Q&A with the mystery man behind #Quakebook

It’s been more than a month since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Japan, triggering a massive tsunami, the combination of which have killed thousands. And while the country is slowing putting itself together, under the looming dangers of a potential nuclear disaster, there are many organizations — and individuals — coming together to help in any way they can.

For this week’s post, I chatted with Our Man in Abiko, an international man of mystery behind #Quakebook, a crowdsourced project to help those affected by the devastation.

NOTE: The Q&A was done through e-mail over a course of a couple of weeks.

First, for those who don’t know about it, can you describe what the #Quakebook is, how it came about and your role?

Quakebook coverQuakebook is a Twitter-sourced anthology of first-person accounts of the earthquake and immediate aftermath. It was conceived, written and ready to publish as a fully designed PDF book within a week. It has 89 contributions from “real” people as well as 4 from celebs solicited thru Twitter – William Gibson, Yoko Ono, Barry Eisler and Jake Adelstein.

It is not a collection of tweets, but mostly one-page essays.

I thought of it in the shower Friday morning, March 18th thinking that wouldn’t it be great to do in words what mash-up videos can do on YouTube, especially @fatblueman’s Christmas in Japan video. Check it out, you’ll see what I mean. [The video: http://youtu.be/lmCrIZeob4w]

No-one has received a penny. We got Amazon to waive their fees so ALL revenue goes to the Red Cross. Pinch me, I’m dreaming.

Oh, my role? I’m cheerleader in chief, marshaller of the troops and getter-arounder of problems. Don’t like titles!

NOTE: Our Man recently did a video recently sharing the story of Quakebook: http://youtu.be/cQ_-3-wwLKs

Once you had this idea, how did you go about starting this? Can you talk about the crowdsourcing process?

I had no plan as such. Every time I hit a wall, I asked the good folk of Twitter to give me a leg up πŸ™‚

The original tweets and stuff are all on quakebook.org and www.ourmaninabiko.com

Talk about the “real” people that contributed to the collection. Have you ever met them? What journalism skills did you apply in collecting their stories?

The real people started with whoever sent me email from around the world, supplemented by my neighbours, my wife and mother-in-law, and also I got my wife to chase down eyewitness accounts from devastated areas through blogs.

The celebs we picked up along the way. The highly unscientific approach has somehow created a snapshot of many disparate elements of the disaster.

I kept in anything that was sent and was not a rant or shopping list. (There were only two like this).

What is your ideal goal you hope to achieve with this book?

I want it to raise oodles and noodles of cash for the Red Cross, but beyond that, I want it to serve as a valuable historical record to answer the question: What happened at 2:46 on March 11, much like John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” answers What happened on Aug. 6, 1945.

What has been the best part of this project?

The therapy of writing and sharing what we have written; seeing the whole project becoming stronger than its constituent parts.

What has surprised you about the process? What’s been the highlight?

How the weekend stops dead any progress with the traditional publishing industry, while the reverse is true of us amateurs. The highlight? Seeing a tweet from someone that they had downloaded the book, and cried. I then did the same and got teary eyed too.

What do you think about those reluctant to use crowdsourcing in storytelling, particularly in journalism. Any advice to them?

Trust people to deliver, and they will. If you get sidetracked by someone with their own agenda, or who doesn’t get the point of the project, don’t waste your time, find someone who does. Behave morally and you will quickly attract the right kind to whatever your project is, if it has merit.

Can you tell me what you did prior to this project? What were you doing in Japan? Talk about Our Man In Abiko.

I’m a British self-employed English language teacher, 40. I’m a former local newspaper journalist. My wife is Japanese and we’ve been here since 2007. Got two kids. My favourite colour is red.

Our Man in Abiko began as a satirical blog on Japanese politics, and became a persona to keep me sane.

Since the earthquake, I realised Our Man was needed to perform Churchillian tasks of rallying the dispirited to overcome our woes.

What is the backstory with Our Man in Abiko? What’s your name and what brought you to Japan?

Not saying. It’s not my story that’s interesting, it’s Japan’s.

Clearly the book is the focus, but “Our Man In Abiko” is a man of mystery. People are naturally going to ask, “who is this guy?” What can you tell them?

He likes Earl Grey tea, playing with his kids and world domination, you know, the usual.

[After more prodding]

OK, well, the Our Man persona began just as a joke on my blog, I took on the mantle of a redundant British agent sent to monitor the wilds of Tokyo commuterville… But then with the earthquake, suddenly the time for fun was long gone, but I realised I had a fictional character who could do great things. I could not muster the troops and build a resistance movement to the earthquake, but maybe Our Man in Abiko could.

Well, Our Man, congratulations on the success with this project. How and where can people find it?

All details are on http://www.quakebook.org and you can buy the book now here: http://amzn.to/quakebook for Kindle (you can download a free Kindle player for PC, Mac and Smart phones there too.)

Thanks for chatting with me. And good luck on this and other endeavors.

Thanks a lot.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

Two authors' stories illustrate why some journalists profit online, and others fail

An e-mail and a tweet last week pointed me to two blog posts that expressed completely different ways that two writers have addressed the challenge of a changing media marketplace. Their differing attitudes and approaches to publishing in the Internet era explain to me why one writer is enjoying unprecedented success, while the other writer laments a declining career.

Let’s start with this post from author Joe Konrath, about his experience transitioning from a traditional book-publishing contract to self-publishing e-books.

“With self-publishing, in a single month,” he wrote, “I was able to earn the same amount of money it took me four and a half years to earn through traditional publishing.”

He crunched the numbers:

So far this month, I’ve sold over 18,000 ebooks on Kindle.

When I include Smashwords, Createspace, and Barnes and Noble, my income for January will be about $42,000.

Last January, I made $2,295 on Kindle, and I was amazed I could actually pay my mortgage on books NY rejected.

“Amazed” is no longer strong enough a word.

In just 12 months, I’ve seen a 2000% increase in income. And ebooks are still only 11% of the book market.

What happens when they’re 15%? 30%? 75%?

And yet, I still see some writers clinging to the notion that getting a book contract with a Big 6 publisher is the way to go.

But money isn’t the only reason ebooks self-publishing is preferable.

Konrath goes on to detail the thousands of hours he spent driving to bookstores around the country, chatting up customers as he tried to convinced anyone to buy his books. His publisher didn’t want him to tour – since that would require paying bookstores – but without a tour, he couldn’t connect with consumers.

I’ve heard from friends in the book business that publishing deals are getting even worse for authors: less promotion, less support and small advances and payments.

Konrath chose not to accept the decline of his career. Instead, he chose to self-publish, using low-cost e-books instead of the expensive, but more traditional, print vanity press.

The how-to of self publishing e-books would provide enough material for many, many other columns. So let’s leave this with the recognition that by rejecting a traditional career model, and becoming the publisher he used to work for, Konrath not only saved his career, he advanced it to a level he’s never come close to enjoying before.

Contrast his attitude with the writer of this post: Who would want to be a travel writer?

Today in 2011 it is almost impossible to be a full-time freelance travel writer unless you have a private income. Many of my contemporaries – well-known journalists and authors – have gone part-time, topping up their income writing corporate brochures, leading tours or – in one case – renovating bathrooms. Others have given up altogether.

On the other hand, it’s a lot easier today to become a travel writer. When everyone has a blog there is no difficulty in getting published in the first place. And there are countless opportunities to see your name in lights – providing you don’t mind working for free.

The author here seems unable to conceive any way for a travel writer to make an income other than getting a commission from a newspaper or magazine travel editor. He dismisses authors who write their own blogs as “working for free.”

I’m biased here because I earn the bulk of my income as… a travel writer who publishes his own blog. The four-figure payments deposited into my account each month are quite real, thank you.

I don’t write for free. I write for myself.

To ensure that the second statement doesn’t equal the first, I have to do the work of a publisher in addition to the work of an author. That means building a website (or buying a block of ISBNs, if you’re to publish e-books), then finding an audience and building demand.

If you’re not willing to do that work, and instead insist on waiting for someone to cut you a check before you put hands to keyboard, well, good luck chasing those dwindling advances and commissions.

The irony? Those who put in the work of building a business often end up with more time to do the writing that they love. As Konrath wrote, he doesn’t have to press the flesh at bookstore any longer. He doesn’t have to devote time to promotion. With his social media support having reached a tipping point, he can spend more hours writing.

I’ve found the same in talking with colleagues who are still pursuing freelance work. They spend hours of extra time for each piece they write networking with editors, writing pitch letters, reviewing contracts and filling out various publications’ expense forms. I just write stories – what, when and how I want.

While some lament the loss of secure employment for a handful of writers, I’m thrilled to live in an era when anyone with the will to write and drive to connect with a community can earn a living, without having to wait for some editor’s approval.

How the Web can help the WaPo (and other papers) write a new chapter about the world of books

Book lovers mourned, some angrily, the Washington Post’s decision to kill off its free-standing Book World, which, until Feb. 22, was part of the paper’s Sunday print package. But the good news was the Post’s promise that the estimable literary section would stay alive online. “We intend to develop a strong, easy-to-navigate, well indexed Book World site,” new Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli (who wielded the ax) wrote in a response to the 122 Book World contributors who protested the decision.

But just how “strong” will Book World be online?

When the Los Angeles Times eliminated its free-standing print Sunday Book Review in 2008 as part of its nonstop cost-cutting, the section was reincarnated online as Books in the Living section of the Times website. In addition to reviews, book-sale reports and a literary calendar, Books features a blog called Jacket Copy. But the blog, with its multiple authors, lacks personality. Overall, the online Books isn’t capitalizing on the strengths of the Web – particularly community building – and it doesn’t seem to have preserved the critical authority that was a hallmark of the print Book Review. Browsing through the skimpy site, you get the feeling it’s produced on a shoestring. There is no Steve Wasserman or Digby Diehl – past editors of the Book Review – setting and executing high standards.

The Washington Post is not going through the same financial duress as the LA Times, which is a helpless appendage of the fast-sinking and bankrupt Tribune Co. But the migration from print to online life, whatever the circumstances, is always tricky.

The print Book World was distinguished by both its gravitas and sprightliness. Holding it in your hands was like eavesdropping at a literary salon through which passed the likes of Morris Dickstein, Dahlia Lithwick, Laura Miller and George Packer, not to mention section regulars like critic Jonathan Yardley and essayist Michael Dirda, both Pulitzer prize winners. The only thing missing was the well-stocked bar.

Happily, Yardley and Dirda will continue to appear in the online Book World. Strangely, though, the lustrous brand name “Book World” seems to have been dropped. The departmental logo is now just “Books.”

It’s too soon to make sweeping judgments about the online Book World (or Books), especially whether it will meet the same fate as the online version of the LA Times’ Book Review. But it is dismaying to see how dull the newly unveiled site is, even in its pupae form. Yardley and Dirda are there, thank goodness, but they’re barely promoted in 8-point type.

The blog Short Stack, created back in 2007, is now daily, but, like the similar LA Times blog, has multiple authors, which impedes it from developing a personality to which readers can relate and react. The blog also seems to be limited to one entry per day. That’s way too leisurely to grab users’ attention and get them to join in what is now basically a one-way conversation. Why not at least add a paragraph or two at the end that wraps up always plentiful literary and publishing news and gossip?

The Post – and the LA Times – could learn some lessons about creating an online book section from the Guardian in the UK. Its site is big and splashy, but has enough gravitas to do a “Top 10” on books about Rome that includes Robert Graves’ “I Claudius.” The entire section draws loads of comments from users. (You have to wonder if some other newspapers that have eliminated or cut back on book coverage couldn’t learn from the Guardian too.)

For all their literary excellence, the print Book World and the Times’ Book Review weren’t suited for reader participation (beyond rationed letters to the editor). The medium was truly the message – a one-way message.

Kassia Krozser, founder and editor of the lively blog booksquare.com (“dissecting the book industry with love and skepticism”), said in a discussion on PBS’ News Hour last July: “What we’re getting online is, people are excited about books. They want to talk about books. And that’s really incredible….”

And how. Librarything.com, one of the earliest reader sites, claims 500,000 users. It recently sold a 40 percent stake to AbeBooks,com, which specializes in selling used, rare and out-of-print books

Fast-growing Shelfari.com last year completed funding whose investors included Amazon, the champion online bookseller.

Book World shouldn’t mimic sites like Librarything or Shelfari. But it now has a potential audience of 10 million unique visitors – more than 10 times the potential readership it had in the Post’s Sunday print edition.

What an exciting new chapter this could be in Book World’s life – if only the publishing and editorial bosses at the Post inspire it to be written.