Contest Caution: The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award

17 November 2019

From Writer Beware:

Founded in 2010, The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award bills itself as “the richest prize for a single short story in the English language.” And indeed, the prize is major: the winner receives a cool £30,000 (no, I did not add extra zeroes.)

With judges yet to be finalized, the selection process will include a 20-story longlist announced in May 2020, a six-story shortlist unveiled in June 2020, and the winner revealed on July 2. The shortlisted stories will be published in an Audible audiobook, with included writers receiving “an extra £1,000 fee, on top of a prize payment of £1,000”. To be eligible, writers must previously have had at least one work published in the UK or Ireland by an “established print publisher or an established printed magazine”

. . . .

So what’s the catch? — because you know I wouldn’t be writing this post if there weren’t one. Well, as so often happens, it’s in the Terms and Conditions. Specifically:

To summarize this dense paragraph: simply by entering the competition, you are granting a sweeping, non-expiring license not just to Times Newspapers Limited (The Sunday Times‘ parent company), but also to Audible and any other licensees of TNL, to use your story or any part of it in any way they want, anywhere in the world, without payment to or permission from you.

This is far from the first time I’ve written about “merely by entering you grant us rights forever” clauses in the guidelines of literary contests, some of them from major publishers or companies that should know better. Sure, in this case the license is non-exclusive, so you could sell your story elsewhere–but only as a reprint, because by granting non-exclusive rights to one company, you remove your ability to grant first rights to another, at least for as long as the initial rights grant is in force.

It’s not uncommon for literary contests that involve publication to bind all entrants to a uniform license or grant of rights–so that, when winners are chosen, the license is already in place. But ideally, the license should immediately expire for entries that are removed from consideration–or, if the contest sponsor wants to retain the right to consider any entered story for publication (as TNL clearly does–see Clause 4.2, below), rights should be released within a reasonable period of time after the contest finishes–say, three or six months. There’s simply no good reason to make a perpetual claim on rights just in case, at some unspecified point in the future, you might just possibly want to use them.

. . . .

There’s a couple of other things to be aware of. Shortlisted authors enter into a 12-month exclusive contract with Audible, for which they are given a “one-off” lump-sum payment (the £1,000 noted above). But thereafter, Audible retains the right “to record, distribute and market such audio version for at least ten (10) years.” Again, this right is non-exclusive–but there’s no indication that Audible has to pay these authors for potentially exploiting their work for a decade. (If you don’t consent to these terms, you can’t be shortlisted.)

Finally, although publication is guaranteed only for the shortlist, TNL reserves the right to publish longlist and non-listed entries as well. Great! Except…there’s nothing to suggest these writers would be paid either.

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

PG says this is tacky to the max (but, unfortunately, not rare).

You need to read all terms and conditions whenever you submit anything you write online, be it for a contest, consideration for publishing, publishing, etc., etc., etc.

Audible should know better. PG recommends loud complaints directed to anyone you know in Amazon or anyone you don’t know who has an Amazon email address. Jeff@amazon.com is one (no, PG doesn’t know if he ever reads email that comes to this address.).

“Overestimating Humanity”: 21 More Reasons Why We Need #PlatformAccountability

16 November 2019

From Creative Future:

Here we are … again.

Mark Zuckerberg was chewed out (again) on Capitol Hill.

Google enraged their employees (again) by trying to spy on them and for siding with China (again).

Cloudflare was outed (again) for refusing to crack down on criminal behavior on their network.

In other words, here is the latest installment in our ongoing coverage of the dumpster fire engulfing the world’s most powerful internet platforms.

And though these behemoths are now being scrutinized, investigated, and generally crapped on like never before, they just keep on raking in money. In the third quarter, Facebook’s earnings rose 29 percent from a year earlier, to $17.7 billion, while Google’s earnings report showed their profits rising by 20 percent to $40.5 billion. Meanwhile, Cloudflare’s IPO disappointed investors, but still created staggering wealth for the people responsible for the company becoming the service of choice for bad internet actors.

When will the cycle in which harm to society translates to big bucks for these companies end? Only when they are finally held accountable for their actions. The governments of the world are (much too) slowly catching on. But, they will only act if all of us keep the heat turned up.

To bring you up to date, here are 21 more reasons why we need #PlatformAccountability now, culled from across the spectrum of political, cultural, and sociological discourse.

. . . .

1. Because “accuracy and fairness” are not core to their mission.
“It is high time that we directly address the stark difference between legacy newspapers, radio, and television and today’s dominating digital technology companies. Traditional media companies have long accepted the burden — along with the significant cost and time — required to verify the words, images, and videos they publish. Accuracy and fairness are core to their mission. But not today’s digital media giants. Wrapping themselves in legal immunities that apply to no one else, digital publishers accept zero responsibility for the amplified fabrication, viral insanity, and dangerous untruths they routinely empower users to publish. Doing so would undermine their business model, which depends on monetizing users with targeted ads.”

– Julie Bernard, Chief Marketing Officer for Verve, a mobile marketing platform

2. Because they are publishers, but they don’t act like it.
“I am the owner of TIME magazine, and we’re a publisher. And, we’re responsible for the content on our platform… Well, Facebook is also a publisher. They need to be held responsible for what’s on their platform.”

– Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff

3. Because they have “zero incentive” to care about abuse by bad actors.
“The ramifications of Section 230 immunity don’t just impact those harmed. Section 230 harms us all as a society. We are entering an era of greater surveillance, Artificial Intelligence, self-driving cars, facial recognition technology. Companies developing this have ZERO incentive to be thinking about how their products will be abused and exploited by bad actors. Why? First and foremost because there is no pressure on them from the threat of litigation.”

– Carrie A. Goldberg, author of Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and Trolls

. . . .

7. Because their business model is “overestimating humanity.”
“Zuckerberg greatest mistakes have come from overestimating humanity. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to bring the world closer together. Without safeguards, Facebook’s tools can help tear it apart. It’s time for Facebook and Zuckerberg to recognize the difference between free expression and paid expression.”

– Josh Constine, Editor-At-Large, TechCrunch

. . . .

10. Because it’s 2019 and slavery is “booming…” on these platforms.
“An undercover investigation by BBC News Arabic has found that domestic workers are being illegally bought and sold online in a booming black market. Some of the trade has been carried out on Facebook-owned Instagram, where posts have been promoted via algorithm-boosted hashtags, and sales negotiated via private messages.”

– BBC News

. . . .

14. Because when they aren’t enabling child abuse, they are busily hard-wiring kids’ brains toward addiction.
“More than twice as many young people watch videos every day as did four years ago, and the average time spent watching videos — mostly on YouTube — has roughly doubled, to an hour each day… Usage has surged despite mounting concerns from parents and consumer groups about the grip that smartphones and screens have on kids’ lives and development. Advocates worry that features hard-wired into certain tech platforms, such as YouTube’s default autoplay setting, reinforce the impulse to keep watching.”

– The Washington Post, reporting on a study released by Common Sense Media

15. Because they are infested with fake, stolen, and dangerous goods.
“Google is among the search engines that show fake and possibly dangerous counterfeit goods in as much as 60% of their search results, putting consumers at risk… The potentially dangerous fake goods include car parts, pharmaceuticals, toys, appliances and safety equipment… Counterfeiting and piracy are estimated to cost brands billions of dollars in lost revenue worldwide, while also hampering their efforts to generate brand awareness and customer loyalty.”

– Marketing Dive, reporting on a study by intellectual property and brand protection company Incopro

. . . .

19. Because the size and scale of the platforms’ problems have lulled us into a state of helplessness.
“We are at an extraordinary crossroads. We have sufficient information to know that Facebook’s platform was used to subvert and undermine elections in the US, the UK and many other countries. But we pretend to be helpless to prevent it happening again. We’re not. We’re simply hamstrung by a government and an opposition that have chosen to ignore it.”

– Carole Cadwalladr, British journalist who exposed the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal

Link to the rest at Creative Future

It might be a good idea

16 November 2019

It might be a good idea if the various countries of the world would occasionally swap history books, just to see what other people are doing with the same set of facts.

~ Bill Vaughan

We Lived Here

16 November 2019

From The Paris Review:

I’ve never owned a house or a refrigerator, never had to think about knobs for cabinets. The cabinets in our apartment don’t have knobs, and it’s not for the sake of sleekness or simplicity. It’s cheap, functional. Lately, every time I open the front door, I wonder how many strangers have closed it for the last time. I wonder what might have caused the painted-over dents on the wall in my bathroom. And I wonder if someone else stared at the gap between the front door and the foundation the way I do, saw the sunlight sneak through during the day, felt the cold scuttle in across the floor at night.

Every time my daughter and I have moved, I’ve rented a place sight unseen, because I can’t afford to make the trip to the new town to scout rentals, walk room to room, peek in closets. I’m easily swayed: I said yes to the house in Utah when the landlady on the phone said, “It’s on a corner,”; yes to the duplex in Oklahoma because a Craigslist photo showed a built-in bookshelf in the living room; and yes to this apartment complex because the website showed black appliances, and we’d never had black appliances before.

Last year, I decided to rent a house. I wanted to give my daughter, Indie, two things for her last year at home: one, a place to practice trombone without worrying about the neighbors, and two, her own bathroom, which she’s never had.

Not long before my mother died, she worried about my inability to make decisions. She told me it had been her fault, hers and my father’s, that they had made all my choices for me when I was growing up. I suppose that’s true.

. . . .

Indie and I contextualize our lives, the years, by cities: “We were in Canton, so you were nine, ten”; “That last year in Stillwater, so it would have been 2011”; or “You remember a mirror on the back of the bathroom door? Cedar City.” We can pack boxes and run tape across them and keep track of the Sharpie pen through the span of a few viewings of Tootsie, our moving movie. The one that plays while we pack and fill garbage bags, the kind of bags meant for leaves.

When we had only a week left in our lease, I went to tell the apartment manager we’d be staying. He pulled out a black binder, flipped to a spreadsheet, told me our apartment had been rented. The receptionist, it turns out, had been let go weeks before, and someone was scheduled to move in to our home, our rooms, our kitchen, our bathroom, in eleven days.

Indie and I have a tradition: on our last day living somewhere, after a truck has backed up and hauled away the U-Box, when the rooms are empty and the shower curtainless, we leave pennies. I give Indie a few, grab some for myself, and we disappear into our own spaces, leaving a penny on a windowsill or on the floor where my writing desk had been or on a shelf in her room. We only tell each other where we placed them, and why, after we’ve gone.

When the apartment manager offered us a two bed, two bath apartment across the parking lot for the same rent, I went out to the storage closet on the patio and started pulling out empty boxes, the same ones we’ve always used for all our moves. Cue Tootsie. Sharpie on the kitchen counter, packing tape, a box of black bags. We kept thinking how we had lived in this apartment longer than we had lived anywhere. With every pull of tape, every BOOKS written on a box, every time Indie dragged a bag from her room across the floor, I thought, This is the last time we’ll move together. The next move will be hers alone.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Advice for Women with Book Advances

16 November 2019

From Publishers Weekly:

My first love was in a band. His advice about music translated easily to the writing life—or I made it fit, those nights I was killing time backstage in dive bars during sound check. “Leave them wanting more” was his advice on playing. So I won’t drone on when I give readings, erring on the side of reading too little.

“All money made by the band goes back to the band” is another one of his sayings—easy to follow when I made only $10 here and there publishing poems. My first three books were poetry, published because they had won contests.

I put that prize money back into my band—back into my writing—using it to print postcards, to enter contests, and, importantly, to acquire gas and food as I traveled around giving readings. That was back when writing wasn’t my full-time job. It is now, by necessity. And the world is different now, fueled by a gig economy seemingly hell-bent on driving us into the ground with exhaustion.

Elizabeth Gilbert famously used her book advance to travel while writing Eat Pray Love. V.E. Schwab says she spent her (more modest) first book advance on, “in order: Rent. Groceries. Bills. Self-promotion.”

Schwab was responding to a Twitter thread on advances. Writers’ responses to what they had spent or would spend advances on included college, a new roof, and an adoption, as well as on evergreen expenses such as bills and insurance and paying down debt. Michelle Belanger said her “book advance story speaks to the failure of U.S. health care”; she spent it on oral surgery, which she had to pay for out of pocket.

These responses were overwhelmingly practical. And the responses overwhelmingly came from women.

The idea is that you spend your book advance on the living expenses accrued while writing the book. But many people have already finished a book before it sells. And most of us aren’t paid enough of an advance to live off it, or at least not for very long—not in our era of sky-high rents and insurance costs.

. . . .

A few months after the novel sold, I was laid off from my job. My coworkers and I were in the process of joining a union, and I didn’t receive severance. As soon as he learned I had been laid off, my literary agent, Eric Smith, suggested I polish up the next book he knew I was writing. He said we could sell it on the strength of sample chapters and an outline. And he was right.

The idea of spending all of a book advance with the expectation of future earnings that may or may not ever come is dangerous. But I did spend every cent of an advance once. And it was the smartest thing I have ever done.

That advance, for a novella, was the first one I earned. And I can tell you exactly what I spent it on: I hired a lawyer. Because of that advance, I was able to get a divorce, get custody of my child, and get child support established. That advance saved my life.

. . . .

My advice for all women writers: save your advance. Save every single penny you can. Because your survival is not guaranteed—as a writer but also as a person who is still thought of as less than in this world.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

How Google Interferes With Its Search Algorithms and Changes Your Results

16 November 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Every minute, an estimated 3.8 million queries are typed into Google, prompting its algorithms to spit out results for hotel rates or breast-cancer treatments or the latest news about President Trump.

They are arguably the most powerful lines of computer code in the global economy, controlling how much of the world accesses information found on the internet, and the starting point for billions of dollars of commerce.

Twenty years ago, Google founders began building a goliath on the premise that its search algorithms could do a better job combing the web for useful information than humans. Google executives have said repeatedly—in private meetings with outside groups and in congressional testimony—that the algorithms are objective and essentially autonomous, unsullied by human biases or business considerations.

The company states in a Google blog, “We do not use human curation to collect or arrange the results on a page.” It says it can’t divulge details about how the algorithms work because the company is involved in a long-running and high-stakes battle with those who want to profit by gaming the system.

But that message often clashes with what happens behind the scenes. Over time, Google has increasingly re-engineered and interfered with search results to a far greater degree than the company and its executives have acknowledged, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

Those actions often come in response to pressure from businesses, outside interest groups and governments around the world. They have increased sharply since the 2016 election and the rise of online misinformation, the Journal found.

Google’s evolving approach marks a shift from its founding philosophy of “organizing the world’s information,” to one that is far more active in deciding how that information should appear.

More than 100 interviews and the Journal’s own testing of Google’s search results reveal:

• Google made algorithmic changes to its search results that favor big businesses over smaller ones, and in at least one case made changes on behalf of a major advertiser, eBay Inc., contrary to its public position that it never takes that type of action. The company also boosts some major websites, such as Amazon.com Inc. and Facebook Inc., according to people familiar with the matter.

• Google engineers regularly make behind-the-scenes adjustments to other information the company is increasingly layering on top of its basic search results. These features include auto-complete suggestions, boxes called “knowledge panels” and “featured snippets,” and news results, which aren’t subject to the same company policies limiting what engineers can remove or change.

• Despite publicly denying doing so, Google keeps blacklists to remove certain sites or prevent others from surfacing in certain types of results. These moves are separate from those that block sites as required by U.S. or foreign law, such as those featuring child abuse or with copyright infringement, and from changes designed to demote spam sites, which attempt to game the system to appear higher in results.

• In auto-complete, the feature that predicts search terms as the user types a query, Google’s engineers have created algorithms and blacklists to weed out more-incendiary suggestions for controversial subjects, such as abortion or immigration, in effect filtering out inflammatory results on high-profile topics.

• Google employees and executives, including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have disagreed on how much to intervene on search results and to what extent. Employees can push for revisions in specific search results, including on topics such as vaccinations and autism.

• To evaluate its search results, Google employs thousands of low-paid contractors whose purpose the company says is to assess the quality of the algorithms’ rankings. Even so, contractors said Google gave feedback to these workers to convey what it considered to be the correct ranking of results, and they revised their assessments accordingly, according to contractors interviewed by the Journal. The contractors’ collective evaluations are then used to adjust algorithms.

. . . .

The Journal’s findings undercut one of Google’s core defenses against global regulators worried about how it wields its immense power—that the company doesn’t exert editorial control over what it shows users. Regulators’ areas of concern include anticompetitive practices, political bias and online misinformation.

Far from being autonomous computer programs oblivious to outside pressure, Google’s algorithms are subject to regular tinkering from executives and engineers who are trying to deliver relevant search results, while also pleasing a wide variety of powerful interests and driving its parent company’s more than $30 billion in annual profit.

. . . .

Google made more than 3,200 changes to its algorithms in 2018, up from more than 2,400 in 2017 and from about 500 in 2010, according to Google and a person familiar with the matter.

. . . .

As part of its examination, the Journal tested Google’s search results over several weeks this summer and compared them with results from two competing search engines, Microsoft Corp. ’s Bing and DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused company that builds its results from syndicated feeds from other companies, including Verizon Communications Inc. ’s Yahoo search engine.

The testing showed wide discrepancies in how Google handled auto-complete queries and some of what Google calls organic search results—the list of websites that Google says are algorithmically sorted by relevance in response to a user’s query.

. . . .

The Journal tested the auto-complete feature, which Google says draws from its vast database of search information to predict what a user intends to type, as well as data such as a user’s location and search history. The testing showed the extent to which Google doesn’t offer certain suggestions compared with other search engines.

Typing “Joe Biden is” or “Donald Trump is” in auto-complete, Google offered predicted language that was more innocuous than the other search engines. Similar differences were shown for other presidential candidates tested by the Journal.

The Journal also tested several search terms in auto-complete such as “immigrants are” and “abortion is.” Google’s predicted searches were less inflammatory than those of the other engines.

. . . .

One Google search executive described the problem of defining misinformation as incredibly hard, and said the company didn’t want to go down the path of figuring it out.

Around the time Google started addressing issues such as misinformation, it started fielding even more complaints, to the point where human interference became more routine, according to people familiar with the matter, putting it in the position of arbitrating some of society’s most complicated issues. Some changes to search results might be considered reasonable—boosting trusted websites like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for example—but Google has made little disclosure about when changes are made, or why.

Businesses, lawmakers and advertisers are worried about fairness and competition within the markets where Google is a leading player, and as a result its operations are coming under heavy scrutiny.

The U.S. Justice Department earlier this year opened an antitrust probe, in which Google’s search policies and practices are expected to be areas of focus.

. . . .

In one change hotly contested within Google, engineers opted to tilt results to favor prominent businesses over smaller ones, based on the argument that customers were more likely to get what they wanted at larger outlets. One effect of the change was a boost to Amazon’s products, even if the items had been discontinued, according to people familiar with the matter.

The issue came up repeatedly over the years at meetings in which Google search executives discuss algorithm changes. Each time, they chose not to reverse the change, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Google engineers said it is widely acknowledged within the company that search is a zero-sum game: A change that helps lift one result inevitably pushes down another, often with considerable impact on the businesses involved.

. . . .

Many of the changes within Google have coincided with its gradual evolution from a company with an engineering-focused, almost academic culture into an advertising behemoth and one of the most profitable companies in the world. Advertising revenue—which includes ads on search as well as on other products such as maps and YouTube—was $116.3 billion last year.

Some very big advertisers received direct advice on how to improve their organic search results, a perk not available to businesses with no contacts at Google, according to people familiar with the matter. In some cases, that help included sending in search engineers to explain a problem, they said.

“If they have an [algorithm] update, our teams may get on the phone with them and they will go through it,” said Jeremy Cornfeldt, the chief executive of the Americas of Dentsu Inc.’s iProspect, which Mr. Cornfeldt said is one of Google’s largest advertising agency clients.

. . . .

One former executive at a Fortune 500 company that received such advice said Google frequently adjusts how it crawls the web and ranks pages to deal with specific big websites.

. . . .

“There’s this idea that the search algorithm is all neutral and goes out and combs the web and comes back and shows what it found, and that’s total BS,” the former executive said. “Google deals with special cases all the time.”

. . . .

Online marketplace eBay had long relied on Google for as much as a third of its internet traffic. In 2014, traffic suddenly plummeted—contributing to a $200 million hit in its revenue guidance for that year.

Google told the company it had made a decision to lower the ranking of a large number of eBay pages that were a big source of traffic.

. . . .

Companies without eBay’s clout had different experiences.

Dan Baxter can remember the exact moment his website, DealCatcher, was caught in a Google algorithm change. It was 6 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 17. Mr. Baxter, who founded the Wilmington, Del., coupon website 20 years ago, got a call from one of his 12 employees the next morning.

“Have you looked at our traffic?” the worker asked, frantically, Mr. Baxter recalled. It was suddenly down 93% for no apparent reason. That Saturday, DealCatcher saw about 31,000 visitors from Google. Now it was posting about 2,400. It had disappeared almost entirely on Google search.

Mr. Baxter said he didn’t know whom to contact at Google, so he hired a consultant to help him identify what might have happened. The expert reached out directly to a contact at Google but never heard back. Mr. Baxter tried posting to a YouTube forum hosted by a Google “webmaster” to ask if it might have been a technical problem, but the webmaster seemed to shoot down that idea.

One month to the day after his traffic disappeared, it inexplicably came back, and he still doesn’t know why.

“You’re kind of just left in the dark, and that’s the scary part of the whole thing,” said Mr. Baxter.

. . . .

Google’s Ms. Levin said “extreme transparency has historically proven to empower bad actors in a way that hurts our users and website owners who play by the rules.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

Ken Follett Opens Brexit-Inspired Friendship Tour This Weekend

15 November 2019

From Publishing Perspectives:

Even as the impeachment inquiry in Washington revs to fever pitch with its battery of public hearings riling Capitol Hill and many of your American colleagues, the Brexit crisis in the UK has gone into a comparatively quiet phase ahead of the December 12 general election. Perhaps that’s the perfect moment for author Ken Follett and three of his high-profile writing associates to launch their “Friendship Tour” in Europe.

The associates on the road with Follett are Jojo Moyes (Me Before You, Penguin, 2012); Lee Child (Blue Moon, Bantam, October); and Kate Mosse (The City of Tears, Mantle, releasing in May).

. . . .

And although the Brexit crisis is starting point for the concept, Follett is careful in such an uncertain time, sometimes opting to stress the opportunity of the tour for these authors to thank their European readers, albeit with a secondary message—”please keep reading us”—reflected in the fact that the tour is paid for by these authors’ translation publishers.

As Birgit Lübbe of Germany’s Bastei Lübbe (Follett and Mosse) is quoted saying in tour material, “One of the rewarding tasks in publishing is to make the works of international authors accessible to our readers.

“We support the Friendship Tour because the friendship between our authors and their loyal fans, as well as the friendship between our authors and us, transcends national borders. Publishing and reading books is a cultural exchange for all book lovers worldwide.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG is not an expert on Brexit, the EU or any related subject, but this strikes him as a sleazy attempt to gain publicity at a time when a great many people across Europe are upset about Brexit.

Is anyone really going to feel better because Ken Follett or Lee Child comes to visit a bookstore?

“We feel your pain, so buy our books”

Former Barnes & Noble manager accused of stealing thousands of dollars through fake book returns

15 November 2019

From WFSB.com:

A bookstore manager is accused of stealing $15,000 through book returns.

According to police, 24-year-old Samantha Kobuta of North Haven conducted more than 150 fraudulent returns while she worked at Barnes & Noble in North Haven.

Detectives began looking into the case at the end of August.

Link to the rest at WFSB.com

Next Page »