Preemptive leaks

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2011

After looking at kids adapting to living in public, here’s the other end of the scale: internationally-notorious public figures managing their public profile. Bush administration uber-weasel* Donald Rumsfeld has learned a few choice lessons from the sudden rise of radical transparency… or at least his publicity people have.

After Iraq and Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, there are few rhetorical tactics Rumsfeld can employ to satisfy his hordes of critics. So he’s accompanying his memoir, Known and Unknown, with tons of primary source material: hundreds of raw documents detailing his thought process at the Pentagon, all searchable on his new website. This way, he’s not engaging with a debate he’s unlikely to win; he’s burying it under an avalanche of paper.

To put it uncharitably: when you’ve got a rep for being less-than-honest and unwilling to debate, you might as well let the documents speak for themselves.

This is interesting primarily because it subtly exploits a fundamental problem with all forms of communication, namely the signal-to-noise ratio. Or, to put it another way, the best way to hide needles is to put them in haystacks, and then salt the haystacks with a few distracting nuggets:

… RummyLeaks ain’t quite WikiLeaks: his documents have been officially declassified, and many paint him in quite the flattering light, on their face. But like WikiLeaks’ trove of war documents, Rumsfeld leaves it up to his readers to dig through a huge trove to find their own gems. A transparency measure, sure. But one that has the effect of snowing a reader under a ton of data, leaving them in the meantime with the narrative that he’s shaping.

I doubt this is going to make a huge difference to public perception of ol’ Rummy; them as have always backed him will continue to do so, and them as have always seen him as a weasel won’t take this hand-picked and carefully-manicured splurge of documentation as proof to the contrary. But it shows that old dogs really can learn new tricks… which is something to bear in mind every time you see your elected officials acting like they haven’t left the house since 1994. They’re not as naive or technologically out-of-touch as they’d like you to think.

[ * Yes, that’s a personal value judgement on my part; no, I have no interest in retracting it. ]


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?


BOOK REVIEW: Booklife, by Jeff VanderMeer

Paul Raven @ 31-12-2009

Booklife by Jeff VanderMeerBooklife by Jeff VanderMeer

Tachyon Publications, November 2009; 330pp; US$14.95 RRP – ISBN13: 9781892391902

There are dozens – possibly even hundreds – of books out there that purport to tell you how to be a writer. Continue reading “BOOK REVIEW: Booklife, by Jeff VanderMeer”


Who owns the dead? Guitar Hero, Kurt Cobain and publicity rights in a digital era

Paul Raven @ 16-09-2009

Screenshot of Kurt Cobain avatar from Guitar HeroI’m guessing you’ve probably caught wind of Courtney Love’s lawsuit against Activision regarding their reanimation of the image of Kurt Cobain in the latest edition of Guitar Hero. I’ve not seen it myself, but friends have told me it’s a bit tasteless, and this particular lawsuit may be one of the more sane things Love has done in some time (even though there are protestations from Activision that she actually signed off on a contract that gave them permission to do it). [image ganked from Kotaku post under Fair Use terms; contact for immediate takedown if required]

Specifics aside, though, this raises the spectre of an issue that is only set to become more complicated – the use of someone’s image for marketing purposes when they’re no longer around to give their permission. Take it away, TechDirt:

[…] that issue is getting more and more complicated as technology gets better and better. In the last few decades, for example, there’s been a growing trend to use famous dead people, such as John Wayne, Lucille Ball and Fred Astaire in commercials. But those mostly involved taking clips of those actors from existing films/TV and splicing them into a commercial (with permission from their estates). However, as some lawyers have been noting, with better and better digital technologies, this issue is becoming more important as it’s now possible to digitally recreate someone for the purpose of film. Or, say, a video game.

Or, say, a life-size photorealistic face-mask. I’d be the first to concede that making money from the dead is a bit crass – especially from as tragic a figure as Cobain – but is Activision being any more crass than Love and the Cobain holding companies she controls? Who gets to decide what’s appropriate, what’s tasteful?

There’s always going to be a price at which someone’s moral stance becomes less rigid, after all, and the dead can’t hang around to complain… not until we’ve cracked personality uploads or Turing-compliant simulations, anyway. And even then, would the electronic personality be considered legally the same person as the no-longer-living meat-machine?

And just to add an extra fillip of weirdness, consider the results of a recent experiment at Warwick University here in the UK, which shows that doctored video footage can easily persuade eyewitnesses that they saw something which never actually occurred. [via FuturePundit]

The legal implications are a bit nasty – especially in a country as saturated in CCTV cameras as this one – but let’s look at the light side: how much fun would it be to convince your best friend that he was so steaming drunk at his own birthday party that he missed Kurt Cobain wandering through the front room trying to bum cigarettes from people playing Guitar Hero?


Profitable post-web publishing: is patronage the answer?

Paul Raven @ 07-09-2009

OK, it may be a little cruel to ask you to do the thinking on a Monday morning (especially as you Statesiders are probably still recovering from Labour Day weekend), but I think it’s high time this one was thrown open to the floor – and by “this one” I mean, of course, the perennial question of how to make fiction publishing a viable business in the internet age.

The trouble is, there’s no shortage of potential business models to choose from. For example, Tor.com is ad-supported, but has the advantage of being associated with a strong publishing brand in its chosen genre; meanwhile, Strange Horizons is a not-for-profit that relies on donations, but even they’ve found it tough to bring in the necessary funds without the welcome publicity and assistance of notables such as John Scalzi. Both of those are purely web-based publications; print brings its own logistical and economic difficulties to the proceedings, as the decline of the “Big Three” and the shuttering of many smaller magazines demonstrates all too clearly.

I’m increasingly coming to believe that visibility is half of the battle, which is why I was intrigued by Cory Doctorow’s latest Locus column, in which – after demolishing many of the standard objection raised against the methodologies of his own success as a novelist – he mentions his “With A Little Help” project, which intends to investigate whether public donations are sufficient to support the writing and publication of a novel, and what degree of work is needed to equal the promotional support of a traditional publisher for such a project.

The results will be interesting regardless, but Doctorow has the advantage of a ready-made audience – one that he has worked hard to build rather than simply blundered into, I might add. But the question remains more open for lesser-known authors… and for fiction magazines, be they dead-tree or digital. The Scalzi/Strange Horizons avalanche shows that people will donate to support short fiction publishing online, but how much of that generosity is due to SH being a not-for-profit organisation? How much is due to them paying professional fees for their stories? How many of the Scalzi donors will donate again if they’re not encouraged by Scalzi or a similar figure?

Only time will answer those questions. But what is becoming obvious is that patronage is crucial to supporting niche publishing – be it direct financial patronage from readers, or the patronage of a vocally supportive figurehead (the patronage of publicity, if you will), or the patronage of an animal further up the publishing foodchain. Underpinning all these is the need to cultivate a supportive audience – turning a percentage of your free readers into donors or buyers, in other words.

What should be equally obvious is that I don’t know how to do it – which is why I think Doctorow’s experiment will be fascinating to watch, as well as projects like Robin Sloan’s New Liberal Arts essay anthology (and his subsequent ongoing novella project), World of Warcraft: the Magazine and a whole raft of wild ideas currently sculling their way out of the boondocks of the independent music scene.

But hey – you guys are readers, right? So, tell me: leaving aside dead-tree or digital books bought in the traditional manner, where do you pay to read fiction, if anywhere? What does it take to get you to pay, and what amount seems reasonable to you for what you’re getting – if anything?

Do you object to advertising on the sites where you read fiction, or are they acceptable so long as you’re not paying for the privilege of seeing them? Would you pay a small premium for an ad-free version of a webzine, or are the mechanics of a paywall off-putting enough to keep you away from a publication you might otherwise click through to regularly?

Yeah, lots of questions, and they’ve all been asked before… but I don’t think I’ve ever collected them all in one post here at Futurismic, and I’d be interested to read your answers – not just for the benefit of this here site, but for the nascent industry of web fiction publishing as a whole. And if there are business models I’ve missed out that you’ve either seen in operation or heard proposed elsewhere, please pipe up and let us know about ’em!


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