A Call for Digital Media Ethics

29 October 2014

From Publishing Perspectives:

Self-appointed digital experts on any digital topic are very popular these days in the digital media. It seems that just being “digital something” gives anyone the right to feel competent at anything that has some “digital” flavor/attribute/declination/relevance. While there is a clear difference between being “a jack of all trades, but master of none” and a “windbag,” in the digital media almost anyone feels to belong to the former rather than to the latter. This is often because they believe their readers know even less than they do. While this might or might not be the case of the average reader, it is never true for the entire reading community. There always are readers that know better than any bigmouth.

These days I have been asked by few friends and colleagues in Europe what I thought about the recent and very popular article appeared on vox.com titled“Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers” by Matthew Yglesias.

The title speaks for itself: it is clearly not unbiased journalism, but just another self-serving and very effective propaganda, with 2,300+ shares on Twitter, 6,700+ on Facebook. A lot less (300+) on LinkedIn. Good job, great traffic, a lot of eyeballs and advertising money. This is an example of how a digital media can become “creative” at content publishing to pursue advertising money.

Bashing “book publishers” is a very common sport these days, as publishing expert Mike Shatzkin noticed.

. . . .

However no individual has the right to be listened to. Especially not if it’s for his/her own profit. Being listened to is a privilege that needs to be ethically earned and handled. Not seized by exploiting listeners’ trust or abusing own properly earned listeners’ base. Intentionally and unintentionally. This is still one of the things where the most digital media companies have got plenty of room to improve.

Thus the only point I have here is ethics. Manipulating readers for its own profits perhaps it is legal but not always ethically correct. In my humble opinion.

. . . .

However no individual has the right to be listened to. Especially not if it’s for his/her own profit. Being listened to is a privilege that needs to be ethically earned and handled. Not seized by exploiting listeners’ trust or abusing own properly earned listeners’ base. Intentionally and unintentionally. This is still one of the things where the most digital media companies have got plenty of room to improve.

Thus the only point I have here is ethics. Manipulating readers for its own profits perhaps it is legal but not always ethically correct. In my humble opinion.

. . . .

This would help, in the end, to reduce the overall online buzz around unqualified opinions and ultimately better curate a quality selection of content by ethical digital media to the great benefit of the readers. And still — hopefully — with decent profits for the digital media owners.

“Digital media ethics” are three simple words that open an entire very complex world of options, risks and opportunities. A Pandora’s box, perhaps. It is about time to seriously do something about it. The readers will certainly appreciate ethics. Advertisers will follow and shareholders will be happy too.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives and thanks to Bill for the tip.

In PG’s inexhaustibly humble opinion, this article has a fairly high incomprehensibility index. However, the comments are great.

From David Gaughran:

Ethics? Values? Give me a break. What kind of values does the publishing industry have exactly?

Penguin Random House owns the biggest vanity press in the world and is aggressively expanding its exploitative operations. Harlequin, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster have white label vanity press imprints powered by Author Solutions. Harlequin is facing a class action for swindling its own writers out of contractually agreed royalties. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The reason we criticize the industry (as I explained to Shatzkin), is because (a) we find this behavior unacceptable and (b) we want the industry to change.

From Joe Konrath:

You claim Yglesias is engaging in the sport of “book bashing” in order to make advertising dollars. You claim the author didn’t disclose his background. You claim this is unethical.

You’re funny.

Where is the citation and refutation of any of Yglesias’s points? You make a claim of “fiction” without supporting your belief that Yglesias isn’t telling the truth. We should agree with your “fiction” pronouncement because you’re an expert?

Must I have a PhD in mathematics to say “2 + 3 = 5″? Am I not allowed to defend gay rights because I’m not gay?

Do you know that the “arguement from authority” is a fallacy?

You speak of propaganda that “pursues advertising money.”

Kind of like someone who makes money in the digital book business and writes an editorial defending the groups who hire him? But there’s no propaganda behind your piece, eh?

From William Ockham:

I notice that the author doesn’t follow his own advice. Shouldn’t his disclaimer include that he has never run an online magazine, never been a professor of ethics, etc.?

Negative disclaimers are silly. This isn’t about ethics, it is about attacking the credibility of outsiders who have the insolence to opine about publishing. Vena wraps his hit piece in the veneer of ethics, but he really seems to be afraid of open debate with people outside his ‘tribe’.

Children’s fuels 2014 growth in US

29 October 2014

From The Bookseller:

YA/children’s books are fuelling growth, including e-book growth, in the US, according to new figures from the Association of American Publishers (AAP).

New figures released by the group covering January to July 2014, show that the e-book revenue grew 7.5% compared to the same period in 2013. This was driven largely by a huge growth of e-book revenue in the children’s and YA category, with a 59.5% growth compared to the same period last year. Another growth area is religious e-books, which has climbed 25.7%

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Self-published authors – Please Quit Picking Fights!

29 October 2014

From agent Scott Eagan:

I was talking to one of my clients this weekend and she was saying how her chapter had a guest speaker who was once again preaching the line, “Fire your agents and fire your editors! Do it yourself!” I have to say, since RWA this year I am getting pretty irritated at this mantra we are hearing from authors out there.

Look, there is room for everyone. If you have this desire to self-publish then go for it! No one is stopping you!

I think what a lot of these authors are missing in their argument is that not everyone wants to take this approach. Not everyone has the knowledge of the business. Not everyone has an already built in following from their careers in traditional publishing. And yes, when we talk money, not everyone has the cash to pay for: an outside editor, a cover artist, a marketing manager… and so forth.

When I talked to my author about this, it was interesting to hear a few facts that might have been missed by those in the audience:

  • The speaker WAS previously published and already had a following.
  • The author was spending a lot of her own money to take care of things normally covered by a publisher.
  • The author was spending close to 100 hours a week on the career just to keep it afloat.

When this first idea came out, there was indeed a huge fight (or maybe just a verbal war) between those who wanted to go on their own and those that wanted the traditional approach. But in recent years, that war has seemed to shift to a more one sided approach. The editors and the agents on the traditional side have pretty much stopped. No, this is not because, what I do believe some would think, “they realized they were wrong.” Instead, they realized there was a place for everyone.

. . . .

What I am saying is that if you are a person who wants an agent. If you are a person who wants to take the traditional publishing approach, please don’t let those other authors discourage you from taking the approach that works for you. Just remember to really listen to the variables the author is using when they talk of their successes taking that self-pub approach:

  • Are they selling their back lists from traditional publishers?
  • Are the using this as a supplement to an already existing writing career?
  • Are they still bringing in royalties from those traditional publishers?
  • How many outside resources are they having to pay (editors, cover artists, etc.) are they having to pay.

Link to the rest at Babbles from Scott Eagan and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Artist’s Tax Exemption Set to Increase

29 October 2014

From Hotpress:

 In what could be of significant benefit to many Irish artists, the Department of Finance have decided to increase the artist’s tax exemption threshold by €10,000. It means profits will only be taxed above €50,000.

With Arts minister Heather Humphreys stating that “Budget 2015 sends a strong message that this Government values the arts, our heritage and the support of the Irish language.”

. . . .

Humphreys called the increase to the threshold for the artist’s tax exemption, “a clear recognition of the need to support artists. Artists are the bedrock of our culture and they continue to represent us at home and abroad with great distinction.”

“There is an implied recognition from the Department of Finance that it was a mistake to push the limit down in the way that they did,” one music industry insider revealed. “The truth is that we need to provide every possible reason for artists to live in Ireland, because once they are successful, there is a natural draw that takes them to the US or the UK. we need to avoid that brain drain.”

Link to the rest at Hotpress and thanks to Caoimhe for the tip.

Facebook Offers Life Raft, but Publishers Are Wary

28 October 2014

From The New York Times:

For publishers, Facebook is a bit like that big dog galloping toward you in the park. More often than not, it’s hard to tell whether he wants to play with you or eat you.

The social network now has over 1.3 billion users — a fifth of the planet’s population and has become a force in publishing because of its News Feed, which has been increasingly fine-tuned to feature high-quality content, the kind media companies produce.

. . . .

For traditional publishers, the home page may soon become akin to the print edition — nice to have, but not the primary attraction. In the last few months, more than half the visitors to The New York Times have come via mobile — the figure increases with each passing month — and that percentage is higher for many other publishers.

. . . .

Loading publishers’ web pages on a mobile device can be maddening, slowed by advertising that goes out for auction when readers click. So while Facebook loves the content, it hates the clunky technology many publishers use for mobile. When it comes to the impatient hordes on phones, speed matters above all else.

I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago and bumped into an executive who works in mobile at Facebook. He wasn’t speaking for attribution, but he derided the approach that traditional publishers take to mobile devices, saying it made for an unpleasant user experience, hurt user engagement and crippled their efforts to make money in a smartphone world.

Facebook hopes it has a fix for all that. The company has been on something of a listening tour with publishers, discussing better ways to collaborate. The social network has been eager to help publishers do a better job of servicing readers in the News Feed, including improving their approach to mobile in a variety of ways. One possibility it mentioned was for publishers to simply send pages to Facebook that would live inside the social network’s mobile app and be hosted by its servers; that way, they would load quickly with ads that Facebook sells. The revenue would be shared.

That kind of wholesale transfer of content sends a cold, dark chill down the collective spine of publishers, both traditional and digital insurgents alike. If Facebook’s mobile app hosted publishers’ pages, the relationship with customers, most of the data about what they did and the reading experience would all belong to the platform. Media companies would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.

. . . .

It’s not that Facebook has a reputation for extracting vengeance, so far as I know; it’s just that the company has become the No. 1 source of traffic for many digital publishers. Yes, search from Google still creates inbound interest, and Twitter can spark attention, especially among media types, but when it comes to sheer tonnage of eyeballs, nothing rivals Facebook.

“The traffic they send is astounding and it’s been great that they have made an effort to reach out and boost quality content,” said one digital publishing executive, who declined to be identified so as not to ruffle the feathers of the golden goose. “But all any of us are talking about is when the other shoe might drop.”

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Dusty for the tip.

PG says it’s not just book publishers that are concerned with tech giants. New York content vs. West Coast tech is a recurring story. Since Bezos owns The Washington Post maybe Mark Zuckerberg should buy The New York Times.

Ebook Tax Rises to Hit Publishers, Retailers, and Writers

28 October 2014

From Chris Lynch: Hack of All Trades:

Following a European Commission ruling dating back to 2008, e-books are to be taxed in the European member state in which the consumer is located, at the tax rate of that country, as opposed to the country from which the product is sold. The move prevents Amazon, Nook and Kobo from applying the low 3% tax on e-books sold to European countries, just because their headquarters are in Luxembourg. Instead, the e-book retailers will have to apply the standard UK VAT rate (20% at the time of writing) to e-books sold into the UK.

. . . .

Some publishers are already threatening a “revolt” if Amazon tries to pass the additional costs on to publishers. Speaking to The Bookseller Alessandro Gallenzi, founder of Alma Books, said: This isnt a thorny issue, its a hornets nest. Who will take the hit? I dont know. Amazon has so far been absorbing it; I doubt itll do the same moving forward. However, if it tried to force it on publishers there will be revolt and Amazon knows that.

. . . .

From a practical standpoint, there isn’t any good news for writers here. If you’re working with a traditional publisher who ends up with higher costs, or deeper discounts, as a result of this change then you will see your royalties squeezed. If you’re an independent, expect to have to work even harder to market your book as prices creep upwards.

If Amazon are smart about this they’ll protect their KDP exclusive writers for as long as possible from this VAT change, making their platform more profitable for their indie authors and slipping another knife into the ribs of traditional publishing houses.

. . . .

The downside is that UK consumers, publishers, and creators have been working, some even thriving, under a system where the largest retailers were operating in a tax structure that was, at best, a loophole. Like it or not, its hard to paint this as a tax rise; it’s the closure of a loophole. Readers may love their cheap eBooks, but the gravy train may be coming to an end.

. . . .

Despite the ruling, booksellers across the spectrum have long argued that digital books should attract the same 0% VAT rate as physical books in the UK. An Amazon spokesperson said: Amazons view is that the same reduced VAT rate should be applied for both p-books and e-books.

Link to the rest at Chris Lynch: Hack of All Trades and thanks to Nirmala for the tip.

Pellerin under fire over reading admission

28 October 2014

From The Bookseller:

The French culture minister has sparked controversy after admitting she hasn’t read for pleasure in the past two years.

Fleur Pellerin, who has only been in the post two months, was interviewed on Sunday (26th October) on television about French novelist Patrick Modiano who recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

When asked by the Canal+ presenter which was her favourite of Modiano’s books, Pellerin answered: “I admit without any problem that I have had no time to read over the past two years,” she said. “I read a lot of notes, and legislative documents. I read a lot of news, but I read [for pleasure] very little.”

Her confession has sparked a row on Twitter, with some commentators sympathetic of her situation and others calling for her resignation.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

With many readers

28 October 2014

With many readers, brilliancy of style passes for affluence of thought; they mistake buttercups in the grass for immeasurable gold mines under ground.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Websites with reader inputs offer new ways for writers to get their works out

28 October 2014

From The Straits Times:

I recently read an article in The Financial Times in which a columnist lamented how the half-year royalties of his book amounted to only £257.20 (S$528), or 39p a book.

“Only fools ever wrote books to get rich, but today very few authors can even live off them,” Simon Kuper added.

I consider myself forewarned. After all, the bad news has been steadily trickling in since I started working on a collection of short stories earlier this year: Too many writers are scrabbling for too few slices of the same pie, locked in battle with Amazon.com and unable to afford their proverbial wood sheds any more with sky-rocketing rents.

Yet, call me an optimistic egghead, but I feel that these are exciting times to be an aspiring author. Consider these attempts to break out of the traditional author-literary agent-publisher road to getting your book into stores:

  • Earlier this month, not-every-author’s-favourite online retail giant Amazon officially announced Kindle Scout, which allows writers of science fiction, mystery, thriller or romance to submit their completed manuscripts, which are then rated by Amazon customers. Top-rated authors chosen by Kindle Press for publication receive a US$1,500 (S$1,900) advance and 50 per cent of e-book royalties in five-year renewable terms.

. . . .

  • This year, English author Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel The Wake became the first crowdfunded novel to make it onto the Man Booker longlist. He had posted his book project on the Unbound literary crowdfunding website, where supporters pledged sums varying from £5 to £300 to get the manuscript published, marketed and distributed. Launched in 2011, Unbound has successfully funded more than 65 books and published about 40. Investors in book projects can get returns ranging from first editions to the right to name characters to champagne lunches with the author. The hook? That the book you read would not have existed without you.

. . . .

In Singapore, publisher Edmund Wee notes, it remains a big question “whether online support from potential readers will translate into sales”. Wee, who is the managing and creative director of indie publisher Epigram, cites the example of a Singapore writer who garnered more than 1,700 “Likes” on Facebook for a short story collection, but did not see similar brisk demand for a 1,000 print run.

. . . .

Singaporean author Felix Cheong says he crowdsourced for opinions while writing his upcoming second volume of Singapore Siu Dai stories, slated to launch next month. He posted the stories as flash fiction on his Facebook status updates and used “Likes” and comments to gauge if they worked. “But I also know when a story has a message to convey, but may not resonate with people,” says the 49-year-old.

“I will still include it in my book because it’s creatively what I have to say and not because I want to please my reader.”

Admittedly, it took me a while to wrap my head around literature without professional editors as bastions of good taste and gatekeepers of the slush pile, but as a democratic product. Would an increasing reliance on crowdsourcing in publishing lead to an American Idol effect, in which the true geniuses are weeded out, leaving us with popular mediocrity?

. . . .

What the crowdsourcing trend means is that readers can stop relying on bestseller lists to tell them what to read.

. . . .

Why should selecting a book remain such a prosaic process? With the music industry already embracing the fact that traditional talent-scouting, production and delivery methods no longer cut it in a world of YouTube and Spotify, it is high time the book trade and readers throw themselves into this adventure too.

Link to the rest at The Straits Times and thanks to Eustacia for the tip.

Over the past few months, PG has noted an uptick in the number of non-US stories about authors bypassing publishers.

From Papyrus to Pixels

28 October 2014

From The Economist:

Fingers stroke vellum; the calfskin pages are smooth, like paper, but richer, almost oily. The black print is crisp, and every Latin sentence starts with a lush red letter. One of the book’s early owners has drawn a hand and index finger which points, like an arrow, to passages worth remembering.

In 44BC Cicero, the Roman Republic’s great orator, wrote a book for his son Marcus called de Officiis (“On Duties”). It told him how to live a moral life, how to balance virtue with self-interest, how to have an impact. Not all his words were new. De Officiis draws on the views of various Greek philosophers whose works Cicero could consult in his library, most of which have since been lost. Cicero’s, though, remain. De Officiis was read and studied throughout the rise of the Roman Empire and survived the subsequent fall. It shaped the thought of Renaissance thinkers like Erasmus; centuries later still it inspired Voltaire. “No one will ever write anything more wise,” he said.

The book’s words have not changed; their vessel, though, has gone through relentless reincarnation and metamorphosis. Cicero probably dictated de Officiisto his freed slave, Tiro, who copied it down on a papyrus scroll from which other copies were made in turn. Within a few centuries some versions were transferred from scrolls into bound books, or codices. A thousand years later monks meticulously made copies by hand, averaging only a few pages a day. Then, in the 15th century, de Officiis was copied by a machine. The lush edition in your correspondent’s hands—delightfully, and surprisingly, no gloves are needed to handle it—is one of the very first such copies. It was printed in Mainz, Germany, on a printing press owned by Johann Fust, an early partner of Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of European printing. It is dated 1466.

. . . .

Although this copy of de Officiis may be sequestered, the book itself is freer than ever. In its printed forms it has been a hardback and, more recently, a paperback, published in all sorts of editions—as a one off, a component of uniform library editions, a classic pitched at an affordable price, a scholarly, annotated text that only universities buy. And now it is available in all sorts of non-printed forms, too. You can read it free online or download it as an e-book in English, Latin and any number of other tongues.

Many are worried about what such technology means for books, with big bookshops closing, new devices spreading, novice authors flooding the market and an online behemoth known as Amazon growing ever more powerful. Their anxieties cannot simply be written off as predictable technophobia. The digital transition may well change the way books are written, sold and read more than any development in their history, and that will not be to everyone’s advantage. Veterans and revolutionaries alike may go bust; Gutenberg died almost penniless, having lost control of his press to Fust and other creditors.

But to see technology purely as a threat to books risks missing a key point. Books are not just “tree flakes encased in dead cow”, as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.

. . . .

Books read in electronic form will boast the same power and some new ones to boot. The printed book is an excellent means of channelling information from writer to reader; the e-book can send information back as well. Teachers will be able to learn of a pupil’s progress and questions; publishers will be able to see which books are gulped down, which sipped slowly. Already readers can see what other readers have thought worthy of note, and seek out like-minded people for further discussion of what they have read. The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.

What is the future of the book? It is much brighter than people think.

. . . .

Historically books were a luxury item. Having become cheap enough for the masses in the 20th century, in the 21st century digital technology and global markets have made them more accessible still. In 2013 around 1.4m International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) were issued, according to Bowker, a research firm, up from around 8,100 in 1960. Those figures do not capture the many e-books that are being self-published without an ISBN.

Many of those self-published books are ones in which traditional publishers would have had no interest, but which almost-free distribution makes worthwhile: do you feel like checking out some Amish fiction? The size of the text, as well as the size of the niche, becomes less of an issue, too; short stories and novellas are making a comeback. “Before there used to be too-big-to-carry and too-short-to-print,” says Michael Tamblyn, the boss of Kobo, an e-reading company. “Now all those barriers are gone.”

. . . .

[A]s Russell Grandinetti, who oversees Amazon’s Kindle business, puts it, the print book is “a really competitive technology”: it is portable, hard to break, has high-resolution pages and a “long battery life”. Technology companies that are used to consumers flocking to snazzy features and updates have found it surprisingly challenging to compete with a format of such simplicity, and consumers are uninterested in their attempts to do so. All most want is the ability to change font size, which is attractive to older eyes. Experiments with reinventing the presentation of books—by embedding sound and video inside e-books, for example—have fallen flat. Sales of e-readers, the most popular of which is the Kindle, are in decline. “In a few years’ time,” a recent report by Enders Analysis, a research firm, predicts, “we will look back at e-readers and remember them as one of the shortest-lived of all consumer media devices.”

You do not need a dedicated e-reader to read an electronic book. The multipurpose tablet devices which are replacing e-readers let you read books and—crucially—buy them whenever you like. Some forms of book benefit a lot. Heavy readers of genre fiction—romance, thrillers and science fiction—were early converts to the cheaper, more portable alternative. Other sorts of book have remained more stubbornly in print form, for various reasons. Physical books make better gifts; many people still want bookshelves in their homes. Parents who feel that their children are spending too much time with screens go for printed books as an alternative, which means a new generation is growing up in contact with print.

. . . .

“A bookstore is defending a very specific lifestyle, where you want to take time out of your day and write or think or read,” says Sarah McNally, owner of a bustling independent bookshop in Manhattan.

. . . .

Before the 19th century it was common for writers to publish themselves, a practice that carried no particular stigma, but imposed a significant burden of inconvenience on seller and buyer alike. One author in Paris had to direct buyers to his home on “Mazarine Street…above the Café de Montpellier, on the second floor using the staircase on the right, at the far end of the alley”. As publishing became a mass-market business in subsequent centuries, the self-published came to be seen as kooks or egotists, and treated as marginal in either case. Readers went to bookshops, bookshops bought from publishers and that was the way it was. Bookshops mostly refused to stock them.

Today self publishing has made a comeback. The internet enables people to sell their e-books and print books without the hassle of directing people to their homes or trying to get bookstores to display them. It also offers them success on a scale never before possible.

. . . .

Last year Amazon’s sales of self-published books were around $450m, according to one estimate; a former Amazon executive thinks the number is higher. In America about a quarter of the books that got an ISBN in 2012 were self-published, according to Bowker—almost 400,000 titles. In 2013 self-published books accounted for one out of every five e-books purchased in Britain, according to Nielsen.

. . . .

But the advantages of being “properly published”—editors, promotion, and the like—should not be oversold. “We have to be careful not to compare the reality of self publishing with the ideal of legacy publishing,” says Barry Eisler, a thriller writer. In 2011 he walked away from a publisher’s advance of $500,000 in favour of the self-publishing route; he says the decision paid off well. Susan Orlean, an author and a staff writer at the New Yorker, considered something similar for a recent book. “In a million years I would have never thought of that before,” she says. She thinks the day will come when publishers may have to start unbundling their services. “The mere fact that publishers make hardcover books won’t be a powerful enough argument. They will have to reimagine their role.” Publishers could start offering “light” versions of their services, such as print-only distribution, or editing, and not taking a cut of the whole pie.

. . . .

In 1471 [Niccoló Perotti] the humanist scholar complained to a friend, “Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would be best forgotten, or better still, be erased from all books.” His worries were echoed for centuries. “If everyone writes, who will read?” asked Christoph Martin Wieland, an 18th-century German writer.

Link to the rest at The Economist and thanks to Tina for the tip.

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