Thinking Out Loud

October 1, 2021

Open Letter to Authors Following the Amazon Collapse

This is one of those “if you’re reading this I must be dead” type of letters. As you can see by the posting date, I wrote this a little bit ahead of the collapse of Amazon, but if a search engine brought you here, then the day of reckoning has come for authors and small publishers.

First, I want you to know you have my sympathy. After years of a predictable revenue stream, be it large, medium or small, you have to start thinking about next month’s rent, and next month’s groceries. I’m sure the survival instinct has already kicked in.

Second, I realize some of you are scrambling at this very moment to recover text files or galley files, along with cover art and a host of other assets related to your books.

Third, I appreciate that in addition to Amazon, you had arrangements with third parties for which Amazon was simply the fulfillment partner, and now you are wondering how to replace the infrastructure that developed.

You’re probably desperate to preserve the status quo, but very few other companies had the ability to handle such a volume of independent sources. That’s why, as you try to find alternatives, their phone lines are constantly busy and your emails are going unanswered.

But you know all this. What I want you do right now is pause, take a deep breath, and be thankful.

Thankful? Yes, thankful. In surfing terms, you got to ride the biggest, longest and best wave that writers have ever known. Not since the invention of the printing press itself had so many others been able to visualize so many great opportunities. It’s just unfortunate that so many of those opportunities were concentrated on a single source.

Technology brought this to you. We were all living in a time of accelerated social change thanks to personal computers and the internet. Twenty years of social change took place in just ten years. Or less. So the world was already moving faster, and the exchange of ideas — or simply words if you prefer — created a ripe market for your ideas and your stories.

Sure, there was a counter-movement. The anti-words platforms like Tumblr and Instagram and TikTok. But people who knew how to write words at a reasonable level of proficiency could amass a healthy group of followers, and even as spell-check and texting-abbreviations threatened the English language, enough people remained committed to writing material that could at least be understood by the majority of readers.

The real blessing the technology brought you was print-on-demand technology. Digital printing devices such as the Espresso Book Machine would print, match the cover stock, bind and trim finished book products at a rate that would have left Gutenberg shaking his head in amazement.

A paradigm developed which allowed you to cut out so much of the in-between process historically necessary to get your words from your home office to finished copies. No more waiting for an acquisitions manager to discover you. No more years and years of trying to build platform. And mostly, no more going back and forth with a team of editors. (You know, the kind of people who frown at the extended use of capital letters, underlining, changing type sizes, and especially at gratuitous use of bold face.)

This allowed you to be current. Something trending on Facebook or Twitter? A recent news event, perhaps? You could have a rush-to-press title on offer in just days. What’s more, if subsequent reporting revealed changes in the narrative as it was originally broadcast, you could, for a small fee, upload corrections to pages 153 to 168 where you had reflected the earlier, out-of-date version of how things had unfolded.

Which brings us Amazon.

Take the books from the supplier, and put them on the shelves, and then from the shelves put them in boxes to ship to consumers. That’s all, right? It isn’t rocket science. It’s a simple business model: Buy low, sell high.

What Amazon brought to the table was a tremendous turnaround on the process. Just-in-time purchasing. Repeated restocking on fast-moving SKUs (stock keeping units) and a ranking system which readily identified which items those were.

But still not rocket science.

They needed an edge and they found it with cutthroat competition. The plan all along was to be a category killer, and the category of books was chosen because, by their admission, it was ripe for picking. It was an easy category to invade and take down all the competition; competition consisting of (mostly) independent bookstores, some of which represented third and fourth generations of family income.

One by one, those small businesses were picked off. No, that’s not right, it was hundred by hundred. All done ruthlessly, even if it meant that temporarily (for individual titles or the business as a whole) the paradigm was: Buy low, sell even lower, catch up later.

But again, this wasn’t rocket science.

The true rocket science was found in one word, algorithm. This was new. Telling the customer that if they liked ‘A,’ they might like ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ as well; and having that marketing backed up by statistical data on the purchasing of books heretofore unimagined, and previously unavailable data on the purchasing habits and online searches of the individual customers themselves.

That only left one piece of the puzzle. How do authors get their books to be the ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ on offer? Again a complex system of presentation optimization which perhaps you shunned, or perhaps you participated in, or perhaps sometimes you just got lucky and your books got to rest in the top ten of their category for a week or two.

In the end, apparently it all wasn’t sustainable; which is what brought you to this blog post. My point here is to say, don’t despair, but rather be grateful that you got to participate in one of the most spectacular moments in the history of publishing.

Writing is a creative gift, and I know that you and the community of authors to which you belong will find ways to disseminate your compositions. Better yet, if you produced good art, your following will find you.


November 9, 2017

The Essential Art of Concision

I debated between calling this “The Lost art of Concision” versus “The Developing Art of Concision.” First, a definition is in order:

Therefore, when I speak of the concision as a developing art, I mean the necessity of being able to put ideas across in a short-and-to-the-point manner; something you need in a world of soundbites. Last year I wrote,

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1.50 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?”

But when I speak of it as a dying art, I’m thinking specifically of the migration of many bloggers from what I’m doing now — typing/writing words — to podcasting; and to Twitter’s decision to gift everyone with 140 additional characters on Tuesday evening.

Twitter is obsessed with the number 140. (Originally videos were limited to 2 minutes and 20 seconds, which is 140 seconds.)  The new length, 280 characters, doubles this even though 160 would have been a nice gift in itself. Or 180 or 200. 280 seems long, it seems to rob Twitter of it’s basic character, heretofore. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I joined, I wrote:

I can’t say what I have to say in 140 characters.

In case you missed it, I tend to write long.

But the word concision has come up on this blog somewhat frequently. Earlier this year I wrote,

I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

The Bible itself is amazingly concise. Readers are often fascinated to learn how narratives they had heard about — Creation, Jonah, The Prodigal Son — when they actually got around to reading them, were expressed in a very limited fashion. In an article about Christ’s ascension the subject was raised (pun intended):

A reader wrote, “We’re told… at his ascension that he will come again in like manner as they have seen him go.” But what do we know about that manner? How long were the disciples staring as he rose into the sky? Was there a low cloud ceiling that day? The Bible’s tendency to brevity and concision makes me think that perhaps God didn’t just beam Jesus up, but his ascension may have have been more prolonged; a vertical processional to heaven.

It also came up in a piece on diminishing attention spans:

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

Today we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The trend towards podcasting is actually surprising, given the push toward brevity in a bullet-point world. Have you ever thought of what a full transcript of your favorite podcast would look like printed out? It would run for pages and pages. A blog post on a similar topic would be less than 2,000 words, and easily digested in under 7 minutes. (Or spoken in 15 minutes. Compare word length to spoken time at this speech minutes converter.)  We wrote about podcasts on an article on the trend from literacy to orality:

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

As Christian communicators however, we have to be careful when we try to reduce to mystery or complexity of the gospel to a concise motto, slogan, tag line or formula. In an article titled What is the Gospel, I wrote,

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

Anyway Twitter, thanks for the extra characters; but I earnestly hope I have the wisdom to not overuse them. Readers, it’s a busy world out there; keep it short!

Yes, today I basically quoted myself throughout this article. To further embellish Chomsky’s teaching on concision would have made the article…well…not so concise.

For those mystified by the final graphic image, TL/DR stands for Too long, didn’t read.

For further reference in thinking about the difference between podcasting and blogging, this article is less than 1,100 words; you can halve the minutes in the above example.


June 15, 2017

Keeping Creativity When Originality is Elusive

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:24 am

Sometimes I relax at the end of the day listening to old songs on YouTube. I’ll hear something and be struck by the fact that they were doing whatever makes that song unique for the first time. “Just think;” I will passionately preach to my wife, “Nobody up to that point had ever done that before.” She just goes back to her knitting.

I would think for musicians and writers and fine artists, there must be a constant frustration that all the mountains have been climbed and the flags have been planted. In a competitive world, it’s hard to come with an idea that is a true first.

This is a guest post from my son Aaron’s latest blog Voice of One Whispering. Aaron is a writer, actor, and armchair theologian. Later on today I’ll ask him for permission to use it here.

Nothing Under the Sun

All creatives I have known have run into the situation where they set out to do a project and then find that it has already been done before. Someone had the same idea and got there first. You’ve worked weeks or maybe months on something only to discover that it’s not as original as you imagined.

I personally find that this experience is sort of like the stages of grief. Not step for step identical but we still wrestle through reviewing the value of our work which tends to involve a lot of denial and bargaining. I try to come up with new justifications for my work. “Do I approach the subject matter from a different angle? Do I present it in a unique style? Can I add insights that this other person can’t? Can I do it better in general?”

The objective is to not scrap everything you’ve accomplished so far but giving up can be awfully tempting.

Sometimes you do find that different angle, unique style, insight, or means of improvement. Sometimes it’s obvious and easy to build on what has already been done. I think that’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is when you can’t re-justify your work to yourself and your standing there staring at your notebook, computer, canvas, or whatever and honestly can’t see anything in your own work that hasn’t already been accomplished. Then what?

The trash can is right there. You could just give up and move on but something in you is reluctant. Why? Because you’re doing this for yourself. You didn’t sit down in front of the canvas or word document just to have this or that impact on society. That may be a big part of it but you’re also doing it for yourself. You’re doing it because you were made to make things and have works to call your own. Who cares if it’s identical to something else? Let someone else be the judge of that. Chances are your perspective is too clouded to see something that would be obvious to an outside observer.

Throw that trash can in the trash can where it belongs and finish what you started. You will likely find a purpose to your work when it’s done that you couldn’t see before. If you can, forget the other thing exists.

Do the best you can, wrap it up, put a bow on it. To respect and finish your own work, in the spirit in which it began, is a gift you give yourself. And I guarantee that at least one other person in the world will be glad you did.

May 5, 2016

Moving on to Bigger and Better Things

life's journey

As many of you know, I follow an unofficial and invisible ‘algorithm’ of sorts whereby I consistently return to same month posts from previous years to look for new material and new approaches to old topics.

Sometimes there are surprises: The particular item we quoted or linked to has been scrubbed from the site, or the entire blog or website no longer exists. I’ve never purged an article from any of my sites. If it was worth saying that day, I think it’s worth being able to go back and examine it again.

But often, it’s just a case of the writer stopped writing and rode off into the sunset.

The reasons vary, I suppose; but this one got to me:

This week I signed a publishing agreement with [name of publisher] to write my first book.

And with that, he was gone.

I recognize that you can only be active on so many fronts and perhaps if I had a book deal with that publisher — which came close once; they read my manuscript — I might reconsider the daily posts here. But then I keep thinking: It was probably their blog that got them the attention which led to the book deal, and now they’ve stopped doing the thing that got them where they are.

Some things we do in life are stepping stones. One thing leads to another. Once you’ve mastered the bicycle, you tend to leave the tricycle in the garage. I get that. But when it comes to sharing your thoughts in a forum like this one, I don’t see how you can simply not have anything more to say. What about topics that aren’t the central theme of the book you’re doing? Do you no longer have opinions on subjects that are currently on the minds of your (former) readers?

If you are a regular reader here, you know where this is going: Pastors who reach a degree of national prominence, get a major book contract, and step down from local church ministry. We saw this in the last decade with people like Rob Bell and Francis Chan.

I don’t think it’s right to sit back in my recliner and armchair quarterback other peoples’ lives. I would probably never claim to know the will of God for someone’s journey. I believe it highly presumptuous to critique the career changes of individuals I don’t know intimately.

However, in the realm of faith, I believe that the heart of ministry is local church ministry. Show me a published author who detaches himself (or herself) from the day-to-day stuff of the local congregation, and I’ll show you someone who will slowly lose the thing that got them their book contract. On a micro scale, show someone who is a pastor, but is never available at the door to shake hands after the service, or never does coffee shop appointments with parishioners, and I’ll show you a pastor whose sermons will become distanced from the very people he (or she) serves.

For those who are blessed with a deal from a major publisher: Don’t stop blogging. Don’t quit doing the everyday, run-of-the-mill thing that got you where you are. Your book won’t suffer; the non-contractual writing may in fact enhance it.

Not all bigger things are better things; they may just pay more bills.

April 9, 2016

Podcasts and the Migration from Literacy to Orality

Filed under: children, Christianity, parenting — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:03 am

Keyboard from steampunkworship dot com

There was a pastor whose blog I enjoyed reading about ten years ago. About five years ago, I think his keyboard stopped working. The blog still exists, but only to post video clips from his sermons. Other bloggers are using their blog solely to post their weekly podcast.

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

Nobody writes, ergo nobody reads.

Our discretionary time is spent on our screens: The one we carry in our pocket; the tablet, laptop or PC; and the 42-inch one in the living room. Our discretionary income goes to the various service providers who make these devices possible. 

Books? The problem isn’t eBooks, the problem is that nobody is reading. Especially men. The time has been used up on screens. The money has been spent on screens.

Add to this the damage being done to the written word due to:

  • texting
  • spell check
  • predictive text
  • visual media: Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, etc.
  • diminished attention spans
  • screen fatigue
  • reduced educational standards

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but if that’s true, a picture also replaces a thousand world.

Facebook, 2006: We just picked up a great deal on a used car. 5-years old. 4-door sedan. Only 40,000 miles. The body is in great shape, and we love the aquamarine color. Powerful 6-cyl engine. And we literally got it for a song.

Facebook, 2016: Look what we got! [posts picture]

English is eroding, and I suspect other languages in technology-infused countries in western Europe, Asia and South America aren’t faring much better.

Dads: When is the last time your kids saw you sitting in a chair reading a book?

I want to develop several aspects of this theme in some different ways over the next few days, we’ll consider this a brief introduction. Feel free to leave comments here or via email if you want to weigh in on this one.


June 16, 2015

Finding Blog Topics in the Middle of Sunday Worship

Filed under: Christianity, Church, worship — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:37 am

Applegate Christian Fellowship

On Sunday our church had its annual “Church In The Park” service. Since we normally meet at two different service times, it’s nice to have everyone altogether.

During the worship time, I couldn’t help but look around and see families and individuals in the unique out-of-doors context. There was one family that I’ve known for years, but their one child seemed troubled during the singing time. Another family that I’ve known a long time is new to this church and it was great to see them entering in wholeheartedly as we we worshiped. I saw a number of people who were by themselves and as this particular service especially caters to families with kids, I made a point to speak to one of them.

I also wondered how the four of us looked to others.

Every picture tells a story; each person is an unfolding story.

“Paul;” some will be thinking, “It was the worship time, and you should have been focused on the attributes of God, his love and majesty, and expressing your thanksgiving and praise to him.”

I guess I allowed myself this different track because of something my wife said to my youngest son earlier in the week about how she is experiencing that time in our weekend services. I asked her to explain:

As an introvert with eclectic music tastes, I find the ‘modern worship’ pool at the churches we attend growing increasingly shallow and, to be honest, uninteresting.  As we stand and sit and stand again during the ‘worship time’, I am less and less engaged in the singing, so I look around. 

I see a man who I remember going through a dark time several years ago and recall how God brought him through.  I see a woman still healing from her surgery, hands raised, eyes closed and a smile on her face.  I see a family, faithful attenders, working to stay close to each other despite disappointments and pain.  I see a woman trusting God for an answer in the middle of her weakness and anxiety.   And the weight, the power, the joy of what God has done in their lives, of what he is continuing to do, hook themselves into my heart. 

In looking into those lives I’m reminded of God’s faithfulness, love, healing and hope deeply and irresistibly.  In that, and in silence, I worship. 

This all got me thinking as well about how some of my fellow-bloggers say they have a tough time coming up with topics; that they never know what to write about.

Look around you.

There are many, many stories. If they are ‘too close to home’ then change up the names, locations and situations, but keep the essence of what you see. If you’re not a good storyteller, then generalize what you feel are the important themes that come to mind. (‘I’ve been thinking lately about…’) 

Summing this up, I think the making of a good writer involves (a) being out and about in the real world, and (b) being observant; having one’s eyes open. Even in the middle of worship when everyone else’s eyes are closed.

Photo: Applegate Christian Fellowship in Oregon. They don’t have to go to the park, they have this on their property.

October 4, 2013

Creativity Block

Filed under: blogging — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:28 am

One of the four summers I worked at a Christian summer camp there was a management team that was considered by many staff to be particularly oppressive. People coped with them in different ways, but generally there was much dissatisfaction and unrest.

CreativityWhen it came time to leave after ten weeks, I got in my car for the two hour drive home and instead of turning on the radio or CD player — back then it would have been a cassette deck — I started singing. Some of the songs that came were things I was making up on the spot, and by the time I arrived in Toronto two hours later, I had written and memorized three complete songs, which I quickly wrote down as soon as I could find pen and paper.

As I later explained this to a friend, he told me that all that creativity had been locked inside while working at the camp, and as soon as I was physically free of the place, the creative juices started flowing like a river…

…I mention all this because over the last few days I have felt a creative block where Thinking Out Loud is concerned, but I realized later that this is only because I have been trying to write more original articles at Christianity 201, instead of harvesting them from other sites.

You can only be creative on so many fronts at a time.

Thinking Out Loud started shortly after I finished a two-year stint of leading worship every Sunday — solo — in a local church. I worked hard on those weekly worship sets, including stringing together medleys of songs from a variety of musical influences in order to give worship opportunity to a broad mix of generations.  Some Sundays the song list incorporated fragments of up to 17 songs.

I could not have done that and done this at the same time. The creative energy to create Thinking Out Loud only happened when I stopped being creative on another front…

…Years ago I heard a story about a man who had never written an original song in his life, but then he became a regular on a Christian television show that was broadcast regionally in Canada. He discovered that while radio stations play royalty based on a partial sample of station playlists, television is (or was at the time) done so that royalties are based on a 100% audit of music used. The money turned out to be significant.

So he started writing songs. While I can’t applaud the motivation, and I doubt that any of those songs had the staying power to be used anywhere today, the point is that the creative resources were resident within him, but had been untapped.

So what’s your creative gift or talent that you’re not using to fullest? What abilities lie untapped for whatever reason? I encourage you to put yourself in a position to find out.

May 18, 2013

How to Disagree with a Blog Post

Filed under: issues, Uncategorized, writing — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:45 am

So we’re still getting great numbers of page views at James MacDonald Preaches on Finances on Easter Sunday, and not a small number of comments, especially for this blog.  Some of you haven’t been back there since it appeared, but I later added an update to clarify some of the comments I got both on and off the blog:

Update 4/4/13

Basically what you’re seeing in the comments section is four possible responses:

  • Supportive (objectively) — People who feel J. MacD. was within his rights to preach this topic on Easter Sunday because it was a legitimate message even for “Holy Week.”
  • Supportive (subjectively) — People who rally around J.MacD. as their pastor or shepherd and want to defend him.
  • Opposed (subjectively) — People who choose to criticize J. MacD. on whatever grounds or based on whatever leadership criteria, or choose to examine this particular topic in light of other information about James and/or HBC.
  • Opposed (objectively) — People who — regardless of whether or not they liked the message — feel the topic was inappropriate for Easter Sunday. 

It was the two objective type of comments we were hoping for.

I don’t want to people to comment on the particular issue here — you should do that at the original post — but I was intrigued with a graphic I found at Wikipedia. From the days of letter writers responding to newspaper editorials to modern forums and blogs, writing tends to follow this hierarchy:


September 14, 2010

Special Message for Subscribers

Filed under: blogging — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:39 am

…and everyone else.

This is a post about the importance of poofreading.  Er, sorry make that prooofreading.  No, that should be proofreeding.

I always feel bad for the subscribers to this blog because just seconds after I hit the “publish” button and see the finished product posted, I notice all of the errors in spelling and syntax.

I had a boss once who said, “A mistake isn’t a mistake if it’s caught.”  There are times that is true, but probably more times — especially with verbal speech — that we don’t get a chance to retract what’s already out there.

The written text needs to be carefully crafted before it goes public.

There’s the classic story of the newspaper who published that “A” had won a presidential election, when in fact “B” was actually the winner the next morning.

Somewhere in my house I have an old copy of USAToday which announces that twelve trapped miners are okay and one died, when in fact it turned out to be the other way around.

Blogging daily, a discipline I am enjoying, is like publishing a newspaper.   While the deadline is artificial — I have skipped a day here and there — if it’s taken seriously, there is a pressure to get something out, and in that pressure mistakes can happen.

This morning I received a comment on a post that went out from here over the summer implying that all of the facts are wrong.   I checked with the original source, and they haven’t retracted anything to this point.   So as with a newspaper there is always a certain amount of fact-checking that has to take place.

Last week, on a blog I write which is not faith-related, I even had someone threaten legal action.    I pulled the post, but with the intention of re-posting it this week with a higher profile, because I believe in the principle of being able to post opinion pieces.   I want to make sure that all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed.

So to all of you, especially subscribers, thanks for your patience when things are rushed.     My aim is for excellence, but sometimes, the busy-ness of life crowds out the checking of details.

Of course, if I were getting paid to do this, then, it would be incumbent upon me to take the extra time to do more of the necessary poofreading.   Or prooofreading.   Or proofreeding.

What are the most glaring errors on blogs that irritate you?

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