A new look at the publisher’s lunch

As usual, everyone’s talking about how publishing can survive, and how to make money on the internet. Paul Graham has written an excellent essay, Post-Medium Publishing, where he observes that it is wrong to think publishers sell ‘content’ – rather, they sell a means of distribution, and prices are dictated by that (ie, historically, the price of paper and printing) – if t’were otherwise, we’d all pay vastly different sums depending on the quality of the content. And we don’t. Bottom line: “Whoever controls the device sets the terms.” Prospect Magazine, commenting on Graham, also reminds us that we’ve seen all this before, back in Shakespeare’s time.

Meanwhile, Steve Outing warns that ‘Your news content is worth zero to digital consumers’, and that money is again in delivery systems such as neato iPhone apps. (He quaintly goes on to suggest micro-rewards – tip jars 2.0, I guess.) Jeff Reifman has weighed in against Outing saying ‘Micropayments could save journalism’. It’s hard to see how: if the headline writers are any good, the headline is where the news is – the rest is elaboration. I get my news from a few simple sources, all of them essentially ‘headlines’:

  • A few snatched moment’s of Radio 4’s Today programme between bouts of baby care – I really just get the 7am headlines
  • RSS feeds from the BBC and the Guardian on my iGoogle page – I’ll occasionally click through if I want the detail or I’m piqued by something
  • Twitter feeds

I buy one newspaper a week: the Saturday Guardian. I do read the news in it – but almost invariably I’ve seen it the day before on the web. I like it for the columnists, the features, the magazine, basically as a ritual entertainment to accompany a cup of tea. My wife just does the crossword. The physical newspaper, in other words, has become an entertainment channel rather than a news one.

Micropayments? I can’t see myself paying for news stories. Features… maybe, if they’re really going to interest me. Academic papers: possibly, if I’m researching something. That said, I did make one micropayment this week: we were planning to buy a new car seat for the baby, and only one place, Which, has a decent, up-to-date review of best buys, focusing on safety (ie there’s an emotive imperative here – and the possibility of saving money, I guess). They charge £1 for a trial subscription – but then sting you with monthly payments several times that. You can cancel any time, so I will cancel straight away. It’s very annoying: I just want one article, which I probably would have paid £5 for, simply because it’s not possible to get this quality information elsewhere. I subscribed because I’m bloody minded enough to remember to unsubscribe – though of course their business model partly relies on people forgetting, or being sufficiently charmed by the dull magazine you get in the mail.

Paul Graham says that the only kind of information people will pay for is that “they think they can make money from” – I’d add that saving money (assuming more is saved than the information costs!) might be a motive, and niche issues such as the baby safety report I mentioned.

Graham reminds us, as people like Chris Anderson have done before, that something else people will pay for is live entertainment. I wonder if this connects to another constraint upon pricing for publishing models: it’s noticeable that novels, DVD rentals, cinema visits, CD albums, all generally fall within the £5 to £15 range: people will only pay so much for entertainment that they know can be reproduced. Live entertainment, such as a theatre show, opera, music gigs and a decent meal at a good restaurant, is more of a one-off experience, and commands more value. In his excellent book 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman points to research showing that people’s happiness is improved significantly more by experiences than by products. There’s no such thing as retail therapy.

Again and again I come back, too, to the feeling that modern content producers – writers in particular – have unrealistic expectations of fame and fortune. Most people don’t want their content, and won’t pay much for it even if they do. As Prospect says, we’ve gone back to a pre-Romantic time (I’m thinking of poets and gentleman publishers such as John Murray here, which is where the modern author-publisher dream of the last 200 years began) where writers have to work hard, diversify, hawk their products themselves, and not just sit back and expect a publisher (whose grip of the medium is now somewhat buttery) to make them millions. The Dan Browns and J K Rowlings are the lucky exceptions.

I’m a writer myself, so it’s not like I don’t have an interest in these issues – but I just write to commission, content I know someone seems to want, rather than trying to sell my own ideas, as the latter is so much hard work (obviously I thank my stars for those commissions – and make most of my money by doing design work anyway – ie making vessels for others’ content). Whatever ideas I have (mostly daft, I admit) I give away for free, often at this website.

Perhaps the answer lies in Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans argument: build a core, devoted audience – if your stuff is good enough (and has a bit of luck and a fair wind), there will be some people at least who will go to your every gig, buy every T-shirt, read every book. If you can’t find 1000 true fans… maybe it’s time to be honest and admit the world isn’t knocking at your door. Do something for free. See what happens. Oh, and go out for a nice meal: it will make you happy.

Edit: After a challenge on Twitter to crowdsource payment for an article, you can now pay micropayments to get me to write an article on ‘The Modern Ninja’! I can’t lose: if not enough money is raised, it proves content isn’t worth much to people (well, er, my content…); if it is, I get a paid commission! (Oh, and if less than $300 is raised, I’ll refund your money folks!)

The nonsense of an ending?

I’ve just finished watching the third season of Heroes. I enjoyed it, but various things about it – and about Lost (I’ve yet to see season five of that, though), and other contemporary TV shows, make me ponder about narrative theory. As one does.

One thing that’s really noticeable about these series is their reluctance to let characters die. In Heroes, the same core of characters continues from one series to the next, and various ingenious ways are thought up to aid this, to the extent that they can even reappear after death, whether as a figment of someone’s mind, or as a physical duplicate, or in someone else’s body, and so on (no names to avoid spoilers). The actors must have really good contracts drawn up… Yes, a few loveable characters have died, but they’re the exception.

A similar pattern persists in Lost, which seems to throw Occam’s razor ever further to the wind: it relentlessly multiplies entities beyond necessity, beyond the enjoyable teasing of the audience to the extent of suggesting the writers are rudderless. Season five, I’m told, may change this view – we’ll see.

Much is made of the ‘story arc’ these days – how TV shows have become more sophisticated, and demand a complex level of attention. Which is fair enough, and of course books have run over multiple volumes before – but I wonder if the arc is being stretched to breaking point, and sometimes misses a fundamental of narrative: the expectation of an ending.

Frank Kermode, in The Sense of an Ending, wrote that fictions (as with human lives) have an implied ending all along, which makes ” possible a satisfying consonance with the origins and with the middle”. Peter Brooks’ Reading for the Plot also studies how we “strive toward narrative ends” – he coined the phrase “the anticipation of retrospection” for that sense of how we imagine ourselves at the end, looking back on where we are now.

We are promised an ending for Lost in season six – but is there any way we can meaningfully look forward to it? What about Heroes: we’ve saved the cheerleader and saved the world a couple of times already – what’s left? It just doesn’t seem clear that there’s a narrative architecture any more. Maybe they’ll have to end, like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (another character brought back from the dead to satisfy a hungry audience) with a whimper more than a bang.

Another TV series that comes to mind is Doctor Who – long ago this came up with a clever notion for letting the character die, but the series live on: regeneration. We want the Doctor to keep having adventures – but even he is mortal, and the 12-regeneration limit gives a whiff of the grave that helps keep his adventures alive, I think. But I bet if the series is still running, the BBC will give in to the temptation to renew his regenerative lease when they run out…

Life on Mars worked well, partly because, I think, it had a clear two-series remit, and we knew an end would come, with all the fun of guessing what it might be and looking for signposts along the way. Ashes to Ashes neatly revives some favourite characters without the narrative problem of Sam Tyler (though is less innovative as a result, so far).

Maybe it’s time to start killing things off, and having ideas for new stories, instead of keeping the same ones going at the expense of all sense.

Fighting the day job

Wow. My Twitter personality test site, Twanalyst, has been used 150,000 times since I launched it just four days ago! It’s all pretty overwhelming, especially as I’m  trying to concentrate on a shedload of ordinary work at the moment… Anyway, thanks to everyone who’s used it and helped spread the word.

I’m genuinely working on new features for it, and in fact although the personality thing is a bit of fun, I think the site will have serious uses to give it longer-term appeal. For one thing, it’s useful to see stats and a user profile all on one page anyway; in future I want users to see how their stats have changed over time. I’m also working on a system to suggest relevant users for people to follow. If you have more ideas, do let me know.

The patron saint of procrastinators

A single blog post by one person I admire greatly, John Crowley, about another, Coleridge, has brought back in a rush all the haphazard things I love about the latter (and it turns out I’ve written briefly about them both before here). Crowley quotes some of this passage:

You have not above 300 volumes to write before you come to it— & as you write perhaps a volume once in ten years, you have ample Time, my dear Fellow!— Never be ashamed of scheming — you can’t think of living less than 4000 years, & that would nearly suffice for your present schemes—/To Be sure, if they go on in the same Ratio to the Performance, there is a small difficulty arises/but never mind! look at the bright side always— & die in a Dream!

The “dear fellow” he is talking to is of course himself, mocking his own tendency to scribble endless ideas for books and other projects in his notebooks – something I can relate to dearly.

Here’s another quote from the same year, 1804, collected in Anima Poetae:

This evening, and indeed all this day, I ought to have been reading and filling the margins of Malthus. I had begun and found it pleasant. Why did I neglect it? Because I ought not to have done this. The same applies to the reading and writing of letters, essays, etc. Surely this is well worth a serious analysis, that, by understanding, I may attempt to heal it. For it is a deep and wide disease in my moral nature, at once elm- and-oak-rooted. Is it love of liberty, of spontaneity, or what? These all express, but do not explain, the fact… From infancy up to manhood, under parents, schoolmasters, inspectors, etc., our pleasures and pleasant self-chosen pursuits (self-chosen because pleasant, and not originally pleasant because self-chosen) have been forcibly interrupted, and dull, unintelligible rudiments or painful tasks imposed upon us instead. Now all duty is felt as a command…

A time will come when passiveness will attain the dignity of worthy activity, when men shall be as proud within themselves of having remained in a state of deep tranquil emotion, whether in reading or in hearing or in looking, as they now are in having figured away for an hour…

His defensive stance on being allowed to dream is the tip maybe of an iceberg of agonies about his lack of output – but he still managed to outcreate most people, and much as some (far from all!) of his poetry is fantastic, I think it’s his prose which should be his lasting monument. He almost created a genre by himself – fragmentary reflections, allusions, digressions (all of which were what attracted him to Borges).

Some day I’d like to collect his thoughts of this kind into a ‘defence of dreaming’… But I probably won’t. And maybe that’s the point.

Thinking inside the box

Vigornian has made some good comments about the whole social media/malarkey. I feel the urge to explain why I like Twitter so much.

The biggest reason for me is a slightly odd one: I’m obsessed with the idea of ‘formal constraints’ being a spur to creativity, hence an interest in crosswords, Oulipo, J-P’s “show me the way to go home” variations, etc etc. Having to write in 140 characters or less for me is a hugely liberating idea. I don’t use Twitter to keep up with friends per se – that’s what LiveJournal and Facebook are for (among other things) – though of course it’s great to see friends there, some of whom don’t use those other sites much or at all anyway. If you like, I use it to show off to strangers.

I have reasons for that, partly: I like creating oddball web quizzes and so on, and I’ve got plans for several Twitter apps that I hope could go viral. It’s a bit depressing to put it in such terms, but much of this is about marketing – I’m not interested in the whole “drive business with Twitter” tedium that’s everywhere, but I suppose I’m ego-brand building, which might lead to interesting work (I’m self-employed, remember?), but better still just leads to meeting interesting people. So, yeah, it’s all about me – but really that’s all about encountering all the myriad creative, interesting people out there I’ve never met before. I can gain an audience for my whimsies, and be the audience for others’.

Facebook is fantastic as a shared repository for friends’ experiences (tomorrow, I’m meeting a friend I haven’t seen for 15 years – thanks to Facebook); LiveJournal is best for discursive reflection and comment – but neither helps you meet new people much. I love LiveJournal because it’s all about writing, and that’s part of what I do in life; Facebook doesn’t offer much creative expression – other than the status update, which I loved until I found Twitter – so leaves me colder.

I also love the elegant simplicity of the Twitter concept. The way you connect to others through @ and to subjects through # is very simple, but has a lot of power (I’m not saying it’s without faults, mind).

Editor says he thinks Facebook would kill Twitter by allowing public updates. maybe he’s right, maybe he’s not – but I personally prefer the sites (as Cyclotronic says) to keep their separate strengths. Trying to be all things to all people might just end up being disappointing for everyone.

I like Twitter’s search facility: I find interesting tweets and people all the time through it, all well as skimming the thoughts of a zillion people. It’s like being telepathic. Many of those are dull as ditchwater, but with just 140 characters, gems shine out. Others on the web have written better than I can on how this “live search” concept is a big thing. It’s not Facebook that should swallow Twitter – it’s Google.

I couldn’t quite get all this into 140 characters.

Small edit: I should also have mentioned how useful Twitter is for news feeds, whether national or specific (eg BBC technology) – if headline writers are any good, you can get the gist, and lately (=baby) I’ve sadly little time to read full stories. Though I still prefer RSS feeds somewhat, as the timeline gets so cluttered.

Cough cough

So, we did that thing, you know, where you take an ickle baby to church on Christmas Day. Unlike the carol service the other night, which we had to abandon after 20 minutes due to said ickle baby screaming his ickle bright red head off, he slept through it and all was well. We had a zillion people cooing over him. One dared to make some reference to the ickle baby Jesus. We winced.

Anyway, having sat next to two coughing old ladies swapping tales of their antiobiotics, I wasn’t dead chuffed about shaking their hands for the peace-be-with-you bit. However. It did give me a new theory about religion. It all makes sense now: religion has nothing to do with spirituality and everything to do with epidemiology.

Shaking hands to share peace. Communion. Sharing the body and blood. It’s all about sharing germs. Your close-knit community of old shares its germs and raises its collective immune system. Except now we all only come together at Christmas. So steer well clear of the coughing old ladies.

In other news, we’re having Christmas just the three of us as a fambly [/Dickens]. Thanks to Louis this will almost certainly mean us eating in separate sittings like every other day. But anyway: thanks to a surfeit of Marks and Sparks vouchers I got in trade for some old mobile phones, our entire Christmas spread has cost us 82 pence cash. Beat that, Robert Peston!


The author did it

There’s an interesting article about G K Chesterton in the latest New Yorker (the article’s not online yet), which mentions in passing that GKC ‘must have influenced’ Borges – indeed he did. It sent me ferreting off to find some of the essays where Borges wrote about him, and I found one I hadn’t come across before, ‘The Labyrinths of the Detective Story and Chesterton’.

Anyway, what caught my eye was Borges listing what he took to be the rules of classic detective fiction. Here they are (his words in italics, my comments afterwards):

A. A discretional limit of six characters.
B. The declaration of all the terms of the problem. This is basically Dorothy L Sayers’ ‘fair play’ rule – I’m sure I saw an essay of hers with a list of principles once, but I can’t track it down.
C. An avaricious economy of means. I’m not totally certain what he’s on about here (he only gives counterexamples, eg Conan Doyle regularly breaks B), though I think there’s a tone of Occam’s razor about it.
D. The priority of how over who. ie what happened is more interesting to deduce than who actually did it.
E. A reticence concerning death. (He adds that detective fiction’s “glacial muses are hygieve, fallacy and order”. I think he means it should be an elegant puzzle rather than a gore-fest.
F. A solution that is both necessary and marvellous. There’s only one solution, which makes the reader boggle – but has no recourse to the supernatural. Chesterton’s Father Brown is his model.

That was written in 1935 – only a few years after Ronald Knox came up with his ten commandments for detective fiction (1929) and SS Van Dine formulated his twenty rules (1929). (Side note to self: ooh, I must track down The Sins of Father Knox.)

Anyway, er yeah, not sure why I’m posting this – just interested me. I wonder if there are similar principles that make games work?

Will this do?

Five years on from the Personality Declaration Act 2009, we are in a position to evaluate the indubitable changes it has wrought on society.

A reminder of the background to the legislation – which itself obliges me at this point to declare my red status. Towards the end of 2008, the general populace was growing restless against the use of call centres for businesses to manage their customer relations. There was also a rising tide of complaints against shop floor staff in many retail outlets having no clear interest in or knowledge of the products they were selling (in the cases where they had not been replaced by electronic information points and automated tills).

In a White Paper, communications analyst James McCully proposed that customer service, from both sides of the fence, would be rendered much more effective if the customer were able to determine the level of sincerity of the salesperson or support operative and their personal investment in the matter in hand. He further proposed the use of Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, then still in vogue with human resources professionals, and ran trials in a number of large utility companies where software was used to determine the broad emotional nature of a calling customer (their emotional state was indicated by detecting stress patterns in the voice). The operative then appointed to handle the enquiry was chosen according to their own MTBI profile and how likely it was that they could help the customer (or get rid of them) without further emotional escalation.

To everyone’s surprise, the experiment was generally successful in terms of customer retention – but in practice around 80% of the work was allocated to only 20% of the customer service operatives. Only those with certain personality traits were likely to achieve a positive outcome.

The reader is likely to recall the next stage, a radical simplification of this process where all workers in a public-facing capacity – whether in person, online or as a skypist – were obliged to declare their ‘enthusiasm’, with the use of a statement such as ‘I am obliged to tell you I am personally invested in this company/product’, or its counterpart ‘NOT personally invested’. As with the MBTI experiment, the ratio of the former to the latter was something in the region of four to one. However, the new system threw up successful outcomes, even with the operatives ‘not invested’.

The simple reason was that customers could relate to an operative ‘just doing their job’ (as many were in the same situation in their own workplace) and forgive the lack of interest. To start with there were headlines along the lines of ‘STAFF URGED NOT TO BE BOVVERED’, but when the policy was enshrined in legislation, the journalists themselves were obliged to declare their motivation or lack thereof, and the threat of hypocrisy soon ironed out controversy.

The further simplification in 2012 of this system into a ‘traffic light’ system of ‘green’ and ‘red’ status (for enthusiasm or lack of it respectively) was even more popular and avoided the unwieldy jargon of ‘personal investment’ – although some foreign visitors for the Olympic Games were no doubt somewhat baffled.

Although ‘red’ staff achieved higher levels of customer satisfaction than hitherto, naturally the ‘greens’ remained more popular where detailed information or assistance was required, and they began to attract higher salaries. The occasional cases where members of the red group attempted to fake a green personality were soon weeded out with advances in the burgeoning field of neurorecruitment. Whether the minority of highly paid, ever-smiling and persistently helpful workers retains this popularity is for the future to tell.

This article was written largely with the assistance of Wal*Martopedia, “the free encyclopedia anyone green can edit” (TM). It took 20 minutes to compile and I have been paid 30 euros.

I’m loading the gun now

So, in today’s post I had a letter from John Lewis, offering me insurance for our dishwasher two years after we bought it for ongoing “peace of mind”. Naturally, that the dishwasher might not have been covered any more has been nagging at me like something from Edgar Allen Poe, and it was only a matter of time before I went out and MURDERED SOMEONE WITH A TEASPOON when the pressure built up to an unbearable point.

But of course, what would really give PEACE OF BLOODY MIND is for people never ever ever ever to offer me insurance – which, like religion and charity-giving, I’m perfectly capable of seeking out when I bloody well want to, thank you, peace be with you.

So out of curiosity I googled for associations with the phrase “peace of mind” and the word insurance.

“peace of mind” insurance gives 1.98 million hits
“peace of mind” -insurance (ie excluding the latter term) gives 2.21m
“peace of mind” alone gives me 2.28m

I learn two things from this:
1. Insurance companies (or their copywriters) demonstrate a breathtaking embrace of cliché. Sadly this comes as no surprise.
2. Google can’t count, so it’s advanced search delimiters can’t really be trusted.

If someone could maybe insure me against Google giving me misleading results, perhaps then I would truly have peace of mind.