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Followed a link today to a series of posts on publishing myths by Dean Wesley Smith, and quickly discovered that if I read any more of this person's blog I will do something I will regret. After reiterating that every writer is different, he quickly forgets that motto and arrogantly assumes that his own unique experiences are or ought to be the norm.

Anyway, in the the second post in his series, on how writers should not revise their work, he trots out this old chestnut by Heinlein:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

And you know, I'm really, really tired of seeing this. Heinlein was a writer who was able to produce salable fiction in one draft. He was also extremely unusual in that he was able to produce salable first drafts more often than not from the very start of his career.

I know this is a shocking idea for all of the Heinlein-worshipers out there who have never read a slush pile or who have never taught freshman composition (I have done both, briefly), but not everyone can do that. In fact, 99.9% of amateur writers cannot do that, ever, no matter how hard they try to learn.

The tiny fraction of amateur writers who become professional writers have learned, one way or another, to produce salable material. For some, learning that takes a few years; for others, it takes decades. Some learn to write salable material by writing a lot of worthless first drafts that never see the light of day; others learn by rewriting over and over again until they get it right.

A few writers eventually learn how to produce salable material in the first draft, but most need to rewrite and revise, to some degree, for their entire career. And for a writer who is skilled enough to be able to sell his first drafts to continue to trot out that Heinlein quote in giving advice to amateur writers does a huge disservice to the vast majority of aspiring writers who are not like him, and will never be like him.

If Heinlein hadn't been privileged and lucky enough to be able to turn out salable fiction from day one, then his rules might have looked like this (revisions in italics):

1. You must write work of salable quality.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting a finished work except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold or until it is rejected by all markets that might buy it.
6. If your work is rejected by all markets that might buy it, it was not of salable quality. Learn what lessons you can and try again with a new piece.
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So the Governor of California wants to save money by switching from paper textbooks for public school kids to e-book textbooks.

This is profoundly stupid on two levels. First, it won't save any money whatsoever, and second, e-books as they currently exist cannot possibly replace textbooks for learning.

The money-losing issue is obvious. On a $25 hardcover novel, the publisher gets about $10 (40%), and distributors and bookstores get the rest. That $10 has to cover royalties, editorial/proofing, marketing and profit, as well as paper, ink, printing, binding, and shipping. Your typical textbook has more and larger pages than a novel, but that really only affects paper and ink costs, a tiny fraction of the total. The real reason why textbooks cost so much more than novels (from half again to twice as much as a novel, at least for college texts in my experience) is because the editorial and authorial costs are so much higher. Novel writers are used to working on spec, and get paid quite modestly only after the book is completely written and accepted for publication; one novel usually has one author, one editor, and (with luck) one proofreader. Textbooks tend to be written by committees, edited by multiple editors, and proofread (always - a textbook with mistakes in it won't be bought by schoolboards) by teams of proofreaders. They also need fact checkers, graphic artists to design charts and tables and lay out the illustrations, people to select pictures from image archives for the illustrations, and somebody to pay for the copyrights for any words or pictures to be used that aren't in the public domain. All of which is expensive, and none of which will go away if textbooks cease to be printed on paper.

So the governor's plan would save a token amount of paper and printing costs, in exchange for a huge increase in IT costs (at least 50% of students' families won't be able to afford an ebook reader for their child... and grade school age children are not gentle with their belongings, making frequent replacement a must).

Meanwhile education would suffer hugely. Because Ebooks, as they currently exist, are completely unsuited to presenting textbook materials. Not for any of the reasons I saw mentioned by various commenters on the Guardian site, but because ebook readers, as they currently exist, are WHOLLY UNSUITED to the reading of any textbook other than a collection of literature.

Most e-readers (and every e-reader that's even remotely affordable) have 9x12 cm screens. Every chemistry textbook, to pick an example at random, has to have a periodic table. How are you going to lebibly reproduce a periodic table in that small a page? Oh, sure, you could pan and scan, scrolling the e-reader's tiny window across a much larger periodic table... but if you can't see the whole thing laid out before you at once, at legible resolution, it isn't going to make any sense, you aren't going to see the patterns and flow of properties down rows and across columns. Ditto for the full-page maps and the chronological charts that fill any good history book. Ditto for any two-page spread graphically presenting a complex interrelated subject, whether it's the causes of the fall of Rome or the factors in the ecology of a pond.

True, it would be a wonderful thing if one could click on the periodic table in a chemistry text and get it to show you not just valences and atomic weights, but melting and boiling points, hardnesses, reactivity indexes, and so on and so forth. It would also be wonderful if a history book's reproduction of the Mona Lisa could be zoomed in on, so one could examine the tiny background details. But it is far more important, for learning, for teaching, to be able, when necessary or desirable, to present a massive amount of information in a visual way, and be able to see all of it at once. And right now, the technology for doing that, in an affordable way, is still the old-fashioned paper book. E-book readers will one day replace paper textbooks... when they can have jam spilled on them, and be thrown against the wall, without breaking; when the screen sizes grow to 44x28cm (a double screen that folds in half)... then we'll have a teaching tool worth investing billions of public school dollars into. Until then, despite the dreams of technophile nerds who are offended that we are still using this primitive paper stuff, we'll have to muddle through with plain old books.


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October 2017



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