Jessamyn article from In The Library With The Lead Pipe December 3, 2011 2:38 PM   Subscribe

"I wrote a book in 2009 and 2010. It’s getting published this year (2011) sometime. Let me tell you about what it's like writing a print book for a large trade publisher during the long leisurely sunset of print. It was different from what I thought it would be." Jessamyn looks at print books from a writer’s first-person perspective. posted by paleyellowwithorange to MetaFilter-Related at 2:38 PM (39 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

Great piece.

Probably because I'm a research and writing methods class right now, but the stuff about the role of citation is interesting. I'm definitely getting schooled in and have pretty much been won over to the value of tracking down the original complete work in order to cite accurately in context. It is quite labor-intensive though.

I'm thinking about a book myself and found this a very helpful inside view of some elements of the process, and some considerations, I hadn't run across yet. Thanks for taking to the time to write this, Jessamyn, and for sharing, paleyellowwithorange.
posted by Miko at 4:02 PM on December 3, 2011


This is a great essay. The only thing I'm finding annoying about this post is that she posted the essay in March and I'm only reading it now.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:08 PM on December 3, 2011


Without a Net has been in my stupid Amazon wish list for, like, 9 months, now. That is a great essay - I read it at the time, and it held my attention, unlike a lot of 5000-word articles I read on the web, which (train of thought skips the rails) makes me wonder as an aside, what you all, especially jessamyn, think about Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows. I haven't picked it up yet, but it's been recommended by a friend.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:36 PM on December 3, 2011


Interesting article, I like Jessamyn's writing style. I've authored big documents with multiple stakeholders before and it's a logistical nightmare sometimes. Now we use a browser based solution which makes it much easier.
posted by arcticseal at 5:25 PM on December 3, 2011


Great article.
the only question I have is: Did the great-great-grandfather have several wives at the same time or one at a time?
posted by growabrain at 5:28 PM on December 3, 2011


One of the things the section on research brought to mind is History Detectives. It's perhaps the only show on television which makes doing research in the stacks look like an adventure. I appreciate it for that.
posted by hippybear at 6:16 PM on December 3, 2011


This is a great article, and particularly well timed, so thank you for posting it! I'm in the middle of a final project for an English teaching class that's been centered around the differences between digital/print texts and I've been a little frustrated that the conversation hasn't ever moved beyond "you should incorporate digital texts into your classroom." It wasn't what the article focused on, but I'm glad for the discussion to feed my brain a little more than it has been lately.

Also, congrats on the book!
posted by lilac girl at 6:17 PM on December 3, 2011


Ah... I see many LibraryThing combinings and uncombinings in your future.

Seriously though, congrats on the book.
posted by Jahaza at 6:55 PM on December 3, 2011


Haven't read The Shallows yet but will go fetch it from the library.

Did the great-great-grandfather have several wives at the same time or one at a time?

Sequential! But it was a really interesting story because two of the wives basically had the same name, so it got sort of confusing. And I believe he died before my great-grandfather was actually born. I'm sure everyone thinks their family is fascinating, so I spent a lot of time trying to suss this out. Here is a photo of him.

I really enjoyed writing that article and I'm glad new eyes are getting to read it.The book did come out, as you all know, but the weird coda to the story is that I got the book in the mail the day before [I'd learned that] my father died. Which makes me think, a little, about my facebook grandstanding but also some of the less-competent things that the copy editors did, things that that induced stupid delays. Not to be weird and mopey, but I sort of wish he'd gotten to see it. My mom, on the other hand, reviewed it on Amazon as you saw and that was actually sort of great.

My editor remains one of my favorite people and has been a peach throughout, but I recently got an email from my publishers telling me about their holiday sale. I'll let this image speak for itself.

And yes I can't get a Kindle copy of my book unless I buy one. And the "ebook" version the publishers make available is literally an HTML version of the book with each chapter in a separate iframe so you can't steal it. In fact when it first came out, all the hyperlinks weren't "live" and when I asked about this, my publisher said "Well what if the information changes? We don't want to be responsible for maintaining all the links?" I pushed back, they changed it. I have my own little site for the book [linked above too] that includes the appendix and the bibliography in their full hyperlinked versions as well as lots and lots of handouts and other teaching materials. Right now on Tuesday nights I teach a You and Your Mac class that runs for twelve weeks. It's six pairs of classes. This week is week two of "Where are my files?" it's a lot of fun.

And it might be worth pointing out that I give props to MetaFilter in the preface. Just a sentence or two, but it tell a story: "The community at MetaFilter gave me a great place to try out ideas; having a job there meant that I didn’t have to go broke while writing a book." Thanks to everyone here, I could not have done it without you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:11 PM on December 3, 2011 [14 favorites]


You're more than welcome.

Also: Very fine article; I wish I could sign my mom up for a class like that.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:21 PM on December 3, 2011


Thanks for posting this! I'm enjoying reading it. I also have a question! When, in the article, you say this:
Also I was confident that someone wasn’t going to suddenly invent an email system that was free and easy for everyone to use. Sure enough, they haven’t.
What are the features missing from (for example) gmail that would make it easy for everyone to use, in your view? I ask because it seems to me to be those things, but perhaps it isn't. And now I shall go back to reading.
posted by kavasa at 7:38 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love gmail and I use it all the time. However, it's very full featured and sort of works better for power users. I think it needs to do a few things

1. Have a way to make about 60% of the crap on the screen go away [all the other google stuff, all the ads, all the cruft on the sides of the page, the stupid google bar, can all be hidden and turned on if you want it]
2. Have the defaults be: web clips OFF, buzz OFF (is buzz still a thing?), chat client OFF. Have your first intro/login to gmail ask you a series of questions about whether you actually want that stuff. No one should sign up for an email account and be available via chat to anyone they've emailed.
3. Large print available as an option [I know you can do this in the browser, not everyone does]

I really feel that there would be a way to skin gmail that would make it really easy, like Juno used to be. You had two options: read/write, and not that many other ones. gmail is awesome for me but for my 88 year old landlady there are always things popping up when she doesn't need it, things hidden behind microscopic triangles, unmarked features she doesn't understand. I know you can't ultimately solve everything for everyone, and gmail is better than any other webmail client I've used, but I could see ways to make it better and more usable for people with motor skills/vision/cognitive impairments and I'd love to see Google do something like this. Simple Gmail or something.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:53 PM on December 3, 2011 [10 favorites]


I like having something on the plane that I can use during takeoff and landing.

Point, set , and match.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 8:17 PM on December 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Huh! Those are all excellent, true points. Especially with the recent gmail redesign, where "archive" is a little folder icon. If you've already been using gmail (and computers more generally) that makes sense, but it's far more opaque than a button that says "archive". And I've had my own frustrations with chat. I would probably use simple gmail.

Thanks! I enjoyed the article/essay a lot too. Although I was saddened at the confirmation, once again, that to finish a book you must keep writing.
posted by kavasa at 9:03 PM on December 3, 2011


I, too, am inspired now to make an attempt to write the book that needs to be written but I've been ignoring the thought.

Thank you for linking to the article here, paleyellowithorange
posted by infini at 10:22 PM on December 3, 2011


Jessamyn, I've been going through the book's website and I'm curious - Is this information useful to those who may not be US based librarians (that being the access point for those who are unable to afford computers or the internet themselves) but are still in the position of transferring this valuable knowledge everyday? And is there any way to gain access to some of this material without it necesarily being a physical book (like a PDF handbook for cyber cafes in remote spots of the world, for eg)?
posted by infini at 1:13 AM on December 4, 2011


I really feel that there would be a way to skin gmail that would make it really easy,

The "basic HTML" version actually accomplishes a lot of what you mentioned.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:29 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


And is there any way to gain access to some of this material without it necesarily being a physical book

Well the handouts and etc. will be useful to English-speaking folks anywhere. The technique stuff is a lot more "let's think about how this look to a novice user and then how to approach the problem" which I think is accessible to non-librarians as well as library types. I have the whole book in PDF (page proofs, without the index) which I'll occasionally send to some broke library student but I'm a little leery of just freely distributing it because my publisher could get crabby about it and I'm not really antagonistic with them, though I've considered a pamphlet series, written in sort of Wikipedia-style simple English [or getting it translated]. For now, the single best thing is Phil Agre's one-pager How to Help Someone Use a Computer, and a link to Mousercise [which the library system will let you freely copy, translate and repurpose, but you may have to ask them.

The "basic HTML" version actually accomplishes a lot of what you mentioned.

Yeah, I use that a lot to show people how it works if they have dial-up and for some people it's really the better choice, but you have to know to bookmark the HTML version which is something that's a little confusing for people [i.e. getting one version and then another somewhere else]. The mobile version is actually really nice and clean and a little better looking but of course is the wrong width for monitors. It might be worth working with someone who's hot shit with Greasemonkey and/or stylish to turn either the HTML version or the full-fledged version into something really nice.

I've always felt that the missed opportunity libraries had was to run [or manage] their own servers and run nice local simple versions of squirrelmail or some other open source system and give everyone in a community their own option to receive email there. I know it's thankless, being a mail admin and you'd be reinventing the wheel for people who are already post-email, but it would allow people to interact with neighbors and, more importantly, their public officials in some sort of quasi-official way, etc etc. I have a lot of big ideas and non-digitally divided people are already way past this, but in small towns like mine, the idea of the library being a place to get email is still front and center and it would be cool if we could take a more central role.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:17 AM on December 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


long leisurely sunset of print.

Don't remind me.
posted by jonmc at 9:14 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've always felt that the missed opportunity libraries had was to run [or manage] their own servers and run nice local simple versions of squirrelmail or some other open source system and give everyone in a community their own option to receive email there.

My first email address in 1997 was through my local library! (I was 14 and obviously Very Cool.) It was via Terminal, not a browser interface, and I had to learn to dial into the server from the modem at my high school to get my email when I couldn't go into the branch. They still offer free dial-up service.
posted by liketitanic at 9:25 AM on December 4, 2011


Awesome. While I was reading this essay another one came in my e-mail.

My church is sending out a daily reflection of the advent/Christmas season. In today's, a woman recalls moving from Army base to army base, never having a home town. For her, the rituals and symbols of the church in Advent grounded her and gave her the belonging and continuity and spiritual home that she needed to thrive.

I sort of think that print is like that in the digital age.
posted by SLC Mom at 10:46 AM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


So, I read the book. It was interesting, but as I am not a librarian, so it wasn't very "useful". I put useful in quotations because I'm not really the audience, and as such that shouldn't be a critique of the book.

Still, as computer person, who basically spends all day in a room full of computer people, it was good to get some perspective of people whose experience of computers and other forms of digital technology is 180 degrees from mine own. It's a world away. I especially liked the parts about trying to explain DRM to people who have never come across it. It's pretty much one of the more damning indictments against the stuff, having to explain to people why they can't listen to this audiobook on that device. And I say that having read it on the kindle.

Relevant quote:

The reason I even bring it up at all is because, in my opinion, DRM is actually at the root of a lot of the tech problems we have in the public library world once we're beyond the "how do I use a mouse" stage. Many things that you can't do with a computer are things you can't do because there's a limitation built into the software. Often this limitation is built in because being able to do the thing you want to do-usually some variants of making a copy of a file-will eat into the revenue stream of whoever created the content in the first place. How you feel about this often depends on how you feel about the marketplace in general, but you'll see it as a recurring theme in the technology world, while you very rarely see it as an up-front topic in technology instruction. I'm usually fairly value neutral about it, to the extent that I can be, but I also try to be honest: "The reason that you can't make a copy of a DVD easily with your computer is because the people who created the DVD technology do not want you to be able to do this, so they built non-copying technology into the DVD itself. There are also legal reasons why you might not want to copy a DVD." This is usually enough explanation for most people. We do our patrons a disservice when we do not explain the why behind technology's failure to do certain things.

Jessamyn C. West. Without a Net: Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide (Kindle Locations 681-688). Kindle Edition.


Granted, the nicety of having a kindle version of the text was that I could pull that quote up in about twenty seconds.
posted by zabuni at 11:20 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


For now, the single best thing is Phil Agre's one-pager How to Help Someone Use a Computer, and a link to Mousercise

Jessamyn, thanks for those links - very useful.

(Thanks also for the great article, and the interesting book!)
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:05 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember when I was first starting to do book editing and I realized that all changes I was making would either be done in Track Changes in Word or through PDF comments in Acrobat Pro. Luckily I had copies of both through an old job that have sufficed, and I already used Track Changes for work, so I was familiar with it. But it was just a sort of funny moment for me, like, "Really? This is all there is?" Granted, some outfits have fancy CMSes and workflow software for creating print things, but everywhere I've worked thus far in the print world has used pretty basic tools, even in conjunction with whatever proprietary CMSes they used for more specified tasks like Web publishing. Interesting to read about it from the perspective of someone who mainly works on the Web!
posted by limeonaire at 3:14 PM on December 4, 2011


Thank you for the links, seconding what paleyellowwithorange said.


though I've considered a pamphlet series, written in sort of Wikipedia-style simple English

I will hope for this, it could go viral...
posted by infini at 5:56 PM on December 4, 2011


the nicety of having a kindle version of the text was that I could pull that quote up in about twenty seconds.

Though I have to say, I have a stack of a dozen scholarly books on the eighteenth century on my desk, all flagged with bits of paper, and can pull up relevant quotes from them also in about 20 seconds, if I've read them and found them significant enough to flag. EVen if I only vaguely remember them, the standard structure for scholarly writing, and the indexing, lets me find them pretty fast anyway. And bonus, I understand them in the content of the overall author's argument.

I just think the print vs. digital thing, where scholarship is concerned, is specious and a nonissue. IT's not about format/medium. It's about understanding the underlying structure and assumptions you can bring to a work, understanding how to access that information quickly, and knowing you can verify all the sources that went into it independently. Searchability is nice but it poses risks if you are pulling quotes without a true sense of the context in which they were written.
posted by Miko at 6:20 PM on December 4, 2011


jessamyn: I'll let this image speak for itself.

Non-returnbable. Heh. I think that's what happens when you call customer service with an out-of-warranty complaint and get connected to a script drone.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 6:35 PM on December 4, 2011


Another thank-you for the link to Agre's "How to help someone use a computer."
posted by brainwane at 4:02 AM on December 5, 2011


1. Have a way to make about 60% of the crap on the screen go away [all the other google stuff, all the ads, all the cruft on the sides of the page, the stupid google bar, can all be hidden and turned on if you want it]
2. Have the defaults be: web clips OFF, buzz OFF (is buzz still a thing?), chat client OFF. Have your first intro/login to gmail ask you a series of questions about whether you actually want that stuff. No one should sign up for an email account and be available via chat to anyone they've emailed.
3. Large print available as an option [I know you can do this in the browser, not everyone does]


Don't forget the excellent new button icons: an arrow, a square with an arrow in, a circle with an exclamation mark, a square with a line on top, another square with a corner missing, and a diagonal rectangle. Seriously bad mystery icons that I, someone who has had a gmail account pretty much since it started, still have to pause and look at to remember which is which. Why they moved away from "INBOX", "SPAM", "ARCHIVE", etc, I'll never know.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:06 AM on December 6, 2011


Have you seen what they've done to the main Google.com page this week? *gags*
posted by infini at 9:08 AM on December 6, 2011


Yep, I think it's an improvement. It hides more stuff you may or may not need. All of this is just a matter of preference. Novice users spend a lot of time asking "What does THAT do? What does this thing mean?" because they presume that people who are good with computers know how to do all the things that computers do. I usually start off my classes saying that the loose topic we're covering [how to use Safari, for example] has 1000 different parts to it, and we are going to learn 15 of them and I'll give them a place to go for more information if they want to know about something we're not going to cover. I'll show people how to use the Help files to look something up, and I'll be sure to use it in front of them so that they know it's a legitimate way to answer questions, not an admission of defeat. As far as Safari and other web browsers go, I teach people how to use the search box in their browser [or in a more advanced class, Smart Keywords]. No one should be going to Google.com to search unless that's what they actually want to be doing.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:21 AM on December 6, 2011


What do you normally recommend as the default home page ?
posted by infini at 10:04 AM on December 6, 2011


Whatever site people go to the most frequently. For most of my folks it's either their email, facebook, the New York Times or something. Most people who are new to using the internet have their home page set up to be whatever their ISP decided to tell them to set up [or whatever installed itself automatically] so folks are miserable staring at Comcast.net or other terribly ugly web properties. I know it's really tough to get your head around but novice users don't search. They don't understand searching. Usually they have email or they're reading facebook but they're still a little while away from finding the internet fun or a way to find what they want, they just see it as a necessary evil that helps them talk to their families or follow a ball game.

Granted, search is one of the first things I try to teach them because I think it gives people a little more ownership of their web experience, but there are a lot of things you need to understand to sort of get what searching is doing and how to do it effectively for your own needs and some people get to that point quickly and some don't.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:25 AM on December 6, 2011


Thanks for this - I'm wishlisting the book. I taught basic computer skills in libraries and community centres in the 2000s and am interested in the US experience, especially around rural areas.

'Novice users spend a lot of time asking "What does THAT do? What does this thing mean?"

This really chimes with me - the learning curve just appears so steep for many people and it's easy for them to feel completely alienated. Being comfortable with not knowing exactly what's going on is something most experienced users take totally for granted.

Did you come across UK online centres? - it's a not-for-profit aimed at closing the digital divide through community-based access and support (disclosure - I worked for them back in the day). It was set up as a short-term millennium project to provide capital funding to equip schools and libraries with hardware but the ubiquity of the internet has become a much bigger social concern and the focus has been on skills support since the mid-2000s. They do a fair bit of research and campaigning around these issues.
posted by freya_lamb at 11:44 AM on December 6, 2011


Phil Agre's one-pager How to Help Someone Use a Computer

The contents of this document are generally good advice, but I'm not entirely sure about the first rule: "Don't take the keyboard. Let them do all the typing, even if it's slower that way, and even if you have to point them to every key they need to type. That's the only way they're going to learn from the interaction."

Not necessarily. Where I work we support many 'international students' (i.e. students from overseas), and in cultural awareness training it's been asserted that many of these students seek concrete examples rather than abstract information or on-the-spot instruction. For example, they don't want to be told what kind of things will be in the exam - they want to see a past exam paper. Similarly, they don't want me to tell them, "Go to the printer properties, select Advanced, etc." - they want to watch me do it. At least the first time.

It's interesting, because previously I would have agreed with Agre on this point. I was all about empowering the client, and argued that "you learn by doing". Now I'm not so sure this is a universal rule. I've started asking clients I'm supporting what they'd prefer - "Do you want me to talk you through it, or shall I show you?"

I think this works better, and reminds me that 'rules of thumb' aren't universally applicable - that each client is coming from a unique position, and when you're communicating, you've got to know your audience before you proceed very far.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 2:38 PM on December 6, 2011


Granted, search is one of the first things I try to teach them because I think it gives people a little more ownership of their web experience, but there are a lot of things you need to understand to sort of get what searching is doing and how to do it effectively for your own needs and some people get to that point quickly and some don't.

Yes, many of the tier 3 market towns and more rural cyber cafes we visited talked about helping their customers do searches for stuff online or having regular student customers who needed help with research papers.

And you're right, it just doesn't strike anyone for whom search is the cornerstone of the browsing experience that newbies don't search. One forthcoming challenge will be expanding the repertoire of what's available online - even if only in terms of awareness, in order to increase the different types of activities or uses for the web instead of most newcomers defaulting to FB because that's all they know.
posted by infini at 7:31 PM on December 6, 2011


it just doesn't strike anyone for whom search is the cornerstone of the browsing experience that newbies don't search

Heh. I remember the pre-Google days when search was unreliable, and the normal method of browsing the web seemed to be via directories such as those provided by Yahoo!. A whole different kind of logic needed to be applied, wherein you needed to work your thought-processes back to umbrella terms, before narrowing down to your topic of interest.

I spent many happy and wonder-filled hours browsing the new world revealed via the Yahoo! directory.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 8:16 PM on December 6, 2011


Or following links down rabbit holes ... I used to keep Yahoo magazines and humour sites bookmarked
posted by infini at 8:31 PM on December 6, 2011


Interesting article; having done a bit of tech editing for O'Reilly books, I too was somewhat taken aback at just using "Track Changes" in Word/Open Office when sending back comments and corrections. Although, admittedly, the one time I reviewed a book that was sent as HTML, it was tricky to figure out how to refer to sections that needed help.

Aside: yay Nikki McClure! Love her art, and she lives in my neighborhood.
posted by epersonae at 9:03 AM on December 7, 2011


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