Archive for the ‘Newton and the Counterfeiter’ category

For A Good Time In London

May 7, 2013

Come Thursday week, I’ll be trying to keep my head about me when many before have lost theirs (though I doubt they blamed i on me).

Anne_Boleyn_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

Which is to say, I’ll be talking Newton, the Mint, counterfeiters and all kinds of good stuff at the Tower of London at 6:30, May 16.  It’s not a free event, alas, but tickets for any geographically enabled Balloon Juicers can be booked here.  I believe the talk will go up at iTunes U at some point, and I’ll add details when I post a reminder next week.

I  know that I’m often kind of late with this sort of announcement.  This marks a conscious attempt at improvement.  I’m channeling my inner Charles Dreyfus:  “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”*

*It was a Pink Panther flick that introduced me to the phrase whose origins lie here.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Woman, inscribed in gold over red “Anna Bollein Queen,”  c. 1532-6. (Note:  there’s a fair amount of controversy over whether this or another drawing attributed to Holbein do in fact depict Henry VIII’s unfortunate second wife.

Isaac Newton vs. Paul Ryan…

October 11, 2012

…who you gonna trust?

Paul Ryan on credit, debt and the wealth of nations:

You can’t spend, tax, regulate and borrow your way to prosperity.

[Tweet by @PaulRyanVP (little ahead of yourself there fella, wouldn’t you say? –ed.) at 11:40 on Wed. 10 Oct.]

Or — perhaps you can.

Isaac Newton:

If interest be not yet low enough for the advantage of trade and designs of setting the poor on work…as divers understanding men think it is not…the only proper way to lower it is more paper credit till by trading and business we can get more money.” (Italics added. Any invidious shadow that might fall upon the aspirant to the Vice Presidency is wholly intended.)

[Newton to John Pollexfen, MP and member of the Board of Trade, 1700.¹]*

In fact, of course, modern capitalism, the rise to power and great wealth of first Britain, and then ourselves and an increasing proportion of humanity, turns on the creation of credit, the ability of nations and individuals to borrow today against tomorrow’s increase in capacity, invention, and comfort.  It is precisely by paying Tuesday for the (means of making) hamburgers today that the whole system works.  If Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney have their way, we will slow our growth as a nation and as individuals, families, circles of friends will  suffer the consequences in diminished lives and opportunities.  (That such loss would fall  more on the mass of us than on those who recline at ease in Mr. Romney’s tax bracket is, of course, something that Adam Smith understood very well too — but that discussion is for another post.)

And if you don’t believe me? Take it up with my man Izzy:

But be careful — he really was a tad smarter than young Paul.

¹quoted in G. Findlay Shirras and J. H. Craig, “Sir Isaac Newton and the Currency” The Economic Journal, Vol. 55, No. 218/219 (Jun.-Sep., 1945) pp. 230-231.

*I’d be failing my Galtian duty as a profit maximizer if I didn’t mention that I discuss Newton’s role in coming up with new conceptions of money in my book Newton and the Counterfeiter, available at Amazon and wherever books are sold (also as an audiobook, where my sales are, alas languishing).

Images:  Marinus van Reymerswale, The Money Changer and his Wife, 1541.

Sir Godfrey Kneller, Portrait of Isaac Newton, 1689.

For A Good Time On The InterTubes (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

May 6, 2012

Most of you probably know that I published a book (my fourth!) a couple of years ago:  Newton and the Counterfeiter. (Kindle, Nook, Indiebound, Powell’s multiplatform ebook and Powell’s, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Amazon UK, audio version, Your Local Book Store)

As you all also know, two or three years is a lifetime in book  years, so I’ve been doing almost no talking or promotion on that project for a while.

That changes in a few hours, when I’ll spend an hour on Skeptically Speaking with Marie-Claire Shanahan talking Newton, crime, the birth of the modern idea of money, and wherever else the conversation wanders.  The show starts at 8 p.m. EDT, 6 p.m. MDT, and will go up as a podcast next Friday.  Listen here, and or subscribe via iTunes.

It probably isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that it wasn’t the brightest move of even a genuinely clever criminal to try to match wits with my man Izzy. Just sayin….

Image:  William Blake,Isaac Newton1775.

 

Self Aggrandizement Alert: Newton and the Counterfeiter’s UK Paperback is out, Critics Don’t Quail in Horror

July 29, 2010

Just got my box of paperbacks from Faber, and I have to say, I love the cover — best of the four versions to date:

The book has been well received, especially in the British press — the Sunday Times was pleased enough with it to name it on its best-books-of-the-year list, as did the Library Journal and New York magazine over here.

And now it can be bought in Britain again (Faber had a bit of an inventory control problem with the hardcover, which has been unavailable for some months.  Heck, at least I can say I sold out the British Isles…;)

And a few folks have been kind enough to re-notice the work. Via Faber’s eternally vigilant publicity folks, I learn of these props:

‘Entertaining … Levenson has a good eye for the colourful details that bring 17th-century London to life in all its grimy glory: Newton and the Counterfeiter weaves together the history of the money and a biography of one of our greatest scientists in a readable romp.’ Observer

‘Wonderful book.’ Sunday Times

Should any of this move  you to more curiosity, you can check out the work at your local bookstore, (I hope), or online at the usual suspects:  AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwells, Books Etc., and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store, the Barnes and Noble store (Not sure if it’s available yet at Apple’s ibook store, but I’ll check and update.)

Self promotion (at least thus nakedly) now at an end.  As you were.

Garrison Keillor Thinks The Kids Have Already Left His Lawn: Future of the Book edition.

July 15, 2010

This post has whiskers on it, but even though the Garrison Keillor column “When Everyone is a Writer, No One Is” is long since gone for fishwrap, the issue it attempt to raise is, of course still with us.  So I thought I’d reanimate this from my fallow period for your reading pleasure.

To be sure, there was a fair amount of blog traffic on Keillor’s jeremiad about the book industry, at the time.

Broadly the response seems to have been pretty dismissive, which is right.  This is an awful piece, self aggrandizing, a work of anecdotage (h/t the irreplaceable Herb Caen, I think), not to mention that it’s a bizarre misreading of media history, given Keillor’s place of pride in that obsolete venue, radio.

It begins with a bit of don’t-you-wish-you-were-me aw-shucksitude:

In New York the other night, I ran into my daughter’s favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, whose “Magic Tree House” books I’ve read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of President Barack Obama. Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume….I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself…I’m not one of them — I’m a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it …

Well, yeah — and he is a nationally broadcast host of a signature program on America’s most prestigious radio network, and a contributor to places like The New Yorker, and, as he notes, the author of a few books himself which haven’t done badly at all.  He may say he hit that party by the grace of a well connected friend, but dude, you don’t need to go all bachelor Norwegian farmer on us.  You know as well as we that everyone else there was making the same list:  there’s Remnick, and Blume, and Jong and by gum that’s Garrison Keillor too….

But leave the formerly uncelebrated their conceits. (And remember that Hemingway retort to Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different.”  “Yeah — they have more money.”)

Keillor gets down to cases by declaring that all this glittering pleasure is a mask, or rather a vision of the unknowing dead walking under the delusion that they yet live:

…this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.

What’s going to send all these beautiful people to a Western Front  in which the trenches are lined in Book Antiqua and Garamond?  Not the loss of readers, an audience for, if not The Word, then words.

We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions.

So what’s the problem?  There are several:  the first is the lack of that which by asking for it (as the joke of my youth had it) New York singles used to get rid of their apartments’ cockroaches:  commitment.

and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

This is just weird.  I was and am a reader — and the author of four books,* all published by major trade houses, all sold in that price range (not quite that high, actually) as hardcovers, half that or less in paper — and this isn’t how I either acquire or engage books.

I use libraries, I borrow, I dig through give away boxes, I buy used…and if there is a book that is a beautiful object, and it tickles me, and I have the money, I pay vastly more than the words could be had for to get that volume in its role as an object, a work of art.

And now, I have classics and pulp and all the rest on at least three devices (yes, I plead iPad-ity.  It ain’t worth it, but I love it…)

All of which to say is that you don’t read a long work because it cost you a lot.  You read it — I read it — because it gets its hooks in me.  And the medium is less important than you think, at least than I thought, once that hook is well and truly set.

I read most of U.S. Grant’s memoirs (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates) on my iPhone, all 3.2 inches worth of screen, through a download from Gutenberg.org.  It’s better on the iPad, and I wish I had had access to proper maps, but I couldn’t stop reading, pulling out my phone at every crosswalk, at the supermarket counter, and so on.  And I am 50 mumble mumble years old; this isn’t some damn kid doing a byte dance.

The idea that how much someone pays for a piece of work evokes a reader commitment to it is…how to put it?

Sad.

Then there’s Keillor’s odd complaint that too many people are writing these days.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

And so what?  If someone wants to write for pleasure and share it, who cares.  There are lots of things wrong in book publishing and the like, but it’s not that people aren’t buying my book on Newton (see below for all the links to let you do just that 😉 just because John or Jane Doe just popped a book with Newton  in its title up on Lulu.  And it’s not that the publicity/marketing problem is made difficult because there are lots of free or cheap books.  It is that the broader demise of go-to media makes it harder to promote books — to enable original work to find its audience readily.

That is:  we are definitely in a transitional phase, but from where I sit, having done pretty ok in getting the word out on Newton and the Counterfeiter through a variety of channels, the fact that what used to be called literary journalism has evaporated from mass print media and drive time radio even faster than science writing has gone is the most important single change in America’s book culture.  Not the fact that you can buy my work on Kindle for ten bucks, in hard cover for 17 or so, and in paper for around 9 — and certainly not that someone else out there might be writing a work they’ll sell for less.  It ain’t my grandma, nor Cory Doctorow that’s the problem here.

Rather, as Rebecca Skloot’s incredibly innovative (and exhausting) self-created book tour (warning: PDF) shows, there are ways to reach audiences, (and it helps to have written a damn good book, of course).  But of course, Skloot’s experience is a prototype of new ways to make connections between authors, works, and audiences; it’s not the finished version that non-maniacal (and/or childless) folks can precisely emulate.  We will, we are getting a new interconnected web of readers and writers, I think (I certainly hope so). But as in so much of the digital transformation, the collapse of a distinctive regional as well as national, print-based culture of writing about books isn’t getting replaced instantly.  And whatever constellation of ways to get the word out  emerge (a bit of Scalzi here, a bit of barnstorming there), it’s going to take a while before at least fogies like me really figur out how to use these resources to reach all the people who might in fact want to check out what I have to say.

Here that sermon endeth. But back to Keillor’s jeremiad:

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check, and our babies got shoes.

Really?  I became a writer because I felt books telling me to write.  I still write because of what I read, or because I feel compelled to say something (like this!).  I’m not going to claim universal truth for a data set of one, but I know plenty of other authors whose experience is the same.

Yes, of course, the encouragement of teachers, editors, fellow writers all matter. It can be hard to go on if no one seems to think what you do is any good.  But in fact such notice is the result, not the source of writerly identity.  If what Keillor really means is that it took professional acknowledgement to make a living as a writer, well of course that’s true, banal, but still factual enough.  But writers write; the laying on of hands, when it happens, may encourage, but it does not alter the underlying dynamic.  All that has changed is that those who do not or do not choose to have a commercial career (see Adams, Henry) have ready means to create an expression external to themselves and their desk full of copy.  And what is so bad there?

Well Keillor thinks that’s pretty dangerous:

But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And The New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light” — NY Times) will vanish (Poof!). And editors will vanish.

Really?  Does Keillor actually think, in spite all the evidence of major media enterprises on the web, that the proliferation of data will reduce the audience’s demand for assessment, validation of consumer choices, the critical filtering role that acquiring editors and critics (maybe not at the Times, but in the newly emerging literary mediasphere)? The way the book writing and reading world will communicate is certainly changing…but there is no evidence, none, that Keillor adduces to suggest that self-anointed writers will be anymore successful or significant than they now are.  The mechanisms by which writers of books reach audiences and make money are changing; but the fact that some writers command both more audience attention and more cash than others hasn’t changed, and won’t.

And as for editors:  Vanish?  Really?  News to my wonderful editors over twenty years now.  The models by which books are acquired, helped and published are all changing, of course…but change is not the same as evaporation…and the blunt truth is that authors I know are hiring free-lance editors because book publishers have (long before this latest round of transformation) abdicated a lot of that task, and real writers know that real editors make them look yet more brilliant.

The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.

And this is different from my right to follow Einstein with Newton, and Newton with — I’m not going to tell you yet — and your right to stop after the first line of my first book “In the beginning…,” never to return again?  How, exactly?

Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.

Bullsh*t.  Trust me.  Writers can martyr themselves at the drop of a hat (“Ouch! My back!).  Writing a book is a long, slow, hard slog for the most ephemeral and capricious of rewards at the end.  It hurts to spend a day casting prose, knowing all day it isn’t working, not knowing how to make it work, and not wanting to stop until it does, but running out of daylight, of eyesight, of words.  Then you get up the next day and, if you are lucky, figure out what is now obvious (any f*cking monkey could have got that one, bub), and get on with it.  We don’t need any help feeling lousy; the process of sustaining a long work contains all the resources to enhance our self-loathing that anyone needs.  The moments of joy are there too, (they have to be, or else no one would do this a second time, just like bearing children).

What I’m trying to say here is that Keillor has stopped even trying to make a coherent case; this is just masturbation.

And last:

Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.

And I walked to school in bare feet through the snow.  Uphill.  Both ways.

**

What crap.

When I got my first contract, one guy bought me a drink at a bar on the Upper East Side when he heard someone was paying someone else to write.  That felt great too.

Then, starting in 1985 I had to write the thing, which I did, on a Zenith laptop running MS Dos that boasted not one but two 3.5″ floppy disc drives — hot stuff indeed in those days.  I can’t tell you how happy I was not to have to confront my dad’s Olivetti electric typewriter nor smudge my hands on a single sheet of carbon paper.  What Keillor is touting here is a fetish bathed in nostalgia.

Words are toys, books are miracles (and albatrosses) and I don’t give a damn what you use to make them, nor how you choose to read them, nor whether someone I don’t want to read still chooses to write and let the world know that they have done so.  Keillor’s dream of a closed circle of self-congratulatory demigods*** (“it was beautiful the Old Era” and all that) is the muttering of someone too scared to pause, even for a moment, against the chance that all that chaos and noise out there might yet contain the reward of beauty.

His loss, not mine.

*Not to miss an opportunity to plug a little — you can find my most recent, which a lot of folks seem to like, Newton and the Counterfeiter, at all the usual suspects: AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store — and while there are no electronic editions of the earlier ones, you can check them out here.

**Bonus Eddie Izzard, Alan Rickman version for your viewing pleasure:

*** Demigods in the sense Einstein described his new Princeton neighbors as “puny demigods on stilts.”

Images:  Simon Vouet, “La Richess,” 1633

Carl Spitweg, “The Poor Poet,” 1839.

Okumura Masunobu, “Book and Paper Peddlar” 1720-1730.

Not Dead Yet….Just Resting/Beautiful Plumage Edition

May 23, 2010

Blogging is conspicuous by its absence.  I plead end-of-term disasters, combined with the long dark tea-time of the soul.

Been feeling grim lately, and lacking the oomph to blog, I channel my inner Ishmael:

… I find myself growing grim about the mouth;
whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I
find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses,
and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet;
and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me,
that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from
deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking
people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea
as soon as I can.

But I do see some possibility of returning to civil conversation, probably after my next two talks, both in the LA area tonight (LA County Library downtown) and tomorrow (the OC — at the National Academy facility at UC Irvine), so please consider this a hiatus rather than a quietus.

And in the meantime, for your viewing pleasure, those clips that inspire this title.

and

For Good Times in Marietta, Ohio and Ann Arbor Michigan.

March 23, 2010

The Newtonpalooza rolls on.

If tonight (Tuesday, March 23)  you happen to be in the vicinity of Marietta College (in Marietta, Ohio), I’ll be giving the Krause Lecture at 7:30 in the Alma McDonough Auditorium on campus (number 7 on the campus map).  The subject — Isaac Newton, and what his not-so-secret history as a cop tells you about the man and the scientific revolution as it was lived on the spot.

And if you happen to be in the neighborhood of the University of Michigan tomorrow, Wed. 24 March, I’ll be talking to the Physics Colloquium on much the same subject at four p.m in room 340 in West Hall.  (Campus building search utility here.)

Come one, come all.

Image:  John Leech, from: The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett: “Cicero denouncing Cataline” c. 1850

Self Agrandizement Alert, Newton and the Counterfeiter, unexpected praise, (Karl Rove…yes, that Karl Rove edition)

March 20, 2010

I have to admit, I did  not see this coming.  Or rather, I did, but only because Karl Rove…that Karl R., the former senior advisor and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, showed me the notable courtesy of sending me a personal note to tell me how much he liked Newton and the Counterfeiter. (AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically at Amazon’s Kindle store, and in audiobook form at Audible.com).

I’m not going to repeat the nice things Mr. Rove said in his brief note — when in this age so profligate of bytes someone takes the trouble to send a physical object, on which a human hand has inscribes some private words, it seems right to keep those sentiments private.  But obviously, it’s wonderful to get kind thoughts from readers under any circumstances. Writing is such a solitary act, and the connection between writer and reader so abstract, so distant, most of the time, that when someone does take the trouble to let you know that you’ve connected with another mind, it’s just great. (Keep those cards and letters coming, folks!)

And it’s even better when a reader with unquestioned broader influence chooses to do the unexpected kindness of announcing his or her pleasure in a public way.  So of course, my thanks to Mr. Rove for his positive mention of my story of Newton and his pursuit of criminals amidst economic chaos and opportunity on his website.

But we all know that I’m just dodging around the point here.

Karl Rove?  Karl Rove!

Readers of this blog know that there is not much, probably not anything of consequence on which the two of us would agree.

Until now.

You see:, it turns out, we do come together on at least one issue:  we share his expressed hope for good book sales.  See:  bipartisanship is possible!

Image:  Edouard Manet, “The Reader” 1861.

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) no number quick update on blogs and books…

January 16, 2010

…which is the topic of tomorrows session at Science Online 2010, led by Rebecca Skloot, Brian Switek and your humble (sure about that?–ed.) blogger.

In the haste of getting to the hotel and then getting together with Rebecca and Brian to figure out what we really are going to talk about tomorrow, I haven’t found the time to write in detail what I had wanted to talk about today:  some thoughts on what the blogs can do — or even whether they should — to step into the void left by the collapse of the American book journalism at the mass media level.

So here’s a truncated version, which I will try to develop later with whatever insights come out of our conversatons tomorrow.

First:  there are tons of books being published — I’ve seen numbers in excess of 200,000 per year in the US.  I expect that number to both rise and fall in coming years:  rise through the opportunities to self publish that exist now in ways that no vanity publisher of an era gone by could have ever imagined; and fall in the category of books published by institutions attempting to reach large audiences through some kind of worked out distribution and publicity channels — “real” publishing as we’ve known it for a couple of centuries, at least.

Second:  whatever the precise balance between non-traditional and old fashioned publishing will turn out to be, the idea of national or broad conversations centered on books is mostly gone.  There are basically three remaining MSM outlets that can drive a book that does not already have its own media platform (Sarah Palin’s memoir, which was an industrial operation, not a literary one, for an obvious recent example).

Those three, in my guess as to order of importance, are The New York Times Sunday Book Review; NPR (which is not a unitary operation, of course) and, a rather distant third, The New Yorker. Some might through the NY Review of Books in there — and it is true that though its circulation is small, it is influential. Other radio and certain TV outlets are important as well, but these are the outlets that still make a claim to provide real literary journalism — to treat books as cultural events to be covered as news.*

(It’s different in the UK, where there is still a considerable literary news hole; but the mother country (literally, in my case is  have a different problem — an exceptionally rapid decline in their high street retail book trade.  But that’s for another post.)

This is not how it used to be.  Earlier in my career, even though I’ve never gotten much of a rise out of the Times, major newspapers around the country actually had reviewers, and devoted some real space to them, and I found I could hope for significant public discussion of my work in the LA Times, in the Chicago Papers, in the Washington Post…a bunch of places.

Now many of those places have stopped reviewing, picking up the AP review if there is one, or simply not bothering.  Meanwhile the Times has cut its reviewing hole, and now maybe checks out, in brief notices included, something between 1,000 and 2,000 books a year.  And there’s a vicious circle there too: book reviewing space in the NYT and in any other newspaper tracks advertising dollars spent to support such space.  As publishers consolidate and find their profit margins shrinking, they spend less on such ads.  As they do so, the book review hole declines…and the opportunity to sell more product goes with it…

and you know that tune.

So here’s the problem:  blogs and web attempts to create communities of writers, readers, and critics are popping up all the time.  They are important. They work — my post of a piece on Scalzi’s Whatever blog, as part of his Big Idea series drove Amazon sales and other blog interest.

But it’s a really big blog that gets 10,000 hits a day.  Only a small handful can hope to get 100,000.  A decent newspaper in a moderate metro area used to do that every day — in quite recent memory.

And of course, mere numbers only tell a part of the story.  Consider, for example the audience partitioning that goes on in the web is another impediment to permitting a book to find that part of its audience that doesn’t know yet that they might be interested in, say, a story about a scientist-cop whose detective career illuminates the birth of the modern idea of money. (If that describes you, here is the inevitable plug: you can find it at  AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store.)

So the thought to consider, in all this doom and gloom, is what, if anything, can be done to make up for the gap left by the MSM abandonment of serious books as an essential beat in cultural journalism.

I have some ideas — as do my co-presenters…all to be discussed, I hope, in tomorrow’s session. From thence, to more bloggy meanderings.

*There is one type of venue that is new and that can do enormous good for a book: the non-book oriented avidly followed TV show.  The gold standard now for book publicity is a gig on The Daily Show, or Colbert, or — and happy indeed are the happy few who achieve this for non-fiction trade book — Oprah.  But we are talking a few dozen books at most in any given year, single digits of which would be science or history-of-science works.  So for purposes of this discussion, hope for the best, and prepare for an acceptable alternative.

Image:  Norman Rockwell, “Fact and Fiction,” 1917

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 13.0: Prelude to Science Online 2010’s Book/Blog session.

January 14, 2010

I’ve been a little slow to update my series of posts about the practice and emotional reality of publishing a (would-be) popular book on science.  (Ya think? — Ed.)

But its time to get back into it for several reasons.

The first is that I’ve got more to say — about what to do in the face of the collapse of serious book journalism within the US mass media; about reviewers and the question of whether and how to respond (no and carefully, if you can go a little Red Queen on me just now); on the kindness of strangers; on the second book crisis, which is a subset of the next book conundrum; and probably some other stuff that will occur to me as I start scribbling all these.

The second is that Science Online 2010 is on hand.  That’s the annual conference that started as a science blogging meeting, championed by the indomitable North Carolina-based duo of Bora Zikovic and Anton Zuiker, and is now, still led by the same pair, with a lot of help, become a vibrant meeting engaging a wide range of questions about the interaction of science and the web.

That’s relevant because Rebecca Skloot (whose book, The Immortal Life of  HEnrietta LAcks, is on the verge of publication, and is fantastic), Brian Switek, (up and running on his first book, born in part of writing to be found here) and I will be leading a session titled “From Blog to Book” at the unFSMly hour  of 9 a.m. this coming Saturday, January 16.

And third, of course, I want to continue to draw attention to the book whose passage to its readers this diary documents.  That would be my true-crime tale, Newton and the Counterfeiter, which as ever, can be found at AmazonPowellsBarnes and NobleIndiebound and  across the pond at Amazon.co.ukWaterstonesBlackwellsBorders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store.

As noted above, there’s a lot of stuff I want to cover, and not being sure quite where to start, I guess the context of the Science Online meeting pushes me towards a few scattered thoughts on the enormous problem all of us book-fetishists face in connecting a book to its audience.

As before, any entry on this theme has to be in part a confession of failure.  I began this blog about eighteen months before my book was due to come out, and I did so for several reasons.  Mostly, I felt — and still do, vehemently — that science as a tool for making sense of daily life gets short shrift in the whole range of public and civic debates we have in this country.  My first real post on this blog was on the gap between what neuroscience was telling us about the pathology of mental injuries suffered in combat and the way the US military was dealing with victims of such injuries.

Since then, I’ve written about how important it is to use even the simplest of quantitative tools — grade school arithmetic — to grasp the meaning of reports like casualty levels in Iraq, and the essential nature of a commitment to empirical research to deal with just about any civic issue.

I’ve gotten more purely political at times than I had intended — partly as a result of an almost completely debilitating obsession with the election of 2008. And I have tried to maintain my connection to my core intellectual pleasure, the history of science, but the presenting face of the blog is captured in the tag line:  “Science and the Public Square.”

But there is no doubt that from the start, I knew that I would use this blog to help bring my upcoming book to folks’ notice in any way that I could.

As an aside:  one piece of advice I do have for writers planning to start blogs specifically to aid their upcoming book projects — don’t.  At least don’t imagine that 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.

Actually, that’s not really a digression:  one of the points of starting my blog long before my book was out, and of using it to stretch my wings over a wider territory than the book itself was to see if I could enter a community of bloggers and readers who would then be sufficiently interested in my take on the world to respond to the book when it became a major focus.

And in that, this effort succeeded, to a great extent, at least as I see it.  I’ve made a bunch of blog friends over the last two years, and a number of carbon based ones as well, a subset of that group.  I’ve interacted with a bunch of different web presences and audiences, and yes, a number of people responded to my book on their websites over the summer and fall.  (I’m very remiss in posting the relevant links with thanks to all who did so.  I will.)

And it succeeded in another way.  One of the odd things about writing a book is that there are long stretches of time in the production process when you are not writing, really. That’s most true after you submit your rewrite to your editors, and the production process really begins.  I find it hard to do more than preparatory work on a next book while one is still in the making — more on that in a post or two — so that leaves me with a lot of days when I don’t have anything I “have” to write.  So from early on I used my blog as a kind of methadone for book writing addiction; not quite the same thing as working out a long form  narrative, but still, every day a venue to fill with words and thoughts.

But I failed to use my blog to best effect.

I mean, I meant well, and I started out on the right track with my “Friday Isaac Newton” blogging.  But I didn’t keep it up, and if there is one thing every blogger knows, (I say, speaking from my one data point, more or less) it is that the blogging marathon requires the stamina and sheer imaginative will to deliver on such promises week in and week out.

And in that I think I lost a significant opportunity to build a community of readers around the core passions that led me to write my book.  I do know that a couple of the posts I did write in that series remain among the most popular of anything I’ve written — especially the one in which I posted my photographs of Newton’s childhood home and the apple tree that may have been implicated in his first thoughts about gravity.  It still pulls in hits every day, and has had almost 27,000 unique views over the last two years.  And while that’s clearly the best performing such single post, I have no doubt that if I had put up some cool bit of Newtoniana most weeks on Friday, it would have both been fun and useful to the project of publicizing the fact that a book illuminating some truly wild facets of the great man’s career was on the horizon.

If you want to see how it works when someone does get this right, or at least more nearly so than I, check out Jen Luc Picard, AKA Jennifer Ouellette, whose book, The Calculus Diaries has just entered the production process.  She will also be presenting at Science Online 2010, as it happens, and in the post announcing that and other bits of excitement in her life, she gives her readers a partial list of links to the posts she used to develop the ideas in her upcoming book.

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.

(In my case it was somewhat different — I used the blog to write some of the Newton stuff I loved but did not fit into the sharply defined (I hope) narrative of the book. But the principle is the same:  this was stuff I was thinking about and wanted to express, and not simply puffery for the book to come.)  And at the same time, each of Jennifer’s posts served to whet appetite for the larger work to come.  Good buzz; smart writing.  So I guess my advice to anyone else would be (as always, it’s worth what you pay for it):  do what I say, not what I did.

In my next post I’ll write about why I think this kind of long range preparation is absolutely essential, and yet may never be good enough.  Hint — it’s because the old channels through which book conversations used to pass have mostly gone…and I’m not so sure the brave new world in which we live has figured out how to replace it just yet. There is an alternative hypothesis…but that’s for yet another post.

(Oh — and I do plan soon  to turn to a specific concern I’ve been getting some questions about promotional videos for books — like this one I made about Newton’s London. (Click on the “video” button on the right side of the page if you’re interested.)

In the meantime, see some of you at the Radisson in Research Triangle.  Science Online 2010, here we come.

Image:  Mathieu-Ignace van Brée, “George Cuvier,” before 1832.