Libraries in the Age of iPads

If everyone owned an iPad would we need libraries?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating the demolition of libraries, but with the advent of the internet and ebooks talk about the death of newspapers, magazines and books get more common every year.  If we don’t need those physical objects anymore, why do we need a building and institution to maintain them?  Think about it.  If books, magazines and newspapers disappear from our houses and move into Kindles, Nooks, and iPads, why would we go to the library?  Why would we go to bookstores, new or used? 

Modern libraries are about more than books, patrons also check out movies, audiobooks, music, and periodicals.  But all of those media types are now available on the iPad.  I know older people who grew up with libraries will immediate protest, but remember, us older folk are a dying breed and the up and coming generations are gadget afflicted.

Libraries used to be storehouses of knowledge and librarians worked to collect and preserve the printed word.  That’s still true of academic libraries, but public libraries have moved into an era of supplying what their patrons want, so as soon as a book is ignored for a specific period of time, it gets jettisoned from the collection.  Most people think of libraries as free books, free movies, free music albums, and free magazines and newspapers.  I think a lot of people think we should have libraries to provide a cultural outlet for the poor.  But the internet provides more free stuff to read and watch.

The death of libraries is pretty much unthinkable now, but don’t be surprise when city bean counters start making suggestions about closing them.  I grew up  loving libraries, and even worked in public and academic libraries.  They don’t seem as crowded with patrons as they used be.  I hardly go to the library anymore myself, not since the internet.  I saw the video of Steve Jobs presenting the iPad and showing off its ebook features and it struck me that devices like the iPad will be the library of the future.  When I was growing up futurists would talk about having a handheld device with the Library of Congress in it.  We’re getting spookily close, aren’t we?

The book is evolving too.  When it escapes the limitation of the page, adding multimedia and hypertext the book will no longer fit on a library shelf.  Printed books, newspapers and magazines might become extinct, but imagine what will replace them.  There is no reason to make a distinction between newspapers and magazines anymore.  That might become true for books and novels too.  Newspapers used to be frequently published information printed on cheap paper.  Magazines and journals had longer periods between publication and were printed on better paper, suitable for long term storage in libraries. 

The electronic page is not limited by time, paper quality or cost of printing.  Newspapers and magazines use to be text plus photographs.  Electronic publication is text plus photographs, video, sound recording, animation and other multimedia.  Go look at the iPad video and tell me if kids will even want to go to the library or read books and magazines.  And what about you?

ipad

I like the name iPad, just one vowel different from the iPod, but many of my friends have expressed a dislike for the name, and some of my women friends tell me the name brings up bad connotations with them.  I think Steve Jobs should have named it the iLibrary.

JWH – 1/28/10

Predicting the Apple Tablet

The computer press is buzzing with rumors of an Apple tablet computer.  I don’t think anyone knows anything for sure, and I expect Steve Jobs to wow people when he finally announces whatever he plans to show off as his next big product.  It may be a tablet computer, or it might be something surprisingly different.  Most people speculate it will be something to compete against netbooks and ebook readers, both of which are hot products that Apple currently doesn’t compete against.  A lot of rumor sites show an artist conception of a giant iPod touch like device.  Some sites are even predicting it will cost $800-900 dollars.

Well, if the Apple tablet is to compete against netbooks and ebooks the price needs to be a whole lot closer to $400.  I do think a touch screen tablet is the perfect competition to a netbook, but I’m not sure about such a device replacing ebooks.  Maybe for reading magazines, newspapers and web content, but not for reading fiction.  Think about it, reading fiction is something people do for hours on end, and imagine holding a heavy device that long?  I think the Kindle and Nook are too big.  My ideal ebook would be mostly screen, about the size between a mass market paperback page and a trade paperback page, weigh next to nothing, be extremely durable, and cheap enough so I wouldn’t be afraid to carry it everywhere I go.  That doesn’t describe any of the Apple tablet rumors.

If a new Apple device is going to be rolled out it must not compete with the iPhone or the MacBook, and that puts it squarely into the netbook space.  Netbooks have keyboards and work just like bigger computers.  A tablet doesn’t.  So how many of your everyday routines can be enhanced by a 10 inch touch screen?  For me, that would be something to replace magazines and newspapers.  If bookworms balk at paying $260 for an ebook reader to make novel reading easier, will newshounds accept spending $800 to make reading the news easier?  Not me.

You can get a 22” LCD monitor for around $200, and sometimes a lot less.  For reading the New York Times, magazines and blogs, I’d love to have a monitor I could hold in my lap and read while sitting in my La-Z-Boy.  A 10-12” screen would probably be ideal, but it must be thin and very light.  It doesn’t need to be a computer, but just a reader, maybe just a portable Acrobat reader.  And I don’t want to pay more than the cost of a monitor to have a monitor I can hold in my lap to read.

I’m not sure I’d even want video and music from such a device, especially if it will raise the price significantly.  I just want to read what I normally sit at the computer and read, but in a comfortable chair.  My Zune, iPod Nano and Sansa Clip are perfect for audiobooks and music.  My iPod touch mostly goes untouched.  My netbook mostly goes untouched.  I just don’t do that much on the go computing.

The iPhone was brilliant.  The iPod was brilliant.  Do we really need the iTablet?  How many more useful devices can we use?  Steve Jobs does have an amazing track record of creating devices we didn’t have before but can’t live without now:  Apple II, Mac, iPod and iPhone.  But I prefer a PC to a Mac.  The Sansa Clip is easier to carry than my iPod Nano or touch, and even though I’d love an iPhone I won’t spend the money.  The $64,000 question is whether or not Steve Jobs will announce something I will run out and buy.  I’d own a Mac if they were cheaper, so I’m guessing I’ll be waiting on the HP tablet computer.

JWH – 1/7/10

iStories: The Short Story Hit List 100 Weekly

Let’s face it, the heyday of the short story as a popular art form was decades ago, probably as far back as when F. Scott Fitzgerald got rich and famous selling stories to the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers.  Except for would-be writers, required reading for students, fan fiction fanatics and a damn few diehard short story lovers, the marketing of short stories is almost invisible to the average citizen of our pop culture country.  Is the short story art form unpopular because readers don’t like them or because short stories are so poorly marketed?

The short story art form hangs on by a thread, like the art forms of poetry and playwriting.  I expect the remaining for-profit scifi, fantasy, mystery and literary magazines to die off in the next 5-10 years unless something drastically changes.  The question is, can a drastic change be made?

Is there anything that can be done to revive the short story art form to popularity?  The first question to ask is:  What do the popular art forms have that the unpopular ones don’t?  Movies, television shows, songs, video games and novels are the most popular art forms in our world today, ranked roughly in that order.  A single movie, TV show, song, game or book can be admired and loved by millions of fans, and wide consumption in these artistic endeavors are routine.  When was the last time a short story was popular enough to have a 1,000 readers in one week?  How many people actually read the short story in each issue of The New Yorker?

Besides legions of fans, the most important factor that popular art forms have and short stories don’t are Hit Lists.  Movies, TV shows, songs, games and books are extremely well reviewed, charted, rated and ranked by sales and popularity.  Each art has legions of critics working hard to stay current and teach how each example of their craft fits into an overall history. 

Every week we are well informed about the most successful premieres of each art.  Hell, weekend movie sales figures often get touted on the national morning news shows, and sometimes on the nightly news.  Book readers all know about The New York Times Bestseller lists.  We have the Nielsen ratings for TV shows and the Billboard 100 for pop songs.  There are countless websites and magazines that track the success of computer games.  And songs are marketed by hits on the radio and on online stores like iTunes.

As a culture we love keeping up with what’s popular, but is what’s popular just the stuff we track with Hit Lists?  I think so.  If short stories were ranked weekly would they gain popularity?  I think they might, but many factors would have to come into play.

Most important, the Short Story Hit List 100 would have to be weekly and track all genres of short stories.  Separating them out into story types is deadly.  We don’t rank blockbuster movies or best selling books by topic.  The Oscars and Emmys aren’t divided up by genre.  It would be a total water cooler buzz kill to divide short stories out into special interest groupings.  A hit story must be one that people want to read and talk about because of its popularity, not because it puts the reader into a sub-culture.

Next, its vitally important that short stories be sold as singles, and not part of albums (magazines or anthologies).  Few people like to buy a magazine full of unknown short stories.  It’s like getting a free music CD with a music magazine – most of the songs are mediocre and the CD is a disappointment.  People want hits, and that has to apply to short stories too.

For short stories to make a comeback they need a marketing site like iTunes.  They need to be sold for 99 cents in a standard digital format like MP3 songs.  Unfortunately, ebook readers, smart phones and computers use a variety of ebook formats that hurt the concept of making short stories popular, so the iStories site needs to offer all the possible formats but hide the dirty details from the buyers.  Fictionwise.com illustrates well how this is possible.

Ultimately, this universal format needs to be DRM free so short stories can be easily stolen and shared – or if they have to have a DRM, then it needs a mechanism for limited sharing between friends.  Unfortunately, the unethical viral marketing of copyrighted material is too good of a selling tool to ignore.  And I think in the future, this universal digital short story format should be roomy enough to contain graphics, music, video and audio readings.  In other words readers can read the story, listen to the story read on audio, read with eyes and listen with ears at the same time, read the story with background music turned on or off, and see illustrations or photos to enhance the story.  But this super ebook format isn’t an issue right now.

Short stories need to get away from printed formats as their premiere venues (but nice chapbook editions will make excellent marketing additions to the overall sales, and we can think anthology and story collection sales as long term publishing).  The primary publishing format should be for ebook readers and smart phones.  Like I said, short stories should be sold as singles with the goal of creating hits.  Collections and anthologies should be left to the book world to market because they would hurt creating hit short stories.

The key to revitalizing the short story art form is creating hugely popular stories that will become the topic of conversation between people all over the nation.  People share both the experience and love of movies, TV shows, books, song and video games.  When was the last time you were in a conversation about a short story?  When was the last time a group of people at your office discussed a short story they had all read?  This happens all the time with movies and TV shows, and to a lesser extent books, songs and video games.

One of the major factors against marketing short stories is there are too many of them on the net for free.  Free is incredibly bad for revitalizing the short story art form.  Bad editors, no editors and no editing has created a glut of short stories on the Internet.  No one likes to listen to amateur musicians or mediocre bands.  Every time you play a song you want it to be a great song.  When you go to the movies you expect to be blown away.  When you read a book you want to find one that has deep emotional impact. 

To revitalize the short story art form will require a seal of approval either attained by popularity or critics.  Our imaginary iStories site cannot be a slush pile for the common reader to wade through.  Nor should its editors have to select from a tremendous slush pile to find stories to promote on the site.  Stories should be submitted by agents or professional editors that can be trusted.  There needs to be some kind of farm team looking for talent to feed into the system.  I would think existing print and online magazines could play the role as the iStories systems develops, but eventually I expect magazines to die off.  Thus professional editors would become talent scouts and agents for stories.

A theoretical iStories site should also limit the number of new stories released each week, and find ways to publicize the best.  New ways to promote stories should be invented.  They need corporate backers like film studies or record companies but I doubt existing book publishers would take on this role.  It might be left to magazines – so The New Yorker and Asimov’s Science Fiction would campaign to get their stories noticed, and bring attention back to their business.

We have to get away from depending on fiction magazine sales and magazine subscriptions because those marketing methods are no longer successful at making short stories popular.  Buying a magazine is like buying an unknown album with the hope of finding a hit song, especially when you aren’t familiar with any of the artists.  Buying a magazine subscription is like buying a bunch of unknown albums hoping to find several hit songs.  200 channels with nothing to read, huh?  People want smash hits.

I doubt my ideas about revitalizing the short story art form will ever happen, but at least I’m making a point about creating a popular art form.  Look at the short video and how YouTube is promoting them.  Until there is a way to sell hit videos they will never become a major art form, but they could.  Most people go to YouTube and similar sites and look at the most watched videos hoping to discover something really fun.  Yesterday I discovered the Muppets version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” because almost six million people have watched it.  That clue paid off because the video was excellent entertainment.

Back in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s short stories were popular enough that they were the topic of social discussions.  If you watch the credits of old movies you’ll often see movies based on short stories.  Newsstands were filled with hundreds of short story magazines.  Short story reading was a popular evening pastime until radio slowed it down and television practically killed it off.  In fact, television is what replaced the short story for people looking for after work diversion.

Short stories are not mini-novels.  The best are jewels of intense fictional expression that are a unique art form.  Sadly, they are a dying art form.  Because of iPods, iPhones, Kindles, Nooks, and other electronic gadgets that people carry around, short stories have another chance to become popular again.  Short stories can be read quietly anywhere on an iPhone, or even listened to in an audio edition.  They must compete with songs, audio books, novels, movies, videos, computer games and television shows in this small venue, but there is room to compete well if short stories were marketed correctly.

And by correct marketing I mean as singles.  Unless people are saying to their friends, “Have you read the new short story by so and so,” to their friends, short stories will be doomed to an ever shrinking fan base.

How to Start

If all the ebook sites, like Amazon’s Kindle home page, Barnes and Noble Nook, the Sony Reader, and the general ebook fiction sites like Fictionwise.com, eBooks.com, eReader.com would create a section for short stories and a mechanism to track their sales, that would be a big start.  It would help even more if they would offer spin-off sites that specialized in short stories.

Another angle of attack would be if online magazines maintained a hit list of their most popular stories ranked by web visitor hits.  They might need to program mechanisms to keep authors or fans from constantly reloading the page to produce fake hits.  And they need to track hits from all their backlog of stories and not just the current issue.  It would be important to provide numbers so popularity could be gauged against stories at other online magazine sites.  And like songs, and even movies, sometimes it takes weeks or months to have a breakout hit.

We’d also need critics that specialize in reviewing short stories, and ones that would be also willing to track many short story web sites and tally the numbers each week to give attention to the stories getting the most attention each week across the web.

If short story reading ever did catch on again, it would be fantastic if magazines like Entertainment Weekly devoted a section to them like the do movies, DVDs, books, music and television.

It would be a tremendous help if best of the year anthologists like those who compile the Best American Short Stories and the various yearly genre anthologies if they would maintain a blog about their ongoing efforts to select stories, even to the point of showing how they tally competing stories as they are discovering them.  We need as much PR as possible on stories climbing the charts, so to speak.

Unfortunately, most fiction magazines are monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly, and hit stories need to be tracked weekly, or even in real time.  Web sites that change their content less than weekly get ignored and forgotten.

It would help greatly if a social bookmarking site like StumbleUpon created a short fiction section for tracking popular short fiction reading.  On the other hand such sites help promote free reading, and that competes with our goal.

The biggest success for revitalizing short stories is if a company would create a web site like Audible.com, or an online store like iTunes just for the sale of short stories.  They should sell both ebook editions and audio narrated editions of short stories.  I’d suggest a standard price too, 99 cents for either ebook editions for reading with the eyes, or audio editions for reading with the ears.  Short story are longer than songs, so some marketing folk might want to price them higher, but they are usually experienced only once, so they should be far cheaper than renting a movie.

Readers can help too.  If you read a great story share it with your friends.  Talk about it.  Tell them where to buy it.  I know this might be painful, but get in the habit of buying short stories, and avoid free stories.  If you read and enjoy free stories at online magazines at least donate money, but it would be better if you supported a paid-subscription site.  Flooding the market with free stories ruins the market and hurts the art form.  Don’t promote free stories, it dilutes the market for selling stories.  Don’t read stories that haven’t been accepted by an editorial process and edited unless you’re part of a writing workshop group or critiquing stories for a friend.  Even fan fiction could be improved by these rules.

Authors like providing free copies of their short stories on the web to help promote their work in general.  This might be good for their career but it has produced so many professionally written short stories for free on the net that short story fans no longer want to buy stories.  Many fans now expect to find a copy of any short story they want for free and there are web sites to track free fiction to help them. 

Free stories are bad for the short story art form in the long run and maybe an additional reason why print magazines subscriptions are declining even faster in recent years.  Maybe free stories should only be those that are older than one year, or five years, and don’t compete with new sales.

If you love short stories and want to promote the art form then do whatever you can to help short story writers and publishers make money.  I tend to doubt the short story market will be revived, but now is the time to try because of the switch to Internet publishing and ebook reading.

JWH – 11/28/9

The Weight of Paper

Nanny, my grandmother on my mother’s side, was born in 1881 and grew up before the automobile, airplane, radio and silent film.  She watched all the technology emerged that in my boyhood I took for granted, like electricity, the telephone, refrigerators, cloth washers and dryers, air conditioners, etc.  She died a couple years after Neil and Buzz landed on the Moon. 

My mother was born in 1916 and grew up with the radio, at a time when movies morphed from silent pictures into talkies, watched the television age emerge, drove across the country before the interstate highway system was built, and lived long enough to see computers become personal, phones stored in pockets and the world wired for computer networks, although she refused to own a cell phone or computer. 

I was born in 1951, and I’m not sure if I’ve seen as much dramatic cultural change as those two women, but I grew up in front of a TV, watching the advent of the space age, the computer age and the digital age, and if I live long enough I might see far more dramatic transformations.  They both lived to 91, and if I could live as long, I will see the world change as much as they did from 1881 and 1916 until 1951.

Computers are changing the way we all live, but have they changed us as much as the automobile, airplane, radio, movie and television?  Current digital technology often makes me dislike the way I used to do things, even though I feel strong nostalgia for how things were. Take reading for instance, all aspects of my reading habits have changed in my lifetime.  I now listen to books on an iPod, or read them printed on small digital screens like in Star Trek.  For a more specific example, my wife is nagging me about my magazine collection, housed in two six foot high bookcases. 

I love magazines, and spent six years working in a Periodicals department at a university library.  My home library contains hundreds of issues from dozens of titles.  Even Susan asks, “Can’t you get them on online?”  I stopped reading newspapers years ago, and I might stop reading magazines soon.  I prefer audio books now, even though I spent my whole life as a bookworm, and 99% of the words I read with my eyes each day come through my computer screen.  I even listen to magazines, like The New Yorker, and prefer it to reading.

The weight of a single sheet of paper is almost unnoticeable, but the weight of twelve shelves of magazines is quite heavy.  Since we had new flooring put in this month, I had to move four bookcases of books, and two bookcases of magazines and the weight of that paper was almost backbreaking.  How many trees went into making all that paper?  What was the impact on the environment?

Awhile back, to do my bit to fight global warming, I started going paperless, and cut my magazines subscriptions from over 20 to just 2 (Sky and Telescope and Rolling Stone – what an odd couple, huh?).  But I kept all my old issues hoping to get the maximum reading value someday, and maybe even clip the best articles to scan into my computer.  I’m at point in time when I’m shifting away from one kind of living, with paper, and moving into another way of life, without paper. 

I still buy an occasional mag at the bookstore, but even that makes me feel guilty, because that means my pile of unfinished magazines keeps growing, and more trees were cut down.  I tend to flip through a magazine and read the shorter pieces and tell myself that I’ve just got to find time for those great longer pieces someday, but I seldom do.  The weight of paper can also be measured in time, and I have a huge amount of time theoretically reserved for that reading.  Throwing all those magazines out will reduce the weight of possessions and free up a lot of imagined obligated hours, probably in the thousands.

I have nice long runs of Sky and Telescope, Astronomy Magazine, New Scientist, Scientific American, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Popular Photography and many others.  I like to think of them as my reference library, but honestly, I rarely refer to them.  Reading online has become my habitual way of info-gathering.  And since I often read online articles about the dwindling subscriber base to newspapers and periodicals, I’m guessing there are many people like me.  If only they made a Kindle-like reading device with a large full-colored screen, I’d probably do 100% my eye reading from online sources.

But I must also emphasize the shift from eye reading to ear reading has been very important to me.  That’s another paradigm shift, and I think it scares people in the literacy profession.

Throwing away my magazine collection would be like throwing away the past.  According to Wikipedia, general interest magazines started in 1731 with The Gentleman’s Magazine, so will we see the era of the printed magazine end before it’s 300th anniversary?  When I was born the pulp magazine format was dying and the science fiction and fantasy digest magazine was beginning.  Today those digests are disappearing and a new crop of online SF/F magazines are emerging.  Read Jason Sanford’s recent survey of these new short story venues for emerging writers of fantastic fiction.  Will getting published be as exciting?  It will certainly be easier to send copies to your friends.

Today I read “Ten things mobiles have made, or will make, obsolete.”  Among the ten items was paper, (also included were pay phones, landline home phones, MP3 players, netbooks, small digital cameras, handheld game consoles, wristwatches and alarm clocks).  It’s quite easy to read on an iPhone, whether it’s a book, short story, magazine article or news item.

There is also talk that the United States Postal Service is failing.  I can understand why, because only 1 piece of mail in 15 is something I actual need, and even that piece could be eliminated by electronic billing.  Nearly everything I get in my mailbox goes right into the recycling bin.  This is especially a shame for all those fancy full-color catalogs, resources terribly wasted because I don’t even flip through their pages.

The era of paper might be nearing its end.  The more effort I put into recycling the more I realize that most paper trees die in vain, and their lives would be better spent absorbing carbon dioxide.  I will agonize over all the people in paper related industries who will lose their jobs, but the history of the world is change, and nothing stays the same.

If I lived until 2042, to become 91 like my mother and grandmother, I might see the end of newspapers, magazines and books.  I’ll probably see the passing of paper photographs, 8-16-35-70mm film formats, LPs, CDs, DVDs, BDs and any other form of audio-visual physical storage.  Stranger still, I might see the end of libraries and bookstores.  Everything will be digital, and the net will be a universal library.  Newsstands are already disappearing fast.  Bookstore business is still growing, but if the Kindle and its kin catch on, that will change too.  And libraries aren’t what they used to be.

The age of wasting natural resources should end in our lifetimes, either from changing our lifestyles to avoid the worst of global warming, or by adapting to the new environments that global warming brings into existence.  It is impossible to know the future.  It is impossible to know what black swan changes are in store for us.  The folks of 1881 could not picture 1916 much less 1951 and 2009 is beyond anything anyone could imagine from the 19th century, so I can’t really predict 2019 or 2042.

However, when was the last time you put a coin in a pay phone or a letter in a letter box?  How many other things have you stopped doing in recent years that you haven’t even notice you stopped doing?  It’s easy to be amazed by new inventions, but will we even notice when the weight of all that paper is gone?

JWH – 11/24/9

Lessons from Blogging

Exercise for my flabby memory is the top reason why I put so much time writing on these blogs.  If I go too long without writing, I’ll notice that I’m forgetting more words in day to day conversations – I have to keep writing to fight the decline of my mind.  But am I writing anything worthy of reading?  I have no trouble thinking up zillions of things to write about, but are my random inspirations really interesting to anyone but me?

I wished I had the discipline to knock out one 1,000 word essay each night, and only in an hour.  What a fantastic workout in my word gym!  I’m lucky to finish two essays a week, each taking 4-8 hours.  And that doesn’t count the two to three abortive pieces each week I don’t finish.

Every evening when I sit down to write, I hope to have an idea that I’ve been contemplating all the day to polish.  It helps if I’m thinking clearly and not tired, which means I need to keep my body in shape.  Sometimes when I’m tired, focusing on an idea will generate energy, so it helps to try to write.  I wish I could say that I’m always inspired by my topic, and it allows me to chisel out one clear expression of a carefully considered thought. 

What really happens is I start with one vague concept that causes me to vomit out a torrent of words as fast as I can, which I shape by rewriting several drafts.  As I write, I research with Google, hoping to find concrete pieces of information to support my ideas.  Between struggling to retrieve lost words, phrases and memories out of my own noggin, I trawl the net looking for new words and verifications of poorly remembered details.  Often I use Google to find the words I can’t recall by searching on related ideas.

I’m sure if I didn’t write these essays, my mind would turn to mush.  Rereading my essays I realize I have a long ways to go towards developing coherent structured writing.  So a new theory has occurred to me about blogging.  What if writing is more beneficial than just strengthening my ability to recall words.  What other lessons am I learning from my WordPress exercising?

It’s quite easy to blather away about anything, but that’s not good neural exercise.  And, quite often I might mention, I’ll tackle a subject that’s either too big for a blog post, or beyond my ability to define clearly, and I’ll have to abandon the project.  Finishing a piece is part of the healthy process, and giving up on an idea leaves me feeling the same way as when I’m having a conversation and I can’t find that damn word I want. 

Up to now, I’ve mostly been working to express an idea that quickly flashed by in my brain.  Sometimes, if I write about a specific topic I’ll do a lot of research to gather facts, like when I write about subscription music services.  This gives me a taste for journalism.  Just a small taste, but enough to realize the work required to write non-fiction.  Opinion essays can be as creative as writing fiction, but both are way to easy to do badly.

The next question is:  Do I write anything useful for other people to read?  If all I’m doing is exercising my wimpy brain, why would a reader care?  My life is no more interesting than anyone else’s, so why would anyone want to read my thoughts?  I think the next stage in the evolution of my writing, I should think about each essay as a product that is useful in some way.  Since my product is free, I don’t actually have to worry about it’s monetary cost to readers, but I personally consider time, extremely valuable, so I don’t want to waste your time.

That means the next challenge I work on learning from blogging is to write 5-10 minute essays that are well worth their cost in time.  That’s quite a challenge, one I’m not sure I can achieve.

Looking at my statistics tell me which essays have been more successful than others.  I know from the WordPress stats that I have around 20-25 people subscribing to my blog as a RSS feed, and 200-300 people finding their way to my pages accidently, through Google and other search engines, or by links put up on various blogs that are kind enough to list Auxiliary Memory.  It is flattering that people actually read my blog at all, so I feel a responsibility to write something time-worthy.

When I think of all the great books and magazine articles I read, I can’t believe people would waste their time on any blog, much less mine.  And there are thousands of blogs better than mine.  I have to assume that there is a quality to blogs that people like that they don’t find in regular magazines.  Or I have to wonder if people only read blogs because they are like kudzu growing over the net, choking up search engine returns, just too visible to ignore.

Learning about what people want to read will be my second lesson from blogging.  My most popular essay is, “The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century,” with over 10,000 hits total, and getting 30-60 more each day.  In other words, I’ve accidently picked a topic that a small number of people want to know about daily.  If you search on that title in Google, I’m 3rd in the returns at the moment, after two links to books at Amazon.com.

This doesn’t say anything about the quality of my essay.  I’ve just hit the right combination of words and ideas to be rated high with Google, and the topic has a steady interest.  I call that “topic background radiation.”  Occasionally I’ll write about something that people have a time related interested in, like the Toshiba NB205 netbook, which just came out and I immediately reviewed.  I’ve gotten 74 hits on that one so far today.  When the Toshiba NB205 gets outdated, those numbers will drop off.  But until then, was my review useful?  I know I solved one lady’s problem, with her new netbook.

Generally, I talk about my reading.  For instance, I wrote a weird take on “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury.  I’ve gotten almost a 1,000 hits on that one, trickling in at 3-4 a day, which is a revealing topic background radiation.  I’m guessing it is a story used in schools for discussion, because I’ve written on far more famous SF novels, and their topic background radiation is very low, like 1-2 a week. 

Of course, this all depends on how Google ranks my page.  For some reason, I’m in the first page of returns for “The Veldt,” but on the second page for Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein and Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, two books I think are very worthy of reading but seldom get hits at all.  Or is that because people seldom go past the first page of Google returns when searching for a review?  And if someone is thinking about reading one of those books, did I say anything to help them make their decision?

Once in a blue moon I’ll accidentally mention something that’s in the news, like the Kindle Reader for the iPhone.  That post got scads of hits for a day or two, and hardly ever got called into reading action since.

If I wanted to just get hits, I would go to Google Zeitgeist everyday and pick a topic.  Why are “basking sharks” and “raging elephants” so interesting on July 14th, 2009?  And who the hell are Shane Carwin and Lisa Loring?  Shows my lack of pop culture knowledge.  It is quite doubtful that Google will rank my page within its first 100 returned just because I mention those hot search names and phrases.  It’s not that easy to get noticed.  And God knows, many people try.  For what value are hits, really?  There’s no guarantee that people read what they hit on.

Take this essay, for example.  What value is it?  Because I’m not reviewing a book, movie or computer product, I’m pretty sure it won’t get many hits at all.  Hopefully, I haven’t bored my handful of regular readers, but have I given them anything worth their time?  If anything, I’ve taught them not to read blogs but write them, it’s good memory exercise.  If I had some quantitative way of proving writing blogs helps with memory, I might have a good article.  Readers love self-help topics.

Here’s something to consider that might be worth your minutes spent here reading.  If everyone read a little each evening, but only read the absolute best essays and articles, the English speaking world would only need ten monthly magazines, but let’s stretch that to one hundred for reading variety and the coverage of the diversity of sub-cultures.  All writers would compete to write the very best essays and articles each month to sell to those one hundred editors.  Everything else could be considered crap and thus time unworthy.

So why read off the web?  Because it allows you to read exactly what you want to read, at the moment you choose.  It’s pitiful to think that any of my essays come up on the first page of Google returns.  If you search on the phrase “The Time Machine by H. G. Wells” my essay comes up 5th.  It really shouldn’t.  The real lesson from tonight, is why the very best essays ever written on any topic, aren’t the ones that Google links to in your search.

JWH – 7/14/9