The joys and hassles of self publishing

So I published a book! It’s self-published and no, I won’t link to it here. This blog is, or attempts to be, anonymous, although someone with enough time could probably figure out who I am. Also, the book is technical. It’s not like I am writing the great American novel.

I’ve always wanted to write the great American novel, but even in retirement I can’t seem to find the patience to write it. First of all, publishing a novel through legitimate (not self-published) channels is probably too high a bar for me. My wife has been trying for decades to get something published. She’s published a lot of fan fiction. She’s a very good writer, probably better than me, so if she can’t do it, I figure I probably can’t either. Second, I probably don’t have the patience for it, although being retired I really can’t claim that I don’t have the time anymore. Self-publishing this technical book though was doable. It remains to be seen if it will also be profitable.

But I analyzed the market and there’s really nothing like it in the field, and it’s about the work I do for side income anyhow. Lots of people are happy to pay me for my knowledge and abilities. I’ve had over four hundred clients since I started the business in 2006. Also, I have enough writing skills to at least write this well and enough spare cash from the business to make an investment, or at least a write off its costs if it fails. In direct costs, its costs are about $2500 so far, mostly to have it professionally edited. I’m not billing the cost of my time, which is theoretically free. I’m hoping it will eventually turn a profit.

I began it last October and kept iterating and reiterating over and over again. In late January, I figured it was done well enough to have an editor make it more readable. I found such a woman locally who, curiously, like me, also taught at the local community college as an adjunct. She looked vaguely familiar, like I had met her in passing at a faculty or union meeting. She probably deserved more than we agreed on as her fee, but I was trying to make the book profitable, so some limited but not overly extensive editing seemed appropriate.

Even after her editing, I still went over it three times more. She can’t verify its technical content, so the onus was on me. I considered getting someone to lay out the book professionally, but opted to do it myself. My friend Tom offered to do cover art, but got too busy with his real job. So I ended up with a stock photo image.

I also ended up on Amazon, or rather its publishing arm KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). I didn’t want to. I wanted to create a store somewhere and sell it from there. I expected that Kindle versions would have to be published via Amazon KDP. But I wanted to offer PDF and ePub versions too. I frankly didn’t want to give Jeff Bezos more money, as he looks close to being the world’s first trillionaire.

But self-publishing is still a pain in the patootie. KDP pioneered this market. You can do it all online. But it’s still a learning experience. The high hurdle to do it the ideal way gave way to my pragmatic nature. I wanted to be done with the book, at least for now, as it was beginning to eat me alive.

Still, it has been a learning experience. There is so much to learn. I feel I’ve learned maybe twenty percent of it. My main approach was to save the marketing for the end and to concentrate on writing and rewriting it endlessly. This engaged my barely controlled OCD because when I put something with my name on it, I want it to be perfect. It also engaged my writing side. Hopefully from this blog you’ve gotten the sense that I can write well and be reasonably engaging. I wanted to bring this to a technical book too. I’ve read a few of these self-published books that were crap: paragraphs pages long with atrocious grammar and run-on sentences. I’m not a technical writer, but I wanted it to be crisp and clear with plenty of illustrations, short paragraphs and pungent sentences and easy to follow.

The book should be reasonably financially successful with time. I know the market and I know there are people who need to know what I know but can’t afford me. So I’m advertising it on my website, and took out some Google search ads. Not sure how well I am doing, but my cost per click is currently 36 cents.

As for the publishing formats, I’m offering both eBook (Kindle) and paper. Publishing it as an eBook revealed a few issues with Amazon’s Word to Kindle parser. Images placed on the side around text didn’t lay out right. I need to fix that, when I can find the energy. Amazon won’t let you charge more than $9.99 for an eBook, so the royalties amount to maybe half of that. I’m going to have to sell a ton of eBooks to make a profit.

I’m also offering a paperback edition. Amazon does publish on demand. Laying it out though brought out a lot of complications. People don’t buy books sized for 8.5 by 11 inch paper. With many illustrations I needed enough width so they could be read, and since most were screenshots, the paper had to be pretty wide. I decided to use the Dummies book at a guide. It uses 7.5 by 9.25 inch paper. Printing it in full color is basically cost prohibitive as it would cost more than $40 for its 339 pages. But a black and white version is profitable. Amazon suggested $14.99 for a price. I made it $19.99.

But so far since May 6 when it was released I’ve sold exactly three copies, all eBooks, so if it’s going to be profitable it’s going to be a long-term challenge. Some good reviews would help and maybe those will come in time. After 30 days I can offer discounts, so I’ll probably do that to see if it stimulates more sales. The nice thing is that it’s pretty easy to update the content, so I’ll probably be doing that when I find mistakes.

If you have any suggestions on how to do better marketing, please leave them in the comments.

A shameless plug

After working with a couple of agents and being told her book was very good, just not marketable (because homosexuality is normalized) my daughter decided to self publish her fantasy novel Godspeaker. So please consider getting your own copy. It’s available for the Kindle ($4.99) or as a paperback ($12.99) from Amazon, but it’s also available on createspace as a paperbound book, also at $12.99. She makes a little more in royalties if you buy it from createspace.

Godspeaker by Tessa Crowley
Godspeaker by Tessa Crowley

If you like my writing, you will like her writing better. Frankly, she’s a better writer than either my wife or I and we both are reasonably talented writers. It’s actually quite humbling for me to realize I helped sire this force of creativity. It’s not for homophobes. If you look at the preview on Amazon, you will find that she dedicated it to my wife and I.

The novel is obviously an enormous investment in time and creativity. It’s been improved in part because two agents have reviewed it and requested changes. It’s also an investment of fortune, as she had a professional cover done and bought an ISBN. It will also be available as an audiobook soon.

Tessa Crowley is obviously not her real name, just her pseudonym. You can follow Tessa on her tumblr or check out her website.

Ghostwriter (or the art of tricking Google)

All my life I wanted to be a paid writer. Being a writer sounded quite glamorous. You are paid to create and if you were good enough or wrote for just the right mass audience you could be wealthy like Stephen King.

Life didn’t work out that way for me. It’s probably for the best because most writers are starving writers, which means they do it as a hobby and not for much real income. They have other jobs that pay the rent. Moreover most writing is not glamorous, even when it pays well. Most writers dream of writing popular fiction. What most writers actually do is write articles for magazines or trade journals, or the local newspaper. They adhere to editorial guidelines. Their writing is not very creative. It’s about putting a number of facts and quotations on paper or online in a way that may be interesting enough for the reader to make it to the end of the article. These days even publishers don’t care if readers read the entire article or not. They are looking to serve ads. They care about whether your article attracts a lot of ad views. Whether it gets read is not that important, unless they are going for some sort of award.

So if you can find a writing job it is likely to pay poorly and be demoralizing to you and your self-esteem. And if you do manage to get a book published, it’s likely to sell a hundred to a thousand copies, with extras ending up in a discount book bin or just shredded for pulp for the next book. For the vast majority of creative writers, writing does not provide close to a living wage. Most editors will refuse to acknowledge your brilliance.

Recently though I did get paid to write. I was paid to ghostwrite. So in a sense I have become a published writer, although I think the content is going strictly online. Essentially, I’m being paid to influence Google’s search engine. Yes, I am writing for a set of algorithms! I’ve become something of a slave to the computer!

Google of course is the king of search engines. Getting high or higher on its search index is important. For many businesses it’s the difference between life or death. The only question is: how to get ranked higher than your competitors? Google is not telling, although it does give some hints. Needless to say there are plenty of companies out there that claim they can get your company ranked higher.

Most of these outfits are selling snake oil. There are lots of obvious things that can be done which don’t hurt, such as having URLs with meaningful information about your article, providing a sitemap.xml file and removing bad links. In the trade this is called “search engine optimization” or SEO. Everyone with the means to do so is already doing SEO. What you really want is for your company to appear in the top page of Google’s listing, ideally at or near the top for a given search phrase. These are links that people will click on.

One of my clients has made a business of SEO. I’ll call him Dick (not his real name). He’s hired me for odd jobs maintaining his forum, generally because he’s too busy making real money to mess with it. Dick has a reputation in the SEO world of getting results. That’s why Dick sought me out to be a ghostwriter.

Dick’s success has come through building a company’s online reputation. He figured out that Google ranks higher those sites that publish honest articles. I have no idea how Google assigns an honesty rating to an article, but somehow it’s got a built in bullshit detector in its algorithms. If it doesn’t look like bullshit, it’s ranked higher. If it looks authoritative, it’s ranked even higher. If you publish lots of articles that look honest and impartial, over time it will raise the ranking of your company in Google’s search index. This is a long-term strategy and it’s a costly one as well.

So I was hired to write some technical articles in this client’s particular domain. It turns out I have pretty good credentials. First, I do information technology for a living, so I have practical and current experience along with a masters degree in software systems engineering. Second, I write fairly well. Third, I am mostly retired. And fourth, I can write an impartial article. My years in government have actually helped. Government employees develop finely honed bullshit detectors, because we are constantly dealing with vendors trying to get their products and services into our enterprise.

Dick is also kind enough to provide a few sample articles for my topic. I use these as well as my thirty years in the business to crank out these articles. Generally they are no more than 800 words and follow a format. I charge by the hour. Since most of these are survey articles, I don’t have to really do any research. I just start writing. It takes me about three hours to write an article. I bill at $30/hour (my retiree rate). So far I’ve done two articles and earned $180 ghostwriting. There will probably be more, as the client is satisfied with my work.

I have no idea where these articles will be placed, but Dick tries to get them in online publications of authoritative sites. I could probably find them online if I looked. Dick does edit what I send him, so it may appear somewhat altered. But at least I am a published writer. Some people may find my articles interesting, but the only “person” of real interest is Google’s search engine. We are basically trying to fake it out. Dick’s client is essentially renting my experience for potential future customers and an improved reputation.

I’ll probably never know how this will all pan out. Some part of me thinks I am being dishonest. I am writing honest articles, but I am doing it on behalf of a company that doesn’t have the in-house skills or the time to do it. They are essentially renting my reputation, such as it is, to add to their reputation.

But hey, at least I am a published writer now! My pseudonym? Call me Anonymous.

Leap of faith

This blog scratches my writing itch, but most of us writers would rather be published than place our writings in a blog. Being published still means something. Today it means one or more authorities singled you out as worthy of being published, usually on paper. Publishers are not in the business of wasting money. They only publish content they believe will earn them a profit. Coincidentally, published authors earn actual money.

Being a published writer is hard and breaking into the ranks is the hardest part, which is probably why I blog. I may be a good writer, but I am not a great writer and probably will never be. I write because I must. In retirement I may have the leisure to pick up electronic pen and try writing a great novel. But I have little illusions that after it is done that it will be published.

This is because potential authors are a dime a dozen. Publishers are inundated with unsolicited manuscripts, many of them quite good, but most of them trash. At best, an author’s unsolicited manuscript will get a cursory read of the first couple pages by some low level staffer and if it doesn’t meet a niche or market or a quality standard, it is quickly rejected. Even if it meets all of these criteria, the odds are still that it will get rejected, mainly just because. Authors send out their manuscripts anyhow. A few rejection letters will crush the egos of most authors. They will assume they don’t have the “write” stuff and shuffle along disheartened toward more productive but less enthralling careers.

Writers that take the time to research what it takes to get published usually discover it’s a waste of time to send unsolicited manuscripts to publishers. Instead, they try to find a literary agent to represent them. It’s the difference between getting an automated response from a firm and talking to a human being. A literary agent is a trusted broker. If a true literary agent accepts you as a client then your manuscript is virtually certain to get published.

This means that both book publishers and literary agents get inundated with manuscripts. In both venues there are the flakes out there. Vanity publishers are glad to print your book as long as you are willing to pay for it and market it yourself. Similarly, there are literary agents that probably don’t deserve the title but may be interested in critiquing your work, for a fee, or passing it on to an editor who, for a fee, will be glad to edit it, but with little likelihood that it can actually be marketed. A real literary agent is on a first name basis with editors at key publishers and knows what they are looking for. You are not charged any fees at all until a work is published. The agent typically collects fifteen percent of the royalties.

So getting a real agent is a hard bar to reach. I did have a literary agent briefly out of college. I set my expectations low for breaking into the field. CBS Radio Mystery Theater was on the air in the 1970s. I asked an agent to submit a couple of scripts for them. She agreed but they were quickly bounced back. Apparently staff wrote all their scripts. I gave up the idea of writing a great novel or screenplay and went to work instead because I was broke.

My wife, actually a better writer than I am, also wrote all sorts of stories in the science fiction, children and fantasy genres. She sent them out to various publications to see if they might publish them. Her heart was broken time and again. She too gave up. When she chooses to write today, it is for a genre called slash that appeals to the fan fiction community. Needless to say there is no money in it, but there is the occasional fan mail and recognition at a convention.

Our daughter (almost 24 years old) took up the pen naturally. Arguably, if a budding writer had to be born anywhere, she picked good parents. We provided a nutrient-rich literary soup for her. Our house is full of books. There is a newspaper on the kitchen table every morning, and various magazines to read. In addition, we exposed her early to the arts. Just last night we took her to see Miss Saigon at Signature Theater (review to come). She saw her first musical at age six but by now has seen more theater than most people do in several lifetimes. We encouraged her writing but warned her that, like us, she probably couldn’t earn a living at it. I encouraged her toward journalism, which at least pays something resembling a living wage. But no, she set her mark impossibly high. She wanted to write fiction. Worse, she chose fantasy novels, which with the exception of J.K. Rowling is a pretty limited market. We warned her that she had set herself up for a bigger failure because it was a highly saturated but limited market. It was best, we counseled, to do it on nights and weekends. You are going to need a full time job at a desk somewhere to get by.

But still she plugged away, while we fretted over her grades and her slow but measured progress in college. She did earn her bachelor’s degree in English this spring. She is still looking for a job. We did give her credit for doggedness. She finished her book, first of a trilogy, and kept shopping it around to literary agents that seemed interested in this stuff. She endured lots of rejection, crushed spirits but also occasional notes of encouragement. And somehow she kept plunging ahead. We cheered her on while grimacing privately at the probability of the brick wall she was about to hit. It was our experience that life was unfair, and no matter how good you were, most of us writers were fated to be unpublished. We certainly were. We just gave up.

Spring turned to summer, summer headed toward autumn. She seemed doomed to the fate of Sisyphus. It hurt to watch and it felt counterproductive sometimes to encourage her perseverance but gosh, she sure was good. Both my wife and I agree her writing was far better than anything we ever wrote. Meanwhile she went on job interviews far beneath her talents and wrote into the wee hours.

On Wednesday, Lowenstein Associates, a New York literary agency, sent her a contract to sign. Look for her book, Godbinder, first part of a trilogy to be published by some lucky publisher in 2014 under the pen name of J. M. Saint.

J.K. Rowling had better watch out.

In a comic frame of mind

Since retirement is on my mind, what to do next is also on my mind. Here’s what I won’t be doing:

  • Playing golf. I never tried, but it’s expensive and since it requires agility then I am likely to do as well at it as I dance. (I have little sense of rhythm or balance.) So I figure I would prove to be spectacularly bad at it.
  • Ski. See playing golf. Plus I imagine myself in casts and walking around for weeks in crutches.
  • Sitting around the house all day. I get cabin fever after a few days. I figure I need a dog in retirement. They always want to go outside. And while I love my spouse, too much togetherness is not good. I saw what it did to my parent’s marriage. They would have been much happier if they spent much of their days apart.
  • Not working. I don’t want to work full time, but I want to do something productive at least part time. Teaching at a community college, which I have done off and on for many years, is doable but it doesn’t pay much. I’ll want to supplement my retirement income by more than teaching at an adjunct’s salary.

Ideally you spend your retirement doing things you like to do, but doing it on a schedule that suits you and hopefully making some money at it. I’ve done IT management for fifteen years or so. It’s not the most interesting thing to do, but it could be worse and it pays great. In retirement I’ll be glad to put that behind me. It seems a shame to waste my IT skills, because I still think IT is fascinating. So I am thinking of writing some mobile apps, once I learn how to do it. It’s not an easy market though. You have to find a niche plus everyone and his brother is doing the same thing and selling them for ninety-nine cents on Google Play. The vast majority of apps have no buzz and languish in obscurity.

I am obviously a political creature, given the nature of this blog. So combining social action with something I enjoy sounds like a good way to spend my time. If it can be profitable, it is even better. So I am thinking of creating a comic strip.

I have noticed that being able to draw doesn’t matter much anymore. Dilbert is a great example. Scott Adams is a millionaire and he cannot draw worth a damn. What he had was a clever idea and he was fortunate enough to work it until it took off. Dilbert is an example of a comic strip that is minimalistic and this type seems to be more popular these days. The online strip xkcd is a better example. If you are creative enough and hit a new and emerging market then the ability to draw is irrelevant.

Based on my research, creating a comic is a lot like selling a first novel. Many try but few succeed. Also, the market is declining, at least for comics on newsprint. Still, there is something about being a creative force behind a comic that appeals to me. I like that, when successful, you can get paid a lot of money for doing so very little. (At least that’s the way I perceive it.) I’ve come up with two comic ideas and curiously both arrived in the middle of the night.

Going with the existential, minimalist, “I don’t need to actually be an artist to write a comic” theme, my first idea for a strip was “A Pile of Ants”. Three frames for every strip during the week of course. All you see is a pile of ants represented by a lot of dots on a surface. One ant talks to the other. It’s an ill-formed idea, but it occurred to me that ants could articulate things that humans cannot and get away with it. Like Monty Python, most people would not “get” it, but those who did would find it hilarious. That you actually never see any of the characters would make it singularly unique, sort of like radio was when you had to picture the action and characters in your mind. However, after a few days I realized I doubted I could sustain this idea for very long, and it was unlikely to be marketable. And it probably wouldn’t do much for social action.

The second idea, and one I am considering pursuing with a friend that can at least draw, is a strip about life in the retail world. It has the virtue of never being done before. Most of us have had the retail experience in our careers, and found that it sucked. So it would be a strip that most could relate to, which might make it marketable. Of course, it would be all about life in retail, probably a fictional big box chain that seems like some amalgamation of Walmart and Target. In my days it was a Montgomery Ward, now defunct. The experience though does not change much from decade to decade. Clerks and salespeople are used, more often abused and occasionally recycled. Customers frequently act pissy, managers thrive on exploitation and staff turns over so frequently you can’t keep up with who is supposed to be working on a given day. In general, in the retail business every effort is made to keep costs low primarily through the infliction of pain on retail employees. At least, that was my experience in about two years working retail after college but before landing a government job. And from reading sites like Not Always Right, which documents customer abuse in the retail world, stupid customer syndrome has not abated.

I don’t have a working title for the strip yet. I want to keep details private until I find out if this thing can fly, and given the odds it probably won’t. But I am a decent writer, and I can write good characters. While artwork is less important than it used to be, I don’t want to embarrass myself, so I am hoping I can find an artist who might take it on. My friend Tom from childhood gets first dibs, if he has time for the project. We worked on comics together as teens and he has a lot of natural talent plus he works in advertising. If I need inspiration there are plenty of places online to find it, but also plenty of material to dreg up from thirty years ago as well.

The main task right now is to flesh out the strip, sort of the way screenplays are done: with a treatment. I need to set up the whole thing, the main characters, the big box, the staff, the managers, how they interact, etc. When I find an artist, we’ll prototype the characters until we have a set that we both like. We’ll then create a month or so of strips and shop them around to various syndicates. There they will likely get ignored, but you never can tell. And if I find it doesn’t seem marketable in print but is still interesting enough to spend time on, like xkcd it may be an entirely on-line thing. Any income generated from publishing it solely online is likely to be marginal at best, with most income coming from merchandising.

In any event, the strip will be there to entertain but like M*A*S*H on TV it will have a surreptitious purpose. For the first several years the idea is to keep it light. Have characters interact and generate a lot of humor. Once it is established, or when I get to the point where there is not much to lose, I’ll give it more of a social action focus. I’ll highlight just how marginal life in the retail world actually is. I imagine a character that sleeps in his car and runs his social life from sitting in a McDonalds parking lot. He has with a flaky laptop plugged into his cigarette lighter and accesses the Internet using their free WiFi.

Dilbert has sort of plumbed this material for the tech world through characters like Asok and Tina the Tech Writer. However, their pain does not begin to match those who inhabit the retail world. We are getting a glimpse of it from the scattered strikes at fast food restaurants and Walmarts across the country. It’s clear to me that these employees have their backs to the wall and simply cannot endure it anymore. It is actually even harder today than it was when I worked retail, and it was soul crushing then, just paid marginally more. The right comic can help broadcast the injustices faced by these vital but abused workers. If I can market it, the timing seems right as well because the subject is topical.

We’ll see if I can get it together. Wish me luck.

Some more thoughts on blogging, and its future

In a couple months, I will have been blogging for three years. In Internet time, this is practically a lifetime. Many will try blogging but few will keep it up. No wonder. Even if your blog is just a stream of consciousness mostly for the amusement of you and your friends, it still takes time to put the words down and publish them. In my case, since I set a high standard for myself, most entries require quite a bit of thought, research and editing. This means they take considerable time. Since I also have a full time job and duties as a husband and father, (Wednesday, for example, was Back to School Night) finding the time to put together a good blog entry even every other day is challenging.

Thus I am somewhat in awe of those who can spew out lots of very good content on a more frequent basis. I am not sure where they find the time. I figure they are either independently wealthy, have a part time job, unemployed, or single. On the other hand, in order to blog perhaps they steal a lot of time from their employer. I do not do this. Aside from the ethical implications, I simply do not have the time. My job is very much a full time occupation. It could easily consume the rest of my personal life if I let it.

To write an excellent topical blog entry usually requires constantly sniffing through the blogosphere. In addition, I assume the best bloggers are reading lots of news articles and opinion pieces online and in print. These are necessary habits for those who want to be taken seriously. Perhaps these habits become second nature if you are a journalist, which I am not. All of these necessary activities take even more time. This makes it all the more remarkable when a blogger can put it altogether and consistently write excellent blog entries.

This is why I admire Billmon. I have written about the power of Kos is a huge progressive political site but to call it a blog is ridiculous. I know its owner Marcos keeps touting it as a blog. Sorry, it is not. It is better described as a “megablog”, allowing pretty much anyone to post one of two “diaries” a day, each of which amount to a blog entry. It is also a discussion community. Without allowing people to comment on stories and diaries, it would be a practically useless site. In short, Kos exists for the progressive blogosphere to talk about issues of the day.

Occasionally it actually goes beyond talking and generates real and effective action. Cindy Sheehan is one result of the Kos phenomenon. Cindy is the antiwar mother who lost her son Casey in Iraq. She spent August in a ditch outside of Bush’s ranch in Texas, and was encouraged and empowered by the Kos community. I do not think she would have done what she did without so many of us cheering her on. Cindy like the rest of us hangs out regularly on Kos, and most days posts a diary discussing her concerns and feelings. She often replies to people who leave comments on her diaries.

While Kos and some of his other authors often provide insightful diaries, they often feel rushed and not very well thought through. That is not true of Billmon and his site “The Whiskey Bar.” Billmon will also put out short blog entries, although he tends toward fewer and longer blog entries. I, and most of his barflies, hang around for the longer entries. His political analyses are just jaw dropping excellent. He can write not just coherently, but in a way that engages and amuses the reader. I hit many political blogs and Billmon stands by far above the crowd. He is truly a blog phenomenon. In fact, he is better than any political columnist I have read. If his entries were perhaps a touch less snarky then he could easily find himself as a columnist syndicated worldwide. He is that good. In addition to his essays, he is also a Photoshop whiz. His entries are often adorned with clever Photshopped images, many of which are hysterical.

If these attributes were not enough, his mind seems to be an encyclopedia. Billmon remembers quotes going back decades and can juxtapose old and modern quotes in a way I have never seen before. He sees patterns that most of us cannot see. While I am sure he makes frequent use of search engines like Google, using search engines effectively also requires a deep understanding of the problem domain. Billmon has it.

Blogging thus has the potential to liberate otherwise unheard of voices and give them some prominence. Sadly, many good bloggers get almost no readers. Content alone is no guarantee someone can jump out of the blog pack. It also requires people to find your blog and recommend it to others. I do not expect this blog, however good that I hope its content is, will get beyond a backwater blog.

Huffingtonpost, Arianna Huffington’s blog community, is pointing to perhaps a new blogging model for others to emulate. It is a collection of blogs, with the common theme being that posters are friends or friends of friends of Arianna. Arianna, of course, is rich and has prominent liberal friends including politicians and celebrities. Getting them to put out their own stories straight to the public makes a lot of sense. (I suspect that many of her authors are wise enough to have their works edited by others before posting.) Many of her celebrity bloggers already seem to have tired of blogging, but that is okay. It was sufficient to launch her site, and now it has its own buzz, as well as a fair amount of news.

While there are blog aggregator sites out there like, the bloggers there have nothing in common. Blogs on such sites range from excellent to dreadful. A choosy blog consumer like me would prefer to go to one site where we know the blog authors will be first rate. That is why I think Billmon should set up a megablog site like It should consist of only the best of the best bloggers. Billmon would be the lead blogger, of course, and its feature attraction. However, he could host a much larger community of top rated bloggers, all of whom have demonstrated his unique gifts of eloquence and insight.

Such a megablog should, in my opinion, not be strictly a political blog site. It should include areas that offer insight into the whole range of human experience. For example, I have a significant metaphysical category on my blog, the result of a lot of thought and a fair amount of reading. I do not think I am the best blogger in this area by any means, but such a megablog would include perhaps a couple premier bloggers in the metaphysics area.

With this model, consumers would get a simpler way of finding excellent content. I also think that bloggers, or at least those that rise to the top, would have a means of making a living off their hobby. Because this proposed site, like Kos, would either support targeted advertising or allow users to pay to opt out of advertising.

I am not sure how bloggers would be chosen for such a site. Perhaps criteria would include user input, existing page views and a committee that examines potential contributors. The criteria though should be very high. If the blogger cannot write coherently then they should not be hosted. Indeed, they need to be able to write very well, use authoritative sources and have expertise in their domain. For example, Juan Cole and Josh Marshall both have gravitas in their spheres of influence, and can speak with some authority. Both would be logical choices for contributors to this megablog.

I do not think this would kill the rest of the blogosphere. Technorati will still be out there. However, just as The Well was, at one time, an oasis of sanity in the online universe, so one of more megablog sites could also be useful, easily separating content worth our time from the dreck that sadly comprises much of the blogosphere.

As for Billmon, if you have not read him you are missing a real treat. While I think I may occasionally write a better entry than Billmon, and while I certainly tackle a lot more on this blog than just politics, no one does progressive political blogging better. Moreover, I doubt anyone else will. I just hope Billmon can keep it up. He is a blogging treasure.

Why I Blog

Writing was my one passion during my restless youth. There was only one problem: I was not very good at it. I was not a bad writer. English teachers often flattered me. It is probably accurate to say that I was better at writing than most my age. The truth was that I had more enthusiasm than talent. If I had any extra time during my hectic youth (for I was also working part time), I was at the keys of my Smith Corona constantly writing and rewriting the same science fiction novel.

For more than twenty years, I gave writing short shrift. Now many years later, I am blogging. I stopped writing because real life left me few alternatives. I had a career to ascend and a family to support. Still, I would find my creativity bubbling over in unexpected places. No one else but me wrote florid IEEE Concept of Operations documents. I could make the most dreadful engineering documents interesting. Invariably every performance review would come back with some words praising me for my writing.

I do not know the wellspring of my creativity. However, since I started blogging in late 2002 I have been unable to stop. My inner writer has been trying to escape for decades and it finally succeeded. Blogging gave me a publishing medium that I could not imagine in the 70s.

On an average day I get about three hundred of you to stop by and sniff my blog. I do not know if you enjoy the time here, are annoyed, or just glance at it and move on. According to my site statistics program Awstats, about 80% of you are the surf and move on type, hanging around for thirty seconds or less. This does not surprise me. The web is ideal for those with short attention spans. More surprisingly, Awstats tells me that about 12% of you this month have spent thirty minutes or more at a time at my site. Nearly 5% have spent more than an hour at a time reading my blog.

This surprises me and makes me smile. While I write for my enjoyment (and whatever stimulation it gives my visitors), I write also for those few of you who will read an entry from start to finish. Why? Certainly, vanity and ego are part of my calculus. No one wants to feel unvalued.

For the most part, I write because I must. Now that my writing side has reemerged, it will not go back into the cage. Many evenings, even when I would rather be doing something else, I am dutifully at the keyboard creating a blog entry. Some days the writing flows naturally. On other days, the writing is like wrestling with an alligator. Thinking up topics is not always easy. Sometimes I am reduced to writing about topics that are really quite trivial. I wonder if anyone but me really wants to read about my travails with my mother. Apparently, some people actually do, and I am both surprised and flattered when these types of entries bring comments.

Blogging has made the cost of publishing and distribution trivial. The one thing it has not done for me is make writing profitable. That will likely elude me. Since I write primarily for my own enjoyment and my full time job keeps me flush, this does not bother me. To make money at blogging I would have to pick a genre and plumb it endlessly. Blogads suggests as much and says that you need at least a thousand unique visitors a day in order to attract advertisers. Even if I did have advertisers, any money I collected would be pocket change. Those who make a living from blogging are rare. The only one I know who does it successfully is Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the man who created (Moreover, he does not have a blog. He has a megablog.) However, like most successful blogs, his is successful because he focuses on a single topic: progressive politics. If he wrote entries like mine, he would be just another faceless blogger. His blog would not generate enough lift to fly.

No, Occam’s Razor does not want to be not your ordinary blog. I am multifaceted and complex so my blog is a potpourri of topics and ideas. I flit from subject to subject. Nevertheless, I try hard to provide insights or perspectives that you cannot find anywhere else.

I put a lot of work into every blog entry. Generally, an entry is two pages and sometimes three pages in length. Research may take additional time. A short blog entry will take two hours. A long blog entry will take three hours or more. For my blog entries are never dashed out. They are crafted.

Like an sculptor carving a statue from a large block of wood, I start out not quite sure how my entry will end. During my first pass, I try to write quickly. The second pass is the hardest. This is where the artisanship comes in. Now I need to turn what is often a stream of consciousness into something that feels a bit poetic. This means meticulously parsing words, rearranging sentences, and often rewriting paragraphs of text. During the third edit, I carefully look at my text again. Is a word too general? Can another word be more descriptive? Is the tone consistent? Am I restating myself? I find that I restate myself a lot. I often have to fight the urge leave in uninteresting details. Just because they interest me does not mean they will necessarily interest you. I also find myself frequently writing with a passive voice. I try to rephrase my words when this happens, but writing in the passive voice seems to be my style. I also try to keep my sentences short so they are more readily digested.

Since I construct my essays, I use the right tools. The right tool at the moment is Microsoft Word. Of course, I leave on both the spell checker and the grammar checker. Word often suggests words and phrases. I will consider every suggestion that its grammar checker makes. If I have a peeve with bloggers, it is how few of them can be bothered to spell check their writing. Have they so little consideration for their readers?

The fourth pass through is the most tedious. By this time, I am growing bored with my own entry. I just want to be done. Nevertheless, as I change and rework words I keep finding minor mistakes. They must be patched before publishing. It is impossible to write a perfect blog entry of any depth in a couple hours. However, my standards require a high degree of workmanship. I will not put out what I consider crap. I will not put out a B or a C entry. My hope is that if a blog critic were sniffing through my entries then any entry would get a B+ or better. I shoot for the A. Of course, I do not really know for sure how well my entries are received unless someone leave a comment. All I know is I have to be proud of them.

After four passes, I copy and paste the text from Word into a text editor. It fixes most of the text that should not show up in HTML, like smart quotes. I then copy the plain text into my MovableType blog entry screen. URLs and italicized text are all added manually. (I bold links in Word to remind myself to link to them.) Finally, I publish the entry. Even after all this editing, I will read the entry online too. Seeing it in a different context invariably helps me find that one missing typo I could not otherwise see.

I suspect that my blogging is not an end unto itself but a means toward some nebulous writing future. Perhaps someday I will write that great American novel. Until then I have blogging. Rather than have my ideas crash around inside my head, at least they now have a way to escape. In articulating my thoughts, they gain clarity and order. For me blogging is also a form of therapy.

I hope you enjoy your time here. In addition, I hope it is apparent that Occam’s Razor is a work of devotion and passion. Perhaps it is as immortal as I am ever going to be. While I am unlikely to succeed as an author, it is also likely that with computers my words will outlive me. They will be archived and indexed, read, parsed and maybe even enjoyed (albeit less frequently) by future generations. With so much noise out there in the blogging world, perhaps Occam’s Razor will be perceived as a small but flawed diamond in the rough amongst in a sea of sand. I hope so.

Danger Will Robinson

My wife has been part of a community of Slash writers and readers for about four years now.

In case you don’t know, Slash is a form of fan fiction that accentuates implied same sex longings of established characters in TV shows and movies. It started with the original Star Trek series. Kirk and Spock appeared to many people, women in particular, to be a bit more than good friends. Kirk/Spock, get it? Erotic fan fiction started appearing at Star Trek conventions everywhere in the form of “zines”. Zines are fan fiction stories loosely bound together, often sloppily assembled and edited and sold at cost. Based on early “Slash” zines it appeared that Kirk and Spock had deep feelings and sexual longings for each other, at least in the minds of a largely female population of fans. In numerous Slash stories there are many a tender and not so tender homosexual act between these principle characters where the full depth of their soul is endlessly plumbed. There are probably millions of Slash stories on Kirk/Spock alone out there.

From such humble beginnings a genre was spawned. My wife got into it as a result of watching “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” movie. She was a huge Star Wars fan from the beginning. She found some Phantom Menace fan fiction stories on the internet, enjoyed them, and started writing and corresponding with a number of fellow fans. Before long though it was the slash stories she was mostly reading and writing. In the movie Obi-Wan is an apprentice to Qui-Gon. The female fans of the Star War series went nuts imagining erotic power play between these two characters. There are numerous web sites, fan fiction archives and mailing lists just for this one erotic fandom alone. Yes, the Internet is a beautiful place where virtually any need can be gratified.

For fans of female erotica there is perhaps a lot to be admired about this genre. I always knew women were a lot more erotic than they often let on, even in private between the sheets. A lot of these stories would make sailors blush. Most male pornography is just graphic. These stories are not just graphic, but rife with deep emotions and conflicts as the relationships between these same sex pairings invariably gets deeper and deeper. It’s a shame, in a way, that it is an art form I can’t appreciate very much. Being a heterosexual male I find reading endless stories of two guys (and sometimes two gals, such as Xena/Gabrielle) get it on and having heavy relationship conversations just doesn’t do much to trip my trigger.

My wife Terri wrote a very successful series called “Wheel of If”, based on the Obi-Wan/Qui-Gon relationship. Just last week it was formally published and released to the Slash universe as a zine for those who want to part with thirty bucks or so. It was an effort of love for her and it generated a lot of comments and a lot of fan mail. And now finally it is in zine form, with many full color illustrations by talented artists. She is a published author, of a sort. She beat me to it. In that sense I am a bit jealous. But I’m also proud of her because she is a terrific writer.

This weekend she returned from a slash convention in California full of fellow slash writers and fans, many of which are into her two fandoms. Her other fandom is “The Sentinel”. These two fandoms alone so consumes her she has no energy to join another. I am grateful she stopped at two, but that doesn’t stop lots of other women. It would not be an exaggeration to say lots of slash writers and readers are addicted to this world they are in. I often feel like my wife is right on the borderline. I don’t feel capable of making an accurate assessment because I am not a clinical psychologist nor am I particularly unbiased in the matter.

She has naturally made lots of friends in this new world, to the point where most of her friends now come from her Slash world. I have enjoyed meeting a number of them. Back in 2000 my wife even sponsored a big party for her friends at our house. (I was wisely out of town that weekend). Most live far away, but a number live within commuting range. A couple of her friends make it to the house every month or two and have enjoyed dinner with us, or have camped out in our spare room.

The Slash world is populated with interesting, but often very troubled women. My wife is a bit strange in that she is quite heterosexual in a domain full of lesbian and bisexual women. As a general rule men don’t write or read much Slash. Those that do enjoy it tend to be homosexual men.

The good points about the women I have met into this universe are that they are very bright and creative people as a rule. My wife is certainly that way. She is also an excellent writer who could probably be a successful writer if she wanted to channel her energies in other directions. But these women are often very troubled. Some are in bad marriages. Some have no marriage prospects at all or even want to be married. Lots are into role playing, or would like to be in submissive-dominant relationships. Many are overweight. Many have large self-esteem issues. Many, probably most based on my observation, suffer from clinical depression. And it’s no surprise that many of these women are struggling with mixed feelings for their own sex. But there are also a fair number of otherwise ordinary women who just enjoy Slash as their hobby.

At four years this newest obsession of hers shows no signs of ebbing, so I am likely going to have to deal with it for the long term. It is not always easy because I often feel she loses herself in the genre, sometimes to the expense of her obligations as spouse and mother. It is my nature to be supportive and encouraging, so I try not to complain too much. In many ways she is a happier creature, having found an online home and a set of friends with similar interests I don’t think she has ever had before.

But I wonder how healthy it is. It seems to my myopic eyes to be an obsession. I see an addictive nature to it, just like gambling. It’s almost compulsive. Given any free time she will almost always choose to spend it in that universe.

I’m not sure what conclusions to make from all this. My initial impression was that Slash was pornography for women. But it’s more than that I think: it’s an expression for a longing for a sort of relationship that is probably impossible in real life.

Whatever she is getting from it, it is something I apparently cannot supply. But I still wonder what it is about the genre that draws so many women into it, and makes them so compulsive about spending so many of their free hours imbibed in it? I’d like to think it is harmless. Perhaps it is just another low level vice. But it brings out my inner robot:

Danger Will Robinson!