The 20 Best Things I Read Last Year*

Here are 20 works I read in 2020 and 2021 that I am still thinking about. I’ve divided the list into fiction and nonfiction, but that’s the only organizing principle at work here. Please note that while I read these works in the last two years, not all were published during that time. I’m including 2020 in this year’s round up because time is made up and I’m not entirely sure 2020 ever ended.

Fiction

  1. Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir (novel, purchase) — I included Gideon the Ninth, the first book in the Locked Tomb Series, in my 2019 recommended reading. Harrow the Ninth is Muir’s follow up and I loved it just as much as Gideon. The series is about lesbian space necromancers with feelings, which feels like it should be an easy sell. I have heard, however, that some folks didn’t enjoy Harrow quite as much as Gideon, possibly due to some really interesting structural decisions. Personally, I nerded out about Muir’s unusual approach to structure, but your mileage may vary. I’d also like to add a special shoutout for “The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex,” a short story that takes place between Gideon and Harrow. If nothing else, it’s hilarious to read because one character is named Doctor Sex due to numerically-based naming systems rather than due to any reference to sexy times. Content notes: death, body horror, mental illness, and gaslighting.
  2. Earthquake relief. Mexico. 2051.” by Malka Older (short story, free) — I’ve loved Older’s novels, especially Infomocracy, for years. She combines a lot of really interesting political ideas with characters who I’d like to hang out with. Older wrote this short story for The New Humanitarian, which covers emergency response, and it was the first piece of fiction the site ever published. It’s a really thoughtful take on what emergency response could like in the future and an argument for completely reassessing how we deal with problems on municipal and global levels. Content notes: natural disasters.
  3. Hibiscus Tacos” by Ire’ne Lara Silva (short story, free) — I think about this short story regularly. Silva pulls together threads of food, love, death, and immortality in a way that feels more like poetry than most short stories. That’s no accident, given Silva is a poet with four collections under her belt. Content notes: Food and eating, death, suicide, medical procedures, and hospice care.
  4. Bitter Root by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene (comic, purchase) – I picked up this collection of the first five issues of Bitter Root based on the recommendation of the staff at my local comic shop (who consistently hand me comics that I absolutely have to read). The comic follows the Sangerye family through Harlem in the 1920s, as they fight monsters using traditional rootcraft and conjurings. Volume 2 and Volume 3 are now available, though I haven’t picked up a copy of the third volume yet. Content notes: Racism, family separation, and body horror.
  5. (emet)” by Lauren Ring (novelette, temporarily free) — Ring’s story of a programmer struggling with how her work endangers people rings so true for me. There’s an air of magical realism, drawing on Jewish folktales of golems, which adds a layer of meaning that I’ve had to sit with. Ring never mentions the ways that technology companies enabled efforts to wipe out Jews but her storytelling drips with that deeper meaning. Content notes: Surveillance and parental death.
  6. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (novel, purchase) — Little Badger is a Lipan Apache, as is the protagonist of Elatsoe. Drawing on her own culture, Little Badger created a version of the U.S. full of Indigenous monsters and magic (as well as some supernatural colonizers). The titular main character, nicknamed Ellie, is a teenager with the power to raise ghosts who seeks justice for a family member. Elatsoe is Little Badger’s first novel and I can’t wait to read more long-form work from her. Content notes: Racism, death (including murder), colonization, and horror elements.
  7. Lena” by qntm (short story, free) — This short story is a little difficult to describe, but “Lena” is a fast read. I’ll try to do it justice, but take a chance on reading it even if it doesn’t sound like quite your thing. The story is structured like a Wikipedia article and discusses the technical process of creating digital versions of an individual’s personality. Hints of the ethical and psychological concerns appear throughout discussions of workloads and intellectual property. Content notes: Death, dementia, and exploitation.
  8. Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe (comic, free) — This webcomic is a reimagining of Greek mythology with both modern and historical elements, told through exquisitely illustrated panels. I could write thousands of words just on Smythe’s color palettes. Lore Olympus follows Persephone and Hades from the very beginnings of their romance, while exploring themes of consent and sexual assault. Interestingly, Smythe chose to eliminate concerns around consent present in myths about Persephone and Hades, instead looking at other gods and how their social positions could impact relationships and be used harmfully. Smythe is very good about providing warnings about potentially triggering comics. The story is on-going and is closing in on 200 ‘episodes’ (which I would compare to individual comic issues in length). If you prefer to read your comics in dead tree format, the first 25 episodes are available in print and future volumes are planned. Content notes: Sexual assault, consent, child abuse, murder, and legal repression.
  9. Salvage by Muffinlance (novel, free) — Yes, this a 127,175 word fanfic based on Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, I am recommending that you should read the whole thing (assuming you’re already familiar with ATLA). Yes, I possess no shame about my reading habits. I watched ATLA for the first time in 2020 and really enjoyed the storytelling. I read a lot of ATLA fan fiction after finishing the television series, and Muffinlance quickly became one of my favorite authors. I’m not the only one — Salvage is the top-ranked work for ATLA on Archive Of Our Own. Content notes: discussions of child abuse and death on the same level as the original television series.
  10. Lies I Never Told You” by Jaxton Kimble (short story, free) — Stories of everyday magical powers have a special place in my heart. Kimble’s short story hit that spot, with a character who writes out true statements, including predictions and personal insights. The result is a quick exploration of a teen’s coming of age and exploration of her own identity that somehow has the weight of a much longer piece. Content notes: Parental death, homophobia, and transphobia.
  11. Submergence by Arula Ratnakar (novella, free) — Ratnakar’s novella follows a scientist searching for a cure to an incurable plague, fighting to maintain their personal ethics — but only after that scientist has already died. Their memories are implanted into the mind of an investigator. While Submergence is a fascinating story of questioning just how far science should go, Ratnakar’s world building is even more enthralling. She sets the stage of a near-future still facing climate change and explores tactics youth-led movements might use to combat that change in a way that reminds me of the efforts of the Sunrise Movement. Content notes: Climate change, pandemics, death, exploitation, privacy, and medical procedures.

Non-Fiction

  1. Handcuffed and Unhoused” by Meli Lewis (radio episode with transcript, free) — While technically a podcast episode, “Handcuffed and Unhoused” is incredibly important reporting on the criminalization of homelessness in Portland, Oregon. Lewis spent over two years collecting data, conducting interviews, and examining the failures of local efforts to address homelessness. Her reporting even uncovered concerning comments by Portland officials regarding their desires to further criminalize people without access to stable housing. Content notes: Homelessness, legal repression, police violence (including a recording of a police killing), and classism.
  2. The Next Supper by Corey Mintz (book, purchase) — Mintz’s exploration of the future of the restaurant industry is fascinating, especially in light of COVID-19’s impact on restaurants’ ability to safely function. The book covers topics like sustainability, employee rights, and immigration. I wrote a longer review, contextualized for Portland, Oregon. Content notes: Food, racism, pandemics, abusive behavior (including sexual abuse).
  3. Ministry of Violence” by Tal Lavin (article series, free) — This three-part series is a hard read, but worth it. Lavin created this three-part series to examine corporal punishment in evangelical Christian households. I’m not Christian, but as I live in a Christianized society, I’ve seen some impacts of the sort of corporal punishment Lavin describes. But it’s very hard to understand how culturally ingrained these sorts of punishments are and to stop ignoring the reality that these punishments are essentially child abuse. Lavin created a definitive piece that provides insight for those outside evangelical Christian culture (and maybe those inside it, as well). Content notes: Child abuse, abusive relationships (including romantic relationships), and PTSD.
  4. Weird Jewish Digest by Meli (weekly newsletter, free) — Meli’s weekly newsletter is ‘just’ a round up of links and events connected to Judaism. But it’s one of the most inclusive round-ups I’ve found and I look forward to every email (including the cute photos of Jewish pets at the end of each week’s newsletter). Meli includes tough topics and avoids unthinking approval of certain nations that typifies many Jewish publications. I strongly recommend a sign-up if Judaism is part of your identity in any way. Content notes: Sometimes includes links discussing anti-Jewishness and other difficult topics. Meli includes specific content warnings on each email.
  5. The Myth of a Wilderness Without Humans” by Mark Dowie (article, free) — Part of a longer book which I have not yet read (Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples), Dowie’s article looks at what many people think they know about the history of national parks and other nature preserves. U.S. history is often taught in a way that erases Indigenous presences and the history of natural spaces is no different. Places like Yosemite National Park are marketed as untouched nature, despite millennia of presence by residents like the Miwok tribe. Dowie further discusses how the Miwok and other tribes actually created and tended the spaces that later became national parks, during which process the U.S. military forcibly removed Indigenous people from these lands. Content notes: Racism and colonization.
  6. Image Conscious” by Jasmine Sanders (article, free) — Sanders provided a bittersweet look at Black Romantic art, based on her familial experiences with selling art through home parties and other direct sales methods. Combining art by Black artists with discussion of the businesses that connected those artists with buyers, this article introduced me to several artists I quickly came to love. Sanders also examines the ways structural oppression has played out in art markets. Content notes: Racism and structural oppression.
  7. Why Frida Kahlo Still Isn’t a Great Woman Artist According to the Market” by Hall Rockefeller — I am a Frida Kahlo fan and, as such, I’m easily persuaded to read just about anything about Kahlo or her work. Rockefeller’s article is a standout piece, however, because of its examination of how Kahlo is perceived by curators, collectors, and other ‘experts.’ I recommend paring this article with Sanders’ “Image Conscious” (above) and then angrily making art of your own. Content notes: Misogyny.
  8. Jean and Jorts: the extended metaphor for workplace accommodations nobody asked for” by Fiona Robertson — Jean and Jorts took the internet by storm while I was in the process of writing this post. The story of these two cats originally appeared as an “Am I the Asshole?” post on reddit, which I recommend reading, along with this update posted later. The original poster asked for advice about whether they were perpetuating stereotypes about orange cats’ relative intelligence. The internet has gone wiled for Jorts, the orange cat in question, as well as Jean, Jorts’ kind companion. One response in particular caught my attention: Robertson’s discussion of Jorts and Jean as a metaphor for workplace accommodations. This write-up rings so true to my own experiences and provides a more accessible explanation of accommodations than the others I’ve read. My only complaint is that we have to talk about animals to get humans to take each other’s needs seriously. Content notes: Ableism.
  9. The State of Portland News” by Thursday Bram (article series, free) — I wrote this article, but this is my list and I make the rules, so I’m including it. I’ve referred back to this piece several times since posting it and I’m still pleased by how it turned out. Published in two parts, this piece covers who pays for and consumes news in the Portland area (Part One) and who owns publications and decides what to cover (Part Two). Content notes: Structural oppression, legal repression, and online harassment.

Just a head’s up: I’ve included links to Bookshop that will provide me with a small affiliate commission if you click through and make a purchase. However, I’d recommend any of these reads even without affiliate commissions — if you borrow books from the library or acquire them through other non-purchasing methods, I think that’s awesome.

A review of The Next Supper with a side of Portland context

Content notes: Discussions of deaths due to COVID-19, abusive behavior (including sexual abuse), racism

I read The Next Supper by Corey Mintz recently and it’s been stuck in my brain. I tweeted about the book, hoping that someone would write a review of The Next Supper, contextualizing the information it contains for Portland, Oregon. And then I remembered that sometimes you just have to write the article you want to see out in the world. So this review is kind of that, with the caveat that I’m not a food journalist and haven’t really set foot in a restaurant in almost two years. Another caveat worth noting is that I received a free copy of the book through NetGalley. I don’t think that influenced this review — but if you are at all worried, please note that the link above goes to the WorldCat entry for The Next Supper. You should be able to find a library near you with a copy rather than spending money based on my potentially biased opinion.

Readability

I found The Next Supper very readable, especially for a book telling me that everything about how we eat is probably bad. Mintz shares anecdotes showing that he’s not judging other eaters. He has committed the same sins as the rest of us — including eating at Taco Bell.

It’s comforting to know that none of us are alone in struggling to eat in a way that goes beyond stuffing the nearest calories down our gullets. I know I have terrible eating habits, but I’m not the only one. I’m trying to cut back on takeout after basically living on it for the last few years. I’ve been wondering how other people eat without relying on picking up prepared food from restaurants. Turns out that I’m part of a trend! The Next Supper documents a massive trend in relying on restaurants (as well as other sources of prepared foods, like supermarkets) — in 2018, US consumers spent more money on dining out than on groceries.

In The Next Supper, Mintz planned to cover the future of restaurants — and he did so, but not in the way he planned. Mintz began writing the book before the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the restaurant industry crumbled. From Mintz’s research, it’s clear that key trends around staffing, sustainability, and finances were dramatically escalated by pandemic lockdowns.

Key Topics in Context

Mintz covers a lot of ground in The Next Supper and I certainly don’t want to just repeat what he’s written. But Mintz wrote about national numbers (and international in many cases, given that he covers the restaurant industry in both Canada and the US). Since I live in Portland, Oregon, a city known for its food culture and wealth of local restaurants, I’m interested in what The Next Supper implies for the restaurants around here. To that end, I’m going to cover a couple of key topics from the book.

One fact stood out to me: Mintz says that there are far more restaurants in the US than can be supported by the number of diners. Partially due to big brands constantly pushing growth, the US had roughly one restaurant per 500 people before COVID. There’s just no way that consumers can support that many restaurants based on math Mintz presents. Portland’s restaurants tend to be independent, but the numbers are even more extreme here. I’m not sure how many restaurants are in Portland, but OpenTable currently lists over 5,000 restaurants in this city. That number is definitely low since there are plenty of restaurants that don’t use that site. Portland’s metro-area population in the last census was roughly 2.5 million. With just the 5,000 restaurants on Open Table, we already hit the level of one restaurant per 500 people. If we had a comprehensive list of restaurants in the Portland metro area, I bet we’d actually find that Portland’s ratio is closer to one restaurant per 300 people. That’s unsustainable unless we dramatically transform the relationship between consumers and restaurants.

Wages and Tipping

Staffing is a thread that runs throughout The Next Supper through sections on tipping, wages, abuse, and immigration. Portland-area restaurant staffing is a little different than what you may see in other cities. Oregon requires that restaurants pay full minimum wage of $12 per hour to servers, rather than allowing bullshit like paying a server $2.13 and counting on tips to bring that rate up to something someone might be able to live on. Furthermore, Portland itself has a higher minimum wage than surrounding areas, with a rate of $14 per hour.

Tipping is still common here (although I think it’s past time for us to find a way to eliminate tipping and actually pay everyone a fair wage). Mintz’s inclusion of Michael Lynn’s research on tipping caught my eye, especially given the racism built into Oregon’s governance from the first state constitution onward. Lynn’s research has demonstrated racial disparities in the tips diners give to servers. The disparity hits the point that forcing servers to rely on tips feels like an actionable civil rights violation. I’m not a lawyer, of course, but I doubt we’ll see substantial changes to tipping culture without that kind of in-depth examination and refutation.

Of course, tipping is only one way restaurant employees are compensated for their labor. As I browsed through job listings for restaurant staff here in Portland, I noticed that the listings didn’t quite match up with Mintz’s discussion. Many of these jobs list benefits like paid-time off and offer hourly rates above minimum wage. That’s a good sign for local food culture, although what job listings offer often doesn’t match the reality of working for a given restaurant. It’s easy to find lots of posts like this one about applying to multiple jobs offering one wage and then actually offering significantly less to new hires. Bait-and-switch techniques are common in hiring restaurant staff right now. There’s also a long history of wage theft in the form of unpaid training, paying day rates (rather than hourly wages), unpaid overtime, etc. in the restaurant industry, which Mintz goes into in more depth.

Mintz doesn’t touch on one factor in restaurant hiring that I think is crucial: line cooks had the highest COVID mortality level in 2020 of any profession. No fault to Mintz — I doubt that this information was available before The Next Supper’s content was finalized — but the reality is that an almost incomprehensible number of skilled servers and cooks died or became disabled since early 2020. When we see claims that restaurants are understaffed, we need to push back. We need to talk about the many reasons why restaurant staff aren’t prepared to work for businesses that exploit and endanger them.

Employee Abuse

When discussing staffing, Mintz also covers a wide variety of abuses that are commonplace in the restaurant industry. Portland’s restaurants are no exception. During the summer of 2020, many restaurant owners and chefs faced calls for accountability for sexual harassment, abusive work environments, and other types of harm. In Portland, many of those calls were channeled through an Instagram account operated by Maya Lovelace, who owns Yonder. They were later cataloged by Eater PDX, including concerns about Yonder. While some of the people responsible for these harms are no longer running restaurants, there are still plenty of similar problems in the kitchens around town.

These problems are compounded by a variety of larger social issues. There’s an underlying misogyny that enables business owners to sexually assault staff members, an underlying racism that allows business owners to take advantage of undocumented workers, and an underlying devotion to capitalism that makes wage theft a standard business practice.

Personally, I’m unconvinced that call-out posts will reform these problems at an industry-level. Collective action, such as unionization, is the only strategy that I’ve seen work. Unionizing both independent restaurants and local chains is likely the most useful strategy, and one that Portland may be able to rely on. With the recognition of the Burgerville Workers Union, we have the first unionized fast food chain in the country. We just need to build on that success.

Third-Party Delivery Apps

Third-party delivery apps — which around here includes Uber Eats, Postmates (owned by Uber), DoorDash, and Caviar (owned by DoorDash) — are notoriously bad for restaurants and delivery drivers alike. There are plenty of examples, from pocketing delivery drivers’ tips to charging fees to restaurants for orders that don’t go through the apps. Independent restaurants get the worst deals, as big brands like Applebees negotiate with delivery providers to keep costs down. The Next Supper points out venture capitalists with long-term plans fund these apps. They subsidize the cost of destroying other delivery options as well as keeping prices down long enough to get consumers reliant on these apps. Third-party apps can afford lobbying efforts or they can punish users with local fees when local governments are willing to push back against their practices.

Communities (including restaurants, delivery staff, and diners) need to plan for the long term. We need plans for both minimizing how capitalistic interests can mix extra costs into our food budgets and for building better systems for getting food in the hands of hungry people. I see organizations like CCC PDX as a start to that discussion. Local bicyclists formed a collective to deliver food and other products in partnerships with local restaurants and retailers. A logical next step might be building an app that handles handles local deliveries for local brands. It could offer equitable splits of both expenses and profits without sending money outside the Portland ecosystem. I don’t think that’s enough, long term, but the conversation has to start somewhere. Only once we’re actively talking about these issues will we be able to bring up options like collective purchasing, neighborhood-based food systems, and other options that move us towards radical change.                  

Sourcing

Portland does make an appearance in The Next Supper, or rather there’s a discussion of the Portlandia sketch during which two restaurant diners learn about their locally sourced chicken, Colin. There is, of course, plenty of truth in Portlandia’s comedy. Many Portland restaurants make a point of discussing where they get meat, produce, and other supplies from. But Mintz points out that we don’t have a system for confirming those claims, especially for independent restaurants.

McDonald’s — which I learned is the world’s largest buyer of beef, pork, potatoes, lettuce, and tomatoes during my reading — has a variety of mechanisms for auditing their supply chain for reducing harm. There are also a variety of NGOs that work to hold McDonald’s and other large chains accountable. But there’s virtually nothing in place for smaller businesses. Mintz catalogues different ways restaurants can lie or stretch the truth about the sources of their ingredients. As we look at our local dining options, we are responsible for deciding who we trust. But, frankly, none of us have the resources to check whether a given restaurant might be lying. There’s no easy solution to this problem and it will only grow as climate change advances and diminishes the quality of certain crops.

Ownership

Ultimately, many of the problems with the restaurant industry grow out of problems with ownership, especially of large chains that can make decisions that move the market for everyone else. It’s tempting to ignore problems with big chains if you live inside Portland’s city limits: Red Lobster and Outback Steakhouse are only in the suburbs (due in part to minimum wage laws), so there’s a sense that their problems are better dealt with by the residents and governments of Beaverton, Lake Oswego, or Vancouver. But these big companies make plenty of decisions that impact folks inside city limits and we need to pay attention.

The National Restaurant Association (or, as Mintz calls them, the “other NRA”) is a major lobby in Washington DC. The “other NRA” is one of the chief lobbyers preventing paid sick leave legislation from passing at a federal level. They don’t just harm restaurant employees with their political goals, but every employee in the country. Paid sick leave should be a right for every employee. The state of Oregon has legislation granting paid sick leave, but only for full-time employees of companies with more than 10 full-time employees.

Taking Action

While the problems Mintz discusses are national or even international, few of us have the resources to work on that level. But we can work on those issues on a local level, improving Portland’s share of the restaurant industry. One key step is encouraging local food journalism that goes beyond restaurant reviews. If we have local food media that covers supply chains, staffing, and other facets of the restaurant business, individuals don’t need to try to figure out those details on our own. Of course, local journalism has issues of its own. Eater PDX’s staff works hard, as do the writers in charge of covering food at publications like the Portland Mercury and Portland Monthly, but those publications all have clear goals that don’t prioritize critiquing the restaurant industry. We need something closer to the Racist Sandwich podcast, with a more explicit focus on Portland. (Fingers crossed for another season of Racist Sandwich soon.)

Getting good information is only part of the equation. We need to act on that information. We all want to make good choices about what we eat, including choosing restaurants that minimize harm. Mintz sees the need for more action, telling us “Don’t just vote with your fork, vote with your vote.” We need collective action, which can include voting for local candidates as well as unionization drives at restaurants, getting off of third-party delivery apps, and believing folks about sexual harassment and other abuses they’ve experienced. The problems within the restaurant industry are the same problems we see throughout society — perhaps written small enough that we can create real change on a practical timeline.

In closing, I found The Next Supper to provide a good lens on the restaurant industry, including some of the changes wrought by COVID. I’ve only covered a small chunk of the material in the book and how it relates to Portland’s restaurants — to cover it all would take, well, a full book.

19 Reads I Recommend from 2019

Here are 19 works I read in 2019 that I am still thinking about. I’ve divided the list into fiction and nonfiction, but that’s the only organizing principle at work here. Please note that while I read these works in 2019, not all were published in 2019.

Fiction

  1. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir — Novel (Content Warnings for violence, body horror, and a whole bunch of necromancy). Are lesbian necromancers in space your thing? If so, read Gideon the Ninth immediately. If not, reassess why you feel that way, then read Gideon the Ninth immediately.
  2. Programmer at Large by DRMacIver — Novella (Content Warnings for social anxiety, privacy, and discussions of gender. Based loosely based on the Qeng Ho from Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky”, DRMacIver explores updating millenia-old computer code alongside discussions of how society might evolve with computer mediation. You don’t need to have read Vinge’s work (and, in fact, I haven’t read “A Deepness in the Sky”).
  3. Operation Spring Dawn by Mo Xiong, translated by Rebecca Kuang — Novella (Content Warnings for human extinction). Xiong also examines a potential future, with the story of a super ice age playing out over tens of thousands of years. The story isn’t a happy one, but it is meaningful.
  4. This microfiction by O. Westin — Flash Fiction (Content Warnings for ghosts). This story is just a couple of lines long, so go read it. I’m not going to write a critique of a story that’s longer than the story itself.
  5. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather — Novella (Content Warnings for virulent illnesses, violence, and religion). Rather’s world-building in this novella is exceptional, with small details that elevate the story from yet another story of the aftermath of an interstellar war. 
  6. Hot and Badgered by Shelly Laurentson — Novel (Content Warnings for violence, smut, snakes, and ableism). Let me preface this item with a confession: I read romance novels of all kinds, including novels about shapeshifters. Especially about shapeshifters. There’s a certain level of absurdity that goes with the standard plots of shapeshifter romance novels which I adore. The pinnacle of that absurdity may very well be “Hot and Badgered,” in which a honey badger shapeshifter finds true love. 
  7. Ironheart by Eve Ewing and Kevin Libranda — Comic Books (Content Warnings for racism, violence, and ageism). Marvel’s “Ironheart” is just finishing a 12-issue run. Superhero Ironheart, AKA Riri Williams, is a genius who reverse-engineered Tony Stark’s Ironman suit when she was 15. She’s awesome, though enjoying her series may be hard if you don’t have at least a vague idea of the Marvel universe. Watching “The Avengers” probably covers the bare minimum of background knowledge.
  8. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal — Novel (Content Warnings for racism, sexism, natural disasters, and anxiety). The Calculating Stars won the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Kowal’s alternate history of the space race won those awards for a reason.

Non-fiction

  1. Malfunctioning Sex Robot by Patricia Lockwood — Article (Content Warnings for misogyny, sexism, and John Updike’s particular brand of weird sex writing). Lockwood’s review of a recent reissue of John Updike’s work is a truly beautiful piece of criticism. She sets the tone from the start, exclaiming “You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.” and slogs through Updike’s career with an admirable persistence. The article is probably better if you’ve read any of Updike’s work (watching “The Witches of Eastwick” doesn’t count).
  2. American Radicals by Holly Jackson — Book (Content Warnings for slavery, racism, sexism, and violence). “American Radicals” offers background on the organizations and activists who championed slavery abolition, universal suffrage, and a variety of other causes during the 19th century. Jackson provides the context that reading about these movements on their own just can’t provide. I enjoyed the book thoroughly. My sisters, however, may not have appreciated me reading this book because, when we watched the new “Little Women” movie, I kept wanting to talk about Louisa May Alcott’s references to transcendentalism. 
  3. The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones — Interactive Website (Content Warnings for slavery, racism, and violence). The 1619 Project comprises essays, poetry, photography, and more — all of which are worth your attention. Hannah-Jones developed the project to observe the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first african slaves in America. 
  4. Jurassic Emoji by Courtney Milan — Proposal. Milan is a phenomenal romance novelist, but her application for the expansion of dinosaur emoji options is a great piece of writing and even includes scrupulous research into the need for such emojis. Milan has also created a timeline, if you’re curious about the process of creating new emojis.
  5. The Israeli Black Panthers Haggadah translated by Itamar Haritan — Booklet (Content Warnings for Zionism and racism). Created in 1971 as a protest of the treatment of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, this haggadah uses the story of the exodus as a uniquely Jewish way to protest. 
  6. Being “Polite” Often Gets Women Killed by Scaachi Koul — Article (Content Warnings for murder, sexual violence, and stalking). Koul’s deep dive into the culture and communities of true crime podcasts is fascinating (kind of in the same way that true crime shows are fascinating). She uses the topic as a way to examine women-oriented media’s ability to cover the reality that women face violence at higher rates than men in our culture.
  7. Algorithmic Colonization of Africa by Abeba Birhane — Article (Content Warnings for racism, colonialism, and privacy). A discussion on the ethics necessary for new technologies, Birhane highlights the way startups are recreating destructive systems in digital form. In particular, the article highlights how importing technology means importing the ethics of that technology’s creators.
  8. You Should Have Asked by Emma (Content Warning for emotional labor and gender). Emma managed to sum up some of the feelings I’ve had about emotional labor. If comics aren’t really your thing, Zoe Fenson’s article, It’s so much more than cooking is also a good read.
  9. How to Hide an Empire by Daniel Immerwahr — Book (Content Warnings for colonialism, racism, violence, genocide, incarceration. If I’m being precise, I still have a few chapters to read in this book, but I’m already convinced that every American needs to read this book. I like to think of myself as fairly conversant in the history of this country, but Immerwahr surfaces new information and offers new context to the point that I feel like I’m relearning centuries of history as I read.
  10. How Desire Built One of the Best Information Archives Online by Thursday Bram — Article (Content Warnings for privacy and links to sites that may host explicit material). Since this is my list and I make all the rules, I’m allowed to include my own work. This article is probably my favorite piece of my own writing from this year. Basically, my editor let me write about information architecture, fan fiction, and how sexy stories set new expectations for privacy.
  11. Reasons and Strategies for Avoiding Obsolete Terms by Erin Grace — Article (Content Warnings for slavery and racism). Editing this article caused me to immediately change how I wrote about certain topics. Sure, I’m biased because I worked on the project, but reading this article improved my writing.

This is hopefully enough reading material to keep everyone out of trouble for the next few months.

A Partial List of Style Guides Everyone Should Read

Before deciding to create The Responsible Communication Style GuideI spent years looking for a style guide that filled that niche. I didn’t find one style guide that covered topics like race and gender and health all in one place.

Instead, I found dozens of style guides, covering a huge range of topics. I compiled this list as a starting point for folks who want to explore these topics and who want to dive a little deeper.

This list is really just a starting point, though. For The Responsible Communication Style Guide, we’re going to focus on five specific facets of identity: sex, gender, race, religion, and health and well-being. Within each of those sections, we’ll suggest key words and phrases to use when discussing these topics. We’ll also have a set of essays giving broader advice about writing inclusively. Throughout this process, we’re using technology as a lens to focus our coverage.

Each section editor has lived experience with the topic they will cover, as well as experience with writing and an understanding of our intersectional approach.

And if you’re interested in helping us fund a new style guide that covers identity with an intersectional approach, check out the Kickstarter for The Responsible Communication Style Guide. (Pro tip: at the $15 level, you’ll get a digital copy of our new style guide so that you can use it in your own writing as soon as possible.

AAJA Guide to Covering Asian America

Prepared by the Asian American Journalists Association. Covers terminology for covering topics of interest to Asian Americans.

Highlight:

JAPANESE NAMES:

In Japan, typically family name first, personal name second. But in the United States, Western word order is common. Women’s names often end in -ko, or “child,” as in Michiko.

American Sociological Association Style Guide

(Link to Bookshop listing!)

Prepared by the American Sociological Association. Covers style and terminology used in the publications of the ASA.

Highlight:

Race and Ethnicity

The classification and terminology of race and ethnicity are complex and have changed over time. Avoid racial and ethnic stereotyping of groups. Authors using racial and ethnic terms should aim to be as specific and precise as possible when identifying a person’s origin or group. For example, Cuban is more specific than Hispanic; Japanese is more specific than Asian.

Apple Style Guide

(Direct link to PDF!)

Prepared for internal use at Apple. Covers brand and company-specific terminology.

connector

Use to refer only to an item that can be plugged into a receptacle (such as a slot, port, or socket). Use the following terminology: edge connector: the connector on the edge of a peripheral card; fits into a slot minicircular connector: an 8-pin connector [Don’t use mini-DIN.] plug: a connector with prongs or pins In user materials, describe connectors by their shape and size, by the icon that appears on the connector, or in another way appropriate to the context. The user should be able to identify the connector easily even if she or he doesn’t know the terminology. Chapter 2 Style and usage 38 Avoid obscure names such as power input unit in favor of more direct terms, such as plug. Don’t use male or female to describe types of connectors.

BuzzFeed Style Guide

Prepared by Emmy Favilla and Megan Paolone for BuzzFeed. Covers publication-specific terminology and style.

Highlight:

LGBT Identification:

• Unless you already know based on research, it should be standard to ask how people identify themselves: gay, bi, genderqueer, queer, trans, etc.
• A person can be trans WITHOUT also being gay or lesbian. Don’t assume.
• Use “cisgender” (rather than “non-trans”) to refer to a person who is not transgender.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style

(Link to Bookshop listing!)

Prepared by Robert Hudson for publication by Zondervan. Covers terminology and styles used by the Christian publishing industry.

Highlight:

you, You (deity pronoun, second person)

Lowercase the second person of the deity pronoun as you would lowercase the third person. An exception is sometimes made in books of devotion or prayer when the capitalized, second-person pronoun is used to address God directly. (For more detail, see “Deity Pronoun, The” as well as “thou, thee, thy, thine.”)

Disability Language Style Guide

Prepared by the National Center on Disability and Journalism. Covers recommended language with an emphasis on specificity.

Highlight:

Handicap/handicapped

Background: The Oxford English dictionary defines a handicap as “a condition that restricts a person’s ability to function physically, mentally or socially.”

NCDJ Recommendation: Do not describe a person as handicapped unless it is central to the story. Avoid using handicap and handicapped when describing a person. Instead, refer to the person’s specific condition. The terms are still widely used when citing laws, regulations, places or things, such as handicapped parking, although many prefer the term accessible parking.

Conforms to AP style

The Diversity Style Guide

Prepared by Rachele Kanigel, for the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism. Covers a variety of terminology; however, this style guide is sourced from a variety of other style guides, rather than in-house development.

Highlight:

gender-neutral pronouns

Some people don’t feel that traditional gender pronouns, such as she/her and he/him, reflect their gender identities. Transgender, genderqueer and other people who step outside the male-female gender paradigm often adopt new pronouns for themselves. If a person doesn’t identify as male or female, it’s best to ask which pronouns they prefer.

The Economist Style Guide

Prepared by The Economist for its writers. Covers publication-specific information and style.

Highlight:

Gender

Gender is nowadays used in several ways. One is common in feminist writing, where the term has a technical meaning. “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” argued Simone de Beauvoir: in other words, one chooses one’s gender. In such a context it would be absurd to use the word sex; the term must be gender. But, in using it thus, try to explain what you mean by it. Even feminists do not agree on a definition.

Gawker.com Style Guide

Prepared by Lockhart Steele, Choire Sicha, and Gina Trapani for Gawker.com. Covers publication-specific information and grammar.

Highlight:

WORDS AND PHRASES THAT YOU MAY NEVER USE

A long list, sure, but it is topped by “interesting” and “funny” and “of interest.” If it’s funny or interesting, that’ll prove itself, and it’s actually not funny or interesting if you have to describe it as such. See also: “Arguably.” (Fuck no.) This list also includes “lede” and “hed” and other sorts of made up journo-words. Gag. Finally, do not ever suggest in your writing that you do not care about something, or are bored by it, or that you do not know about something, or that you are above it. If you don’t care, are bored, or are confused, or the like, don’t write about it. Or fake it. Nothing is more off-putting for a reader than arriving at a post pre-bored and pre-disinterested. No apologies, no regrets.

GLAAD Media Reference Guide

Prepared by GLAAD. Covers terminology for “reporting on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender lives, issues, and stories.” Note, portions of this guide is sourced from the AP and New York Times style guides, rather than in-house development.

Highlight:

Coming Out

A lifelong process of self-acceptance. People forge a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender identity first to themselves and then they may reveal it to others. Publicly sharing one’s identity may or may not be part of coming out.

Media Takes: On Aging

(Direct link to PDF!)

Prepared by the International Longevity Center and Aging Services of California. Covers terminology for the “accurate portrayal of aging.”

Highlight:

Handicap

Not a synonym for disability; describes a condition or barrier imposed by society, the environment or by one’s own self; can be used when citing laws and situations but should not be used to describe a disability; for example, the stairs are a handicap for him

NABJ Style Guide

Prepared by members of the National Association of Black Journalists, including Jerry McCormick and Angela Dodson. Covers “terms and language usage of special interest or relevance to our membership and our community.”

Highlight:

African, African American, black

Hyphenate when using African American as an adjective. Not all black people are African Americans (if they were born outside of the United States). Let a subjects preference determine which term to used. In a story in which race is relevant and there is no stated preference for an individual or individuals, use black because it is an accurate description of race. Be as specific as possible in honoring preferences, as in Haitian American, Jamaican American or (for a non-U.S. citizen living in the United States) Jamaican living in America. Do not use race in a police description unless the report is highly detailed and gives more than just the persons skin color. In news copy, aim to use black as an adjective, not a noun. Also, when describing a group, use black people instead of just blacks. In headlines, blacks, however, is acceptable.

NIDA Media Guide

(Direct link to PDF!)

Prepared by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Covers terminology for policy discussions, scientific discussions, and health discussions, as well as media resources.

Highlight:

Cognitive-behavioral treatments

A set of treatments that focus on modifying thinking, motivation, coping mechanisms, and/or choices made by people.

NLGJA Stylebook

Prepared by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Provides terminology to improve “inclusive coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, includes entries on words and phrases that have become common, and features greater detail for earlier entries.”

Highlight:

coming out

Short for “coming out of the closet.” Accepting and letting others know of one’s previously hidden sexual orientation or gender identity.

A Progressive’s Style Guide

(Direct link to PDF!)

Prepared by Hanna Thomas and Anna Hirsch for SumOfUs. Covers core terminology for progressive activists in order to combat discriminatory language. Note, Hanna Thomas wrote about her experiences creating the guide.

Highlight:

Disability

Most times there is no need to refer to a person’s disability, but when the need arises, choose acceptable terminology for the specific disability or use the term preferred by the individual.

Race Reporting Guide

(Direct link to PDF!)

Prepared by Race Forward, the Center for Racial Justice Innovation. Covers terminology for “reporting on specific racial and ethnic groups. Also includes terminology and practices to avoid.

Highlight:

Ethnicity

A socially constructed grouping of people based on culture, tribe, language, national heritage, and/or religion. It is often used interchangeably with race and/or national origin, but should be instead considered as an overlapping, rather than identical, category. See the section “Covering Key Issues with a Racial Lens” and the term “Racial & Ethnic Categories.”

Religion Stylebook

Prepared by Religion Newswriters Foundation. Covers “the major religions, denominations and religious organizations journalists often encounter.”

Highlight:

Bible Belt

Areas of the United States that are noted for a prevalence of strict evangelical Christian teachings, particularly in the South and Midwest. Writer H.L. Mencken coined the phrase in 1925 while reporting on the Scopes Trial in Tennessee. It can be considered offensive in some contexts so the term should be used carefully.

Style Guide for NASA History Authors and Editors

Prepared by Steve Garber for NASA History. Covers preferred language, units of measurement, and publication-specific information.

Highlight:

Manned Space Program vs. Human Space Program:

All references referring to the space program should be non-gender specific (e.g. human, piloted, un-piloted, robotic). The exception to the rule is when referring to the Manned Spacecraft Center, the predecessor to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, or any other official program name or title that included “manned” (e.g. Associate Administrator for Manned Spaceflight).

Style Guide: Reporting on Mental Health

(Direct link to PDF!)

Prepared by TEAM Up and the California Mental Health Services Authority. Covers preferred language and language to be avoided.

Highlight:

relevance

Do not assume that there is a link between an event that seems irrational and the mental health of someone in the story. Not preferred: “A man whose neighbors said he seemed depressed left his sprinklers on for days, leading to neighborhood flooding.” Preferred: “Sprinklers that appeared to have been left on for more than 80 hours led to damage in three nearby houses, water officials said.”

The Supreme Court’s Style Guide

(Link to Bookshop listing!)

Prepared by Jack Metzler with the Office of the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States. Covers terminology, cases, and styles used in Supreme Court decisions.

Highlight:

Repeating citations

(a) “Hereinafter” shortened form. If in the text or (more commonly) in a footnote frequent citations are to be made of a certain secondary source, it is often desirable to use a shortened form for the subsequent citations. This is generally done with a parenthetical that immediately follows the citation of the source and precedes all other parentheticals. Where a specific page is cited in the subsequent reference, do not then use “at” or “p.” Simply use the shortened form followed by the page number.

The Yahoo! Style Guide

(Link to Bookshop listing!)

Prepared by Chris Barr for Yahoo! and revised for print. Covers style for materials written for online publication.

No highlight available.

Looking for design or development style guides and pattern libraries? Start with these posts!

PyCon, by the Zines

I spent last week at PyCon NA (in Portland this year — how convenient!). I made a zine to hand out explaining the Python community in Portland, along with suggesting some events for out-of-towners.

Here’s a PDF you can download if you want to check it out.

Even better, I wasn’t the only zine maker at PyCon!

Jessica Garson organized a zine open space where I met a few other media makers. Jessica also gave a lightning talk about teaching with zines (her slides are here).

Roxanne Johnson presented during the poster session (Data People: Learn Python) and brought a zine she made called “Build Your Skills in Data Analysis.”

Audrey Eschright was working on The Recompiler while at PyCon and announced the next call for contributors, covering hardware.

Seriously, How is Spec Work Still a Thing?

Speculative work is a bad bet, both from the point of view of a creative and from that of an entrepreneur. Asking people to do free work (or doing that work yourself) is rarely the most effective way to move a project forward — and yet I keep seeing calls for spec work.

I would like to think most people understand that spec work isn’t an effective option, but that’s clearly not the case. The best I can do is to continue to refuse to do spec work and to try to convince you to take the same stand.

My Time is My Money

As a creative, a request to submit spec work is disheartening. Your ability to land paying work is based on your ability to win a contest. It’s like hearing that every piece of work in your portfolio is worthless: that your body of past work doesn’t actually prove you’re capable of completing a project. Personally, I find such requests irritating at best. I prefer to assume that suggestions I work on spec are attempts to get me to work for free, because I’d rather be angry than to think that a prospective client doesn’t believe I’m capable of the project in question.

Either way, though, spec work is a clear indicator that a prospective client doesn’t value my time. That worries me because my income is directly tied to the number of hours I can spend on paying work. Despite what these clients seem to think, I’m not working just to have something to do during the day — I need to earn a living. There’s a price tag on every hour in my day.

That lack of respect for my time is worse when a prospective client asks you in person or on the phone. I’ll admit to occasionally ignoring emails asking for a trial post or some examples on spec — ignoring an email is easy. But when someone asks me for a trial post during a phone call, the question trips me up: I’ve set aside time out of my day to talk to this person (time I’m not being paid for), and they want even more of that scarce resource? It gets worse when you consider the amount of unpaid work that can go into pitching a project before you can guess whether you’ll get the gig, like writing proposals and query letters.

A request for spec work in the moment forces me to keep my cool on an issue that actually makes me pretty angry, while talking to someone I hope to impress. Worse, it puts me in a position where I look like I don’t want to work on a project right off the bat. I’m willing to dig in my heels now, but there have been times in the past where I needed the work badly enough to back down.

I’ve always regretted those times, though: perhaps one spec project out of every ten has turned into paying work. And that number is only as high as it is because I’m counting those articles I wrote for publications that refused them, but that I was able to sell elsewhere. Stock article sites will take anything, it turns out, but they pay a fraction of what I would have earned if I had spent that time pitching projects that wouldn’t be done on spec.

Spec Work Means Useless Effort From Everyone

As bad as spec work is from a creative’s perspective, though, it’s a bad business practice for clients as well. It’s time-intensive and requires far more coordination than any other approach to handing out client work.

The source of this particular rant was a conversation with a prospective client, where the individual on the other end of the phone made it clear that they were talking to quite a few different bloggers at this point, implying more than ten. The phone call was being used to winnow down the numbers of respondents. That information is irritating, if only because I’m a big believer in the value of time (I categorize more than five interviews for a contract like this as “doing it wrong”). But then the interviewer said that they were asking allthe bloggers they were considering to provided a trial post.

EXCUSE ME?

I can understand asking for two or three bloggers to put together trial posts, so that you can tell the real differences between a few really good writers. I don’t agree with that approach, but I can understand it. But asking ten or more potential contractors to put together free work is ridiculous on multiple levels:

  • On a purely selfish level, asking for that much work means that you have to go through the results. Even ten short blog posts work out to a lot of reading.
  • Your network will likely suffer. You’re going to irritate people who you might want to work with in the future by asking them for free work and then turning them down for the overall project.
  • You’re taking advantage of people who you need to continue to do their best for you long after they turn in that first post. You’re not exactly starting your relationship off with your best foot forward.

Even when a creative will do spec work, a client probably won’t get the ideal end result. Most spec work projects aren’t perfect because there’s no way to get the sort of back-and-forth collaboration that ensures a client gets what they want. Writing a creative brief that addresses every nuance of a project is impossible — but so is answering project questions from a dozen different creatives. As a result, spec work is more like a sketch than a finished project, even though many people will request spec work with the expectation that they’ll get something they can use right away.

What’s the Practical Alternative?

Running a business is always a question of deciding how to most effectively spend your time. If you’re not careful, a creative project can be a crazy time suck that doesn’t get you the results you need (whether you’re doing the work or commissioning it). So, how can creatives and clients work together without wasting time?

The Client Side of the Equation: There are three factors that will tell you whether you’ll get the results you want far more effectively than asking a creative to do the work on spec.

  • Reputation
  • Communication skills
  • Past work
    Seeing a creative’s portfolio should tell you whether that creative is capable of the level and style of work you need. From there, you need to know whether that creative can do the work in a professional manner in terms of timeliness and responsiveness to criticism. You can get that information from talking to the creative’s past clients — send ten quick emails, rather than trying to go through ten speculative projects. Here, I’ll even give you a template to copy:

So and so,
Creative X has a piece of work in her portfolio that she did for your company. I’m considering hiring her for a project of my own and I was hoping to get your opinion of Creative X’s work. Could you answer a few questions for me?
How was Creative X to work with?
Did Creative X complete the project in a timely fashion?
Would you work with Creative X again?
Thanks!

You can usually find the email addresses you need on websites or LinkedIn. You don’t even need to go through the creative you’re checking up on.

The Creative Side of the Equation: Give prospective clients your portfolio. It should stand on its own. If your portfolio isn’t effective, invest the time you would otherwise spend on spec work into improving your portfolio. Given how inexpensive it is to put work up online, consider just launching some projects of your own. Write your own blog, launch your own web app, or design your own line of motivational posters. If that scares you, here are a few other options:

  • Do pro bono work for a cause you believe in.
  • Create stock work for the many marketplaces online (most have lists of types of work that are most in demand).
  • Offer yourself as an intern or apprentice (paid) to a creative already working in the industry who does a high volume of work.

Avoid Spec Work, Please

Spec work is bad for business, whether you’re a creative or a client (or both). Tempting as the idea may be, either as a way to get in with a new client or as a way to see a bunch of work from different creatives, just say ‘no.’ There are always better ways to get what you want.

The Age Of The Uncredentialed Curator

Stacks 2

Tumblrs full of kitten pictures, websites ranking the helpfulness of individual restaurant reviews, Pinterest pages full of tasty ways to prepare vegetables you’ve never even heard of — at its core, the internet is about collections. We find topics we care about or people who we want to connect with and we build lists.

Some of these collections contain original contributions, like blog posts or memes. Others are purely an organization of what the collector in question finds online. The same has held true of most information management over the years: a library is also a curated collection of books judged to be worth consulting, as well as records or other information the library may have gathered or even created. It’s how we handle anything complex.

You Don’t Need Credentials to Buy a Domain Name

But while it’s tough to get the money to build a new library without a degree in library science, you can set up a new website for under a hundred dollars. Calling the curators who are building the information collections we base our lives on these days ‘uncredentialed’ may be overly kind: not to be cruel, but the only requirements for getting a Tumblr or Pinterest account is a valid email address.

That low barrier to entry isn’t a problem, but it is a fact we need to acknowledge if we’re going to talk about curation. When anyone can publish their curational efforts, effectively by accident, there’s a question of how useful those efforts are to anyone else. I’ve seen plenty of Pinterest boards that are meant to be intensely personal — it’s where people plan weddings and pick out tattoos for themselves, far more than they focus on sharing what they’ve found with other people, no matter what its creators intended.

There is value in that sort of collecting; I spend plenty of time browsing through other peoples’ Pinterest boards myself. They’re sources of things I might be interested in, based on my connection with the curator, as well as information about what my friends and family enjoy.

But there is a lot of noise coming through these channels, as well as through all the various options we have for publishing any sort of collection. No one can pay attention to every single channel that we can access. We have to be selective in a way that a scholar who had to physically go to wherever information happened to be never was.

Who Curates the Curators?

When finding the right piece of information or viewing the right piece of art required days of travel, there was (perhaps surprisingly) less of a problem in figuring out what information to pursue. With only one expert to talk to, you got a good pair of boots and headed out to talk to him.

Today, the wealth of information we can access is dangerous. How many times have you looked at one article on Wikipedia, only to find yourself engrossed in articles about Pleistocene megafauna or glam metal music hours later? We no longer face questions about what information is worth preserving or worth traveling days to learn. Rather, we have the problem of deciding which information is worth paying attention to. The job of the curator is far different right now than it was a few centuries ago.

Personal curation solves some small element of this question: quietly saving links that will help you go back and cook exactly the recipe you’re after or purchase the perfect outfit can let us handle a lot of the small questions in our lives. But when we’re taking on a new topic, either personally or professionally, curators have to provide more information. I recently read an article that covered the entire history of a musical genre I had no familiarity with; when I went looking for information, I was quickly overwhelmed. No single curator had taken it upon herself to create an introductory guide to the genre or even to suggest ten albums a new listener should pick up.

There may be a fan of that particular genre with a great playlist on a website devoted to music somewhere, but that hypothetical playlist doesn’t show up through a cursory web search — all that I’m really prepared to do if I have anything else on my plate I really need to be working on. There isn’t a lot of incentive for someone curating resources for her private consumption to bother publicizing that sort of resource, by the way: it’s rare that such a specialized list will earn the author any money, though a small amount of niche fame can be possible. Even that level of fame can be a double-edged sword: I have a friend who is an expert in an incredibly esoteric topic (as a life-long hobbyist who has published about his work online, he’s essentially one of a handful of experts in the world). He gets oddball questions all the time, to the point where it would take him significant effort to field these questions — but people aren’t willing to pay him for the answers. While a few people will continue sharing information out of love for a topic, there are more who will discontinue their work because of the effort involved.

To get the information we need, then, we’re left looking to a secondary level of curators: people who will seek out those awesome playlists and other collections and point attention to them. I’m not so sure that this is a long-term solution, however: while there are certain bloggers and other online curators making a living from ‘finding cool crap on the internet’ (the folks behind BoingBoing and Dooce come to mind as very different examples), those people are few and far between. In the meanwhile, however, there are plenty of people who aspire to that role or to otherwise make a living on the internet. There are not so many, however, that I can find playlists for somewhat obscure musical niches.

Expert Curation is Getting Expensive

There is an understood value of some sorts of curation: particularly talented curators who can make topics interesting and relevant have already found a variety of business models online. But if an expert curator is willing to specialize in certain fields, the money associated with their work can increase.

In fact, the amount some companies are willing to pay certain types of expert curators keeps going up. This obviously includes people who can curate interesting information to create an alluring social media feed — most companies are happy to pump money into marketing if it results in a corresponding increase in sales. However, other types of curation are in high demand. Anyone who can effectively parse and contextualize information about complicated topics (like business and finance) is very employable these days. Whether they’re writing broad advice for the masses or telling an individual company when to jump, an expert who can pull together different sources of data is incredibly valuable.

But the expense of accessing expert curators is going up, no matter what job description you have in mind. Collecting data is a time intensive process, full of time spent pursuing potentially useful tidbits only to find that they don’t really fit in with what you’re curating. I track all sorts of topics and just evaluating sources can be intense: when anyone can post anything to the internet, you can’t exactly assume that each piece of information you find is equally reliable. The more information a curator needs to sort through, the more expensive that sort of work is going to become.

It’s understandable that with the added cost of hiring someone as a curator, an employer or a client is going to want to see credentials as proof that the curator in question can handle the work. But that sort of proof may not be necessary, at least for any curator who can build a collection before hunting for work. An appealing collection of information, whether it’s a blog, a Pinterest board, or a book speaks for a curator’s ability far more than any other credential might — at least in this era of too-easily accessible information.

What do you curate? Do you feel like credentials make it easier to collect the ideas and items you focus on? Or do credentials just get in the way of the work you want to do?

Photo credit: Ginny

Do We Need an Algorithm Beat?

The idea of the beat reporter is alive and well, even if the institutions that sparked it aren’t doing so well. Bloggers — especially those who come from a more traditional journalism background — tend to focus very closely on specific topics if they want to do well. They are beat reporters, of a sort, just as many publications train reporters to be experts in a particular niche.

But the beats that may be crucial in today’s world aren’t quite the same ones that most general interest publications rely on. Sure, I still need to read what the health, real estate, and crime beat reporters produce.

The idea, however, that technology is entirely separate from everything else and can be covered by just one beat reporter is severely outdated. First of all, divorcing the relevant technology from topics like business and health removes it from the context that readers need to understand the topics. Technology is integrated into every part of our lives; even someone who doesn’t use technology personally brushes up against it every time she leaves her house.

Second, however, there are certain issues related to technology that, when bundled together, make an overwhelming mess for a reporter. Having the same person covering privacy issues and reviewing the latest hardware specs just doesn’t make sense. Nick Diakopoulos makes a very good argument for creating beat reporter positions that cover algorithms specifically. Personally, I’d love to see a privacy beat.

How these changing beats may play out is more a question of resources at individual publications than pure journalistic idealism but hopefully editors will take note of Diakopoulos’ article and consider who should really be covering what in their newsrooms.

Why Libraries Would Make Great Ebook Publishers

5736110401_14cef92cd9

I’m a big fan of public libraries. The sheer amount of time I’ve spent in libraries (including those I didn’t actually have a card for) makes every library feel a little like home.

While I love wandering through the stacks, I’m comfortable with how the best libraries firmly embrace technology. As long as there is still a librarian around who can direct me to the next great novel I need to read or tell me how to find that incredibly obscure fact I need for an article, I don’t care if that librarian points me to an ebook, a website or a physical book. That’s because one of the greatest values librarians provide is that of curation — without an expert, it’s hard to navigate the giant piles of both data and stories the human race has managed to produce. In fact, my experience of wandering the stacks is not universal: many libraries require readers to request a book from a librarian or through an automated system. That in turn means that readers must know what books they need, which makes curation ever more necessary.

With that in mind, there seems to be an opportunity for libraries to take their position as curators a step further: why don’t libraries publish ebooks?

I don’t mean actually printing books, mind you. I’m talking about finding material, editing it and releasing it online in a digital format. Libraries can act as small presses, releasing publications only in electronic formats.

Let’s Talk Problems First

I pitched the idea to a friend of mine who is a librarian and the whole conversation got pretty excited very quickly — the idea has a lot of appeal, at least to those of us who nerd out on information sciences. We did manage to make a couple of passes at what the big problems are going to be for the average library considering whether to start publishing ebooks.

On the most basic level, resources are always a problem. Libraries are typically non-profits or governmental departments. As organizations, libraries aren’t exactly known for having giant piles of cash to throw at experiments. Many libraries have a hard time keeping the doors open. In theory, at least, publishing some ebooks could bring in revenue for a library, but building that revenue stream is going to take upfront investment, at least of time.

I’d like to say that running an ebook publishing house — especially at the small press level — is easy enough to do. After all, I’ve published a stack of ebooks without any special training. But while it’s easy to get started publishing online these days, it’s also incredibly easy to get into trouble. Copyright law, for instance, is so arcane that most people just throw up their hands, rather than trying to figure out how it works. The average small library isn’t going to have an intellectual property lawyer on staff and also lacks the resources necessary to handle any sort of copyright lawsuit.

But these seem to be the biggest problems that a library interested in publishing ebooks faces. They’re at least as manageable as raising the funds for new buildings, which libraries have to do on a somewhat routine basis.

Libraries Can Win at the Publishing Game

The average library actually has some resources that put such institutions ahead of typical self-publishers, if not many small presses.

The biggest asset most libraries possess is that they already employ librarians — a class of workers who absolutely have to be tech-savvy to hold a job. The need for technology is not something new for librarians: my grandmother was one of the first people I knew who had an email address, because she had to have one in the early Nineties as part of her job as a university librarian.

Digitizing records (a routine process in many libraries) requires many of the same skills as setting up an ebook. Anyone who can handle the necessary technology to operate a local library is going to be able to learn at least the basics of publishing ebooks online.

Digitization represents an additional benefit: any organization that bothers with making electronic copies of paper documents (and other non-digital records) sees at least some demand for those records. The typical library owns collections of materials that people are interested in accessing, such as family history records and local information, as well as the personal papers of local notables and other documents that sneek into the backrooms of any such institution. Just creating ebook versions of such records could at least support the necessary efforts to preserve such documents. Given the people willing to pay to travel to the areas their families once lived in, I can’t imagine that family tree researchers wouldn’t be willing to pay for curated local records in digital format, especially if they can’t travel to the library in question.

Build From the Local Community

My local library district offers books and other media. But the individual libraries are also crucial parts of the community because they have meeting spaces and even arrange for certain types of experts to speak. That sort of tie makes the idea of ebook publishing even more appealing, at least in my mind.

Having community ties means that a library has supporters it can rely on for the funds and volunteer power necessary to build a publishing program, as well as a built-in audience that may want to purchase ebooks (rather than just checking them out temporarily from the library). But given that many writers’ groups meet at their local libraries, there’s a lot more opportunity there: libraries can work to curate the local writing available, helping the community publish its own works and accessing writing with a local bent.

Local authors always need evangelists, like the librarian or bookstore owner willing to take the time to set up a ‘local author’ display. Librarians can be champions for their communities on a whole new level in this little thought experiment. On a certain level, the idea of libraries publishing ebooks makes me think of the monastaries that housed libraries and scriptoriums before printing presses made wide-spread publishing an option. Librarians in those days might have effectively decided what books would continue to exist by choosing which would be copied. They curated the information important enough to be preserved for their communities. Today, just about any piece of information can make it into a format where it will be preserved, but we need curators to decide which pieces are important enough to be read — a purpose that libraries are uniquely suited for.

What Libraries Need to Get Started Publishing

Libraries, as a general rule, have some sort of fundraising mechanism already in place. There are similar systems for finding volunteers. I’m not going to suggest reinventing those particular wheels.

But there are some specific resources that the average library will need to recruit. These could be resources that the libraries in question pay for or they could be provided by volunteers.

  • A graphic designer: While it’s possible to format and publish an ebook with nothing more than the word processing program already on your computer, it’s always easier to sell an attractive package.
  • A copyright expert: Just having someone review proposed book contents to make sure that a library has the right to publish the necessary material will save a whole lot of trouble. I don’t know how in-depth that process needs to be; it would be nice to have an intellectual property lawyer weigh in on the question.
  • A commitment to some specific ebook formats: Ebook publishers spend a lot of time chasing each other’s tails on what formats to publish in. I’m not prepared to make that sort of decision for anyone, but I’m personally banking on Kindle and PDF for most projects.
  • Marketing help: This one is probably the toughest. Libraries have great local audiences, but promoting anything beyond those nearby groups will be hard. If the money’s available, spending some on marketing help is going to be one of the most useful investments.

I could see a startup or even a non-profit creating a turn-key solution for libraries interested in publishing their own ebooks (if you decide this is an idea you want to pursue, email me so I can introduce you to my librarian friends). I could also easily see a few consultants popping up who offer to parachute in and teach a ‘publishing for librarians’ program (ditto).

Personally, there’s a whole stack of books my library could publish that I’d be happy to slap down some virtual dollars for. I’d love to be able to support local authors and local libraries at the same time. I’d like to think that people who don’t spend quite as much time in libraries as I do would be willing to do the same.

Image by Flickr user Saint Louis University

What Makes an Ebook Really an Ebook?

When is an ebook better than a printed book? When it includes resources that a physical book could never provide. I picked up a copy of The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide (an excellent resource for anyone using Markdown) and have been thinking about what really constitutes an ebook ever since.

I opted for the PDF version of David Sparks and Eddie Smith’s ebook. The PDF version is actually the secondary option, though, with the iBookstore version taking precedence. I prefer PDF for flexibility, despite being one of those people who mostly buys their hardware from Apple.

The reason that the iBookstore version might be preferable is because of the sheer amount of non-written content built in to the ebook. Every section seems to have something in addition to some very well written content, like a screencast or an audio interview. The same multimedia content came along with the PDF, though it isn’t embedded in the document. All in all, The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide weighs in at 130 pages, one and a half hours of video and one hour of audio.

We all have a working definition of a ‘book’ as a bunch of written content, perhaps with some images thrown in. But what happens to that definition as we shift over to reading our books on devices that make integrating video and audio content extremely simple? I wouldn’t be surprised if the definiton of books expands to include most types of content, though I’ll be very surprised if the word disappears from use — there’s a few too many of us bibliophiles out there for that.

On the surface, I love the idea that I can have all sorts of media in my reading material. But I want more data: how easy is it to process this mix? I shift back and forth pretty easily, but I spend all day glued to a computer monitor. For some readers / watchers, I could see this mix being very helpful, but for others I could see it causing distractions. Integrating more materials could change the interpretation of books: if there isn’t a video about a certain section, it clearly couldn’t be important. I know I get hung up on points in given books that the author may have included as a throw away. Will those points get lost.

I found The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide incredibly useful. I don’t expect to have answers about the right way to integrate media content for quite a while, but it’s a topic worth paying attention to. We’re going to see more examples every day, for the near future.