Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Sound Dinosaurs Make

Like many out there on the Internet, I was rather shocked by Harper's Magazine publisher John R. MacArthur's recent broadside against Google. I wasn't horrified because I disagree with the sentiment, though I do, but because it displayed shocking ignorance and incuriosity about one of the most important powers shaping the future of words.

If you harbor fears about whether the leaders of traditional publishing are equipped to shepherd their institutions into a digital era, I urge you not to read it.

I'm sure I don't have to remind you about the storied history of Harper's Magazine, founded in 1850, the place where Moby-Dick first found print, and one of the important literary institutions this country has ever produced.

As Mathew Ingram points out in a similarly horrified response to MacArthur's screed, other old media publishers like The Atlantic have thrived by innovating in the Internet era with a stellar roster of bloggers, new formats, and a firm embrace of the era of Teh Google.

In fact, it was Atlantic Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal who had one of the best retorts to MacArthur's lament that Harper's does not readily appear when one Googles "magazines that publish essays."
I don't blame people for being disquieted by the rapid rise of new technology and the effects it has on our lives, and there is also a long tradition of literary technophobia that MacArthur is seemingly stepping into.

I do blame people for incuriosity and failure to investigate the enemies you see in your midst. I do blame people for failing to adapt to the inevitabilities of the future. It's not Google's job to do your work for you and bring readers to you because... why again? It's your job to understand how Google works and adapt accordingly so your existing readers can find what they're looking for and so you can attract new ones.

You can cover your ears and eyes and shout as the future approaches, but prepared to get drowned as the tide washes over you.

Photo by me


Daniel B. said...

Ha! Right on. Harper's can adapt or it can go the way of...well, you said it.

Matthew MacNish said...

But everything was so much better before. Like in the 90s.

Dina Santorelli said...

Amen. (And I'm using my Google account to post this comment.) :)

David said...

This blog post has the perfect title.

Although I suppose I wouldn't say that if I were one of the dinosaurs. But in that case, I probably wouldn't be reading Nathan's blog.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I had to Google him to figure out who he was. :)

SK Figler said...

The first half of MacArthur's article was thoughtful and on point (to a point). The second half screed on "infantilization" was infantile, ankle-biting, and undermined the first part. Basically, it needed a good editor with the nerve to stand up to the boss.

The Pollinatrix said...

I find your use (creation?) of the word "incuriosity" charming, as well as the fact that you proclaim such a quality horrifying and, basically, just plain wrong.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I think Pollinatrix's comment wins this thread. :)

Mira said...

Wow, Nathan, I've never seen you so strongly take a stand like this. Good for you!

And that photo is by you? Nice.

This guy sounds like he's freaked out - things are changing and slipping away, and he doesn't like it. I wonder if all the flack he is getting from this article will help him gain a better perspectiv, and ideas about how to make your supposed 'enemy' work for you, rather than just railing against it. That would be a good outcome.

Actually - I just realized as I typed this - that is also applicable to the book Publishing world. If trad. Pub. would stop seeing Amazon as the enemy and continuing to put all their energy into trying to 'beat' it, they could put their energy instead into figuring out how to take advantage of Amazon's systems and author promotion.

Just a thought. Thanks for the post!

Zena Shapter said...

Here, here.

Will promptly Tweet and post to this now ;)

Anonymous said...

Get drowned by the tidal wave?

I'll just take a deep breath and plunge in.

Anonymous said...

Drown in the tidal wave?

I'll just take a deep breath and plunge right in.

Anonymous said...

Harpers is #4 when I google a list of the top 50 literary magazines...not that hard

John Stanton said...

The publishing industry watched Amazon go from being their best customer to their biggest competitor. Now, Amazon is starting a full-on imprint that has a fraction of the overhead cost of the big six.

Some people should be afraid, very afraid.

Regibald Inkling said...

Yes, it is a digital era, and while I see many smaller, local presses making great use of the new technology, it's hard to believe such an article from Harper Magazine. It's a new day, and we must adapt. Honestly, it is for the better anyway.

I have more.

Lynne Favreau said...

I sympathize with those who fear new technology and don't feel a part of it, having once been a dot etcher (google it, ahahaha) without computer skills to assimilate; I'm barely computer literate. But if I can attain a modicum of knowledge — enough to host my own website, integrate social media into my daily life and uncover the joy of novel writing (never wrote a word till I learned to use the computer), then I think an entire industry can pull itself up by the bootstraps and get with the program.

Bryan Russell said...

Is it bad that I want a T-Rex skeleton for my living room?

Also, it's hard to adapt to the world if you're playing ostrich and have your head stuck in the sand.

Anonymous said...


While, like you, I too have little sympathy for those who let fear and paranoia blind them to opportunity; I do have to ask, do you feel MacArthur's...rant...was totally without merit??

I mean, I get the point that he's bitter that Page, Brin, and Schmidt make more money than he. A rather distasteful, if sadly common, display of sour grapes. Then he says the three of them are making a ton of money whereas ordinary writers and teachers aren't. I suppose he didn't hear about how the Dish separated from Daily Beast and is doing quite well, but shame on him for not reading your blog like we do.

His final assertion, though, does give me pause. Google does sometimes create an atmosphere where the twice chewed, thrice xeroxed abstract of an article is easier to find than the actual source. If you Google, for example, the so-called "Kill The Gays" bill of Ugandan fame (or infamy) you'll get a dozen results from HuffPo or Think Progress. But you really do have to dig for the actual text of the bill's many drafts.

And meanwhile, the person who did do the original research on the facts is having traffic diverted from their site to another that'll simply, often, give their spin and little else.

I don't necessarily see this as cause to clutch pearls. Back when social media was gossip at the neighborhood cigar shop, it was always the minority who would actually dig deeper, search longer, and question more to get to past the propaganda and to the truth. I imagine when Facebook is an app that can be downloaded directly to your brain, it'll be much the same.

However, as a former agent and current writer, do you think there's something to his assertion that search engines are making so that the real money in writing is abstracting , rather than actual writing ? Do you think Google is casting a shockwave which'll leave behind no literary steakhouses and fine French bistros, but rather a sea of McDonald's?


Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks for the thoughts. I do agree that cut-and-paste journalism and the muddling of the original source is a bit troubling, but I actually don't know that it's all that different than what already transpired in newspapers and news broadcasts across the country before the Internet. Every outlet had its own take on a story that was originally reported elsewhere, and news broadcasts especially have always been pretty careless about attributing original sources.

The difference, it seems to me, isn't the volume of versions of the same essential story, but rather that all of those virtually identical stories are now readily accessible and easy to find. They're, basically, a Google search away.

I actually think the Internet still rewards original reporting, perhaps even to a greater degree than the old system. Deadspin isn't exactly a huge bastion of journalistic repute, but look at the benefit they accrued by breaking the Manti Te'o story. In today's era there isn't a whole lot of value in doing the same version of a story done 100 times elsewhere, but rather there's pressure to add value in order to help yours stand above the fact.

In the end, I think that's better than the old system, and Google helps us find the best stuff.

Peter Dudley said...

Nice title for the post. And that is one sublime tweet.

I think you're right in your last comment that there is pressure to add value... if you want to stand above. The biggest problem, I fear, is that most people are content to make more of the same noise that everyone else is making if that earns a living. It's the exceptional people that, well, are the exception and stand above. I think they have always existed and will always exist; it's just the medium that's changing.

Meanwhile, google is enabling the noisemakers to make more noise, and we the people have to figure out how to use google to find what we want (Bill's example of the text of that bill).

It's ironic, I suppose, that google is the new middleman, and that both the provider and the consumer have to learn how google works to make the most beneficial connections.

AJM Mousseau said...

I don't know how I ever survived without Google!

Charie Dawn said...

What an apt title for your post!

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