Hillary Clinton’s new book isn’t poetry. But the Amazon reviews of it sure are.

21 July 2014

From The Washington Post:

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s account of her time at the State Department, “Hard Choices,” and Ed Klein’s more tabloid-y account of her relationship with President Obama have been duking it out on the New York Times bestseller list. We have yet to learn which one will win.

. . . .

One place where nobody wins? In the customer reviews section of Amazon, where opinions of the two books are twice as polarized as the American electorate because, well, a certain type of person apparently writes these reviews. To wit: Ninety percent of the reviews of Clinton’s book give it either one or five stars. And more than twice as many are one-star reviews.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

Peer review, self-publishing, and blowhards

19 July 2014

From Morgan on Science:

Should I self-publish my work? This is a question many academics and authors ask themselves these days. I had a discussion the other day on Facebook that started with this question, related to my upcoming book, Create or Die.

Let me first explain my own rationale, then get back to the topic of blowhards and peer review.

In 2010, I self-published 4 Steps to Funding as a little book to share a framework for grant writing that I’d developed from my experiences with my own grants and in teaching others how to do it successfully.

I chose to self-publish simply because I had no interest in waiting around for months or years to first find a willing publisher, then for them to get it out into print. Self-publishing, for me, was the most expedient way to get the book in the hands of a wider audience. It has served that role well – having achieved for a short while #1 status in its category in 2012, and having remained in the rankings ever since then. We send out copies of the book on a weekly basis, and we’ve had a consistent stream of great feedback (and the occasional cranky person, which is to be expected with anything).

. . . .

There’s this godawful, ego-centric, and self-limiting notion that many academics cling to that somehow peer review provides a “safety valve” or some kind of assurance of “quality” of a work.


If you want peer review, go look at the reviews for my grant writing book on Amazon. There are people who love it, and people who hate it. That’s true for any book on Amazon that’s had any measurable readership.

The marketplace has voted with its reviews and its dollars, and seems to overall like the book.

Now, imagine if we randomly selected just two of those people and let them determine the fate of the book. The people we select, of course, will be other authors of competing grant writing books, who clearly think that their system of grant writing is superior to anyone else’s. Which means they are going to be some of the worst reviews. So, we send it out to these two people, anonymously, and based on their reviews, written while hiding behind that veil of anonymity, determine the fate of the book.

Gag. Argh. Stupidity! Why would anyone accept that?!?

. . . .

The critic might say: but reviews on Amazon can be manipulated

Yes, that is possible. However: is peer review never manipulated? Have there not been scores of retractions lately of papers that got through peer review with falsified or cooked data? Yes, there have. Are two anonymous reviewers anything but “anecdotal” evidence of the quality of a book or paper? No.

The statistics are clear: blowhards are wrong

When you have a book on a venue like Amazon, there’s this little thing called statistics that proves the case – if there are hundreds or thousands of readers, and a significant fraction of those give feedback, you can actually make a statistically sound argument that there’s some merit in the work. With two reviewers (or three, or four) in peer review, there’s no validity to statistics operating at that level. You are getting what are, essentially, the random effects of reviewer choice (plus some built-in bias against you because if they support your paper, they see it as more competition for funding).

This notion that somehow peer review, or tomes published with a “reputable” publisher of scholarly accord, will lead to “higher quality” is complete and utter nonsense. It is all a bunch of egotistical babble driven by ivory-tower ideals that make no sense in a world where academia is slipping slowly into irrelevancy

Link to the rest at Morgan on Science


18 July 2014

From The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day:

Niobe, n.

. . . .

Etymology: < ancient Greek Νιόβη (classical Latin Nioba, Niobē), the name of the daughter of Tantalus in Greek legend, supposed to have been changed into stone while weeping for her children.

. . . .

An inconsolably bereaved woman, a weeping woman.

. . . .

1876 Trollope Prime Minister IV. xvii. 296 ‘Such a Niobe you never saw.’ ‘Was she weeping?’ ‘Not actual tears. But her gown, and her cap, and her strings were weeping.’

Link to the rest at Oxford English Dictionary

A Publisher of One’s Own

18 July 2014

From Inside Higher Ed:

Self-published books are on the rise, to the dismay of onlookers who wonder what to expect from a sector where E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey – originally published as online fan fiction by a tiny Australian e-book company – appears to be the best of the lot. More than 391,000 self-published titles appeared in 2012, according to Bowker, the official ISBN-issuing agency for the U.S. The self-published titles appear to be selling. In 2012, a quarter of Amazon’s top 100 bestselling Kindle books had been self-published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. And in 2013, readers in Britain bought 18 million self-published books, a 79 percent increase in market share compared to the year before.

Academics, meanwhile, inhabit a parallel publishing ecosystem: a constellation of university presses and journals that publish slowly, offer few economic returns, and subject all work to painstaking peer review. Scholars and publishing experts in the U.S. and Britain say self-publishing by academics remains a rarity. A handful of scholars, however, have turned to self-publishing to produce pet projects, such as blistering critiques of academic life. And others have struck away from the publishing mainstream in other ways: by founding journals, establishing independent presses and writing on blogs.

. . . .

Almost no active scholars have eschewed conventional publishing entirely. Educational technologist Martin Weller, a professor at the Open University in the UK, argued in a blog post that “external prestige is probably the greatest factor” spurring academics to chase book contracts rather than publish their own work.

“Self-publishing is seen as rather sordid,” Weller wrote, “the last recourse for the demented author who couldn’t get published anywhere else.”

. . . .

Academic books are almost never bestsellers, but a book that becomes a required text for a university course can be quite profitable.

“You do all the work, and the returns are very low,” Weller said. “You sign away a ridiculous amount of rights – the form includes future TV rights, merchandising, etc., but you take all the risks … if someone sues because of the book’s content it is your liability.”

. . . .

In 2011, Rojas self-published a book called Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure. The book emerged from an online advice column he had written for graduate students.

“People for years kept saying, ‘You should write this as a book,’ ” he said. “And I thought, no press would ever publish it, because I’m blunt about academia.” (The title’s fast-and-loose spelling might not have passed muster at a scholarly press either.)
The book now sells for $3 online. Rojas said the ability to charge a low price was another advantage self-publishing offered.

. . . .

Roger Whitson, an assistant professor of English at Washington State University, said he thought self-publishing books was, on the whole, an activity that only already-tenured professors could afford to undertake.
“Part of the reason why academics publish pre-tenure is that they want to receive credit for becoming a specialist in the field, and one of the main ways they see that happening is through peer review,” Whitson said. “For pre-tenure people who haven’t established a name in the field, academic publishing is really important.”

Link to the rest at Inside Higher Ed

For This Author, 10,000 Articles Is a Good Day’s Work

15 July 2014

From The Wall Street Journal:

Sverker Johansson could be the most prolific author you’ve never heard of.

Volunteering his time over the past seven years publishing to Wikipedia, the 53-year-old Swede can take credit for 2.7 million articles, or 8.5% of the entire collection, according to Wikimedia analytics, which measures the site’s traffic. His stats far outpace any other user, the group says.

He has been particularly prolific cataloging obscure animal species, including butterflies and beetles, and is proud of his work highlighting towns in the Philippines. About one-third of his entries are uploaded to the Swedish language version of Wikipedia, and the rest are composed in two versions of Filipino, one of which is his wife’s native tongue.

. . . .

It isn’t uncommon, however, for Wikipedia purists to complain about his method. That is because the bulk of his entries have been created by a computer software program—known as a bot. Critics say bots crowd out the creativity only humans can generate.

Mr. Johansson’s program scrubs databases and other digital sources for information, and then packages it into an article. On a good day, he says his “Lsjbot” creates up to 10,000 new entries.

On Wikipedia, any registered user can create an entry. Mr. Johansson has to find a reliable database, create a template for a given subject and then launch his bot from his computer. The software program searches for information, then publishes it to Wikipedia.

Bots have long been used to author and edit entries on Wikipedia, and, more recently, an increasingly large amount of the site’s new content is written by bots. Their use is regulated by Wikipedia users called the “Bot Approvals Group.”

. . . .

On Swedish Wikipedia, for instance, he says, there are more than 150 articles on characters from “The Lord of the Rings,” and fewer than 10 about people from the Vietnam War. “I have nothing against Tolkien and I am also more familiar with the battle against Sauron than the Tet Offensive, but is this really a well-balanced encyclopedia?”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

Brick by brick

27 June 2014

From The Columbia Journalism Review:

After years of shrinking ambition at The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos has the paper thinking global domination.

. . . .

In April, six months after her family sold the newspaper it had controlled for eight decades to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth walked onstage in the paper’s auditorium to reverse what had been the signature strategy of her six years at the helm. Since she was named publisher in February 2008, a year the newspaper division of The Washington Post Company declared a loss of $193 million, Weymouth had sought to codify the Post’s identity as a paper “For and about Washington.” While touted as a strategy to leverage the Post’s brand of national politics reporting in the digital era, “For and about Washington” was, in the grand tradition of Beltway wordsmithing, a phrase meant to put a positive spin on a period of retrenchment.

As a practical matter, “For and about Washington” meant the Post no longer covered stories beyond its circulation area unless they had a direct link to political Washington or a federal government interest.

. . . .

 At the time of the sale to Bezos, Donald Graham, Weymouth’s uncle and the chairman of The Washington Post Company, explained that he and his niece felt unsure of the direction in which to take the paper, or how to reverse years of declining revenues. He had approached Bezos as a buyer, he said, because the billionaire could offer deep pockets, a digital brain, and, between the two, a way forward.

Now a Bezos employee, Weymouth’s task onstage that April day was to explain to the newsroom that the new way forward was effectively the opposite of the course she had charted. According to a number of people who heard the talk, Weymouth recounted the paper’s efforts under her “For and about Washington” strategy before announcing that the Post was now “pivoting” to a strategy that focused on dramatically building its national and international audience. She pumped her fist in the air for emphasis and declared, “This is the number one priority for the entire company.”

. . . .

 Editors and reporters talk about the Post becoming a “global” paper. They say that the Post will create a news “bundle” that will repackage all the elements of the print newspaper in a way that readers will pay for in digital form. Using tablets and other devices, Bezos aims to recreate the intimate, cohesive, and somewhat linear consumption experience of old media in a way that makes sense for digital. The newsroom has also been told that the paper will cultivate an audience of 100 million unique visitors. Or paid digital subscribers. One hundred million something. They say that, unlike traditional newspaper publishers with their notions of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands, their new owner thinks in terms of hundreds of millions. I asked editor Marty Baron why the 100-million number kept coming up in my conversations. What did it refer to? “We don’t have a set goal for a hundred million of anything, okay?” he told me. “We just want to grow, that’s all. There’s a desire to increase our number of unique visitors by a very significant degree.”

. . . .

 One reporter told me of the inevitable confusion among the staff, given Weymouth’s sudden push for a strategy of expansion that is “directly contrary” to the previous one of narrowing the paper’s focus. “The pendulum swung all the way over and now it’s swinging all the way back again, without anyone ever saying how that came to be or why we’re doing this other than that we need more traffic,” he said. “Everyone’s thrilled that we’re hiring again, and hiring really good people for the most part. But it’s not clear to the rank and file how this comes together into a vision for what we want to do and what we want to be. That’s been the problem for 15 years.”

An editor added: “I think Bezos wants us to be everything for everyone, the same way Amazon is.” Like many people interviewed for this article, the editor was granted anonymity to allow him to speak candidly.

Despite the confusion, most everyone agrees that the complexities of expansion are a far better problem to have than those in the years of retreat. “In the old times,” said Cameron Barr, the national editor, referring to a period that ended less than a year ago, “I used to militate against the word ‘still.’ It would come out of people’s mouths all the time and it drove me crazy. ‘We still have great reporters. We still can do great journalism. We’re still The Washington Post.’ I had a jihad against the word ‘still,’ because implicit in that word is the idea that we are totally screwed. But now you don’t hear the word ‘still.’ ”

. . . .

That this man purchased The Washington Post has the potential to be one of the more significant events in the history of modern American journalism. At some indiscernible point in the last 10 to 15 years, the Post, the newspaper that brought down a president, bowed out of the competition to be the best newspaper in the country and entered into a rivalry with its own past. The paper still did great journalism, but The New York Timesbecame the country’s only outlet with the ambition and the resources to cover the world with depth and intelligence.

Then $250 million changed hands, and the paper that bowed out was suddenly captained by the digital-era equivalent of Alexander the Great. And not only that, but it instantly became the only member of an industry facing massive digital transformation to be owned by a man who had wrought that transformation—and who had the money to do it again. It went from being a newspaper in retreat to being the only legacy media company in America that can consider itself a technology property.

The Post is once again hungry to be a dominant force in American journalism, and the newsroom senses that the Graham era has been sealed off behind them. The only way out is to move forward. “I think Bezos is giving us a chance to show what we would have done if we had had that runway all along,” one editor said. “If we don’t figure it out, I would not blame the owner for replacing all of us.”

Listen to what Bezos says, or watch where he puts his money and directs his focus, and you can see how he’s starting to overlay the brilliance of Amazon onto the scaffolding ofThe Washington Post. The journalism isn’t what he plans to revamp, or necessarily invest significant new funds in—the new hires notwithstanding—at least initially. His main focus is the pipeline: reaching the maximum number of customers by putting thePost’s journalism in a package (a tablet, a mobile site) that will draw the greatest number of readers. As it has been with Amazon, his obsession at the Post is finding a way to integrate a product into millions of people’s lives in a way they haven’t yet experienced.

Link to the rest at The Columbia Journalism Review and thanks to Bill for the tip.

5 Myths About The New Era of Publishing

27 June 2014

From Litragger:

Three weeks ago, The New York Times reported that digital publishing startup Byliner was struggling. Last week, their CEO and Founder John Tayman resigned.

It’s upsetting news for anyone working at the intersection of digital media and literature.

. . . .

What if it’s not just messaging that tripped Byliner? What if some of our common beliefs about how to marry digital media and literature, beliefs that form the basis of the Byliner model, are misguided?

When I read and talk about digital publishing, about how innovation and technology can grow and change the business of literature to the benefit of writers and publishers alike, I hear the same few convictions over and over again…

. . . .

Myth #2. We Will Find A Solution

The fact that so many people think a Spotify/Netflix model can work for literature worries me. It’s indicative of a pattern of thinking that goes something like this:

1) Discover a solution that works in another media industry.

2) Try that solution on literature.

This process leaves out an important step: identify the problem.

What problem, really, did Byliner solve? Richard Nash, the VP of Partnerships at Byliner, writes in his essential essay What is The Business of Literature?:

Any experienced entrepreneur or venture capitalist will warn you not to be a solution in search of a problem.

He’s right. But I’m not sure the business of literature, or Nash himself, has followed this advice.

. . . .

But I’ll ask again: What’s the problem? Or are our solutions stuck searching for one?

In Byliner’s case, is it that longform journalism isn’t easy enough to access? That’s not true. You can find longform all over the web. Is the problem that Jodi Picoult and Jon Krakauer need another venue to publish longer pieces online? I doubt it, but, even if that were the case, this is only a problem for a small group of elite writers. Do I, the reader, need a place where I can access pieces by these writers? Nope. Especially not if I have to pay for it. I can easily find work by the Atwoods, Picoults, and Krakauers elsewhere on the web, or at my local bookstore, or on my bookshelf at home.

. . . .

Myth #4: Big Names Matter

The business of digital literature loves name brand writers.

. . . .

The implication seems to be: we are a successful venture because we work with established writers that you know. Or: we publish high quality work.

I’m aware of why companies like Byliner and The Atavist are compelled to make this association. It’s a form a validation. It says to your new, skeptical audience: we’re legitimate.

But it’s a risky tactic for two reasons:

1) The company needs the writer more than the writer needs the company. In short, Karen Russell could’ve successfully published Sleep Donation without The Atavist, but the Atavist could not have gotten all that attention from a publication without Karen Russell.

2) It generates an illusion of success and engagement that cannot be separated from the powerful brand of the author. What I mean is: sales for Sleep Donation could be fantastic, engagement in The Atavist’s app could have blown through the roof following its publication, but, at the end of the day, you have to account for the Karen Russell factor.

The funny thing about this is it’s a very conservative approach for so called innovative digital publishing ventures to take. For a long time, we’ve bemoaned the over dependence of traditional print publishing on multi-million dollar writer brands like J.K. Rowling, whose sales make up for the losses publishers take on mid-list titles.

Why risk replicating this trend in the digital space?

Link to the rest at Litragger and thanks to Annie for the tip.

German publishers want an 11 percent cut of Google News

20 June 2014

From Ars Technica:

Several of Germany’s largest newspaper and magazine publishers have instituted legal proceedings against Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. They’re seeking an order that would make the search engines pay them an 11 percent portion of their “gross sales, including foreign sales” that come “directly and indirectly from making excerpts from online newspapers and magazines public.” That’s according to new media pundit Jeff Jarvis, who published a blog post this morning calling the demands “as absurd as they are cynical and dangerous” and part of a German “war on the link.”

. . . .

European publishers have had a more contentious relationship with Google than their American counterparts for years now.

Link to the rest at Ars Technica

The article notes a dispute between Belgian news publishers and Google a few years ago. When the publishers won and Google took down links to their newspapers instead of paying fees, the publishers decided they wanted to be listed in Google after all.

This reminded PG of Hachette v. Amazon.

Resignations threat over Taylor & Francis ‘censorship’

12 June 2014

From Times Higher Education:

A journal’s editorial board has been left on the brink of resignation after an eight-month standoff with its publisher Taylor & Francis over the publication of a debate on academic publishing and the profits made by major firms.

The debate, in the journal Prometheus: Critical Studies in Innovation, was due to appear last September, but was delayed by Taylor & Francis and published only at the end of last month.

Its “proposition” paper, “Publisher, be damned! from price gouging to the open road”, by four academics from the University of Leicester’s School of Management, criticises the large profits made by commercial publishers on the back of academics’ labours, and the failure of the Finch report on open access to address them.

The paper compares academic publishing with the music industry, which, it says, has “booming” sales after lowering prices in the face of widespread piracy. It suggests that “doing nothing to prevent the trading of electronic copies of our academic work” could also force prices down in publishing.

. . . .

 “They never said why. They just said they didn’t want this debate to take place,” Professor Macdonald said. “They also said I should have got their approval before inviting debate papers, but I have never done that before and it seems quite improper.”

. . . .

He was also upset that, when the edition was finally published, Taylor & Francis unilaterally added a long disclaimer to each article warning that “the accuracy of the content should not be relied upon”.

He said the episode was illustrative of the “enormous sensitivity” surrounding publishers’ profits.

Link to the rest at Times Higher Education and thanks to Randall for the tip.

Is Byliner About to Close?

4 June 2014

From The Digital Reader:

The self-pub ebook platform Byliner is having a rough time of late. Following only weeks after co-founder Mark Bryant stepped down as editor-in-chief, a newly leaked email reveals that the company might be about to shut down.

This 3-year-old digital publisher launched the the goal of helping blogs and websites monetize their content via ebooks sales, and over the years it had developed a reputation for quality.

The company has worked with fiction writers like Elmore Leonard, Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan, and Jodi Picoult, and it has also helped both independent writers and news organizations like the NYTimes publish longform journalism as short ebooks.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

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