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

 

Notes from the post-print transition, 2: astonishing confirmation — from medicine — that cooperatives fit the 21st-century’s zeitgeist

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Media resisting the unavoidable bow to the democratic future of media ownership are being shown up in Britain by, of all people, the bean-counters of medicine — the traditionally conservative, cautious and slow-moving top managers of the country’s most cherished public institution, the roughly £100 billion ($171 billion) National Health Service.

The pinch-me-I’m-dreaming headline at the top of The Independent’s home page on Monday read: ‘New government policy for the NHS could allow doctors and nurses to “own” hospitals’.

Before we get to the reasoning behind that proposal, let us quickly say that inviting readers and commenters – reader-commenters — to become part-owners of media organisations through subscriptions that would also be financial shares — making them small-scale co-owners – is an actual need in this sector, though not in British medicine. The flow of cash into the NHS is assured. It comes from taxpayers. But, as last week’s entry in this blog noted, the advertising revenue on which print journalism depends to pay its bills looks increasingly shaky as a supreme cash cow for online publishing, as it elbows print out of the way.

Moving towards co-ownership — or ‘mutualisation’ — is the one step that the boldest experimenters with new media structures are resisting. Declining to go that far, we pointed out last month, is the single disappointment in the otherwise wildly impressive reports about De Correspondent – the new Dutch publishing enterprise putting commenters at front and centre-stage in its publishing scheme. Nick Denton, the serial online media entrepreneur – most famous for co-founding Gawker in 2003 with Elizabeth Spiers – has perfectly expressed what we also believe, in describing his many excellent adventures in media redesign to Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab:

“Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers. … And at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”

These smartest readers are most likely to devote all the time they can to the success of an online publishing enterprise – whether a startup or a famous name in the news business ‘flipping’ co-ownership of a part or the whole of its web site to commenters – if they can justify that to themselves with the hope of sharing in its financial success, some day. Denton’s schemes allow reader-commenters to share the stage with professional writers and journalists. They are designed to make readers feel part of a larger family or club, and – as in the De Correspondent plan — to improve the quality of information disseminated on his sites, and the range of expertise on which it draws.

Giving performance and efficiency a gigantic boost is the ambition behind the remarkable news about the proposal for British medicine:

Ministers are drawing up plans to allow doctors and nurses to own and run the hospitals they work in as part of a radical blueprint to change the way the NHS is run.

Under proposals to be floated tomorrow, staff could be able to take over hospitals and other NHS responsibilities and run them as new mutual companies in the style of the department store chain John Lewis.

Staff would then become “shareholders” in the new company with the power to dismiss the chief executive and board members as well as set policy and targets for the new organisation.

Ministers are not ruling out the possibility that staff could even be given a financial stake in the organisations for which they work – sharing bonuses if their hospital makes a profit on NHS work. The new policy comes after an independent review, led by the independent think-tank the King’s Fund, found what it described as “compelling evidence” that NHS organisations with high levels of staff engagement delivered better quality care. […] Ministers have been particularly taken by the success of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire, which had been losing £10m a year and had very low levels of patient satisfaction until taken over by the private provider Circle, which manages it for the NHS. Circle is owned jointly by the staff who work for it and private-equity funders.

… We hope that the people in charge of making the rules for the ‘mutualised’ British hospitals will take care to head off any possibility of repeating one grave mistake in American medicine — allowing doctors to invest in medical testing laboratories, rightly blamed for countless unnecessary tests ordered by many of those doctors. These are notoriously a large part of the explanation for America’s expensive and inefficient health care.

The chief fear for the democratic redesign of media is that it will lead to the collapse of cultural standards; that it will usher in a depressing age of mediocrity. Again, the right rules have to be drafted to ensure that this does not happen. Who says that any such effort would lack supporters? Who says that the least talented co-owners of a media enterprise will not wish to celebrate and promote their most talented comrades, attracting honour, fame and new members?

A few weeks ago, there was news of opera-lovers panicking about performances in some places accompanied not by live musicians but digital recordings. A New York Times reader said, in a letter to the editor:

Live music is being performed by an ever-shrinking elite corps of musicians. This trend cannot be reversed. But it will bottom out. There will always be a market for elite musicians … On some level we want to see humans demonstrating their mastery.

 Who would disagree?

What should a writer’s position be on the battle between Amazon and the Hachette publishing conglomerate? Let’s have some basic information, for a start

alley

– photograph by MIL22

As print publishing firms competing with digital rivals have less than ever to give the majority of writers – who have no record as best-sellers — where should scribblers’ sympathies lie in the fight between the Hachette publishing empire and Amazon?

The essential details of what they are quarrelling about are being hidden from us on grounds of commercial secrecy — as noted in one report after another**. These are negotiations conducted down dark alleys. Without those details, we can only puzzle over the tones of ringing certainty in which newspaper commentators have unanimously been denouncing Amazon – although the bookselling giant was plainly wrong to punish Hachette and its authors in these ways noted by The Los Angeles Times:

Amazon is subjecting many books from Hachette to artificial purchase delays. Books that had been available for next-day delivery now take 2-5 weeks to ship. Some titles don’t surface in search as they should. … As a result, Hachette will sell fewer books.

Strangely absent from coverage of the war is an eye-popping point for writers made by a sharp-eyed reader of The New York Times:

To the Editor:

Neither Amazon nor the publishers are pure of heart. Amazon is facing serious pressure on the profitability front from investors, so it is looking to increase margins and reduce costs.

The publishers see e-books as their largest profit area. A Publisher’s Lunch article last year showed the profit breakdown for HarperCollins:A $27.99 hardcover provides a $5.67 profit to the publisher and a $4.20 royalty to the author; a $14.99 e-book provides a $7.87 profit to the publisher and a $2.62 royalty to the author.

While the publishers are making a claim to a noble struggle against Amazon’s efforts to devalue publishing, they are also seeking to protect their higher profits on e-books, not higher royalties for writers. While Amazon claims to want to offer readers the best pricing, Amazon has no qualms about using its powerful market leverage to get what it seeks while inflicting collateral pain on readers to boost its profits.

The two players that are suffering in this situation are the authors (book sales delayed or prevented, dramatically lower royalties) and the consumers, many of whom have invested heavily in the Kindle-based environment.

CHRIS WATSON

Barrington, R.I., May 31, 2014

For authors to extract a bigger share of e-royalties, we are guessing that more scribblers with market power ranging from middling to great will have to start publishing e-books on their own, and do well at it. What advantages of being conventionally published do they give up, when they take the indie road? Fewer and fewer. Many more authors who have tried both the old route to being published and the new say exactly what this Guardian reader did last month, reacting in the comments section of a blog post about self-publishing:

remittancegirl

29 May 2014

I’m not a fan of self-publishing, but I don’t think this article addresses some of the salient reasons for its rise. Nothing is mentioned of the radical shift in traditional publishing to put marketing efforts into nothing but established writers with blockbuster track records, or its abandonment of a good editorial process.

Having been one of those writers who did get published by a major publisher, it quickly became obvious that it was a waste of time and financially costly. The royalty rates offered (especially on electronic sales) are, frankly, laughable. There is no effort at marketing. As a new author, you are expected to do all the publicity and marketing for yourself anyway. The least one might expect was a decent line edit, but the book I published through a major house was published with typographical errors aplenty. So, exactly how does it benefit new writers to even consider submitting to a traditional publisher?

Forget the money. What about the cultural landscape? Are publishers are lining up to publish radically new forms of narrative? No. In fact, the chances of you getting a publishing deal for your book depends, most notably, on how much it resembles another book that’s done well.

And if a writer opts for self-publishing and does well with it, there is a far better chance of having a major publisher will pick you up, republish your work, offer far better terms, better editors and some marketing – now that you no longer need it.

… [T]he disdain in this article for the self-published work doesn’t take into account what is driving many authors to circumvent the publishing apparatus altogether.

The Independent noted,

At least one author, Barry Eisler, is standing up for Amazon, saying: “More people are buying more books than ever and more people are making a living by writing them. Why do millionaire authors want to destroy the one company that’s made this all possible?”

The problem for many in publishing is that the dominance of this one company, with its Kindle store, keeps growing. It is estimated that e-book sales will soar to almost $9bn this year in America, while print book sales fall below $20bn, down from $26bn in 2010.

Yes, it’s clear from those numbers that Amazon has too much power in e-publishing. But to see what can be done about it, let’s have some more information about precisely what terms it was arguing about with Hachette.

Transparency, please.

** For instance, although The Los Angeles Times’s handy summary of the dispute is highlighted as an instance of ‘an unusually public battle’ — in ‘Amazon and Hachette: The dispute in 13 easy steps,’ — its step 6 says:

Amazon has not commented to The Times regarding this dispute other than to point us to a message-board posting in the Kindle discussion forums on its site. There, it explained that Hachette was one of its 70,000 suppliers and that the two had been unable to reach acceptable terms (without disclosing what was being negotiated).

for 1. 1. 2014: Charles Dickens, implacable foe of the witless ‘information wants to be free’ movement

january 1 2014 SCALED Te Deum, Sant'Ambrogio 1 DSCF3492[2]

Sant’Ambrogio, 6.30 am, 31.12.2013 - photographs by MIL22

Sant’Ambrogio, 6.30 pm, 31. 12. 2013
- photographs by MIL22

1.1.2014 - postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

1. 1. 2014 begins
- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

[ re-posting 'for 1. 1. 2014' entry, now that there are finally a few minutes to add the clips originally intended for this space ]

The anger of Charles Dickens about greed and hypocrisy —  which extended to copyright scoffers, we recently discovered — was the fire that lit his genius. This fact is strangely forgotten by critics of his ‘mawkish sentimentality,’ possibly because too many of them crumble before the challenge of long sentences fizzing with wit to have read him in the original.

Anyone can understand Dickens’s fury about book pirates driving him to write about how much copyright could mean to an author scraping by on earnings from literary craft and the exercise of imagination — as he had himself, before he was famous. But who could guess that in 1838 and ‘39, when he was publishing The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby as a serial, he specifically addressed copyright opponents intent on smashing the concept of artistic ownership – with exactly the same perverted notion of ‘democracy’ as leaders of today’s ‘information wants to be free’ movement?

For a representative of those opponents, in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens chose a Member of Parliament,  a Mr. Gregsbury, ‘a tough, burly, thick-headed gentleman, with a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed.’

This oaf’s rhinoceros hide makes it easy for him to blow off the demand by a delegation of his constituents that he resign immediately, even though they have presented him with proof of several acts of blatant corruption. This happens just before Nicholas’s interview with him for the post of secretary – an offer he is obliged to reject, though desperate to find work and emaciated from lack of food. The insultingly tiny salary is for duties the M.P. outlines that include serving as office clerk, speech-writer, researcher, PR-man, outsourced brain, and late-night attendant at parliamentary sessions.

In that job interview, the pontificator turns to the subject of copyright:

‘With regard to such questions as are not political,’ continued Mr Gregsbury, warming; ‘and which one can’t be expected to care a curse about, beyond the natural care of not allowing inferior people to be as well off as ourselves—else where are our privileges?—I should wish my secretary to get together a few little flourishing speeches, of a patriotic cast. For instance, if any preposterous bill were brought forward, for giving poor grubbing devils of authors a right to their own property, I should like to say, that I for one would never consent to opposing an insurmountable bar to the diffusion of literature among THE PEOPLE,—you understand?—that the creations of the pocket, being man’s, might belong to one man, or one family; but that the creations of the brain, being God’s, ought as a matter of course to belong to the people at large—and if I was pleasantly disposed, I should like to make a joke about posterity, and say that those who wrote for posterity should be content to be rewarded by the approbation OF posterity; it might take with the house, and could never do me any harm, because posterity can’t be expected to know anything about me or my jokes either—do you see?’

‘I see that, sir,’ replied Nicholas.

‘You must always bear in mind, in such cases as this, where our interests are not affected,’ said Mr Gregsbury, ‘to put it very strong about the people, because it comes out very well at election-time; and you could be as funny as you liked about the authors; because I believe the greater part of them live in lodgings, and are not voters.

… Dickens, who would make an excellent patron saint for the Occupy movement, also sounds bang-up-to-the-minute topical – in the same novel – in a scene in which an unsuccessful, small-time crook cringingly addresses one routinely getting away with larceny on a grand scale:

I left you—long after that time, remember—and, for some poor trickery that came within the law, but was nothing to what you money-makers daily practise just outside its bounds, was sent away a convict for seven years.

Why is the smaller snippet worth adding, there? Because, as we were on our way to this post, we caught sight of a blog title on the site of The New York Review of Books:

The Financial Crisis: Why Have No High-Level Executives Been Prosecuted?

The answer by the blogger, Jed S. Rakoff, in part:

One possibility […] is that no fraud was committed. This possibility should not be discounted. Every case is different, and I, for one, have no opinion about whether criminal fraud was committed in any given instance.

But the stated opinion of those government entities asked to examine the financial crisis overall is not that no fraud was committed. Quite the contrary. For example, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, in its final report, uses variants of the word “fraud” no fewer than 157 times in describing what led to the crisis, concluding that there was a “systemic breakdown,” not just in accountability, but also in ethical behavior.

… Fairness in the copyright debate. Progress from mere rhetoric to forcing reforms in keeping with the Occupiers’ aims.  How wonderful if these should prove to be defining features of 2014. Too much change for a single year? Ah, but this is the centenary of the start of a single war that re-drew the boundaries of the countries of Europe, in the course of which both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires vanished.

Anything is possible. ‘Candles, flowers and hope in a new beginning,’ reflected our MIL22 — whose peerless images from an impulsive New Year’s Eve visit to the medieval Sant’Ambrogio begin 2014 for post-Gutenberg.