Attention economics: sub-prime celebrities

Paul Raven @ 06-07-2010

There’s sometimes deep truth in flippant analogies. Well, there is in my world, anyway… and here’s an example, as The Guardian‘s Aditya Chakrabortty compares celebrity to shonky mortgages: if you sell too many of the latter masquerading as the real thing, the whole system ends up collapsing in the wake of the (admittedly huge) short-term gains you make from it.

As for the assertion that fame is sought only by a desperate few wannabes, think again. Extrapolating from surveys, the developmental psychologist Orville Gilbert Brim estimates that 4 million American adults (out of a total of 200 million) describe fame as their most important life goal. The proportions are only slightly lower in Germany and urban China.


If you define fame as being known by strangers, then newspapers, cinema and especially TV have always driven the spread of celebrity. Yet, until very recently, that attention has customarily been at a gradient: the public used to look up to their stars; now they are minded to look down.


Think back to Wall Street’s sub-prime crisis. That was a story of lenders so desperate for market share and quick profit that they were chucking big sums at people who didn’t warrant it. The tale is very similar in the celebrity-media industry.

Your TV used to be the equivalent of a rating-agency, exposing you only to AAA-rated talent. Now however, it asks you to keep up with the Kardashians; watch a Hilton or an Osborne muddle through the real world, and, yes, be a guest at Katie Price’s latest wedding. The fundamentals of all these celebs are, frankly, ropey, and yet viewers are invited to invest time and emotional equity in them.

Resonances there with our ongoing discussion about gatekeepers and experts in the world of publishing; gatekeeper failure really can collapse a thriving market.

More pertinently, I think I’ve always viewed social currencies like fame (or its more localised little brother, popularity) in economic terms, even long before I knew what economics actually was*. Chakrabortty’s model would need to factor in some of fame’s more curious properties, though: the way it can in circumstances be gifted to another without any loss of personal worth, for instance, or the way one can collapse one’s own federal reserve completely without any help or interference from others, or any intended expense on your part.

Shorter version: anyone who wants to code a detailed version of Whuffie has a whole lot of work ahead of them. But the human brain, jacked into the cyborg extension of ourselves we call the media, can run those insanely complex calculations without knowing consciously how they work… score one up for the meat. 😉

[ * This is a not-too-subtly coded way of saying that I wasn’t hugely popular at school, and spent a lot of time trying to rationalise why that was. I’d have doubtless been better served by not thinking about it, hence appearing to have been less of a massive nerd, and hence becoming more popular. Ah, hindsight… 🙂 ]

Slush fatigue: the flip-side of easy self-publishing

Paul Raven @ 25-06-2010

Via Eric Gregory (who got it from ElectricLit), here’s a counterpoint to Nathan Bransford’s prediction of the happy demise of the rejection letter: Laura Miller at Salon isn’t quite so sure that the imminent ‘golden age’ of self-publishing will be a great thing. For a start, she too has met the slush pile, and bears its scars:

It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés — for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that’s almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue. You walk in the door pledging your soul to literature, and you walk out with a crazed glint in your eyes, thinking that the Hitler Youth guy who said, “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver” might have had a point after all. Recovery is possible, but it’ll take a while (apply liberal doses of F. Scott Fitzgerald). In the meantime, instead of picking up every new manuscript with an open mind and a tiny nibbling hope, you learn to expect the worst. Because almost every time, the worst is exactly what you’ll get.

I can’t argue with that, based on my own experiences. But why worry – surely the audience themselves will take up the task of panning the gold from the silt, as Bransford suggests?

Perhaps this system will work better, but I’m not so sure. Contrary to the way they’re often depicted by frustrated authors, the agents and editors I’ve met are in fact committed to finding and nurturing books and authors they believe in as well as books that will sell. Also, bloggers or self-appointed experts on particular genres and types of writing are, in my experience, just as clubby and as likely to plug or promote their friends and associates as anybody else. Above all, this possible future doesn’t eliminate gatekeepers: It just sets up new ones, equally human and no doubt equally flawed. How long before the authors neglected by the new breed of tastemaker begin to accuse them of being out-of-touch, biased dinosaurs?

Furthermore, as observers like Chris Anderson (in “The Long Tail”) and social scientists like Sheena Iyengar (in her new book “The Art of Choosing”) have pointed out, when confronted with an overwhelming array of choices, most people do not graze more widely. Instead, if they aren’t utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions. This has been going on in the book world for at least a couple of decades now, since long before the rise of e-books: Bestselling authors continue to sell better and better, while everyone else does worse and worse.

Miller suggests that there may come a point where readers presented with a sea of crap eventually decide to stop reading entirely. I suspect that’s highly unlikely; the rise of new (or slightly altered) gatekeeper systems is inevitable in such a crowded field, because reading fiction for pleasure isn’t going to go away any time soon, and so there’ll still be a need for someone (or something – Amazon recommendations, maybe, as a worst-case scenario?) to act as the filter.

But then again, maybe there won’t – as the success of Dan Brown (and many others) indicates, the general reading public don’t hold fiction to the same standards that critics and (some) editors do. To be honest, I wouldn’t be hugely surprised to find that things don’t really change much at all in the long run, as far as the relationship between sales figures and quality are concerned…

… which means we’ll at least still have unwarranted successes and underappreciated masterpieces to argue about. 🙂

Will ebooks vindicate vanity publishing?

Paul Raven @ 03-06-2010

Still plenty of flux in the publishing industry, and I doubt it’s going to settle any time soon. Here’s the latest development: Amazon has raised the percentage of cover price it pays to self-published authors using the Kindle store [via PD_Smith]:

This month, Amazon is upping the ante, increasing the amount it pays authors to 70% of revenue, from 35%, for e-books priced from $2.99 to $9.99. A self-published author whose e-book lists for $9.99 on Amazon’s Kindle e-bookstore will receive about $6.99 for each book sold. The author would net $1.75 on a similar new e-book sale by most major publishers.

The new formula makes digital self-publishing more lucrative for authors. “Some people will be tempted by the 70% royalty at Amazon,” Mr. Nash says. “If they already have a loyal fan base, will they want 70% of $100,000 or 15% of $200,000 for a hardcover?

That’s a pretty enticing slice of the profits… at a first glance. Consider, though, that any author with sense will still need to hire an editor, get the script copyedited and proofread, converted to the correct file format and so on. They’ll also need to eat up the publicity and promotional costs themselves as well, except in those rare cases (Stephen King, say) where news of a new book will spread itself with little help… so it’s far from a universal panacea, especially not for a new author.

And as P D Smith remarks:

But if all the big names self-publish e-books via Amazon, publishers will have less money to take a gamble on less well-known authors. Hmm.

Indeed – there’s a good argument to say new authors should be worried by this development in equal measure to being excited about it. Change cuts both ways, and easy fixes are rarely what they seem. The initial financial outlay for self-publishing may be much smaller these days, but that doesn’t guarantee you a ticket to the big leagues any more than vanity publishing ever has. Indeed, now it’s so easy and cheap to step onto the playing field, your competition is that much bigger (at least in numerical terms).

Question is, will that change? If the gatekeeper authority of publishing houses is undermined sufficiently, will new crowd-sourced curatorial systems emerge in response, alongside independent gatekeepers who carve out a reputation for themselves? (I’m sure Amazon would very much like to become that curatorial system, and I expect that’s one of the many reasons they’re cutting deals like the above.)

A lot of the stigma against vanity published works comes from the fact that a great deal of them are self-published because they’re simply not very good (e.g. Mister Riley and his cash prizes for readers). But is the desire for quality literature (a deliberately nebulous concept) something that we’ve been trained up to by the perfectionism and foibles of commissioning editors and publicists over the years, or is there something measurably objective about it? Will ubiquitous self-publishing produce a “race to the bottom” in writing quality?

I certainly don’t see that happening in the music world, which is probably as close to a test-bed of the situation as we’re going to get. As a music reviewer, I certainly see a lot more self-released albums from bands who simply aren’t up to the job than I used to just a year ago… but the playing field has widened enough that amongst the blatantly amateur, there’s a lot of very talented people releasing work that would have been considered too marginal for a record deal a decade ago. I guess I’m still fairly sold on certain aspects of Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory – not necessarily the hard numbers side of it, but the notion that the age of the hit and the megastar is over, and that the lowering of economic barriers to entry at the niche end of the graph is letting a lot of marginal creators find their audiences, no matter how small that audience might be. Might the same happen with novels, short stories? Perhaps the rapid colonisation of web publishing by genre fiction (itself an inherently niche industry) is a sign that things will move that way for subcultural literature…

… unless you want to be a real pessimist, in which case you might say that genre webzines are just rats leaving the sinking ship and clinging to whatever flotsam they can find. I don’t believe that, obviously – I wouldn’t be running this site otherwise. But what do you think?