A couple weeks ago, Ed Yong published a talk by RadioLab’s Robert Krulwich that went viral in journalism and science-writing circles, for good reason. Speaking to graduating journalism students at UC Berkeley, Krulwich, who does some fine blogging of his own, expressed his pleasure and wonder at how blogs, twitter, and other newish tools allow sharp, hardworking young writers to bypass the traditional career-advancement paths* and publish prominently much faster than was generally possible 10 or 20 years ago. As I’ve noted before, I think this is fantastic, even if it sometimes distresses people who did it old school. It gives hope and work and exposed practice to newcomers and makes veterans quicker and more alert. Yong dubbed this the “There are some people who don’t wait,” talk, and it’s a great talk and you should go read it.
I want to add something to Krulwich’s huzzah: These new tools don’t empower just the young and hungry. They freshly arm the not-quite-so-young and established hungry: writers who’ve been at it a decade or more, waited their turn and more or less made it trotting the old path — yet still find the old path sometimes so ludicrously inefficient they’re ready cut fresh trail themselves.
Krulwich’s essay struck me at a ripe moment, for the old system has failed me notably a few times lately, as it does most writers, and I’m damned glad to have tools to try to compensate for it. Before I explain how, I should explain that while I’ve enjoyed great luck in the mainstream media over the past decade — making a living doing work I love; publishing some deeply satisfying stories in top magazines; publishing three books and getting a nice contract that supports my work on a fourth — I keenly feel the constraints of the older media ecosystem and feel it too often fails both me and readers. I know I’m not alone in this, for when I talk to other writers selling to top magazines, they share their own infuriating stories of stories mangled and orphaned, deals gone bad, promises broken, and — and this is the heart of it, the thing we really hate — good work that gets eighty-sixed and never sees the light of day.
This stuff has always happened. But Krulwich’s essay made stark and explicit to me something I’ve been vaguely realizing and acting on anyway: That the more fluid ecosystem that has let the Yongs and Kirschenbaums and Carmodys and Madrigals slip past the waiting room and onto the upper floors can offer writers like me — people who are already inside having drinks with the editors, but only afer quite a long wait, thank you, — something we really need. It gives us a way to walk through the walls of that building when the building doesn’t do what it’s built for, which is get good writing read.
Here’s a secret of the glossy magazine world: magazines sometimes kill perfectly good stories. Happens all the time. Editors change their minds about what they want, or get fired, or take other jobs elsewhere, or “decide to take another direction with this subject,” or the magazine goes under, and when any of these things happens a good story gets orphaned. You’ve spent 2 or 3 months on this story. You’ve unearthed and double-checked and written up and rewritten 20 times some of the coolest stuff you’ve ever seen or heard or read. And then, sometimes suddenly, sometimes over a sickeningly slow drift that takes weeks or even months, you get from “Yes! This story’s great! We’ll run it as fast as we can!” to “I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to use this.” In as dignified a manner as possible you work fast to place it elsewhere. But lo and behold and lo lo lo goddam!, the very fact that the thing has been elaborately researched and carefullyl written tells everyone it’s used goods, and they shy from used goods. Such a story rarely finds a new home. Sometimes you get paid anyway. I’ve been lucky and got paid every time. But the money’s not even half of why you write: you write them so people will read it and somehow respond. Thus, as one writer friend recently said about such a mishap that happened years ago, “It burns.”
Not long ago this killed a story and buried it deep. Now though, mofo, you can publish it yourself — and lo and behold, people read it.
In the past year alone, for instance, I have twice published here at Neuron Culture long feature articles that high-end magazines commissioned but never ran, and which in the pre-blog world would have stayed buried. One was The Tight Collar, a feature about the science of choking under pressure that got orphaned when Play, the New York Times’ sports magazine, folded just as the story was set to run. Another was a post of two weeks ago, Free Science, One Paper at a Time, which got orphaned when the assigning print magazine, after praising it, accepting it, and paying for it, decided against running it.
In the old system, neither of these stories would have seen daylight. Now they have found tens of thousands of readers, and one of them (I can’t yet tell you which) was just chosen for next year’s edition of a major “Best of … ” anthology. There it will run alongside stories from magazines that rejected it when I shopped it around after it was killed. I like this. I feel like Will Smith felt when he hefted that big mongo gun in the Men In Black gun room: Now that’s what I’m talking about.
So Ima do more. With this post I’m launching two new-ecosystem projects. Neither is bleeding edge. But both promise to bring readers high-quality material that they would otherwise never see. One is a book I’m going to make. The other is a book I’ve already written.
The book I’m going to make is provisionally and only half-jokingly titled The Best American and British Rejected Magazine Stories of the 2000’s. It’s inspired not only by the waste described above but also by the Open Laboratory blog-post anthologies and Carl Zimmer’s self-publication of Brain Cuttings from his Discover column. This ebook (which may appear in print via Lulu as well, as the Open Lab series does) will collect top-quality longform nonfiction articles that ace writers researched and wrote and polished … and then lost to one of the orphanage pathways described above. I already have some prospects from top science writers. I’ll solicit others from ace writers on sports, tech, politics, and culture. The idea is to publish a book that matches in quality the other Best of anthologies — but made up of rejects.
That one will take a little while, but I’m determined to make it happen. If you want to help, introducing yourself and telling me how you might do so.
The other project, involving a book I’ve already written, starts tomorrow: Here at Neuron Culture I’m going to serially publish significant chunks of my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral. I’m doing so because I love this book, I deeply believe it’s good, and almost no one knows it exists. When it was ostensibly published in 2005 — when I was a nobody too politely waiting my turn, stoopid enough to think if I just spent three years working hard to write a really good book, good things would happen — it was published and distributed and publicized so poorly that this event amounted to “publication” only in name; its publication amounted to little more than an act of paper consumption and archiving. (Though I like the cover.) So I’m publishing big chunks of it here, serially, in the hope that readers will see that Oliver Sacks is right, and that Reef Madness is, as I like to say, the best book about Darwin that you’ve ever heard of.
Will this work? Don’t know. But work or no, at least I’ll know I didn’t just sit around waiting.
*This old-school path has two lanes. One, taken by freelancers, involves moving from small stories for small publications through increasingly big stories for big publications; the other, the mag staffer route, involves starting as a researcher or proofer or fact-checker at a magazine and workingyour way up, perhaps going freelance eventually.
Image: Midtown Manhattan, where the glossies live. By Trodel on flickr