The Guardian wants to look like a Facebook extension, but the right model for a socially sensitive, reader-supported newspaper is either Private Eye or Tsū.co

-- postgutenberg[at]gmail.com, from a detail by MIL22

— postgutenberg[at]gmail.com, from a detail of a photograph by MIL22

Next week, editorial staff at the newspaper with one of the three most-visited English-language sites on the net will be offered the unusual chance to vote for their next editor-in-chief – even though that will be someone chosen from a different (overlapping) list by the paper’s board of overseers.

The voters will select from among just four candidates for the job — of a total of two dozen-odd applicants — who are brave enough not to rely simply on their qualifications, but submit in public to testing and demonstrating what support they can count on from rank-and-file staffers. The staff favourite is not guaranteed the job: the board of directors could pick an applicant from the longer list not running for election. More curiously yet, the voting is being organised from outside the newspaper, by Britain’s sterling, 108 year-old National Union of Journalists.

This hybrid, fuzzy, faintly Mad Hatter-ish path to the job — or not — has a precedent at The Guardian. Alan Rusbridger, the editor being replaced, who has served as the paper’s chief for two decades, was apparently appointed through an arcane weighing of skills vs. popularity with Guardianistas.

So, history is one reason why no one should read into this succession drama any implication that the paper is democratising its modus operandi. Some onlookers have also made the mistake of assuming that The Guardian is bowing to egalitarian net culture by urging readers to pay subscriptions to become ‘members’ of its organisation. Last year, two of these observers interpreted the scheme’s announcement, in exuberant messages to post-Gutenberg, as proof of the paper’s adoption of the proposal with which this blog began — that Guardian readers were going to be invited to become part-owners through subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes.

So far, that conclusion has been wrong – a realisation that, for some of us, borders on tragic. (See ‘Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about “mutualised” journalism,’ post-Gutenberg.com, 18 September 2014.)

Why? Because we see small-scale reader-owners becoming passionately involved in the paper’s future economic survival — and creating a new economic model for running media — if their contributions of ideas, reactions, news and campaigning for favourite causes are given greater prominence in expanded comments sections. This will be especially true if what they supply is freed from censorship by Guardian moderators. Many of us can remember dozens of stimulating, irreverent, frequently dazzling ‘below-the-line’ contributors to readers’ discussions in the first year or two after this newspaper launched its online ‘Comment-is-Free’ section in 2006. We watched, nearly heartbroken, as most of them stopped reacting to above-the-line articles – or, as we often put it in those days, blogging in comments sections – from disgust with repressive moderators and moderation policies, which too often led to the banning of commenters we loved most. (See: ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?‘, post-Gutenberg.com, 7 November 2011.)

Most traditional journalists, especially senior and long-fêted members of the profession – all around the world – still despise reader-blogger-commenters. They hate the competition. Having got too comfortable on pedestals on which they were seldom criticised or corrected, they were infuriated by the arrival of citizen-debaters. But a few of these, the most honest critics in so-called legacy journalism, are now reluctantly conceding that they could be mistaken in their classification of reader-commenters as either stupid, uneducated, or vicious trolls. We ourselves could be mistaken in perceiving any such concession – in an oblique form – in a couple of entries in the latest ‘From The Message Boards’ column of Private Eye, the paradoxical magazine written — and run — in the spirit of the net at its most impish and egalitarian, that has no online edition at all. (Issue No. 1385, 6 February – 19 February 2015)  For years, typical FTMB inventions have read like this:

wat about the yesterday’s chanel? theres no way them old nazi’s was filmed the day before :) lol! – Hatfield Gooner

What the Eye presented as representative of comments on newspaper web sites was so predictably buffoonish that it was one of its few sections not worth reading at all (unless you live for Benny Hill toilet jokes). But in the latest issue delivered to our letter box, we were astonished to find this toothsome morsel – which we hope is a sign of FTMB raising its game:

It was on ITV actually, but the BBC is equally culpable when it comes to distortion and inaccuracies. I will never forget the astonishment I felt when watching their film about Stephen Hawking, which (unlike Broadchurch [new crime mini-series being discussed in this FMTB column]) purported to be based on fact. In the opening scene, at Hawking’s 21st birthday party on 8 January 1963, the gramophone in the background is playing ‘Some Other Guy’ by The Big Three, a record not released until March that year. Had Hawking received an advance promotional copy? No, because the track hadn’t yet been recorded. One can only conclude that he had travelled back in time from the future, bringing a copy of the disc to prove his own later theories correct. – PCS 3042

Now, there’s a sendup of genius – a perfect specimen of a post by a high-precision-pedant-on-steroids, one class of reader-commenter post-Gutenberg treasured particularly, in the short-lived good old early days of the Guardian’s Comment-is-Free site. Once you had wept with delight over your introduction to PCS 3042, you found yourself stopping in at CiF all day long, hoping that she or he had returned to post again, in your absence.

So did other readers – and fans and sparring-partners of below-the-line marvels like PCS. That boosted site traffic for the best reasons. Instead, the Guardian’s over-zealous moderators have lashed its BTL contributors into such a pathetic, tame, conformist bunch that it does make perfect sense for the redesigned online version of the paper to look like an extension of bland, boring Facebook. Unbelievably, it has picked a blue-and-white colour scheme just like the social media giant’s for a site frame.

Facebook blueandwhite

With artists in London ready to throw themselves at its feet, why did The Guardian chosen to look like an extension of Facebook.com in its latest redesign?

With artists in London ready to throw themselves at its feet, why has The Guardian chosen to look like an extension of Facebook.com in its latest redesign?

Once, we would have scoured the Guardian’s comments sections to see which other readers had noticed this bizarre act of imitation — unless we mean, slavish homage to the $ power of almighty social media. But in this round of site design, the paper’s managers invited readers to submit their reactions to it not openly, on CiF, but in private messages to them. A shrewd move, indeed.

For three years, post-Gutenberg has been pointing out that Facebook, grown fat and sleek on selling minute details of its users’ lives, should rightly be co-owned by those users – who are entitled to shares in its profits. (See: ‘A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind,’ post-Gutenberg.com, 14 February 2012.)

If the Guardian wanted to pull off a brilliant coup, it would use its new look as a Facebook acolyte to make its membership scheme more than the meaningless rich reader-patrons’ club that several other newspapers have also introduced.  The similarity in appearance could help to wean diehard Facebook users, subconsciously, from their devotion to being exploited by Mark Zuckerberg’s company.

As we have said wearily before, we fear that the Guardian’s leaders, even those still only in their forties – over-represented, as far as we can tell, in the candidates for the editor’s job – are too old to see what they need to do. Here is proof in a new social media site, Tsū.co – based in New York, despite its Japanese name, especially delicious in combination with its founder’s novelistic Eastern European identity. Conceived of — as we have concluded from sheer guesswork — in much younger minds, Tsū has its heart exactly where the Guardian’s should be. This is the email we received after we signed up:

Welcome to tsu.co [ post-Gutenberg! ] !

It’s an honor to have you as a new member of this unique user-owned community. We have been working hard to build tsu.co (pronounced ‘sue’) with the purpose of breaking the old rules of social publishing by creating a fair economic model where content creators’ ownership is respected, where they are fairly incentivized and where their content is protected.

[…]

Best,

Sebastian Sobczak

Founder, CEO at tsu.co

PS: We’re also on mobile. Download the app now:

Somehow, Tsū’s arrival has been ignored completely in Guardian coverage of online news and media. Googling yielded a single story about it posted on a blog on the New York Times site last autumn — in ‘The Social Network That Pays You to Friend’ — but no NYT mention since. Decidedly odd, for a startup claiming to have 2 million users last month.

While Facebook and Twitter have been criticized for failing to share their profits with those who post on their platforms, Tsu pledges to do just that: It will give 90 percent of its ad revenue back to users.

Tsu’s philosophy is that “all content creators, which is basically every social user, should receive royalties for the commercial use of their image, likeness and work,” Mr. Sobczak told Op-Talk. “They essentially do all the work, they should get rewarded with the lion’s share.”

“What people don’t realize is how much value is created by these platforms on the backs of basically everybody’s networking,” he said.

Anna North on the Op-Talk blog of The New York Times, 27 October 2014 

How precisely will Tsū be sharing its profits? Through a complex but workable scheme, explained in detail here, in an excellent — by no means wholly laudatory — TechCrunch profile on 19 January by Sarah Perez:

Today, 10% of the total ad revenue goes to Tsu itself. Half of the remainder goes to Tsu’s content creators (users), and the other half goes to the network that brought in those content creators to the platform. That is, when User A invites User B, and then User B shares popular content, User A is compensated for that. The better a users’ network, or “family tree” in Tsu lingo, the more money you make.

How did we hear about it? From a chance mention by LCM, an immeasurably dear artist friend living somewhere deeply rural. She has a clone in a brainy relation, a high-ranking Silicon Valley entrepreneur swimming in the social media shark pond …

Readers, we don’t know exactly how we’ll get there. We are still studying the fine print about Tsū. But something Tsū-like is indisputably our future.

Testimonial of an ink-stained scribbler at the digital crossroads, part 1: How canny techies are making me publish my book the way they spawn their software and devices

- photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

– photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

[ A new experiment in publishing: this entry can also be read on Medium.com, in a different form ]

Two weeks ago, I did something I would once have considered shameful, if not humiliating.

I published a book that could be mistaken, from the look of its opening pages, for something spat out and trampled on by a frothing Chihuahua.

I must explain that this book was researched under pressure, with criss-crossing train journeys in Switzerland in a hard winter. It was edited and checked for accuracy as obsessively as any text destined for ungentle scrutiny by an old print publisher, even though — for reasons I will explain later — I was launching an e-only version for an opener.

What I saw when I clicked on my book’s ‘Look Inside’ invitation, in its Amazon’s Kindle shop window, was a formatting disaster. The text was no longer paginated. The names of my dedicatees, honoured with their own page, were swimming into the table of contents, which was on the verge of a messy entanglement with the preface. Close to a week of wrestling with incompatible software, meticulously following formatting instructions, and here was my reward.

I downloaded the book onto my tablet. More formatting gone awry. The text that was my engine — the point of any book — was propelling a car with prima donna headlights blinking off or on when they felt like it. The simple, uncomplicated map of Switzerland I had laboured over converting from its original form was not squarely at the centre of its page, where I thought I’d put it, but mysteriously shrunken and stuck to the left margin, like a cringing apology.

Yes, Amazon will always be thanked from the bottom of my heart for boldly deploying new technologies to give us all a miracle — some means of letting trained and untrained writers publish without intermediaries. I am with all those who see this as an essential, soaring vault in cultural progress (a point I recently made on post-Gutenberg.com with indirect help from three highly accomplished writers, Carl Djerassi, Theo Padnos and Edward Lucas.)

But, oh dear! … What no one who hasn’t personally tried doing this knows is that the process can be as simple, and the results as reliable, as blogging with WordPress — as I have done for a few years. But it can also — commonly — be a perfectionist’s sweaty, sheet-drenching nightmare. Amazon’s indie publishers’ discussion forum gets a steady pounding from complaints and frantic pleas for help. Too many of these agonising visitors, on a typical day, are having trouble converting their manuscripts from Microsoft Word — the word processing programme that Amazon’s Kindle itself recommends as ideal for its site — into the Amazon software that assembles e-books. (Dear Amazon and Microsoft: both your nerve centres are in Seattle: surely you can do something to end the agony?)

It was from a conversation there that I discovered that the online ‘preview’ option — which is supposed to let you see how the book you are about to publish will appear to its audience — does not work as advertised. If it did, you would indeed be treated to knowing how your book will look on all Apple devices, including the iPhone, and Amazon’s own family of Kindle e-readers and tables.

Unfortunately, in famous techie shorthand, Amazon’s online ‘preview’ is not WYSIWYG — What You See is What You Get. It is WYSIWYM(ost certainly don’t get, but something else, depending on the software’s whim-of-the-day). Nothing on the book’s editing dashboard explains that this is why Kindle also lets you download an offline ‘preview’ tool, different software altogether that actually delivers on its promise.

After I clicked on ‘publish,’ the book that had looked perfect in the stripped-down, minimalist style of most e-books, was — in the description of one disappointed indie author after another — ‘a mess’.

What effect has this had on me? Mainly, it has led to a realisation I find mildly shocking — that if you use enough of the new tools for e-publishing, you gradually submit to a cultural reconditioning by — well, I may as well be frank: the aliens have got you. You begin to do your work the way techies do theirs.

For an explanation of what this entails — and why I find myself grumblingly going along with it — I have to thank the 2 December post on Medium.com by Esen Yogurtcu. All I know about him is that his arresting Turkish name goes with a description of himself as ‘entrepreneur, strategist and Zen enthusiast’ — yet he is already someone I’m unlikely to forget.

His contribution to my re-education by digital natives was a correction of conventional Silicon Valley wisdom: that the key to successful innovation is now, apparently, called the minimum viable product.

This is not quite like a car you think thrilling until its wheels fly off around the first corner, on your inaugural drive together — or the Apple core-software update that means that although your photographs acquire an even eerier laser-like precision, after you install it, you can no longer scroll through your iPad albums. The Wikipedia supplied the essential tutorial: an entrepreneur unleashing a new product rakes in the biggest profit by spending only as much as is absolutely necessary on design and testing, and lets the customers who most love trying out novelties — ‘able to grasp a product vision from an early prototype or marketing information’ — assist in making it work properly. Or, presumably, damn it to eternal obscurity with their reviews.

The Yogurtcu perspective is that minimum viable is not ambitious enough by half:

Focusing only on a viable product is like sending a robot to the Mars but not thinking about the atmospheric conditions. For a product to be successful … [it] … has to be viral.

I read that as meaning, spread the pain of undercooked, glitchy, infuriating products as far and as fast as possible — hoping that they offer enough attractions and benefits for compensation. The optimism might just prove justified.

So there you are. Ignorant as I am about the stratagems of marketing-Einsteins, because Amazon’s ‘preview’ offering is a fine example of a minimum viable product, I must repeat silently: ‘When in toolmakers’ Rome, …’ etc..

I must shut out the outraged little voice inside my head complaining that this is a cruel penance after my trouble over getting my manuscript right.

My conclusion, after a dozen-odd email exchanges with Amazon’s technical support staff, is that if I want the book to look the way it does in the Kindle preview, I will have to un-format my 30,000 words and start re-formatting them from scratch — the work of a long weekend—or pay someone else to do the job. There will be no map of Switzerland’s principal cities until then. Meanwhile, just like the patched-together, unripe software we have all been buying for years and patiently downloading new versions of repeatedly — until it lives up to its buzz — buyers of my e-book will receive refined and corrected versions of its layout and look-and-feel in forthcoming releases of it.

As if things weren’t confusing enough already, I must say this: even before I ran into my Amazon Kindle headaches, my book was designed to be published in parts — as a serial — like the newspaper serialisations of the novels of Charles Dickens and other eminent Victorians. Think of what he missed by being born 200 years too soon: Great Expectations, Book I, 1.1.2 … 1.1.3 … and so on, into digital nirvana.

But Dickens is the greatest novelist that ever lived. Why should my readers buy a book in serial form and pay homage to the Silicon Valley creed: launch fast and iterate?

Why did I choose serialisation at all?

I will do my best to explain in additions to this diary of a scribe crossing over from the print ‘mindset,’ as the tech-wizards say. The best short answer is the usual techie justification: for the chance to get something useful that either did not exist before, or was hard to come by. That, anyway, is my hope.

Published here and on Medium.com on 12 December 2014 by Cheryll Barron (CheryllBarronT)

O public libraries, what are you doing in the great indie book publishing revolution? A letter to a far-sighted master-librarian

Will the online ‘libreria’ or bookshop, where this picture was taken, replace the ‘biblioteca’ -- the Italian for library – everywhere, in the digital revolution? - photograph: MIL22

Will the flexible, accommodating online counterpart of the ‘libreria’ or bookshop everywhere supplant the change-resistant ‘biblioteca’ — Italian for library – in the digital revolution?
– photograph from Napoli: MIL22

This entry tells a true story of our time about a public library that recently turned down a modest proposal for listing on its web site books published independently by its patrons and members. Note that there was no request to include these – necessarily – in the library’s catalogue. The frame for our tale is an open letter about an exciting vision for libraries of the future by an inventive leading librarian.

cover expect moreDear David Lankes,

Can public libraries supercharge the flowering of indie publishing and go back to being vibrant centres of creativity?

I have been reading your slender Expect More a book I will call thrilling. As you know, that is not a word that I or anyone else thinks of, any more, in connection with libraries. Least of all, those of us who saw them as unrivalled homes of enchantment, growing up; entertainers for which no television set, nor the most luxurious cinema with the biggest screen was any match. Part of what you have set out so well is that if the visions of a true 21st-century librarian can be realised — in, around and beyond the stacks — libraries could return to their glory days, in ancient times, going all the way back to the legendary 3rd-century BC Library of Alexandria.

I note that you are a professor of library science in Syracuse, in New York state, and a leader in information studies exploring ‘how participatory concepts can reshape libraries and credibility’. You say:

Too many librarians see their collections, not the community, as their jobs. Too many librarians are seeking to survive instead of innovate, … [… ] Great libraries … require open communication about your needs, your challenges, and your dreams. […] Libraries ‘for the people’ is an old way of looking at libraries. The new view is the library ‘of the people.’

When a library director has to be replaced, does the typical library board – or electorate, when the vetting is democratic – know what to look for, to choose the right leader for our times? That would be someone like you or Phil Shapiro, whom I’ve seen described as an educator at a public library near Washington D.C., who ‘teaches an occasional graduate educational technology class at American University’. His @philshapiro  notices on the Twitter bulletin-board are quirky, sometimes impish, and essential reading, and led me to you and your book. In a 2008 entry on his ‘Community Voices’ blog on PC World’s site — ‘Should Public Libraries be Welcoming Homes for Ingenuity?’ — a biographical note explained:

In high school he built a hot water solar collector from an abandoned shopping cart and hauled it up onto the roof of his house with a rope. His parents thought that was a good idea. The neighbors were not entirely thrilled with the shopping cart. On the roof. Of the house.

That suggests that the questions people selecting library chiefs should be asking in job interviews or library-related elections are, ‘How young were you when — if — you appalled people by doing things that later confirmed you as one of the pioneers in your circle, and can you give us some examples?’

In my life divided between several perches, in recent years, experiences at public libraries amply bear out your characterisation of too many people working in them as ‘stuck in a sort of professional conservatism that favours what they do over why they do it.’

Not long ago, I asked one head librarian whether our library might support the indie e-book revolution by encouraging patrons to list on the library web site the titles of any independently published books for which they were responsible. I said that I envisaged a bare-bones listing of each book’s title and subject – with, perhaps, a link to the author’s personal web site. This stark recording, I thought, would discourage competitive promotional hype and one-upmanship. The idea for the list had occurred to me when I realised that a number of potential readers of my first e-publishing experiment — a short book (or long essay), Jung on men and women: a Swiss travelogue  — happen to live in this particular library’s catchment zone. It is not unusual to meet local residents who are widely travelled, devour travel literature, and are interested in psychology, Switzerland, the fight for women’s rights, and the theories of Freudian psychology’s chief 20th-century rival, Carl Jung.

It seemed to me that libraries might be able to link local readers to writers in ways that the algorithms of Google and Amazon cannot. I would love to glean, from a constantly updated record of books they were publishing, impressions of the obsessions, preoccupations, passions and undisguised money-making schemes of people who live nearby. Living in the same place can mean much more than a shared or neighbouring postal code. Among those of us situated where we are from choice, not just necessity, it seemed as if there could be indefinable but powerful resonances predisposing us to being interested in each other’s literary and graphic creations. Whether I was right or wrong in this assumption, it seemed worth a test.

The head librarian — someone said to be charming whom I have never met in person — replied both directly and through a mutual friend. The idea, I gathered, was a non-starter. The staff already had too much to do without making and updating my proposed list. Though the library is neither a valiant inner-city nor struggling rural branch but located in a large, rich suburb, there were no funds for hiring new workers. What about letting volunteers – patrons – do the job? No, that was out of the question. Why? Because the library chief had tried working with local volunteers and quickly been worn out by the complications of being assisted by those most in need of occupation, bossy ladies-who-lunch types, many of them strangers to workplace discipline. In addition, an overbearing patron who had just published a book for teenagers had been hounding library staff members for help with publicity.

I was sympathetic to these reasons for the proposal’s nervous reception. Well then, I suggested, how about making a specific request for help from seasoned professionals in the ranks of the town’s retirees? What about letting retired administrators or book-keepers, doctors, teachers, company managers, accountants, lawyers and so on, get involved? But I made this counter-suggestion hesitantly, in fading tones, accurately anticipating defeat – because I had by then detected a faint but unmistakable whiff of hostility in a reference in one email from the librarian’s intimate friend to ‘this promotional idea’. I had been careful to explain that the list of e-books published by locals that I envisaged was plain enough to be the antithesis of anything sales-y. To no avail, apparently.

Prejudice can get in the way of reading or hearing what someone has actually said. What would the prejudice be, in this case? At a guess – your characterisation of the typically change-resistant librarian’s view of the purpose of a library – ‘providing access to knowledge,’ where that is perceived as a ‘passive … accumulation of facts,’ and not, as you say it should be, ‘intimately tied to the passions of the individual … dynamic, ever changing and alive.’ Too many libraries, you add, ‘support consuming knowledge instead of creating it.’

Phil Shapiro, arguing along closely parallel lines in a post titled ‘Towards a National Transition Plan for Libraries,’ asks whether libraries should ever close their doors:

In an information-based economy where knowledge workers drive almost all innovation, shouldn’t the public knowledge place be open seven days a week? If 7-Eleven and FedEx Office and McDonald’s can stay open 24 hours a day, is it not possible for libraries to do so, too?

As it happens, a few days before I read that, I’d made the nearly identical point to the circulation staff of a library. I said that they were surely sealing their institution’s doom with rigid, daft rules and systems that make it look more out of touch with reality, every day, to patrons accustomed — for example — to being able to buy discounted books online at any time of day or night, and avail themselves of exceptionally elastic and forgiving returns policies to unload themselves of purchasing mistakes. Don’t libraries realise, I railed, that their worst policies are so despised by patrons that some of us have been whittling down our reasons for borrowing anything from them at all – and actively developing other routes to acquiring everything that they alone could once supply?

I’d been complaining bitterly about being obstructed from paying a late fee because it fell below the threshold for permitting a credit card transaction at the circulation desk – though, by some impenetrable logic, if I went home and logged into my library account from there, I would meet no obstacle to settling my bill with my plastic rectangle. When I actually attempted to do this a few hours later, there was a block on the account because … no, no, I’ll stop there: the reason is too petty, tediously complicated and batty to recount.

As for the good sense in Phil’s advice about adjusting to the information economy — well, a library worker in another branch for whom I have nothing but high praise once explained that the reason why the software download speed on his library’s network can slow to approximately zero megabits per second — even forty-five minutes before closing time — is that the staff do not want patrons getting in the way of closing time routines. They simply shut down internet access to encourage these patrons to leave. I asked how that was possible when the library’s wifi network is supposed to be on all day and night. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘So when you’ve all left, they turn it on again.’ This reminded me of a minder of the public internet-access section of a library, a woman I had never seen before, hovering nearby, tidying desks and watching me type my library card number into the login box at least nine times in a row, trying to get online — with no success. Only when asked for help did she explain that she had already tucked the wifi system into bed – fifteen minutes before the end of her work day.

So, David, imagine trying to make the mental transition from that — a set of far from uncommon reasons for contemporary libraries being a depressing subject of conversation — to your description of ancient Egypt’s fabled book-haven in Alexandria. A place that you say was ‘not a huge document warehouse’, but ‘much more akin to universities of today’, where ‘[s]cholars from the known world were brought together and encouraged to talk and create.’

The contrast is agonising and will get worse, unless you, Phil and other advocates for reform can find a way — fast — to add people like yourselves to the staff of public libraries in senior positions. My happiest discovery in your book is that my modest proposal for patrons letting each other know about their indie publishing projects is directly in line with the transformed library-land you perceive as essential:

In essence, too many libraries have defined access as providing access to their stuff. You must expect more from your library. You need to expect it to provide a platform where you can access the ideas of others, as well as a platform for you to provide others access to your own ideas.

I note, by the way, that you published Expect More yourself. I didn’t buy the e-book. I bought the attractive print-on-demand paperback, childishly delighted – as always – by the idea of a book printed specially for me.

Incidentally, I would love to know how you would have treated my suggestion for a continuously updated list of indie books published by members of a public library. If you ever see this post and feel moved to reply, I hope you will leave a comment here – or on some site of your own.

Best wishes,

CB

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 …