Crowdsourced content selection: the future of publishing?

Paul Raven @ 15-09-2011

No, not here. (Well, not yet, anyway.) Social media news network Mashable has a guest piece from Molly Barton, president of Book Country, an online community for genre fiction writers that’s trying to change the way stories get picked for publication. As with most such projects, there’s a strong egalitarian undertone:

In the modern world of broadcast and publisher media, the traditional model relies on a series of individuals reading and choosing which stories will appeal to broad audiences. These gatekeepers evaluate commercial and literary potential based on books that have previously succeeded. Daring stories that push boundaries and bend categories may be passed over because they are more difficult to market. But the tastes of readers and viewers often progresses more quickly than the stories readily available to them reflect.

But what if we created lots of little fires around which writers could tell their stories and gauge the reaction of a keen audience, improving their storytelling before bumping up against the traditional media filter? Would we get more interesting stories? Could we uncover a new group of brilliant creators who might not have connections to those gatekeepers?

They’re not just about raising up the passed-over, however; the proliferation and evolution of new genres is also part of the plan:

When Neuromancer was published in 1984, the genre called “cyberpunk” did not exist. Until Michael Crichton introduced us to The Andromeda Strain in 1969, the “environmental thriller” was but a category of stories waiting to be told. By expanding the process through which stories are found, we give those who are passionate about new kinds of stories the opportunity to influence, and in so doing, increase the likelihood that new genres and sub-genres of stories will develop and find eager waiting audiences.

Community curation, proliferation of niche verticals… lots of theories that (if you’ve been following along) we’ve bumped into here in the past, then. If you’re wondering what the business model is, Book Country is a subsidiary of the Penguin Group, so one assumes this is an experiment toward replacing the old acquisitions system, though the FAQ states that “Book Country is not a channel for the submission of unsolicited manuscripts to Penguin editors”. How the project is monetised remains unclear, though it’s still in beta, so perhaps there are contextual ads waiting in the wings, or plans to charge for access; time to send some emails and do some research, methinks.

Is Book Country the future of publishing? Or will it be just another failed attempt to graft a “social” element onto an old system? Only time will tell… but it’s good to see the industry trying new ideas instead of sitting around and wringing its hands as the landscape shifts beneath its feet.


How will writers make a living in the future?

Paul Raven @ 12-07-2011

That’s Damien G Walter’s question:

It’s very likely, in fact I would argue almost certain, that the freedoms unleashed by the internet will bring almost unimaginable benefits to every person alive today and every person that comes after us. The society that emerges from today’s information revolution will be as far advanced from our society today, as our society is from the Dark Ages.

In that future society, it won’t be possible to make a living from writing. Even the idea of making a living from writing will seem strange. In much the same way we might think making a living from talking a little odd…although it seemed perfectly natural to the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation. But then, if we make it down the rocky road of change that leads there, the idea of making a living itself will seem a little odd…

I can see where Walter is going here, but the flaw in his logic is easy enough to spot… even more so now that I’ve underlined it, I hope. (*ahem*) I can think of loads of people who still make a living from talking and reading: lecturers, lawyers, performance poets and actors, to name but a few.

And as such I suspect that there will still be people making a living from writing for as long as we still have alphabets to write with. While I can imagine a post-text future for humanity, I think it’s a very long way off from now, and until the day when we all communicate in hyperdense ideoplasts that can compress entire schools of thought into a small yet intricate 4-dimensional shape, people who make widgets are still going to need to hire people with the skill to explain to potential customers why their widgets are (supposedly) better than all the other widgets available.

I’m being a little disingenuous here, of course, as Walter is more specifically thinking about the demise of the writer of fictions rather than the churners-out of ad copy. [The difference between most ad copy and ‘proper’ fiction is left as an exercise of the reader’s cynicism.] But as much as the novel or short story forms we know today may become impossible to monetise in a fully-digital cultural sphere, I still hold that the human desire for story will not vanish until the human itself vanishes… and even then, our posthuman descendents will probably want to tell tales about their simian meatbag forebears in order to understand (or mythologise, or both) themselves, and their place and purpose in the universe.

Walter’s distress – like that of many other writers, my own included – is understandable, but it is also rooted in the very limiting conception of story being something that is printed on thin sheets of compressed and dried wood pulp… which rather overlooks cinema, television, machinima and computer games as storyable media, not to mention the spoken word form that he mentions, and the media we still have yet to discover, invent or adopt. That said, my callously future-focussed big-picture attitude here probably isn’t very comforting for folk trying to pay the rent with the one skill they’ve honed over a lifelong career, and I wish there was a magic wand I could wave that would sort that particular problem out.

But it’s equally disingenuous to wring hands over the Sad and Inevitable Fate of Story: to be led, limping, out to the barn like Old Yeller. That’s a little like lamenting the demise of the buggy whip while completely overlooking the opportunities opening up for whip-makers to redeploy their leatherworking skills on luxurious car interiors… storytelling ain’t going nowhere soon. While there are still people with the drive to tell stories, there’ll be new ways of making the talent pay. Mark my words.

Looking a little less deeply into the future of fiction, however, here’s a piece from The Guardian‘s Robert McCrum in which he looks at the way publishing houses are finally getting to grips with the digital age… and not so much in terms of new technologies or platforms, but in terms of the sort of books they’re printing. The internet and social media may have their faults, but there’s no denying they’ve made it easier to find out what your audience wants… or at least what it thinks it wants, which – as the saying goes – is close enough for government work, though the government don’t seem very keen on using it. Naturally enough, McCrum arrives in closing at the same question as Walter above, but with notably less angst – how’s the economics gonna work out?

I don’t have the answer, more’s the pity, or I’d be raking in big bucks from publishers as a futures consultant (in which capacity, I might add, I am most certainly available for hire at this moment in time – all enquiries and downpayments to the usual address, KTHXBAI). But it’s certainly an important question, and – if you ask me – one best addressed with positivity.

Although, of course, End Times storm clouds on the horizon do make for a more dramatic hook for a story… 😉


Science fiction Mistressworks

Paul Raven @ 16-03-2011

The science fiction fans among you are probably familiar with Gollancz’s long-running Masterworks series, which collects some of the greatest novels of the genre and keeps them in print, sometimes long after their original publication. It’s a great collection, but it is – as so many curated collections of excellence still are – more than a little thin on female authors; in an attempt to redress that imbalance, Ian Sales is compiling a list of science fiction Mistressworks from Twitter suggestions. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only heard of maybe half the writers mentioned, and actually read hardly any of them… but noting an absence is the first stage of filling it, and a list like that is a great opportunity to discover new wonders.

What books and/or authors would you add to Sales’s list? Call ’em out in the comments!


Clarke Award shortlist, 2011

Paul Raven @ 04-03-2011

In case you’ve not seen it already, the shortlist for the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award is out in the wild. The six titles that made the cut this year:

  • Zoo City – Lauren Beukes (Angry Robot)
  • The Dervish House – Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
  • Monsters of Men – Patrick Ness (Walker Books)
  • Generosity – Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)
  • Declare – Tim Powers (Corvus)
  • Lightborn – Tricia Sullivan (Orbit)

A pleasingly diverse selection, with a few of the inevitable surprises. I’ve only read one and a half of them, as it happens (I got halfway through Lightborn before being distracted by other priorities, though I do intend to return to it), but I read more of the complete list of submitted titles than usual this year.

Anyone care to call which way they think it’ll go?


The ethics of content theft in a digital world

Paul Raven @ 16-11-2010

Here’s a simultaneously wry and astute post from novelist Philip Palmer about the publishing industry’s new here-to-stay bugbear, digital piracy. What I like most about it is the blend of idealism and honesty; rather than simply stating that Piracy Is Wrong And Evil And Makes Jeebus Cry, he’s willing to objectively assess his own moral code as applied to evading cost on the media he wishes to consume.

Before we get to the meat, though, I’m going to call out one item for criticism, because it’s such a well-used semantic straw man that by this point that it gets repeated as a matter of fact:

… there are many thoughtful individuals out there, possessed of shitstorm-generating superpowers,  who do believe that EVERYTHING SHOULD BE FREE ON THE WEB.

I tend to think of this as The Doctorow Rejoinder, because it’s usually Cory that’s the target (implied or otherwise) of that complaint. But here’s the thing: it’s bollocks.

Sure, there are people out there who believe everything should be free on the web… and sure, those people are pretty stupid (or extremely idealistic and ignorant of the most basic tenets of economics). However, the “shitstorm-generators” that Palmer refers to – the ones with any real influence at all, rather than the lip-flapping skriptkiddiez who requote them out of context on their warez blogs – do not believe (or at least do not publicly claim) that “everything should be free on the web”.

People are always reminding me about how Cory Doctorow believes and preaches that; however, not one of them has yet been able to show me a citation where he does so. Doctorow happily and truthfully claims that free content has worked for him, and explained the potential benefits of such a business model to people in similar positions, but he’s never (to my knowledge) claimed free content as a) a panacea to the struggles of the obscure artist/creator or b) the road to an inevitable digital syndicalist utopia where everything necessarily costs nothing. (I’m quite willing to be proved wrong on this point, but I want citations from original source material, not flimsy op-eds from folk with axes to grind or political capital to reap.)

So, let’s be clear: no one worth arguing with has ever claimed that “everything should be free on the web”; until we get past this particularly tenacious straw man, we’re going to struggle to deal with the real issues. And so, it’s back to Philip Palmer’s otherwise sound essay. A few quotey bits:

I think it’s worth pointing out that there’s nothing new under the sun.  The digital age didn’t invent plagiarism; nor did it invent piracy.  The web changes many things; but not basic questions about right or wrong; it merely AMPLIFIES the problems that always existed

Book piracy, for instance,  was pioneered by the public library service.  For many years, until the advent of PLR, it was considered moral and normal to give away books for zero money on a rental basis to members of the public.  This is a great way to impoverish authors.  Because a book that’s been borrowed a hundred times has only been bought once!

Second hand bookshops!  They are the buccaneers of the book trade. A second hand book may be sold a dozen different times but again,  the author only gets paid once.  We authors notice these things.

So illegally downloading books is no different, in principle, than going to Hay-on-Wye.  Fact!

Yes, that’s a sophistic argument; that’s Palmer’s point, I think. Now, here’s where it gets interesting:

When I started getting published I stopped buying second hand science fiction novels from authors still alive or not-rich.  So I’ll buy second-hand Stephen King, though only occasionally,  but I’d never buy Al Reynolds’  latest in a second hand bookshop, because  he’s a real writer earning a living. I do though buy all my Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels (my current passion)  second hand via Amazon, mainly because the old Del Rey editions are so stunning, and I’m pretty sure they’re out of print.

So that’s my moral code, based on the opinion that borrowing books from a pal and illegally downloading books are pretty much the same thing, ethically speaking. In other words, it’s okay to get stuff free sometimes, as long as you OFTEN pay.

Palmer’s point is that (with very few exceptions) we don’t have unlimited funds for buying entertainment, but we have a close-to-unlimited hunger for the stuff, and so we all come to our own ethical compromise with the world; Palmer puts money in the pockets of living authors who he feels deserve it, but he doesn’t want to contribute to Stephen King’s retirement nest-egg, nor send money to middle-men reprinting the works of the long-dead if he has a cheaper option available to him. He’s obeying the spirit of the piracy laws, though not necessarily the letter of them.

I take a similar approach to music, as do many people I know; I’m – by my own admission – a somewhat skewed data-point (because as a reviewer I get sent a lot of legitimate freebies) but I download hard-to-find and/or costly albums without too many qualms because I attend dozens of live shows every year, buy merchandise, patronise live music venues, buy music equipment and use rehearsal spaces. I’m paying my way within that economic sphere, and doing so with a fairly significant portion of my disposable income.

There are those who don’t pay their way, certainly, but I suspect they’re a minority; digital music recordings are valueless unless you want to listen to them. I can’t imagine many folk bother downloading albums just to consume hard drive space and have a longer list in their media player library; you collect music because you’re passionate about it, and if you’re passionate about music you probably go and see it played live if you have the opportunity to do so.

Digital media is a non-rival good; to take it for free is not theft but evasion of cost, and evasion of cost is a fundamental tenet of economic behaviour (with the possible exception of those with more money than sense); economic behaviour is not rational but emotional, and basing your response to a change in the underpinnings of an industry’s economy on the hope that you can stop human beings behaving in the ways they always have done is to doom yourself to failure. Successful businesses work out ways to monetise desire, but business models do not last forever; if they did, there wouldn’t be an internet (or cars, or electricity, or, or, or). QED.

This is a point borne out in the music industry, where – in spite of the withering of the recording companies – overall profits are actually growing consistently: live show tickets, merchandise, new instruments and recording technology, all selling better than they ever have before. There are studies based on the industry’s own figures that show heavy downloaders of music torrents spend more on legitimate content purchases than those who buy a few albums every year. Illegal downloading is not “killing music” (just as home-taping didn’t “kill music”); it’s killing a business model, and the record labels really don’t have anyone other than themselves for failing to adapt to a changing landscape.

As I’ve mentioned before, the publishing industry appears to have wised up faster than the record labels did, but it’s interesting to note that – as with the music industry – the smaller more artist-centric outfits are the ones who seem to be most willing to try new options. The more profitable the old model was, the greater the inertia of those who profited from it. Evolve or die.

This is the point where I usually get accused of celebrating the fact that it’s getting harder and harder for artists of all stripes to make money from their work. To which I respond: pointing out the realities of the situation, and the fact that all the idealistic thinking in the world won’t stop consumers behaving as they do (namely getting something they want as cheaply and conveniently as possible), is not celebratory; it is a matter of pragmatism.

The genie will not go back in the bottle; it is more productive to work out ways to cope with the genie’s freedom than it is to build elaborate doomed-to-fail genie entrapment devices, or to repeat idealistic platitudes about how the bottle shouldn’t have been opened in the first place and look for someone to blame for it. Yes, it sucks that the business models of many creators whose work I adore and wish to support are under economic pressure; however, no amount of me (or anyone else) saying how much it sucks will make a damned bit of difference. Play the hand you’re dealt, or fold and get out of the game.

A harsh thing to say, perhaps, given I’m a friend of (and contractor to) a number of authors… but would you want your doctor to lie about a life-threatening illness? If you want to survive, you have to accept the reality of the situation, take the pills, endure the surgery; I can’t help but think that content creators as a demographic are moving slowly through the five stages of grief psychology with respect to the economics of infinite goods. It’s a painful and necessary process, but acceptance is the only end-point from which you can move on.

In an ideal world, we’d all be paid enough in return for doing something we loved to have everything we wanted. If anyone has directions on how to get to that ideal world, by all means please let me and everyone else know how to join you there; in the meantime, I think we’re best off concentrating on finding a way to make a living here in reality.


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