A Community of Critics and Readers Benefits Literature

Summer in Kathy's GardenQuite frankly, I bought the latest print issue of Harpers because the online site has a paywall and I wanted to read Caleb Crain’s “Counter Culture: Fighting for literature in an age of algorithms.” (I decided that if I had to pay I’d rather have a paper magazine.) Though I was less impressed by the issue’s other content, particularly a commentary in praise of bloodsport (falconry) and an article that damns with faint praise the Affordable Care Act, I found Crain’s piece on literature in the digital age to be very worthwhile reading.

Crain begins with a description of a “new kind of disenchantment [that] has come over literature” that affects how people determine which works deserve to be considered literature and which should endure. Then he describes the “revolutionary advance in counting,” by which he means computerization, that has led to algorithms that claim to be able to recommend appropriate reading matter to you, depending on what you say you have read (e.g., on Goodreads) or what you want to buy (e.g., on Amazon).

After taking a quick look at counting — and literature — in a historical context Crain discusses how we see things we judge to be countable, such as “likes” on Facebook or the number of stars in an Amazon review. We tend, he says, to see instances of a countable thing as interchangeable, and when we apply this interchangeable status to works of literature, why should we chose to read one work as opposed another? Why should one single instance of a countable thing matter more than another? Asking such questions can lead us to “equate the value of a thing with the popularity of it,” as the number of clicks or views seems to indicate the worth of an online article or video.

Some say that paying attention to what is popular is more democratic than adhering to a rigidly determined canon of great literature, which was extant when I took my first Survey of English Literature course in the 1970s. And in fact present-day readers are more open to a diverse array of voices partially because the canon is no longer sacrosanct. But Crain says, “The canon is a mystical sum, which can never be tallied: its only true index is written in living and fallible hearts./ This myth of unknowability is being replaced today by an illusion of certainty.” And that certainty is based on quantifiability, such as the Amazon sales rank of a book or how many stars it got in reader reviews.

But if the internet, at least in theory, gives everyone a voice, who are the influencers in the internet age? And why should we value the opinions of critics at the New York Times, for example, over other voices and opinions? Crain says, “It’s impossible for a critic to judge a book unless she holds it to a standard, which may take the form of a rule, such as ‘Language should be no fussier than what’s needed to convey its message,’ or of a personal touchstone, such as Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy. But where does the authority for the standard come from?” He notes that in the past a critic appealed for her authority to her shared community, i.e., those who regularly read the publication she wrote for. And if she no longer reflected their views and tastes, she would no longer be able to influence them. Now, however, readers of reviews aren’t necessarily readers of publications and are more likely to find reviews on Twitter and Facebook. (And in fact, though I’m at least occasionally a part of the Harpers readers’ community, I came upon a link to Crain’s article on Twitter.) Crain says that, though most critics are cut off from their community of relevant readers, new communities of “critics and readers with borders that are porous and expansive but nonetheless meaningful” could be just the thing to help literature survive.

Though I prefer the term “reviewer” to the term “critic,” I’m heartened by the implication that community is more important to the future of literature than either saving the canon or bowing to inevitable algorithms. In fact I usually choose what to read based on reviews in trusted sources or on recommendations of friends whose tastes I share, so for me community is already the most important influence. And that community does not usually include an unknown group of people posting reviews on Amazon, whose values and point of view are otherwise unknown to me.

Manifesto for a Reader-Centered Universe

Recently I decided to make reading a higher priority. I started doing book reviews. I got a library card at a nearby community college library that still has lots of books. I joined Goodreads. I wrote this manifesto at the height of the excitement over e-books and new publishing technology, and I still stand by it.
One of the most challenging and frustrating things about being a writer in the 21st century is the fact that there seem to be more writers than readers, and probably the most annoying thing about the buzz over digital publishing is that the focus is on the technology, rather than on the human element.

We refer to Kindles and the like as e-readers, yet they are passive objects, and the real reading is done by me and billions of other humans like me. This isn’t simply a matter of semantics. As we go down, level by level, from the legal fictions of corporate persons who produce the e-readers and the publishers who make e-books available; through the bookstores and libraries, where we are at last face to face with other humans; and finally encounter individuals in the act of reading, we see that one phenomenon is most important: a human reader interprets a script or other text produced by a writer in order to understand something that a writer or group of writers produced yesterday or a thousand years ago.

Once you make your way past the corporate persons and the bureaucratic entities and you begin to reach the level of other human beings, you realize the true importance of the reader. We are not just consumers: we are the goal, the grail, the intended endpoint of all that is written! If it weren’t for us, gentle readers, people like you and me who read newspapers and magazines, books and academic articles, whether online or on paper, over the internet (or perhaps we are distracted or not literate or can’t see and we must listen to them being read to us in audio books or by screen readers), in whatever form we take in the words that were written by writers, we readers and auditors are the intended audience and what the whole process is about. We must not let them forget that.

A reader, an auditor, the intended audience of the written word is a human being. And an e-reader is a device, not a reader, any more than your speech recognition software really hears you. As we begin to try to automate the process of putting writers’ words into “print” and making them available on the internet for download to e-readers, we have to remind ourselves that reading is an active process and it means nothing and affects nothing without the willing cooperation of readers, human readers. And if you think that how we say this doesn’t matter, then you’re not being a very good reader, dear reader. But if you care about being a reader (auditor) of the words of writers and care how they are presented to you, you deserve to be treated very respectfully and with the full knowledge of your worth and importance. As a writer, as a publisher, and as a web designer, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a reader-centered universe.

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.

Who Are You Watching and Who’s Watching You?

On the Rising Popularity of Mobile Devices

[posted by Alice]

During the three years that I’ve been following electronic publishing trends and the effects of new media on readers and writers, nothing has surprised me more than the spectacular increase in adoption of mobile devices. Smartphones and tablet computers are soon likely to outsell both laptops and e-readers. (See “Tablets set to outsell laptops by 2014”  and “The E-Reader Revolution: Over Just as It Has Begun?” )

Such a rapid change has forced online publishers to take notice because people use mobile devices differently than laptops. (See “Study: Mobile news ‘snacking’ is up sharply, but tablets are the killer news devices” and “Mobile Mindset”) And these new habits, combined with the physical reality of smaller screens and higher resolutions, are reshaping the internet, forcing sites to become responsive to the needs of tablet and smartphone users. Remarkably, 21% of all adult cell owners now do most of their online browsing using their mobile phone. (See “Pew Internet report: Cell Internet Use 2013.“)

Personal observation bears out the statistical claims in these reports and studies. Here in the United States the people I know who have mobile devices refer to them almost constantly. Last summer I traveled to Prague for the first time since 2011, and I noticed a tremendous increase in the numbers of tourists checking email on their phones in Starbucks and taking selfies on Charles Bridge with their iPads. And as I watched tourists from all over the world turn away from the city and their companions to focus on small screens, I wanted to ask two questions: Who are you watching and who’s watching you? Here are a couple of answers:

In a September 9 article in Der Spiegel called “How the NSA Accesses Smartphone Data,” a team of writers (Marcel Rosenbach, Laura Poitras and Holger Stark) reported on leaked NSA documents, including an internal presentation called “Does your target have a smartphone?”  According to this article, “For an agency like the NSA, the data storage units [i.e., smartphones] are a goldmine, combining in a single device almost all the information that would interest an intelligence agency: social contacts, details about the user’s behavior and location, interests (through search terms, for example), photos and sometimes credit card numbers and passwords.” So the NSA set up task forces to figure out how to spy on various phone systems, which they now know how to do. And to add insult to injury for iPhone users, it turns out that the NSA sees Steve Jobs as the Big Brother who leads them zombielike to a data-sharing dystopia. (Watch “The Dark Side of the iPhone Lines.”)

In the September 12 New York Times, you can find an article called “No Child Left Untableted,” about 18 middle schools in South Carolina in which every teacher and student has received a tablet computer and will be expected to use it as a “transformative educational tool.” The upshot of this development is that kids and teachers will be looking at screens instead of at each other. Author Carlo Rotello tries to be even-handed in his presentation but ultimately says little to dissuade us from the ominous implications of this sentence: “The tablets, paid for in part by a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, were created and sold by a company called Amplify, a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and they struck me as exemplifying several dubious American habits now ascendant: the overvaluing of technology and the undervaluing of people; the displacement of face-to-face interaction by virtual connection; the recasting of citizenship and inner life as a commodified data profile; the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems.” (Watch Louis C.K.’s Explanation of Why He Hates Smartphones Is Sad, Brilliant.)


More on Those “7 Things They Don’t Tell You About Freelancing”

[posted by Alice]

When I get tired of working at home, I take my computer to a library or coffeehouse, like other freelancers do. On Saturday morning I went to Starbucks. Usually, when I sign on to the wi-fi, I ignore the Digital Network page that comes up after I accept their terms of service, but yesterday one of the offerings caught my eye. It was a mediabistro article called “7 Things They Don’t Tell You About Freelancing: Here’s what we wish they taught us in J-school.”

It’s not hard to understand why the Starbucks Network would feature an article about freelancers (lots of us “work” there). But the reason I actually clicked on that link was because just last week I attended the Delegate Assembly of the National Writers Union, the only labor union that represents freelance writers, and I was more focused on freelancers’ issues than usual. Even after I learned that the article was originally posted on August 8, 2011, I continued reading because blogger Alisha Tillery gives a soberingly accurate description of the life of a freelance writer. She says that freelancing is a full-time job, yet you might also need to have a “real” job to sustain yourself; you still have a boss (your editor) but you may have to chase checks in order to get paid; and so on. Tillery also gives information about using the Writer’s Market, suggests sites where freelancers can find job postings, and says that the Freelancers Union might be able to help with late payment issues and other problems.

As a newly energized NWU member, I asked myself why she didn’t also include the National Writers Union in her list of connections and resources. There are advantages to the fact that the NWU represents only writers and is an authentic trade union, part of the AFL-CIO, with the attention to workers rights this implies. (Freelancers Union, by comparison, is an unaffiliated organization that deals with freelancers in arts, design and entertainment; media and advertising; financial services; nonprofit;  technology; domestic child care; skilled computer use; and traditional or alternative health care.) And though it’s true that if you live in New York City, membership in the Freelancers Union can get you health insurance, the same is true of the NWU.  And the NWU has been around longer than the Freelancers Union. (The National Writers Union was formed as a local of the United Autoworkers Union in 1981, and the Freelancers Union was founded by the nonprofit Working Today in 2001.)

So why didn’t the NWU get a nod when Ms. Tillery talked about resources for freelance writers?  Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing that she talked about any sort of unionizing efforts at all. Because it’s true that writers tend to resist any attempt to organize them, and some are too individualistic to imagine that they could be comfortable in any sort of union, especially if they are already doing well. Yet as newspapers close and new technology creates as many challenges as opportunities, it is obvious to me that unions for writers have a crucial role to play. Ursula Le Guin, the legendary science fiction writer and NWU member, said it very well in her solidarity message to our Delegate Assembly:

Dear Sisters and Brothers:  We know that the mega-corporations think they own and control publishing.  And we know that organizing writers is like herding cats. So — let’s imagine a huge herd of lean, hungry, highly organized cats coming at those fat-cat corporations, and clawing the stuffing out of them. I can’t wait.

Whenever I sit alone writing, I’m aware that we freelancers need solitary time to do our work – at home or in coffeehouses – but we can benefit from the solidarity and collective spirit of a union, as well as the collective power it can give us to deal with all those problems they didn’t tell you about at J-School.

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.

Another Look at Content Curation

[posted by Alice]

I have now been using scoop.it for a couple of weeks, and I find that it’s a helpful way to gather resources, much the way Pinterest enables users to pull together a collection of appealing images. But because I’m a supporter of bloggers and their right to make an income from the content they create, and a supporter of the National Writers Union’s “Pay the Writer” campaign, I decided to do some research about how content curation has affected bloggers and whether or not it’s considered to be copyright violation.

Bloggers’ opinions seem to run the gamut from Frederic Martinet at actulligence.com whose post “Curation — it’s shit” calls curation “revoltingly bad” to Kay McMahon at Kay’s Traffic Blog who has a more measured estimation in her post “Is content curation theft?” She answers that curation is not theft if it’s done fairly and legally, giving attributions to the original source and providing comments to add value to the curation. But even Ms. McMahon has a very low opinion of Pinterest, “whose very existence seems to depend on facilitating the theft and ‘sharing’ of other people’s content,” often making it difficult for users further along the line to track down the origin of “pinned” content.

At other blogs Pinterest seems to be regarded as the worst of the curation sites. The blogger at Resourceful Mommy, in a post called “Content (Curation) Is King,” gives examples of a corporate site stealing from independent bloggers. She shows that Pinterest makes this easy by obscuring the original source of images posted there. The Resourceful Mommy blogger says this kind of content theft matters because “When larger sites and companies take our content without permission or payment, they cut off a revenue source.” Comments at the end of the Resourceful Mommy post echo these concerns.

Though here at Digital Gloss, I’m trying to gather resources about digital publishing, I don’t want to participate in a trend that will undermine the livelihood of other writers. Therefore, I’ll use scoop.it as a private resource and nothing more, and I have deleted the “scooped” post mentioned in my September 23 post.

Huffington Post Boycott

[posted by Alice]

The National Writers Union has withdrawn from its Huffington Post boycott, which was launched in March of this year in cooperation with the Newspaper Guild.

This boycott was part of a campaign to gain compensation for bloggers who didn’t receive any of the $315 million Arianna Huffington got when she sold HuffPost to AOL in February.

So now the boycott is over. Has Huffington Post done the right thing and paid the unpaid?

Unfortunately not. But according to a letter on the Newspaper Guild site, Huffington and her staff have met with the boycotters to “discuss the need for a model that compensates journalists for their efforts.” The letter continues:

“Now that we’ve opened a dialog with HuffPost, it makes sense to us to set aside the boycott as we attempt to work together and move forward. There is no single, clear cut answer to what constitutes an acceptable unpaid op/ed piece, when casual commentary crosses the line into researched analysis, or when a discussion about ideas becomes an “assignment.” These issues will need to be monitored and reassessed continually, and we think that can best happen by building a constructive relationship with HuffPost. However you feel about the Huffington Post, they are clearly a major player in emerging models of online journalism.”

In a post on their website called “What’s Up With the Boycott of the Huffington Post?”, the National Writes Union indicates that they have also dropped the boycott but are continuing and intensifying their Pay the Writer campaign. Demands include:

–Freelance journalists working for for-profit, multi-million dollar online publications should get paid.
–If you cover the news for anybody, you should get paid.
–If you take on assignments, with an editor, you should get paid.
–Occasional contributions by writers, educators or activists who are promoting a book or a cause could be unpaid and that fact should be acknowledged at the end of the article.
–Frequent and regular contributors should be paid.