The happy demise of the rejection letter

Paul Raven @ 15-06-2010

Much of the recent debate about the future of fiction publishing has focussed on the end product and the distribution (and possible illicit duplication) thereof, but there’s another side to the story – that of the aspiring writer’s experience. Literary agent Nathan Brandsford suggests that the sea change in publishing economics may do away with a much-loathed (though also much obsessed-over) artefact of the process, namely the rejection letter [via Matt Staggs]. That doesn’t mean everyone will get to be J K Rowling, though…

Clay Shirky […] notes that we’re moving from an era where we filtered and then published to one where we’ll publish and then filter. And no one would be happier than me to hand the filtering reins over to the reading public, who will surely be better at judging which books should rise to the top than the best guesses of a handful of publishing professionals.

I don’t see this transition as the demise of traditional publishing or agenting. Roles will change, but there are still some fundamental elements that will remain. There’s more that goes into a book than just writing it, and publishers will still be the best-equipped to maintain the editorial quality, production value, and marketing heft that will still be necessary for the biggest books. Authors will still need experienced advocates to navigate this landscape, place subsidiary rights (i.e. translation, film, audio, etc.), and negotiate on their behalf.

What’s changing is that the funnel is in the process of inverting – from a top down publishing process to one that’s bottom up.

Yes, many (if not most) of the books that will see publication in the new era will only be read by a handful of people. Rather than a rejection letter from an agent, authors will be met with the silence of a handful of sales. And that’s okay!! Even if a book is only purchased by a few friends and family members — what’s the harm?

Bransford is arguing in favour of the crowdsourced curation model, in other words – that what is “good” will succeed in a free market with nigh-nonexistent barriers to entry. And that’s probably true, as far as it goes, but the critic in me wonders about the definition of “good”. We’re still very hung up on the fallacious notion of popularity being an indicator of quality (probably because quality is such a hard thing to define objectively for a subjective experience like reading a story), and a theoretically flat playing field will exacerbate the problem…

… and this is where I think you can say that genres, for all their own problems of objective definition, may be a saving grace in the long run, at least for those of us who like to analyse the things we love. As culture continues to fragment, each little literary clade will construct its own canons in real-time, and each clade will consist of multiple subclades arguing for their own definitions of quality… and then it’s fractal subsubclades all the way down to the individual. This may sound like the horrifying and centreless endgame of postmodernism to some, but I think we’ll be to busy enjoying the opportunity to exercise (and advocate) our own personal preferences to care.


Performative storytelling? Author writes and edits story live online

Paul Raven @ 19-05-2010

There are lots of interesting new business models for musicians in our new digital world, because music is a performance art – if you can’t sell the sounds, you can potentially sell the experience of seeing (and hearing) the sounds being made. Writers – acolytes of that traditionally most solitary of arts – don’t really have that opportunity.

Well, perhaps they have… Booknewser mentions one Matt Bell, who is guesting at the Everyday Genius blog for a week, where he will write and edit a story in full view of the public

… or at least in the view of those members of the public who are actually interested in the creation of fiction rather than just the consumption of it, or who fancy a shot at the novelty of being allowed to contribute to the writing and editing process. And I suspect that, much as with many genre fiction short story venues, most of the interested parties will themselves be writers (aspiring or otherwise).

So don’t give up the ukelele lessons just yet, eh?


Bughunting in the city’s software

Paul Raven @ 22-04-2010

Ah, internet serendipity – a few days after my post about SeeClickFix and systems for crowdsourcing bugfixes in the urban system*, Adam “Speedbird” Greenfield posts about improving “frameworks for citizen responsiveness” [via Chairman Bruce]:

So how would you close the loop? How would you arrange things so that the originator, other members of the public, the city bureaucracy itself and other interested parties are all notified that the issue has been identified and is being dealt with? How might we identify the specific individuals or teams tasked with responding to the issue, allow people to track the status of issues they’re reported, and ensure that observed best practices and lessons learned are gathered in a resolution database?

In a talk I heard him give a few months back, technology entrepreneur Jyri Engeström suggested stealing a page from the practice of software development as a way of addressing shared problem spaces more generally. He pointed out that, during his time at Google, employees turned the tools developed to track open issues in software under development toward other domains of common experience, like the shuttle buses the company provides to haul them back and forth between San Francisco and Mountain View.

When hassles arose with the bus service, employees treated them just like they would known issues in some application they were working on: they entered their complaints into an existing bug tracker, which provided each case with a unique identifier, a space to characterize it more fully…and perhaps most importantly, the name of a party responsible for closing out the ticket.

The general insight Jyri derived from his experience got me to thinking. An issue-tracking board for cities? Something visual and Web-friendly, that’s simultaneously citizen-facing and bureaucracy-facing? Heck, that begins to sound like a pretty neat way to address the problems with systems like 311 and FixMyStreet.

Seems pretty logical (and pretty much what SeeClickFix are aiming towards, albeit a lot more fully featured and comprehensive). That said, the system relies on the same sort of user tenacity that any big collective project requires: making it easier to see where pressure needs to be applied still requires that the pressure to be applied, if you see what I mean, and maybe it’s naive to hope that the majority of citizens will care enough to get involved (because the vast majority of, say, Ubuntu users, certainly don’t bother doing much beyond turning up and asking n00b questions that five minutes of searching would solve for them**). Then again, lowering barriers to participation, so on and so forth… maybe if it’s done right, people would use it.

Or perhaps this is the natural outcome of geeks developing ideas for the wider world: they’re gonna be geeky ideas, and geeky ideas don’t always float the boats of everyone else. Is Greenfield’s framework just another case of everything looking like a nail when you’re well-versed in hammer deployment?

[ * “… crowdsourcing bugfixes in the urban system…” Yeah, I know, I felt awful typing it, but there’s no less pretentious way of saying the same thing without using another two dozen words, so Web2.0 speak was the only way out. I blame the future. ]

[ ** I fully include myself under this admittedly damning and sweeping indictment. ]


Citizen Sensor: crowdsourcing public works reports

Paul Raven @ 19-04-2010

Tired of your local government authority ignoring all those little patch-up jobs that would make your town or city a nicer place to live? Maybe you should try crowdsourcing a form of polite, transparent, insistent (and very public) pressure, and applying it to the affected area? That’s what SeeClickFix are helping people to do in an assortment of cities in the US, and it seems to be working [via SlashDot]:

The first city was New Haven, Conn., and the mayor and the chief administrative officer were both very receptive. So receptive that the mayor wrote a letter to about 100 other mayors around the country. The majority of responses since have been really positive. You get a few where they’ll say, “Oh, but we already have a website where people can report issues.” And, of course, our response is, “Yes, you do. But that website does not display issues publicly when you post them.”

We have a ton of features that exceed standard city websites, and that helps move the ball forward in terms of acceptance of public, transparent, collective reporting. But in the beginning, really the only one-up we had on a city website was that we were a map-based transparent web reporting tool, and they were usually just a closed web form that was no better than leaving a phone call. You still had the same black box syndrome.

[…]

I don’t think I’ve ever had a public works official say to me, “We don’t want this because it’s going to make the information public.” No one wants to be on record saying that. So what we do is, we don’t really give them a choice.

The information is going to be public whether city governments receive alerts or not. And then we sign them up to receive alerts, if they don’t sign themselves up. Many, many city governments have signed themselves up. But many others have been signed up by us or by a media partner or by one of their constituents.

They appear to have thought fairly thoroughly about potential gaming/obstructional behaviour from the authorities, but I wonder if they’ve spent the same amount of time thinking about ways malicious reports could exploit the system? There’s gotta be an angle there, though I can’t think of one immediately.

Of course, the next logical step – once you’ve submitted countless reports left endlessly open due to budget and resource constraints – is that you get together with your local neighbourhood and use a similar set of social tools to set up a public fund of cash and/or person-hours in order to start fixing the problems yourselves…


Crowdfunding the creatives: should writers ask for money before they write?

Paul Raven @ 19-02-2010

The entry of former Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde into the micropayments scene with the beta-launch of his new Flattr service has people discussing donation-based funding models for creatives once again. Micropayments have been mooted plenty of times before now, but no one has ever made them work well enough to catch on – PayPal could have gone that way, for instance, but there wasn’t a big enough margin for them in those minuscule payments, so we’ll have to hope that Flattr (or something similar) can fill the gap at the nickels-and-dimes end of the market. Even if it never becomes a prime revenue stream for anyone, I’d like the ability to be able to donate money to my favourite bands in that sort of manner, for instance, without having to send it through the grasping hands of the record label middlemen.

But the need for new ways to support creative workers is becoming increasingly apparent – as is the set of jobs included under that catch-all, with Deanna Zandt suggesting that one way for journalism to survive is to start considering the journalist as another sort of artist, at least as far as looking for income streams is concerned [via Stowe Boyd]:

How can journalistic endeavors, desperately needed to maintain our terribly just and free society and all that, be supported? Since information/news is no longer a scarce commodity, it just doesn’t fit into a market-based model anymore, in my head. Advertising is only going to carry it so far, as we’re seeing. And besides, do we really want news to be only of commercial value? Do I only want to read news in places where advertisers want to see their ads?

[…]

If you’re a musician, for example, it’s easier than ever to get your work heard by more people than just your friends. But not paid for by a whole bunch, probably. That’s the sticker, eh? A few years ago, as Napster started ticking off the recording industry, someone said that it was clearer than ever what the musician’s job is: not to sell records, but to travel around and play for people. That’s what they’ve always done, and that’s what they’re returning to.

Journalism is grasping at straws for a new model to pay everyone’s salaries. The old model, though, was in many ways distorted, and probably distended. Maybe it’s not, however, that journalistic endeavors are going to be the new starving artists— maybe it’s that news producers and art makers need to get their heads together and figure out how we’re going to create not a model, but a whole new system that creates thrivable conditions for creators to get their jobs done.

Zandt is preaching what she practices here, having crowdsourced the advance for her imminent book on social networks (as discussed by Michelle Pauli of The Guardian):

Using the wisdom of the crowd to research a book is nothing new. Clay Shirky based a whole tome around the concept. But using the wealth of the crowd to fund your book? For no return? That’s a new one.

It’s the unusual approach taken by Deanna Zandt, an American “media technologist and consultant to key progressive media organisations”. Last summer she issued a plea on her blog for donations to support her while she spent three months writing a book about social networking as a tool for social change and action, looking specifically at communities she says have too often been marginalised as social networks have developed: “women, people of color, queer folk, and more”.

Zandt has a publisher for this book, Berret Koehler, but they do not provide authors with advances to write their books. For some (unexplained, especially as the book is due to be published in June 2010) reason the book is “incredibly fast-tracked” and so she needed
“to stop working as a consultant for the next three months and do nothing but write the book. Thus, I need investors. I need you to help me raise $15,000 to cover my expenses, travel, and research. Please toss some money into a ‘Feed Deanna’ pot!”

A lot of people have taken issue with Zandt’s approach, mostly focussing on the perceived lack of return that her crowdfunders receive for their donations; for my money, I think the problem is with Zandt’s particular implementation of the idea (which is easily read as saying “send me money and I might do some work”, though that’s a massive oversimplification) rather than the idea of crowdfunding itself (which offers a whole raft of implementations and models, many of which I expect haven’t even been thought of yet). For some people, perhaps just knowing they’ve supported the creation of something is enough; that’s how patronage of the arts used to work, I believe, though I have no idea how prevalent the “anonymous benefactor” used to be.

Pauli’s piece goes on to point to a post by Futurismic‘s very own Tim Maly, which gathers up some of the discussion around the Zandt story before setting out his own opinion:

My feeling is if you find a way to get paid for your work full-time: TAKE IT, TAKE IT, TAKE IT.

[…]

Here’s the thing about money: it’s fungible. If I give you $25 and you buy a $25 steak, we can’t say for sure that I bought you a steak. The only thing we can say is that I gave you $25 more than you would have had otherwise. If you give me $200,000 to make a video game, all you can say for sure is that at the end of the day a game got made to your satisfaction (or not) and I got $200,000. Maybe the money came from you, maybe some of your money funded another project. Maybe money from another project funded yours. Maybe we took out a loan, hoping that future income would cover the costs of current work.

Here’s the thing about writing: when you are a writer, you become a studio of one. You have a monthly burn rate and some sort of source(s) of cashflow. For your work to be sustainable, cash-flow needs to meet or exceed your income. That’s it.

Another factor to consider with crowdfunding, especially for journalism, is that it can end up supporting work that wouldn’t be produced under the old “pitch it, sell it, write it, get paid” system. Case in point: Paige Williams’ article on legendary off-the-gridder Dolly Freed, which she pitched and pitched until she was blue in the face, before turning to what she calls “Radiohead journalism” (as a hat-tip to the experimental business model around the In Rainbows album of 2007*) as a way to get the money to cover the expense of writing the piece.

A common (and valid) counteragument against this sort of funding is that it currently has the fashionable appeal of novelty, plus the support of social media entrepreneurs who can afford to waft a few hundred bucks toward a project that chimes with their own philosophies of creative endeavour and visions of the future of business. I’ve got dozens of ideas for journalistic pieces sat in my notebooks and text files, but I doubt I’d have the same success as Williams – no one knows who I am, and my journalism is (being generous) raw and untrained. Crowdfunding looks plausible for those who already have their foot in the door, but how would a hypothetical wannabe reporter like myself nudge the door open far enough to achieve the same results?

Perhaps the answer is to start small, keep your goals realistically ambitious at first, build up your reputation and contacts and fanbase, get the snowball rolling. That’s how it’s always worked for non-mainstream bands, after all, and the other route for musicians – get “discovered”, get signed by a major, be groomed into megastardom – is looking more shaky and hollow by the week (thanks in no small part to Simon Cowell and their ilk, who may have managed to squeeze some last spurts out of cash from a dying business model, but have done so at the cost of finally exposing the mechanics of that business model for the manipulative sham it’s always been).

A small but die-hard clade of fans is enough to keep an artist in business nowadays (provided their tastes don’t run to Hollywood mansions and Gaultier bling, and assuming they’ve built up a strong level of engagement with said fanbase), so is it completely implausible that the same could work for writers, be they novelists or journalists? Indeed, it’s the rabid fandom of (often young, often female) early supporters that has traditionally catapulted musicians into the public awareness, and we shouldn’t discount the power of that sort of fandom in our networked world, be it for books (Twilight, anyone?), music or movie stars:

In an essay entitled “1,000 True Fans” Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, defines a true fan as “someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce.” Kelly’s theory is that all any artist needs to survive in the “long tail” environment of the web is a core of one thousand true fans who will spend one hundred dollars on the artist’s products each year. That’s about one concert ticket and a couple of CDs, which by my calculations would put a fangirl at least one notch above a “true fan” in the hierarchy of fanhood. And that is precisely why the earth shakes when girls decide that something is likable. Greater than just buying power, true fanhood is about participation, and the web presents a multitude of fangirl opportunities both to consume and produce idol information. Of course all this includes a willingness to follow a band, artist, or celebrity until they are no longer working in the industry – well, maybe even a little after that too.

Of course, writers aren’t usually very rock’n’roll (except the late and much-missed Doctor Thompson, perhaps); writer fandom is predominantly based around the writing rather than the writer, at least at first, and writing is (sadly) harder to market than a personality or a pretty face. But everyone has to start from zero at some point, and I’m confident that the market for good writing, fictional or otherwsie, isn’t going to go away – it’s going to migrate to new places and change its shape, but as a species we’re too obsessed with stories to let it wither and die off. And as a final positive note, research indicates that internet habitues are willing to pay for quality content online, albeit with a few important caveats:

The survey, which included more than 27,000 customers globally, found that consumers are (naturally) more inclined to keep already free things free. Still, things that people pay for offline—such as movies, music, and games—were the same things that people were most willing to pay for (or consider paying for) online.

[…]

This doesn’t mean the money will come without conditions, though; more than three-quarters of those surveyed said they expect online content to be free if they already subscribe to a newspaper or magazine offline, and 71 percent said that the online content would have to be be “considerably better” than what’s currently free before they’ll get out their wallets.

At least some users seem to be realistic about what to expect if they don’t pay for it: almost 4 in 10 (34 percent) said they thought the quality of online content would suffer if companies could not charge for it. (Another 36 percent had no opinion on the matter.) Forty-seven percent of respondents said they would accept more advertising in order to subsidize free content.

It’s a brave new world out there, and I suspect that even if crowdfunding doesn’t become the norm, it’ll still be an important part of the creative ecosystem in a decade’s time… and if you PayPal me some cash, I’ll start researching and writing a book about its progress right away. 😉

[ * – Good grief, In Rainbows was released nearly two and a half years ago… where does the time go? ]


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