Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Writing and Research

Kevin Birmingham’s Truman Capote Award Acceptance Speech, which he won for his book about the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, is getting some well-deserved attention for its reflections on the state of the academy, criticism, and the powers that are shaping scholarship (away from projects like his) and destroying careers.

I recognize my own work in this line:

If my book deserves recognition, then we must also recognize that no young scholar with any sense would be foolish enough to write it. Graduate students must tailor their research projects to a fickle job market, and a book like mine simply doesn’t fit…. The most foolish mistake is addressing an audience beyond the academy. Publishing with Penguin or Random House should be a wonderful opportunity for a young scholar. Yet for most hiring committees a trade book is merely a book that did not undergo peer review. It’s extracurricular. My book exists because I was willing to give up a tenure-track job to write it.

I wouldn’t have written a book as intellectually ambitious and revisionist as REST when I was a young journeyman academic, and still wouldn’t have touched it until I had become a full professor and was untouchable (or had decided I DGAF). I always knew how the game was played. And I think my life would have been poorer and less interesting as a result.

Among other things, the experience of working with a trade press has challenged me in ways academic writing did not. Of course, you can rightly argue that I’ve merely traded one set of institutional and market constraints for another; but by virtue of its size and variety, I would argue that the world of trade publishing is one that’s receptive to a wider range of projects than academia. We never escape systems and incentives, but some are stricter than others.

Anyway, read Birmingham’s entire piece. It’s well worth it.

From working ON a book, to working WITH a book: How thinking about REST changes as we move to publication and I move ahead

This week I reviewed the dust jacket for REST. I’ve always liked the book’s cover, with its sling chair, but the whole package just looks terrific.

Proof of REST dust jacket

We were lucky to get a cross-section of great blurbs, from a variety of contributors, each of whom saw slightly different things in the book. It’s satisfying when readers see value in a book that you didn’t, or can really relate to a particular piece of it. You want people to be able to take your work and make it their own.

Indeed, over the last couple weeks, I’ve noticed my relationship with the book changing subtly. It’s moved from being something that I work on, to something that I work with; from a theory, backed up by a set of arguments and evidence that I have to shape, to an intellectual toolkit that I can now apply.

Morning edits

This is an intellectual version of the shift toward thinking of the book as a commodity in the marketplace, of watching it moving closer to production, of getting feedback on it from other people, and of seeing other people contributing to its final shape (and, one hopes, success as a product). I can no longer do anything to the content itself; and as my mind accepts that, it shifts to the mode of thinking about what it can do with the content.

It’s also driven by my decision to leave SBI, to devote myself full-time to writing and consulting about deliberate rest.

I realized that if I want REST to be a success, and if the ideas in it are to have any kind of impact in the world, I would have to work on them full-time.

So I’m now ramping up a new consultancy that’ll support my ongoing research on deliberate rest, and work with industries and organizations to apply those ideas. Having spent fifteen years as a futurist, I’ve done a LOT of workshop organizing, and spent a lot of time developing expertise around creating workshop processes and working with clients. It’s time to put that to use in a new area.

Brainstorming session on the future of science

Besides, as I’ve discovered (somewhat to my surprise) this is a kind of work I really like. Helping people explore and think through the practical implications of abstract ideas is not a skill you spend a lot of time developing as an academic; indeed, it’s safe to say that for many Ph.D.s, the question “so what’s the application of this idea?” is one that they tend to meet with derision, rather than enthusiasm.


But over the years I’ve discovered that for my, thinking about what you can do with ideas is very rewarding. And deliberate rest is an idea I really believe in.

I didn’t realized any of this with THE DISTRACTION ADDICTION; I assumed that ideas get out in the world, and they succeed on their own. Wrong. So I don’t want to make the same mistake. I’ll make different ones, no doubt, but at least they’ll be different.

I’ll still be an occasional contractor at SBI, and contribute the odd piece or put an oar in the water for a couple unfinished projects with clients I like. And it’s a fine place; I’ve not left because I disliked it, or because I have ill feelings about it. But it’s time to focus on deliberate rest.

This is what happens when you write about your book cover

People find old postcards of sling chairs and send them to you. This is one from the 1980s that an aunt just found, scanned, and sent me.

Sling chairs

The chair from the cover of my book is even in the picture!

My next book, REST, is off to the presses

This weekend I finished reviewing the index and page proofs of my next book, REST. It now goes off to the printer, and the next time I see it will be December 6, when it hits store shelves.

Final REST cover

For those of you who are interested in the process of revising a book, I explain the process of copyediting and reviewing page proofs on my Deliberate Rest blog.

Of course, there’s plenty more to be done before the book hits the shelves: promotional campaigns to be designed, influencers to be tapped, journalists and producers to be approached about doing pieces about the book, and so on. New books aren’t finished the way, say, the Parthenon was finished; they’re “finished” the way a really good meal is finished when the cook puts it in the serving dish. It still needs to be brought to the table and served; the table has be set; and the restaurant needs to be decorated.

This work is something I knew nothing about the last time I published a trade book, and I’m really going to try not to underestimate it this time!

QOTD: Republican consultant Mike Murphy about trying to train Donald Trump

It’s like being Charlie Manson’s foxtrot instructor. You go out there, you teach him a few moves, and you think, ‘Hey, look at that, he can learn the foxtrot.’ And the next thing you know, he’s trying to put a pen in your eye, because he’s Charlie Manson.

Source: Live Coverage of the Republican National Convention: Day 4

Keep Me Posted

I recently got a message about the new Web comedy Keep Me Posted:

Keep Me Posted Teaser from Hillary Nussbaum on Vimeo.

As the Seed And Spark fundraiser explains:

We spend an embarrassing amount of time analyzing the nuances of that text from our latest Tinder match, or the meaning behind that random “like” on our last Facebook post, but what about the particulars of the way we communicate with our closest friends? 
Are we mistaking constant communication for true connection? 
Keep Me Posted is a 3×20 comedic web series that raises those questions and more. It follows the lives of three childhood friends stumbling towards adulthood, three friends who are constantly in touch, but still find themselves growing apart. As their lives diverge in significant, challenging ways for the first time, they hide their respective struggles behind a constant flurry of chipper texts and insincere status updates to project the impression that everything is just awesome.

Incidentally, I have that copy of Stephen King’s On Writing that they show at 1:26. It’s great. (It’s where he talks about writing as “creative sleep”.)

It’s hard to stay shocked by Trump, “but today helped”

Ezra Klein has a piece on why “Donald Trump’s speech introducing Mike Pence showed why he shouldn’t be president.” It’s full of entertaining stuff about his introduction of Mike Pence, but it also explains why his performance matters.

Back in May, EJ Dionne wrote that the hardest thing about covering Donald Trump would be “staying shocked.” Watching him, day after day, week after week, month after month, the temptation would be to normalize his behavior, “to move Trump into the political mainstream.”

But today helped. Donald Trump’s introduction of Mike Pence was shocking. Forget the political mainstream. What happened today sat outside the mainstream for normal human behavior….

As with all things Trump, the speech was funny and magnetic. The guy is great TV. But it was also wrong. It was a blue stand-up set delivered at a board of directors meeting, a cruel roast offered at a child’s birthday party. Selecting and introducing a vice president is a heavy duty in American politics; it is the most power one person will ever have to potentially choose the leader of the free world. But Trump couldn’t see past himself to match the moment.

“Trump is our Brexit”

Los Angeles journalist Maria Bustillos on critiques of globalization and the possibility of an American Brexit:

The American working class, just like the working class in the United Kingdom, has been betrayed by elites at every turn: Ordinary working people have been given no project to advance in their own world, no path toward building a better future for themselves. Seen from this angle, it’s no wonder that economically exploited Britons took the chance to disobey their leaders like a shot.

Source: The Democrats just ceded economic justice to Donald Trump – LA Times

A thought on Jonah Lehrer’s new book, redemption, and writing

So Jonah Lehrer has a new book coming out, and there’s some snark around it. Lehrer has admitted that he cut corners, self-plagiarized, and made stuff up, but lots of people don’t feel so forgiving:

The clearest expression of this “not convinced” view is Gawker, who explains that “Notorious Fabulist Jonah Lehrer Wants to Apologize (So You’ll Buy His Book).” Given Gawker’s recent legal troubles, I would say that they’re maybe not the best publication to be criticizing others for being fabulists; but I think that they’re being way too cynical. But even if Gawker were (a little) correct, I have to wonder: this is really wrong?

It seems to me that a system that allows people to admit their mistakes, explain how they’re making amends, and submit to greater degrees of public scrutiny in exchange for an opportunity to recover their reputations and livelihoods, is… pretty fucking just. Isn’t this the way things are supposed to work?

Lehrer isn’t seeking PR by any means necessary, or trying to turn his notoriety into a calling-card. I don’t think he’s playing by the Kardashian (or Farrah Abraham) playbook: he calculates that it’s better for him to talk about his previous misdeeds because for the time being at least they’re unavoidable, and at this stage in order to rebuild his credibility it’s necessary to be clear about the steps he’s taking to assure that he’s not making stuff up. Nor did he go the Boris Johnson route, playing the charming self-deprecating buffoon as he slides away from charges. I get the sense that he wants to put this phase behind him, not use it to sell more t-shirts.

We need avenues for rehabilitation, because people make mistakes that shouldn’t necessarily cost them their lives;  otherwise we have no incentive to do anything other than double down, or pull a Trump-like Ponzi scheme with the truth. With Donald Trump, there’s an eternal danger that his latest outrage will make you forget the last 20 terrible things he’s said— and Trump knows that and is counting on you to do exactly that. Unless he’s playing some serious eleven-dimensional chess, it doesn’t seem to me that Lehrer is trying to distract your from future misdeeds by addressing his previous ones, nor is he one of those psychopaths who feels the need to cheat people to prove his own intelligence.

Of course, you can question whether Lehrer’s success is deserved. Fame is weird and fickle and profoundly un-meritocratic. There are tons of great, thoughtful books that never find an audience, and plenty of wise people who get crowded out by louder or more telegenic figures.

And ultimately, my instinct is that Lehrer is a serious writer, and wants to be a serious person. He certainly can write with flair and style; he seems to me to take the craft seriously. You don’t write as much as he has without being driven, and that’s an impulse that should be channeled for good, not disparaged.

Personally, from what I’ve heard about the latest book, I’m not sure it’s that compelling a project, but that’s not such a bad thing, necessarily: after he got out of jail, Robert Downey Jr. did a stint on television, rebuilding his reputation before going on to Iron Man. Maybe that’ll happen with Lehrer. Just so long as he doesn’t compete with me.

On the experience of shopping a book proposal

Following my piece on agents and why you want one, a brief note on shopping a proposal.

Rejection is inevitable.

You know those stories about how Catcher in the Rye or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 37 publishers before someone finally saw its potential? Before I pitched my first trade press book, it seemed incredible that such books wouldn’t be snapped up; now, I hear those kinds of stories and think, Yeah, that’s how it works.

For each of my books, my agent sent out copies of the proposal to a couple dozen editors. (They go out to a bunch at once; pitching a book is like being on Tinder, and no one should have any expectation that they’re the only one you’ve expressed interest in.) In each case, we had a couple serious expressions of interest, and managed to land excellent deals for both books.

But that came after lots of rejections. The book is too vague. The book is too specific. The book is really a magazine article. The author’s an unknown quantity. The last book didn’t sell well enough. It’s not a good fit. Ariana Huffington’s book covers  the same territory. Gladwell already talked about this on p. 137 of The Tipping Point. Easily a dozen rejections.

Getting rejections sucks. You know it’s not personal, that most editors read the first couple pages and make a gut decision (they hardly have time to do more than that)— but it still feels lousy, and as they pile up, they can press on your confidence. It requires real effort to have faith that you’ve done good work, and that someone at some point will recognize it.

But getting an offer for your book is like getting a marriage proposal. You only need one good one to restore your faith in yourself, and to move forward with your life.

One of the other interesting things is that rejections tend to be kind of offhand, as very few people take the time to explain in any great detail what they think is wrong with your book and how you could make it right, expressions of interest are more detailed and specific. An editor may just have a feeling that a book’s not for them, but they’ll be able to explain exactly why they like a proposal.

However, if you get a couple publishers interested in the book, you move on to the auction phase.

How auctions work.

This will be designed and directed by the agent. As I understand it, based on the level of excitement around your proposal, an agents will decide how many rounds of bidding there will be, what kinds of rights are up for sale, and how long publishers have to make offers and counteroffers. In general publishers don’t know who they’re bidding against (though I’m sure people talk, and for some specialized books you can guess who else is going to be interested in it), or who has submitted the highest offer.

Not everyone will make exactly the same kind of offer. Publishers can offer an advance paid out of three or four installment; they can ask for just domestic rights, or world rights (which they’ll then sell on to other publishers, in order to offset their investment); there’s some wiggle room in electronic rights or audiobooks. I think the domestic versus world rights is the biggest variable. If you think your book has international potential, and if your agent has a good network of foreign agents they work with, you might take a lower offer and keep the international rights, and try to sell them yourself; or you may sell all the rights and take the higher advance.

Even if you get a nice advance, you’ll get it over three or four payments, spread out over the life of your project. For example, a $100K advance— which is really great— will probably pay out over two or three years. You’ll get a chunk upon signing. You’ll get another installment after final revisions are approved. Another check will come upon publication. Sometimes there’s a fourth milestone— turning in the draft, for example. Take six figures, spread them out over a couple years and over several checks, and it gets smaller.

And don’t forget that you have to deduct taxes and commission from that, so $100K is really more like $60K.

Finally, don’t imagine that you sign and the money is transferred instantly into your account; expect a delay of somewhere between a couple weeks and a geological epoch. I don’t think publishers are intentionally slow, but they’re also not high frequency traders or PayPal.

A couple other pieces of wisdom.

First, you’re not going to get a life-changing quantity of money. Life-improving, certainly; but unless you live very frugally, it won’t be enough to let you quit your day job. (Many writers don’t seem to do that until they’ve published three or four books, anyway, and many never do. It’s simply a fact.) However, it’ll help pay off some bills, or kids’ tuition, or a vacation after you’re done. Which is not bad given that you’re doing something that you probably would do anyway.

Second, in the marketplace, the value of your next book is mainly determined by sales of your last book. An editor might see you as having potential, or evolving into an outstanding author with a devoted following. (And that does happen. Alan Furst, for example, wrote four books before Night Soldiers, the novel where he discovered his voice as a World War II espionage writer. He didn’t make the New York Times Bestseller list until his sixth World War II book, Kingdom of Shadows. I’m sure his publisher is glad they held on through Dark Star and The Polish Officer and the other books.) But advances aren’t like salaries: raises are not inevitable. They can go down as well as up, or disappear entirely.

Finally, when you write a book, you think you’re building the Parthenon, a timeless work for the ages. You’re not. You’re making dinner for friends. Odds are your book will generate a flurry of excitement, which is awesome; then after a while, the season will end, and it’ll fade, and next year it’ll be another book’s turn. Don’t be deceived if your book gets lots of attention when it first comes out. Enjoy it, by all means, and do everything you can to keep the book in the public eye. But as the Roman said, all glory is fleeting, and ultimately writing is going to be a great opportunity to acquire new reserves of modesty and humility.

Your book might get a stable readership after that, or it might not. It’s not only the good books that have a long tail. There are tons of really terrific books that go out of print, that never quite find a critical mass of readers, that don’t have the good fortune to get one really excited review in the Times. No one can predict whether your book will be a best-seller, or will stay in print for a long time; there are things you can do to nudge the odds in your favor, but no one controls that process.

« Older posts