Monday, May 31, 2010

Sermon texts for June 2010

June 6 Genesis 7:1-24 -- Through one man’s obedience (theme:
June 13 Genesis 8:1-22 -- New order established
June 20 Genesis 9:1-17 -- Promise and preservation
June 27 Genesis 9:18-29 -- The curse of Canaan

Saturday, May 29, 2010

More on Self-Publishing

Start with my recent post on Publishing and Self-Publishing for background.

Now, the publishing industry is what it is: there are more people seeking publication than ever, and more book proposals and manuscripts (good and bad) being submitted than ever. Publishers still have to make money to stay afloat-- no one should begrudge them their right to make a profit. And the sub-industries around publishing are full and growing.

As I pointed out in my last post, however, there are some sea-changes taking place in the publishing industry. Probably one of the most significant ones is that the seat of power is shifting from the publishers themselves to the resellers. Another crucial change is that the "middle-man" is no longer the distributor, but now the publishing house itself, because distribution is largely consolidated among four or five huge companies that represent both distribution and re-sale-- and many of these companies offer a direct publication/distribution route to writers through self-publishing.

All of this has the publishing industry on the defensive, and there are basically two ways that they are responding: own it and figure out what part they will play in the next new era of publishing, or crab about it and insist that everyone is mistaken but them.

One example of the former is Thomas Nelson's approach: they established a self-publishing division called
WestBow Press (actually resuscitating an old Thomas Nelson imprint name) which offers both self-publishing and (they claim) something like farm-team development for authors. In other words, according to Thomas Nelson, they're watching for major-league writing talent in the same way the division-I minor league baseball team in your hometown is looking for the next Albert Pujols or Andy Pettitte.

Another example of the former
came recently on literary agent Chip MacGregor's blog, when Jeff Gerke, who is president of Marcher Lord Press, openly challenged a lot of the claims of conventional publishing houses. Gerke made a lot of solid points in favor of self-publishing, and pointed out that the trajectory of the industry doesn't seem to leave a lot of room for traditional publishing houses except for those who will be "pleading with people to come to them"! I feel like some of Gerke's claims are hyperbole, but he pointed out some weaknesses in traditional publishing's arguments (not the least of which is the arrogance with which so many seem to approach their place in the industry) and certainly stirred up some active discussion on Chip's blog.

And then comes the example of the latter, not-too-ironically coming in a response to Jeff Gerke on Chip MacGregor's blog. Dennis Hillman, who is publisher at
Kregel Publications, had a lot to say in defense of traditional publishing. I'd like to respond particularly to some of Mr. Hillman's central points, to demonstrate why the "let's grouse about it to try to deflect some from reality" approach is so poor.
  • "The author is putting up his or her own money and time to make it happen"-- this isn't wrong, but it isn't the obstacle Mr. Hillman makes of it. Many of the print-on-demand options represent a great value here, with little upfront cash required. Time is always a factor, but I'll speak more to this in a moment.
  • "They are probably not authors who earn a living from writing" -- to which I would ask, how many of Kregel's authors are career writers? For that matter, how many of a company like Thomas Nelson's are? I just don't think there are that many career writers out there, period, who are looking to books as their sole source of income.
  • "Will self-publishing allow an author to move into the larger general market of stores and e-sellers or the more defined CBA Christian store market? Maybe, but most often not" -- actually, this is largely untrue, as I have already demonstrated in my previous post. But where he goes from there is to say that when a book becomes a very good seller, the author needs the large, established corporate publisher and their expertise in marketing and in handling large-scale promotions, etc. This is probably true in 99% of the cases-- but this is the ONLY time when the author "needs" the large, established corporate publisher. In every other case, the marketing and promotion of the book is left almost entirely to the author (as Chip has repeatedly proclaimed on his blog, as have others). The publishing house offers almost no support to authors in terms of marketing and promotion today: if an author isn't able to establish their "platform" and have at least a somewhat-known name before they pursue publication, they won't have much chance of a contract -- and after publication, they are still on their own.
  • "Publishers are going to to continue to serve authors, even though the nature of publishing is going to change radically" -- this was the line that made me laugh out loud. I find it quite a stretch to think of publishing houses as a service industry to authors. Yes, publishing is a service industry, but the order of those served puts customers first, the publishing house itself second, the resellers third, and the authors last. Traditional publishing houses are most interested in making money-- as they have every right to be-- and the service they render to authors, whatever that may be, is the lowest priority in that interest.
  • "The real threat to traditional publishers is not the small, niche publisher or self-publishing. It's the disintermediation (I know—big word but an important one) that is taking place as two or three huge corporate entities replace the traditional chain of author-publisher-distributor-bookstore/online seller" -- this was the most reasonable thing Hillman said in the entire piece, and he's right that it should keep him awake at night. I've already demonstrated how that is a part of the sea-changes that are taking place. The question should be, though, why should this be presented as a problem, any more than the moveable-type printing press represented a problem for no one except the guild of scribes who made their living with quill and ink hand-copying work.

As I said above, one of the most significant sea-changes in the publishing industry is the shift of power from the publishing houses to the resellers. Another way to think about this is that the arbiters of what makes a book viable and worthy of publication are less and less the editors and publishers themselves, but the market. In other words, the readers are now the ones who will decide whether a book should be in print, not the editors at publishing houses. Why is this bad? It's not-- unless you happen to be an executive in a large, traditional corporate publishing house.

Here's where I think this is all going: following the trends of media "democratization" currently underway, self-publishing is going to break out in the coming years (even more than it already has), and the result may actually be a revival of book-reading in our culture because of the abundance of surprisingly-good and well-produced books on an incredibly wide array of topics. The large, power-holding traditional publishing houses are going to lose a significant amount of their clout and prophetic voice in the publishing industry; they won't go away (most of them), but in the fight to stay alive many of them will merge in an effort to shuffle the deck chairs around on the Titanic. Many smaller publishers, especially ones that focus on niche audiences and are nimble enough to adapt to new technologies quickly, will thrive-- and more of their kind will emerge and also thrive. And a new type of "publishing house" (if you can even call it that) will emerge, that will function more like a partner to authors by providing editorial, design, and layout services on the way to some sort of self-publishing and/or print-on-demand publication, in exchange for a share of the royalties (disclaimer: Doulos Resources, a small ministry that I work with, is actually something like a hybrid of the last two categories).

Friday, May 28, 2010

Three questions about the way "we" think of homosexuality

I recently read an article (a couple of them, actually) about a singer/musician who formerly (almost a decade ago) had a very successful career in the "Christian music" world, and who now is in a same-sex relationship. In this believer's eyes, their sexual "preference" (such as it is) is not incompatible with their faith, which is an increasingly common assertion by those who are supportive of a homosexual lifestyle.

I'll say upfront that I disagree with that assertion; I don't believe that homosexuality, as a lifestyle, is compatible with a life of saving faith in Christ, any more than a lifestyle of adultery, idolatry, habitual lying, or any other lifestyle that presents regular, constant temptation to the believer. That is to say, I believe that homosexuals who are brought to saving faith in Christ should eventually seek to break with the ways of their sinful patterns of behavior like every Christian should, and that includes homosexual behavior.

Nevertheless, as I listen/read the ongoing discussion about homosexuality and its occasional interface with Christianity, two questions come to my mind, specifically directed at Christians:
  1. Why do we always only appeal to Old Testament passages to defend our views? It seems clear to me that this direction of appeal goes nowhere with an unchurched audience (and not even with a large part of the churched audience). I believe that the Old Testament is the Word of God, is living and active, and proclaims Christ clearly and boldly. I understand the place and function of Old Testament law, and I understand the degree and limit of Christ's fulfillment of the law, and I recognize (and believe) in Calvin's "2nd and 3rd uses of the law" which teach that the law still functions to point out our sin and instruct believers how to live righteously. Nevertheless, I know that very few people outside of the church follow that. At the same time, the New Testament contains clear prohibition of homosexual acts (check I Corinthians 6:9, and also Romans 1, especially verses like 26-27). Why don't we go there in our defense of a view of homosexual activity as sinful?
  2. Why do we persist in treating homosexuals as if their sinful lifestyle is more grievous than our own besetting sins? Not very long ago, I had a long discussion with a group of pastors, Ruling Elders, and other church leaders about how our profession of faith in Christ is the basis-- the ONLY basis-- for our membership in the church. The objection that they came up with was, "what if a practicing homosexual wants to join the church?" First of all, I think this is something of a straw man; I question whether this is a problem very many PCA congregations will ever face. Secondarily, though, I would turn the question around on them and say: would you refuse membership to someone who is morbidly obese? Or someone who works in a career that is notorious for making greed-inducing amounts of money? Or someone who habitually speaks of others in a slanderous way? All of these are "lifestyles" that are hit hard by I Corinthians 6, just like homosexuality. If someone is professing saving faith in Christ, we need to embrace them and welcome them into discipleship wherein Christ might do the sanctifying work that the rest of I Corinthians 6 speaks of.

I also have a question that I would love to ask of those who purport the assertion named above, that a homosexual lifestyle is compatible with their profession of faith in Christ:

How do you handle passages such as the I Corinthians 6 verse named above? I confess that I don't know very many homosexuals, but the ones that I do know have not been able to answer this question. The best answer I usually get is something akin to, "we are free from the law in Christ." The second-best is, "I'm no more of a hypocrite than anyone else." Both of these answers imply an acknowledgement that, if taken seriously, the Bible in some way prohibits the lifestyle and behavior that they have chosen to live in. Yet when this is pointed out and they are asked if they would agree that the Bible regards homosexuality as a sin, the answer (if there is one) is, "no."

So my question is, how do you get there? The only explanation I can think of is that the Bible is disregarded as any kind of authority. I can see how non-believing people would reach that conclusion; how about practicing homosexuals who claim to have saving faith in Christ? If the Bible is not authoritative, what is their authority? How does the one whom they profess as their Savior communicate His will to them? It seems to all go downhill toward total subjectivism from there.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Facebook, Privacy, and Truth-- Five Misconceptions

So, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, was on NPR's All Things Considered this evening talking about the most recent stir over privacy settings. Several things come to mind about this recent "big deal" (and others like it) about privacy.

First, NPR introduced Zuckerberg as someone who was trying to prevent a mutiny among his 4 million customers.
This is the first big misconception. If you're simply a user of Facebook, you are not a customer-- you are a USER. Their true customers are the advertising agencies that clammer to buy space on the many pages of Facebook, because the incredibly rich data pool that Facebook owns allows them (Facebook, not the advertisers-- directly, anyway) to present very specific and highly targeted ads to its users. Don't be fooled: Facebook is primarily a business, and secondarily a social vehicle; and while the first is utterly dependent on the second, none of us would have Facebook without the business-model side. And the business's customers are advertisers, NOT users.

Second, I've heard a lot of people wonder why the privacy settings for Facebook aren't defaulted to the most secure, sharing little or no information by default. The assumption is that Facebook's handling of "private" information should be as tight as possible.
This is the second misconception. To begin with, this forgets the first misconception, that Facebook is a business first. The more information that is "shared," the more likely that the connections will expand and the networks will grow, which means that their information base will be stronger. Secondly, it ignores the fact that the information has already been "shared" when it was posted on Facebook in the first place. Facebook is not a secure vault for you to warehouse your personal data; it is inherently a public or at least semi-public network (or series of networks) that you voluntarily upload your information with. We all should have learned this lesson well by the many, many stories there are of people losing jobs (or just not getting them) because of the foolish stuff they put on their Facebook. Finally, think logically about this expectation: if so few people understand how to change their privacy settings to secure their data better, why would we expect that they would know how to change them to open it up more publicly? If Facebook changed their settings to default to the most secure, the network would begin to fail because connections wouldn't happen as easily.

Third, there are many different accounts of how flagrantly Facebook is abusing the dissemination of users' information.
This is the third misconception. A lot of these are rumors and severe exaggerations. Facebook is actually a pretty responsible corporate body, and they share information that you have invited them to share, to the degree that you have allowed them to share it. If you don't want your status, or birthdate, or other such data spread all over the network, then quit playing Farmville and asking for Daily Fortunes, and other "apps" that are data-mining tools. YOU chose to opt into those; Facebook didn't choose them for you.

Fourth, this recent movement of concern about privacy has led some to take lots of "drastic" measures. Some people have left the site, which is certainly one way to voice your opinion. Some have started petitions lobbying the corporate side of Facebook to deal with information and privacy in a manner more along the preferences of the users; this too is a reasonable step (only don't expect them to do it just because you and a few hundred other "friends" have asked them to). But some feel like the best way to handle it is to grouse and whine.
This is the fourth misconception. This is business, y'all. They are concerned about public goodwill and the opinions of their users only as far as it affects their bottom-line. If you are truly convinced that Facebook has unlawfully handled your public information, perhaps you should look into a class-action lawsuit-- but while I'm not a lawyer, my best guess is that any lawyer will ask you right away, "did you choose to sign up for Facebook? Did you choose to post your birthdate, your hometown, your address, your family's names, and your photos?" And the honest answer is, YES YOU DID. All that Facebook asked of you when YOU decided to sign up is for an e-mail address.

Which leads to the fifth and final point. I have to chuckle when I read a "friend's" rant on Facebook about how afraid they are of their privacy being violated-- then I look and see that their Facebook has every piece of contact information you could ever need, their full birthdate, photos, work information, education information, family information, and tons of widgets and "boxes" in which they have provided thousands of data-points about their personal life and preferences. Then I look and see that they have a blog on which they have been posting stories and photos of their kids for years. They have a Google G-Mail account. And yet they believe that they can hope to preserve their privacy by deactivating their Facebook account?
This is the fifth misconception. Your privacy is a myth. G-Mail has been anonymously reading your e-mail for years. Facebook long-ago made note of the data that you think you're hiding by deactivating it. Anyone who wants to can find your home address, your date of birth, and probably at least fragments of your Social Security number. (But I'll let you in on a secret, too: you're not as interesting as you think you are.)

If you don't want your information shared, leave Facebook-- that's fine. But don't be fooled; privacy, in the way we think of it and define it as that which existed pre-internet, no longer exists for 90% of the western world.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Thoughts about Publishing and Self-Publishing

One of the "big discussions" in the publishing industry is the future of publishing, and right now it boils down to two questions:
Here's a quick summary of the lay of the land: self-publishing has always been around, and in fact was the de facto method of publishing until sometime after the movable-type Gutenberg printing press was invented. Even after that, self-publishing was a fairly common way for someone treat a completed work of research, for example, or perhaps doctoral work that was obscure enough for a relatively small audience.

As the publishing industry matured under the loving-care of its foster-parents -- capitalism and modernity -- two important shifts occurred. For one thing, more people began to write with an eye to publication. No longer were the writers who published non-fiction almost exclusively academics, pastors, political figures, and philosophers. And many who had a love of fiction and poetry also began to hope that their own stories and poems might appear in published form. Whether it was the dream of becoming the next great novelist, gaining prominence as a lecturer, a hope of earning some money from the hard work of writing, or simply the satisfaction that someone else found value in what they had written, the desire of "getting published" took on a new allure.

It also took on a new flavor. The other shift was this: those enterprises that had begun to make a name (and a profit) for themselves as publishing houses became the implicit arbiters of what is or isn't worthwhile for publication. There is something to this, really; if a publishing house is going to risk its own money on the publication of a book that may or may not earn them anything (let alone represent a real return on investment), they must be wise and discerning about where they choose to invest their money. But the shift didn't occur when publishers realized that they now had choices, and some were better investments than others. The shift occurred when the world arrived at the conclusion that the publishers knew something that others didn't: namely, which books were or weren't

I don't believe that there was some broad conspiracy among publishers to foster this impression among the outside world; I attribute it instead to the rise of the culture of experts that emerged in the 1900s. But publishers didn't eschew this impression. Instead, the fed it, and one of the ways that they fed it was to present the idea that self-publishing was far too arbitrary and unreliable-- indeed, that it was not something that serious and worthwhile writers engaged in, but was instead an act of vanity. Thus arose the label, "vanity publishers" which is what many of the long-lived self-publishing companies are referred as.

Some interesting things have happened in more recent years, however, that have caused tremors in the publishing industry-- especially with reference to self-publishing. First of all, the rise of the internet and related technology at the end of the 20
th century eventually gave way to the "democratization" of serial publishing, and it became possible through blogs and the like for someone to write and be read without ever passing through the gauntlet of queries and editors. Now anyone can write for a blog-- their own or someone else's-- in the way that someone once wrote for newspapers and magazines, though in far greater quantity. Magazine and newspaper publishers will argue that the same problems are in place: without the benefit of editors and "trusted names" in publishing, no one knows where to go for the good stuff, and there's far too much stuff "out there" that is poorly written and edited (if it is edited at all).

As most of us know, though, neither of these has become anything like the problems that the traditional publishers tell/told us they are/were. How many traditional magazines are on the verge of bankruptcy? How many newspapers are closing up shop? The problems they face are much greater than these two minor obstacles, which it turns out that word-of-mouth and the benefit of no-cost/high-frequency reading take care of handily.

Another thing that has happened is that the traditional book publishing houses have become more subject to the desires of the resellers, and not the other way around. This is largely due to the emergence of a few very large resellers that now dominate the book market -- think Walmart, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and -- and therefore control of how people buy books rests in the hands of a relatively few people. Publishers who set out to mass-market their books are beholden to these companies, and must accommodate their wishes to a large degree or face very threatening consequences. (More on this in a moment.)

A third thing is the subject of the other big question above-- the rise of alternative media to print publications, such as audio books, electronic books, and other forms of alternative publishing (like serializing on a blog, etc.). This means that print publications have potential to decline in ways and for reasons that have historically been non-factors, and traditional publishing houses face huge questions about what level they will participate in these new media, how they price their new-media publications (and how they justify these costs), questions of rights, etc.

These last two have already had a convergence of large scale that drew a lot of attention in the publishing industry earlier this year: Amazon faced off with MacMillan, who announced that they didn't want to work with Amazon any longer according to Amazon's terms for e-books (on the Kindle platform), which were basically, "list it at $9.99 and we (Amazon) will keep 70% of the sale price". Oddly enough, MacMillan thought they should be able to determine their own prices for the books they publish. Amazon's response: stop selling ALL of MacMillan's books, electronic AND print. Eventually Amazon brought their marbles back out to the playground, but the whole episode demonstrates how tentative the notion of who is in control in the publishing industry really is.

Finally, technology has made possible the idea of print-on-demand. Publishers once had enormous costs involved in getting a book to publication because they had to commit to a certain number of books for the "first run" -- maybe 5000, at a cost of, say, $1.60 each, which means that (in addition to the salaries of all of the people involved, the costs of marketing and promotion, any sort of advance payment to the author, and the overhead of maintaining their offices), they had an initial outlay of $8,000 just to get the book printed -- when it may not sell even half of those copies, and they were stuck with an inventory of a non-seller. According to that trajectory, a publisher might have close to $20,000 invested in a book before it ever hits the shelf of a bookstore. That's still the most economically-viable way to publish a book, because printing thousands of copies is much less costly than printing one or two at a time. But now it is technologically-viable to publish a book on a print-on-demand basis, meaning no copies are ever produced that aren't needed/wanted. The cost for a single copy might jump to triple the cost or more-- instead of $1.60, maybe it's $5.10-- but it is possible to produce a single copy of a book and no more.

How does this affect self-publishing? Because now AND Barnes & Noble (the nation's two biggest booksellers by a very large margin) both have self-publishing divisions, where any writer can publish their book(s) and have it appear within the listings of the respective stores. What is more, Ingram-- the nation's largest book distributor (which means they are typically the middle-men between publishing houses and resellers like bookstores, websites, etc.) also has a self-publishing division. In each case, self-publishing is done by print-on-demand, though some of these companies offer a more traditional bulk publishing option. In other words, anyone who wants to self-publish in today's market isn't stuck with selling what copies they can out of the trunk of their car; now they can say, "check out my book on" and (at least theoretically) no one can tell the earnest difference between their book and one published by MacMillan, Random House, or Thomas Nelson.

This is a huge shift, and there's more to say. Look for a follow-up post coming soon.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Concerts I've been to...

I started going to concerts in 7th grade, and was an avid concert-goer for a while (until they simply got too expensive). Here are the concerts I've been to:

1986- Journey (Glass Tiger opening)
1987- Huey Lewis & the News (Robert Cray opening)
1988- Amy Grant (Michael W. Smith opening)
1989- Jimmy Buffett
1990- Lost & Found
1990- Robert Plant (Black Crowes opening)
1991- Chicago / The Beach Boys
1991- Jimmy Buffett
1992- Van Halen
1992- James Taylor
1993- Elton John
1993- James Taylor
1993- Susan Ashton
1994- David Wilcox
1994- Amy Grant (Gary Chapman opening)
1994- David Wilcox
1995- David Wilcox
1996- Michael Card / Wes King
1997- David Wilcox
1999- John Gorka
2001- David Wilcox
2002- John Gorka
2003- Michael Card
2004- Simon & Garfunkel (Everly Brothers opening)
2006- Michael Card (Andrew Peterson opening)
2010- John Gorka (part of a showcase-- mini-concert)

Monday, May 10, 2010

My dental nightmare

Right now-- as this is being automatically posted by my Blogger account-- I'm setting out on the next steps in my journey to dental overhaul.

Ever since I was a teenager I've been told that, remarkably, all four of my wisdom teeth were fine; I didn't need to have any of them removed. Even when I would ask (several times later in life) about the fact that it feels a bit crowded in my mouth, I was told not to worry about it.

Now here we are: I began to have problems with a tooth back in January, and finally got in to deal with it late in March. It turns out that its problem arose from -- surprise! -- the presence of my wisdom teeth. They are too close to the adjacent molars, and make it impossible for those molars to get clean which leads to decay. I was blessed with a root canal for that problem tooth, with a crown forthcoming. I was also informed of the problems in the rest of my mouth.

So today, I'm having all four of my wisdom teeth removed. Then in a week and a half, I'll fly to South Carolina where my cousin (who is also an Endodontist) will complete three root canals in a single sitting. In the weeks and months to follow, I'll get the crown for the root canal I've already had, the three for the teeth my cousin is doing, and probably one other as well. Oh, and I also need a filling elsewhere.

So that's what I'm up to today. In a few months, about a third of my mouth will be some sort of synthetic dental work. Woo-hoo!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Worship 7: Is this how worship is at your church?

North Point Community Church is the congregation where Andy Stanley (the son of well-known radio preacher Charles Stanley) is the pastor. From everything I've read and heard, they are a solid church with a lot of good ministry going on.

They have a media division that has recently looked at the liturgy for many of the contemporary/relevant/emerging/whatever congregations that have shown up today (yes, there IS a liturgy to those congregations-- watch the video to see how it works):

"Sunday's Coming" Movie Trailer from North Point Media on Vimeo.

Funny, but also a little bit sad.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Books for April 2010

Here are the books I completed in April:
  • Treason's Harbour by Patrick O'Brian (re-read): once again, I continue to read through this excellent series, some of my favorite books. (10)
  • The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian (re-read): this one is the volume that the movie released a few years ago was primarily based on; however, the movie drew from several of the books, not just this one. Still, it was a good movie (but a far better book, as is often the case). (10)
  • The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian (re-read): (10)
  • The Letter of Marque by Patrick O'Brian (10)
  • The Thirteen Gun Salute by Patrick O'Brian: This one, in my opinion, represents something of a lull in the series (really that started with The Letter of Marque, but that one had enough momentum from a few key events to keep it going to the end). There are a couple of very satisfying points, and the closing of a particular loop (having to do with "spies") keeps this one going, but the end almost jumps the shark-- almost. (9)
  • The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O'Brian: this one regains ground and buoys the series back to its usual high standard. (10)