: If you can create a completely new economic system, under which I will have all my worldly needs taken care of so I can write without worrying about money, great! Give it to me. In the meantime, I have to make money from writing to keep writing.

I spent close to seven years working full-time on The First Tycoon. Amateurism wouldn't allow that kind of effort. If I was an academic, I would have taken at least twice as long to finish it, and it would have been a very different book, since it would have had to serve my scholarly career; it would have been written first and foremost for academics. I like to think my book has some value as it is—as the product of professional writing, not academic or amateur.

I will be the first to say that copyright has been distorted in recent years—yes, thanks to the lobbying of the entertainment industry. It should be for a limited period, not life of the author plus, what is it now? Seventy years? Fifty? But the excessive extension of copyright doesn't negate the need for copyright itself. It is specifically listed as a responsibility of Congress in Article 1 of the Constitution. The purpose, the Constitution says, is "to promote the Progress of Science and the useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Internet millenarians—the Information Wants to be Free crowd—claim that making writing free is actually good for writers . . . somehow. I support the right of any author to publish his or her work for free. Go to it! But why should you impose your model on me? Why deny me the right to get paid for my work? Why are you allowed to strip away my "exclusive Right to [my] respective Writings and Discoveries"?

Look, there's never been any difficulty in giving away your work for free. In the Internet age, anyone can publish for the public with minimal cost. The problem is keeping it from being only free—to protect authors' rights to their work. It's a real dilemma. Unfortunately, it is in the business interests of Internet giants to promote piracy, and convince readers that it's a good thing. More traffic, less hassle. Google makes more money—but authors get crushed.

If you take away copyright protection, you silence me. You take away my freedom of speech. I write research-intensive projects that take years to complete. I try to create works of literary art that also add to our knowledge. I can only do that if my intellectual-property rights are protected, so I can make a living at it.

Freedom of speech does not include the theft of someone else's speech. What it means is that I have the right to speak as I wish, where I wish, when I wish. If I choose to charge a price for access to my work, that is part of my freedom of speech, and taking away that choice is denying me my liberty of expression.

SOPA and PIPA may well be the wrong way to protect copyright. I'm not speaking up for them specifically. What I am saying is something that has gotten lost in the furor: piracy destroys freedom of speech.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Old Material, New Writing

Bloomberg now has a financial history blog, rather like the New York Times's Disunion blog on the history of the Civil War. Called Echoes, it's the brainchild of the very accomplished historian Stephen Mihm. I just wrote a piece for Echoes, on the early history of insider trading on Wall Street, focusing mainly on Daniel Drew (pictured here).  You can find the piece here

It's kind of funny, my flogging an article (well, blog entry) so soon after writing about the need to screw yourself into your chair to work on your new book. But this is actually in keeping with my previous theme. The piece wasn't a major new project, taking me away from my real work; rather, I put to use some research that didn't make it fully into my previous book.

Old material makes for efficient new writing, while you're working on something bigger. Don't throw out those computer files and boxes of photocopies; they can come in handy. But, for the biographer, the next book is always the point.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Going Dark

Those who write books for a living—specifically, those who have written more than one book—know what it's like to go dark: that is, to enter the years between the publication of one book and the next. When a book comes out, there's a period of excitement, dread, and frenzied activity—promoting the book every way you can think of, hoping for and then fearing reviews, speaking to crowds of two or three people at bookstores, or (if you're lucky) a large, paying audience. Then the attention dwindles down, and you remember that you're already supposed to be working on the next book. 
For some, there isn't much of a wait. Anthony Trollope (pictured here) wrote like a madman. In an era of handwriting, he published book after book, scribbling hundreds of words a day, according to a daily target he set for himself—while working full-time in the Post Office and running for Parliament. Of course, he was a novelist; he merely observed, and made stuff up. But we have our own Trollopesque writers today, working in nonfiction. H.W. Brands is a tenured professor of history at the University of Texas; he produces roughly a book a year. Some of them are very well regarded; others clearly show the unfortunate effects of being rushed.
There are legitimate reasons to move quickly to finish a book. Money matters, of course; nor is it good for your brand (for the author is the brand in publishing) to wait too long before releasing a new book. Sometimes a book must be timely, and therefore has to be crashed through the writer's, and publisher's, schedule.
But there's another reason why writers rush: that lonely feeling of not being heard, of not being talked about, after the preceding thrill of publishing a book. Going dark is tough. Of course, there are articles, reviews, blogs, and other outlets—more than ever these days—that can feed the ego. But I think we often reach the point when we should just shut up and work. The ego can be dangerous to the quality of work.
Writing, after all, is a discipline. It requires patience, care, and thoroughness. This is true for both nonfiction and fiction. We must be masters of our subjects, omniscient and omnipotent lords of our words—of every single word. Writing is inefficient, but there's no way to multiply productivity in any significant way without eventually damaging the quality of the writing. 
Of course, some writing must be done on deadline; some books are meant to quickly inform or entertain, period, and the author's worrying overmuch about the the prose may be beside the point, even counterproductive. I am speaking of a particular kind of book, the kind that is intended to attain literary quality, that is meant to provide new knowledge and insights. To produce that kind of book, you have to learn to work in the dark.

Unless you're Anthony Trollope. Then knock yourself out.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Blurb

It's holiday time again, a time when visions of dradles and pop-guns dance in children's heads. Or at least when video games burn out their eyes. For the more literate set, books are the stuff of gifts given and gifts hoped for. Have I mentioned that The First Tycoon and Jesse James make lovely gifts? I usually advise that people buy three copies of Tycoon: one to read, one to use as a footrest, and one to take to sea, in case your clipper ship needs more ballast.

This year I'm represented in the marketplace less by my own work, than by the blurbs I have given to others. Blurbs—promotional quotes—are the subject of universal cynicism by all but the authors who beg and plead for them from other authors. They are so universal that it would make a book look sorry indeed if no one had anything nice to say about it in advance. The late, lamented Spy magazine used to run a column called "Log-rolling In Our Time," showing how authors blurbed each other's books. The Simpsons had a bit, set at a writers' conference called "Wordloaf," in which Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen agree to praise each other, but one of them breaks his promise, and praises himself. Pretty funny, come to think about it...

But allow me to say a brief word in defense of the much-maligned blurb. I, for one, blurb only a small fraction of the books that are sent to me. That's because I only blurb books I've read. And I only blurb books I like. More than that, I am careful in my praise, so that I only blurb the aspects of the book that I feel uncomplicated admiration for. I can't imagine that I'm the only one who has such rules. Since I've started blurbing, I've actually developed more respect for the blurbs I read on others' books.

Yes, of course, I am more generous in blurbing than in reviewing. Reviewing is a critical exercise; blurbing is a commercial one, sending readers a simple message: they'll find a book worth their investment of time and money. And I am moved by collegiality: I sympathize and empathize with writers forced to frantically drum up blurbs, driven by the reality of publishing to engage in the very thing they wanted to avoid by becoming writers in the first place: marketing. But does any of this mean my promotional quotes are worthless? Not at all.

It's the season of peace and love, right? So cut the authors and their blurbers some slack. And give a book for Christmas or Hannukah, fer cryin' out loud. Buy it at your local independent bookstore, if you can, but buy.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Negative Review = Libel?

Niall Ferugson is one of the most successful historians in the world. His many books are bestsellers. He has an endowed professorship at Harvard University. He hobnobs with influential conservatives. He's even an international television star.

In other words, he's got nothing to worry about.

So it's disappointing to see him overreact to a harsh review from journalist Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books. He wrote to the editors, clearly hinting that he might sue for libel. You can read about it on the Los Angeles Times website, or the Guardian over in the UK. It's an overreaction, and it will only serve to make him look bad—as if runaway success on every front isn't enough for him.

Believe me, I sympathize with recipients of negative reviews, even when I dish them out myself. You work for years on a book (well, most of us do), and then some jerk reads it once and tells everyone what to think about it. But that's what you sign up for when you publish a book. It's easy to forget, once you establish yourself as an author, that you're damned lucky the world wants to hear what you think about anything. Everybody thinks they have a book (or ten) in them, and few of us get them published. You want people to listen to you? Then you have to deal with what people think about what you said. You can't control the discussion of your book, even when it seems mighty unfair to you. That's just how it is. We are all legal targets for critical sniping. I have never liked being criticized, but I'd say I deserve even more that I've gotten.

I should say that I have no stake in the fight. I've never met Ferguson. I reviewed one of his books, High Financier, for the Washington Post, and found it deserved great respect—a very serious book indeed, nicely written, if a bit awkwardly constructed to my taste. I did meet Mishra when we both had fellowships at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, but I never knew him well. He was away much of the time on freelance writing assignments. Whether I agree or disagree with the review doesn't influence my tut-tutting of Ferguson's lawsuit threat.

The irony is that, as I understand his book, the threat of libel rather runs against the very values that Ferguson argues have elevated the West over the rest of the world. Irony indeed.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Biographer's Dilemma

I haven't posted in a while because we have freshly made baby girl in the house—our own baby girl, fortunately, and not unexpected. While I've been in the soup of newborn parenthood, I ran across an excellent column by the excellent columnist Joe Nocera (see photo), in the not-always excellent New York Times. (Hey, we all pick on the Times; but it's still about as good a newspaper as there is.) He used a title that I should have picked for this blog: "The Biographer's Dilemma."

Mr. Nocera writes about business, and he does it with a keen, thoughtful, non-bloviating voice. In fact, you can often hear that voice on the Times's weekend business podcast, which should be required listening for anyone interested in breaking economic news.

I'll leave you to read it. It's a great commentary on biography in general, and Walter Isaacson's highly praised Steve Jobs. But here are the last two paragraphs, which should be taken to heart by readers and writers:

"There is another kind of distance biographies of the living lack—the distance of time. It can take decades to truly understand the context in which the subject's life and achievements played out. Often we need to see what happens after he is gone to realize his true impact on our world. Steve Jobs has been dead for three weeks. We're not even close to that understanding.

In “Steve Jobs,” Walter Isaacson has recounted a life — a big, sprawling, amazing life. It is a serious accomplishment. What remains for future biographers is to make sense of that life."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Contesting the Critics: Right Reason, Wrong Way

I have a friend and colleague who is in a situation I've been in many times. It goes like this:

1) Her book was reviewed, in a prominent publication. That's good.
2) The reviewer said her book was important and much-needed. That's good.
3) The reviewer expressed profound respect for her book. That's good.
4) The reviewer made a couple of criticisms that the author knows are factually incorrect. That's bad.

To an outside observer, that adds up to three very good things to one bad thing. The review raises awareness of the book in a media world that now leaves little space for books, and it definitely leaves the reader with the impression that it's well worth reading. So what if it veers off course a little, deep in the review?

If you're the author, it matters a lot. You spend years of your life on a book, only to have some part-time critic, who has spent a few hours with it, mischaracterize it (and possibly you). If the review says it's not fun to read, or too slow, or works too hard to be this or that, what can you say? That's a judgment call, and you had the bad luck to get a critic who didn't like you book. But, in this case, the critic made a factual error. It's infuriating, even though it's in a positive review.

This raises a general question for the writer: When do you respond to a critic? We have to recognize a few pitfalls: First, you're going to have a deeply personal (i.e. emotional) response to a review, a response that will not be shared by anyone else. Second, reviews are ephemeral, as books are not. The review will come and go, ultimately serving only one purpose: to tell people your book exists. Third, you've had your say with your book; you can't manage or control the critical reception and media discussion of it. While the book was in your computer or on your desk, you had mastery of every detail, every comma; but once it's published, it's out of your hands, and you have to make peace with that. Fourth, by responding to critics, you run the grave risk of creating a lasting impression in reader's minds: that you're a churlish, thin-skinned, defensive author. They don't care like you do about your critics. They will know your name, but won't even remember who your critics are. You tend, as a general rule, to diminish yourself by contesting the critics, and that will be the enduring effect.

Now, there are times to respond. I think the most appropriate moment is when you have a critic whose name really carries weight, especially one who is a leading authority in your field. In that case, if the criticisms are unfair or truly unfounded, you have to call the critic out. The only time I was right to contest a review was when a leading American historian, writing in a British publication, published a shockingly hostile and error-filled review; the review was clearly written out of anger at how my book criticized that historian's past work. (The review didn't mention that I had criticized the reviewer in the book.) It being the very beginning of my career, I couldn't afford to let my seriousness be challenged by the personal pique of such a highly regarded scholar. It was a rare case, though. I've been wrong to respond more times than I was right to do so.

Here's an example of how not to respond, on Joe McGuiniss's blog. Let me be clear: Mr. McGuinniss has a real reason to be upset. As he writes, he has been savaged by critics who haven't bothered to read his book. The reason I hold this up as a bad example is not the justice of his treatment by the critics, but because of the unfortunate practical effect such a response has on his image. Readers who've never heard of the people who criticized Mr. McGuinniss will mostly remember, after this exchange, that Mr. McGuinniss was emotional and thin-skinned. That's just not good.

Ultimately, you've got to take the emotion out of any response. Often you find that, with the emotion removed, it's not worth responding. Most of all, remember that readers are not weighing you against your critics on some kind of balance of justice. Rather, they are building a picture of you—just you. That's why responses so often backfire: you think you're in a battle, but readers see you alone, on stage. And yelling at some guy in the back of the audience tends to ruin the performance.

At the very least, sleep on it before you send your response.