It was a whirlwind Saturday at Science Online 2010 (a.k.a. Bora!Fest), where I had the chance to catch up with old friends I hadn't seen since the last Bora!Fest in 2008. It was a treat to chat with bloggy pals like Tom Levenson, Janet Stemwedel (who generously offered alcohol, wasabi peas and M&Ms to my famished self upon hearing the hotel restaurant closed seconds after I checked in), Carl Zimmer, Eric Roston, Chris Mooney, PZ Myers (yes, he and Chris were at the same conference and the universe did not implode -- imagine that!), Abel Pharmboy, and Carmen Drahl -- and of course, Bora! in all his manic glory. I finally met a few folks in person: Ed Yong, Rebecca Skloot, Kevin Zelnio, Blake Stacey (carrying an awesome cane a la Gregory House), Brian Switek, SciCurious, Skulls in the Stars, the mighty Isis, and John Timmer, to name a few. And the number of nifty new folks I met are simply too numerous to mention. Geez, people, I skip one year, and you go and add tons of smart, funny, creative people to the roster -- that's what keeps the scientific blogosphere so vibrant.
Of course, there were also lively opinionated sessions! I naturally gravitated to those centered on writing and communication, so bright and early on Saturday morning (6 AM Pacific time), I dragged my bleary-eyed carcass to hear Brian, Tom and Rebecca offer their collective wisdom on going "From Blog to Book." It's a topic near and dear to my heart, given that my new book, The Calculus Diaries, evolved directly from posts I wrote, and interactions with readers, here at the cocktail party. I generally don't like to get too "meta," but post-Science Online tends to be a time when I indulge, because sometimes a little navel-gazing can be a valuable exercise. So bear with me.
From Book to Blog
Just prior to the conference, Tom mused on his own mixed experience going from blog to book over at Inverse Square, concluding that while blogs can be valuable to writers, as a purely promotional tool, the effort probably is not worth the reward. (He re-iterated that point during the session.)
At least don’t imagine that [a] blog created simply to promote a specific book is going to do much for you. Either your book is already attracting attention, in which case the blog won’t hurt but won’t add much value for the time taken to do it right, or your book is struggling to find traction, and a brand new blog is not usually an immediately effective way to reach much of an audience. Especially if the blog is explicitly built around the work that already isn’t getting enough play.
Mid-post, he throws some gratifying and surprising props my way, in terms of how I've gone about building "pre-book buzz." It's gratifying because Tom's a good friend and an astonishingly gifted writer -- Newton and the Counterfeiter is one of the most well-researched and elegantly written scientific biographies out there, and if you haven't read it yet, Jen-Luc Piquant demands to know what the hell is wrong with you -- and hence I value his critical assessment. It's surprising because I am notoriously inept at most forms of self-promotion and buzz-building; mostly, I follow my curiosity (as time permits), and if I get the buzz-building right, it's largely by accident. Fortunately, Tom also recognizes this:
That’s how to build long-distance buzz. And what Jennifer did is exemplary in my view because it was real (as I tried to make my Newton posts as well, certainly) — by which I mean that what she wrote on the blog materially shaped what she came to think about as she wrote her book. [emphasis mine]
I would agree with Tom's conclusion that starting a blog solely to help promote your new book is kind of pointless, from both an artistic and a marketing standpoint. Granted, I started Cocktail Party Physics when my first book came out early in 2006 (see Black Bodies and Quantum Cats link under the "We Have No Shame" button in the sidebar), at the suggestion of my publisher. But it was never merely a promotional endeavor. That just seemed incredibly boring to me, so from the start I set out to make the blog a place where I could explore and indulge my curiosity. I loved having an outlet for all the nifty flotsam and jetsam I encountered as a science writer that didn't fit into paid work for professional outlets, and I loved the freedom blogging gave me to explore my unique writer's "voice." It's easier to take risks in a bloggy format, and not as big a deal if those risks fail. More importantly, I became part of a wonderful online community.
Creativity is notoriously nonlinear, but I can say with some confidence that The Calculus Diaries might never have been written had I not started the blog, and it certainly wouldn't have turned out as well. First, writing is a craft. That means you become a better writer by writing: everything I learned writing the first book fed into the second (The Physics of the Buffyverse), and everything I learned writing the second, plus innumerable blog posts, fed into writing The Calculus Diaries. Yet it wasn't just the posts I wrote about exploring calculus that materially shaped the book: it was also the give and take with readers who commented, and other bloggers who linked to the pieces and joined the conversation.
Early on in the book process, long before we met in person, Brian and I had an hour-long phone conversation about our mutual struggles with math; he's even quoted in the epilogue. And several participants in a spirited and lengthy comment thread on women and math over at Tiny Cat Pants a couple of years ago gave me permission to use their comments in the book (mostly anonymously). That's just two examples of innumerable interactions with people, both online and off, providing valuable book fodder. Heck, you guys even helped pick the book's title when we were wavering back and forth between two possibilities by weighing in with thoughtful arguments in favor of one or the other.
So this community is an invaluable resource for any writer serious about his/her craft. But you've got to be a genuine member of that community; we easily can sniff out folks who are joining just to exploit us. As Tom says, it has to be "real." (Side note: Our little cocktail party has become even more of a community with the addition of my co-bloggers last year, each of whom brings her unique perspective and writer's "voice" to the blog.)
In my keynote at Science Online 2008, I said that the blog became my "writer's lab." Brian was one of the folks who took that phrase to heart. I think it resonates because lots of people use their blog like this, whether they consciously think about it or not. Brian used Laelaps to develop his forthcoming book, Written in Stone; the blog helped him get a handle on a mind-boggling amount of material, honed his writing skills, and helped him find his voice. It's been a long journey for him, with a few discouraging hard knocks along the way, but he persevered, and I'm so happy that he's now reaping the fruits of all his hard labor.
Tom, of course, has been working on books, journalism, and science programming for awhile, so you should believe him when he says that "the conventional path to bring books to audiences is completely broken, or at least fragmented." In his view, connecting to a social network of folks who can help you spread the word is one of the few means left for marketing one's books, particularly for newcomers. The New York Times, New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker are still useful marketing outlets for authors. NPR is wonderful, because their listeners are avid readers and thus buy books. If you're incredibly lucky, you might be able to snag a spot on syndicated TV.
But for the rest of us, social networks (blogs, Facebook, etc.) are the best means available. The best way to do that, says Tom, is to create a conversation "that is about more than just the book." I would agree: I'm very supportive of my fellow writers, but nothing will make me stop reading your blog, or hide your Facebook feed faster, than if you do nothing but harp endlessly about your book. Which is why I don't harp on my own books very often, occasionally to my detriment.
If Tom is pessimistic, Rebecca Skloot is optimistic, excited to be doing books at a point in time when we're at the tipping point in terms of a new marketing model for book publishing. She's correct that publishing has been caught off guard by this failure of its publicity machine, and that there simply aren't enough internal publicists to go around. Frankly, her experiences self-marketing her book aren't especially new. Anyone who's published a book in the last 10 years already knows it's largely up to the author to make the marketing magic happen, through personal contacts or what have you, and if there's going to be any kind of book tour, it's the author who will make that happen, usually on his/her own dime.
So we are all loyal foot soldiers in the service of helping our babies find their place in the world, and it's utterly exhausting. (Eric Roston expressed relief at finally being able to go to a conference and not have to continually plug The Carbon Age.) But Rebecca has zeroed in on the problem with unusual vigor and creativity, ferociously making use of every tool at her disposal, right down to instructing her publicist how to make pitches to specific media outlets, drawing on her long career as a freelance writer. Other authors, take note and follow her lead. And show your support by buying The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Blurring the Boundaries
I want to end with a clear statement about what Cocktail Party Physics is not: it's not professional journalism, nor was it ever intended to be. See, another session at Science Online 2010 dealt with the future of science journalism, featuring Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong, David Dobbs, and John Timmer. Carl in particular moves easily between newspapers, magazines, books, and blogs, the epitome of how the lines are increasingly blurring between these areas. People keep wanting clearly defined labels for who is a journalist and who is a blogger, but more and more of us are both at once (and authors of books besides). Some material fits better in a newspaper article; some is perfect for a magazine feature; and an amusing, yet explicit video of a corkscrew duck penis inside an artificial glass vagina is pretty much ideal for a blog, as Carl's traffic spike for that post over at the Loom should attest. (As Carl wrote, "There comes a time in every science writer’s career when one must write about glass duck vaginas and explosive duck penises. That time is now.") And every now and then, you hit on something (calculus for math-phobes!) that ends up in a full-length book.
I especially liked Carl's (I think it was Carl) description of this emergent media enterprise as a delicately balanced ecosystem, each segment interdependent on the others for survival. Several weeks ago, Bora! posted one of his occasional rants relishing the collapse of traditional media, in which he baldly stated that he really didn't care if the cost of the revolution was journalists losing their jobs. (I can't find the link, sorry. He's just so damned prolific.) I adore Bora!, but he's wrong about this. He should care that journalists are losing their jobs, because they are not "the Other" anymore. We are all caught up in the same ecosystem, and draconian upheaval in one segment will inevitably, in time, negatively impact the others. I agree that the revolution must, and is, occurring, and a certain degree of suffering is part of the cost, but that's no reason to abandon compassion -- particularly as the distinctions between categories continue to blur.
But if the boundaries between being a journalist or a blogger are blurring, there's still a very clear definition about what constitutes journalism, at least among professionals. One of the more heated exchanges centered on the controversial new aggregator site, Futurity -- basically a consortium of universities partnered to post their (slightly rewritten) press releases on the site with slick graphics and call it "News." Now, I understand the rationale for doing this: science coverage has declined so badly in traditional media outlets that tons of great stories get lost to obscurity. Like Tom, who was also at that session, I think there's something to be said for pooling their resources and setting up a slicker, more sophisticated version of, say, EurekAlert, which really is just a compendium of press releases, and openly states that fact.
It's a very pretty design, with some fascinating material. The problem I -- and just about every other journalist I know -- has with Futurity is the way it portrays itself as a journalistic news outlet, right down to the site design. A representative from Futurity happened to be in the audience, and insisted (a) the person who rewrites the press releases doesn't mess with the technical details, which are carefully vetted by the researchers, and (b) that they'd responded to the outcry from journalists by putting a "disclaimer" in their banner. First, while I hope it's true the researchers vet the press releases, we've all encountered tons of examples where this didn't happen. I'd be careful about making that sweeping claim, particularly with so many university partners, each with its own "best practices."
Second, and more to the point, here's Futurity's supposed disclaimer: "News from Leading Research Universities." It's the use of the word "news" that's objectionable here. In physics, common words like "force," "energy" and "work" mean very specific, well-defined things, even though non-scientists use the same words all the time in a much broader context. So, too, to a journalist, "news" means something very specific: multiple sources, no conflict of interest in the reporting, and something that has had the advantage of both an editor and a copy editor, for example. The reporter's job is to synthesize and shape the raw material into a coherent story, and especially these days, narrative frameworks and the odd bit of commentary is occasionally allowed, particularly for feature writing.
Futurity has an obvious, blatant conflict of interest and it's being disingenuous about owning up to it. What's so hard about following EurekAlert's lead and changing that disclaimer to read "Press Releases from Major Research Universities"? Their reluctance to do so suggests they know they're being a little weasel-y in their approach. Just because Fox News does it, that's no excuse to follow suit, okay?
And that's why Cocktail Party Physics is not professional journalism. It's a blog, plain and simple. It's biased, occasionally self-serving (buy my books!), often single-sourced, plus there's the occasional gratuitous duck sex video to contend with. As I told Bora! in 2008:
It takes a lot of work just to dash off a reasonably factual post at Cocktail Party Physics -- I spend a minimum of four hours on each post, sometimes longer. It would take twice as much time, at least, to bring the quality up to what I'd consider a professional standard. People sometimes compare my posts to actual published magazine or newspaper articles. They're not. They're subjective, a bit snarky, a bit unfocused, with lots of extraneous personal details woven into them. Plus, there are still typos, there's no firsthand interviews with scientists, the links are mostly to Wikipedia and a handful of online resources that I find credible, but they're not exhaustive and, well, I could be wrong!
Sometimes a blog post does turn into a nifty article, but it really is first and foremost my writing lab, and a way to stay connected with my bloggy "peeps." I think the convergence of journalism, books, blogs and other forms of media into a interconnected ecosystem is a marvelous, potentially powerful development. But we need to be very clear about the boundaries between all those formats, and label them correctly.