Richard Nash's essay "On the business of literature" is one of the best, most thought-provoking, most beautifully argued articles about the business of publishing through history and in the Internet age that I've ever read. It's one of those pieces from which it is nearly impossible to choose an illustrative quotation -- as I read, I kept happening on passages and thinking, "Aha, that's what I'll put in the post so people will know how interesting and important this is," only to find another passage a few minutes later that superseded the former one. So here's one quote to whet your appetite, and I'll stick another after the jump, but for heaven's sake, just go read the whole thing. Really.
What is particularly crucial to understand is that books were not dragged kicking and screaming into each new area of capitalism. Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism, they virtually began it. They are part of the fuel that drives it. The growth of the chain model in books offered everyone the opportunity to decry the groceryfication of the bookstore, utterly belying the reality, as Striphas outlines in his excellent The Late Age of Print, that the bookstore is in fact the model for the supermarket:
In the history of shop design, it is bookstores, strangely enough, that were the precursors of supermarkets. They, alone of all types of shop, made use of shelves that were not behind counters, with the goods arranged for casual browsing, and for what was not yet called self-service. Also, when brand name goods and their accompanying packages were non-existent or rare in the sale of food, books had covers that were designed at once to protect the contents and to entice the purchaser; they were proprietary products with identifiable authors and new titles.
There are other examples of significant innovation being driven by the publishers—Penguin founder Allen Lane's 1937 paperback vending machine for better commuter distribution being among the most charming—but the point is that books aren't sitting grumpily in economy class on the airplane to the future. They're in the cockpit.
Nash founded the amazing Soft Skull Press, which had many triumphs, not least publishing the amazing Get Your War On books.
A Fort Worth, TX cop told a guy in a Statue of Liberty suit to move along from the road-median where he was advertising Liberty Tax Services. Lady Liberty did not immediately comply ("Get away from me! What are you doing? Go talk to my boss!") so the cop tazed the Statue of Liberty. Three times. As Lowering the Bar points out, this has bad optics.
People in Liberty suits have rights, too, but not the unrestricted right to solicit customers from a median. While this does implicate the First Amendment, it would be the kind of time, place, and manner restriction that usually passes muster. The situation would be different if a local government tried to completely ban the use of such "moving signs" or (as I prefer to call them) "business mascots," which of course is something that has happened before. See "The McHenry Code," Lowering the Bar (Sept. 6, 2006).
Coincidentally, that incident (which happened in Illinois) also involved "Lady Liberty," as well as the Verlo Mattress Factory's "Mattress Man," a 4-by-3-foot ambulatory mattress with "comically large hands." McHenry's city council had decided that such "live moving signs" were distracting drivers (which is part of the point of having one) and causing a nuisance because people honk at them. (The council also threw in an alleged "safety risk" to the person in the costume, saying they might get heatstroke.) If I recall correctly, the council later reversed itself on the complete ban, thus giving Liberty some limited freedom.
Another great ramble from the always-fascinating Venkatesh Rao entitled "The Dead-Curious Cat and the Joyless Immortal," considers several explanations for our species' curiosity, and asks whether our weird, ubiquitous artificial life-forms (corporations) share this trait, and why:
Alone among the curious animals (though this seems like a conceit that more research might invalidate), we seem to be curious about clearly useless things. Or at least, things that have no obvious and immediate use. Humans seem to frequently poke at things that yield returns, if at all, only generations later. And often in ways unsuspected by those who do the poking.
We stare at the stars, we peer through microscopes, we climb mountains and we dive to the ocean floor.
This behavior, so natural to humans, is incomprehensible to human organizations. So things like space programs or other pure curiosity driven efforts have to be justified by politicians on the basis of “will improve life here on earth through the discovery of new materials and advances in medicine.” This is probably the mother of all idiotic fictions. Fortunately, we don’t seem to require our institutional fictions to be credible. Merely sufficient to stop conversations we don’t want to have.
There is an interesting symmetry here. Organizations naturally try to avoid pain — the pain of business model obsolescence or national decline for instance – through institutionalized “curiosity.” They find joy-seeking unnatural and in need of justification (hence the paradoxical notions of “efficient” innovation with high “yield” or “impact” and the relentless war on waste).
This has even been turned into a depressingly banal formula for innovation: what pain are you seeking to relieve?
For humans the reverse is true. Curiosity driven by pain-aversion is unnatural, but curiosity driven by joy-seeking is natural and requires no further explanation. Efficiency is the last thing on our minds when we are being curious. The concept does not even apply: efficiency pre-supposes a goal. Waste is pain in the efficient pursuit of goals.
Streaming video is one of the holy grails of torrent-style distribution systems, where everyone who requests a file from a server is directed to other downloaders who have already received pieces. This is a highly scalable architecture, since it means that the more people trying to download at once, the faster everyone's download becomes. But because the pieces arrive out of sequence, you have to wait until the file has been completely transferred before you can use it.
Now, BitTorrent has introduced a new "Live" service that is designed to allow for ready streaming of videos using the same underlying principle. This has enormous potential for disruption, as it lowers the barriers to entry for running your own YouTube-style service by several orders of magnitude. It's still a bit techy and hard-to-use, but that's only to be expected this early into the release cycle.
One of the goals of BitTorrent Live is to make it possible for the public to send video to thousands of people, all over the world. From dissidents reporting on uprisings to soccer moms who want to send video of a game to family and friends, everyone is included.
The main upside compared to centralized live streaming services is that BitTorrent Live won’t shut down or be interrupted when the audience becomes ‘too large’.
“Current offerings fail with large audiences but with BitTorrent Live every viewer that joins a swarm extends its reach by sharing pieces of the video to other viewers. It becomes more robust with larger audiences and there are no costs associated with the addition of users,” Knoll told us.
“We’re aiming for this to be a democratization of streaming technology,” he adds.
Viewing live streams requires people to install the BitTorrent Live app, which is used to share video with others who are watching. The install process is pretty straightforward and the streams we were able to check out worked fine.
- Authors will now be offered their choice of two options: a re-worked profit-sharing arrangement and a traditional advance-and-royalties deal.
For the profit-sharing arrangement, there's still no advance. But Random House has eliminated all chargebacks for digital editions, so the split between author and publisher is 50/50 of net revenue (actual sales income) from the first copy sold. In other words: no setup costs, no 10% deduction for sales and marketing. For print editions, if they are produced (and this won't be frequent; these are primarily ebook imprints), there will still be a chargeback for actual production and shipping costs (these costs will be fully broken out for the author ahead of time if a print edition is planned). Random House will cover general publicity costs for the imprint, and up to $10,000 of book-specific publicity. Any book-specific PR above that amount will be borne by the author and deducted from net revenue before the profit split--but such expenditures will be optional.
For the advance-and-royalty deal, authors will receive a traditional publishing contract, with the publisher covering 100% of costs. There will be an advance, and royalties will be paid at Random House's standard ebook royalty rate of 25% of net.
- The contract will still be life-of-copyright, but the reversion clause has been improved. As I've explained on this blog and elsewhere, I don't have a problem with life-of-copyright, as long as it's balanced by precise reversion language. That is now the case. Three years after publication, the author can demand reversion if sales fall below 300 copies over the 12 months preceding the demand.
- Random House will still take both primary publishing rights and subsidiary rights, but performance rights and transformative digital edition rights are no longer included. If Random House wants to acquire these, it will negotiate separately. Random House is also open to negotiation on other subrights.
AUSTIN—The knight who invented the World Wide Web came to SXSW to point out a few ways in which we're still doing it wrong.
Tim Berners-Lee's"Open Web Platform: Hopes & Fears" keynote hopscotched from the past of the Web to its present and future, with some of the same hectic confusion that his invention shows in practice. (The thought that probably went through attendees' heads: "Sir Tim is nervous at public speaking. Just like us!")
But his conclusion was clear enough: The Web is our work, and we shouldn't put our tools down.
I thought you'd be interested in something we are helping with at SXSW this weekend. a group of folks are taking advantage of unlicensed radio spectrum to provide high-speed backhaul to local WiFi access points all over SXSW. In Austin, there are 14 of these open channels using whitespace that are available. we are leveraging this. on Tuesday, the FCC will close comments on its plan to auction off many of these "whitespaces. the 'We Heart Wifi' initiative is collecting signatures on the following petition. Even if folks aren't at SXSW, they can sign on:
To all FCC Commissioners:
Please follow through on your proposal to open up a large slice of high-quality spectrum for open networks. Doing so would help create the competition necessary to extend more high-speed broadband—including 'super WiFi' and other future innovations—to more people."
Allison R. Dobson, Digital Publishing Director of Random House, has written an open letter to the Science Fiction Writers of America responding to the warning it published about Hydra, a new imprint with a no-advance, author-pays-expenses contract that SFWA (and I) characterize as being totally unacceptable. Dobson's letter doesn't do much to change my view on that:
When we acquire a title in the Hydra program, it is an all-encompassing collaboration. Our authors provide the storytelling, and we at Hydra support their creativity with best-in-class services throughout the publishing process: from dedicated editorial, cover design, copy editing and production, to publicity, digital marketing and social media tools, trade sales, academic and library sales, piracy protection, negotiating and selling of subsidiary rights, as well as access to Random House coop and merchandising programs. Together, we deliver the best science fiction, fantasy and horror books to the widest possible readership, thus giving authors maximum earning potential.
There are other options for doing the same: Lulu, BookBaby and CreateSpace will all let you pay freelancers to do any and all of that stuff (and given that so much of publishing is now outsourced, they're likely to be some of the same people doing the job at a Big Five publisher), but none of them demand all your rights and subsidiary rights for the length of copyright, and none of them reserve the right to charge arbitrary sums to your account before they pay you any royalties.
As Munger points out, costs-plus-percentage-of-costs contracts are a moral hazard (that's why it's a felony for the US military to issue them), and they have no place in publishing.
Such peer-to-peer rental schemes provide handy extra income for owners and can be less costly and more convenient for borrowers. Occasional renting is cheaper than buying something outright or renting from a traditional provider such as a hotel or car-rental firm. The internet makes it cheaper and easier than ever to aggregate supply and demand. Smartphones with maps and satellite positioning can find a nearby room to rent or car to borrow. Online social networks and recommendation systems help establish trust; internet payment systems can handle the billing. All this lets millions of total strangers rent things to each other. The result is known variously as “collaborative consumption”, the “asset-light lifestyle”, the “collaborative economy”, “peer economy”, “access economy” or “sharing economy”.
The flies in the ointment: insurance, liability, and laws that favor incumbent industries.
I've covered Prenda Law off and on here for quite some time; they're the sleazy "law firm"/copyright trolls who use the courts to get the names and addresses of people whom they allege have downloaded pornographic videos with embarrassing names, and whom they then threaten with public humiliation and a lawsuit unless the victims pay a quick cash settlement. One of the great mysteries about Prenda is who the firm actually is -- which individuals are behind it? In past, Prenda's representatives have claimed to be working for "Alan Cooper" -- a former caretaker for one of the Prenda reps who claims they have stolen his identity.
A recent deposition in the Northern District of California of Morgan PrietzPaul Hansmeier -- another Prenda rep, apparently -- sheds no light on the mystery. Indeed, Hansmeier's deposition is a wonder of obfuscation, coyness, and mind-boggling protestations of ignorance that will baffle and delight you. Ken from Popehat has teased out the juciest bits:
In reviewing this deposition, bear Pietz' theories in mind. he alleges that (1) Prenda Law is secretly both lawyer and client — that its principals are behind the entities purportedly owning the copyrights it is suing upon, and that Prenda Law is concealing its lawyers' interest; (2) that Prenda Law has concealed who is actually running and directing its cases; (3) that Prenda Law is not actually vindicating copyrights of valuable properties, but is using copyright to extort defendants, and (4) that Prenda Law has defrauded courts with fabricated executives by, for instance, stealing the identity of "Alan Cooper" and using the identity as a fictitious client representative.
Consider those theories as you review the deposition. I could re-read it a dozen times and still discover more things about it. I will confine myself to some high points.
Yesterday, I blogged about the awful contracts on offer from Random House's new Hydra imprint, which runs like a scam vanity-press, paying no advances, seizing all rights and charging normal publisher's operating costs to the author. John Scalzi's gotten ahold of the (presumably identical) contract for Alibi, the mystery/crime-book version of Hydra, and it really is awful.
The fact that Alibi is shifting those costs to the author is hugely significant, for reasons noted in the previous entry (i.e., Alibi is shifting an extraordinary portion of the risk of publishing onto the author’s back). But it’s also worrying to the author for two other reasons:
One, it puts the author in the hole to the Alibi for an amount which the author has almost no control over — it’s Alibi choosing how much to spend on the services and expenses which constitute the Net Billings. All the author is empowered to do (at least as I read the contract) is pay for them. It should be noted that Random House probably owns warehouses and printing presses (or has long-terms arrangements which represent sunk costs), so in effect the publisher will be charging the author for services it provides, i.e., it’s taking money from the author and putting it into its own pocket — payment for services publishers are supposed to provide as their part of the publishing equation. The contractual language does note that some expenses are to be “mutually-agreed” upon, but this just brings up another problem:
Two, it transfers the cost of these services onto the most ignorant partner in the contract — which is to say, the author. Yes, authors, I know. You are smart. But — can you tell me what “plant costs” mean? What about “conversion fees?” Can you give me a sum that you know with certainty to be in the ballpark, in terms of what those costs and fees should be? Do you know how much it costs to print and bind a book? Are you sure? Is Alibi printing them individually or in one large print run? How will that affect unit cost? What’s a reasonable sum for warehousing? You better know because the contract won’t tell you — or at least the one I have in front of me sure as hell doesn’t.
And here’s another thing to consider: When it’s the publisher fronting the costs for printing, warehousing, plant fees or whatever, it will, out of its own self-interest, they will try to lower the cost as much as possible, because not doing so will cut into its profits. But authors, when you are fronting the fees, the printing, warehousing, plant fees and everything else becomes a potential profit center for the publisher.
Writer beware. According to an email from the Science Fiction Writers of America, Random House has launched an imprint called "Hydra" with all the hallmarks of a sleazy, scammy vanity-press: no advance on royalties, perpetual, all-rights assignments of copyrights, and all production expenses charged to the writer before any royalties are paid.
SFWA has determined that works published by Random House’s electronic imprint Hydra can not be use as credentials for SFWA membership, and that Hydra is not an approved market. Hydra fails to pay authors an advance against royalties, as SFWA requires, and has contract terms that are onerous and unconscionable.
Hydra contracts also require authors to pay – through deductions from royalties due the authors – for the normal costs of doing business that should be borne by the publisher.
Hydra contracts are also for the life-of-copyright and include both primary and subsidiary rights. Such provisions are unacceptable.
At this time, Random House's other imprints continue to be qualified markets.
This kind of rip-off is semi-standard with record deals, but it's unheard of in legit publishing, where the author typically receives an advance on royalties that is not refundable if it doesn't earn out; where authors traditionally assign a few, time-limited rights (English print/audio/ebook for a given territory, say); and where the production costs are wholly borne by the press in exchange for keeping the lion's share of any book revenue.
Hydra's deal is much, much worse than the one you'll get from a real DIY option like BookBaby or CreateSpace or Lulu, where you only pay for services you want, keep 100% of your profits, and assign no rights at all to the "publisher." It's got all the downsides of a DIY press, and all the downsides of a traditional press, and the upsides of neither.
A great post on Metafilter turned me on to "Twenty Four Standard Causes of Human Misjudgement," a classic 1995 speech by Charlie Munger (much cited, and transcribed here in PDF), in which Munger (a respected investor and partner to Warren Buffet) lays out, in plain language, the cognitive biases and blind-spots that he views as the root of much human misery.
I converted the talk to MP3 and listened to it twice today. I think I'll return to it again -- this feels like one of those mind-dumps that contains so much to pore over that it might be a work of years.
Yesterday morning, I flew the final leg of my 23-city book-tour. I was supposed to fly Kansas City -> Chicago -> Toronto, but the Kansas/Chicago flight was delayed, because United had scheduled the crew too tightly on its turnaround, and the FAA grounded them until they got a full night's sleep. I was able to get on another flight in Chicago, but my bag didn't make it.
But they assured me it would follow. After all, there are several United flights every day from Chicago to Toronto. The ground agent in Toronto even offered to expedite the bag.
But it didn't show up. When I called last night, the automated system reported no updates. This morning, it was the same. After a very long time on hold, I was told that they'd flown it to Las Vegas and forgotten about it. When I asked what I was going to do about toiletries, medication, workout stuff and a change of clothes, they offered me a whopping $75. That won't cover it -- especially since I have to dress up for an event tonight (bad enough that I had to finish out the tour without clean socks or underwear). And when I spoke to a supervisor, he wouldn't budge.
Screw you, United. This has been a comedy of errors, from the scheduling screw up in Kansas to the series of bag and reporting screwups, to the awful treatment from your customer service department. Every one of them was your fault, and you left me high and dry. You suck.