Private Eye’s almost unbearably brilliant Libor for Dummies business model for the future of book publishing

Cover of the autumn 2015 Bulletin of the American Authors Guild: ‘Should Writers Be Performers?’ -- Cover artist: Kevin Sanchez Walsh, kswradiographic@gmail.com

Cover of the autumn 2015 Bulletin of the American Authors Guild: ‘Should Writers Be Performers?’
— Cover artist: Kevin Sanchez Walsh, kswradiographic [at] gmail.com

For months — as much as a year, perhaps — we have seen no new ideas for economic structures for post-Gutenberg publishing, the turn-of-the-decade preoccupation of many an anxious scribe, and the topic that launched this blog. Then we read the dire news of a ‘business model’ that a well-known large publisher has begun to offer authors. Fittingly, this was in a masterpiece of sardonic rage in the Books and Bookmen column of a satirical magazine, Private Eye (No: 1412; 19, February 2016). We will spare our readers the chore of looking up the Latin derivations of ‘libor’ – from libare or ‘sacrifice,’ or liborius, ‘free’, according to the Wikipedia. (But do scroll down this blog entry** to note the most interesting overlap with one Latin word for book — not codex, of course.)

BOOKS and BOOKMEN

With the vast majority of published authors earning below the minimum wage, one major publisher has found a way to give them even less — and indeed land them with a five-figure bill, in a scheme that owes more to vanity publishing than to the normal commercial author/publisher relationship.

Publisher John Wiley, which issues the popular ‘… For Dummies’ series, is telling writers its ‘business model has changed over recent months’. Out goes the advance on royalties. In comes an author commitment, ‘at the outset’, to buy ‘a minimum quantity of approximately 1,500-2,000 copies over the course of a three-year period’. For 2,000 books, even with an author discount, this adds up to nearly £13,600.

And out goes the writer looking to the publisher to help promote the title. In comes ‘author commitment in terms of promotion of the book at speaking engagements and training events’. This means the writers selling their own books, or as Wiley puts it, ‘purchasing discounted copies for events/business use/training courses to make our products viable’. An author selling 2,000 copies would make £19,200 — less costs involved in the ‘events’.

No mention of the cost of researching and writing the book, or the fact that some authors aren’t physically able to be travelling sales reps. These requirements will mean that most authors can only afford to write if an employer sponsors them with time, event organisation and the cost of buying their own books.

Take the (imaginary) Libor for Dummies. It would be hard to find an independent author with the ability or money to follow Wiley’s new business model. But there are plenty of bankers who could write this title from their employer’s point of view, and promote it with the bank picking up all the tabs. Which would make the book financially viable — and simultaneously worthless.

At last someone with a powerful megaphone has spoken out about the absurdity of trying to turn all scribblers into salespeople, on social media or anywhere else. Roxana Robinson, the president of the Authors Guild in New York — and author of a sensitive and perceptive biography of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, for which we were long ago proud to make room on our shelves — is pointing out what we did in an early entry in this blog, when practically no one was publicly challenging the near-universal conviction that writers have no alternative to morphing into performing fleas. It has been one of our most popular posts — without having any discernible effect, so far:

How would introverts like Beckett — and Wittgenstein, Kafka and P.G. Wodehouse — have survived social media?

This is part of what the Authors Guild leader said on virtually the identical subject a few months ago:

Promotion is the opposite of writing. It’s depleting. And this kind of ‘creative’ promotion, is an act of desperation.

You can’t be a writer while you are onstage, answering questions. The only place where you can be a writer is alone with your mind, answering the questions that come from yourself, the ones you can reconsider, shift and re-phrase, until you find yourself heading out alone into the ranges you want to explore. Most writers are not performance artists. When we’re in public, we’re not writing. When we’re writing, we’re not in public.

Moreover, if you’re not well-known, none of these strategies of self-promotion is useful. No one will pay money to see an unknown writer.

… It might be better if the publishing houses let writers do what they’re good at, which is writing, and if they did what they’re good at, which is editing and producing and promoting, the books they have bought, believe in and support.

That’s called division of labor, and in the world of economics, it’s quite highly thought of.

If only writers could go on strike …

** From a lively discussion on Reddit:

Liber with a short i (pronounced like: li – ber) means “a book” and declines liber, libri, libro, librum, libro. Liber with a long i (pronounced like: lee – ber) as a noun means “a free person; children of a family” and declines liber, liberi, libero, liberum, libero.

A New York Times reporter uses the dreaded ‘c’ (for cooperative)-word and finds his enthusiasm premature, just like post-Gutenberg’s … in 2010-11

Screen shots from ‘Medieval Help Desk’: 4.6 million views on YouTube, so far — NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation)

The painful birth of the book: screen shots from ‘Medieval Help Desk’: 4.6 million views on YouTube, so far
NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation)

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 00.15.37

 

[ a curious WordPress software bug appears to be interfering with linking to some earlier post-Gutenberg entries. Follow the asterisks to the bottom of this post for those missing links ]

 

Well done, New York Times, at last … for letting one of your sharpest technology reporters advocate turning Reddit into a ‘user’-owned cooperative to end the fight about the news-aggregator site’s comment moderation policies. We had yet to come across Farhad Manjoo’s missionary zeal for this possibility when we made the same suggestion two posts ago: ‘The media ownership structure that dare not speak its name? Or is it the writing on the wall that new media, too, are deciphering too slowly?’. We could scarcely believe our eyes when we did.

Think of our last post in 2011, ‘Will 2012 be the year of a great leap forward into media’s future — even at The New York Times?’*. It contained this passage:

My personal high-water mark for the media establishment’s resistance to the new dates from the spring of 2010, when I emailed a question to an editor near the top of The New York Times.

The press has been critical to the success of democracy as a form of government; how is it responding to its own democratisation, and how far would it be prepared to go on that road — voluntarily? If you could recommend the right person at the paper for these questions, I’d be immensely grateful.

Zzzzzzzzzing! … the editor’s reply came fast enough to set heads spinning:

I don’t know that anyone would have a specific opinion on this, at least not one that represented the Times in general. You might look to see if an editorial has ever been written about it. If not, I suspect your question doesn’t have an answer. [my ital.]

No search engine brings up any such NYT editorial. What that response was surely supposed to impress on me was that ‘our’ never having addressed the question meant that it was inherently unanswerable.

Which is patently untrue …

Still, that was a gracious and munificent response, certainly by comparison with The Guardian’s — which had banned a suggestion along the same lines, a few weeks earlier. We reprinted the censored comment in a 7 November 2011 post, ‘Why is The Guardian censoring debate about press reform and ignoring the Lord Chief Justice’s endorsement of citizen journalism?’** Here is what the axed comment said, in part (see that archived blog entry for the complete version ):

‘postgutenberg‘s comment 29 September 2011 9:34PM

This comment has been removed by a moderator.’

What the censored comment said:

postgutenberg

29 September 2011 9:34PM

[…]

Addressing Whealie‘s point, what if the Guardian were to try out an experiment in which commenters become part-owners of a section of the online newspaper and helped to decide on policies, including moderation?

More details here: Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders.***

The lapse of four years has not made much of a difference. The cringing reaction to the idea of co-ownership today, of many ordinary people — not just of famous newspapers like the NYT and Guardian – was in the tweets replying to @fmanjoo’s advertisement of his piece on Twitter. A sample, not necessarily in the right chronological order – from tweeters who sound pessimistic even when they believe in the dream of democratised management and shareholding:

Jul 14

Michael Moeschler ‏@moesch

@fmanjoo baguettaboutit

Jul 14

Arlo Gilbert ‏@arlogilbert

@fmanjoo @nytimes the phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.

Jul 14

LornaGarey ‏@LornaGarey

@fmanjoo @nytimes Commie.

Jul 14

Jonathan Harrop ‏@harropj @fmanjoo Most redditors ALREADY think the site should bend to their whims and turn on a dime. This would be a terrible shit show.

Jul 15

Mark Devlin ‏@sparkzilla

@fmanjoo @nytimes But no mention of ethical issue of companies making millions/billions from the free work of contributors.

Jul 15

Mark Devlin ‏@sparkzilla

@fmanjoo @nytimes In the same vein: http://newslines.org/blog/reddit-and-wikipedia-share-the-same-disease/

All that will have been déja-vu for readers with excellent memories. The first post-Gutenberg.com entry, on 5 September 2011 — ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders’*** — offered this anatomisation of objections to publishing enterprises co-owned with ‘reader-commenters’ (‘users’, for @fmanjoo).

In January of last year, I outlined a scheme that a newspaper could run as an experiment in sharing ownership of a part of its site with reader-commenters. […] There were, broadly, five reasons for their reluctance to try it out:

  • ‘Too new’ – the scheme diverges too far from their ideas about the future evolution of media.
  • Protectionism. The mistaken belief that the scheme would entail paying commenters at the same rates as professional writers and journalists. That is not what the proposal says at all. The idea is that the arrangement would work very broadly in the way insurance does: people contributing more or less equal sums into a pool of money from which disbursements would be made in accordance with merit and need.
  • Semantics. Interpreting the scheme as ‘socialism’. There is no precise counterpart for the proposed arrangement – certainly not in publishing, as far as I know. But to convey the idea of shared ownership I used the word ‘cooperative’—which unfortunately spells ‘hippie’ utopianism or bankrupt socialist idealism to many people. It says something else entirely to me. For nearly 20 years, I have been a member of a rural electricity cooperative founded 75 years ago by a group of farmers – after the local power company refused to put them on its network. This organisation runs so beautifully that my electricity bills have always been a small fraction of sums I have paid for the identical usage patterns in other places.
  • Fear of losing power. Most publishers of the print era cannot give up the idea of journalists and editors performing on a stage for readers – the audience down in the pit, which is where they would like them to stay. They cannot accept that technology has made it realistic for readers to want – indeed, expect – to share the stage with them, even if only in walk-on parts, in most cases, at the start.
  • Pessimism. Publishers cannot conceive of making a bigger pie – that is, expanding revenue, and even earning profits, with luck – through sharing ownership with reader-commenters. They can only imagine being forced to accept smaller slices of an unchanged or shrunken pie.

Ah, well … none of that would be in the least surprising to anyone who lived through the 15th-century transition from scrolls and illuminated hand-made manuscripts to the printed book. The scholar Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance is a richly detailed, gripping account of that revolution. Many fell by the wayside in the quest for a workable economic structure (‘business model’) by entrepreneurs keen to use Gutenberg’s press to replicate manuscripts by the hundred — for citizens just as eager to become readers and acquire libraries of their own:

The investment that a printer made in type, paper and wages was all directed towards a clear goal: the production of a finished artefact. But unless the edition was supported by a wealthy sponsor or patron, the costs could only be recouped once the books had been sold. For many printers this demanded skills for which experience in a workshop offered little help, and a network of commercial contacts they did not possess. The pool of potential purchasers was large, but often widely dispersed. The desire of many printers to publish eye-catching, luxurious or innovative publications accentuated this problem, since books like this were most difficult to sell to a clientele dispersed around Europe. Printers would often have to hold stock for a long time before the edition was sold out: this again, was a problem not anticipated by those familiar with the retail manuscript trade …

https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/12/30/will-2012-be-the-year-of-a-great-leap-forward-into-medias-future-even-at-the-new-york-times/

**https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/11/07/why-is-the-guardian-censoring-discussion-of-press-restructuring-and-ignoring-the-top-judges-support-for-citizen-journalism/

***https://post-gutenberg.com/2011/09/05/wanted-a-brave-newspaper-for-an-experiment-in-which-readers-become-stakeholders/

 

At last, a professor emerita — buried in a print letters column — has the right answer for evolutionary biologists justifying infidelity as an exclusively male biological necessity

 

roos in spring 3 postgutenberg@gmail.com

Mating season at the Melbourne Zoo — photographs by postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

For those of us who relish a sharp debate with a truthful, witty opponent, discovering someone so talented lurking in a Letters to the Editor column of a print newspaper — and not the comments section of the paper’s site — is nearly tragic.

Never mind that papers have been reproducing these columns online for at least two decades. A dazzling argument deserves a response from the widest possible audience — at the very least, a towering mound of bouquets. Online commenters do not usually debate old-fashioned communications directed to editorial ears.

The letter to The New York Times below, from Luci Paul — a professor emerita of psychology — is an example of the kind of commentary that raises the game in a well-run online comments section. It attracts other excellent debaters, and the conversation that follows can be far more stimulating and enlightening than the article or essay that is its subject. Well-established corps of comments contributors could form the core of a new economic model for media — as we have been pointing out on this site for some time.

Professor Paul’s missive was aimed at one of the oldest arguments in defence of male infidelity, a claim that evolutionary biologists have been inflicting on the rest of us — largely unchallenged — for as long as their discipline has existed. It appeared dressed up in new tat — justifications rooted in genes and hormones — in a NYT essay published on 24 May.

At the top of the letters it drew, Henry J. Friedman, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, spoke for the wilful romantics among us when he said: ‘Dr. [Richard A. Friedman] attributes power of influence to two hormones that undoubtedly have their effect on our bodies, but in extending their effect to the mind and promiscuous sexuality, he leads readers to make conclusions about sexual behavior that are unwarranted and hardly shared by the majority of clinical psychiatrists.’

Professor Paul’s reaction, the last in the column, is the argument we have been waiting all our lives to hear from someone in a position of responsibility. Do not be misled by the unimpeachable, dry, academic prose. This is a woman not merely wise but with a delectable, barbed sense of humour:

To the Editor:

Richard A. Friedman nicely characterizes the genetic and neurohormonal bases for infidelity, but I must challenge his view of its evolutionary value to the sexes. He sees male infidelity as evolutionarily rational: the more partners, the more offspring. Since that equation does not hold for women, he suggests that women’s infidelity is mere frivolous fun, likely based in sensation-seeking and activation of reward circuits by sex.

Because women’s reproductive success depends on genetic quality of offspring and resources to support lengthy gestation and rearing, there is clear adaptive value to female infidelity. The more partners a woman has, the more men she can tap for resources to help rear her children, especially in difficult times.

Second, if a woman carefully chooses extramarital partners, her offspring will carry genes superior to those of her marital partner. Third, different fathers for different children promotes genetic diversity, not a trivial matter given that genetic diversity is the main advantage to sexual reproduction. These advantages suggest not only that women would wander in the face of marital difficulties, but also that a tendency for sexual exploration has a firm adaptive value.

LUCI PAUL

Staten Island

The writer is associate professor emerita of psychology, Temple University.