Will the Net Save Books?

BookshelfArtSo, the Net is supposed to be fatal for books, right? Why plow through a couple hundred dead-tree remnants when you can just watch a 1:15 video? And, if you want to wade through a lot of prose, can’t you do that online through Nook, Kindle, etc., even if such outfits kill profit margins for publishers and savage bookstores?

Well, such questions seem reasonable nowadays. But, as a first-time author I’m discovering how the Net also opens the world – literally, the world – to writers and publishers to develop audiences for their work. No longer is book marketing a matter of running around the country and lecturing or just reaching out to reviewers. It’s a far, far better thing than that.

UnknownOccasionally, I Google my book title – “Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa.” It’s amazing what comes up. The book doesn’t come out until May, but already Amazon and online retailers all over the globe list it.

Folks in New Zealand, for instance, can pre-order on fishpond. And fans of Albany Books Ltd., “your neighbourhood bookstore” in Delta, British Columbia, Canada, can find a listing on the outlet’s site. So, too, can Canadians in London, Ontario, by checking out the Creation Bookstore site. Amazon sites in the U.S., U.K. and India are carrying it, as well.

Others round the globe are on the bandwagon. Angus & Robertson, a “Proudly Australian” site, intrigues me, as do Landmark Ltd. an Indian site, and Loot Online in Tokai, South Africa. Then there’s Waterstones in the U.K.

And some sites are segmented by market, with intriguingly different prices. eCampus will let folks buy or rent the book ($15.30 to buy, $14.40 to rent, so you make the call on the difference). Another college-oriented site, knetbooks, rents it for $14.26 if you return it by June 20 (slightly higher if you keep it til the end of July). FreshmanExperience retails it for $15.30. Amazon carries it for $13.71, marked down from the $18 jacket price. (One suspects all these prices will bounce around over time.)

AnaLouise Keating
AnaLouise Keating
But it’s not just retailers who have discovered the book. AnaLouise Keating, a professor at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, tweeted about it in early March, linking to a review she posted on goodreads, where she gave it five of five stars. Her review: “”Iowa” and “New Age”…the terms can seem like quite a juxtaposition, and Weber provides an interesting, useful discussion. Definitely worth reading.” (Thank you, Dr. Keating!)

Back in January, the book made a splash at Before It’s News, a blog by “a community of individuals who report on what’s going on around them, from all around the world.” The folks there listed it as one of 35 noteworthy new books. Hey, I’m not complaining.

UIPAnd bloggers with special interests in the area are plugging it. Evolutionary_Mystic Post runs a long description of the book and (now I’m blushing) of me. Looks like the material came from the University of Iowa folks, to whom I am much indebted, as well as from my bio material on our university site.

The folks in Iowa, no doubt, get the credit for loosing this stuff on the world. I must especially thank editors Catherine Cocks and William Friedricks, Managing Editor Charlotte Wright and Marketing Manager Allison Means. But I’ve been doing my part, too, as they counseled. I’ve developed my own website for the book, at transcendentalmeditationinamerica.com, as well as a Facebook site. The FB site is a handy spot to post newsy things that pop up around the topic, such as a recent riot among Indian meditators whom the TM Movement brings to Iowa to meditate for world peace. (Interesting irony there).

So, there will be lectures and book-signings and the traditional stuff. But, thanks to the Net, there’s so much more. Will the Net kill books? Not on this evidence.

Mrs. Thatcher, Simon Warner and me

ThePrimeMinisterThanks to the Prime Minister of England, Simon Warner and I met 33 years ago. Now, because of that PM’s death and the marvels of the Net, we’ve met again – electronically at least. And in that lay an intriguing tale of media, globalization and winding career paths.

Credit Margaret Thatcher first of all. The feisty Conservative lioness, derided or admired as “the Iron Lady,” was running the U.K. when I was lucky enough in 1980 to be chosen for a journalism exchange program created by the English-Speaking Union. Chartered by the Queen, the E-SU promotes friendship among English-speaking peoples and had enough clout to get me into 10 Downing St. to sit with the PM for a while.

Imagine what a thrill this was for a 25-year-old reporter for a little New Jersey paper, The Home News. Mostly, I wrote about small-town mayors and the occasional county official. Now, I would get to interview a sitting PM, one who cut a swath culturally and politically almost as big as that of her buddy, Ronald Reagan. Some loved her, many hated her and I’d get to write about her.

The ways of politicians can be mysterious, of course, so things didn’t turn out quite as I expected.

Simon, right in the photo above, was the first surprise. Someone decided a young American reporter should be paired with a young British reporter for a sit-down with Mrs. Thatcher. That was no problem, of course. We met at 10 Downing St. on the big day, July 14, equally excited about our big interview. Back then, exclusivity wouldn’t matter much, since we worked on different continents.

But then, as we waited in an anteroom, the PM’s PR man delivered the bad news. The London media were in high dudgeon about a couple young journos – one an American! – getting access to Thatcher when she had no time for them. Some reporter even wrote a snarky piece about it (long before anyone heard the word snarky). So, the conversation would have to be off the record. No notebooks, no tape recorders, no interview story.

simon_warner09Weeks of boning up went out the window, but, okay, we’d meet anyway. And we did. We had a fine time, talking mostly about innocuous things, such as her son’s adventures around the world. Mostly, Simon and I listened, unable to get a word in edgewise with the imposing Mrs. Thatcher (not that she needed us to, of course). Simon’s editors, with the help of a local Member of Parliament, later negotiated the chance for him to write about the conversation a bit for his paper, The Chester Observer. I got a piece for my paper out of the visit, but just shared my impressions of the PM and spelled out her successes, failures and fights in office. Happily, we could run the photo of the meeting.

Fast forward to this past week. Touched by Mrs. Thatcher’s death, I tracked down Simon, with just a few clicks on Google (smiling in the head shot to the right here today). He rose through the ranks in journalism, becoming arts editor at a couple regional papers in the 1980s, did media relations in arts and education, and became a live rock reviewer for The Guardian during the 1990s. He earned a master’s in popular music studies, then a Ph.D., and now serves as a Lecturer at Leeds University. He’s a prolific writer, with at least five books about major cultural figures dear to Boomers. These include “Rockspeak: The Language of Rock and Pop,” “Howl for Now: A celebration of Allen Ginsberg’s epic protest poem,” “The Beatles and the Summer of Love,” “New York, New Wave: From Max’s and the Mercer to CBGBs and the Mudd Club,” and his latest, the just-issued “Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture.”

text-and-drugs-and-rock-n-rollThe similarities in our career paths intrigue me. We both wound up working for national pubs and both wound up leaving workaday journalism for the academy. Though I spent my career mostly in business news, we also both have written about popular culture and figures important to fellow Boomers (my book about the legacy of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles guru, and his followers’ community in Fairfield, Iowa, is due out early next year). We’re both fans of the Beats (though I mostly left them behind in high school, while Simon has dug deeply into those folks and the long shadow they’ve cast. Gotta love the photo on his latest book cover).

Nowadays, we both also wonder about the future of journalism. Simon emailed me about it: “The media business remains close to my heart but how can print survive? Transatlantically, the great newspaper empires are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Can paywalls work? Can Internet advertising eventually bridge the losses to income that traditional papers, with their shrinking readerships, are suffering? The Guardian, to which I contributed for several years, is attempting to raise its US profile but can that bring dividends? Meanwhile, the middle-market Daily Mail is proving a web hit, of course, overtaking the NYT in terms of visitors!”

Also like me, Simon blogs. He wrote about his media adventures in 2009 in his “Words of Warner.” Interesting read.

So, we’ve enjoyed somewhat parallel lives on different sides of the Atlantic. Their arcs don’t quite reflect that of Lady Thatcher, who lived on a far grander stage, of course. But, at a nice point for all of us, our paths crossed. And now, thanks to the same technology that is upending the media, Simon and I get to say hello again. I plan to buy his latest book, snapping it up as an ebook I can read on my iPad. Small and surprising world, isn’t it?

Face of the new journalism

Business reporter John Rebchook’s face is worth studying. It may be the face of the new journalism – or at least one of them.

Let’s get to know him a bit. Some 30 years ago, John cut his teeth in journalism at the El Paso Herald-Post. While there he wrote a lede that proved memorable enough to be included in Mel Mencher’s Reporting and Writing textbook, one a lot of us grew up on. The lede went like this:

In less than three miles, Joseph L. Jody III ran six stop signs, changed lanes improperly four times, ran one red light, and drove 60 mph in a 30 mph zone all without a driver’s license. Two days later, he again drove without a driver’s license.
This time he ran a stop sign and drove 80 mph in a 45 mph zone. For his 16 moving violations Jody was fined $1,795.
He never paid. Police say that Jody has moved to Houston. Of the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 outstanding traffic warrants in police files, Jody owes the largest single amount.
Still, Jody’s fines account for a small part of at least $500,000 owed to the city in unpaid traffic warrants.
In February, Mayor Jonathan Rogers began a crackdown on scofflaws in order to retrieve some $838,000 in unpaid war¬rants. As of mid March, some $368,465 had been paid.

Clever, eh? It’s a classic example of the delayed lede, one that teases the reader a bit before getting to the point, or nut graf, of the story. Today, however, I suspect that such a lede would suffer a swift death in an editor’s keyboard. Even John, in his new life as a Web journalist, would likely spike it as ill-suited to our impatient, get-to-the-point times.

Nowadays, John’s prose goes more like this:

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers announced today that his office has filed a lawsuit against Western Sky Financial, a South Dakota-based online lender, and its principal, Martin A. Webb, for making unlicensed, high-interest loans to Colorado consumers.
According to the lawsuit, filed in Denver District Court, the company made more than 200 loans to Colorado consumers since at least March 2010, during which time it was not licensed with the state. The loans to ranged in value from $400 to $2,600 and had terms ranging from seven months to 36 months. The loans’ annual percentage rates ranged from 140 percent to 300 percent.

John’s reporting today can’t dally or tease. He gets to the point in part because he’s not writing for a newspaper any longer, but rather for his own blog, the pleasantly green-logoed Inside Real Estate News: Colorado’s Real Estate News Source.

John’s readers, like Net readers generally, have little patience for cleverness or meandering. They want the news at the top, so they can move on quickly if it doesn’t grab them. They don’t graze languidly, but rather rush to pull out the news that is relevant to their business. They take what they need and dash off to the next meeting.

John, who worked at the Rocky Mountain News for some 26 years until it folded in 2009, is an example of a new kind of journalist. It’s not just his prose that makes him interesting. It’s his business.

When the Rocky died, John took his expertise as the paper’s longtime real estate editor and created his Net product. It’s a vehicle for and about players and projects in the real estate industry in Colorado. He has a few sponsors who pay for ads on his site and, he says, help him make a living (albeit not quite as cushy a living as when he was a veteran editor at the Rocky.)

As Inside Real Estate News grows, however, John expects that the returns will grow, too. He’s so confident in it that he recently turned down a job at a local weekly in Denver. He likes being his own boss, he says.

Lots of journalists may wind up running their own shows in coming years. Online reading is surging as traditional print newspapers struggle. And the fate of outfits such as The Huffington Post, recently sold to AOL for $315 million, suggest that the appetite for well-devised Web products is hefty. (John, would you settle for 1/315th of that?)

Of course, would-be Web journalists do have to bear a few things in mind, and John’s experience underscores them. First, he offers content that is in high demand, at least in certain circles. Much of what he does is specialized and it isn’t commodity news readily available in lots of other places. What’s more, he works fast, getting his news out ahead of the pack.

Finally, John is able to handle the business side of his operation, taking time to market his services to advertisers even as he stays on top of the news. He stays on top of the growth of the Net, too, putting out the word about his blog on Facebook.

John’s grinning punim isn’t the only look of journalism in the future. TV, magazines, and other vehicles will likely have a place, alongside some newspapers – on the Web or not. But take a close look at him anyway. Whether in textbooks or on the Net, he has plenty to teach us.

The Debut

This blogging business is all new to me. But then so much in my life now is all new, as well. New house, new town, new job. That’s why this effort at an Internet journal could be intriguing. Certainly, it will be novel.

In August, I left the world of working journalism for the world of the academy. After 22 years at BUSINESS WEEK and 13 years at other pubs, I put in my last day as a paid reporter — as chief of correspondents for that wonderful pub in the end — and joined the University of Nebraska as an associate professor. As I left Chicago for Lincoln, I took up the art of teaching journalism to fresh-faced undergrads. I did so all too well aware that my field is undergoing some of its most wrenching change ever.

I’ve learned a lot in just one semester already. For one thing, I’ve come to take a longer view, as academics are supposed to. That means seeing that change is actually the norm in journalism. All the Internet-driven and recession-pained ferment of late seems to many to be something terribly new (and terrible, in fact). And yet, newspapers and magazines have been rising and falling for decades, if one takes in the long sweep.

Evidence of that? Time was, not so long ago, when cities such as NYC and Chicago had a half-dozen dailies ferociously competing for readers. Along came radio and TV, and the numbers shrank. As for magazines, remember Look and Life? They soared and flamed out, like so many other pubs. Journalism, in fact, has been a field in tumult ever since print was put on paper and sounds and pictures thrust into the air.

Now, does the Internet change things even more? Well, it certainly accelerates change. I can’t recall a more unsettling year in the history of newspapers as this past one, for instance. So many gone. The change is certainly horrendous for people thrown out of work, as over 100 of my colleagues at BW were when Bloomberg bought the magazine a few weeks ago.

But, taking the long view, what the Net has wrought is not unprecedented. To cast things in a personal light, of the four media organizations I worked for since my college days, two were sold and continue to publish — The Home News in New Brunswick, N.J., now a Gannett newspaper, and BW. Two others died — Dun’s Business Month, which perished years ago, long before the Net, and, as of this year, the Rocky Mountain News. I personally have seen both Net-induced ruin and change that has nothing to do with the medium.

The Net seems to be doing for media (and information generally) what the printing press did when it debuted. Does the term “sea-change” get at it a bit? And yet, Gutenberg opened vast new opportunities. So, too, will the Net.

Over their careers, my students will be writing for both new and old media. My job now is to prepare them for that world, an already-fascinating realm and one that is rich in creativity. Over time, I believe, this world will prove at least as lucrative as print journalism was (never so much as other fields, but not bad. The compensation has always been such intangibles as access to all tiers of society and a heck of a lot of fun, adventure and, for some, even danger. The latter prospect is the kind of thing that gets a young person’s juices going; strange thing, isn’t it?)

So my purpose in this blog is to chart the changes I see. Along the way, I will share stories from my new life as an academic. For an ink-stained wretch, the world of leather elbow pads and chalkboards is wholly new and intriguing. (Actually, it’s more like a realm of rumpled sweaters, computer-aided visual displays with overhead projectors, and whiteboards). I aim to share this new world with whoever out there may stumble upon this space.

I hope this effort proves as entertaining and informative to readers as I expect it will prove to me.

JW