#50cyborgs postmortem

Paul Raven @ 13-10-2010

I hope you’ll indulge me as I link to this postmortem interview with Tim Maly about his #50cyborgs project; yes, both Maly and interviewer Matthew Battles say nice things about my own contribution to it, but it’s also an interesting discussion for anyone curious about the future of “positioning for niche intelligentsia eyeballs in the modern post-blogosphere”, as Bruce Sterling puts it… or, to put it another way, content creation targeting select narrow verticals of the geek market.

MB: A striking aspect of the reaction to 50 Cyborgs was its seriousness. I mean, often when mainstream media outlets cover Internet culture, they talk about how wacky or geeky it is. And yet here was a project wholly of the Internet, which could be treated in venues like the Atlantic or on Nora Young’s CBC show as a serious project full-stop.

TM: It’s interesting that you find this striking. It never occurred to me that it was anything other than a good idea that they should cover it. The Atlantic comes out of me knowing Alexis through Twitter. When I first started talking about the 50th anniversary, he was at Wired and we’d talked about how it might be structured. When he moved over to The Atlantic, the idea moved with him.

As for CBC, I just sent them an email. Spark has always been very open to and about taking the Internet seriously. Right there on the homepage, it says, “Spark is a blog, radio show, podcast and an ongoing conversation about technology and culture. Spark is an online collaboration. Leave your thoughts, stories, and ideas here, and together we’ll make a radio show.” How could I not get in touch?

There is a power in boldness, it seems… though connections sure are helpful, too. But #50cyborgs spread as wide as it did in a fairly organic way:

MB: Beyond the handcrafted mediasphere of rss and podcast, though, an Internet culture project that isn’t about privacy, piracy, or kittens can be hard to find on the mainstream radar screen. How did you court the attention of the wider media?

TM: I didn’t. I reached out to sites that I thought would be interested in the project. The thing about mainstream media is that a lot of it moves too slowly. The gap between me being some weirdo with a Tumblr account and a good idea and the successful completion of the project is shorter than the lead time of most magazines.

I thought about approaching the New York Times about it as they are the first mention of the word (cyborg), as far as I can tell. I ended up not finding the time. The coverage in the Guardian came off of the author, Caspar Llewellyn Smith, hearing the Spark podcast.

I was more interested in hitting the big aggregators. I didn’t have as much success there as I’d hoped, though hitting Slashdot, Reddit and io9 felt pretty good. io9 was especially thrilling because I was in the midst of trying to work out how best to pitch to them and Annalee contacted me asking if there was room for one more contributor. And then she pitched “cyborgs in love”, which was on my unclaimed coverage wishlist. I hadn’t yet sent anything in and here’s the editor in chief getting in touch with me!

Lots of food for thought in there… and, for me, memories of a proud moment and a fun project. 🙂


Cursor: a community-based fiction publishing business model

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2010

No idea how I managed to miss this one before, but Richard Nash – founder and former head honcho of Soft Skull Press – is starting a new publishing venture called Cursor which promises (among other things, like a strong focus on niche community-building) to do away with the exploitative life-of-the-copyright contracts with which authors are traditionally saddled [via Damien Walter]:

… the tweak is pretty radical. It’s not really a tweak at all, it’s a complete break with publishing norms. […]

No more life-of-the-copyright contracts.

Instead: three year contracts.

Yup, from a contract that locks you in till seventy years after you’re dead, to a three year contract. Renewable annually thereafter. Which means after three years you can walk. Or stay, but stick it to us for better royalties because there’s gonna be a movie. Or stay with us because with all the additional formats and revenue opportunities we’re creating above and beyond what any publisher has to offer, you’re making more money than ever before.

You see, most publishers have accepted they’re not going to make money publishing your book. They’re publishing your book and a bunch of other books like it so they can have exclusive rights over as much intellectual property as possible. Such that if, three or five or nine years down the road, you win the NBA, or the Orange, or there’s a movie, or an Oprah pick, your whole backlist starts to sell but they don’t have to pay you one single extra red percent in royalties.

That’s where their profits come from, from being able to NOT have to renegotiate royalties when your books start selling better than they expected.

[…]

The publishing industry is in a state of turmoil. New sales channels are arising, new formats, new terms of sale.

Authors deserve the chance to renegotiate as the industry evolves.

The number of books published has increased forty-fold since 1990, the number of readers has remained broadly static.

Authors deserve to be actively connected with readers, not just be made available to readers…

Well, you can colour me intrigued – that’s a project to keep an eye on. Much as it’s been good to see the big houses looking at new ways of doing things, their responses to the times have been as small and grudging as they think they can get away with (e.g. Orbit’s digital short story publishing plan); Nash’s decision to empower the creators first and foremost seems to stand in stark contrast to the blanket rights options I keep reading about (which seem to be a literary echo of the infamous “360 deals” recently made in the upper earnings bracket of the recording industry), and aiming for small dedicated niche communities is very much in keeping with the philosophies of the leading edge of business and marketing punditry (not to mention social media architecture).


Doctorow on the decline and fall of novels

Paul Raven @ 23-02-2009

man reading a novelThe ever-ubiquitous Cory Doctorow crops up over at Internet Evolution, talking about “media-morphosis” – the ways in which the internet is mangling and mutating all the other forms of media. The whole thing is worth a read, but I thought I’d pick out a bit of Doctorow’s thinking about the future of the novel, as it fits quite neatly with some of the recent ebook posts here at Futurismic. [image by John Althouse Cohen]

Doctorow points out that books are suffering on two sides – firstly from the rise of the big-box retailers, which have restricted the titles available, and secondly from the way we’re being conditioned by the web (and other media imitating the web) to read in short, easy-to-swallow chunks – and then paints a worst-case scenario:

If big-budget movies might turn into opera, then long-form narrative books might turn into poetry. There’s a hell of a lot of published poetry — more than ever — mostly consumed by other poets and a small band of extremely dedicated followers of the form. A few poets make a big living at it, a few more make a marginal living at it, but for most poets, income is aspirational, not reality-based (this is pretty close to the situation in short fiction already, and not far off from the world of novel writing in many genres).

But a future in which novels turn into hand-crafted fetish items for a small group of literati is one in which the relevance of the novel dwindles away to a dribbly nothing.

I think most of us here would see that as a rather sad omega point for one of our favourite media, especially given the incredible artistic possibility it has to offer; Doctorow suggests that one route to salvation for the novel would be to build the sort of evangelical business that distributes books to places that they otherwise might not reach.

But what if his worst-case is actually the fact of the matter? Is it not possible that the novel will increasingly become an anachronism, the sort of thing considered historically interesting but culturally irrelevant by 21st Century humankind? Maybe we just need to face up to the idea that reading books for fun is a pastime whose days in the sun are over, no matter how personally attached to it we may be.