The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
17.2 (Spring 2017)
Print vs. E-Lit
Heading for the Last Round-Up
John R. Harris
The Center for Literate Values will face major changes, and possible dissolution, after seventeen years of an ambitious but frustrating and usually stagnant Internet presence.
Imagine yourself seated behind a large mahogany desk on the third floor of the Edison Building in downtown Tyler, Texas. One of your trustiest employees—the office’s Bob Cratchit—pecks at the door and is admitted. In his roundabout way, Bob finally works up to confessing that he simply cannot perform his job any longer. The thorough formatting of The Center’s web pages with proper keywords and effective descriptions for Internet searches, like Rhiannon’s mystical horse, seems to draw farther away from him the more energetically he pursues his goal. His eyes are strained by constant labor, and lately his wrists have also grown sore from all the highlighting, dragging, pasting, and other maneuvering over and beyond normal typing. WordPress has made his tasks no easier. As its security has increased, its pliability has diminished. The worker will be locked out of a page if he takes more than a few seconds to finish a task—or sometimes just because the software hasn’t done any locking out for a while and wants to keep its hand in. There has been no time whatever left over lately, he continues, to devise strategies for multiplying traffic; and, frankly (as if Bob were ever anything but frank, even at his most diplomatic), traffic on a site that posts quarterly meditations about the decadent state of Western culture would not likely multiply even if Web browsers were offered clinking great bags of bit-coins to finish reading a piece.
Physically exhausted and spiritually demoralized, Bob tenders his resignation. With sincerest regrets, he is forced to stand down due to obstacles of insurmountable proportions.
Now, some of the scene just sketched out is apocryphal. There is no Edison Building in downtown Tyler. The Center for Literate Values has no office in that building nor in any other—not on the third floor, and not on any floor. I have no mahogany desk; and no employees—trusty or otherwise—draw a salary here. On the other hand, Bob Cratchit’s lamentation is all too firmly based in reality. His physical weariness, his demoralization, his inability to whittle away at the volume of unfinished work, his inadequacy for negotiating the labyrinth of Internet attention-getting… all of this I know to be as genuine as the twenty-four hours in a day; for Bob Cratchit, c’est moi.
The Center’s origins rest in a tiny publishing company that I attempted to launch in the latter nineties: Arcturus Press. I had no help, no budget, and no business experience—only a confidence that the novel resources of the Internet would allow me to draw customers. That confidence proved to have no foundation. As I have done so often in my literary life, I assumed that quality of product would generate sales, and I otherwise paid little attention to marketing. What notice I gave to such matters often exhausted the few hundred dollars I had in the bank for my venture, since I tended to believe the Net-savvy “experts” (I really hadn’t much choice) who assured me that they could drum up traffic. I and thousands of other ingénues, I’m sure, fell easy prey to shysters who did just enough to escape prosecution, but never enough to make their clients happy about the initial and one-time investment. I would eventually conclude, after many a sting and burn, that the “collect once and move one” business model was pretty much boilerplate for Internet “consultants”.
It must be conceded, as well, that the product was not in demand. I had imagined something like a literary Renaissance riding on the Internet’s coattails—but I quickly came to understand that Web-surfing is, in and of itself, antithetical to the kind of reading I expected of potential patrons. The Internet catered to whimsy, fed wavering attention, courted garish surface effects, finished its presentations with lightning speed, and increasingly offered multi-sensory stimulation. The literature that I treasured and wanted to promote elicited a thoughtful response, washed its hands of the giddily impatient, employed a subtlety that required pauses and re-readings, ignored the stopwatch, and left all picture-drawing and sound-making to the reader’s imagination. I was trying to sell the wheel to Incas living high in the Andes.
I gave up the Press, but not my belief that an audience fit though few existed and could be reached via Internet. I shifted my efforts to a more diffuse approach that was at first styled The Center for Moral Reason. The miscue in nomenclature was ominous. I quickly grasped (to my lasting consternation) that part of my intended audience—Christians of a sincere and mature faith—tended to perceive the “moral reason” referent in about the same manner as a bull perceives a red flag. Faith, apparently, is the opposite of reason; and moral reason, especially, is viewed as some sort of New Age or scientistic shorthand, since everybody knows that morality consists of doing what the Good Book says… period. No reasoning needed, unless you intend to rationalize heretical departures from doctrine. Thinking is but human pride. Period.
So the organization’s name soon altered to the current “literate values”, for what good it ever did us with this demographic. (The URL featured “literate values”, as well, but morphed into “literate freedom” as a result of yet another Internet scam.) I would be lying if I denied that the general failure of self-designated Christians to take an interest in my enterprise or any other that promotes an intellectual faith (as opposed to effusive, Dionysiac “fundamentalism”) has left me as disheartened as any obstacle I’ve ever struck in my professional life. The American Christian doesn’t have much use for books, except insofar as they prepare his children for prosperous careers. Period.
Yet I pressed on. The year of this writing represents the seventeenth of The Center’s quixotic mission… and it is time now for Don Quixote to go home and die. I could fairly be blamed for making a lot of errors. In particular, I have never detected in myself the faintest glimmer of genius for promotion. (On the contrary, I’m convinced that I have a genius for turning Vesuvian eruptions into fizzling bottles of soda pop.) Nevertheless, I did transform The Center into a Texas non-profit, then into a federal 501(c)3 tax-exempt charity; and I did—over time—succeed in giving the website a respectable appearance, with a diverse menu and approximately one thousand functional links. In spite of everything, the site’s visitorship has remained static, and even declined. Virtually nobody cares any more about what we are trying to do. The Internet, alas, has easily quashed my little crusade against Internet values. Our stuff appears quarterly rather than daily, takes too long to read, has too many big words, offers too few links, uploads no videos whatever, and doesn’t even allow the rare visitor to post a “like” or a comment in salty language about what old white-male fuddy-duddies we all are.
What was rare twenty years ago is now, for all practical purposes, extinct. A poignant indicator of our position is this: WordPress, whose software has generously made our Web presence possible, red-flags every one of the site’s nearly 600 pages (excepting only a few simply worded poems) in its control panel for poor “readability”. That is to say, we do not publish in sufficiently childish words to win a check-mark beside an invented term that euphemizes collective laziness and educational decline.
If my days at The Center’s helm are almost over, however, The Center itself remains afloat. I have not so much run it aground as failed to get it out of the harbor. As a 501(c)3 in good standing now for about a decade, the organization provides a ready-made springboard for active communicators with traditional values but more fluent command of the Internet and social media than I will ever possess. One such person, who already operates a successful site dedicated to socially conservative commentary, has expressed an interest in inheriting our operation. I am eager for him to do so (since I know him to be a worthy human being who also understands many of the vital details always beyond my grasp). As for what specific uses he will put his inheritance, neither of us knows for now. I cannot even guarantee that any contents of the present site will remain available after 2017. The blunt truth, once again, is that demand for those contents was never clamorous.
Now I will surprise the few eyes reading this piece, perhaps, by announcing that I haven’t really “learned my lesson” at all. I’m not actually retreating from an abortive publishing career, bent and disillusioned, to count gray geese or rehabilitate old furniture. On the contrary, I find that The Center in its present form hampers me from attempting the kind of publishing always most important to me: books. Yes, my first go at book-publishing was a disaster—and I have since suffered through further bitter experiences… bitter, but informative. Small publishers of print copies (I can tell you with an assurance founded upon trial and error) are only good for one thing. If you have a vast circle of adoring friends, publish your poetry or your novel or your tale about climbing Everest with Page of Exlibris, by all means; but be sure that the books are purchased through you if you expect to see some money, because otherwise sales will not be reported honestly. Prosecution of the publisher for fraud would be difficult, costly, and exhausting. For most of us, such conventional publication is a sinkhole for money and a black hole for personal morale.
The e-book carries more potential. Yet here, too, I find fraud to be ineradicable. I cannot prove that Smashwords has defrauded me, though I can indeed do so in the case of two print publishers. It isn’t as easy to spot your book downloaded onto a friend’s Kindle as it is to spy it atop a friend’s bookcase. Furthermore, proving fraud of an e-book operation would be even more complicated than in an equivalent print case. An e-publisher could simply claim that the book’s file was passed along to your friend by another friend, like pirated music (and your friend could of course be counter-charged with denying the piracy so as to conceal the crime). In its standard pre-text matter, Smashwords actually includes a rather pathetic appeal to readers not to pass around unpaid-for files. Might the clever architects of this enterprise be laying the ground for a defense against the accusation of withholding sales reports? “How dare you? Why, we implore our readers not to defraud the author just after every book’s copyright notice!”
Here’s my idea. Anyone can publish an e-book in PDF or EPUB format for practically no cost. I could produce my own work with pocket change, make it readily available to the world, and handle purchases through my own computer. I could also offer the works of other writers whose interests overlap mine—and they would bring their fandom into contact with my publications just as my loyal readers would see their titles. (These writers would necessarily be on amicable, trusting terms with me, not only because I would require their acceptance of my sales reports, but also because I would want to preempt any unscrupulous lawsuit on the part of a person who had conspired to create—through false witness—the appearance of my low-balling his sales.) In contrast to the system just described, Smashwords can only index a title under a category that comprises thousands of other titles. Even if the operation is perfectly honest (a proposition that I have not meant to dismiss), the probability of having one’s work found by a site visitor is surely less than the needle’s in the proverbial haystack.
I love longer works. I love to write them and to read them. Most truths are complex; hence most responsible discussions of or quests for truth will not happen within the confines of a Tweet, or even of a blog post. (I have nevertheless already begun trying to draw notice to my fledgling venture through a blog at https://nilnoviblog.wordpress.com/—the kind of writing for which WordPress is very well suited, by the way. Yet even here, keeping myself to 300 words is a constant challenge.) If we who choose not to have our minds compressed into Tweets and Facebook posts will continue to use new technology as a weapon against new technology’s toxic effects, I am as confident as ever that we can meet with some modest successes; but we must come at the enemy from a different side when one wall proves impregnable—and I’ve wasted far too much of my own energy in recent years beating my head against the same wall.
Remember this: technology like the Internet can be used either to give us independence or to make us slaves. It can be either centrifigal or centripetal—Charybdis flinging trapped things free or Charybdis sucking free things into the trap. Like the Colt .45–the Peacemaker, the Equalizer—Internet technology can either give individuals some quiet elbow room or noisily cram Boot Hill with masses of victims. The choice is ours. We can chase cheats and frauds out of our lives and share our ideas openly with each other… or we can join the line of suckers piling in to view a tawdry peep show.
Dr. John Harris is the founder and president of The Center for Literate Values.