Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Rest (page 1 of 3)

Utrecht and Happinez festival

My second talk at the Happinez festival

I was in Europe for about ten days at the end of September. I used to blog about trips in near real-time, but what little real-time reportage I do from the road now tends to happen on Facebook; so this is a chance to catch up on the trip as a whole.

I spent three days at the Happinez Festival in Utrecht, then the following week was all over, giving talks in Geneva, Copenhagen, and Luxembourg; then it was back to Amsterdam, and home. If there’s a way to solve the traveling salesman problem to get the least optimal result, I think I found it.

The Happinez Festival is a biennial festival put on by Happinez magazine. It’s held in a nineteenth-century fort that’s been converted into a concert and event venue, which was fascinating. The walk to the venue is very pleasant, and takes you through some classic Dutch countryside.

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For three days, the place gets transformed.

Happinez Festival

The fact that it’s a fort made for some interesting moments.

Happinez Festival

The green room for speakers, for example, is located in what used to be a gunpowder magazine.

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I spoke on all three days, to crowds that were satisfyingly large, and more important, pretty engaged and interested.

Day 1 of the Happinez Festival

We also did book signings after each talk.

I’d love one day to understand the dynamics behind book signings– in particular how you can have large numbers of people one day, then nobody the next!

My third talk at the Happinez festival

I also got to see a bit of the city, as I wandered down to the cathedral and university.

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Utrecht is an amazingly pretty place, and while it doesn’t have the amazing concentration of cultural monuments that Amsterdam has, it’s still a great place to walk around. (Few cities are as dense with world-class museums and architecture as Amsterdam, anyway.)

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Maybe I’m just getting older, but I appreciate well-kept, prosperous, stable cultures more and more– which means I really enjoy my time in places like the Netherlands and Nordic countries.

However, some things continue to mystify me. The wide variety of things available at the hotel breakfast to put on food that turn out not to be butter but instead unknown varieties of spreadable cheese, for example:

Absolutely none of these is butter, it turns out

But other than that the hotel the speakers were staying in (the Hotel Mitland) was great.

Hotel Mitland

My room had a terrific view for working.

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It was an interesting experience to give the same talk three times, on three consecutive days. It did mean that I was able to refine my remarks to an unusual degree, and sharpen both the points I was making and the delivery. Usually, if you’re diligent you take notes on what you’ve said, how it went over, etc., but there’s a 50-50 chance that you’ll forget or lose those notes; this time, having 24 hours between talks meant I was able to incorporate the feedback a lot more quickly.

 

Visit to Charles Darwin’s Down House

After I finished my London publicity tour for Rest (which is coming out with Penguin Life in February 2017), my wife and I spent the weekend being tourists. On Saturday I did something I’ve long wanted to do, but never got around to: we went to visit Charles Darwin’s house in the village of Downe. I’ve written about the house, the nearby Sandwalk, and Darwin’s time there in my last two books, but I’ve never actually been there until now.

Darwin moved to Downe in 1842, to give himself more privacy and room to raise his growing family. He and his wife Emma both wanted to be in the country, and they intentionally chose a place that would not be very easy to get to.

It still isn’t.

First, you get to Charing Cross station, then take the train to the town of Orpington.

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From there, you get the number R8 bus that makes the rounds through the country, and stops at Downe. You then walk about a third of a mile to Down House. All told, it’s about 90 minutes to get from Charing Cross to Down House, but in reality, it’s longer: the trains and buses aren’t likely to sync up perfectly. In our case, that was a bit fortuitous, as it allowed us time to have lunch at the Maxwell pub in Orpington.
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After that, it was on the bus to Downe. When the roads are open, the bus stops right in front of Down House. This time, it didn’t, so we had to get off and walk.

However, this gave us a chance to visit the church in the village, which is really quite lovely.

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There’s also a “Darwin Bar,” rather inevitably.

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From the village, it’s a few minutes’ walk to Down House. However, it’s worth noting that much of the walk is along a narrow country road with hedges on either side and no sidewalk, so you really have to keep to the very edge of the road and yet let cars know that you’re there so they don’t accidentally run you over.

Eventually, though, you arrive at Down House.

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The house itself has been part of National Trust for a few years, and they do a good job with the exhibits. The upstairs has been converted into an exhibit space, while the downstairs, with Darwin’s study, billiards room, dining room, etc. has been restored and looks like it did when Charles was living there.

Unfortunately you can’t take pictures there.

For me, though, as big a draw as the house was, the Sandwalk was almost as big an attraction. The Sandwalk is a circular path that Darwin laid out on the property as a place where he could go walk and think, and he went out there at least a couple times a day, every day.

To get to it you go through the gardens, and down a path on the edge of the property.

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At the end of the path you come to the Sandwalk itself, just past the age tree on the left (which I believe Darwin himself might have planted).
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The path is a couple hundred yards long.

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At the end, there’s a little place where one can sit if it’s raining. To the left, you can see the path turning and starting to circle back.

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The return is through a darker grove of trees, but still quite pleasant.

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After we were finished, we walked back to the village, and waited a while for our bus back to Orpington.

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All in all it was a very pleasant afternoon. And having come with me on my thing, my wife then took us to see In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about life in Brooklyn.

Goodreads giveaway

REST will be out in just over two weeks, and to celebrate, I’m starting a Goodreads giveaway.

I’ll be giving away ten autographed hardcover copies of the book. Goodreads will select the winners, and I’ll send the books out after the contest ends on December 15. (They might make it for Christmas, they might not. I can make no guarantees!)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Rest

by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Giveaway ends December 15, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

Head over to Goodreads to enter, and good luck! And of course, you can also preorder the book online, or look for it in your local bookstore on December 6.

Packing this weekend

Among other things I’m doing this weekend (mainly related to my son’s rugby career, it seems) I’ve got pack and get ready for my Big European Tour: I’m off to London for several days to promote the Penguin Life edition of Rest, then will go to Amsterdam for the release of the Dutch edition of Rest and a talk sponsored by The School of Life.

It promises to be a fun time, particularly because after I take care of some business my wife will able to join me. (Next time, kids!) And because after years of writing about it, I finally plan to go to Downe and visit Charles Darwin’s house.

I’ve never been to Amsterdam, so I’m very much looking forward to spending several day there. I’m going to be speaking at the Westerkerk, which promises to be a pretty extraordinary venue.

I just hope the dogs don’t get too flipped out by seeing luggage. But they usually do.

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.

Workshop

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!

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.

Why you, first-time author, need a literary agent

I had a long call today with a friend who’s just finished a book and wanted some advice about literary agents. I’ve gotten this question a couple times, mainly from fellow Ph.D.s who are trying to learn about the trade press world. So here I’ll explain the value of literary agents. In another post, I’ll talk a little about shopping a proposal.

So in an age of digital self-publishing, why even look for an agent?

Agents know the market better than you ever will.

The trade press world is quite different from academia, just as the academic and trade marketplaces are different. In fact, I worked in reference publishing, and that didn’t teach me much about the trade press world. Your agent can serve as a guide through this world.

Not only do they have a high-level view of the market and the development process, a good agent has a lot of very specific, timely local knowledge as well. They know which editors are most likely to be interested in your book; what other projects publishers have going, and whether your book would be well-paired with them; who is well-disposed to first-time authors, or your kind of project. They’ll know (more or less) what kinds of deals similar projects have gotten recently.

Finally, if they’re good they’ll be able to help you apply this local knowledge to your own situation. They’ll have a perspective on how your book will differ if you go with X House rather than Y Inc.; help you weigh the pros and cons of working with (for example) a more business-oriented versus a serious nonfiction press; give you a sense of whether you’d be a better fit in a bigger publisher that’s part of a global conglomerate, or a smaller more independent house.

Agents negotiate better deals than you could yourself.

Unless you’re pitching an account about your life as a trade negotiator, your inside view of car dealerships, or your memoir as a door-to-door salesman, odds are you’re better at writing than negotiating advances, or making deals. I’m terrible at talking about money; heck, I’m even not very good at filing reimbursement forms to get back freaking money I’ve already spent and am completely entitled to. What I am good at is writing (or at least it’s what I like to do). Unless you’re a professional deal-maker, it’s better to leave it to the professionals.

And yes, agents take a percentage (normally 15%) off the top; but 85% of what they’ll get you is probably a LOT bigger than 100% of what you’d be able to negotiate for yourself.

Not only are they more experienced, the fact that they work on commission means that their success is directly related to yours. An agent is like a Ph.D. advisor who only gets paid if you get a tenure-track job. Just sit with that idea for a minute. I’ll wait.

Agents help develop your book proposal.

You can write a proposal on your own: the book proposal, like a sermon or scientific article, has a well-articulated structure that anyone can learn about. But like a sermon or scientific article, you’ll write a better one if you’ve seen lots of examples of the craft, and have a smart reader who can look at drafts and give you advice.

A good proposal explains to overworked editors who seen a million of these things every year why your book is special, so you need it to stand out, to grab the editor’s attention from the very beginning. It’s also a demonstration of your professionalism and your ability to write; it signals your commitment; and it provides some early proof that you can get it together enough to turn your white-hot creativity into actual product. The process of writing a proposal can also serve to clarify your ideas, and force you to think hard about what the book is really about, and what you care about.

So a lot is riding on the proposal, and if you have help, you can get a lot out of the process of crafting it.

For me, the proposal is also valuable because it’s like a contract. I love to play around the structure and try out new ways of organizing books; the outline I provide int he contract puts a brake on all that. It says, I’m going to write this book this way, forces me to do the very best job I can within the confines of that structure, and reduces the amount of energy I spend playing around with alternate ways of organizing the book.

It doesn’t eliminate that work completely. Neither of my books follows the proposed outline exactly, but they’re pretty close.

How do you choose an agent?

It’s a subjective process, and it’s a bit like getting married. You should have a sense of what you need, and can describe some of your reasoning; but your decision will also be based on instinct, and that’s fine.

The most important thing is to feel that you can trust your agent’s judgment, and to be willing to take it and act on it. For example, I have a very simple relationship with my agent: she tells me what she thinks I should do, and I do it. It’s worked so far. I’m sure she’s going to give me the best advice she can, that she’s plugged into the publishing world in a way that I’m not, and that there’s a perfect alignment of her interests and mine (remember, her success is directly connected to mine).

Ask friends who’ve written books who represented them. My sense is that a lot of the business is relationship driven; I got introduced to my agent by a friend who was already her client. This doesn’t guarantee that someone will sign you; it’s just a way to get the process started.

Look at authors you like, and see who represents them. And no, don’t just look at who represents Malcolm Gladwell and JK Rowling. Conversely, look at the authors an agent already represents. If they’re people you’d like to like— and not just in terms of sales or success; if their books are the sort you’d want to write— that’s a good sign. On the other hand, if you write historical novels and they represent doctors who write self-help books, then you might not be great together.

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