Writing improv as service

Name Your Tale, a site operated by writers Nick Faber, Jeremy S. Griffin and Jenny Nicholson, introduces a novel approach to engaging readers: They write stories in response to suggested titles submitted by the audience. It’s improv performance brought to the (Web) page.

The group writes 100-word stories for audience titles including, at this writing, “I’m Banging a Chinese Chick,” “Her Hair Always smelled of Crayons,” and “Laser Heart.” The writers also promote “microfiction” and “flash fiction” at the site. I’m not a fan of the “flash” label for fiction or groups, since they are simply forms of improvisation brought to new media and venues, but they can call it whatever they want.

It is easy to imagine on-demand books generated by a session at the site or by readers who assemble their favorites, including titles they suggested, for permanent collection in a paper book. I’ll be writing more about this “event publishing” this afternoon.

Clever idea. I think they can grow this into an interesting and strange imprint.

via GalleyCat

The myth of the perfect copy and the future of publishing

There’s a powerful myth in publishing: A copy of a book can be perfect every time. The transition from scribal reproduction to printed books, for example, is supposed to mark a break in the history of knowledge, when “perfect copies” became ensured each time a book went to print. However, it turns out that print compositors, the people (both men and women were active as compositors even in the 16th century) who laid out type, made mistakes or “corrections” to the author’s text quite frequently—at approximately the same rate scribes introduced changes into their texts. Not only from edition to edition, but within editions, because proofing went on while printing continued. The same “book” from one copy to the next, might have different versions of the text because error-correction got out of synch with printing and pagination.

In that context, the ongoing discussion of poorly edited copy and lousy, lazy layouts in e-books takes on a new, but familiar, cast: One of the ways publishers will eventually find a reliable business is by solving the problem of “authority,” the standard on which printed book publishing emerged from the “pyratical practices” of the early print era, when pages were badly copied or simply stolen from the printers by employees and assembled into cheap and usually corrupted editions.

By authority, I do not mean what most of the amateur vs. professional journalism debaters mean: The power or right to declare reality is as they see it. Rather, I mean it in the sense of “speaking with authority,” building a reputation for reliability and accuracy, for service to the reader and authors, in order to make the product you sell—a book—the desirable first choice by a potential buyer. In the 1500s, publishers did this by adding their “mark,” the most famous of which is Aldus Manutius’ anchor-and-dolphin mark, to the frontispiece of their editions.

Unfortunately, marks were easy to copy and discerning buyers had to learn to recognize the quality of a work based on everything from the quality of the paper and binding to the choices in typeface and design that they had come to expect. Those more nuanced details of a book were hard to counterfeit. Ultimately, a combination of guild-enforced “self-regulation” (the true meaning of “self-regulation” that free marketers mean when speaking of the virtues of industries that police themselves—they ensure business conditions are nominal) and persistent dedication to improving the quality of printed works yielded a recognizable set of expectations among readers. We’re now living through a renegotiation of the same magnitude.

Books have always been products judged by quality, consistency, binding, informativeness and the enjoyment provided. Any book manipulated by someone to hide, obscure or falsify its provenance is a less-than-perfect copy, even in digital publishing.

Unfortunately, badly converted texts have become the standard in e-books, because the only variable any talks about today is price. I agree with Joe Wikert, writing at TeleRead, that as long as readers view e-books as only cheap copies of printed books, the problem will continue.

The answer? Better editing is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for publishing success. The simple answer: Invest in something that makes the book more useful than the print edition. Pagination mapping, for example, so that e-books could be used for academic and scholarly citations, would be a good first step. Shoot for making the book a conduit for communication, not just a channel for distribution.

Authority will reassert itself when it has been earned. As long as just putting a different version (one of more than 70 currently) of Pride and Prejudice up on Amazon is considered “publishing an e-book,” readers are doomed to download some really bad copies.

When “evil” destroys dialogue

The term “digital rights management,” or DRM, as the technology used by many publishers to prevent unauthorized copying of their digital titles, is the subject of intensely emotional debate, so much so that the discussion seldom rises above claims that the technology is “evil” or “not evil.” Michael Bhaskar of Pan McMillan leaps into this perennial debate with a nicely reasoned piece that, nevertheless, seeks to justify the idea of limits on use of a text. (TeleRead also likes effort.)

I don’t think DRM is a good idea. It makes using a digital product harder than it needs to be. It also represents the fear among publishers and some authors, that their work will be undermined by people who would give it away freely.

However, DRM is also built on something that could be incredibly useful in a shared e-book, cryptographic identification of multiple readers, so that their annotations and discussions can be parsed logically and presented selectively. I’ve written about this before, in hopes of raising the smog of DRM from the potentially useful features that underlie it.

If the publishing industry let books be copied freely, across more than a few devices, for example, it would create business opportunities by allowing even those who receive a book at no cost to pay a small fee—comparable to the price of an e-book—to add their own thoughts to the page or discuss the book with some coordination provided through cryptographic technology to limit who could see their notes, or selected notes (some annotations may need to be private, because they are controversial or too sensitive to be exposed publicly, but they provide a personal point of reference for framing a discussion linked to the same place in the book).

No, DRM isn’t “evil,” it’s just a barrier to greater use of the text. Turn the whole argument upside down—what could we do with a freely shared crypto-enabled document that let readers integrate their notes and other reading? How could we maintain vast personalized libraries and reference databases secured in the same way that a cash payment at a bookstore provides anonymity?

Then, the problem isn’t unauthorized copies, it is how to identify one’s own copy, so that readers can share and use the information in more meaningful ways. If anyone doubts this is a viable approach, take a look at the growing use of OpenID and Facebook logins to parse and present social relationships with greater personal context online.

Forget “evil,” it’s  meaningless term in the context of computer science.

Vertical markets, services and the challenge of many media

Mike Shatzkin, taking on some ideas posted by Andrew Savikas of O’Reilly, in “Vertical” versus “service”: semantics, nuance, or dueling metaphors?

The clinching metaphor in Andrew’s piece is that we aren’t actually buying food when we go to a restaurant (because, if we were, we’d just buy it at the grocery store.) This is tricky, because, indeed, you do want that hamburger cooked and served on a bun and you want a place to sit while you eat it and maybe some ketchup supplied. So, in fact, you’re buying both food and service. You wouldn’t patronize the restaurant if they didn’t give you the food, so it seems a bit of a stretch to say it isn’t what you’re buying!

The clinching metaphor in Andrew’s piece is that we aren’t actually buying food when we go to a restaurant (because, if we were, we’d just buy it at the grocery store.) This is tricky, because, indeed, you do want that hamburger cooked and served on a bun and you want a place to sit while you eat it and maybe some ketchup supplied. So, in fact, you’re buying both food and service. You wouldn’t patronize the restaurant if they didn’t give you the food, so it seems a bit of a stretch to say it isn’t what you’re buying!

Savikas makes the mistake, I think, of conflating “content” with “creativity” when he writes: “This is not just about using free digital content to sell physical goods. It’s an acknowledgment that what you’re selling as an artist (or an author, or a publisher for that matter) is not content. What you sell is providing something that the customer/reader/fan wants. That may be entertainment, it may be information, it may be a souvenir of an event or of who they were at a particular moment in their life (Kelly describes something similar as his eight “qualities that can’t be copied”: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment, Patronage, and Findability).” All content is equal in this argument, ignoring the hard-won reputation that great creativity earns in the marketplace. Moreover, several of the “qualities that can’t be copied” apply to any form of creativity—there is another, not mentioned, Authority, which we attach to a source based on previous experience with them.

In short, engagement with a writer or artist is the ephemeral feature of this commercial relationship that is being shoe-horned into the category “service.”

Further on, in comments, Savikas argues that The Economist magazine seldom publishes “news,” which he apparently equates with “breaking news” or “scoops”, because it is printed on paper. He says he “pays for the preparation” of the magazine, which utterly misses the value of the time and research that go into deep reporting about issues rather than simply reporting the new. Analytical thought requires more work, but the output, if measured in terms of letters on a page, is exactly the same as any other printed information. Savikas’ equation leaves the creator of the work out of the value-chain. And, surely, as Mike Shatzkin points out, Savikas is speaking from his experience of working as a publisher.

Shatzkin argues that the difference between “service” and “vertical,” as in “vertical market,” needs to be acknowledged:

Rarely can”service” be delivered broadly; it has to be targeted so vertical be comes a sine qua non. And anybody really trying to build a vertical will do it by offering service and tools, which they would hope would also lead to the ability to sell content.

This, too, reduces the question of the future of publishing to a paradigm that doesn’t bend, but breaks, when applied generically. Specialization, the essence of the divisions of labor that create economies of scale, is not sufficient to establish a brand without “service” that engages the customer for the full life of the value in information. We go to the restaurant because we want food and service, and we buy a non-fiction book by an author because they promise to make us experts on a topic. In the quick-to-obsolescence world of real-time information, ongoing service may be required to engage a customers’ interest and to provide the full-range of expertise, because some insight only appears in the give-and-take that evolves out of published work.

The useful metaphor stretches further when “service” and “vertical” are tempered into a useful alloy. It allows authors of entertainments—true, some genres are vertical markets unto themselves, but entertainment is also a generic quality attributed across many genres—to offer engagement after the initial text is finished. It could be a signed book, a sort of avatar for having a relationship with the author, or it could include ongoing access to notes and other musings by the writer, simply because the buyer enjoys the experience.

Services and verticals define a variety of market approaches. We’ll be experimenting with the resulting alloys for many years. Which is better, watching Picasso paint or looking at the painting? In our world, both are possible, both are inevitable. Neither is exclusive, though each mode of viewing stands alone.

Author Matt Stewart tries syndication via Twitter

From GalleyCat, Matt Stewart is syndicating his novel, “The French Revolution,” via Twitter. You can see the postings here. One posting every 15 minutes. Interesting and, contrary to my reaction to Cory Doctorow’s 81-installment syndication plans for “Maker,” I think this is an appropriate way to do this, because readers can configure their Twitter client to assembling a growing book (using search for the #frrev hash tag or by following Stewart in a separate window.

Syndication isn’t only about segmentation of the story, it’s an experiment in building narrative. Chapter syndication was appropriate to paper publications, but it isn’t necessarily the way to use real-time publishing tools.

Publishing salaries: Locked in low gear

Publishers Weekly released its annual survey of salaries in the publishing industry and the news isn’t comforting, if you think publishing is path to riches. The average raise this year was 3.3 percent, the lowest during the five years of data reported in the article.

That figure masks the real condition of the market, since 35 percent of publishing employees got no raise and 35 percent more got less than three percent in added compensation. Only 19 percent of publishing employees got raises of more than five percent during 2008.

The bitterest pill for this ostensibly egalitarian industry is that women still make a third less than men overall.

Lots of interesting details on break-downs of salary by region, raises by role, and so forth at the Publishers Weekly site.

A permanent link will be in the Industry Stats pages of BooksAhead.com should you want to find this data again quickly.

Global and U.S. advertising spending plunges in 2009

For anyone hoping to refinance publishing on the back of advertising, it may be the best of times to sell a new medium to advertisers, but it is the worst of times for advertising.

Nielsen reported this week that ad spending globally dropped 7.9 percent in the first quarter of 2009. U.S. ad budgets declined by a record 12.7 percent and growth in Chinese advertising, which has been consistently strong since the beginning of the economic meltdown, shrank to only 2.5 percent year-over-year.

All traditional media, from newspapers and magazines to TV and radio, showed marked declines. U.S. magazine revenue shrank by 22 percent; newspaper advertising revenue was down by 15.6 percent. Charts and more here.

Sourcebooks tries DRM-free, multi-format romance

Sourcebooks, an independent publisher of trade print and e-books, has partnered with self-publishing services developer Smashwords.com to offer DRM-free editions of 14 romance titles, Publishers Weekly reports. The company’s Casablanca romance imprint will release the titles in nine formats priced at $6.99. Readers will be able to access purchased e-book files on any compatible reader or application, allowing them to move e-books from one compatible device to another.

Sourcebooks offers Adobe eBook versions of its titles through its own site and is also launching titles, though not necessarily DRM-free, on Scribd.com.

“There is discussion surrounding DRM, and while partnering with Smashwords does not mean we endorse DRM-free across the board, it does mean that we’re open to exploring different possibilities to better serve our customers,” said Sourcebooks CEO Dominique Raccah in a statement.

In other words, this really is an experiment that will shape Sourcebooks’ strategy. It’s a chance to vote for DRM-free books with your hard-earned cash.

Is “Total Youth Think” the solution to publishing’s problems?

Can the World Young Reader Conference, which will happen in Prague this September, provide actionable ideas for newspaper publishing? According to a recent, cloying Pepsi radio spot, youth does everything worthwhile. I personally prefer to see the wiles of age tempering the energy of youth to produce generational changes that represent the experience of everyone involved, but I’m cranky.

The answer promised in Prague is a “Total Youth Think” that “places young people at the center of a newspaper company’s strategy.” I am struck by the fact that the youth-oriented Facebook is becoming a medium predominantly used by parents and grandparents. The realistic course seems to be designing media for all ages, allowing them to connect. If you design just for youth, your market eventually ages out of your design target.

Presented for your consideration.

E-textbooks: Making the economics work

David Wiley has a thoughtful posting at The Chronicle of Higher Education about the economics of always-on textbooks. They seem designed to solve many of the problems of modern learning, keeping information current, providing engagement without using instructors’ time and so forth. But they still cost too much, even though each copy is theoretically free. They cannot be resold when the student is finished, nor can they be kept current at zero cost, as research and author time is required.

Nevertheless, there are a variety of business factors that can be recombined in novel ways to make prices conform to the short-term access students are paying to get with an e-book and to spread higher costs for services across many classes and universities. That, of course, means greater standardization of learning which may not be the right solution for education in the information age.