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188 of 215 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking, but lacks some essential logic, July 6, 2007
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This review is from: The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet is Killing Our Culture (Hardcover)
Because I work in traditional media (book and magazine publishing) and regret how magazine and newspaper publishing are being decimated by competition from cheap (and free) Internet ad sales, I thought I'd like this book more than I did. Particularly since I agree with its premise that the vast majority of the free content on the Internet that is not supplied by traditional publishers is of less-than-professional quality. And that the Internet is home to a great deal of junk information, narcissistic self-expression, childish insults (the number of people who are 45 going on 13 is astounding, as is the number of the quasi-literate), slander, and scams.

However, although _The Cult of the Amateur_ is highly thought provoking, it is marred by sloppy thinking. For one thing: "Amateur" is never defined. Professionalism is a complicated concept in the fields of literature, music, visual arts, and dance (the last is a field this book does not cover, but it is one I am familiar with as a performer and teacher). Professionalism is often not defined by whether the person makes his or her living as a writer, musician, etc. Most people in most arts fields, including some highly skilled and well-known artists, simply cannot earn a living working in the arts full time because the pay is typically too low. Professionalism is sometimes defined by whether the artist has passed "gatekeepers," in the form of publishers or producers, or by winning contests. On the other hand, in the fields of live music and dance performance, this is often not valid, as the hiring parties often do not know enough technically to know whether the performers are any good. I have heard professionalism defined as whether the artist continually strives to achieve his or her best--and then studies and works to improve even more. That would have been a good definition for this book to adopt.

But even the book's implied definition of professionalism, which is the passing of gatekeepers, is not consistent. For example, the book discusses how some amateurs were recruited by major companies via contests to create advertising material for those companies. The winners were paid, more than a pittance though less than seasoned pros--which seems reasonable enough, since beginners in a field are usually paid less. Instead of viewing this as a situation where some beginners gained a toehold in the field of professional advertising and a credit to put on the resume when applying for advertising jobs, the book laments it as professional opportunities and money being thrown away on rank amateurs. But: The contest winners did pass the gatekeepers.

The book fails to address another aspect of the Internet that degrades the quality of the publications on it: The Internet heavily rewards change. The ethos is that change is inherently good, and frequent change means a much higher search engine rank. And many people are blogging, or providing free informational articles, to promote their businesses. (Another aspect of the Internet this book does not address: It assumes everyone except big businesses blogs, posts, and chats on e-lists out of sheer narcissism.) Not infrequently these promotional bloggers or site owners are professional writers who have passed "gatekeepers" elsewhere.

But: If they were writing for traditional book and magazine publishers, together with the publisher they would _finish_ each work and perfect it as far as humanly possible. Every monthly issue of a magazine is a different, polished publication. Even the most frequently updated books, such as directories, are only published annually. But the work on a website is supposed to be never done--meaning many of the best writer/website owners post half-finished work and fluff just to keep up their search engine rank. Others constantly chase people to write free "guest" articles--so the website owners can get on with their real writing work. The least scrupulous website owners and bloggers (these are not, I sincerely hope, professional writers), merely lift material from other sites: The ethos of change is yet another incentive to violate copyright.

The book also displays no historical sense beyond a few years ago. (When I first saw the subtitle, my snide thought was, "Today's Internet as opposed to that of the Middle Ages?") For example, it decries book self-publishing as an Internet phenomenon. Which isn't technically correct, since most books are not actually published on the net. But to get back to history: Self-publishing was the main model of book publishing before the 19th century. Everyone can name "great works of literature" that were self-published, as well as "great authors" who published pseudonymously (which this book says is also an Internet phenomenon). Everyone can also name what now are judged really awful self-published books that were bestsellers in their time (for example, Lady Caroline Lamb's celebrity tell-all novel about her affair with Lord Byron). And, some at least can name journalists, such as the novelist Colette's first husband Willy, who shamelessly wrote positive reviews of work by spouses, friends, etc., at times under false names.

As someone who has both worked for "traditional" publishers as an editor and writer, and who has self-published, I don't feel the dismissal of all self-published books as junk is fair. Both traditional and self-publishers tend to view the public as a very important gatekeeper: Does the book sell well? If so, it's of significant value to a significant number of consumers--and its sales keep the publisher in business. Why is someone who invests all their money in self-publishing books considered a narcissist, while someone who invests all their money in self-publishing software is considered an entrepreneur? Well, that's partly because our culture has a low estimation of the arts, an attitude this book continually ascribes to the Internet but which is far more wide-ranging and long-standing. If people valued well-written works, our best magazines and newspapers wouldn't need to sell ads for other companies' products to stay in business--and therefore would not be suffering so from competitive advertising on the Internet. And also, readers would not be so eager to violate copyright law, a problem the Internet has increased exponentially by the ease of pirating works and distributing the copies.

I agree with this book's premise that there is simply too much stuff on the Internet. There is far more information and entertainment available to everyone, than any one person can ever use or effectively sort out. However, that has been true for a long time--the information just didn't use to be on the Internet. People have always chatted informally, and critiqued books, plays, etc. for their friends--they just didn't do as much of it in writing. Since the invention of photography, people have shown around their home photos and movies (and earlier, their amateur watercolors). Since the average person became literate, people have kept diaries--most just didn't make them public.

And, there have always been amateur publications and minor professional ones--little club newsletters, neighborhood newspapers, and so on. Publications for which there was _some_ gatekeeping, but readers never expected them to be of the same quality as a large daily newspaper or national magazine. Nor have readers ever expected a tabloid to be the same kind of publication as a major daily. But, I do not agree with the author's premise that gatekeepers for publications, no matter how prestigious, are so invariably right that readers should simply accept whatever they say. Everyone should learn to analyze and evaluate the information they receive (though most people don't seem to) no matter whether the source is a blog on the Internet, a tabloid, or a major daily newspaper

I believe, by the way, that the insatiable appetite for attention and confession displayed on many amateur e-groups and blogs, is fueled by the practices of some traditional media, especially television and the tabloids. After years of seeing the media obsess over the most minute details of celebrities' lives--not to mention any real scandals--people have come to believe that the public is equally fascinated with all details of their own lives, and that publishing those details turns them, too, into celebrities. Any potentially scandalous behavior of their own seems like just good copy, as celebrity drinking problems and adulteries do to the tabloids. For these amateurs any attention--real or fancied--is a valued payment.

_The Cult of the Amateur_ points out many problems inherent in this transitional period. The models for magazine, book, and newspaper publishing, and the distribution of music and films, are drastically changing. Major and excellent businesses are losing money; many smaller ones have been bankrupted.

But, I believe that within a few years a new stratification of publication and distribution will arise, to aid both readers and publishers. Professional online (or even printed) publications, paid for by subscription or otherwise, will aid readers by doing what traditional book and magazine publishers have always done. That is, by sorting through a vast quantity of information submitted, choosing and collecting that of particular interest on a specific topic, or to a certain group of readers, then editing and otherwise refining the information to ensure the best quality and presentation. Ultimately, such online publications would greatly aid readers adrift in a sea of search results--and also, by making money, be able to pay their contributors and editors. (I agree with this book that most writers and artists can't spend the huge amount of time, and often money, required for professionalism unless someone pays them; whether this is consumers buying the work, or companies helping to produce and/or distribute the work in return for a share of the profits.) So, perhaps people wanting to read amateur work will read blogs, just as people who do not want an in-depth book review have always asked friends casual questions about the book. But readers wanting quality will turn to professional publications, on line or in print; just as they've long turned to newspapers, rather than rumors, for most of their news.

Unfortunately, the publishers that figure out how to make money in the new world of publishing and distribution, may not be the same as some of the best ones now in business. Also, making money in publishing, music, and films _does_ depend on the enforcement of copyright law, and given the ethics of many Internet users, I think publishers need better technical protection systems than any now existing. I do not believe most publishers can continue to rely on ad sales--there are just too many places to advertise cheaply on the Internet.

This book continually points the free-ad-competition finger at Craigslist. But the fact is that any small business can now create a large, four-color, long-term website of their own for less than the price of one printing of one classified (or small display) ad in a major newspaper or magazine: And most of them are doing it. Also, an enormous number of websites, including amateur ones, are trying to sell banner ads and links. With so many Internet venues for cheap advertising--even if Craigslist went out of business instantly--the revenues from most advertising sold either on the Internet or off it are likely to continue minimal.

I also believe that new software will be developed to help the individual consumer search for and sort out the material of most interest to him or her (which is a different issue from whether it is "good").
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Showing 1-10 of 12 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 15, 2007 6:11:38 AM PDT
J. May says:
I like this review. It's a "who watches the watchers" kind of thing, what with his "gatekeepers" theme. I haven't read the book, but based on this review, I think that if I did, I would surely be foaming at the mouth biting back invectives towards the author.

Posted on Aug 24, 2007 1:27:34 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Aug 24, 2007 1:27:47 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 7, 2007 12:00:00 PM PDT
A. J Terry says:
Thanks. But I've seen enough of the publicity blog posts to say this: I now think both the supporters and the detractors of _The Cult of the Amateur_ are taking it more seriously than they should. I think the book is merely a fairly cynical attempt to get on the bestseller lists by being "controversial," and that is why the topics in it are not treated as thoroughly or as consistently as they should be.

Posted on Dec 3, 2008 7:11:21 PM PST
What a thorough, well thought out review. I wandered here via Google, trying to find information on "The Cult of the Amateur", and have to say I really enjoyed this review. I'm taking your word for it and skipping the book.



In reply to an earlier post on Jan 20, 2009 2:03:20 AM PST
Jae 123 says:
It might be a cynical approach (to get to the bestseller list), but taking the messages of the book into consideration - and looking at what the author is competing against (modes of fascism and social darwinism) - I am _very_ glad this book made it to that list. The author is competing against a selfish, manipulative machine.

It's quite frightening. The "mushy-minded" are at the mercy of manipulative, narcissistic powers. It really is fascist, and a mode of social darwinism.

Whoever can discreetly manipulate, can hammer down the strongest opinion, or can make the snidest remark, "wins". Persons who are not strong-minded or not wise enough are at their mercy.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 6, 2009 7:18:51 AM PST
I wouldn't go that far. The idea behind reading isn't to agree %100 with authors. It's a good book, AND the reviewer makes valid points. It just means you need companion books, which is true of every book making claims about anything. I can think of a couple companions to this book, such as "Death Sentences" and "A Bee in the Mouth" (maybe you should save your invective for Peter Wood!).

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 6, 2009 7:21:16 AM PST
I'm sorry to hear you are cutting yourself off from the sensory input that is in this book. It's not the best book ever but it's at least worth checking out (from the library!) and it's worth the time to read it.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 28, 2009 9:03:07 AM PDT
Alex says:

Posted on Aug 1, 2010 11:32:41 AM PDT

WTF? You talk too much.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 24, 2010 2:08:56 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 24, 2010 2:09:59 PM PDT
Along with the book, I heard a conversation with the author on the radio. Yes, this book has its faults, along with an overly dramatic subtitle, but it makes one thing clear: people who know nothing about anything are now allowed to shout into the microphone. Worse, these same people can go on a legthy tirade and end with - "but I could be wrong." Well then, why did you bother to type all that in the first place?

As a professional who works in publishing, I'm also seeing a disconcerting trend with writers who call themselves professional. Their usual criteria? I got paid. It takes years to develop any skill to a truly professional level, and that includes writing. The internet is teaching too many people to post first and think later - maybe. Emotions run high and for what? The freedom to fill your post with profanity adds nothing to any argument. If your emotions do control you then perhaps a little self-control is in order.

The internet is teaching both young and old to be less civil, less thoughtful and more confrontational. Instead of a wonderful exchange of knowledge, it's "No! You're wrong!" The amateur thinks just because he has access he has something worth saying. In many cases, this is simply not true.
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