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? 😉

Interactive Storytelling

Brenda Cooper @ 04-05-2011

Last month I wrote about talks. This month I’m back on content, looking into interactive books. We have usable tablet PCs and e-readers scattered across almost every household (we have four!), but most of the fiction that I read on them is exactly like the fiction I read in a book. I want more. Continue reading “Interactive Storytelling”

Three Pillars of Writing Success for Any Publishing Environment

Luc Reid @ 13-04-2011

Lately I’ve been looking, for the sake of my sanity, for some principles of writerly success that I can really depend on. These are a tad elusive when the publishing world is being shaken up by the complete redefinition of self-publishing and the whole eBook thing. I don’t know about you, but I look at all this and say “Hey, how am I going to make a living as a writer in this mess–or even just find a readership–when we don’t even know what the publishing world will consist of in five years?”

Uncertainty is a terrible motivator. Continue reading “Three Pillars of Writing Success for Any Publishing Environment”

Zen and the Art of Literary Gatekeeping

Paul Raven @ 04-04-2011

Via Chairman Bruce, here’s a very interesting post-and-comment-thread combo at Self-Publishing Review. It’s interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is the aforementioned comment thread, which contains (gasp!) spirited disagreement conducted with a rare degree of civility, but the big central point is one I’ve danced around a few times before: when the barriers to publication are negligible, will definitions of quality shift considerably by comparison to the old “gatekeepered” model? Or, more simply: when anyone can get their book in front of potential readers, will we find that “good writing” doesn’t actually matter to a lot of the audience? Because that’s what appears to be happening on the wild frontiers of the ebook boondocks right now…

From the original post itself:

At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones. That’s millions of potential readers.  Publishers might like to believe that they have the finger on the pulse of what sells – or what should sell – but when mediocre writing is becoming a bestseller, this pretty much renders the slush pile meaningless.

If mainstream publishing is really hurting for money, it would make sense for them to get into the ebook-only/print on demand business. Devote some resources towards basic editorial and cover design, some press, and see which books take hold. Right now, word of mouth is more powerful than reviews – a lot of people find books just browsing the Kindle store, rather than reading press about a book, and there is a lot of profit to be made on slush pile books that appeal to a huge number of people. It’s possible that eventually people feel burned by bad, cheap books and stop buying them – but, again, the majority of the reviews on many fast-selling self-published books are positive.

The (currently) final comment makes an important counter-argument, though:

This is an interesting and provocative article, but one that also completely misses the point. Yes, some quite poorly-written self-published books are selling in minor quantities (from a few hundred to a few thousand) in Kindle form. Why? Because they’re priced at around a dollar, whereas even the cheapest commercial Kindle titles sell for four times that amount and upwards.

Commercial publishers simply aren’t interested in selling a few thousand ebooks for a dollar apiece: they want to sell tens of thousands of copies, in both paper and ebook form, for between five and ten dollars apiece. To suggest that they could make a few extra quid by starting up self-publishing ebook sidelines is like advising a Michelin-starred restaurant to open a serving hatch late at night offering kebabs to drunks wandering the streets. Not only it is it not what they’re set up to do, but it would also very quickly cheapen their brand.

As mentioned before (by me, and by many far smarter folk from whom I’ve wholesale stolen the riff), gatekeeping is all over; curation is the new game, but the rules have yet to be written. The argument above, though, pretty much crystallises the root source of panic in the big publishing houses: all they’ve ever had to show their superiority to vanity presses and one-man-bands was their insistence on selecting for “quality” – though it should go without saying that “quality” is defined differently from one boardroom or editorial office to another. But all of a sudden, there are hints that “quality” may not matter to the biggest slice of the market pie… and when your entire philosophy of business is anchored solidly to that notion by a chain of centuries-old tradition, well, you’re going to struggle to swim with the tide.

Personally, I think it’s too early to say definitively that “quality writing” is a dead scene; the market is too new, too chaotic, and the metrics currently used to assess the market’s assessment of “quality” are utterly subjective – I really don’t place any faith in Amazon reader reviews whatsoever, for instance; an effective crowdsourced curatorial system will be much harder to game, and perforce deal with a much smaller slice of the total market (niche verticals, long tails, blah blah blah). But of course, Chairman Bruce has a long-game grenade to throw into the punchbowl:

The unseen literary player here is machine translation. It’s getting “better” fast, and we may soon be in a world where on-demand machine-translated texts become major literary influences. The real web-semantic breakthrough would be a machine-assisted ability to painlessly read texts outside one’s own language. At that point we’ll have entered an unheard-of state of linguistic globalized electro-pidgin.


It’s not that the slushpile is profitable; it’s that there is no longer an analog dam against which the slush can pile.

If the dam is gone, then the would-be curator must discover a new method for catching fish. Trying to work the whole river would be madness… but finding a little pool or slow-flowing channel to focus on might reward you with fish of consistent species and health.

Google Books decision not quite the triumph it’s made out to be

Paul Raven @ 30-03-2011

Ah, the striking down of the Author’s Guild/Google Books settlement – a victory for creators and publishers, and a sharp stick in the eye of a cocky monopoly!

Or is it perhaps a stymieing of innovation wrapped around a bone thrown to the copyright maximalism lobby? Ryan Singel sure thinks so; the whole thing’s well worth a read, even – or perhaps particularly – if you’re opposed to the Google Books project, but I’ve plucked out a few highlights:

The decision was widely praised — including by digital rights groups — perhaps in no small part because it dealt a setback to a company that often forces us, without asking first, to reconsider what it means to live in an information age. Take the project of photographing every house and every road in the world as one big example of that hubris.

But that celebration is a shame, because the world will be poorer for the decision.

Here’s the benefits you won’t be getting, as enumerated by Chin himself in his decision.

“Books will become more accessible. Libraries, schools, researchers, and disadvantaged populations will gain access to far more books. Digitization will facilitate the conversion of books to Braille and audio formats, increasing access for individuals with disabilities. Authors and publishers will benefit as well, as new audiences will be generated and new sources of income created. Older books — particularly out-of-print books, many of which are falling apart buried in library stacks — will be preserved and given new life.”

Who won then? The copyright whingers.


Google was sued not for selling out-of-print books, but for digitizing books and then using snippets from copyright works in search results.

You’d think this was something authors would like.

In fact, there’s a huge business known as Search Engine Optimization that focuses on getting people’s copyright work — their websites — to rank higher in Google search. The math is simple: Ranking highly in Google search equals income for that copyright holder.

But those who want to opt their website out of Google’s search can do so with a simple file known as robots.txt that tells search engines to go away. Google Books offers a similar opt-out for authors.

But authors felt that copyright meant they had total control over their work and that it was unfair that Google made money off search ads on search result pages that included snippets of their work. So they sued.

The authors would have lost in court.


Chin also suggests that Google will get a search monopoly if the settlement were approved.

That’s ridiculous.

Google already has a de facto search monopoly in the U.S. because its search engine is markedly better than those of its competitors. And even without the settlement, Google will continue to include in its search results snippets from the books it has scanned without permission. Blocking Google from selling and displaying orphan books won’t prevent Google from retaining 70 percent search-market share.


Killing off the one promising digital library at the behest of copyright maximalists and jealous competitors is no way to get a dithering Congress to make a decision that will benefit the public, especially when our Congress is more interested in partisan stupidity than social good.

Indeed, Congress’s recent record on copyright has largely been to strengthen the hand of copyright owners. Copyright terms were extended again in 1999, to life-plus-70 years, and 120 years for corporate copyrights — done to protect Disney’s Mickey Mouse franchise).

With the caveats that (a) I’m not a lawyer and (b) I’m slightly more familiar with the UK’s copyright laws than those of the US, it does seem to me that the authors cheering this nose-bloodying of Googoliath are in fact cheering a decision that has effectively negated a potential new income stream for themselves and their fellow creators, and which hands further leverage to corporate copyright holders who are certainly no less underhand and interested in easy profits than Google themselves. Sure, you’ve prevented someone else from profiting from making your own work more findable… during a period where dead-tree bookstores are shutting their doors in swathes, and other digital distributors are gouging a 30% rake-off from all sales made within their gorgeously-landscaped walled garden.

It’s not quite a Pyrrhic victory, but it’s pretty close.

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