Posts by Cheryll Barron

Amazon needs competition as much as Hachette does … let’s do something about that and let the caravan move on

 Cherish the old and get on with the new: the classic, by way of the digital photographs by EF and postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Cherish the old and get on with the new: the classic, by way of the digital (lens)
– postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

There has been a shortage of calm, witty, Establishment voices answering the foes of Amazon.com howling about Jeff Bezos hammering the last nails into the coffin of literary culture. One of these rare birds is Clay Shirky, an American writer and prescient media scholar. Though we had his permission to reblog the whole of his post on the subject on Medium.com — within five minutes of asking — this entry will only link to it and quote its most courageous and wickedly entertaining sections.

Courageous? Absolutely – for anyone following the coverage of the Amazon-Hachette brawl in New York, whose leading newspaper last Monday had a banner headline in its business section shouting, ‘Literary Lions Join Protest Against Amazon’, and recorded Philip Roth (scowling ferociously in a photograph), Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul and Milan Kundera diving in to bash Amazon with their computer mice and vintage clack-clackers-with-carriage-return.

Restricting this post to extracts from Shirky’s consideration of all the good Amazon is doing – which makes it merely an agent of a revolution that can hardly be held back – leaves room for quotations of some of the most constructive reactions to what he has to say.

Like him, we wish that Amazon had found a less aggressive way to persuade Hachette to share the costs of its book-discounting strategy that it says is designed to put more money into authors’ pockets. But, as we pointed out in a post here two years ago, it is hugely surprising to hear anyone in charge of the commerce of publishing care about and speak up on behalf of writers. (See ‘Is Amazon a bully, beating publishers into submission?‘) … We are also worried about Amazon getting much too big. We would love to see as a competitor what DuckDuckGo and its anonymising search engine are to Google – an alternative filling a vital need that the giant leader did not acknowledge or accommodate.

Over to Clay Shirky and his first responders, now:

More energy is being spent right now attacking Amazon than defending the five big publishers … because they aren’t easy to defend. There is some handwaving around the irreplaceability of their discerning taste, an argument undermined by their recent habit of acquiring ebooks they passed on the first time around, like “Still Alice” and “The Toiletpaper Entrepreneur”; their willingness to produce print editions of books that initially found their readers electronically, like “Trylle” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”; and by their building or acquiring self-publishing platforms, as with Penguin’s Author Solutions and Book Country.

Similarly, the idea that only the Big Five will fund speculative work for small audiences doesn’t jibe with the growth of niche publishing enabled by lower publishing costs. (A quarter-million titles have appeared on the Kindle in the last 90 days.) Nothing here is magic. Books are large chunks of writing. Digital publishing creates many new ways to get those chunks from writer to reader. Only some of those new ways require the services of people who work in lower Manhattan.

[…]

I say this as a beneficiary of that older system. I earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in advances for my last two books, to say nothing of the opportunities those books opened up, so the system has worked admirably well for me. However, I am a WASP, an Ivy League graduate, a tenured professor, and a member of the Sancerre-swilling East Coast Media Elite. Of course the existing system works well for me — it’s run by people like me, for people like me.

Despite my benefitting from it, I am unwilling to pretend that this system is beneficial for readers or for writers who lack my privilege. I’d always aspired to be a traitor to my class (though I’d hoped it would be for something a bit more momentous than retail book pricing), but treason is as treason does, so here goes: The reason my fellow elites hate Amazon is that Amazon refuses to flatter our pretensions. In my tribe, this is a crime more heinous even than eating one’s salad with one’s dessert fork.

The threat Amazon poses to our collective self-regard is the usual American one: The market is optimized for availability rather than respect. The surface argument is about price, but the deep argument is about prestige. If Amazon gets its way, saying, “I published a book” will generate no more cultural capital than saying “I spoke into a microphone.”

Given their deep ambivalence about expanded participation in the making and selling books, it’s worth noting some scenarios Amazon’s critics aren’t afraid of: They aren’t afraid that books will become less accessible. They aren’t afraid that there will be fewer readers. They aren’t afraid that fewer books will be published.

Reactions by commenters on the MagellanMediaPartners.com site:

Baldur Bjarnason

Sep 18, 2014 at 10:41 AM

I’ve found the publishing industry supremely inhospitable to even debating important issues.

The debate in publishing circles surrounding Clay Shirky’s piece depresses me. It echoes and rhymes with every debate I’ve been in personally and it demonstrates just how little has changed over the past ten years in the publishing industry.

But, […]debating this is pointless.

You don’t change people’s world-views with dialogue. If you want change you have two options:

You wait until the believers in the old paradigm die, experience an apostasy, or become irrelevant.

You try and build things that don’t rely on them (i.e. work solely in the new paradigm) in ways that minimises the harm they can do to your work.

It’d be wonderful if the field could debate itself into some sort of sensible middle ground—in fact, that’s what the publishing world view people think they are trying—but world views and paradigm shifts don’t have a middle ground.

The publishing industry is stuck in the mythology that was invented when mass production took over publishing. Challenging that mythology is like challenging a religious fanatic: their response is to repeat themselves, just more loudly. […]

Hugh McGuire

Sep 18, 2014 at 04:59 PM

… No one is even near Amazon in terms of reach to the buyers of books; that “problem” is just going to get worse …so publishers who want to keep doing business as they always have, will be forced through the Amazon “value extraction choke point,” with decreasing leverage.

There are two solutions to this problem as I can see it:

a) support other channels (Oyster, Scribd etc) & hope that they really start to matter

or

b) start building businesses whose prime objective is to capture the relationship with the reader directly

For a) we’ve seen grudging signs of movement; and for b) nothing.

As Baldur says, for the loyal opposition, the only option seems to be: “You try and build things that don’t rely on (publishers)” […]

adam hyde

Sep 18, 2014 at 04:41 PM

It seems to me that these discussions increasingly go nowhere. It would be more interesting to have a forum where those that have the ‘outsiders’ view could gather and build on ideas. Each time I see this conversation brought to the ‘insiders’ it just turns into a pointing and frothing match. It stops creative discussion …

The dogs bark and the caravan moves on. We are all dogs barking about this remaking of media. Better to go silent and get on with getting to the next stage, making it as close to universally enriching as we can …

In the Scottish referendum’s brilliant success, there was a crucial message for everyone designing the future of publishing

from The Canterbury Puzzles - Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

The Canterbury Puzzles and Other Curious Problems – Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

While everyone else ruminating about the Scottish referendum has been preoccupied (or horrified) by the inevitable demands for English devolution that followed it, post-Gutenberg has been transfixed by the 84 per cent turnout in Scotland last Thursday. This is stunning when you consider the rules for who was allowed to vote – amounting to an invitation to participate that could be unique in the history of national referendums:

everyone aged 16 or over, even though the age requirement is usually 18 years in general elections

 alongside Scots, British citizens and those from the European Union and Commonwealth countries who live permanently in Scotland

We call this radical inclusiveness. The only competition we can think of was in an experiment in Switzerland in 2011 (‘See ‘E-votes for all! Switzerland looks to the web to integrate immigrants,’ Prospect, 12 February 2011).

What Scotland’s voting eligibility spelt out for people there is: your opinion counts, and you really can make a difference. We remember sixteen as an extraordinarily impressionable age, and Scots teenagers who seized their first chance to use a ballot box might well be more actively engaged in political decision-making for the rest of their lives. As Jonathan Freedland said in his commentary on the referendum in a Guardian blog post, ‘If what started in Scotland this late summer is not to disappear by midwinter, it is its spirit that has to be nurtured and replenished. … [I]f you want people to come up with the biggest answers, you have to trust them with the biggest questions.’

How might this apply in publishing? If our regular readers will kindly excuse us repeating ourselves ad nauseam, we have set out

… an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing in a Networking Age in which readers want to be more than passive audiences – to do more than influence stage management and be free to perform themselves. [It is] a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites …

With eye-popping Scottish inclusiveness on our minds, we stumbled on an observer most struck by extraordinary exclusion in the post-referendum debate. Tim Garton Ash hurled these thunderbolts:

The absence of references to Europe in the barrage of first reactions to the Scottish referendum result was gobsmacking. Ukip leader Nigel Farage told the BBC that the issue now is how we create “a fair, federal United Kingdom”, which he explained as “a fully devolved, federal UK”. So federalism, the dreaded F-word, trademark of all those nefarious Napoleonic designs of beastly Belgians, is now suddenly a good thing. […H]ow on earth can we talk about a federal settlement for Britain without discussing the powers that belong to Europe?

How indeed. The trouble is, citizens of EU countries do not seem to think of each other very much, from day to day. They know remarkably little about each other’s lives in terms of intimate – mundane – details. That requires frequent contact, which tends to deepen acquaintance and can inspire some degree of identification. Instead, there are language gaps that explain obliviousness and ignorance. Too often, national and cultural pride tend to encourage head-in-the-sand chauvinism.

…(ahem) Can the British man and woman in the street be expected to think of themselves as European when, for instance, knowing about the temperament of an ordinary species of farm animal a mere Channel-hop away still probably means you have to be a near genius like the mathematician Ernest Henry Dudeney, a hundred years ago – even after decades of virtual travel by television? See his last line, below, in his puzzle illustrated at the top of this post:

Catching the Hogs

In the illustration Hendrick and Katrün are seen engaged in the exhilarating sport of attempting the capture of a couple of hogs.

Why did they fail?

Strange as it may seem, a complete answer is afforded in the little puzzle game that I will now explain.

Copy the simple diagram on a conveniently large sheet of cardboard or paper, and use four marked counters to represent the Dutchman, his wife, and the two hogs.

At the beginning of the game these must be placed on the squares on which they are shown. One player represents Hendrick and Katrün, and the other the hogs. The first player moves the Dutchman and his wife one square each in any direction (but not diagonally), and then the second player moves both pigs one square each (not diagonally); and so on, in turns, until Hendrick catches one hog and Katrün the other.

This you will find would be absurdly easy if the hogs moved first, but this is just what Dutch pigs will not do.

- The Canterbury Puzzles and Other Curious Problems, Henry Ernest Dudeney, 1907

 

Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about ‘mutualised’ journalism

Guardian members will expect to share its media megaphone – on virtually equal terms - Hugh Lofting drawing for a book in his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-52)

Guardian members will expect to share its media megaphone – on nearly equal terms
- Hugh Lofting drawing for a book in his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-52)

It is the next stage in the rolling out of The Guardian’s new ‘paid membership’ scheme for readers and commenters that we want to see. This was the summary of the plan by The Financial Times last week — unaccompanied, as far as we know, by any comment or analysis, so far:

The Guardian has launched a paid membership scheme, as it seeks to narrow operating losses that reached £33.8m last year.

The newspaper, which has resisted charging for access to its online content, will offer readers access to events and a new purpose-built venue near London’s King’s Cross.

Top-level members, known as patrons, will be charged £60 per month and will also have access to tours of the Guardian’s newsroom and print site. Mid-tier “partners” will pay £15 per month, while non-paying “friends” will also be able to book tickets to events.

The Guardian has no pressing need for profitability, with £842.7m in cash as of March, after selling its stake in car magazine Auto Trader.

We hope that there is more to this idea than supplying forms of theatre – either professional entertainment, or the thrilling chance to watch genuine Guardian journalists and editors tapping at their computers. We resist cynicism, at post-Gutenberg. Yet the reminder that came instantly to mind was of the ancient ruses in Europe for diverting the populace from noticing social inequality – known as ‘bread and circuses’. This was an accusation also levelled at the splendid Medici family, at the pinnacle of its wealth and power in Florence during Italy’s Renaissance:

… The days of adventitious sharing in the noise and warmth within an open palace door and a hand-out of the leavings were over; the populace was firmly excluded from the pleasures of the rich.

A similar withdrawal took place with publicly organized occasions of holiday mood. Bread and circuses: Lorenzo de’ Medici was accused of soliciting in the 1470s and 1480s the support of those excluded from a voice in government by lavish public entertainments: tournaments, street pageants. … In a republic that had been subtly manipulated into a narrow oligarchy it was natural … for opponents of this tendency to remember with alarm how the emperors who subverted the republican constitution of ancient Rome had employed gladiatorial and wild beast combats to occupy simple minds. A century after Lorenzo, however, with the rising price of bread and popular insurgency that rose with it, the issue of diversion was seen in terms of practical contemporary politics. ‘Because the common people are unstable and long for novelty, wrote Giovanni Botero in 1589 in his Reason of State, ‘they will seek it out for themselves, changing even their government, and their rulers if their prince does not provide some kind of diversion for them.’

The Civilization of Europe at the Renaissance, John Hale, 1994

Bread-and-circuses is surely not what Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor, has had in mind, in his speeches and interviews about the ‘mutualisation’ of journalism. This is what he said on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, in replying to a British commenter on a blog post about turning readers into paying members as an economic survival model for media organisations (part of their exchange):

Han Gough

It’s certainly interesting. And I’d be happy to support the Guardian. But I can’t for the life of me work out what benefits I would gain from membership. I live in a university town in the south west of England and there are no events scheduled in a 300 mile vicinity! And that building looks nice but I’m never going to get to use it. To be a Guardian “member” must one live in Islington???

I feel that the Guardian’s values, and it’s history as the Manchester Guardian, have been somewhat lost in translation. […]

alan rusbridger •

Han, this is a beta launch of something that will become more interesting in a few months and still more interesting once the Midlands Goods Shed is up and running. We haven’t forgotten the rest of the country (or the rest of the world) and will announce further and better plans. This is just the initial announcement…. a *very* soft launch. And thanks for kind words about the Guardian.

Han Gough •

Wow. Thanks for your reply. I wasn’t expecting that. I only posted here because there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to comment.

It sounds like a wonderful idea. And I can see how it would be really exciting if I lived in central London. But £15/month is quite a lot of money. […]. And even if you did put on an event at some point in Exeter (which is where I am), will you ever manage to put on £15-worth of events every month?

Also one of the reasons I like and read the Guardian is for its socially progressive values but this feels regressive at first sight. It’s providing opportunities for an already privileged segment of people: those who are cash-rich and live in London. That’s what I meant when I said it seemed out of step with the spirit of the Manchester Guardian. I can really understand why the Scots have had enough. It is this mentality that London and the south east of England gets the lion’s share and the rest of us roll over and pay for it. […] Thanks again for your reply.

The reason why Han Gough living in Exeter, in England, had to go to a site owned by an American university to react to the Guardian scheme is because that newspaper did not allow public comment on it. A box beneath the notice about it on The Guardian’s site invited readers to submit feedback on a form whisked invisibly into the paper’s mysterious innards. Ah so!

What would be better – much better – than what we have seen, so far, of The Guardian’s plan? Strangely enough, it was from the comments section of that Nieman site at Harvard that someone outstandingly practical contacted post-Gutenberg with the answer, three years ago. This is how our report about this most helpful encounter began:

A stranger, someone astute and entrepreneurial, emailed me about a comment posted in a discussion about the future of journalism on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Lab. ‘I think you’re on the right track with your focus on the business-model issue,’ he said.

He was referring to an outline of a means for old media organisations to move into post-print publishing in a Networking Age in which readers want to be more than passive audiences – to do more than influence stage management and be free to perform themselves. I set out a scheme for turning readers into financial stakeholders or co-owners – experimentally, at first, on parts of newspaper sites – suggesting that this might be an ownership structure for the future.

The essence of the idea was that every subscription would also be a share or financial stake in prospective profits. It would be an inducement for each reader or viewer to help bring many more visitors to a site. It would both help the site owner to attract more advertising and – implicitly – reduce dependence on advertising, if the concept of subscription-stakes caught on and went viral. …

[ continues here: 'Co-owning media is on the horizon ...' ... ]

Also see:

Can Alan Rusbridger do what he must to make a true mark on media’s future history?

 

Notes from the post-print transition, 4: the fetishization of (pre-print) handwriting

android dec 2011 to nov 2012 129

In this elegant script – the most original one we have ever known intimately – its owner recalls listening to aspiring Urdu poets on Indian trains - photographs: postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

In this elegant script – the most original one we have ever known intimately – its owner recalls listening to aspiring Urdu poets on Indian trains
- photographs: postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

None of the little grey cells serving post-Gutenberg believe that onscreen publishing will stop real readers from enjoying printed books. That is not least because, in weeks of acute eye strain — like this one — dead tree texts have a tranquillising effect on  eyeballs screaming about too much e-reading. Nor has the pleasure of writing by hand ever faded for us; not by the merest ink speck — since we felt the first thrill of shaping chalk letters by fist on a slate smeared with carrot-drool.

Nor do we ever study the most eloquent, distinctive or moving email with the delight, and anything like the same rewards, with which we re-read handwritten letters and cards, most of them antiques. And no, there is no equivalent satisfaction or fascination to be had in re-encounters with typewritten pages, no matter how jumpy, quirky or bizarre the lettering of a particular old typing machine.

All that should make it easy to see why we were startled to discover, of all things, a how-to article in a widely-read financial newspaper for people who have apparently lost the art of handwriting – and done so almost completely. How common is this lamentable fate? – more so, perhaps, among quants who get virtually all the news that interests them from The Wall Street Journal?

What comes after the death of – pre-Gutenberg – handwriting? If the WSJ contributor, Chris Kornelis, is to be believed, it is the fetishization of script on paper, using nothing less than the Kobe-beef-and-caviar equivalent of writing tools, once you leave kindergarten again.

Extracts from the piece — which, we are told, was published with the aid of a ‘styling’ specialist:

… When you are ready to invest in a more expensive pen, Mr. Wiederlight said that penmanship-focused writers should look for one feature in particular: a genuine gold nib, which is more flexible than a steel one. “It shows the variation of the lines: more pressure, thicker stroke; less pressure, thinner stroke,” he said, adding that the gold will get smoother over time. He pointed out that Sailor’s 1911 Large Collection($310, sailorpen.com) has the same 21-karat gold nib found on the company’s much more expensive models.

… Pick the Right Paper

You can reduce feathering—the effect of ink spreading through the paper’s fibers and creating an unkempt look—by using 100-percent cotton paper, such as Crane & Co.’s 32-lb. Pearl White Kid Finish ($20 for 50 sheets, crane.com), according to Capper Heffernan, owner of Seattle’s de Medici Ming Fine Paper.

… Improve Your Technique

Of course, the equipment will only get you so far. You also have to practice. Ms. Thorpe suggested finding a style that you admire and want to emulate. “Handwriting is shakable. People can consciously change their style of handwriting,” she said. “First figure out what your goal is.”

The next step is repetition. Ms. Thorpe recommended choosing a couple words—like your name—with letters that you use frequently and writing them over and over again. After you’ve mastered those letters, add a few more words until you’ve gone through the entire alphabet.

Good grief.