H.G. Wells, Sir Edward Sassoon, and telegraphy

Shortly after attending Alban O’Brien’s excellent talk on the Great War poet Siegfried Sasson, I was reading H.G. Wells’s The Sea Lady (as one does) from 1901 and came upon this dialogue:

“And in the next there’s the Sea Lady.”
“I thought she——”

“She’s a mermaid.”
“It’s no objection. So far as I can see, she’d make an excellent wife for him. And, as a matter of fact, down here she’d be able to help him in just the right way. The member here—he’ll be fighting—this Sassoon man—makes a lot of capital out of deep-sea cables. Couldn’t be better. Harry could dish him easily. That’s all right. Why shouldn’t he have her?”

I had to do some research. The “Sassoon man” must have been Sir Edward, Member of Parliament for Hythe and a promoter of cable telegraphy. Here’s a speech to Parliament in May 1900 demonstrating his enthusiasm.

Sassoon was a supporter of the All Red Line, an informal name for the high-tech communications network connecting the British Empire. A map from a 1903 book about the topic gives an idea of the system:

In his humorous novel, Wells was enjoying the idea that his character could defeat Sassoon for the Hythe seat, not as the better candidate, but as a champion of mermaids against deep-sea telegraphy cables. Surely Sasson’s deep-sea cables would threaten the mermaid habitat, and to have a real mermaid for his wife could garner sympathy and score votes against the opposition!

But there are some who would say that Edward Sassoon was a visionary, even if mermaids would not have liked him. He was rich, certainly. The Sassoons were already a wealthy family, and he had married a Rothschild. But he also seems to have had some concern for the public good. In 1910, he would try to get wireless telegraphy made compulsory on passenger ships. He failed, so it was a good thing the Titanic had a Marconi on board. After the Titanic sunk, Sassoon’s idea was made into law.

But his significance goes beyond using technology to make things happen. In the Journal of the Society of Arts (1900), Sassoon laid out his argument about why the government’s involvement was necessary when it came to the telegraph. Sassoon was able to see the place of telegraph in the history of communications. He argued that in the case of the railways, and then electricity and gas, private enterprise began the venture but then public interest had to be asserted against excessive rates, so why not the telegraph? Private companies had expanded and bought up smaller companies, creating monopolies. The public interest was manifest in the expansion of the technology, so government must step in.

This should sound familiar as today’s internet communications apps, ISPs, and companies effectively create monopolies on today’s communications. Sassoon’s public interest, however, had nothing to do with today’s focus on individual freedom. He saw the government’s involvement in the telegraph as necessary for cementing the British Empire together:

The moral connection of these outlying portions of the empire with the Mother Country has been sealed by and consecrated with blood, the way has been paved for confirming the strong sentiment thus evoked by establishing still firmer the bonds of material and common interests, which, as in this work-a-day world, form the only stable foundations, on which to secure the permanence and solidity of this vast Imperial confederation.

Sassoon would not be a popular figure today because he believed in the Empire, but there is no discounting his understanding of the significance of technology to national and commercial goals.

Edward’s son Philip would succeed him as MP upon his death. Philip served in the Great War as military secretary to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who led the British Expeditionary Force from 1915. Siegfried was, I think, their cousin (the Sassoon family tree is rather complicated). So it all wraps up nicely!

Suspicion: technology and murder on the North London Railway

In 1864, a 69-year-old bank official named Thomas Briggs was murdered on a moving train. In those days, the compartment doors opened only on to the platform, so each compartment had complete privacy.

The deed was discovered when two clerks entered the compartment and found blood, a walking stick, and a hat which had been cut down to half-height. A ways along the line the wounded Briggs was found and carried to a pub where he died of head injuries.

Rewards for information were posted, and a cabman named John Matthews came forward claiming that a man he knew should be suspected.  Franz Müller, a frequent visitor at Matthews’ house, had given Matthews’ 10-year-old daughter a box from a jeweler named Death (a common name, apparently pronounced Deeth), and Matthews remembered this when he saw on a handbill that Death had exchanged a gold chain that might have belonged to Briggs.

Not many of the sources mention that the cabman’s other daughter had been at one time engaged to Müller, but the engagement had been broken off. Matthews claimed this was due to Müller’s temper. Reading through the sources, I found it strange that this reason for enmity was rarely discussed.

By the time police went looking for Müller he had already left, on a sailing ship to America to make his fortune. It had been a planned journey — he had told Matthews goodbye. Police, and Matthews, followed him, taking a steamship. They would thus arrive before Müller and make the arrest, extraditing him back to the UK, and that’s what happened. I could find no explanation for why so much money would be spent on such a journey, when the suspect was only a suspect.

What with the transatlantic chase, the newspapers had plenty of time to speculate and gather information (and rumors and innuendo) about the suspect. By the time he was returned to England, everyone knew who he was and most had already decided he was guilty. A fair trial was pretty much impossible.

One can read the transcript of the trial online, and the story of it in books like Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder, in the broadsheets of the time (below), and in the Notable British Trials volume of 1911. The evidence, although all circumstantial, invites examination. Was the hat left on the train really Müller’s? Why were Müller and Matthews always owing each other money? Was the evidence of the brothel keeper, who said Müller was at her place at the time of the murder, dismissed because of her profession? Could the entire attack really have happened between two stations only minutes apart?

The jury in the Müller case took only 15 minutes to convict, and the judge sentenced him to death. Although a Lutheran minister spent much time with the condemned man, Müller did not confess his crime. Then at literally the last minute he supposedly said he had done it, right before the drop was put on him in one of England’s last public hangings. There was back-patting all round.

Despite the high-powered barristers on both sides, the transcript makes it clear that Müller’s team was by no means as prepared as the prosecution. And as one reads, one begins to suspect a few things. Why did Matthews not come forward before he heard about the reward?  He knew Müller well, and had reason to dislike him — he was hardly a disinterested witness. Was the watch found on Müller the property of Briggs, as testified by experts, or a watch he’d owned for two years, as Müller claimed? Why wasn’t the alibi provided by the brothel keepers believed, with doubt being cast on the accuracy of their clock? Did Müller even have a reason to kill Briggs? None was found, but robbery was said to be the cause. However, although Briggs’ watch and chain were taken, some money was left in the man’s pocket.

And consider the social context. Müller was a foreigner, with an accent, and he was not well-liked. He apparently had a temper, although other witnesses said he was a nice, quiet man. He was a tailor, a lowly profession, and he frequented a brothel, considering one of the girls his sweetheart.

But also consider the technological context. Trains were fairly new as a mode of transport in 1864. They were louder than horse and carriage, traveled on fixed routes, and followed strict timetables. Their advent tore up the traditional landscape, necessitated stations that could be as grand as cathedrals, and hurtled people along at astonishing speeds that some thought would adversely influence physical health. Train carriages were divided by class, and this crime had taken place (as Flanders notes The Times was at pains to point out) in the First Class Carriage. If one could not be safe in a First Class Carriage on a London train, what was the world coming to? People put their daughters on trains to visit relatives. What if trains weren’t safe?

After the trial, the train companies drilled peepholes (colloquially referred to as “Müller lights”) between the compartments so that people could report suspicious activities. Not long afterward, they had to fill them in again, partly because young couples complained they had no privacy (which lets you know what else was going on in the compartments). Eventually compartments would open onto a common corridor, with glass so people could see each other.

History, I believe, is not just the facts and suppositions of the past, but rather the context of everything. The context here is deep and complex. What seems like a straightforward trial and execution brings up issues now that weren’t in the public conscience then, but may have affected how the trial was run. And yet the case is known today mostly for having been the first murder on a moving train, and one of the last executions to take place in public. Knowing how people thought about trains and foreigners may not make the verdict any more conclusive, but it does make it more understandable.


Also published on Medium

A character pesters the author

Jo is back, looking over my shoulder.

“So when do I come in?” she asks, with a frown.

“I’m not even sure you’ll be in this one,” I say.

“How can I not be? I was in the other two. It’s a trilogy, you said.”

“I only said that because I didn’t want to write more than three. I’m not even sure I want to write the third one, but now that I’ve started with Clerkenwell, I might as well.”

“I’m in Shoe Lane,” Jo points out. “That’s not far from Clerkenwell, and there are a number of printers in both places.”

“I didn’t discover there were printers in Shoe Lane till yesterday. How did you know?”

“I live there. So when do I make an appearance in this book?”

“I only just started,” I protest. “I’m barely halfway through the first scene. Right now I don’t know anything except Samson Light is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.”

“Oh, Samson,” Jo says, looking at the ceiling. “That’s Tommy’s tutor, right? I don’t remember whether I’ve met him.”

“I don’t either. That’s part of the problem. I keep having to return to the other books to know where I am. But if I set this one in 1870 –”

“Then I’m thirty-six. A perfect age for an independent woman. I could be running the Illustrated London News by now.”  She starts sorting the pencils in my cup.

“No, you can’t. I’m trying to keep as true to history as possible.” Jo makes a face.

“Jo, I adore you. I do. I made you the detective in the second book. The entire novel went all feminist because of you.”

She smiles. “Of course it did.” She smooths her skirt and perches on the corner of my desk. Easy to do, since she never wears a crinoline. It’s one of the things I like most about her. “Will I be solving the crime they think Samson committed?”

I shake my head. “No. I think I need to have Tommy solve it.”

“But he’s only nineteen!”

“I know, but you see, this was supposed to be the ‘Tommy Jones Mysteries’. In the first one he helps Inspector Slaughter, but he’s hardly even in the second book. He needs more visibility.”

Jo thinks for a moment. “I’d call them the ‘Jo Harris Mysteries’, and make me the detective. Or even the villain.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“What will you do with Rossetti?”

“I don’t need him here. I only needed him for the art mystery.” She looks sad. “Will you miss him?”

“I have no idea,” Jo says haughtily, “since I don’t even know if I’ll be here to miss anyone.”

I say nothing.

Jo sighs. “You take away all my friends, you know. Nan in the first book. Now Rossetti. If you give me a friend, may I keep him, or her, this time?”


“You promise? If I’m in the last book I can keep my friend?”

“Would you like to be with someone? A lover or life partner?” I reach for a pencil.

“Yes. Maybe with a child? A little girl that we can raise together. We could raise a little suffragist, and she could grow up to gain women the right to vote.”

I do some calculations. “If she’s three years old in 1870, she’ll be almost 50 before women get the national franchise.”

Jo’s chin drops. “What? That long? That’s outrageous.”

I shake my head. “I know, I know.”

“Well,” says Jo, her jaw set in that way I’ve come to know so well, “Even if I don’t live to see it, it’s still worth doing.”

24 hours in Clerkenwell Gaol

Yesterday, lazily wondering what the premise might be for the last mystery in my trilogy, I decided I wanted a character held in prison awaiting trial while my protagonist runs around London trying to clear him of the charge of . . . well, I don’t know yet. Having already set the first mystery in Southwark, and the second around Holborn, I was cruising around Clerkenwell because I wanted to get a little more East End-ish but not go all out Dickensonian. I’m thinking 1870. Maybe my guy should be accused of stealing this clock (Clerkenwell was known for clock-making):

I knew the infamous Coldbath Fields prison was in the area, because I have a previous character in prison there for debt, but I was seeking not a prison but a gaol, a place where they hold people until they go to trial.( I’ve seen too many Father Brown episodes to want my character rescued after he’s been convicted — it’s way too complicated.) And there seemed to be one in the area, but it took a lot of searching to get it all separated from Coldbath Fields and the other prison buildings that had been on the same property before. As one website tried to explain it:

Clerkenwell (old) Prison, also known as the Clerkenwell House of Detention or Middlesex House of Detention was a prison in Clerkenwell, London, opened in 1847. It held prisoners awaiting trial. It stood on Bowling Green Lane conveniently close to the Middlesex Sessions House, where prisoners would be tried, on Clerkenwell Green to the south.

Well that helped with location, anyway. Then it goes on:

The House of Detention was built on the site of two earlier prisons, the Clerkenwell Bridewell for convicted prisoners and the New Prison for those awaiting trial. The Bridewell closed in 1794 and its functions were taken over by the Coldbath Fields Prison at Mount Pleasant. The New Prison was rebuilt in 1818 and in 1847, at which time its name changed to the House of Detention.

Confused? Me too. Was it the Middlesex House of Corrections? No, I think that’s Coldbath Fields. House of Detention? Why isn’t anyone calling it a gaol? So Dickens Junior, ever the tour guide, decided to help out, via this page:

House of Detention —affectionately termed by the “profession” the House of Distinction, or more familiarly “the Tench “—is designed primarily for untried prisoners, the discipline being less severe than elsewhere. Prisoners under short sentence of imprisonment without hard labour—technically first-class misdemeanants — are also confined here; being not required to wear any distinctive dress or to have their hair cropped. It stands between Woodbridge-street and Rosoman-street, Clerkenwell. NEAREST Railway Station, Farringdon-street; Omnibus Routes, Exmouth-street and Goswell-road; Cab Rank,Clerkenwell-green.

– Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens’s Dictionary of London, 1879

I also started coming across the floor plan, which made it easier to identify.


One ghost tour also calls it the House of Detention. By this point, I’m pretty sure I have the right place. And look! It’s still kind of there, though it’s called Clerkenwell Prison.

The Old Sessions House was the Middlesex Sessions House, where the cases were taken for trial, so that helps too.

I even found some engineering information. (And this, children, is why I abandoned studying medieval technology for Victorian England, where there are a fabulous number of sources, all in English and none of them copyrighted.)

This picture kept coming up as I worked, claiming to be visiting hours at Clerkenwell prison, but I was unable to verify if this was the place I wanted.

It looks so nice, all the visitors talking to their friends and loved ones in the door holes. But is this the place? I start looking, as one does, at the Illustrated London News, but no. After doing image search and finding the image on Wikipedia, which does occasionally cite sources, it appears it’s not from the Illustrated London News (or the “Chronicle” as noted on another page), but from Henry Mayhew’s The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life (1862). Stupidly, I go looking at Biblio.com and other vendors to buy it ($65!) only to find the whole book, downloadable for free, at Google Books. (Every time I start to yell at Google for being a monstrosity, they do something nice.)

And in that book was everything: not just the image but what kind of prisoner went in what sort of cell, what furniture was in each cell, where the windows were, what sorts of crimes people were in for, and even a menu:

I don’t think it’s right that if he’s there for three months he doesn’t get a pint of cocoa, but no one asked me. Or Mr Mayhew.

After 24 hours, I have a place! And then something serendipitous happened. I was having trouble finding something to watch on the Roku during my exercises when BritBox conked out, so I started watching the film The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (I have been waiting till it was long enough after reading it to see the movie). There’s a scene in a jazz club, and I’m thinking, that looks like Clerkenwell Prison. But of course I’ve got Clerkenwell Prison on the brain, and so I look it up and what do you know: that’s where it was filmed, in the cellar. You can go there and visit the cellar, which didn’t get destroyed in the Blitz, or even hire it for events.

Writing update

I have now completed four books, each with a completely different writing process, and all because I couldn’t concentrate on the one I was supposed to be writing. The neglected work is the non-fiction book on H. G. Wells’ life in education, Preposterous and Necessary: The Education of H. G. Wells, for which I’ve been gathering evidence for four years.

The first book that’s ready is the collection of Wells’ science education writings, cleverly entitled H. G. Wells on Science Education, 1886-1896, which took three summers in English libraries. I am submitting it to academic presses, since the publisher who originally indicated interest has since turned it down. It might work better as a Digital Humanities project, but I’ve been refused for so many grants I haven’t the heart to apply for any. (It has finally occurred to me that grants are intended for “early career” young people attached to universities, not for older women teaching community college and researching on their own.)
The second is an auto-fictional novella, Before the Time Machine. This was the book I had to write, and it wrote itself, night after night. I then tried to organize it on sticky notes, pasted all over an interior double-door, but I’m not sure what that did other than create an intriguing decor. It’s been alpha-read by wonderful friends and edited by me and, although I had Rachel Cusk-ian dreams for it, it will likely be self-published for a small and deeply disturbed readership who wants to dig deep for their books.
The third is the first historical mystery, Murder at Old St. Thomas’s, set in 1862 London with a medical focus. Here I tried Scrapple to keep my timeline organized, because it was writing itself out of control and my characters were wandering off doing their own thing. I had to make sure that the sequence was right. At first I tried doing some planning using the timeline, but instead defaulted to writing first and then entering the scenes on the timeline, moving things around if they didn’t fit. Sort of what I intended for the sticky notes for the novella. It’s finished, edited by me, and ready for (self?) publication after one more proof-reading pass.
The fourth is the sequel, Murder at an Exhibition, set in 1863 London with an artistic focus. Actual historical figures took a larger role in this one. I tried desperately to outline and plan ahead, which was a disaster and caused much angst, as readers of this blog already know.  Ultimately it has come together, with some scene editing still to do before line editing, but it’s basically complete.

And now? I’m stuck. I have an idea for a third mystery, to make a trilogy, but perhaps jumping ahead to 1884. It seems to want to just float in my head, and isn’t really begging to be written. Perhaps that will come. Preposterous and Necessary waits in the wings. It doesn’t want to be written yet, perhaps because its annual infusion of Britishness has been stymied by what will likely be two summers of being unable to go to England. Such a trip is technically unnecessary at this point, since I have almost all of the material, but it seems somehow essential. I try an occasional short story, but they tend to be very short, under 1000 words, not really flash fiction (no flash) but not long enough to interest anyone. I can also blame being stuck on lack of space in which to work, brain mush, faulty organization, teaching a lot, and the siren call of Other Things to Do, but none of these prevented me hacking out novels.

So instead I’m writing this post. With four books done and nothing published, it’s all I can do.


Breaking Publishing Rules

In the same vein as my Breaking Writing Rules post, I’ve now surveyed the options for publishing, and here are some early returns. It’s long-winded and is really the story of what I’ve learned and how I discovered that my new avocation could become too expensive if I’m not very careful.

Here are the rules (I’ve underlined my new vocabulary words):

First, get an agent

Conventional wisdom is if you want to get published by the Big Five publishing houses, you need an agent. And this is true. Not just the Big Five but many smaller publishing houses simply won’t accept “unagented” submissions.

What an agent does is help you get a publisher. Sometimes they work hard, other times not; sometimes they are highly successful, other times not.

Agents are treated as elite gatekeepers, who can make or break a writing career. Some take months to reply to a query. Some won’t even answer emails — they are too busy and important. My classic movie image of the agent wearing out shoe leather to get their author noticed is wrong.

Conventional wisdom says it’s hard to get a good agent, and that you may be rejected by 40 or more of them before you find one, and that’s supposed to be ok. I have been querying agents. This has become a whole industry; there are classes and workshops you can buy just on writing a good query letter.

Over a dozen agents have rejected my literary novel so far. For the first mystery novel, two agents (one of whom requested my work after seeing my pitch on Twitter) asked to read the whole thing before rejecting it.

Get an agent for your whole career

This one is a little more controversial. If you write repeatedly in the same genre, it makes sense. I have finished four books: one reference book, one literary novel, and two mysteries. The reference book doesn’t need an agent, since it would go to an academic press anyway. The others are in two different categories.

If you read agents’ wish lists you plow through many, many agent profiles at various websites, some of which you have to pay to access. You are paying to access lists of gatekeepers, put together by gatekeeping organizations who let you in for some cash, in return for doing the legwork of collecting lists.

Already I’m getting a little edgy about this. Frankly, I expected to work on not being hurt when my work was rejected by publishers. I did not expect to have my work rejected by those who hadn’t read it and were only intermediaries. Agents don’t get paid by the author — they take a cut of book sales.

Try small presses who take unagented  submissions

I’ve been trying a few of these. They tend to be very kind, and one even told me why they were rejecting my literary novel, which was helpful. (It helped me understand that they didn’t understand what I was doing with the book.)

Authors sometimes complain about the strict rules that small presses use regarding the formatting of submissions. I have no complaint when they want perfect copy, a certain font, a certain subject line. Most, however, publish very few books a year, because they can’t make much money, especially with printed books. They need known authors and popular works to make ends meet.

Some ask for your marketing plan. What will the author do to market their work? Are they known on social media? How many “followers” do they have? Gone are the days, says the conventional wisdom, when publishers did your publicity. You have to do it yourself, market your books everywhere with professional social media, book tours, and…

Writing conventions

Thanks to pandemia, I’ve been to several of these online. I’ve blogged about them, and absorbed much advice. But the more I attend, the more the advice is the same, and it’s often from the same people. And every speaker is trying to sell their own books. They also recommend more books on writing. I’ve bought half a dozen of the books recommended at conferences. Most of them have gone right back out to the thrift store.

One can also take a class, to learn the tricks for writing a best-selling book. I did this for mysteries. For classes, the instructors seem to be mostly writers teaching classes to supplement the sale of their books. And every website on how to write and publish has a link to the author’s books at the bottom. It’s hard to make a living writing books.

Conventional wisdom is that to be known as an author, one must get known at the conventions, and join groups of writers. The larger organizations charge dues, of course. I will need to join both mystery writers and historical novelists for a start. In the meantime, I’ve joined Facebook groups. Some of the people are quite wonderful. But even in groups which claim to eschew self-promotion, many of the posts reference the poster’s book, and how to buy it.

Everywhere I go to meet writers, I find writers trying to sell their books to other writers. That seems odd.

Don’t like it? Self publish!

Long ago I edited my high school newspaper. I remember going to the printers to check the galleys, moving things around and re-pasting with rubber cement. When I got my first typewriter, I created a family newsletter. My first computer was also used for a primitive form of desktop publishing. In a sense, I’ve been self-publishing forever, so this sounds possible.

Conventional wisdom says avoid hybrid presses. They are the old vanity presses. They offer various options, from submitting camera-ready copy to having a Word file and no idea what to do. Either way, you pay thousands up front, and these “self-publishing companies” help with everything, including formatting, printing, and distributing.

I’ve been learning a lot about the self-publishing process. Even if you just want to publish just an e-book, you have a choice of several services and programs. Conventional wisdom says. . .

Hire professionals

First you need beta readers for the manuscript. Alpha readers are family and friends. Beta readers are those who read manuscripts and give an honest opinion. They can be paid or you can read their work in exchange.  (I wish I were willing to read other people’s poor writing, but frankly I do that for a living already.)

Then hire an editor, they say. Otherwise your book will be crap. Go to Fiverr or Reedsy, and find a good editor. I go there, and find there are many types of editing, including developmental, copy, and line editing. Editors charge for each kind, often hundreds for a full novel. More power to them.

Hire someone to design your book cover (and the back cover and spine — that’s separate), they say. Super important to have a great cover, because people buy books based on their cover, even e-books. Oh, and hire someone to do the internal formatting of the text, which is different for e-books and print, and someone to write the blurb. I mean, yeah, they say, you can just go on Amazon and upload a pdf, but it won’t sell because it won’t look professional.

Then you need reviews, or the book won’t sell. Kirkus is respected: $425 minimum. Join reviewer groups, many with a fee, and create mailing lists of your readers. Give out free copies (Advance Review Copies) to get people to review before your launch. Without reviews, you’re sunk. And you need some quotations for the cover. And you might need to hire a publicist.

Rake in royalties through self-publishing

There seem to be two six-hundred pound gorillas in the self-publishing room. One is Amazon and the other is Ingram. Both have a huge distribution network. Seeking the widest possible market is to go wide. Going deep is doing everything with Amazon; going wide is looking toward global distribution of the print book as well as the e-book, but not having access to Amazon’s perks.

Love Amazon? Then great, because you might get 70% royalties for your e-book with their KDP publishing program. But that’s if you sell the e-book at between $2.99 and $4.99. Better yet, use their KDP Select exclusive deal, where you can’t sell anywhere else, or you won’t get that much and, more importantly, your book won’t rise up in the searches so no one will find it. They’ll also print the book for you, but the price will be high.

Don’t like Amazon? Pay a company like Draft2Digital to create and distribute your e-book. Some of these companies take up to 60%, and of course if the book costs too much it won’t sell. For print, they set minimum prices to recoup their costs. My mystery comes out at about $13 for a paperback, which seems high. For print, keep in mind that Ingram Spark itself is really two companies, a publisher (Spark) and a book seller (Ingram Books), and each takes a cut.

Just want to use Amazon as a seller? You can get your e-book published somewhere like Draft2Digital, and printed somewhere like Lulu (which may have better quality but is more expensive than Ingram), then sell both on Amazon. Amazon will take an additional cut after your self-publishing company does.

Any of these, if you get about $1 for each book you sell, consider yourself lucky.

None of this is what I’d call “self-publishing”. Self-publishing is grabbing the manuscript from your shy sister in the village, running down to the print shop in town, and having books made, paid for by your rich uncle in the country. The closest thing we have now is selling the e-book on your own website. Then you’d become a distributor and marketer. If you have lots of people who are following you on social media, this might work. (For me, I’d be reaching about 45 people at most, and reaching readers is more important to me than profits.) For print books, you could pay for printing, then send books out of your house. There’s postal service in every village.

Face it: it’s gonna cost you $4,000 at least

All along this yellow brick road on the way to publishing Oz are people and companies who need to get paid. And that’s after one pays $125 for single ISBN (and you need two if you’re doing both paper and ebook) from the only company authorized to sell them in your country. (They offer additional services for pay, naturally.) Plus $125 more if you need a bar code for the paper version. And $85 to register copyright if you want to be able to sue anyone who violates yours. So add these to the cost of beta readers, editors, e-book formatting, print-ready formatting, cover design, interior design, blurb writing, printing, publishing, distributing, and selling.

Really, one conference speaker said, self-publishing will cost you as much as hybrid publishing, from $4,000-10,000 per book to do it right. If you can’t get an agent your only choice is hybrid or self, and either way it’s the same cost. My mission, of course, is to do more for less. A lot less.

So now what?

Somewhere through all this, I realized that I should self-publish, not because it makes money or I have more creative control, but because I won’t be cooperative with the marketing. This is true even if by some miracle I had a New York agent and a Big Five Publisher. I have no intention of sitting at Barnes and Noble hawking my book from a table, pretending I’m an extrovert and talking to strangers. I don’t think I’ll want to sit on a panel or stand behind a microphone and talk about my book.

It’s a book. It’s supposed to be read, by a reader, privately, wherever they prefer to read. I speak to the reader through the work, their head against mine. A book tour sounds like the fourth circle of hell. It should make absolutely no difference who I am, what I look like, or whether I like cats or holiday in the Seychelles. I’m already struggling with the author website.

And there’s the money. I can’t spend too much, for a variety of reasons. So here’s my conclusion:

  • Writing — I have thus far spent $50 on Scrivener, plus money for printer paper and ink, and numerous books for research (but that’s education).
  • Beta readers — I have good, highly educated, and creative alpha reader friends.
  • Editing — I believe I can navigate through the editing myself, despite the pitfalls.
  • Book cover — There are free book covers, and I can tell a crappy cover from an uncrappy one. Or I’ll be nice to artist friends.
  • Interior formatting — I’m trying Calibre for the e-book, but could also use Reedsy’s book editor or Ingram’s if I go with them for print.
  • Blurb — If I can write a book, I can write a blurb.
  • Reviews — Reviews will have to come afterwards, from people who’ve read the book and care to say what they thought, without me paying them.
  • ISBN — There’s no way out of the ISBN cost if I want a paper book, and I do. I won’t read on a backlit device, and there are others like me, especially among those who would enjoy my book in the first place. $295 for 10 should do all three books.
  • Printing — Since I don’t want horrid-looking amateurish books, I can’t do anything about the printing service taking a cut for their profit, because they’ll be producing a tangible item and need to stay in business.
  • Distributing — If I want anyone other than friends to read the book, I will have to access a distributor and pay them. This cost is combined with printing for Ingram and Amazon.
  • Selling — The “bookstore”, virtual or physical, will take a cut, even if I do Print on Demand.

  • Ethics — If I go down to the crossroads to make a deal with the devil or twist myself into ethical pretzels, the result would be Amazon KDP Select for e-book distributing, and Ingram for print book publication and distributing. Then get out the Sir Kensington’s mustard.

I see now that, rather than having an income stream from writing, it is far more likely that I won’t so much as break even on the costs. It’s likely I’ll get pennies for each copy sold (if I don’t actually have to pay out for each copy), and will never recoup the money I spend getting it published even with the absolutely cheapest option. I’d still rather they be out there in the world. I didn’t write them to sit in a drawer.

I’ll start a new piggy bank. If it doesn’t work, as they say, watch this space. I might serialize the novels and put them up on line for free. In fact, I may do that anyway.





Why your LMS sucks

During the pandemic year many faculty have been forced to create fully online classes in a Learning Management System, such as Canvas or Blackboard. It has been surprisingly difficult. Even those fluent in technologies like email and social media have been flummoxed by the difficulties of using the LMS as an online classroom. There are three main reasons why.

Got folders?

Learning Management Systems appear to be innocent shells into which teachers load “content”, but in reality they each have their own built-in pedagogy. This pedagogy is often archaic and is based on outdated norms of information organization. In the 1990s, LMSs imitated the folder-style structure of Mac and PC (Windows) operating systems. They were really just places to upload content items (usually Word files) and perhaps run a single discussion board (by 2005 or so).

Surprisingly, even when LMSs added more and more features to enable greater interaction and activity, they retained the old structure. It is designed to present material by type: Pages, Lectures, Discussion, Grades, etc. You can see this in the way the menu is constructed.

Presentation by type undermines the organizational integrity of the course. Most scholars think in terms of their field, and how best to present its habits of mind. As teachers, we think next in terms of wrapping elements together to encourage understanding. We do not think in terms of all the articles, all the lectures, all the exams, all the discussions.

Instead, we think in terms of weeks, or units, or modules. We section the learning, combining various elements to cover a particular subject. Separating those resources by type makes no sense when one is creating a pattern of learning.

One solution is to break this framework. If the LMS allows us to add, delete, or hide menu items,we can make new pages which link to the whole pattern of information. It may be possible, for example, to have the menu say Module 1, Module 2, etc., instead of Announcements, Syllabus, Pages, Discussion, Quizzes.

Even so, the system may force its own design. We may have a Module 1 page with all the links to activities, but when the student clicks on that activities, the breadcrumbs may show the folder name (“Quizzes”). Students can get lost following these.

Student-led what?

None of the major LMSs make it easy to implement constructivist or connectivist learning theory. Unlike twenty years ago, instructors may have studied and be trained in active learning teachniques, and have been using them in the classroom. When faced with the LMS, they find themselves stymied.

Created student-led or student-designed work is difficult. LMSs require teacher permissions to set up an assignment, quiz, content area, or discussion. Although some discussion forums allow students to begin topics, this feature must also be set by the instructor.

Some systems seems to be more adaptable, or at least expandable. In LMSs like Canvas, LTI’s (tools using the Learning Tools Interoperability standard) can be added to the system with varying levels of success. An example might be an improved discussion board, or Google Docs, or a group annotation app. Some integrate fairly well into the LMS, making them easy to access from inside the shell and pushing grades back into the system. But all require a bit of technical expertise to set up, and the integration is rarely seamless. Some, like Google Docs, may require students to have a separate Google account, while others need their own structural folder inside the LMS for all activity related to that app. This is particularly true of textbook publishers’ material, which often tries to integrate the publisher’s own textbook site with the LMS.

The solutions here take one of three directions: the internal approach, the LTI approach, or the textbook publisher approach.

Since students can be given control of discussion boards, the internal approach would include using them for different kinds of activity other than discussion: posting lists of websites, sharing resources, posting quotations from reading. The other folder areas (quizzes, pages, etc) can simply not be used.

The LTI approach would involve using more collaborative tools, like Google Docs or group annotation apps or pinboards as the main outside tool, with the instructor learning it well and monitoring it thoroughly.

The textbook publisher approach would be to ignore or hide everything possible in the LMS navigation and use the publisher’s folder as the main work area.

Fifteen papers due today!

Gone are the days when your class was the only online class students were taking. They are now enrolled in many classes within the same LMS at the same institution. In an effort to help them remember the deadlines for everything, the LMS aggregates all the information from all the courses into task lists, using a Calendar or To Do feature.

For example, a conditional release feature makes it possible to prevent a student performing Task B (a test) before they have done Task A (an assignment). Task A is designed to prepare the student for Task B, and ideally would be done within a short period of concentration. But on the student’s Calendar they see Task A, then Task 1 from another class, then Task iii from yet another class, before Task B. By the time they get to Task B, they have no idea what was learned in Task A. An example from three of may classes, running at the same time:

Same day, three different classes

Perhaps you have designed a module to lead students through an introduction, then a short lecture, then a video, then a discussion, then a test. All of these will be disaggregated by due date and will appear in a jumble on the students’ Calendar. Wrapping elements for your class together to encourage deeper understanding becomes impossible.

In addition, by listing all the tasks from all the classes together, the Calendar or List “flattens” all the assignments. It becomes impossible to tell which tasks are more or less important to the student, to learning, or to the grade. They all look equivalent in the same font and size, even if one is a two-minute video and the other is a paper that would take several days.

Unfortunately, this problem may not be solvable. Few LMSs allow control over whether or not to show calendars and lists to students. Because permissions for such features run above the individual course level, instructors usually have no access to any methods that would change the LMS behavior.

The bottom line

Creative pedagogy can work within the limitations of the LMS, but it is not easy to implement. Systems are designed to systematize, and the LMS is designed to create cookie-cutter classes based on outmoded structures rather than to promote innovative approaches. Thus for many of us, understanding its design is essential to adapting, subverting, or acquiescing to its suckiness.


Also published on Medium

Mobs at the Capitol

The press has been looking through the past for previous examples of what happened in the Capitol last week, partly to see if they can justify using the word “unprecedented.”

It depends on the sort of precedent one is looking for. Are we looking for times when a violent group forced their way into the building? If so, it may be technically correct that a mob has not stormed the Capitol since the War of 1812, but even then, it was in a time of war, and the mob was the enemy.

Are we looking at violence in the Capitol building? There are many examples of that, including the stick fight that almost killed Senator Charles Sumner in 1856. Are we looking for times where groups of unthinking people have tried to “tear down democracy”? We can find quite a few of those too.

To understand an event deemed “historic,” it is helpful to place it into a context of similar events. Too many events and the analysis is useless — it’s just something that happens a lot. Too few, and there is no context to examine.

For example, is there a precedent for a large group of unhappy Americans letting their displeasure at Congress be known through massive, disruptive action at the Capitol that led to violence?

One possibility is June-July 1932, when the “Bonus Army” came, and stayed, in Washington, DC.

They came in desperation. In 1924, a few years after the Great War, Congress passed a measure granting veterans a special service bonus, to be paid in 1945. June 1932 was at the height of the Great Depression when many were jobless and could not feed their families. It was the time of the Dust Bowl (14 dust storms would happen that year), and astonishing want in the wake of the Stock Market Crash.

Marchers on Pennsylvania Avenue, June 1932 (Library of Congress

The Bonus marchers came to persuade Congress to give the service bonus early, now, when they needed it, rather than wait until 1945. Some had begun the trip to Washington in late May. Quite a few brought their families and set up houses of cardboard or lived in their cars once in the city. Ultimately, many camped out in Anacostia flats, across the river from the city. At its height, to Bonus Army was over 40,000 people. Over 15,000 were veterans from World War I.

The Bonus Army did not invade the Capitol building itself, nor did they try. They did ask to meet with Congress, and a Congressional delegation was sent out to meet with them. A Bonus Bill had been presented.

July 2, 1932 — marchers at the Capitol, unaware that Congress had adjourned for the holiday (Library of Congress)

During the deliberations in Congress, the President authorized police to distribute leftover food from restaurants and medical aid to the veterans. They were even allowed to occupy abandoned warehouses in the city. The DC police superintendent asked Congress for money to feed them but was rejected.

On June 15, the House passed a Bonus Bill, allowing them the money. One representative, Representative Edward Eslick of Tennessee, had died of a heart attack on the House floor the day before, giving a speech in favor of the bill. There were parties in the streets.

Then the Senate voted it down. The country’s representatives were so afraid of their reception by the veterans that they snuck out of the Capitol using the underground tunnels. The police urged the veterans to leave the city, now that they had nothing to gain since Congress had adjourned for the year after the Bonus Bill’s defeat. Besides, President Hoover had said he would veto it anyway.

But the veterans stayed, deflated and unsure what to do. They continued to surround the Capitol and continued living in their camps. What had been cardboard boxes were now houses made of tin or wood, some with fences and little vegetable gardens.

Bonus Army camp in Anacostia, 1932 (Library of Congress)

General Douglas MacArthur was called on to run them out. First, he used mounted troops to remove the veterans from the city itself. His orders were to push the crowd away from the Capitol and let the veterans retreat to their camps at Anacostia. He later claimed he had the authorization to clear the camps.

MacArthur directing the evacuation (Library of Congress)

MacArthur crossed the bridge into Anacostia and burned the camps. Some of the marchers were killed, and many wounded. Several civilians were tear-gassed.

It would be fair to conclude that in 1932, the nation’s leaders could not handle a group of citizens who were peacefully demanding assistance. They met these demands with military violence. Later views considered that the government overestimated the mob’s threat, but others claimed there were communists and rabble-rousers in the crowd, fomenting revolution. The entire incident left questions about the government’s responsibility when its most worthy citizens are in trouble.

With armed members and forcing its way into the Capitol, a group trying to stop certification of a presidential election is unprecedented. It is also very specific. Are there lessons to be learned from 1932?

Also published in Medium: Frame of Reference

Was the first female doctor in England a man?

Whenever historians discuss the “first” of anything, they use qualifiers. In the case of the first female doctor in the UK, there might be several candidates, depending on how one qualifies the word “doctor.” The innumerable wise women and healers who made diagnoses and prescribed treatment for centuries may be unknown to history. So we define “doctor” in terms of official qualification and credentials.

The honor of being the first female doctor in the UK thus goes to an extraordinary person, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. Although she had been refused admissions to the College of Surgeons and Physicians because of her sex, she was admitted to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries because their rules stated nothing forbidding women (an oversight they remedied shortly afterward). The University of Paris then admitted her to the examination necessary to certify her as a medical doctor in the 1860s.

Before her, one might argue, was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman on the UK Medical Register as a practicing physician. She would not have been able to obtain a medical degree but was grandfathered into the Medical Act of 1858.

But there is an even more startling possibility. Dr. James Barry was a famous figure in nineteenth-century military circles. He obtained his medical degree from the University of Edinburgh and might have been prevented from sitting his exams due to his youthful appearance but for the intervention of the Earl of Buchan, who was friends with his tutor.

 Portrait of James Barry, Wellcome Collection

Dr. Barry was a good physician, known for an excellent bedside manner, and he became a talented surgeon in the army. He served in South Africa and the Caribbean and performed the first successful European caesarean section in Africa. He became Inspector General in 1857 and traveled the British Empire enforcing sanitation in hospitals.

There is much evidence of Dr. Barry’s personality. He was known for his squeaky voice and violent temper. Florence Nightingale, whom he met in the Crimea, hated him, even though his emphasis on hygiene was as energetic as her own. Others reported that he was quarrelsome in the extreme.

He also never undressed in front of other people. This, and his clean-shaven face, curly hair, and short stature do not appear to have caused much comment among most of his colleagues. Later, however, there were rumors of duels caused by insults about his appearance and the expected posthumous claims that “I always suspected” or “I always knew.”

When he died in 1865 of dysentery, a charwoman named Sophia Bishop laid out his body. This action was against Barry’s known wishes that under no circumstances should his body be disrobed in death. The woman claimed that his body had full female genitalia and stretch marks, indicating a possible pregnancy. Barry’s own doctor, Major D.R. McKinnon, simply refused to care about his patient’s sex, having been called upon to identify the body and sign the death certificate. He had written the sex as male on the certificate. When Bishop told him her observations and tried to get him to pay for her silence, McKinnon famously reported to George Graham of the General Register Office:

The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years.

The army sealed the records, supposedly for a hundred years. Isobel Rae’s 1958 book The Strange Story of Dr. James Barry, based on access to those papers, broke the story in the subtitle: Army Surgeon, Inspector General of Hospitals, discovered on death to be a woman. The only evidence, despite the new batch of papers, was the word of the woman preparing the body.

James Barry qualified as a doctor in 1812, so if one says he was female, then he would be the first woman doctor by several decades. The story has fascinated many, and more documents have since been uncovered demonstrating that Barry was Margaret Ann Bulkley in his earlier life. (This includes items like a letter from young Barry to a family solicitor where the recipient wrote “Miss Bulkley” on the outside of the envelope.*) The current wisdom that James Barry was, in fact, a woman, is happily disseminated in more recent books, both for adults and children.

It is natural that current discussions of gender would play into how we interpret James Barry today. Did he simply dress as a man to have a career not open to women? Is it right to call him the “first female medical doctor” if we believe he identified as male? Should we call him a transgender man? Or is it best to respect his own view of himself?

Even if we accept the report of the avaricious charwoman and the handwriting analysis of Margaret Bulkley, we have no way of knowing whether Dr. Barry actually identified as male or would simply be labeled a cross-dresser hiding his female identity. His last wish that he not be undressed for burial seems to speak to something deeper. But here, we are certainly engaging in supposition unsupported by the sources. Instead, it might be best to celebrate an extraordinary career, acknowledge the good he did with his medical skills, and enjoy critiques of his explosive personality from a safe distance.

*see Pain, Stephanie. “The Extraordinary Dr. James Barry.” New Scientist, vol. 197, no. 2646, Mar. 2008, pp. 46–47.

Also published in Medium: Frame of Reference

Making online teaching less painful

So many people have been thrown into online teaching and learning, and the most conscientious professors want to do a good job. And yet, as the holidays approach, many are weary of the online grind, and looking to make some changes for next time.

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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Care for students, and professors, is different in a pandemic. Changes to online teaching methods can reflect that. This fall, teachers reported spending quite a bit of time soothing fears, making exceptions, and being kind. Many found that sticking to the syllabus and insisting on strict deadlines became too hard on them and on their students. So how can we build in the kindness that makes things less painful while still encouraging learning?

Keep the deadlines but remove the penalties

Deadlines have a number of purposes. They organize workflow to make it more reasonable and logical, set a pattern of expectations, and project an aura of professionalism. One would not expect a doctor or lawyer to wait for us because their time is valuable, and teaching professionals should not be kept waiting either.

Getting rid of all deadlines would cause chaos. Work couldn’t be assessed in a timely manner, sequential learning would be delayed, and teacher burnout would result from the crush at the end of the term. Besides, most students want deadlines to keep themselves on track.

The penalties for late work, however, serve a different purpose. They punish the student for wasting our time and making us wait, for delaying the steps in the learning pathway we laid out for them. But delay does not change the path, only the timing. In emergency circumstances, eliminating penalties does no harm: students who would ordinarily do good work will simply do it later, while those who do poor work will have a chance to do better.

Consider eliminating timed assignments

Assignments have a time limit for a number of reasons. We may want students to remember something instead of looking it up, or prove they can do a task at a particular speed, or not overthink their writing.

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If we want students to remember something in a short period of time, a pandemic is not a good time to do this. Mental capacity is reduced and tempers are frayed. If we’re concerned about them looking up the answer, it might be a good idea to consider whether there’s an alternative that would allow them to do so. Can an essay prompt be adapted so it is more individualized as a response, and thus unlikely to be mindlessly copied from somewhere? Can their process be graded instead of their product?

In general, timed assignments can seem punitive, especially for students who do not have set times and places where they can be alone or concentrate. This has always been true, but is a particular problem during a pandemic. Setting the timer may just add to unreasonable levels of stress, preventing learning and leading to more pleas for exceptions, which take up teacher time.

Treat cheating differently

Academic integrity is a serious thing, and no one wants to enable student cheating. There are many ways, however, to make academic honesty more likely and dishonesty less painful.

Consider the structure of the assignment. If there is concern that students will work together and cheat, can the assignment be rewritten so that such collaborations are assumed or acceptable? Can a self-assessment or review be added, so that the student is responsible for explaining the process they engaged?

In written assignments, phrases can be spot-checked for plagiarism using quotation marks in Google. If students are not supposed to lift phrases from the internet, or are supposed to cite them and don’t, it is a teaching opportunity. An instructor can prepare a short video talking about what plagiarism is, and give the student an opportunity to view and discuss the implications before giving a grade, then give an opportunity to do that assignment again or do another.

And for the humanities and social sciences, can the written assignment be revised so that the response is individualized and thus difficult to find elsewhere?

Convert some assignments to automatic points

Assignments that students turn in may include a review or recitation of facts. These can be graded immediately and automatically in a quiz or by assigning a set number of points to an assignment or forum post. An immediate grade lets the student know the task is complete and they can move forward.

Similarly, homework, journaling, and other work that calls for reflection can be automatically scored.

Automatic scoring does not mean permanent scoring. Giving points upon submission makes it possible for the professor to go back through the work after the student has received the grade, and request any changes necessary, such as expanding an entry to cover a particular topic. The pressure is off, and students who have the time will often be happy to make the changes. Up-front grading also gives the professor more time to go through everyone’s work, or to decide to accept the work as is.

Be available but ease off the synchronous stuff

If there was ever a time to be at the computer continually, or get a second cell phone or a Google Voice phone number, it is now. Student questions may be urgent or not, but they will feel urgent. The deadline is still there, and a student may need to ask for an exception to it (the answer is always yes unless it’s the end of the term).

If there is an open forum for the class, or students message the instructor, an encouraging response is crucial. All questions should be received in an appreciative tone (“I’m glad you wrote!”) and answered as kindly as possible. We have students who are ill, who are caring for others, who are overloaded, who are in unsafe situations. Simply writing in an announcement “office hours MW 11–12” or even “contact me any time” is not enough.

For students who are in unsafe living situations or who have job requirements they did not have when they enrolled, synchronous sessions are an added stressor. Likewise with students who have social anxiety, are unaccustomed to online interaction, or are experiencing Zoom fatigue. Lectures, required discussions, or calling out students to participate may not be necessary or desirable. Instead, synchronous sessions can be used to work on homework in each other’s presence, with cameras on or off, to provide support to each other, to discuss the social changes happening around us all, to exchange ideas. The sessions may be required by faculty contracts, but student attendance may be optional or made up in an easier way.

Tame the Learning Management System

Many Learning Management Systems are overly complicated. Most, for example, have too many default items in the menu (Canvas has 18). Any that aren’t being used (that can be most of them) should be made invisible to students.

Clear navigation is more important than ever before. Whether the system uses modules or pages or assignment numbers, the sequence of tasks should be obvious. It is important to keep in mind that in many learning management systems, the student calendar or to-do list mixes together all their tasks from all their classes. Naming assignments clearly (“HUM101 Quiz 1”) can make things easier for everyone.

More often than we think, missed assignments are the result of students not seeing them or knowing they are there. Continual reminders will be of little use when all classes are sending them, not only because they go into Spam folders and students rarely use email but because the mind cannot process all of that and organize it, especially in a crisis.

And, as the saying goes, if you have to write lengthy instructions, the task is not clear enough. When the mind is overloaded, excessive direction cannot be taken in. It’s better to have a brief description of the task, and more lenience with the result.

Don’t expect close reading

This one is tough. Professionals expect their every word to be understood, and their every instruction to be retained. “Read the syllabus” is all too often the response to student questions that are, clearly, answered in the syllabus. That response, however, is unkind when the questioner is frazzled. Simply quoting the pertinent passage from the syllabus takes little time and answers the question.

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When people are struggling to make ends meet, take care of people who are ill, work double shifts at work, it is important to ask whether the workload is reasonable enough that it is possible to learn what is being taught. This is particularly true of readings, which take time and concentration as well as literacy skills. Can less reading be assigned, but more importance put on that which remains? That would create less breadth but more depth, which could reinforce concepts rather than continually introducing new ones.

Is everything we’re assigning truly necessary to learning the skills and content when students are unable to absorb as much as they usually do? If not, it’s time for some pruning.

Caring more may mean doing less

All of these recommendations involve, to a certain extent, doing less, except helping students individually. While it may feel like professors are doing more counseling than teaching, that just could be the appropriate response during these difficult times, and may teach lessons beyond the academic subjects.

It is natural in a crisis to streamline ones workload, to focus only on that which is important. Students and professors alike are trying to reduce the load to make things less painful. To the extent that professors can help students stay organized but build in flexibility, the stress can be eased and learning can happen more readily.

Also published on Medium