PG’s Thoughts (such as they are)

Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to Fake News and Filter-bubbles

1 August 2018

From The Guardian:

 Space is big,” wrote Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Adams’s assertion comes repeatedly to mind when reading David Sumpter’s Outnumbered, which attempts to reckon with the sheer scale of the systems that manage much of our digital lives. It’s easy, when faced with the numbers at hand, to succumb to a kind of vertigo: Facebook has two billion users, who make tens of millions of posts every hour. From this data, along with millions more photos, likes and relationships, Facebook builds models of all of us that extend in hundreds of dimensions – the puny human mind, at best, is capable of visualising four.

Google’s translation systems likewise collapse hundreds of languages into multidimensional matrices of meaning, which generate their own metalanguages unknowable to us – and which contain their own implicit biases. Plugging the UK’s most popular baby names into one such system, designed to understand how words and concepts relate to each other, gives the response: “Oliver is to clever what Olivia is to flirtatious”. “Our future generations’ gender roles,” the author worries, “have already been assigned by the algorithm.”

Sumpter is a professor of applied mathematics; his natural response to such problems is to recreate them and then unpack them – and perhaps deflate some of our wilder fears along the way. Step by step, using the same data as many of the papers he quotes from, he details the maths that underpins each of these systems, laying out the straightforward, if advanced, calculations that govern their outcomes – and their limitations. It’s all very well to apply sophisticated regression models to billions of Facebook likes, but the results are mostly underwhelming: yes, “Democrats are more likely to like Harry Potter” than Republicans, but “it doesn’t necessarily tell us that other Harry Potter fans like the Democrats”. The same no-nonsense approach is deployed to debunk lazy assertions that we are all fooled by fake news stories, or trapped within filter bubbles that mindlessly reassert our prejudices. We are, apparently, both smarter and more aware than that.

. . . .

In example after example, the toxic combination of filter bubbles, simplistic ranking mechanisms and algorithmic recommendation is seen as clearly in elite networks as in more accessible but supposedly less self-aware groups – but, we are told, the effects really aren’t as bad as we’re being told they are: “When we get time for research, we scientists still do it well. Most scientists I meet are motivated by the eternal search for truth and the desire to know the right answer.” Phew.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

From The Jakarta Post:

At a time when society is becoming more and more reliant on technology and the internet, there is widespread concern they are exerting too much influence over our lives.

Behind it all are algorithms that have the capability to predict our everyday lives, and to be frank, we’re not entirely sure what they are up to.

In Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to fake news and filter-bubbles – the algorithms that control our lives (featuring Cambridge Analytica), author David Sumpter writes about society’s ever growing concerns about technology, as well as how algorithms work and their capability to run our lives. It is a fascinating read, drawing on real life phenomenon and stories, such as the likes of Cambridge Analytica.

Simply put, Sumpter tells readers that artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms are more than what meets the eye.

When it comes to technology and the internet, many see it as an open field, accessible to many and a place where we can freely move around. We easily surf the web, clicking on websites, constantly using search engines to keep up with our daily lives. We don’t really put much thought into what happens after we make a single click, but we are now more aware and sensitive of what happens to our data.

That being said, the internet holds a massive digital archive of our opinions, gathered from the algorithms that lie beneath it. These opinions are then analyzed to become a mold of our preference and interests and manipulated to influence us. So we ask each other why. Why are these data researchers and tech giants collecting our data? And how are they using it? What is it about our data that interests them so much?

In this book, Sumpter investigates and explains it all. A professor of applied mathematics at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, Sumpter pitches to his readers a model that illustrates how these algorithms work, from how they analyze us, influence us and become us, and what we should and should not worry about.

. . . .

Sumpter explains all his findings through fascinating examples and case studies, such as how mathematicians applied mathematics in an effort to locate Banksy, an anonymous street artist, or how Google’s neural network had the capability to play Space Invaders against a human being, as well as how companies secretly used our data for political use and that one algorithm that analyzes how the number of “likes” and “dislikes” on platforms such as YouTube correlate with popularity. The list goes on and it is mind blowing.

Link to the rest at The Jakarta Post

From Publishers Weekly:

At a time of widespread concern about technology exerting too much influence over people’s lives, mathematics professor Sumpter (Soccermatics) devotes this enlightening book to investigating these fears and explaining clearly what algorithms do. He tackles different examples of their appearance in daily life, starting with in-the-news attempts to use the internet to study and influence voters. He discusses data harvested from Facebook users regarding their preferences in politics and other areas (theoretically, Democrats “could focus on getting the vote out among Harry Potter fans”), observing that, thankfully, the data’s accuracy is limited by the algorithim designers’ own inherent biases. As to the fake news disseminated on Facebook and other content aggregators, Sumpter believes that, for most people, it has little real impact.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

From Kirkus Review:

Further frighteningly convincing research about the data infiltrating our lives.

Experts regularly warn us that today’s digital technology can extract our innermost secrets. In this ingenious addition to the genre, Sumpter (Applied Mathematics/Univ. of Uppsala, Sweden; Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game, 2016, etc.) agrees that there is some truth in this assessment but also serious limitations. The book, less a polemic than a combination of investigative journalism and (mostly) painless mathematical lessons, explains how social media, search engines, and merchants extract our opinions and manipulate them with a set of rules called an algorithm, which can often reveal our tastes, personality, and politics. Readers comfortable with ads tailored to previous purchases may flinch to learn that every mouse click such as a “like” under a photo, joke, or film clip enters a massive digital archive that reveals an unnervingly accurate portrait of the clicker. “Unlike our friends—who tend to forget the details and are forgiving in the conclusions they draw about us—Facebook is systematically collecting, processing and analyzing our emotional state,” writes the author. “It is rotating our personalities in hundreds of dimensions, so it can find the most cold, rational direction to view us from.” Persuading us to buy stuff seems benign, but the internet also teems with fake news scientifically designed to influence our votes. Sumpter returns repeatedly to the surprise victories of Donald Trump and Brexit. Wielding his mathematical tools, the author explains how algorithms deal with big data, and it turns out there is less there than meets the eye. Polls only calculate the odds of an event; they can’t “predict” anything. True believers lap up fake news, but it has a barely detectable effect on changing the average reader’s mind.

Link to the rest at Kirkus Review

From Psychologist World:

A subliminal message is a signal or message designed to pass below (sub) the normal limits of perception. For example it might be inaudible to the conscious mind (but audible to the unconscious or deeper mind) or might be an image transmitted briefly and unperceived consciously and yet perceived unconsciously. This definition assumes a division between conscious and unconscious which may be misleading; it may be more true to suggest that the subliminal message (sound or image) is perceived by deeper parts of what is a single integrated mind.

In the everyday world, it has often been suggested that subliminal techniques are used in advertising and for propaganda purposes (e.g. party political broadcasts).

The term subliminal message was popularized in a 1957 book entitled The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. This book detailed a study of movie theaters that supposedly used subliminal commands to increase the sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola at their concession stands. However, the study was fabricated, as the author of the study James Vicary later admitted.

In 1973 the book Subliminal Seduction claimed that subliminal techiques were in wide use in advertising. The book contributed to a general climate of fear with regard to Orwellian dangers (of subliminal messaging). Public concern was enough to lead the Federal Communications Commission to hold hearings and to declare subliminal advertising “contrary to the public interest” because it involved “intentional deception” of the public.

Subliminal perception or cognition is a subset of unconscious cognition where the forms of unconscious cognition also include attending to one signal in a noisy environment while unconsciously keeping track of other signals (e.g one voice out of many in a crowded room) and tasks done automatically (e.g. driving a car).

In all such cases there has been research into how much of the unattended or unconscious signal or message is perceived (unconsciously), i.e is the whole message sensed and fully digested or perhaps only its main and simpler features? There are at least two schools of thought about this. One of them argues that only the simpler features of unconscious signals are perceived; however please note that the majority of the research done has tended to test only for simpler features of cognition (rather than testing for complete comprehension). The second school of thought argues that the unconscious cognition is comprehensive and that much more is perceived than can be verbalized.

. . . .

Subliminal messages might gain their potential influence/power from the fact that they may be able to cirumvent the critical functions of the conscious mind, and it has often been argued that subliminal suggestions are therefore potentially more powerful than ordinary suggestions. This route to influence or persuasion would be akin to auto-suggestion or hypnosis wherein the subject is encouraged to be (or somehow induced to be) relaxed so that suggestions are directed to deeper (more gullible) parts of the mind; some observers have argued that the unconscious mind is incapable of critical refusal of hypnotic or subliminal suggestions. Research findings do not support the conclusion that subliminal suggestions are peculiarly powerful.

. . . .

A form of subliminal messaging commonly believed to exist involves the insertion of “hidden” messages into movies and TV programs. The concept of “moving pictures” relies on persistence of vision to create the illusion of movement in a series of images projected at 23 to 30 frames per second; the popular theory of subliminal messages usually suggests that subliminal commands can be inserted into this sequence at the rate of perhaps 1 frame in 25 (or roughly 1 frame per second). The hidden command in a single frame will flash across the screen so quickly that it is not consciously perceived, but the command will supposedly appeal to the subconscious mind of the viewer, and thus have some measurable effect in terms of behavior.

As to the question of whether subliminal messages are widely used to influence groups of people e.g. audiences, there is no evidence to suggest that any serious or sustained attempt has been made to use the technology on a mass audience. The widely-reported reports that arose in 1957 to the effect that customers in a movie theatre in New Jersey had been induced by subliminal messages to consume more popcorn and more Coca-Cola were almost certainly false. The current consensus among marketing professionals is that subliminal advertising is counter-productive. To some this is because they believe it to be ineffective, but to most it is because they realise it would be a public relations disaster if its use was discovered. Many have misgivings about using it in marketing campaigns due to ethical considerations.

Link to the rest at Psychologist World

PG has linked to several reviews of a new book, Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to Fake News and Filter-bubbles – The Algorithms That Control Our Lives (featuring Cambridge Analytica) and one short item discussing subliminal messaging because each of the reviews reflects, to varying extents, the idea that masses citizens in free and open societies can be manipulated like pawns on a chessboard by some surreptitious, super-intelligent and powerful group of people for nefarious ends.

Vance Packard’s bestselling book, The Hidden Persuaders, had a huge impact on advertisers and advertising agencies (and politicians as well) in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. For obvious reasons, the idea that a properly-constructed subliminal message could have a substantial effect on consumer behavior was very attractive.

The problem with Packard’s theories is that they didn’t seem to work with consumers. The traditional marketing approach of understanding what consumers wanted and needed (not necessarily the same thing) and creating products and messages that addressed those wants and needs wasn’t enhanced in any measurable way by hidden messages that were not clear and obvious. Handsome men and attractive women were depicted enjoying a product in commercials to catch a viewer’s attention and encourage them to buy a product. Pitching the psychic benefits of a product was not particularly subtle and certainly didn’t pass a secret and influential message below the level of consciousness.

In PG’s observation, large groups of people tend to denigrate those who disagree with them on a subject of some importance as uninformed or stupid. The belief that people make choices or cast votes against their own logical self-interest is widespread among those who believe themselves to be more intelligent or better-informed than those who disagree with them.

PG suggests that the belief that large groups of people are too ignorant or ill-informed to make proper decisions for themselves is a step towards political disaster. One feature of dictatorships is a constant stream of advertising messages about how intelligent, insightful and beneficent the great leader and those who surround him are and how important it is for everyone else to leave important decisions in the leader’s hands.

 

‘Dire statistics’ show YA fiction is becoming less diverse

27 July 2018

From The Guardian:

Despite a raft of diversity initiatives, the percentage of young adult books written by black and minority ethnic (BME) authors has declined steadily since 2010, according to a new study warning that the UK’s “outdated” publishing culture must take rapid action to address a systemic problem in its ranks.

The research is “evidence of what many people already suspected: people of colour are terribly under-represented in books and bookish jobs”, according to its author Dr Melanie Ramdarshan Bold at University College London. It follows hot on the heels of the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s report into character diversity in children’s books, which showed only 1% of books published in the UK last year had a BME main protagonist.

. . . .

Ramdarshan Bold’s study looked specifically at the authors of young adult titles published in the UK between 2006 and 2016, considered the boom period for YA fiction. Drawing from the British Library’s corpus of bibliographic data, she found around 8,500 YA books had been published over the decade, with 8% written by BME authors – well below the 13% of the UK population who have a minority background.

She also found that the proportion of books written by authors of colour had declined over the period: while 7% of titles published in 2006 were by BME authors, this had dropped to 6% in 2016, after reaching a high of 14% in 2008. The number of books written by authors of colour fluctuated between 25 and 64 titles per year.

“Surprisingly, the number of titles written by authors of colour dropped from 2010 onwards, reaching a low in 2014 (5% of titles written by authors of colour), despite 2010-2014 being the most productive time period for YA publishing. Although publishers produced more titles during this period, they were predominantly written by white authors,” wrote Ramdarshan Bold, who published her findings in Publishing Research Quarterly on Friday.

. . . .

Instead, white female authors dominated the young adult market between 2006 and 2016, accounting for 59% of all titles, with white men writing 31%. Of the young adult authors of colour, 6% were women, with men of colour only accounting for 1.7% of books. British men of colour wrote only 0.4% of the young adult books published over the period.

. . . .

“The publishing industry needs to engage in more sustainable action, rather than discussions, to help shift the entire publishing culture, which is clearly outdated for, and not reflective of, the communities it serves. Until this happens, these dire statistics will not change significantly.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Another study that ignores the huge number of YA books self-published and purchased on Amazon.

PG suggests focusing on the faults of the Titanic while ignoring the future of publishing is a silly undertaking. If successful, this campaign will result in many authors of diverse backgrounds published shortly prior to the collapse of the industry. Ditto for people of diverse backgrounds going to work for Big Publishing.

How to Fight Amazon (before you turn 29)

16 June 2018

From The Atlantic:

Shortly after I met Lina Khan, her cellphone rang. The call was from a representative of a national organization, regarding a speech it had asked her to give. Khan was courteous on the phone, but she winced momentarily after hanging up. “That was the American Bar Association,” she confessed. “I don’t know if I’ve passed the bar yet.”

This feeling—that Khan’s ideas are in high demand slightly before her time—has characterized much of her life lately. In the past year, the 29-year-old legal scholar’s work has been cited approvingly by the lefty, rabble-rousing congressman Keith Ellison and by a Trump-appointed assistant attorney general, Makan Delrahim. She has been interviewed by NPR and written op-eds for The New York Times.

She has done it neither by focusing on a hot-button issue nor by cultivating a telegenic demeanor. She is just a young adult—one of many, I would learn—interested in an old topic: antitrust law, that musty corner of American jurisprudence aimed at curtailing monopoly power.

. . . .

For the past few decades of American life, the specter of monopoly was generally raised only regarding companies that seemed custom-designed to rip off consumers—airlines, cable providers, Big Pharma. These were businesses that pulled from the long-standing monopolist’s bag of tricks: They seemed to keep prices artificially high, or they formed an unspoken cartel with other industry titans. Typically, consumers worried most about how monopolies would pinch their wallet.
For Khan and her colleagues at the Open Markets Institute, an anti-monopoly think tank based in Washington, D.C., monopoly power includes all of that. But it goes further. Even when monopolies appear to benefit consumers by offering free services or low prices, Khan contends that they can still be deeply harmful. Among the group’s frequent targets are some of the most popular companies in America: Google, Facebook, and the one to which Khan has committed much of her published work, Amazon. She tells a comprehensive story about how these companies make Americans less free.. . . .“There’s a whole line of critique about Amazon that’s culture-based, about how they’re wrecking the experience of bookstores,” Khan told me as we surveyed Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest tome. “I personally am less focused on that element.”

Instead, she argues that Amazon has denuded America’s book-buying landscape in other ways. “Amazon has massively—and I’m trying not to use this particular word, but I can’t not use it here—disrupted the business model in publishing,” she told me. “Publishers used to be able to take risks with heavier books that might not be as popular, and they used to be able to subsidize them with best sellers.” But Amazon’s demand for discounts has made it harder to cross-subsidize this way, leading to consolidation among book publishers and reduced diversity.

This is a typically Khanian analysis. In her telling, monopolies don’t just exploit consumers and workers in their part of the economy. Even when they offer low prices to consumers, their influence propagates through the entire system. If one part of an industry consolidates, then all the other parts of the industry will feel pressure to consolidate too.

. . . .

[I]n January 2017, she published the result of that study, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” in the Yale Law Journal. It went viral—or at least as viral as dense legal scholarship can go. Its driving question is simple: How did Amazon get so big?

The answers are nearly as straightforward. First, Khan says, Amazon has been willing “to sustain losses and invest aggressively at the expense of profits.” This isn’t a controversial assertion: Amazon has posted an annual profit for only 13 of the past 21 years, according to The New York Times. Historically, it has plowed any profits right back into cheaper prices and R&D into everything from robotics to image recognition. Second, Amazon is integrated vertically, across business lines. In addition to selling stuff online, Amazon now publishes books, extends credit, sells online ads, designs clothes, and produces movies and TV shows. It is also one of the world’s largest providers of cloud storage and computing power, renting server space to Netflix, Adobe, Airbnb, and NASA.

. . . .

[Judge Robert] Bork’s views become interesting in light of Amazon. Bork thought vertical integration was fine: Since he believed markets were perfectly efficient, he assumed that a lower-cost competitor would always butt in and fight off a would-be monopolist. And predatory pricing? It is “a phenomenon that probably does not exist,” he wrote. The Chicago school, he said, had proved that companies would always pursue short-term profits over long-term growth.

Amazon’s history seems to belie this claim. For more than a decade, Wall Street allowed the company to plow any profits into price discounts. Partly as a result, Amazon has grown so large that it can undercut other companies just by announcing that it will soon compete with them. When Amazon purchased Whole Foods, its market cap rose by $15.6 billion—some $2 billion more than it paid for the chain. Meanwhile, the rest of the grocery industry immediately lost $37 billion in market value. (Amazon protests that it has no control over how investors value its competitors.)
When a company has such power, Khan believes, it will almost inevitably wield that power far and wide, distorting not just the market itself, but the whole of American life. With sufficient power, companies can commission studies, rewrite regulations, bulldoze neighborhoods, and impoverish education and welfare systems by securing billions in sweetheart tax cuts. When a company comes to monopolize a market—when it grows so big that it can threaten other industries just by entering them—it ceases to be merely a company. It becomes an institution so powerful that it can rule over people like a government.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

PG suggests Ms. Kahn, as an “expert” in antitrust law, is remarkably ignorant about American publishers. Publishers are a classic example of a shared monopoly, offering identical royalty rates and nearly identical contract terms to authors and attacking competitors who don’t join the cartel.

Additionally, there is the inconvenient fact that most of the largest American publishers have already plead guilty to conspiring to fix book prices, a classic antitrust violation, in order to keep Amazon from lowering book prices for consumers. Publishers are, by their own admissions, violators of antitrust laws.

It is possible for an organization to violate antitrust laws by lowering prices to drive competitors out of business, then raising prices once it obtains the monopoly power to do so.

However, lowering prices by itself is a benefit to consumers, not a detriment, and speculation that, at some time in the future, Amazon is going to use monopoly power to raise prices is just that, speculation, without any facts to back it up.

“Predatory pricing” is a characteristic of this type of monopoly activity – cutting prices to drive competitors out of business, then raising prices to capture monopoly profits.

When Amazon starts taking advantage of its market position to force unconscionable price increases on consumers, PG will be happy to condemn the company, but amateur mind-readers who claim this is Amazon’s business plan are simply speculating for purposes that likely aren’t connected to the welfare of consumers at all.

Looking into a crystal ball and perceiving an evil Amazon that will be going into the price-gouging business is a bizarre practice that is often funded by Amazon’s competitors who find Amazon’s consistent price-cutting business strategy offensive because Amazon takes sales away from them or disturbs their way of doing business in their particular fiefdoms.

If we are to speculate, let us speculate about the state of the book business had Jeff Bezos started the company selling something other than books online and stayed out of the book business because he didn’t ever want to upset people like the author of the OP. For the purposes of our speculation, we’ll assume no Bezos clone stepped in to do what Bezos has done.

Would readers be purchasing more or fewer books today? Would the price of books be higher or lower today? (remember that Steve Jobs wanted publishers to fix the retail price of ebooks so there would be no price competition) Would authors be earning more or less than they do today? Would there be a wider or a narrower selection of books offered to readers today? Would more or fewer authors be publishing their own books than do that today?

For any Amazonians who happen to stumble across this post, PG suggests that it might be a good idea for Amazon to consider publicizing how much money they pay directly to individual indie authors each year through KDP and similar programs, bypassing the Big Publishing and small publishing middlemen and middlewomen.

Learned Helplessness

14 June 2018

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I was in the middle of a long blog post about writers licensing the rights to their work when the news broke about Donadio & Olson embezzling from their clients. I stopped what I was working on and wrote a different post, because I finally had public proof of something I’d been saying for years: that important, well-known literary agents mismanage and/or embezzle the monies they receive for their clients. This has gone on for decades. It’s not something new.

. . . .

Then another reader wrote an answer post, taking me to task about telling writers not to hire agents.

He’s argued, calmly and politely, with my advice on agents before, so that wasn’t new. We disagree. He has his reasons for keeping an agent. I think those reasons are mired in the 20th century. But that’s his choice. He seems to be making an informed decision, and is taking a calculated risk. I don’t agree with the risk, but it’s his career, not mine. (I do hope he audits his agent regularly. He monitors the payments he knows are coming, but there’s no way to monitor the surprise payments.)

Then…weirdly…I started getting emails, direct messages, and notifications (from friends) of tweets taking me to task for advising that writers not have agents. I was called names. Well-known writers who have never met me wrote that I always give bad advice and that it figures because I’m …pick your hated POV here. (According to the posts, tweets, and emails {depending on who is upset with me}, I’m either bigoted or too PC. I’m against all women or too feminist. I’m always on the wrong side of every issue, and I lie, lie, lie.)

. . . .

Because you can’t fight myths with logic. Even when the myth forces the people spouting those myths to act against their own (and their friends’) interest.

In addition to the tweet-storm, I got some fascinating emails. I can’t share some of them—especially the ones from long-time IP attorneys who told me about the fraud and embezzlement at big name agencies. One IP attorney reminded me of the Harper Lee mess with McIntosh & Otis.  Ironically, according to Vanity Fair,

The agency, known as M&O, was created by Otis and her friend Mavis McIntosh, who had both reportedly left another agency in the mid-1920s after they discovered it to be highly suspect in its practices.

As I said, this crap has gone on for a very, very long time.

I got a lot of sad emails from writers who lost money to fraud, lost major book deals to ineptitude, and have given up on their careers because of agent malfeasance.

. . . .

[A] New York Times bestseller posted on my personal Facebook page that she was surprised people were talking about this issue at all (she was defending the people who were defending agents—although she hadn’t seen the truly vituperative stuff), because no one talks about agents in her experience.

Her comment was followed by a new writer who worried that he couldn’t sell to traditional publishing without an agent. To date, I’ve gotten six public comments, five personal emails and three messages on Facebook just like that, asking the same thing.

I got to noodling all of this in my head—more proof, more stories, lots of us who say we do better without agents, that we can handle our own businesses, and then I went to lunch with a new friend who has worked in the arts for sixty years. She handles her own business affairs, still.

. . . .

Artists are supposed to be feather-brained. Artists are supposed to be bad at business. Artists who are good at business are anomalies or worse. Artists who are good at business are only in it for the money. Artists who are good at business don’t understand art.

Of course, the people who are defining what that art is are mostly professors, who were unable to succeed at the business side of the art, so they have to keep their day jobs.

Some of those professors are writers with big book deals and agents.

As I was noodling all of this, though, what bothered me the most were two things in combination: that comment from the New York Times bestseller about silence and the variety of plaintive messages from beginners who are still pursuing their dreams of being the kind of writer they grew up admiring. But how do you get to one of the big five publishers without an agent?  one of those writers wrote on Twitter this morning.

Well, that assumes that a savvy writer wants a contract with one of the big five. The fact that this guy wrote the question this way proves he’s not savvy. I wouldn’t let anyone go into that shark-fest without a lot of education, the ability to negotiate, and a tough-as-nails IP attorney on their side. And even then, I would hope the writer has a good reason for going traditional, because the best negotiator in the world won’t be able to get the kind of deal that we used to get as a matter of course in the 1980s.

It was the comment though about silence that really got me. Because the New York Times bestseller was right: writers rarely discuss the problems with their agents. Writers only brag about their agent’s successes.

The writers who have been screwed by their agents are either too embarrassed to write a blog post like Chuck Palahnuik’s or those writers have signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of a settlement with that agent. Only a few of us refused to sign NDAs, refused the settlements. And when we talk about what happened to us, we’re called crazy, delusional, and outliers. When we say we handle our own business affairs, we get dismissed because we’re successful so it’s easy for us. We are lucky. Or famous. Or have connections no one else does.

. . . .

Every person in the world who starts a small business—and that’s what writing is…it’s a small business—learns how to conduct the business part of the operation. If the small business owner doesn’t learn that, then they go out of business really fast.

Artists have safety nets that most small business owners don’t have. A professorship based on a few published books and stories (as well as an expensive PhD). Or an ability to get grants. Or an employed and tolerant spouse.

The myth is that artists can’t make money. And before I confuse some of you further, I’m going to stop using the term artist (for dancers, painters, musicians, writers), and hone down to writers alone. But this applies to all of the creative arts. Artists have safety nets.

You’ve all heard that writers can’t make money, so why even try? You’re writing for the love. You’re writing to create something lasting. You’re writing to become famous or well-reviewed or accepted in your own literary circle.

You’re not writing to make money.

Only fools and hacks write for the money. The more someone publishes, the worse their skill must be. The more financial success they have, the more their writing abilities go downhill as they “sell out.”

That’s counterintuitive to the way that humans operate. The more humans practice something, the more they refine their techniques, the closer those people get to the top of their game. Their game might not be as good as someone else’s, but writers—like everyone else—improve with practice.

. . . .

This myth that writers can’t make money plays right into the hands of embezzlers and con artists. Think about it: I’ll handle your negotiations, your paperwork, your money, so you don’t have to bother your pretty little head about it.

Money gets pocketed, writers need those teaching jobs, and the leech who made the offer benefits from the myth. The writer sure doesn’t.

And then there’s the silence.

Silence is the hallmark of abuse.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and thanks to Colleen for the tip.

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

As usual, Kris gets to the heart of the matter in a way very few others do.

PG can’t go into any details because of client confidentiality issues, but today he finished reviewing an agency agreement from a large literary agency for a client.

It required more time than it has in the past. Not because the agreement was longer or more complex than the many others PG has reviewed.

It was the CYA paragraphs.

When lawyers are asked to review a contract, in addition to other subjects, clients want to understand what can go wrong if they enter into the contract, what their downsides might be if the whole thing goes south. It took PG a while to work his way through the potential downsides for the client’s proposed agency agreement.

This lead him to think more about the agency and publishing business and why some common practices that would be considered illegal and immoral in other settings are “the way things are done” in publishing.

PG’s Rule #1 for contracts is, “Don’t do business with crooks.”

A client could hire a whole herd (flock? colony? troop?) of lawyers to prepare the finest contract known to humankind. If the counterparty is a crook, the likelihood of the finest contract working out well for the client is still not good.

Crooks gonna crook.

PG just trafficked in a stereotype about crooks.

As a general proposition, while making one’s way through life, it’s not a good idea to deal in stereotypes. Every large group of people includes some that may fit a stereotype commonly associated with the group and others who are much different than the stereotype. In an effort to avoid wrongly stigmatizing those who differ from the group, society rightly takes a somewhat dim view of many varieties of stereotypes.

However, stereotypes can be quite useful and are utilized by most people in one form or another on a regular basis.

Who would you trust more, a drug dealer or an elementary school teacher?

There you go, stereotyping drug dealers.

Long ago, PG learned to be more careful about relying on the statements of a prospective client who was in prison than a prospective client who walked into his law office off the street. Are innocent people sometimes incarcerated? Absolutely. Are most people in prison innocent of a crime? Not really. Are most people really, really, really anxious to get out of prison and willing to do almost anything to achieve their goal? Pretty much.

Do common business standards and practices vary from occupation to occupation? Is an auctioneer expected to be more or less reliable when talking about the value of a piano being sold than a professional appraiser? Is there an unwritten code of conduct for auctioneers that affects their view of appropriate behavior when trying to sell something?

This is a long-winded introduction to PG’s concerns about agents and traditional publishers.

From a purely economic standpoint, an agent needs a good relationship with a handful of acquiring editors working at a small group of publisher much more than an agent needs a good relationship with an author who is mid-list or below in the publishing hierarchy.

Publishers who will pay a $100,000 advance for a science fiction novel are far rarer than science fiction authors are. This and other economic realities strongly influence the behavior of agents.

Looking at what’s really happening in an agent’s life, it would make more economic sense for the agent to work for and receive a commission from a publisher for locating a salable author than to pretend the agent works for the author and puts her interests first before the publisher’s.

This brings PG to customs of the trade.

Many years ago, PG learned about customs of the New York City garment industry while representing a client who manufactured and sold boatloads of inexpensive jackets. Some of the customs of the trade in the garment business were identical or similar to standard commercial law and others were much different. Those who regularly did business in the garment industry were far more concerned with applying the customs of the trade instead of anything the state legislature had ever written.

In this respect, the customs of the trade in New York City bore some resemblance to what was sometimes called “The Law of the Hills” in the Ozark Mountains of Southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas.

In some cases, juries were more influenced by the Law of the Hills than they were by The Revised Statutes of Missouri or anything the judge might say about the case. While the state law might look askance at a husband beating up his wife’s lover, the Law of the Hills permitted such actions as long as nobody was permanently crippled.

PG posits that the customs of the traditional publishing trade, including the customs of the literary agency trade have created an environment in which an agent can do far worse things than fail to forward payment the agent receives for royalties from Russian sales to an author. The author’s never going to know and such an action won’t harm the agent’s reputation with HarperCollins even if someone at HarperCollins finds out about it.

When faced with a choice between promptly paying every penny of royalties due to an author and keeping the doors of the agency open, the customs of the agency trade dictate that the survival of the agency is paramount. An agent will make the same decision once, twice, three times — as many times as it takes to survive.

Thus, an otherwise honest and honorable group of people can be lead down a path that ends in systematic and large criminal diversion of funds away from authors and into agents’ pockets. PG’s gut tells him that this has happened at a great many agencies, both small and large.

It’s a custom of the trade.

The Mystery Of The Missing Mystery Writer

12 June 2018

From author/editor Jim Thomsen in 2009:

To me, it was a mystery worthy of, well, a mystery novel.

A Seattle mystery author publishes three novels. All are reviewed reasonably well; all sell reasonably well. She’s under contract to write two more. But that fourth book never materializes. In fact, the author disappears … and is never heard from again. As an author, anyway.

Fourteen years later, had the trail grown too cold for the truth to emerge?

I decided to find out.

And the solution I found to this mystery is, to many I’m sure, a much greater mystery:

I found a writer who simply didn’t want to be a writer any more.

What — or who — killed her ambition?

Here’s my investigator’s report.

. . . .

In the spring of 1991, I was the Ellensburg correspondent for the Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper (central Washington cities, for those of you who don’t know the area).

I was also a voracious reader of mystery novels, in an era when Seattle-based mysteries were going through something of a golden era.

. . . .

And there was Janet L. Smith, the Seattle attorney whose 1990 debut novel, “Sea Of Troubles,” was a skillfully entertaining diversion. In fact, I bought that book at Jerrol’s Bookstore in Ellensburg, where, I learned shortly after, a caravan of six mystery authors would be making an afternoon stop. I don’t remember every name, but the tour included Sequim author Aaron Elkins, the author of several mysteries featuring anthropologist Gideon Oliver; children’s mystery author Willo Davis Roberts, and Emerson and Smith.

I happily flitted around Jerrol’s during the entire visit, schmoozing with as many of the authors as I could. (In fact, I wound up writing features on two, Emerson and Roberts, for the next day’s Herald-Republic.) The event was pretty sparsely attended, as far as I can recall, and I don’t think any of the six sold many books (other than the dozen or so I snapped up, of course). But everybody seemed to have a good time anyway, visiting with the few people who did drop by, and with each other.

I got Janet L. Smith to sign my copy of “Sea Of Troubles.”

. . . .

I got thinking about Janet a few months ago, when I was cleaning up my garage. I came across a box full of old paperbacks, and among them were Janet L. Smith’s three novels: “Sea Of Troubles,” (1990) with the author’s signature still there in faded ink on the inside page; “Practice To Deceive” (1993); and “A Vintage Murder” (1995).

I re-read each one. And I’ll say this: They’re not great, but they’re pretty good. They’re well-paced and well-plotted, authoritative on legal procedure, maybe a little light on character development and distinctive prose style. But I bought all three when they came out … and would have kept right on buying them if they had kept on coming out.

But, of course, they didn’t. And I set out to find out why.

Finding her wasn’t too difficult. A Google research revealed a Seattle law practice for Janet L. Smith. And, as big as Seattle is, I figured the odds of two Janet L. Smiths practicing law there were pretty long.

. . . .

We met Sept. 22 at a Starbucks on Aurora Avenue, not far from the Northgate-area office where she practices eldercare law. A smiling woman in her mid-fifties, Janet let me buy her a latte.

I jumped right in. So … what’s the deal? I asked. Why are you no longer a writer?

Janet smiled.

“When people me ask me that, I say, “Nobody asks someone why they didn’t write another Ph.D thesis.’”

That much fun, huh?

She then cautioned me, still smiling, against the assumption that she had failed.

Then she talked about introverts and extroverts. She was very much the latter, she said. Most authors don’t like being public figures, much preferring to hole up at home and write. That, Janet said, is not her.

“If I was doing writing 100 percent, without talking, I’d go stark raving out of my mind,” she said. But that, of course, is the discipline of novel writing, the one that doesn’t get talked about much. The reality is that writing a book is damned hard work, and requires a concentration that usually insists on isolation from all distraction. Some of us thrive on it. And some of us are like Janet.

Luckily, Janet didn’t have to worry about that, at first anyway, as she was juggling her part-time writing career with her legal work.

. . . .

[H]er fictional alter ego, Seattle attorney Annie MacPherson, solved complicated problems, too. And at the time Janet broke through, heroines like Annie MacPherson were just what the publishing industry was looking for. Mystery authors like Sue Grafton, Sharyn McCrumb and Sara Paretsky, with tough, sexy, self-sustaining heroines, were just completing their ascents into the sales stratosphere.

“I hit a moment in time where what I was selling was what they were looking for,” Janet said. “They wanted women protagonists, a strong regional flavor, nobody who was a cop or an FBI agent.”

That said, breaking in wasn’t a slam-dunk. Janet did what most aspiring authors did in the pre-Internet era, which was write dozens of letters to agents whose listings were found in the annual Writers Market reference books. “No luck,” she said.

. . . .

“I got encouraging rejection letters. That kept me going.”

And, at last, she broke through, with a small Bay Area press called Perseverance Press — an outfit so small, Janet said, that at the time it put out just one book a year. At the time, Janet was working in the state capital city of Olympia and recalls regularly visiting the small mystery bookshop there — Whodunit Books, which is still around — to babysit her book.

Then, mysterious good things happened. “Sea Of Troubles” got a positive review in The New York Times, even though it had never been submitted for one as far as Janet knew.

. . . .

That led to a new deal which saw her second Annie MacPherson book, “Practice To Deceive,” come out in hardcover as well as paperback. And led to her developing a public presence as an author. She attended the major mystery-writer conferences — Bouchercon, Malice Domestic and Left Coast Crime among them — and became active in the Sisters In Crime organization. She made friends among the Northwest writer community.

. . . .

That part was fun. The actual making-the-books part, not so much.

“For me,” she said, “the process of writing just isn’t fun.”

There were other factors, however, more beyond her control. After three books, her sales were steady but flat, trapping her in what she called “the comfortable midlist.” “Practice To Deceive” had done slightly better than “Sea Of Troubles,” and “A Vintage Murder” had done no worse than “Practice,” but neither represented the great leap forward that author and publisher both hoped for. That was being reflected in her publisher’s so-so support for the books; Janet’s regional tours to promote them were largely self-financed.

“Going from the midlist to something more probably wasn’t going to happen,” Janet said. “I probably wasn’t going to make that leap into Sue Grafton territory. My publisher didn’t see me having gold foil covers.” That’s the point, she said, where “they put you in a box and tell you where you belong.”

. . . .

And she’s left her days an author in the past, too. Well, mostly.

She laughed as she recalled a moment from earlier this year in which she caught her [law] practice’s office manager, during a slow day, reading one of her books — totally unaware that the author was her employer.

“I asked her what she was reading, and she was so embarrassed to be caught that she just said, ‘Oh, just some crap.’ I asked her who the author was, and she looked at the cover. It took her a moment to figure out that I was that Janet L. Smith.

‘I didn’t mean ‘crap!’” the office manager howled.

Janet teased her about it. “‘Not only are you reading on the job,” she recalled saying, “but you’re reading fluff!’ She had to tell everybody in the office about it.”

And that’s about the sum of her literary legacy, she said.

“It’s a trivia fact of my life,” she said. “Not much more than that.”

Link to the rest at Jim Thomsen and thanks to Dale for the tip.

PG says there are many ways in which an author may fail in the book business.

The OP describes a common reason for failure in the days prior to indie publishing – being categorized as “midlist”. Midlist books didn’t sell enough copies to support the physical bookstores, the distributor, the publisher and the author in the manner they desired to be supported.

An indie author in 2018 lives in a different world. Sales of ebooks in numbers that were formerly “midlist” can support an author and an author’s family, particularly when the author can release a book as soon as it is finished without the friction of dealing with various traditional publishing practices and processes.

Barnes & Noble may not have changed much, but Amazon understands that electrons on hard drives cost almost nothing, certainly way less than New York publicists and underpaid bookstore managers, so it needs very little money to support those hard drives and drop a few pennies into Jeff Bezos’ pocket from time to time.

Is there any dishonor in writing books that thousands of readers enjoy instead of books that millions of readers enjoy?

PG can’t remember when he last read a New York Times bestseller. He is not alone in appreciating books that fall well outside of mass market popularity.

Speculating on how those studying the history of books and authors will look back on the period beginning in the early part of the 21st century, PG suggests that this time will be regarded as the beginning of a golden age for books and authors because of indie publishing. Employment and income statistics will show a substantial increase in the number of full-time authors and their average incomes and the number of books sold. Millions of books will be written and read that never would have existed under the Ancien Régime.

The Big Secret Why Behind Everything so Far

7 June 2018

From Chuck Palahnuick:

On the plus side I’m not crazy.  For several years my income has dwindled.  Piracy, some people told me.  Or the publishers were in crisis and slow to pay royalties, although the publishers insisted they’d sent the money.

More recently, the trickle of my income stopped.  Not that there wasn’t always a good excuse.  Someone’s mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s and needed constant looking after.  The bank’s wire transfer system wasn’t secure, and hackers were a new threat.  You don’t question someone who claims to be the caregiver for a mother with dementia.  You let it slide.  I let it slide.

That’s why my big shows on book tour stopped.  Because the payment for Fight Club 2 and the two coloring books and Adjustment Day never seemed to arrive.  Years of income.  Each of those big shows cost north of ten grand to stage.  Money I paid.  For the glowing beach balls, the severed arms, the $150 leather-bound books as prizes, not to mention the dog toys, the shipping, the candy.  So much candy.  For each event, shopping carts full of candy.  It was justified in my mind because most of my readers had never attended an author reading, and I wanted their first to be exceptional.  But when my income stopped, when I had to choose between health insurance and autographed rubber arms… the shows stopped.  There, I’ve said it.

In comics, you pay your own way.  Invitations arrived from Comic-Cons, Dragon Cons, Wizard Worlds, but my money for travel had dried up.  Instead of income, I got excuses.  But this entire time an idea nagged at me:  What if someone’s stealing?

But that, that was insanity.  I’ve worked with the same team of people since 1994.  To suspect anyone was stealing, I had to be crazy.

And then I wasn’t.  You may have read about this over the weekend in the New York Post.  All the royalties and advance monies and film option payments that had accumulated in my author’s account in New York, or had been delayed somewhere in the banking pipeline, it was gone.  Poof.  I can’t even guess how much income.  Someone confessed on video he’d been stealing.  I wasn’t crazy.

Link to the rest at Chuck Palahnuick’s blog

PG is interested to see a couple of articles describing the literary agency, Donadio & Olson, as a victim of the wholesale theft of client funds.

If a community bank closes because of financial improprieties that have continued for years, is the president of the bank regarded as an innocent bystander? Can he/she credibly point to a clerk and say, “It was all her fault! I had no idea this was happening over all these decades.”

In a criminal trial held in a court of law, the president is presumed innocent until proven guilty. In the court of public opinion, the president is presumed to be part of the scheme or too incompetent to be responsible for running a bank.

PG suggests that in the court of public opinion, the agents that own (and have owned) and operated Donadio & Olson during the lengthy period of time over which client funds were stolen from authors should be similarly judged.

In the  event of a bank failure or financial difficulties, typically, an aggressive federal agency swoops in late on a Friday afternoon and takes over the books and records and operations of the bank. All the bank’s employees walk out the  door while the government agency figures out what went wrong and who is entitled to how much money. The bank reopens on Monday morning under the direct management of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. (Similar enforcement actions by other government agencies if a bank is not federally insured or a savings & loan has problems.)

It is PG’s impression that, like California, New York’s legislature has passed a law about nearly every subject imaginable. New York City prides itself as being the center of the traditional American publishing industry.

Where is the government regulation requiring that, if literary agencies are receiving and holding money that really belongs to someone else – authors – the literary agencies act like banks that receive and hold money belonging to other people and be treated as custodians of funds held to the highest standard of care?

If Big Publishing really cares about authors and doesn’t take them for granted, why don’t the standard terms of a traditional publishing contract include provisions that pay royalties directly to authors and agency fees directly to agents? Publishers will do this if asked by an attorney for the author. Why not make it the default?

As PG has stated before, nothing that is good for the author happens when an agency receives royalty payments to which the author is entitled. Passing funds through the agency bank account adds no value whatsoever and only provides an opportunity for something bad to happen to those royalties.

Charge of the write brigade: How to save the last American bookstore chain

6 June 2018

From The Bookseller:

In every great epic, there is the last stand: a waning of hope, a dutiful last charge, and a hopeful moment of deus ex machina.

It’s all too tempting to imagine American publishers in a boardroom today using similar literary tropes in a dramatic analogy involving besieged Barnes & Noble locations and a fight to the last man against Amazonian invaders. Our analogy isn’t far off. Right now, B&N faces death but bravely holds fast to stave off private takeovers and Amazon at the gates a little bit longer.

The death of the last major American bookstore chain is significant. It leaves publishers with few major bookselling channels outside of Amazon, hundreds of American communities reliant on e-commerce for books, and a beloved brand and store experience only a distant memory for readers.

. . . .

Financially, B&N is in dire straits. The stock is trading a hair above $5, less than a fifth of their 2006 price before ebooks and Amazon consumed the market. Since then, stores have seen 11 years of declining sales and dozens of closures. After Feb. 12 lay-offs of 1,800 full-time positions, many stores now have no full-time employees.

B&N’s online sales have been steadily declining more than 25% in the last two years, despite occasional odd attempts at building unique online experiences. Meanwhile, Amazon currently sells one out of every two books in the U.S., according to digital publishing consultants Mike Shatzkin and Hugh Howey. While the overall book market grows a healthy 3% a year, it “is solely due to Amazon’s fast-growing online print sales,” says Howey. Last year, “all other channels shrunk.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG says  the death of the  last American bookstore chain is primarily self-inflicted.

Ditto for the big publishers on life support, down-sizing their way to a brighter future.

Nowhere was it cast in stone that Amazon would dominate bookselling. Barnes & Noble was a household name when Amazon shipped its first book. And its thousandth book. So was Borders.

Each of the two big book chains (plus some other smaller chains) was ideally positioned in the minds of consumers to dominate online book sales. Who do you trust? Barnes & Noble, where you have purchased books for years or that Amazon web thing operating out of  some guy’s kitchen in Seattle that’s liable to take your money, go bankrupt and blame UPS when your book gets lost?

With their unerring ability to locate a sinking ship, publishers jumped on board the SS Queen of  the Livre Papier. Apple always sold its computers and other stuff at list price, so  publishers created an illegal conspiracy with Steve Jobs’ encouragement that had one principal objective – Sell at List Price – and a motto, Discounting is the Devil’s Playground! (except when Barnes & Noble does it)

Ebooks were an ideal product for publishers – no printing costs, no waiting for ships full of books from China, no warehousing charges, no slice of the pie for Ingram. Send some electrons to any online bookstore that wanted to sell them and watch the money roll in.

But no, that would be wrong because Paper!

Shakespeare used paper. So did Mark Twain. And Jane! Jane Austen never allowed a computer in Pemberley. Everybody knows they were geniuses so who are we to question their ways?

A Little Traveling

5 June 2018

PG has not been a paradigm of posting lately.

His reason (and he thinks it’s a good one) is that he’s been visiting some of his  offspring.

Following is Offspring Exhibit A:

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