On media’s stage, a scenery shift: De Correspondent shows off thrilling new props verging on a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’; a NY Times columnist tugs the curtain on the old set

android dec 2011 to nov 2012 035

Betwixt and between: stage hands at work - postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

Betwixt and between: stage hands at work
– postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

A group of Dutch media innovators – inevitably, young, as noted here last week – has created an actual, working prototype of what we expect to be a popular style of organisation for publishing in the near future. It has no advertising. It is financed by reasonably-priced subscriptions. Most important of all, it puts commenters on articles – the people it prefers to refer to as ‘contributors’ – at the centre of its enterprise, treating them as honoured extensions of its founding family. Wondermooi. That is exactly what we recommended in 2010 when, in keeping with the fuzzier usage of the time we referred to this same constituency as ‘bloggers’ — or ‘blogger-commenters,’ after a critic rightly demanded a clarification.

We did not foresee a big, ambitious media venture being able to do without advertising so soon. Nor did we anticipate that one would launch itself with crowdfunding, which Kickstarter was just beginning to turn into a household word four years ago. De Correspondent raised a breathtaking $1.7 million between March and September last year. In a post in April on the site of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Loes Witschge reported a remarkable feat in a country with a population of just 16 million:

On March 18, [Rob] Wijnberg, former editor-in-chief of the young-adult-targeted newspaper nrc.next, proposed his idea for a new online journalism platform on Dutch national television. Within 24 hours, his team had raised half its goal, and after eight days, Wijnberg got an earlier than expected go-ahead: 15,000 had subscribed, and many had added donations on top of their subscription fee. In just over a week, in a small country, the Dutch crowdfunding project De Correspondent had raised over €1 million (about $1.3 million).

By this spring, the group had 24,000 subscribers – the proportional equivalent of 450,000 in the US, Wijnberg says — each paying roughly $80 (€60) for the privilege.

Now this, you might agree, is seriously important news. Print media are desperate for a viable new economic model. So, has The New York Times written about De Correspondent? Er, … no, unless we’ve been using the wrong search terms, hunting for evidence. The Guardian, another of the most-visited sites on the net? The Telegraph? The Independent? The Economist? Apparently not – and anyone who has proof to the contrary must please leave a comment with appropriate links beneath this post. … Oh, and there is no point in trying to look up its history on the Wikipedia for anyone irritated by having to make do with a machine translation from Dutch.

We only learnt of De Correspondent’s existence in checking that search engines were keeping up with our last entry on post-Gutenberg, using, for search tags, ‘new media’ and ‘business model’. Its own site is naturally the best guide to its modus operandi, but the applause it richly deserves is to be found exclusively on new media sites of the likes of Journalism.co.uk, Gigaom and MediaGazer. On the Medium blogging platform, Ernst-Jan Pfauth , another founder, explains under the headline ‘Why we see journalists as conversation leaders and readers as expert contributors’:

Every reader is an expert at something

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about news sites shutting down their comments sections, since readers’ contributions are often too obtrusive (read Mathew Ingrams excellent post about this).

Here in Amsterdam, we sincerely regret these developments, since we believe that modern journalists shouldn’t see their readers as a passive group of annoying followers. Instead, they should regard readers as a potential gold mine of expert information. That’s why, at De Correspondent, we encourage our journalists to function as conversation leaders and our members as expert contributors.

At De Correspondent, we owe our very existence to our members, since we launched our Dutch ad-free journalism platform after raising a total of 1.7 million dollars with a world record breaking crowd-funding campaign. We encourage our correspondents — who all have their own niche — to tell the stories that they feel are important, instead of just following the hype cycle of the news.

He also said:

We end every article with a question to our members

In our custom-built editor Respondens, we have a special field called ‘Oproep’ (which translates to ‘Call-up’). Correspondents can use that field to make explicit what they would like to know from their readers. The call shows up underneath the article and steers the contributions in the direction the correspondent finds journalistically most relevant.

We invite members to write guest articles

We continuously invite our members to write guest posts. […]

There is no mention of turning those subscribers into shareholders and running De Correspondent as a cooperative – yet. That might be an idea for another group to try, one we hope will give us the sort of laugh these Dutchmen did in setting out their names — well-established in Netherlands media before they banded together — as follows: Rob Wijnberg (1982), Harald Dunnink (1981), Sebastian Kersten (1976), and Ernst-Jan Pfauth (1986).

Advertising their birth years, you might suppose, amounts to a sign reading, Oldies Keep Out. But, not quite. The first part of ‘the keiretsu-cooperative’ in the paper that started this blog in 2010 referred to the Japanese name for a network of firms collaborating as trading partners, in a proposal for a news site (long-established or new) sharing the initial expense of starting and running a subscriber-owned cooperative with a partner in, say, book publishing. De Correspondent says it is working with:

De Groene Amsterdammer (founded in 1877) … a weekly magazine of ideas and opinion; it is perhaps best comparable to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books[…] De Groene Amsterdammer will share some of its content as well as its editorial and investigative resources with De Correspondent.

… and …

Momkai (founded in 2002) … an independent, digital creative agency in the Netherlands that is renowned for its ability to combine conceptual thinking, design and technology in the creation of online formats and campaigns. Momkai is founding partner and responsible for the brand, the website, the identity and the campaigns. Momkai also created a new publishing framework and editor for De Correspondent called Respondens.

… Well, well, well – we thought, spotting Monday’s column in The New York Times by its media correspondent, David Carr: this De Correspondent has not been born a moment too soon. Snippets that stood out in the column, a review of a new book — a roman à clef about New York newshounds by Michael Hastings, a journalist killed tragically young in the 2003 Iraq war:

… [P]oliticians and journalists are now neck and neck in a race to the bottom of public trust. According to a poll released by Gallup last week, fewer than a quarter of news consumers trust what they read, watch or click on, a historic low.

… Much has changed since the period Mr. Hastings chronicles, most notably that the audience has fled established print outlets …

… The public is less prone to the allure of Great Men pontificating from inside a magazine, the television or behind a lectern at a news conference. The jig is up.

The public is ready to share the stage, onto which De Correspondent has invited it to step up and join fully in the action. Bravo for the courage to try out a new idea — never mind if the degree to which it has succeeded so far is hard to judge for those of us who cannot read in Dutch. And a hat tip to David Carr for facing the facts, refusing to bury his head in the sand, and telling us what he sees — truthfully.

Is Amazon a bully, beating publishers into submission? Dear writers: some publishers were aiming for totalitarian rule of the book business

Writers forever scooter-riders, while publishers travel in limousines? Photograph by MIL22.

Not many writers visit the book fair. ‘It’d be like bringing a cow for a stroll around a meat market,’ said one editor.

report on the London Book Fair by Patrick Barkham, 18 April 2012

[ the date is what matters most, here: ]… Publishing is moving towards a crisis. One should expect to see a number of respected publishing houses quietly exit the scene.  […]  Authors’ incomes are low for an embarrassingly simple reason: publishers do not sell enough copies of their books. […] For every copy of a hardcover book sold at its normal retail price, one book is sold as a remainder – a book that goes from the publisher to the remainder dealer for less than the cost of producing it and with zero income to the author. No other industry can make this claim.

— Leonard Shatzkin, In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis, 1982

Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant that something new was being born.

— Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending, 2011

Writers are deeply confused by e-publishing and its implications. They are mistaking friends for enemies, and embracing their most shameless exploiters – for centuries – like Little Red Riding Hood hugging the beast tricked out as her granny.

I read with eyes popping in disbelief a veteran publisher, Dan Cafaro, advising young writers to ‘mentally prepare to endure as a starving artist.’ He said that last October. Then, referring to the digital revolution, he suggested that they ‘carve out a patchwork career in the creative arts by complying with the behaviours of this new paradigm of publishing’.

How could he have come by the wisdom in his second pronouncement without understanding that the ‘paradigm’ taking shape represents the best chance that has come along – ever – to change the meek acceptance of hunger and suffering as inevitably the lot of scribes? … Yes, thank you, I have read my history. I know that this has been thoroughly conventional wisdom for a long time. But why not consider that for aeons, everywhere, the wisest heads once saw the fates of kulaks, their poorer fellow-peasants, and Hindu caste untouchables, as equally immutable – until these social doormats seized their chance for rebellion?

I would like writers who care about being able to make a reasonable living some day to get just two things right: (i) Amazon is their true friend, as this blog has explained before, and not members of the old print club, like the five publishers fined by the U.S. justice department on the 11th — with Apple — for collusive price-fixing.  (ii) Far from gobbling up book publishing on every continent and turning everyone else in the business into a forelock-tugging serf, the giant retailer could just let us rewrite the sad story of writers and their wages into a far happier narrative.

Scott Turow, the president of the American Authors’ Guild, is simply wrong to say that the antitrust suit risks ‘killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.’

Consider these arguments by one of the few voices of sanity in the hullabaloo over Amazon’s well-deserved victory over the price-fixers. What Eduardo Porter said in his ‘Economic Scene’ column in the New York Times last week is not merely true. It correctly puts the welfare of writers — the workers without whom there would be neither books nor e-texts — at the centre of the picture.

To believe publishers and authors, the government just handed Amazon a monopoly over the book market: The price-fixing suit against Apple and the nation’s top publishers […] will free Amazon to offer ruinous discounts in the booming new market of electronic books, drive brick-and-mortar bookstores out of existence and kill off publishers’ lucrative business of ink on paper.

[…]

Yet there is a different reading to this story. Publishing companies — like bookstores — fear they are on the losing end of a technological whirlwind of digital distribution that will make much of what they do obsolete. They would like to stop it. But though publishers may be happy to subvert competition to protect their business, this can entail a heavy cost for the rest of society.

Why have none of the hysterical media commentators Porter contradicted in his analysis – for instance, David Carr, writing for the same newspaper – met a journalist’s obligation to state the whole truth, which is that Amazon’s share of e-book sales has fallen dramatically over the last two years? As Porter says,

While Amazon remains dominant, its share of the e-book market has fallen to about 60 percent from 90 percent.

Carr dug out a law professor in New York to say, for his column: ‘It is not clear that lower prices are necessarily in the long-term interests of the public at large.’ He found a New York lawyer for a gloomy summing-up: ‘The book business is both hermetic and dwindling. There is not a drop of new capital coming into this business … The margins are low and there is almost no growth …’.

The only trouble with orchestrating this condemnation of Amazon is that the same mournful dirge was being played for book publishers thirty years ago. Then, there were no e-books or gigantic e-booksellers. E-publishing existed exclusively in the misty visions of futurists.

In In Cold Type: Overcoming the Book Crisis, Leonard Shatzkin, a respected senior executive in the New York book business, wrote three decades ago:

There is no longer very much doubt that trade book publishing is suffering from more than its share of our present economic malaise … The immediate future for … book publishing in general is bleak …’. [his ital.]

A number-cruncher at heart, Shatzkin diagnosed poor sales forecasting and inefficient stocking and inventory management as the chief cause of book business woes. He dreamt up complex mathematical formulae for calculating the ideal size of a publisher’s sales force, and techniques of regression analysis for projecting book sales.

Though it is clear throughout his book that he was a civilised man who cared about readers, sound editorial policies, and publishing’s ‘contribution to the health of our democratic culture’, only one of his sixteen chapters was devoted to writers: ‘Don’t Forget the Author’. Who does his book treat as the lead characters in the business? Publishers, book distributors, and booksellers.

Encapsulating his recommendations for curing publishing of its ills, he advocated precisely the reverse of what actually happened after Amazon entered the scene about ten years later – that publishers aim at complete control of the book business by wresting power from book distributors:

It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest that some of the larger publishers will some day make publisher control of inventory a condition for doing business with a book retailer. […] The introduction of rational, publisher-controlled and publisher-responsible distribution implies other desirable consequences. […] Distribution controlled by the publisher will reduce the shameful waste resulting from the present need to guess how many copies will be needed on publication day …

And what was the happiest result he foresaw? It is hair-raisingly ironic for anyone listening to the raving by Amazon’s critics about the steady decline in book prices that it has brought about:

The reduction in production waste and in the waste of handling and processing of returns […] and all the activities concerned with distribution, should lead to a reduction in the retail price of books. Even at half their present levels, book prices will give publishers much greater margins than they now enjoy.

Ahem.

So, was Leonard Shatzkin – who died ten years ago — a lone, batty eccentric, mostly ignored by his cohorts when he wrote his book? Very much to the contrary, In Cold Type’s publisher, Boston-based Houghton-Mifflin – one of the most blue-blooded imprints in the U.S. – inserted an extraordinary note into the copyright page, which read in part:

It is not often that Houghton Mifflin adds a statement to a book it has published …[W]hen a publisher presents a book containing strong opinions about … American trade publishing, it may be thought that such a book represents, in some measure the philosophy of the publisher as well as that of the author.

Instead of publishers devouring the book chain, as Shatzkin and Houghton hoped, the panic in 2012 is about the chain – or rather, one member of it – making a meal of all publishing.

From the perspective of writers who care most about their craft and the particular manuscript they happen to be working on today, the fight is about as interesting as competition between football teams for someone whose game is boules. Yes,  certainly, who wins – and how – will have crucial consequences for their ability to make ends meet. But to survive financially, writers are better off ignoring the memory-loss endemic among Amazon’s critics and thinking flexibly, like Eduardo Porter, about a universe of possibilities lying before us:

For sure, if brick-and-mortar bookstores disappear, browsing will die with them. But writers and publishers will have plenty of other ways — think Amazon, Facebook or Google — of letting readers know about their books. E-books, moreover, can be profitable. […]  And even if every existing publisher were driven out of business, reading would probably survive. Without the middlemen, publishers might even pay higher royalties to creators.

Let us toast that prospect — make mine a two-shot latte, please.