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A Defense of Curation

12 January 2015

From author and TPV regular Andrew Updegrove:

It is fashionable for content producers to rail against the concept of “curation” in the Age of the Internet. Why? Because the guidelines of those  terrible people, the “traditional publishers,” are supposedly keeping authors from the global audience that certainly must be their birthright. True, the balance can (and in the recent past certainly has) swung too far in the direction of permitting far too few good books to gain access to traditional distribution channels.

But it’s worth remembering that the situation can look very different to a content consumer than it does to a content producer.

Why is that so?   Because in the modern world, we are awash – indeed drowning – in a flood of content and data. More than we could ever possibly consume, even if we had a lifetime to read even a single day’s output of the global Internet production machine. And what drives that machine to expose most content is too often purely commercial, or ideological, or just damn silliness rather than good editorial judgment (take a look at your Twitter feed, if you think I’m wrong).

This is not, of course, entirely bad, although it is undisciplined. Content producers that previously had no way to reach an audience now can, and thousands of eminently worthwhile creators have taken advantage of the level playing field that the Internet provides to reach a readership that they could never have accessed a generation ago. And that audience has benefited equally.

But the Internet is non-judgmental: everyone’s bytes are just as worthy as everyone else’s when it comes to transmissibility. That leaves readers with a serious problem. How do you find the time to winnow the wheat from the chaff? Or even the occasional wheat from the usual chaff of a single source?

That’s where the process of curation comes in. I’m a lifelong reader of The New York Times, and even at its current high price, I still find enormous value in the fact that a staff of demonstrably educated, talented, discerning individuals are consumed with the goal of distilling all of the news that the world creates in 24 hours into a digestible summary of articles that they believe are worth the notice of someone that has only so much time to dedicate in any given day to keeping up with the news.

. . . .

If that sounds like agents and publishers, well, guess what, it should. The combination of filters and curation is a timeless, fractal approach that has demonstrable benefits. Just as a start-up company is only likely to get the attention of a venture capitalist if they are recommended  by a start-up attorney (like me), accountant or other entrepreneur, publishers rely on agents to filter the great mass of submission, and so it is across many other disciplines as well. The reading public benefits accordingly.

Is the process perfect? Of course not. There are endless numbers of worthwhile books you’ll never be exposed to if you only shop at brick and mortar stores. But how much reading time do you have in one lifetime, anyway? And at least you’re not likely to find dreck when you pull a book off a shelf at Barnes & Noble.

So here’s the moral to the story: we shouldn’t want to go back to the days where the publishers (and particularly today’s Big 5, corporate owned publishers) have near-total control over what content can reach an audience. But we also do not (yet) benefit from an ecosystem on the self-publishing side where readers can easily find the best self-published new books among the hundreds of thousands of new offerings that reach the market every year.

Link to the rest at Andrew Updegrove

Here’s a link to Andrew Updegrove’s books

Discovery

143 Comments to “A Defense of Curation”

  1. I didn’t get very far. I stopped here:

    But it’s worth remembering that the situation can look very different to a content consumer than it does to a content producer.

    Why is that so? Because in the modern world, we are awash – indeed drowning – in a flood of content and data. More than we could ever possibly consume…

    Do you know what bothers me most about my Hulu subscription? That it doesn’t have ALL the shows I want on it. It has a ton I don’t want, and I just ignore them. Of course, I can’t read everything I want to, listen to all the music I want to, watch all the shows I want to, but there’s a huge ‘why not?’ my emotional consumer brain lobs forward every now and then and “curation” locking away my access to only this or that channel has always bothered me because it means I have to go to so many different channels of distribution to get what I want and sometimes can’t get it at all.

    It’s consumers who gained the most by breaking down barriers. There are so many books I CAN’T get any more that I’d always wanted to read because they predated those barriers breaking down. I don’t know if I’ll ever get them because I don’t know who owns the IP and what they’ll do with it.

    I respect the opinion, but I couldn’t disagree more.

    • Here’s the simple truth regarding curation.

      The number of physical books that traditional publishing can make available to people who walk into a bookstore is limited by the shelf space devoted to books in the average store. That shelf space already has books on it, so in order to place your book on it, someone else’s book must go. That limits how many new books can be sold to bookstores, which in turn limits how many new books literary agents can sell to publishers. That’s the space constraint.

      The number of authors that literary agents can represent is limited by the number of hours they can devote to the average author. Those hours are already consumed by existing authors, so in order to get an agent to represent you, some other author has to go. That limits how many new authors literary agents can take on. The same applies to publishing editors. That’s the time constraint.

      There is no curation. No bookstore has the space, and no agent or publishing editor has the time, to curate any book or author. That’s all political spin for what is really happening: the simple filtering of new books and authors due to the time and space constraints of agents, editors and bookstores.

      The average agent can only take on maybe one new author a year. Yet that same agent gets 35,000 submissions per year. Similar proportions apply to publishing editors. Of course they have to reject virtually everyone. Of course they come up with politically correct excuses for rejecting authors. Of course they end up representing or publishing books that have no merit or sales.

      Just tell the truth, traditional publishing. You aren’t curating anything. You have no idea what might sell or be worthy of a read. You are simply overwhelmed by your own physical and time constraints and as a result are victims of your own lottery.

      • “There is no curation. No bookstore has the space, and no agent or publishing editor has the time, to curate any book or author. That’s all political spin for what is really happening: the simple filtering of new books and authors due to the time and space constraints of agents, editors and bookstores.”

        Pay no attention to that accountant behind the curtain!

      • There is no curation. … That’s all political spin for what is really happening…

        Wow! That makes a lot of sense.

  2. Mr. Updegrove’s claim is simply incorrect, and I can tell you why:

    Discoverability is not linear, but logarithmic.

    That is to say: Finding what you want out of 100 different choices is not 10 times as hard as finding what you want out of 10 different choices. It is only twice as hard. The difficulty of choice increases not in proportion to n, but in proportion to log n. (This is why decimal notation was such a brilliant invention. One digit is enough to specify a number from 0 to 9, but two digits will specify a number all the way up to 99. With just six digits, you can choose one particular number out of a million.)

    Even before the sea change in self-publishing, traditional publishers in the United States alone were putting out over 100,000 books a year. Log(100,000) = 5. The ‘tsunami of swill’ is putting out something over 1,000,000 books a year. Log(1,000,000) = 6. The difficulty of finding what you want now, compared to then, is therefore increased by a factor of 6/5. This is more than compensated by the extra help we now have from things like book blogs and Amazon’s also-bot.

    The result: readers actually have an easier time than before of finding books that they want to read; and because there are more books to choose from, they are more likely to find something that suits their needs and interests exactly. No ‘curators’ required.

    • Love this! Thanks, Tom.

    • That’s an interesting and useful theory, but what’s the process behind it that you consider to be logarithmic rather than linear? I presume it is the much finer levels of categorization available now, as opposed to wandering the aisles of a physical bookstore. But I would be interested in your further thoughts on the matter.

      • I believe this has to do with the old Ford problem. When Ford first started producing cars, it only produced them in the color black. People wanted other colors. With only one option, people couldn’t get EXACTLY what they wanted.

        Then he introduced other colors. Basics, first. And people could find close approximations of what they wanted. Now, cars can be in any color people want. They can even go to a custom shop to request elaborate paint jobs.

        Essentially, the more options that there are, the more likely it is that the consumer will find exactly what they want. Does that make sense?

      • It’s actually a general mathematical law, and applies to any kind of searching, whether addressing computer memory or extracting copper ore from the earth’s surface. The particular organizing principle that one uses, of course, depends on the exact conditions. In this case, as you suggest, much of it has to do with fine levels of categorization in online bookshops. But not all. A lot has to do with the fact that readers are free to speak and write about books, and recommend good ones to their friends (face-to-face or online).

        Here is a short illustration of why it is not linear.

        Linear search: You go to the supermarket to buy tomatoes, so that you can make sauce for your spaghetti. You start at the northeast corner of the store, and end at the southwest corner (so you can be sure to cover every inch of every shelf), and pick up each product one by one. You look at each product and ask: ‘Is this a tomato?’ Keep going until the answer is ‘yes’.

        If there are n products in the store, you will have at most to look at all n of them. The more products, the longer the search, in one-to-one, linear proportion.

        Logarithmic search: You go to the supermarket to buy tomatoes. Tomatoes are produce, so first you go to the produce department, ignoring all the rest of the store. One end of the produce is fruit; the other end is durable bulk vegetables, like potatoes and onions; so you go to the salad vegetables in the middle, ignoring the rest of the produce. In that section, you ignore the display case with the green leafy vegetables, and the one with the bell peppers, and so forth, and go straight for the one with the tomatoes. And once you are looking at the tomatoes, you ignore the beefsteak tomatoes and the little cherry tomatoes (if you know anything about making spaghetti sauce), and pick out a few choice items from the bin of ripe red Roma tomatoes.

        At every step, you have eliminated most of the possible choices, and you do not even begin looking at individual items until you have narrowed your search down to a very specific category. If each category is divisible into b subcategories, the number of preliminary steps is at most logb(n). The length of the search is proportional to the logarithm of the total number of items n in the store: Q.E.D.

        Now, you will note that the linear search is the worst possible case (aside from running around at random and re-examining items that you have looked at before). Any method of systematizing your search will give you better than linear results; and the better the search method, the more quickly it will approach the logarithmic ideal.

        With the aid of a good library catalogue (and while Amazon is not a library, its catalogue is the most efficient in the world), you can take a shortcut even on the logarithmic ideal: you can skip most of the preliminary steps and go straight to the subcategory you want, in as much detail as you care to specify.

        For instance, I have an interest in ancient coins, and I want a book on the coins of Imperial Rome. Just this minute I typed into the Amazon search box: ‘books on Imperial Roman coins’. Out of all the millions of books for sale, the system narrowed it down in one step to just 84 titles, presenting the 16 best matches (‘best’ by a combination of sales rank and relevance, for all else being equal, the better-selling book has proved itself relevant to more people, and is a better guess) on the first page. The very first hit is David van Meter’s Handbook of Roman Imperial Coins, which is exactly what I would like; but it costs $59.99 in paperback, which is more than I want to spend. Scrolling down a bit, I see Roman History from Coins: Some uses of the Imperial Coinage to the Historian, by Michael Grant, for just $20.78. Michael Grant is a distinguished historian in the general field of Roman history; I know that name, and know how far to trust it; so I look at that one. There is, unfortunately, no ebook or ‘look inside’, but the description and the editorial and customer reviews show that it pretty exactly matches what I want. So, if I actually wanted to buy the book instead of just giving an example, it would be on its way to me already. Elapsed time: less than five minutes, and most of that time I spent typing this description of the process.

        Sales rank of Grant‘s book: #2,513,097. Through the old-fashioned media of physical bookshops, public and university libraries, and Inter-Library Loan, I might never have heard that there was any such book. (I might have stumbled upon it in looking at Grant’s other books, but not in a timely fashion, for his name would not have occurred to me in this particular context.) And yet I found that book in a minute or so, in preference to all the millions ahead of it in the sales rankings.

        No, finding what you want as a reader does not even begin to be a problem anymore. The problems are all on the writer’s side now, and even those problems are easier to solve than they used to be, when the only means of discoverability was to be one of the magic 1% who got a publishing contract (and then did not go promptly out of print).

        • Yes. This. As a consumer, I’m thrilled with this lack of curation and abundance of options.

          • Yes, that’s the joy of browsing/shopping on Amazon for a book of a particular kind.

            But it’s the path to discovery that’s not curated; the books are. Both the books on coins were published by the wicked old Traddies at some point, went through the curation process—and in the case of non-fic like this, rigorous checking of facts and footnotes.

            Michael Grant is a name you know and trust, so you’d buy that.
            That’s different to discovering a book from newbie author Esmeralda Tonks who’s written and self-pubbed a standalone novel about Life in the Metropolis.

            Amazon’s algorithms for putting titles in front of you are pretty impressive—except I don’t think I’ve bought more than a couple of books from their recommendations. My reading is too eclectic for all kinds of reasons for them to pin-point what I might like to read.

            Most of us know the difficulties of discoverability and it isn’t heretical to predict that various curational schemes will arise, from book-clubs to star reviewers.

            • I respect the opinion that curation is necessary but I don’t agree with it. He managed to ignore all the results that didn’t line up with his needs. I manage to ignore the ones that don’t line up with mine, and I frequently use a “word of reading” approach to buying my own fiction. I demand a complete sample of an author’s work before spending money (unless it’s a thrift/fire sale) due to a couple bad experiences where authors didn’t stick the landing. So I read free fiction, short fiction, online periodicals, books I run across at work or in the store, and I buy from authors like that. Or I go searching/browsing a store for, to borrow the example, “SF space opera in a small unit military milieu featuring a disabled hero who attempts to be the knight in shining armor to people in trouble,” being smart about where to find the fiction I want. I do this searching a lot of ways and I’m pretty good at it because I’ve always hunted up my own books to my own taste and my own mood regardless of any curation. Shockingly, the one place I generally don’t look is reviews, except to read spoilers and make sure it doesn’t cross my squicks.

              In short, I respect the opinion that some people think we need curation. On the other hand, I’m perfectly capable of doing a logarithmic search, ignoring the stuff I don’t feel like reading, and homing in on the stuff I do, while discarding what few duds I bump into, due to price or author or boring cover copy.

              As a consumer, curation is the last thing I need. Recommendations are not curation. Word of mouth is not curation. I read just as much, or more, fiction that’s never passed through an agent or publisher. I don’t need or desire curation. As a consumer, I generally wish distributors would distribute and quit trying to curate.

        • Tom — this comment, and your comment above it introducing the topic, should be pulled out and made into a post of their own. I guess I’m talking to PG, in actuality, but to whomever needs to hear, this needs more attention.

          Angie

          PS — did you ever see the joke going around, back when jokes circulated by being xeroxed at an office and passed around by hand, about how various types of computer programmers would find an elephant in Africa? Your example of finding tomatoes at the supermarket reminds me of that. 🙂

        • No, this analogy doesn’t work for fiction.

          The problem with fiction titles is that even if you break them down by genre, there are still far too many to consider, never mind read.

          Only a small percentage will be enjoyable.

          Finding that enjoyable percentage continues to be a problem.

          Curation is not the answer, because all curation does – at best – is give you someone else’s taste. There’s no guarantee that their taste matches your taste.

          As it happens, SF, fantasy, romance, horror, litfic and the rest all have their cliches, and a book that delivers the cliches is more likely to be a success than a title out from left field.

          So it’s possible to curate on this basis with some success.

          But the most interesting titles don’t follow the usual rules.

          Neither curation nor alsobot search tools are good at finding and promoting them.

          This is a loss, IMO.

          The answer will eventually be some kind of super-alsobot AI system that knows *your* tastes and can pre-read millions of books for you to see if you’ll like them. But that’s some way off in the future…

        • Very nice explanation and elaboration, Tom. Thanks.

    • The search is only logarithmic if the selection is (like decimal notation) very well-organized.

      I would argue that the selection of books and other media today is not remotely well-organized. Even the powerhouse computers at Amazon and Netflix, which I have provided an embarrassment of data, can’t seem to make 9 suggestions out of 10 that don’t make me wince or roll my eyes. And their wildly off-the-mark “because you liked this” justifications make the case. Search failed because our media is not well-organized.

      Our categorization of what makes books valuable to customers is far too primitive to assume a logarithmic progression of search difficulty. Just look at the clumsy, haphazard way we discuss genre. It’s not precise enough to lend itself to mathematics.

      • I ignore the alsobots as useless. I do use the search method though, plus follow my own network of this book leads to that book to that story, etc.

        Every large group of people eventually develop some shorthands. After years of reading/writing fanfic, where everyone labels it their own way but conventions arise naturally, I’ve learned how to quickly figure out if anything falls into my tastes or not just from a quick glance through cover, cover copy, and reviews with a few spoilers.

        Books are well categorized and organized, even if not always perfectly or according to a single set of conventions. I can narrow right down to what I want, browsing or searching.

  3. By the way, this claim:

    And at least you’re not likely to find dreck when you pull a book off a shelf at Barnes & Noble.

    Is simply laughable. In proof, I shall be lazy and give the stock answer: Shore Thing, by Snooki. But there are thousands of others. Brick-and-mortar booksellers carry immense quantities of dreck, and always have.

    • Exactly. The real problem for traditional publishers is not the good books they published, but the tons of bad ones. They created the huge market for self-publishing. Because readers have absolutely no faith that what they buy from a major publisher will be something they will enjoy. (Not to mention the fact that they don’t publish enough of the stuff people do like.)

      There is nothing in the way of a traditional publisher branding itself in so that readers will flock to it. (Except publishing executives).

      And where agents fit in to this puzzles me. What the heck do they have to do with anything? It’s the editors that choose what to publish.

      Also, if the New York Time’s is so great, why not just read everything they recommend? I’m sure the NYTimes and traditional publishers would be happy.

      • The real problem for traditional publishers is not the good books they published, but the tons of bad ones. They created the huge market for self-publishing. Because readers have absolutely no faith that what they buy from a major publisher will be something they will enjoy. (Not to mention the fact that they don’t publish enough of the stuff people do like.)

        +1

        Yep, those two points pretty much cover it.

      • “The real problem for traditional publishers is not the good books they published, but the tons of bad ones.”

        Amazon created the first viable market for self-published books by making it easier and cheaper to self publish than ever before and by never rejecting any self-published book.

        • When he says that traditional publishers “created the huge market for self-publishing” he doesn’t mean that in a literal sense – as in the way Amazon created KDP.

          What he means is that the traditional publishers – through their actions – created an over-supply of books that languished unpublished (of all stripes, good and bad and in-between) as well as throttled the quantity available to readers.

          When people use the phrase “creating a market” – they usually mean it in the same sense Mackay Bell did. “The PC ushered in a new era, creating a market for workplace software…” or “The widescale deployment of electric power in the early decades of the 20th century created a market for appliances…”

          This isn’t saying that IBM developed all the software ever made. Or that whatever local electric company actually built all the refrigerators, washing machines, toasters, radios, etc.

          It means that at certain points due to changing conditions, markets (as in “new potential for products due to new possibilities for supply and demand”) materialize.

          In the case of the traditional publishers, they didn’t do anything differently – and that was the problem.

          Like they had done for decades, they routinely selected only the smallest fraction of available manuscripts while rejecting (or having agents, or more likely agent assistants) reject potential manuscripts. Virtually every major bestseller has a list of rejections before it miraculously was accepted. Same book, just dependent upon random chance and whim finally landing it in the hands of one person who liked it and found it “publishable” – when sometimes dozens of others in the publishing industry reviewed the same novel and rejected it.

          Authors for decades complained about not being able to publish frequently enough due to the publishers limiting releases. Likewise, readers clamored for new books but were made to wait by the publishers.

          And what actually made it into print has never been universally – or even as a strong majority – the best of the best. There is a lot of dreck that has always made it into print.

          So sure, there is indeed dreck among all the self-published works as well.

          But Mackay Bell wasn’t saying that self-published works are always the best of the best. It’s the traditional publishers who have routinely made the whole “curated” claim their own.

          Mackay Bell was only saying this:

          * Traditional Publishers’ “curating” filters allowed dreck to enter and did not pick up great or even good manuscripts with any kind of predictable probability.
          * Traditional Publishers throttled the output of prolific writers and ignored readers who wanted more output
          * In other words, the actions of Traditional Publishers “created a market” of pent-up supply and demand.

          And of course, Amazon finally came along and created the infrastructure to harness that market of pent-up supply and demand.

      • Agents
        1. choose which editor gets to decide whether to choose
        2. negotiate the contract.

    • Yeah, I was just going to reply to that with a solid minute of laughter, because a lot of what I see in your typical bookstore is merely some kind of extruded book product that only bears a passing resemblance to the novel, and the non-fiction section is mostly another kind of extruded book product filled with vapid celebrities and self-help platitudes, curated by absolutely no one except cyncial marketing goons.

    • Yeah, that one had me cracking up too. I’ve been unable to drag my bleeding eyeballs beyond the first few chapters, or even the first few pages, many times while trying to read a BPH book, over many years. And that’s just the stuff that’s really bad, as opposed to stuff that’s decently written but just not of interest to me.

      Angie

  4. a new cadre of most-trusted reviewers will arise from the current turbulent marketplace

    Completely agree. And the beauty of this is that this new form of curation will be of the readers, for the readers, and by the readers. (To paraphrase some guy who was good with catchy slogans.)

    I agree that curators serve a valuable function. As a reader, I just don’t want them to be one small group of people who are, by and large, clustered in one or two places, and who have, in many cases, such similar outlooks, experiences, and even backgrounds.

    In other words, I don’t need a curator to tell me what I should like. I need one who can tell me what I will like, because we have similar taste.

    • Except that what he’s saying is that the new form of curation will be exactly the same as the old:

      If that sounds like agents and publishers, well, guess what, it should.

      • I don’t have a problem with that as long as they don’t limit what I can find. If they are adding value instead of blocking things I value it’s fine.

        My ideal curation would be similar to the top 100 lists you see at the end of each year. You put in your favorite books somewhere, it matches them against various lists and returns a few top 100 lists for various genre’s you like by various book bloggers or whoever.

        You then can browse them, see what you like, ignore what you don’t, and go on to another list or search manually on Amazon/B%N/Kobo like you do now.

        I know simple versions of this exist now, but there doesn’t seem to be a easy way to do it. Amazon has top lists by readers, Goodreads has some, but I think it could be far better.

        For example there’s the what to read after 50 Shades facebook group by Summer Daniels(I think?). What if all those people could add in that on Amazon and get a list of all the recommendations. The ‘also bought’ of 50 Shades only shows the top books bought. What if the list given above also showed new ‘also bought’ books released in the last month. So you don’t see the same 30 books being recommended every month.

        Anyway, I’m glad the old curation that blocked so many things is broken. Any new system that limits instead of helps sorts isn’t going to work very well though.

        • I don’t have a problem with that as long as they don’t limit what I can find. If they are adding value instead of blocking things I value it’s fine.

          But the whole point of agents and publishers is to block things. If they aren’t blocking things, they aren’t doing the job that Mr. Updegrove is asking them to do.

          The ‘also bought’ of 50 Shades only shows the top books bought. What if the list given above also showed new ‘also bought’ books released in the last month. So you don’t see the same 30 books being recommended every month.

          Actually, the ‘also bought’ shows the top books based on the rankings at that particular moment, and, of course, on which books are the best matches in the alsobot algorithm. So in fact, you do not see the same 30 books being recommended every month.

          • I don’t read his article that way, the quote “Inevitably, the age-old fractal pattern will assert itself, and a new cadre of most-trusted reviewers will arise from the current turbulent marketplace.” for example near the end is pretty much the opposite of blocking.

            Edit: It’s true you don’t see the exact same books, but ranking churn isn’t big per day or even week in the also bought since rankings are weighted a bit to prevent spikes. My point though is adding in options to see newer books or reject books from that list would be good. Say you’ve read or looked at the first 30 books in the also bought list, an option to ignore them next time your browsing. Or find a book that 100 readers of 50 shades bought in the last month. Or some other custom search.

            Search engines can be extremely flexible as Amazon’s recommendation engine and Google shows. Letting readers who want to dig deeper do so would benefit everyone. For those who don’t want to they could go with what Amazon ‘curates’ with their recommedation engine.

            • Then read this bit:

              Just as a start-up company is only likely to get the attention of a venture capitalist if they are recommended by a start-up attorney (like me), accountant or other entrepreneur, publishers rely on agents to filter the great mass of submission, and so it is across many other disciplines as well.

              To Mr. Updegrove, blocking is a positively good thing. He wants ‘the great mass of submission’ to go unpublished.

              • And that one paragraph was what I was disagreeing with when I said ‘I don’t have a problem with that as long as they don’t limit what I can find’.

                Most of the article is more appropriate to describing book bloggers or eBookSoda. Which are the parts I agree with and think should be expanded upon using the technology that’s available.

              • Sorry if the text wasn’t clearer, but no, I wasn’t advocating blocking at all. The text above is merely acknowledging how marketplaces tend to work.

                I think we’ve solved the access issue for authors and readers alike already – anybody can put anything out there, and anyone out there can find it. The questions to my mind are:

                – How do we make it easier for authors that write good books to get them recognized as such?

                – How do readers find trusted sources more easily to find good books in genres they like?

                The problem today isn’t that there aren’t plenty of reviews and reviewers – even plenty of good ones. The problem is that there’s so many that it’s hard for concensus to form around a book of any type – not just serial, genre fiction that here’s something really good that other people might want to know about – to the point where it starts to help a book and its author get noticed.

                As I say, the challenge is how do we get to the point where we have the best of both worlds – equal access, and realistic prospects that any type of book, if its good, will have a decent shot at getting at least a modest following.

                • Actually that sounds more like the other buzzword of traditional publishing ‘Discoverability’ than curation. It is an issue.

                  KKR has some posts on it for anyone who hasn’t read them:
                  http://kriswrites.com/2013/11/20/the-business-rusch-advertising-print-editions-and-traditional-publishing-discoverability-part-one/

                • Smart Debut Author

                  Andy, you should have more faith in readers. 🙂

                  If readers like our books enough to recommend them to friends, then we’ll get that modest following you speak of and then some. That’s been my experience.

                  You want curation to help generate “consensus” about what are good books? “Consensus” is the worst thing possible for books and reading. Consensus is the goal of the blockbuster model that drives big publishing now, and it nearly destroyed reading in America before indie publishing revitalized it.

                  Trust your readers, man. Trust your readers.

                • – How do we make it easier for authors that write good books to get them recognized as such?

                  But there’s no such thing as objective quality so there’s no such thing as a good book! The surest measure of the quality of a book is how many copies it sells!

                  😉

                • The problem is “good” defined by who and how, Andy.

                  There were teachers who complained to my parents that I was reading The Iliad and The Odyssey in junior high.

                  Or my mother throwing out some of X-Men comics while I was at work, where many comics experts would weep that she destroyed original copies of Chris Claremont’s mid-eighties classics.

                  Should my teachers and parents be considered “trusted”? Why would I trust anyone else to tell me what’s “appropriate” to read?

                • Count me among the ones weeping at the loss of copies of mid-eighties X-Men. Those were good times.

                • – How do we make it easier for authors that write good books to get them recognized as such?

                  – How do readers find trusted sources more easily to find good books in genres they like?

                  What is a “good” book? In whose opinion? I can’t read a book in which the writing isn’t good and that isn’t loaded with grammar, punctuation, spelling and word use errors, no matter how great the story may be. Many readers don’t have that problem. On the other hand, I can read books that lots of people rave about and be completely mystified as to what they found to enjoy about it.

                  I’m a picky yet rather eclectic reader. Goodreads or Amazon can recommend books that don’t appeal to me, because they’re only (from what I can tell) recommending on author or genre or subject, not on style or theme. How will anyone curate books to my tastes?

                  This is exactly the problem inherent in any kind of curation– it’s all about someone’s subjective opinion.

                • I continue to remain surprised that readers on this site seem to loathe the idea that there exist books that are very good that some readers don’t like and books that are not very good that many readers do.

                  I’ve never been a big fan of Picasso, but I acknowledge he was a great artist. Likewise, I’m a huge fan of Axl Rose and acknowledge he’s not so much.

                • I don’t think it’s a matter of loathing the idea so much as observing that the traditional or common or mainstream tastes are not everyone’s tastes. Everyone here is well aware that no book is so brilliant or so “classic” that it doesn’t have at least a few one-star ratings on a major review site somewhere, and if it’s a popular book it probably has hundreds. We all know that happens; we get it. Heck, there are classics I can’t get through, and books labelled “trash” that I’ve enjoyed reading over and over.

                  Really, the whole idea of anointing a book a “classic” or “important” is just a matter of someone’s opinion. If that someone has access to a big enough megaphone, then a lot of people hear that opinion and figure it must be valid. Okay, whatever. I mean, Dickens was disparaged as a hack in his day; the curators of the late 19th century dubbed him a sentimental hack who churned out pablum for the ignorant masses. Nowadays, he’s arguably the second most important writer in the English language, right after Shakespeare. Whose opinion is right? If the top reviewers and lit professors of Dickens’s day were so incredibly wrong about him (and were they?) then what makes the top reviewers and lit professors of the 21st century any more adept at chosing the new canon?

                  I’d love to live another 150 years and see whether Stephenie Meyer, another famous hack who churns out pablum for a disrespected audience, might not be one of the giants of the English canon in the mid-22nd century. I still have no interest in reading her books, mind you, but it wouldn’t shock me to find that they’d lasted long enough to become classics. She might well be our Dickens, especially if she keeps writing.

                  Angie

                • Fair point, though I’d go with you likely with King, Gaiman, or Rowling than Meyer.

                • I’d like to bet that way too, but I was deliberately going for someone with incredible sales figures and significant popular disrespect outside of their personal fanbase. 🙂

                  Angie

                • Will, I’m not sure if you’re saying you thought *I* loathe the idea that some readers like books I don’t, because I wasn’t. What I was saying was *who* determines what constitutes a good book? Because there will often be strong disagreement about it.

                • Angie:

                  I still have no interest in reading her books, mind you, but it wouldn’t shock me to find that they’d lasted long enough to become classics. She might well be our Dickens, especially if she keeps writing.

                  That reminds me of the bit from Star Trek IV where Kirk is instructing Spock in the art ot twentieth-century profanity:

                  Spock: Admiral, may I ask you a question?
                  Kirk: Spock, don’t call me Admiral. You used to call me Jim. Don’t you remember “Jim”? What’s your question?
                  Spock: Your use of language has altered since our arrival. It is currently laced with, shall I say, more colorful metaphors— “Double dumb-a** on you” and so forth.
                  Kirk: You mean the profanity?
                  Spock: Yes.
                  Kirk: That’s simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you unless you swear every other word. You’ll find it in all the literature of the period.
                  Spock: For example?
                  Kirk: [thinks] Oh, the complete works of Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins….
                  Spock: Ah… The giants.

                  On a more serious note: Nobody would have thought Shakespeare would ever amount to anything, if they had only seen a bucket of blood like Titus Andronicus. He got better in time. For all I know, Stephenie Meyer will do the same.

                • Tom — LOL! Yes, that was classic. Which reminds me of this:

                  http://xkcd.com/771/

                  despite it not being quite on-topic. 😀

                  But back on-topic, yes, Shakespeare himself was apparently frustrated at how popular his plays were, later in his life. He considered them to be popular trash, while his poems — little noticed — were his Real Literature.

                  Angie

                • If so, that probably sprang from the popular conception that plays were popular trash, unlike poems. It was not Shakespearean but Elizabethean.

                • Mary — makes sense, thanks. [nod]

                  Angie

                • Welcome and kudos for being brave enough to enter into the lion’s den personally, Mr. Updegrove! I’m another attorney turned author/publisher, having lots of fun and some success.

                  I appreciate your coming by to clarify your words.

                • I neither need nor want consensus among reviewers; that’s way too much filtration, and will eliminate far too many books that would/could be loved by many thousands of people. All I need is one or two reviewers or book bloggers (let’s say, per genre I read) that I agree with. That’s all. The person next to me, who has very different tastes, needs a couple of other reviewers or bloggers whose tastes agree with his, even though they disagree strongly with mine. If we tried to force consensus, either by nominating a small number of “top” reviewers, or by having everyone vote and look at the averages, only people whose tastes agreed with the anointed reviewers, or people whose tastes ran right down the bland average of everyone else’s, would be able to use book blogs and reviews to find something to read. Luckily there are so many book bloggers and reviewers out there now — with more popping up regularly — that even if someone tries to anoint some charmed in-group as THE voice of curation, the rest of us can easily ignore them.

                  And in actuality, even reviewers with tastes different from my own can be useful if they’re good at explaining exactly what about a book they like and dislike; I’ve bought more than one book because some reviewer pointed out some aspect they hated, and I said, “Hey, I like that stuff!” But that’s for a conversation about what makes a good reviewer, rather than one about whose tastes we should follow.

                  Angie

                • Most new books and tv shows I pick up are because I like the fanfic written about them. :shrugs: I’m shameless, I know.

                • I won’t say most, but I’ve definitely tried movies and even marathonned through however many seasons worth of a TV show because I read some great fanfic. [nod]

                  I’ve also had the experience of watching the first few episodes of a show, dismissing it, then a couple of years later reading some great fanfic that brought me back to the show, which was (or seemed, which is what counts with entertainment) much better seen through the lens of the fic. It can be hard to do much character development in 42 minutes, or even multiple iterations of 42 minutes. (Yeah, I’m being generous here.) But half a million words of fic by however many really good writers can flesh out the characters and make the adventure stories a lot more interesting.

                  Angie

            • For those who don’t want to they could go with what Amazon ‘curates’ with their recommedation engine.

              Amazon does not ‘curate’ its recommendation engine. Every book offered for sale on Amazon can potentially be recommended by the alsobot. Curation, in such a case, would imply that there is some list of approved books from which the alsobot chooses, and that new releases do not appear on that list unless someone (or some algorithm) makes the decision to put them there.

              • That’s the publisher’s definition of curate, and it’s very loaded(I’ll post below). The original is ‘sort for presentation’ which Amazon does.

                • Well, a museum curator sorts the artefacts for presentation, but also decides which artefacts will be shown to the public at all. Most of the pieces in a typical museum are ‘deaccessioned’, kept in storage where only credentialled scholars are ever allowed to see them.

                • Yeah which is similar to how we live our lives. Lots of stuff gets put in closets to be found 20 years later.

                  The main issue with curation in the past is money. No museum can afford all the floor space to show every object. None can afford to collect every historical object that could be preserved.

                  The issue is publishers/agents seem to think they are doing a divine mission instead of being limited by money and time like everyone else. Maybe it helps them sleep at night.

                • Yeah which is similar to how we live our lives. Lots of stuff gets put in closets to be found 20 years later.

                  Yes, but we don’t allow other people to lock our stuff in closets for us.

                  Everything else you say, I quite agree with.

      • Curation is good. Having Agents and esp. publishers in charge of it is evil.

        • I would say ‘publishers and especially agents’. An agent is essentially a publisher’s lapdog. I don’t want my reading matter chosen by somebody in Manhattan. I doubly don‘t want it chosen by somebody’s dog.

  5. I am, actually, already using ‘curation’ services by subscribing on ebooksoda, Fussy Librarian, etc.

    There’s a difference between having a control over the output of books hitting the market and an offered selection of books available on the market. Yet, when people are warning about the ‘glut’ of books it’s always seems to be implied that restriction is the solution of the ‘problem.’
    Between services that offer subscription on ebook deals and book bloggers, I don’t see readers having ‘glut’ problema, what I see is the suppliers having a discovery problem.

    • What Elka said. I have more than enough to read without anyone’s “curation”, thank you.

      Getting other readers’ attention for my books? That’s a totally different situation, but I don’t think I need to curated any more than I need to be culled.

  6. Good luck with your books, Mr. Updegrove. Marblehead is a beautiful area.

  7. Smart Debut Author

    I hear there’s a glut of content on the Internet, too — better get somebody on curating that. Like pronto.

    Notice how every single writer who bemoans the uncurated glut… also thinks that they themselves aren’t part of it?

    Cognitive dissonance much?

  8. “a new cadre of most-trusted reviewers will arise from the current turbulent marketplace.”

    They already have. If we scrubbed the interwebz for the most popular and heaviest followed bloggers, FB’ers and GR reviewers and critics I think their cumulative readership would easily surpass the total readership of every print book review from the last century. Impossible to prove? Sure. Hard to believe? Not at all.

    ” Do you know what bothers me most about my Hulu subscription? That it doesn’t have ALL the shows I want on it.”

    I’m 42 and I can remember when TV was 6 channels. 3 VHF and 3 UHF. And I was the remote with a pair of pliers because the knob had broken off the metal stub.

    I think we have 600 channels now with out current Satt TV package. I’m not going back to 6 channels. I certainly don’t want to go back to fewer books.

    • I’m 42 and I can remember when TV was 6 channels. 3 VHF and 3 UHF. And I was the remote with a pair of pliers because the knob had broken off the metal stub.

      Yup. Me, too. I remember fixing the rabbit ears on top the TV, too. 🙂

      • And wrapping tinfoil around one or both to try to improve the reception. 😀

        Angie

        • Remember Welcome Back, Kotter? There was one episode where the Sweathogs had a telethon. Naturally it was on an obscure community-access station. I forget the exact channel number, but it was something like Channel 54.6. The running gag was that you could only get this channel by hooking up your rabbit ears to the pop-up toaster – and everybody in town knew about this.

          Ah, those were the days. Or something.

    • And there’s still very little worth watching! 😉 (Me mom let me know that Dish had HBO free over the weekend. I asked her what she had watched on it. “Nothing. I didn’t see anything I hadn’t seen before — other than a couple things I have no interest in …”)

    • We only had 2 channels: one for NBC and one for whatever they wanted to show of ABC or CBS. I guess that second one was curated.

    • We got reception for three channels when I was a kid. We were lucky that one had SF shows and another had stuff like Remington Steele and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. Good times.

  9. “a new cadre of most-trusted reviewers will arise from the current turbulent marketplace.”

    Its already happened. If we could scrub the interwebz for the most popular and most followed book bloggers, reviewers and critics I think their total following would quickly and easily surpass the total legacy book review readership of the last century. Impossible to prove? Sure. Hard to believe? Nope.

    “Do you know what bothers me most about my Hulu subscription? That it doesn’t have ALL the shows I want on it.”

    I’m 42 and I can remember when TV was 6 channels. 3 UHF and 3 VHF. And I was the remote with a pair of pliers after the plastic channel knob broke. I think wee have 600 channels with our current Satt TV package. I’m not going back to 6 channels.

    Consumers want unlimited and affordable (if not cheap and free) choices in their media. The top shelf offerings of the conglomerates will continue to entertain and please (I for one can’t wait for all the new movies this year!) but people want more than that. The indie film movement, the internet, indie music and now indie books have proved it repeatedly.

    Argue against it all you want.

  10. I guess my thought is that along with the growth in content there is a tremendous growth in ways to discover content. I hear about books on talk radio, from my friends and family, from blogs, from everywhere!

    I spent my whole childhood walking into libraries and bookstores that had more content than I could read in my life. While it may not have been dreck, probably 90% of it was not suitable or appealing to me. And yet I always found books, and read them and enjoyed them. I don’t see that under threat.

  11. Sigh…

    Again.

    I am a *reader*.

    Sorry.

    I’m a “content consumer”. Maybe one day I’ll write something people enjoy. If I do that, I’ll be a lucky amateur. My main purpose around books is *reading* them; sometimes, recommending them.

    Like SDA says, the internet *is* glut. And yet, I managed to find Kris Rusch some years ago (can’t recall how, but I think I [re] discovered her through Smashwords [*] ). Through Rusch, this blog.

    Now, granted, Rusch was an editor, and is again, but I don’t think she considers herself a blog curator. That’s word of mouth.

    Now, if you insist on calling _that_ curating…

    Also, regarding start-ups… Ever heard of crowfunding?

    Take care.

    [*] I’d heard something about her in the 90s, I think. Then I read some at Baen. Then either smashwords or google.

    • I knew about Ms. Rusch because I sometimes used to read The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction when she was the editor. But I would not have discovered her blog if an acquaintance had not recommended Dean Wesley Smith’s blog to me. I find DWS’s advice very spotty and frequently one-sided, but of course he links to his wife’s blog, and it suits my needs much better. So there you are.

      And I agree, if that counts as ‘curation’, the word has no meaning and we can get by without it.

  12. We need organization and information, not curation.

    As someone who’s been reading since I was three years old, I consider myself the world expert on what I want to read at any particular moment in time. Give me the genre, the book description, and the sample, and I will decide if I want to read the book now, possibly later, or never.

  13. I think the word ‘curate’ has become as loaded as any buzzword around. Traditional publishing has built up some kind of belief that the ‘curation’ they do is somehow special. As though they had a divine mission to spread the good books to the world.

    However every day we curate. When I walk into a Coles bookstore and buy a book, I’m selecting and preserving that book from being destroy (cover stripped and book tossed), and displayed on the bookshelves of my house to friends. If I add it to my reading list on a site like Goodreads I’m presenting it another way.

    What Traditional publishing was doing was no different. They picked what they liked, tried to believe that they knew what readers would like, and then published it. But really each publisher only had a few people at most deciding if a particular book was worthy. Which means it comes down to individual tastes again and how can that be perfect?

    Curation happens all around us, the internet hasn’t removed it. It’s added to it. When traditional news channels were failing people places like the Drudge report popped up to curate what a particular group of people might like. Even comedy news shows like the Daily Show sort from all the news to make jokes out of.

    The problem is when people conflate that to mean that everything they don’t curate is trash. If they Daily Show doesn’t curate the Korean ferry sinking and killing all those school kids does that mean it’s a useless story to cover? No.

    I don’t have a problem with curation. I do it with my friends list on Facebook. Unlike traditional publishing though I don’t think you are all trash because I haven’t added you.

  14. Mr. Updegrove’s analogy of curation and news aggregation is a bit of an apples to oranges comparison.

    PV or NY Times choose to populate their websites with events/stories from a much larger pool of existing information, whereas Mr. Updegrove’s curation argument (particulary the agent/editing portion) is ultimately in favor of limiting the size of the overall pool.

    Big difference.

    • Scott, sorry if that sounded that way. I’m advocating the ThePassiveVoice approach, not the publisher approach (see my longer response to this effect farther up this page).

      • But then why did you say agents are part of the solution? Does PV need an agent to decide what links he provides? Does allowing anyone to suggest a link somehow lesson his curation? Would he be better off if there were agents pitching him links?

        Why doesn’t the New York Times Book Review already solve your curation problem? Why can’t you trust the New York Time’s best seller list? (Because the NYTimes isn’t really worried about quality but more interested in advertising money?)

        There are plenty of blogs that recommend specific types of books. And curated forums where readers can discuss good books. If you seriously have a problem finding a type of book, why not mention it now and you’ll get fifty suggests on how to find it from people reading this?

        I’m not trying to pick on agents (who shouldn’t be worried if they do their jobs well) but I can’t see what they have to do with curation. Their job should be to sell the hell out of whatever their clients write. As Lew Wasserman once told the agents at MCA, “don’t smell it, sell it.”

        The entire submission process with agents is a huge scam. Most books aren’t read, and most agents simply aren’t looking for new clients. If an agent is really in need of a new writer to represent, they can find one in a heartbeat. The entire submission process, whether by accident or design, was a fraud that wasted struggling writers time. Either by design or accident, it’s main effect was to throw books into a black hole to never be seen again so the writers felt discouraged and gave up.

        If self-publishing means that writers stop submitting to agents, that would be great for everyone but for the assistants that throw away submissions. Agents might not get their egos stroked by thinking there are hundreds of writers desperate for their services, they might have to get off their butts and look for writers (actually no, they can just look online) but it would allow them more time to focus on their job. Which should be promoting their writers and getting them money, not deciding what should be written and read.

        • Smart Debut Author

          “Why can’t you trust the New York Time’s best seller list?”

          Um… because those “curated” lists don’t include e-books that sell fewer than 500 copies a week on B&N.com or iTunes, even if those e-books sell 15,000+ copies a week on Amazon and are available everywhere else, too?

          I’ve seen plenty of ebooks outrank the corresponding NYT and USA Today ebook “bestsellers” all week long and then magically not appear on either list.

          In fact, it has happened to one of my books, too.

        • The quick answer is that I didn’t say there should be a role for agents. I mentioned only in referring to the historical situation, and said that we should hope for a better type of replacement.

          • Begging your pardon, you wrote this:

            If that sounds like agents and publishers, well, guess what, it should.

            Which makes it look as if you want the precise function of agents and publishers (which consisted chiefly of rejecting most books) replicated in the new system.

            I accept your clarification, and that you did not actually mean that. But I could wish you had been clearer about it in the first place.

          • If you didn’t mean that, the question remains exactly what you did mean. I’m happy to give you the benefit of the doubt that you might be on to something, but what exactly are you proposing?

            Because right now it sounds like a lite version of the “too many writers, too many books” meme. If you’r a fan of PV then you know that’s a loaded concept being misused by people pushing agendas in favor of the traditional world.

            I think some of the people who are most terrified of self-publishing are agents. Because they don’t want to do their real job, promoting writers. They liked the idea of “curating” and they enjoyed being gatekeepers writers had to beg to for favors. That means they really worked for the publishers, which was a ethical (if not legal) conflict of interest. We’ve seen the results of that in several decades of “standard contracts” where writers are losing more and more power (particularly life of turn copyright and no compete clauses) because agents won’t do their jobs and fight for writers.

            Dean Wesley Smith has commented that in the old days of publishing, back before all the consolidation lead to the big five, “Agents used to be the guys who would get writer’s coffee.”

            If agents are worried about their place in the new world of self-publishing, I suggest they stop dreaming about returning to the gatekeeper role and warm up their coffee makers.

  15. In communist China, under Mao, everyone wore a uniform. The ultimate curation in clothing design. Now the Chinese can wear anything, because they have an unlimited, a flood of different clothes styles.
    The same things for books, a few or a flood of (good or bad) books? Who are we’re trying to protect?

  16. The only curator I need is that blob of gray matter sitting between my ears.

  17. Sick patients need curation. Books do not. 🙂

  18. The instant we reached “More than we could ever possibly consume…” then ‘more’ became meaningless.

    Who cares how much more? I’ll self-curate. And I’ll always remain suspicious of others who want to curate for me.

    Dan

  19. I know readers who only want books that have been through the curation of traditional publishers. So those books are all they ever try/buy. Why people who feel that way don’t all do that and ignore the rest of us puzzles me. What’s with this obsession with worrying about indie books from those who don’t want any part of them? Ignore us. Stick with what you want.

    • And there are people that will only own a Ford or a Dodge, no matter how well you show/tell them the ‘errors’ of their ways. 😉

  20. I believe that there is value in curation. Most of the readers and commenters to this blog can see value in museums, the NY Times and university presses.

    The threat to agents and to all publishers is from the invisible hand of the marketplace. Indie authors are busy creating and publishing their works and writing the occasional blog post. We are not forming labor unions and organizing protest marches in favor of less curation.

    Curation doesn’t need a defense. Now, if someone wants to defend the existing cartel of Big Publishing, that’s a different story.

    • “I believe that there is value in curation. Most of the readers and commenters to this blog can see value in museums, the NY Times and university presses.”

      Their value is not in curation. Curation is simply a necessary evil for those institutions, because they have limited space.

      As a matter of fact, the value of institutions like that is the opposite: the archiving and preserving. ALL the news that’s fit to print, not just some of it. (Curating is more like the motto of my sister’s student paper in journalism school: “All the news that fits, we print.” That’s what curation is about. It’s about the limits.)

      The point of a museum is to preserve things that would be lost. And trust me, the curators of those museums are super excited that they can now make the stuff that is in the warehouse available virtually. Because even if their job is to pick and choose for the limited display space and limited budgets, their actual MISSION, is to make this stuff available. All of it.

      • I don’t know what the situation in the US is, but in our museums here in the UK, there is a vast amount of ‘over curation’. One of our big museum/art galleries was given a makeover and reopened a few years ago. I went but would be reluctant to go back. There are now far too many exclamatory notices telling me exactly what I ought to think about the exhibits. Too much analysing of artworks in a way that leaves no room for the imagination or personal taste. They have even polluted a Mediaeval ‘Annunciation’ with a laser light show so that there’s no way of seeing it in its ordinary state. And they seemed to be ignoring a big case of beautiful but deadly antique weaponry, because it didn’t fit in with the ‘right on’ ethos of the museum. There are ways of curating and giving information that work well, that allow room for opinion and imagination. But far too many of our museums these days seem intent on lecturing us on how we ought to think and feel. I thought it was just me being grumpy, but a curator friend who took early retirement tells me that it is the current fashion. She didn’t like it either. The parallels with publishing are obvious, I think.

      • Thank you! Yes.

  21. “But it’s worth remembering that the situation can look very different to a content consumer than it does to a content producer.”

    I know others have commented on this, but it’s worth repeating: curation is something that helps the PRODUCER, and hurts the consumer.

    Consumers want what they want when they want it. They hate it when people interfere with that.

    Now, it’s true, there is a kind of “curation” that consumers like — but it’s not about availability. They like it when people they know and trust recommend things to them. That’s all the curation anybody needs.

    Well, it’s all the curation the consumers need.

    Producers, on the other hand, like curation because it forces the consumers to their products. You make more profit when people have limited choices.

    • Producers, on the other hand, like curation [if] it forces the consumers to their products. You make more profit when people have limited choices.

      Might be more correct as they ‘hate’ any curation that put their works in a bad/poor/no light …

      • Not really.

        When it comes to pure self-interest, curation helps the producer much much more than anyone else. It’s about shutting out the competition.

        It’s not really about putting things in a good or bad light, no matter how much they squeal about it. Those who want curation, want it because it makes them rich, and other than getting through the gate in the first place, they don’t have to work as hard.

        • I think Allen’s point was that curation actively harms those producers who are left out. The key phrase being, ‘curation that put their works in NO light’.

          I mean, a system to shut out the competition is all very well – unless you are that competition.

  22. The difference between museums and everything you mentioned, Jessy, is physical space. For example, the folks at the Houston Museum of Natural History can only display so many T. rex fossils because they are limited by the size of the buildings. Then, some people want to see other dinosaurs, and some people don’t want to see dinosaurs at all. So the curators have to make decisions about what’s permanent, what’s rotated, and what traveling exhibits to bring in. (A job I don’t envy, by the way.)

    The rest you mentioned has some curation that has more to do with their stated function. In theory though, the NYT could have an infinite number of news articles from around the world or a university press could have an infinite number of research papers through their digital versions.

    But when it comes to entertainment, why do we need curation? Because otherwise, someone’s being Sheldon Cooper going around telling everyone else they’re having fun wrong.

  23. Curation to me only matters if the curator has a taste in sync with mine. If not, who the hell cares what he or she loves and wants to offer?

    If a publishing imprint makes a point to be narrow in scope and has a guiding editorial voice I like, I will buy the books. If the editor goes indie and publishes collections she curates, I will follow the voice/taste and buy the anthologies/collections.

    But that’s only because I already see a track record: Oh, that line/imprint has a lot of stuff that catches my eye. Oh, I see that editor chooses stories I enjoy in that magzine and that anthology. Wonder what else they offer?

    It’s no different to me than finding an author I enjoy and looking for more by them.

    But that’s a narrow focus. It doesn’t apply to a big publishing house with various acquiring editors with varying tastes in various genres, etc, who may switch up and change constantly or be pressured to provide more X rather than the Y I was enjoying.

    Ditto bloggers/reviewers. If they like the sorts of reads I like, they may be valuable in cutting down browsing time, narrowing down what I should sample that day. No different than word of mouth from a pal who likes the authors I like, really.

  24. Let’s look at this from the perspective of the reader. Here’s the ideal world. When I am in the mood to read, I’d like to instantly find the story that best matches my taste, my mood, and my budget. The closest thing we have to that today is Amazon’s Kindle ecosystem. For most people, it probably doesn’t seem all that close, but if you compare to the situation 20 years, you can’t argue with the improvement.

    The real question is can we do better? That is much more challenging that most people imagine. I have a hard time believing that someone will be able to build a competing system that beats Amazon’s recommender systems. I also don’t think Amazon will make substantial improvements to their current system because I don’t see any incentive for them to do so. It works well enough to meet their needs.

    I think the best hope for improving on the current situation is to build an add-on to the Kindle ecosystem. And I think the only way to do that is to do content-based recommendations. But for that to work, you would have to figure out why people like the books they like.

    Fortunately, Amazon provides an excellent training set for a classifier. Pick pairs of books/authors in the same genre that share a tight also-bot network and compare/contrast to pairs of books/authors who share a non-overlapping also-bot network. Books in the same genre which appeal to different networks of readers should help distinguish among the most powerful factors which influence reader preferences.

    I would love to talk to anyone who understood that bit above in italic.

    • It’s not that hard to understand, William. (Or maybe it takes a certain kind of nerd.) 🙂 That’s assuming I really do understand.

      The trick is to figure out what those factors are and then how to determine what books have which qualities. Somewhere (I suspect at TPV) I read an article about how Netflix makes suggestions of movies someone might like. The article talked in terms of what they called genres, but they had in the 10s of thousands (30K or 40K if I remember correctly).

      At least how I pictured those were a combination of different factors. In book terms the equivalent of a near future science fiction book set in a dystopian world with a female protagonist and certain specific themes. Figuring out what the different factors are seems difficult. Classifying every book based on those factors is even more problematic, IMO. But with that information, you could certainly do a ton in pointing people to a good choice for next read.

      • My memory was wrong on the number. It’s more like 70K classifications.

        http://www.thepassivevoice.com/?s=netflix

        • Digging around a bit, William O, I found what appeared to be a startup called Book Lamp that was attempting to do something along the lines of what I described Netflix as doing or what Pandora does with music. At one point they had a website (now dead) and their Facebook page has been dead for roughly a year. Not sure what that indicates.

          • I believe Book Lamp got bought by Apple. Their approach was interesting, but not really what I had in mind. I’m more interested in attempting to address the issue that J.M. raises below, but for all avid readers.

            On the face of it, the writers she mentions don’t have a lot in common, other than gender. What are the factors that make those particular writers appeal to that particular reader? Nobody knows the answer to that question. If I could recommend a male writer who had all the qualities that appeal to J.M. based on her list, I suspect she would thrilled. I don’t think the Amazon alsobot could ever figure that out.

    • Here’s the ideal world. When I am in the mood to read, I’d like to instantly find the story that best matches my taste, my mood, and my budget.

      Yes! I would love this. The problem for me is that I’m never in the mood for an “SF space opera in a small unit military milieu featuring a disabled hero who attempts to be the knight in shining armor to people in trouble.” I’m in the mood for books by Lois MacMaster Bujold about anything she pleases to write about.

      Or I want something by Georgette Heyer or Robin McKinley or Diana Wynne Jones. But I’ve read everything they’ve written. So what I want is another author who will please me just as well. So far, the algorithms are not doing terribly well at finding me what I want. Of course, it may not exist. 😉

      • If it doesn’t exist, the last thing you need is a pack of damnfool curators telling people they can’t publish it because they don’t know how to market it.

        • Agreed. What I have now is a bunch of damnfool 😉 algorithms recommending things I mostly don’t like, which is annoying. But you’ll never find me arguing for curators lessening the size of the pool I have to choose from.

          Currently, I am able to find reads that are entertaining and enjoyable. But I am longing for reads that thrill me and send me to the place of delight and fulfillment that I experience when reading my faves.

          And I suspect there are a few of those rare reads out there that I have not been able to find yet. I’d love a tool that would help me find them more efficiently.

      • So far, the algorithms are not doing terribly well at finding me what I want. Of course, it may not exist

        That’s why you write it, J.M.!

    • I think the best hope for improving on the current situation is to build an add-on to the Kindle ecosystem. And I think the only way to do that is to do content-based recommendations. But for that to work, you would have to figure out why people like the books they like.

      Yes. This is exactly what would work for me.

    • I think the best hope for improving on the current situation is to build an add-on to the Kindle ecosystem. And I think the only way to do that is to do content-based recommendations.

      This, I believe, is precisely why Amazon bought Goodreads. The only practical way to have content-based recommendations is to crowdsource them, since you could never hire enough people to read all the content.

  25. I wrote a lengthy blog post on the same subject, but with a different perspective, back in October. I know at least a couple of people submitted it to TPV, but it wasn’t chosen for re-blogging.

    People who are interested in the subject might find my thoughts on the subject of curating in publishing worth checking out.

    • Nice post, Libbie. You must have plugged it in the comments of the original article because I’d read it before. (It was just as good the second time around.) 🙂

    • I think defending the concept of curation in publishing is a mistake. It’s a little like saying employment discrimination can be a good thing because discrimination just means making distinctions between things or people and you always have to do that in hiring. When people say employment discrimination we should all understand that there is an implied “based on impermissible factors”. The only discussion worth having is what should be impermissible.

      We need to be very clear about what the proponents of curation in publishing really mean by that phrase. They aren’t talking about the sort of branding, niche building, and development of expertise that you talk about in your article. They all clearly rejected that idea by cheering on the destruction of those qualities in the industry consolidation. If they believed in what you believe in, the consolidation would have had different outcomes.

      At its most benign, curation in publishing is a rationalization for what decent folks in publishing believe is a necessary evil. It allows them to sleep at night knowing that they rejected many good manuscripts and accepted some bad ones. If that is all it was, I wouldn’t be upset about it. But I see it being used to exploit writers by feeding into a very common writer insecurity, imposter syndrome. It’s used as a metaphorical whip to keep writers in line.

    • I enjoyed the post too, Libbie. It made me think of a small niche publisher called Theme Park Press that publishes books about Disney and Universal. I check out their books regularly because I love stuff about the development of those parks and they’re one of the most likely sources for new books on the subjects.

      I suppose that the small publisher does do curation, but as you said, the branding of the publisher goes more to discoverability than to curation. I know at least a couple places to go to find books on theme park development.

  26. Interesting topic, thanks for opening the discussion, Andrew. My opinion – I think there’s no need to worry about curation. Curation is already happening.

    In bookstores, the same old, same old: publishers and bookstores team up to protect the power of the gatekeepers to curate.

    For e-books, there are several curating systems popping up.

    The primary and most powerful one is Amazon, through it’s best-selling lists, and ‘if you’ve read this, you’ll like this’ lists, as well as in the e-mails it mails out recommending books. That’s all curation, and it may or may not be based on sales data, hard to know what agendas Amazon may or may not have.

    Deep waters, deep, that Amazon.

    But there are other curation systems – reader sites, like Goodreads, and book blogs and author blogs, for that matter.

    Consumers gravitate toward curation naturally, and the cultural zeitgeist picks which ones become successful.

    Publishers and agents are definitely on their way out, and Amazon is on it’s way up to the top, top, top.

    • This is the thing, and why I fundamentally disagree. From the Oxford Dictionary of English:

      curate 2 |kjʊ(ə)ˈreɪt|
      verb [ with obj. ]
      select, organize, and look after the items in (a collection or exhibition): both exhibitions are curated by the Centre’s director.
      select acts to perform at (a music festival): in past years the festival has been curated by the likes of David Bowie.
      select, organize, and present (suitable content, typically for online or computational use), using professional or expert knowledge: people not only want to connect when using a network but they also enjoy getting credit for sharing or curating information. | (as adj. curated) : a curated alternative to the world’s most popular video portal.

      (The New Oxford American Dictionary reproduces this definition verbatim, except for the words ‘using professional or expert knowledge’. So this is not a difference between U.S. and British English.)

      Note that the word select appears first in all three definitions. If the curator does not select an item for a collection, it is excluded from the collection. If the curator does not select an act to perform at a festival, it does not get to perform there.

      Amazon does not select anything. It allows anybody to offer whatever books they choose, subject to the law. When KDP rejects a particular work, it is not because the KDP people are acting as curators, but because they believe that it would actually be illegal to offer the work for sale there: because it is obscene, or libellous, or plagiarized, or because the would-be seller does not own the right to sell it under copyright law. That is not curation; that is only CYA.

      Since Amazon is not selecting content, it is not, by definition, acting as a curator. It is performing the other two parts of the job, organizing and presenting the content; but those are not enough. The definition is ‘select, organize, and present’. Two out of three is not enough. We therefore need a different word to describe what Amazon is doing; still more what book bloggers and review sites do, for they do not even organize or present the content, they only tell people about it and point out where it actually is presented.

      • @ Tom –

        Well, Dictionary.com defines curation as:

        1. Chiefly British. a member of the clergy employed to assist a rector or vicar.

        2. any ecclesiastic entrusted with the cure of souls, as a parish priest.

        3. to take charge of (a museum) or organize (an art exhibit): “to curate a photography show.”

        4. to pull together, sift through, and select for presentation, as music or website content

        Amazon clearly meets the criteria for 3, which does not include the term ‘select’.

        Besides, although it’s subtle, it’s powerful and Amazon definitely selects. For KDP, it selected the criteria, for example.

        Amazon also selects which items go on the best seller list, and are placed in the ‘if you read this, you’ll like this’ list, and ‘other people bought this, who also bought the thing you just bought’ and what books to include in advertisements, and what books to promote, and what books to offer what terms to, and what books to publish itself.

        Book bloggers also select the books they blog about, although that’s not as crucial.

        Amazon is the primary curator of books right now, and will only grow more powerful. Put a book on Amazon’s front page, and it will sell. Who selects that book? Amazon.

        And Oprah. Oprah is also an important curator of books right now.

        • Besides, although it’s subtle, it’s powerful and Amazon definitely selects. For KDP, it selected the criteria, for example.

          But it doesn’t select. Amazon’s criteria for KDP (aside from ‘don’t sell anything illegal’) are all about pricing and formatting. The content of a Kindle book can be anything you like, and Amazon does not turn down any book based on an editor’s taste or a marketing person’s opinion of its sales appeal. Amazon’s mission is quite simply to sell every book it can.

          Amazon also selects which items go on the best seller list,

          No. Amazon’s sales figures determine which items go on the bestseller list. Unlike the Times list and other infamous examples, Amazon’s bestseller list is a list of the books that actually, you know, sell the best on Amazon. There is nobody saying (as the Times did with J. K. Rowling) ‘This book shall not appear on our list, no matter how many copies it sells, because it is not Literature as we define the word.’

          and are placed in the ‘if you read this, you’ll like this’ list, and ‘other people bought this, who also bought the thing you just bought’

          That is determined by gathering data from millions of customers, and seeing, from the set of all customers who bought book X, which other books they were most likely also to buy. ‘Other people bought this’ is not a lie; Amazon are not making it up to push particular titles; they are simply reporting the patterns that their algorithms discover in the data.

          and what books to include in advertisements, and what books to promote,

          Again, each Amazon customer receives custom advertising based on their known previous buying habits. As far as I know, no product is blacklisted from the advertisements, though products that never sell are naturally not going to appear.

          and what books to offer what terms to,

          All KDP authors are subject to the same terms and conditions. Large publishers demand and receive their own individual contracts and terms, because they have the clout to withhold many thousands of books from Amazon if they are not pleased, and Amazon would rather forfeit its profit on those titles than turn away customers.

          Different terms are never offered on a per-book basis, and the content of any specific book has nothing to do with the terms offered. It is entirely a matter of who publishes the book and how much muscle that publisher has in negotiations.

          and what books to publish itself.

          Amazon’s publishing imprints are a separate business from the bookselling website. They are completely separate from KDP: books from (say) Thomas & Mercer are not sold through KDP, and vice versa. So this is irrelevant to Amazon’s function as a retailer and aggregator.

          None of this, except for the Amazon imprints themselves (which are small and commercially unimportant, and seem likely to remain so), bears any resemblance to the functions performed by publishers and agents. If what publishers and agents do is curation, then what Amazon does is something else. You simply cannot use the same word for both of them without creating a confusion that amounts to an outright lie.

          • @ Tom –

            You make a cogent argument, but there are some underlying assumptions that I’d like to challenge and ask you to consider:

            assumption: Amazon’s decisions are objective and solely based on data. How do you know this? Amazon does not share its algorithms or its sales data. We have no idea what it is doing, not really.

            assumption: Curation based on sales/popularity and objective data is not curation. Actually it is curation, it is just a different type.

            assumption: If publishers do something that looks different than what Amazon is doing, they are not doing the same thing. As you pointed out, curation is broadly defined by ‘select’ (actually the definition is ‘to organize’, per dictionary.com). Selection processes can look extremely different.

            For us to find a point of agreement, I’d ask you to go further meta, Tom. I think the point of disagreement between us is I’m looking at the broader concept, and you’re narrowing in on the concept.

            I’ll read your response, and I’ll thank you for a good debate, and then I’m off to another thread. Cheers! 🙂

      • Amazon doesn’t curate what to offer for sale but it does select what to recommend to specific customers. If you buy books on the depletion of the ozone written by PhDs, as new titles come on line, Amazon’s algorithms will select and recommend similar titles. And the algorithms can detect that readers of a particular book or genre also liked and bought a particular title. These titles are selected and recommended to targeted customers.

        The function of culling and selecting is done by algorithm because of the luxury of the large amount of customer data Amazon possesses.

        Because of the site’s curation functions, I never see books on vampires, the Vietnam war, or jazz musicians.

      • Indeed. They distribute. They do not curate. And one could say their recommendation lists are “curated,” but I honestly couldn’t care because I ignore them.

  27. margaret rainforth

    There is so much objectionable with this article I don’t know where to start. I guess I’ll just say that I’ve purchased (sadly) PLENTY of dreck from the shelves of B&N!!

  28. I haven’t checked in here in a while, but it’s nice to see the same tired arguments. “There’s just so much to read, how will I find anything to read? Someone tell me what to do!”

  29. Newsflash: Mr. New York Times loving curator firmly believes he is a better judge of what you should read than you are. You, TPV commenters, are the great unwashed masses who NEED him and his brilliant sense of progressive culture.

    This article is Yet another case of a useless, obsolete middleman going through verbal gymnastics to justify his continued existence. Capitalism and the free market has relegated this man to the bench, where he rightfully belongs, and subconsciously he knows it.

  30. Curation needs no defense. It is a valuable service.

    The product of curation is a collection. That collection may be physical things, or a list of things.

    The standard of the curation defines what is in the collection.

    Consumers use the standard of curation to select the curated collection they will consider for meeting their needs.

    The objections above are to one specific standard of collection without any competing standards. Those days days are gone.

    Seventy years ago, Maynard Hutchins drew up a lst of the Great Books Of The Western World. That was curation. He didn’t need publishers or agents to do it. He just did it. We can find the whole set of 100 books today on Amazon.

    This is a golden age for curation. Hutchins’ example is there to be followed. Curators can easily publish their standards and collections to the whole world, and consumers can choose the standard and collection that meets their needs.

    God Bless curation.

    • “The objections above are to one specific standard of collection without any competing standards. Those days days are past.” –

      Wraps up my main thought on it.

      From that, if an open system for any person to publish continues to exist, ideas and ways to curate can give it a whirl.

      But I think with technology like what BookLamp promises is possible, and ideas of how reviews (at peer to peer among authors) can be improved, a rigid system of controlling curation is dead.

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