Should Writers Get a Little Help from Their Governments?

[posted by Alice]

Earlier this year more than 9,000 writers took part in the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey. Results were reported at, among other places, Publishers Weekly (“DBW 2014: Survey Finds Most Authors Want to Earn More“) and the Guardian (“Most writers earn less than £600 a year, survey reveals.”) According to the survey, 54% of traditionally-published authors and almost 80% of self-published writers are making less than £600 or $1,000 a year. Only a tiny number — 0.7% of self-published, 1.3% of traditionally-published — are making more than $100,000 a year from their writing. Most of the writers told the survey-takers that getting their work out there was more important than making money, but living the writing life isn’t sustainable if there isn’t any financial reward. How can a writer keep going if she can’t sell her books?

A few days ago I read an article that showed that not all writers have to rely on making money from book sales. Edward Nawotka in Publishing Pespectives (“German Writers Rely on Readings, Fellowships for Income“) reported that many young and aspiring German writers, like those interviewed for the above-cited survey, make money from bookstore and event readings and from fellowships. In Germany people pay to hear writers read; cities have writers-in-residence programs; and there’s something called The Artists Social Program which offers writers discounts on their health insurance.

That sounded remarkably good to me until I found an article called “The Norwegian Government Keeps Book Publishers Alive And other reasons it’s the best place in the world to be a writer,” and I learned that Norway has the best of both worlds. Just an example: “So long as a new Norwegian book passes quality control, Arts Council Norway purchases 1,000 copies of it to distribute to libraries — or 1550 copies if it’s a children’s book.” So writers are guaranteed to sell many copies of their books, and the country also lends other kinds of support to writers. Well-known artists receive a guaranteed income, usually until retirement, and others are eligible for 1-5-year work grants.

So what does all this mean? Does it mean that the United States and Britain don’t value literature as much as Germany and Norway do? Or does it just mean that small rich countries with languages that are not widely spoken (like Norway) have governments that are more willing to subsidize the nation’s literature? Obviously, I don’t have the answers, but it does seem that the U.S. and Britain have more of a market-oriented approach, forcing writers to depend on how many books they can sell, and Germany and Norway give writers a wider range of ways to make an income (and help popularize their work). And it isn’t a simple matter that rich countries can afford to subsidize writers. Norway does have a higher per capita GDP than the United States, but the United States has a higher per capita GDP than Germany does. In any case I think that forcing writers to depend on book sales might not be the best way to insure that we in the U.S. have the thriving literary culture we deserve.

Sports Illustrated Enters the Daily Fantasy Sports Marketplace

[Posted by Alice]

According to Forbes, Sports Illustrated, a publication once best known for its annual swimsuit issue, has announced that it is launching a daily, play-for-cash app and entering the “daily fantasy sports marketplace.” In the past, daily fantasy sport was dominated by startups, but the government has taken a hands off approach and professional sports leagues have not legally challenged these games, so the playing field is wide open, no pun intended. Major League Baseball maintains a cooperative agreement with one daily fantasy website, and though there are possible federal challenges ahead, that probably won’t stop CBS and Yahoo from entering the “daily fantasy sports marketplace.”

Wikipedia says, “A fantasy sport (also known as rotisserie, roto, or owner simulation) is a game where participants act as owners to build a team that competes against other fantasy owners based on the statistics generated by the real individual players or teams of a professional sport… Probably the most common variant converts statistical performance into points that are compiled and totaled according to a roster selected by a manager that makes up a fantasy team.”  According to this same Wikipedia entry, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that 32 million people aged 12 and over in the U.S. and Canada played fantasy sports in 2010, and participation has grown 60% in the past four years. And mobile devices have made it easier to play these games.

SI publisher Brendan Ripp said, “With consumers flocking [to mobile], with advertising dollars flocking there, what we wanted to build … is a successful mobile plan so that the consumer will consume our content across any device including desktop and come away with a positive experience with the right advertising built into it.” SI doesn’t intend to have fantasy games on its site, like ESPN and Yahoo, but wants to “get ahead of the curve” with this app, allowing people to challenge their friends “to single-day matchups” that they can gamble on.

The idea of picking players and running a game based on stats has been around since the 1940s, but the idea that a computerized statistical modeling of professional sporting events could be something that would help to keep a publication like Sports Illustrated in the running is another remarkable effect of the proliferation of mobile devices.

Amazon as Antitrust Monopoly and Permanent Temporary Workplace

[posted by Alice]

In the June 18, 2012 issue of The Nation, Steve Wasserman wrote, “The bookstore wars are over. Independents are battered, Borders is dead, Barnes & Noble weakened but still standing and Amazon triumphant. Yet still there is no peace; a new war rages for the future of publishing. The recent Justice Department lawsuit accusing five of the country’s biggest publishers of illegally colluding with Apple to fix the price of e-books is, arguably, publishing’s Alamo.” Wasserman also called this suit “an antitrust travesty, a failure to go after the ‘monopolistic monolith’ that is, as the Times put it, ‘publishing’s real nemesis.’”

A little over a year later Amazon is the major beneficiary of a July 10 court ruling which says Apple and major publishers may not collude to maintain higher e-book prices. Yet this ruling, which helps assure Amazon’s place as “monopolistic monolith,” in effect rewards the online bookseller for keeping prices artificially low. As Michael Bourne at The Millions has said, “Often, Amazon was actually losing money on its per-unit sales, but that was fine with Amazon, because what Amazon really wants to sell is not so much e-books as the delivery system of those e-books, called a Kindle.” What’s more, this ruling was made during a year in which Barnes & Noble took huge losses on its Nook e-reader, and Penguin and Random House officially merged so the Big Six publishers are now the Big Five. Amazon, which ranked 49th in the 2013 Fortune 500 list, has handily won “publishing’s Alamo.”

But as Amazon changes the world of publishing, it also makes noteworthy changes to the retailing landscape, contributing to a downward spiral in wages and the increase in the permanent temporary workforce. In a July 15 Harvard Business Review blog network post Michael Schrage noted that the fastest growing segment of America’s job market involves part-time and temporary jobs. Shrage cites, as one of the contributors to that trend, Amazon’s “below the radar” crowdsourcing Internet marketplace, Mechanical Turk. This questionably named site (the name refers to a chess-playing automaton from the 18th century) was launched in 2005.  According to Julian Dobson at the Huffington Post Business Blog, the work on offer ranges from transcribing business cards to correcting someone’s English, but the rate of pay is usually well below the U.S. minimum wage of $7.50/hour. For writing a ‘unique 150-word article about self-building your own home’, you might earn as little as 50 cents, yet according to Panos Ipeirotis, associate professor at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern business school, between $10 million and $150 million of transactions go through Mechanical Turk each year, with Amazon taking between 10 and 20 percent. Dobson says,“Mechanical Turk is a tiny niche of the global labor market, but it’s a niche worth watching as it’s being used by some big players, including the U.S. Army Research Lab. And Amazon is well worth watching, as a corporation that aspires to be the world’s number one intermediary between buyers and sellers.”

Amazon’s operation of its fulfillment centers also contributes to the trend toward a permanent temporary workforce. Recently at Fast Company Photographer Ben Roberts showcased his photos of the Amazon warehouse in the former coal-mining town of Rugeley, England. Rugeley suffered hard times after the closure in 1990 of the coal mine that was its main employer. In 2011 Amazon announced that it would set up a fulfillment center for packaging and delivery that would hire a “significant number of locals, some of whom had been out of work for 20 years.” The jobs themselves don’t provide “fulfillment” — workers in the huge facility must work in silence, their motions dictated by a computer that “tracks and commands every worker’s movements throughout the day.” But according to Roberts, workers are glad to have the jobs. He says, “Mines aren’t by any stretch of the imagination utopias. Any kind of mining is a dirty, dangerous, high-risk job. But what the mining industry did offer workers was a job for life. If you started working for the mine at 18, you could be the head of an entire team of miners by the time you were 35.” By contrast, the jobs in the Rugeley fulfillment center are almost always temporary positions that aren’t guaranteed and can disappear from one day to the next.

That Amazon can be described as an antitrust monopoly and permanent temporary workplace is oxymoronic at best, but more likely it’s an indicator of serious trouble in the publishing industry and the economy. Readers and writers might benefit from a more cautious view of this problematic corporate giant.