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.


Internet Filter Bubbles

Brenda Cooper @ 24-08-2011

As anyone reading this knows by now, I like TED talks. One of my recent favorites, and one which I shared with friends and even showed to staff at work, is Eli Pariser’s brilliant talk about Internet filter bubbles. A few days ago at the World Science Fiction conference in Reno, I was on a panel about social media, and I mentioned the talk. Cory Doctorow was also on the panel and he added that Eli has a whole book on the topic. I stopped by Amy Cat’s book booth in the dealer’s room and grabbed a copy. On the long drive home to the Seattle area, the book became a topic of conversation. We read through the introduction out loud in the car and stopped every few paragraphs to talk about it.

Please bear in mind I have NOT finished the book, but I think it’s an important conversation, and so here are my thoughts after hearing the talk and reading the introduction.

I’ll start with a very short summary, but I actually recommend watching the talk, which will be worth the nine minutes of your time that it will take. My summary will not do it justice. But here goes:

The major online players including Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others are filtering content so that we get content directed for us. This includes ads, product recommendations, and even news. For example, if I regularly click on and visit Internet sites associated with liberal views on climate science, then related search results, product offerings, and even social information from like-minded friends will increase in availability and opposing views will decrease. The information I see on the Internet will be tailored to me in a self-referential fashion. Eli’s point is that this is largely bad, and may further cement the polarization of people into silos of belief.

Here are the primary points from our somewhat Worldcon-bleary discussions:

First, we agree that it’s happening to a great extent. Certainly Amazon doesn’t bother to present me with sports books, which I wouldn’t buy if it did. This is largely good. It wastes neither their bits nor my time. When it gets to news, it’s not so good. However neither of us uses only one news source. The New York Times is a favorite read of mine and my partner, Toni, almost never reads it. We had many examples of diversity in news sources between us, and yet we share lives, share many beliefs, and even have similar jobs. We decided that personalization benefits us far more than it hurts us (which is not that same as saying there is no harm).

One of the things Eli says in his introduction is that “In the filter bubble, there’s less room for the chance encounters that bring insight and learning.” I suppose this would be true if there were only one way to learn. If I simply used search engines, and they all filtered with similar algorithms based on my own clicks, whole blocks of information would be effectively “hidden” from me. But that’s not our behavior, and I suspect it is not the behavior of most people. For example, in my social networks I follow political topics, and sure, those look right back at me by mirroring my own beliefs. But I also follow a wide swath of writers, and they have different political leanings as well varied points of view on many other topics. They live all over the world. Toni follows competition dog lovers, and they diverge even wider across the political spectrum. Then, because we have a joined subset of social media contacts that reflects things we’ve shared with each other, I hear about dogs (and the dog lover’s politics) and Toni hears about writers and bloggers (and their politics). The Internet as a whole has done more to widen our beliefs than to narrow them.

We tried to imagine a world where people who followed something more like pop culture than we do might live; say a reality TV addict. I suppose that if there are people who are only interested in the Kardashians and Brittney Spears, than they might be stilted even further by filter bubbles. But we tried to name some. Even though I have an old friend who has Fox news on every day (and is thus closer to my shuddering image of the “average” American), they have wide interests and it would be unfair to say that they aren’t encountering new ideas daily. If nothing else, they have social media conversations with me where we genially argue topics we are on opposite sides of. This enriches both of us. In other words, I couldn’t name a single individual so shallow that they allow the filter bubble to encase them in a wall of information that does nothing but mirror their own beliefs back to them. There is an archetypical “Joe Six Pack” who doesn’t really think about much and lets life come at him as he perches on the couch in front of the TV and drinks beers after work. I’m not sure that person exists. Yes – I‘ve read appalling comments on web articles that tell me there are some narrow thinkers out there. But we couldn’t name even one by name, even though I could certainly identify a few on the internet given a minute or two. Most people are more interesting and capable.

Lastly, the people who create content – like me and everyone else who posts here, like almost all writers and painters and poets and musicians — are generally curious and somewhat intellectual beings. We actively search out deeper information than that found on the front page of Fox, CNN, or MSNBC. I know, because I know what gets shared with me in internet social circles.

Eli ended the introduction with a comment that I believe is completely correct. He says, “…it’s critically important to render [the internet filter bubble] visible.” I agree with that. We should know as much as possible about how choices are being made about the content that we see. We should be smart enough to know what not to trust, just like we know to mistrust TV ads. I’m a strong advocate of all kinds of transparency. I do believe there are inherent dangers in the bubble as well as gifts. But there’s a lot of unformatted and difficult data on the Internet, and content filtering helps me far more than it hurts me. Maybe that’s because I have such varied interests that no algorithm can pin me to sports books or the Kardashians. The point is, almost everyone else does, too.

Unless, of course, I’m buried so deeply in the filter bubble that I truly can’t see outside.

What do you think?

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Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!


Apple quietly unlocks the gate in the garden wall

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2011

Well, well, well – chalk one up for market forces. Remember Apple slamming the gate on the iOS app ecosystem walled garden by insisting on in-app subscriptions with a 30% rake-off? Lots of sad faces among former evangelistas of the iPad-as-future-of-publishing that week.

But now, perhaps due in part to big-name venues like the Financial Times refusing to play ball and opting out of the ecosystem, or perhaps just due to a realisation that a walled garden excludes as many customers as it potentially encloses, the Cupertino crew have quietly back-pedalled on the whole idea.

And so a restrictive information-channelling business model is scaled back due to opposition from other businesses and the customer base, all without the need for any heavy-handed regulation or monopoly inquests; who’d have thought, eh? 😉


Young market problems: ebooks as clearing house for unpublishable content

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2011

Part of me really wants to get a decent ereader and start plunging into the brave new market of electronic books; as a writer, reader, some-time publisher and general technoforesight wonk, I feel I should be down in the trenches if I want to see how the campaign is really going. The other half of me is the half that’s been burned by classic early-adopter screw-ups ever since I acquired that tendency from my father; I’m waiting for either a universally accepted open format, a decent open platform, or both. (I doubt I’ll have much longer to wait; I expect I’ll be nailing myself an affordable Android-based tablet in the post-Xmas sales next year.)

So, perforce, I have to get my news about the actual content sloshing around in the ebook marketplace from other people… and while I’m not taking it as broadly representative, this post from James “Big Dumb Object” Bloomer highlights the state of play wherein creators and new middle-men/aggregator outfits are testing the water to see what will actually float. Or, to put it more plainly: everyone’s throwing shit at the wall in order to see what sticks:

The other day I bought How To Write Science Fiction by Paul Di Filippo, tempted by the price (69p) and the prospect of another author’s view on writing SF.

It’s an interesting read, containing thoughts on what maximalist SF is, how to (attempt to) write it and an essay on the creation of Di Filippo’s novel Ciphers. There’s a few interesting nuggets there for me to think about (plus, now, a need to read some Pynchon). However it’s not very long, not really a book and not really about how to write Science Fiction. It’s the sort of text I’d expect to be posted to a blog. It’s the sort of text that in physical form would be thin and flimsy, and I probably wouldn’t ever buy.

It’s going to take a while for pricing to settle down in line with customer expectations, but the nature of the content being sold is a big part of that. Perhaps it’s the case that no one’s gonna pay for a lengthy blog essay when there are umpteen thousand of the things – some of exceptional quality, others not so much – floating around out here on the unwalled web, just waiting to be read. But then again, Nick Mamatas’ Starve Better – my dead-tree version of which I’ve been greatly enjoying over the last week or so, incidentally – is essentially a collection of essays and articles, many of which either were or started out as blog posts or fanzine pieces; it’s retailing at $3.99 for a selection of electronic formats, and – had I been in possession of a decent ereader – I’d have considered that a damned good price for the material it contains. I don’t know how long the di Filippo piece is, exactly, but perhaps the problem here is the attempt to price a single essay fairly; meanwhile, Starve Better is a curation product, an act of filtering Mamatas’ prodigious output down to the best material devoted to a specific topic.

So perhaps we could say that Apex, by doing the old-school publisher thing, have added value to the raw material and thus earned their middle-man cut, while 40k – who, I should note, I think are one of the more interesting ebook ventures I’m aware of at the moment, and not just because they’re publishing a lot of stuff from sf authors – are just rolling chunks of content out of the door with a snappy title and hoping for the best. Maybe the latter would work at a lower price… but until someone sorts out a decent and widely-adopted micropayments system, pricing at under a buck will remain the province of big clearing houses like Amazon who can afford to eat up the transaction charges on a lot of tiny purchases. Economies of scale haven’t gone away just yet, it seems.

More musings from James:

Will this mean that buyers will tread ever more safely when buying books? Perhaps now people will only trust books from the bestseller top ten or those recommended by a high profile book club? It feels to me right now that the lack of physical form may actually hinder more experimental buying once the blush of the new fangled eBooks dies to the norm, the marketing departments have tried to pull a few fast ones and readers have been bitten by buying some dreadful self-published novels?

I think these are very real issues, and not just for publishing; a flattened media landscape means curation and aggregation are becoming at least as important as the traditional editorial roles, and the marketing/PR channel needs to become more focussed on finding the right niche vertical to pitch to, as opposed to the old model of making generalised statements of awesomeness about a piece of work and hoping some hack will cut’n’paste it verbatim. Interesting times ahead.


Welcome to the walled garden. Would you like to hire a periscope?

Paul Raven @ 16-02-2011

While we’re on the subject of ebooks, publishing, digital content delivery and all that jazz… how’re you “the iPad is the future of publishing!” types feeling right now?

Yup: that lush easy-to-use interface makes purchasing easy, and easy purchases happen more often! Which means those 30% rake-offs should make House Cupertino’s share prices rocket still further!

And should your customer – heaven forbid! – want to take true ownership of their hardware, don’t be surprised if that cuts them off from the content they bought through sanctioned channels.

All that money you spent on setting up your new outlet in the glitzy new mall… it seemed like a great way of short-cutting around the economic problems out on the old high street, didn’t it?

You went to bed with the landlord, and he went and raised the rent anyway.

Sleep tight.


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