April 17, 2006

Harry Potter and the Madding Gerund: Secrets of the Language Log Code

I have a secret to reveal to you. There is no point in trying to conceal it any longer. No point in laboring to bury the secret in a chain of clues that will take several chapters for you and a sexy cryptanalyst companion to solve. Because at this weekend's Wordstock Festival, a big book fair in Portland, Oregon, the cat will be up, the jig will be out of the bag: Language Log is making its first venture into print.

Yes, print, the medium where Dan Brown is king and J. K. Rowling is queen.

You see, some time last year an interesting offer arrived at Language Log Plaza. Tom Sumner, managing editor at the great publishing house of William, James & Co. in Wilsonville, Oregon (increasingly the epicenter of the world publishing industry now that Manhattan is so over), informed Mark and me that he wanted to put together a print collection of some of our Language Log posts from 2003 to 2005. And, modest and shy though we are (what, our little contributions?), Mark and I ultimately succumbed to his blandishments.

Naturally, Mark and I see ourselves as being basically of the post-print era. Cyber-aware, web-initiated, silicon-sinewed, HTML-savvy guys. Books, for us, are those old, musty things bound in calf skin that line the walls of the studies of older scholars. Books are for geezers. We do most of our research through web browsers, like everybody else now. We belong to the 21st century, not the 14th. We are much too modern for books. Oh, sure, we do keep a few books around, but just a few that we care about. Roughly four or five thousand each, I estimate, looking at the bookshelves in his Philadelphia apartment, and recalling the shelves in the Santa Cruz house and office that I will be returning to this July. The Cambridge Grammar; Syntactic Structures; a first edition of Dracula; that sort of thing. But mostly we are postbiblic.

However, Tom is a book guy, and he was persuasive. He traveled to Philadelphia and bought lunch for Mark at a trendy restaurant called Pod where food is all Asian and the lighting is all weird and you emerge from lunch feeling sort of shaky having agreed to things you can't quite recall. And Tom corresponded with me a lot and flattered my ego (extraordinarily easy to do, I discovered: just a few smooth strokes, and I am yours and will follow you anywhere, like a little dog). Tom got his way.

Tom turns out to be a great editor. He not only ferreted out all the little tiny slip-ups (we make a few) and fixed them, and tracked down all the cross-references and verified them; he made many key decisions about the book. He made selection recommendations; he did the sequencing and the breaking into thematic chapters; he did a beautiful page design (sidenotes rather than footnotes); he even researched the cover color with marketing people. (We had no idea: it seems tests have shown that, other things being equal, folks who do wholesale book-buying prefer light-colored covers to dark-colored covers. Go figure. For some things you really need a professional, don't you? We went with light.)

In the end, Tom chose the book's title as well. So many great ideas were rejected: (1) The Language Log Code; (2) Harry Potter and the Secret of Language Log; (3) Language Log and the Attack of the Giant Internet Worm; (4) The Unbearable Lightness of Language Log; (5) The Hitchhiker's Guide to Language Log; (6) Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and Language Log is from a Whole Nother Galaxy; and a denumerable infinity of other mad brainstormings we could have thought up if we'd had more time to spend on fun. Instead of any of these, Tom simply chose a title from among the titles of the posts included. To my amazement, he chose a post title that Mark had made up, rather than one of mine! (I whined and sniveled and kicked the furniture for a while; but I pulled out of it after a day and a half.) I never would have thought of the one he picked, but Tom found that people in the book trade love it: he picked Far from the Madding Gerund (you saw it here). To be more precise (since there is a subtitle), the book is actually called Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log.

Starting May 1 it goes on sale. You can actually buy it on Amazon right now. And of course if you're in Oregon you can go to Wordstock and see advance copies on the stand shared by William, James & Co. and Franklin Beedle & Associates, where we are assured there will be show specials. (We're not sure quite what that means, but at the very least I imagine you should expect free blueberry snowclones, golden eggcorn pins and cufflinks, champagne, a brass band, and throngs of attractive, intelligent, sexy young people hanging around.)

So, from this weekend on, we are out there in the book marketplace. I'm a bit nervous, actually, to be competing with Dan Brown on his home turf. It's all very well for me to say that Dan can't write an effective simile to save his life. But he can sell books like a monster, can't he? Will we overtake him? His Amazon.com sales rank, for the new paperback version of The Da Vinci Code, is in the region of 5, and Language Log, as you know, champions the use of empirical evidence and quantitative methods. Things are now about to become distinctly empirical. Will we reach number 5 in Amazon's sales rankings? Or will Dan kick our sorry butts? What will you, the public, decide on? Is it to be The Da Vinci Code, which comes in either paperback, hardback, or a special illustrated luxury edition with fine art reproductions? Or Far from the Madding Gerund, which comes in pale blue with a picture of an eggcorn on the cover?

Time will tell. Still ahead of us, once we get popular and famous, are first the cruel reviews (it would be just so killer poetic if we got reviewed by Dan Brown, wouldn't it?), and then the lawsuits charging that we ripped off the ideas in our posts from Baigent and Leigh or some Russian loony...

Thus we move with a certain trepidation out of the blogosphere and into our new future, as essayists in a medium that came into its own in the late Middle Ages — not so much back to the future, more like forward into the past. Go forth unto your bookstore, and choose wisely.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 17, 2006 09:18 PM