White Collar Reset: The literary road not taken

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The year was 1992, the Internet was just emerging from the cloistered servers of academia into the world wide web, and I made what now seems a fateful decision to accept a $2,500 salary hike and switch from writing full-time to being an editor for Baltimore magazine. That summer, a talented young staffer for The Washingtonian named Hampton Sides made the opposite decision, quitting to become a freelance writer. In one of the first stories I ever assigned, I had him spend a weekend reporting on a summer-share house of oversexed yuppies in Dewey Beach, Delaware. The piece was so bawdy, our publisher almost had it killed, and Hampton and I struck up a working friendship.

He soon moved west and settled in Santa Fe, eventually becoming one of the most successful literary nonfiction authors of our generation. His Ghost Soldiers, about the rescue of the Bataan Death March survivors, sold more than 1 million copies and was made into a movie starring James Franco. Blood and Thunder, about Kit Carson and the conquest of the American West, was named one of the top 10 books of the year by Time. Now he's working on a book about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the manhunt for James Earl Ray that is also the basis for an upcoming documentary on PBS's The American Experience.
I've been thinking a lot about that summer lately. The magazine industry to which I lashed my fortunes those many moons ago is now on the brink of collapse. And of various what-if scenarios I've been turning over in my head since my last magazine folded eight months ago, what if I had just stayed a writer has been gnawing away more than most. I, too, was at one time a promising and funny young writer of some national repute. If I had just stuck with it, I could have continued to do what I love and control my own destiny. I could have written books. I could have been Hampton. Or so the scenario goes.

You can imagine my surprise then when I took time out from these oh-so-productive ruminations and recent efforts to retool myself, at 47, for the digital age, and I called Hampton -- and discovered that he is grappling with some of the same self-doubts.

"I guess it could be worse," Hampton said, from a house with the view of the Sandia mountains, which he bought after Ghost Soldiers was optioned. "My publisher had a bunch of layoffs, but luckily my editor kept his job, and they still publish people like Dan Brown and John Grisham, who sell literally tens of millions of books, so they'll probably be okay."

"But things are definitely different. They want you to do video now. When you go out to do interviews, they want you to take a video camera with you, so they can run it on the website. The more video, the better. The only reason I've haven't had to do it yet is because of the documentary, so it looks like I may have the video covered this time around."

I asked what he thought about the Kindle, the e-reader from Amazon (AMZN) that looks as if it could be the sort of savior of the book business that the magazine industry has yet to find.

"The Kindle may be a good thing, I'm not sure. I think the jury is still out. The thing is, I think it's still going to be about, how many things can you link to," he said. "Link here to visit with the author about the making of this paragraph. 'Link here to the true story behind the paragraph': It's like when you rent a DVD, you know, and they have all that extra stuff at the end? The scenes that got cut, the interview with the director about the making of the movie, the true story of the making of Shrek. I don't want to watch all that crap. I just want to watch the damn movie."

We both laughed. As he kept up his rant, though, Hampton made a couple of comments that made me think that the forces transforming the publishing industry aren't entirely a laughing matter for him, either.

He mentioned his three boys -- who "just eat and eat and eat" -- one of whom is about to start looking at colleges. He ticked off the various former employers of mine that once supplemented his income and that either have folded or are about to. I guess everything's relative, but from where Hampton is sitting, at the halfway point of his career out there in his beautiful home under the desert sky, it's not like he has much choice about whether to try to adapt to the changes in how information is consumed in the culture, either. "I guess I want to learn how to do all that stuff. It's the way book business is moving. So I want to learn how to do it."

Then he said something that sounded like something I might say: "I just wish things could go back the way they were 20 years ago. Remember when it was about things like the words on the page? And the order you put the words in, and the style you used, and what we used to call 'voice'?

"The other day, I was in Boston doing an interview with WGBH. And the interview, which will be linked to on my publisher's website, was all about the making of the documentary. They didn't want to talk about the King assassination or the book or even the making of the book about the King assassination. They wanted to talk about the making of the documentary based on the making of the book."

We laughed again. It was nice to know some things are still funny.
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