In an open letter this month addressed to members of the Authors Guild, the organization’s vice president, the American author Richard Russo, has warned that tech companies’ operations in the content space may increasingly threaten writers’ livelihoods and recognition.
“Traditional publishers may have underpaid us,” Russo writes, “but at least to them we were poets and painters and songwriters, terms that implied both respect and ownership of what we made, at least until we’ve sold it to them.
“The tech ethos is different. To them, we’re often seen as mere hirelings. And since those who hire us are in the business of business, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders to pay us as little as they can get away with and to make certain we understand that we’re mere workers, not partners in the enterprise.”
The commentary is a follow-up to Russo’s 2013 letter to the membership. In this message, he touches on favorite points of criticism, including “the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them, by the ‘information wants to be free’ crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by Internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to online sites that sell pirated (read ‘stolen’) books.”
Clearly, there are many with whom to take umbrage.
Five years later, Russo writes to an author-advocacy trade organization that has grown past the 10,000-member mark and has become the lead response group in many issues authors are encountering, from inappropriate trademark efforts to contractual conflicts with publishers.
Most recently, for example, the guild has written letters in support of the writers of Slate and Thrillist, arguing that they should be allow to unionize. There’s probably a clue to the direction the guild itself is going in representing authors in its posting about the new letters: “Few individual writers have any true bargaining power, but collective bargaining gives writers greater leverage to negotiate the terms of their employment.
“The Authors Guild supports collective bargaining for all staff writers and hopes to one day attain similar benefits for freelance journalists and authors.”
Authors Are ‘Often Seen as Mere Hirelings’
Indeed, collective bargaining—one of modern labor’s oldest strategies—may hold value for authors in the future that Russo is predicting for writers.
“The tech ethos is different. To them, we’re often seen as mere hirelings. And since those who hire us are in the business of business, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders to pay us as little as they can get away with.”Richard Russo Russo concedes that in some areas, the arrival of tech platforms as consumers of content holds opportunity or writers: “Tech Giants like Google and Facebook and Apple are all moving into the content business, which means (and what a bitter pill this must be for them to swallow!) they need us ‘content providers.’ That means more book options and, for those of us who want to make the pivot into TV and film writing, more opportunities there.” The sword, however, he writes, has two edges. “The conflict, of course, is as old as art and commerce,” he writes, “but today it’s playing out algorithmically and those algorithms have not been designed for our benefit.”
As part of his message to the membership–designed to encourage members to bring in more authors—Russo joins many in talking about a decline in recent years in author incomes, “here in the US, but also in Canada and much of Europe. … A tiny percentage can make a living through writing alone; the rest have to supplement their income by teaching or taking on other work or marrying people with more lucrative careers, strategies that have been known to lead in the end to exhaustion, writing less, and self-loathing (which many of us suffer from already).”
A Penguin Random House author, Russo doesn’t spare the trade in his criticisms: “Traditional publishing continues to consolidate and contract, and many of the largest houses are part of conglomerates that demand books yield the same profit margins as flat-screen TVs, in effect squeezing out important midlist books that were never designed to be bestsellers.
“Writers are often told that the success of their published books depends on their ability to promote themselves on social media. … Despite Guild efforts to spotlight the problem, some publishers continue to offer writers unfair contracts.”
As a summation of the current reality for authors, Russo writes, “Like our friends in the newspaper and music businesses, we’re still getting our asses kicked.”
His most pointed warning of vulnerability lies in his vision of tech content platforms absorbing huge volumes of writerly work without regard for proper protection of the author or journalist and without regard for the value of the human contribution involved.
“If we creators don’t fight, the massive transfer of wealth from the creative sector to the tech sector that we’ve been witnessing since 2013 will most certainly continue.”
Learn more about the Authors Guild here:https://www.authorsguild.org/member-services/
By Porter Anderson, for Publishing Perspective on July 3, 2018
Built on the site of Madrid’s former industrial slaughterhouse complex, today’s Casa del Lector is filled with the joyous yelps of children meeting storytellers and the reading public encountering exhibitions on reading’s past and future.
Original Idea: Reading Research
During last month’s Readmagine conference in Madrid, produced by José Manuel Anta of the International Publishing Distribution Association, participants had a chance to walk through the Casa del Lector (House of Reading) facility on a late afternoon when the facility was buzzing with family activities.
Commentary was provided by Luis González, director general with the Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruipérez, which has created Casa del Lector as a nonprofit place of experimentation and habit-building in reading. The physical complex, which adjoins the foundation’s home offices, was created as a cultural center in 1981 and designed by the architectural Ensemble Studio led by Antón Garcia-Abril in Madrid’s Matadero district—once a 48-building complex of livestock markets and slaughterhouses, which closed in 1996.
The Casa del Lector, González told Publishing Perspectives and other visitors, is a hub of activity and community programs particularly for the parents of young children interested in exposing them as early as possible to reading with a goal of building the reading habit into young minds.
“We want to see,” González said, “if these kids are going to be different from others in eight years’ time” because they were exposed to reading at an early age.
He pointed to a large room in which a storytelling program for children was underway. A section of the space had been turned into what looked like a parking lot for strollers, parents lining up the buggies as they brought their children in for the event.
At another point, a kid went sailing down a stairway bannister as the group led by González moved upstairs to look at several exhibition spaces. Making the center fun for kids as well as instructive, clearly is an element of its success.
The building has many flexible spaces that can provide larger or more constrained areas for activities.
“We designed this place for a different purpose,” González said, as he showed the group a beautiful, airy elevated crossover with study desks. “We wanted to have researchers here. We have 40,000 books on readership from our research center. But there aren’t so many researchers” into reading,” he said they discovered.
“So we transformed this place into a self-use, self-service place for the neighborhood.”
Exhibitions and Events in Reading
In addition to its emphasis on reading for children and families, there’s also a strong program in Web design and user experience going on at the Casa del Lector, with workshops and courses on readability and other elements of best practices in online presentation.
And there are exhibitions. Many parts of the colorful, rambling space are given to explorations of digital book formats, historical timelines about the development of literature, and steeply raked seating areas for programming and presentations, in warm, natural wood. A number of the displays are interactive, meant to capture visitors’ imaginations and lead them through inquiries into reading and the place of words in our lives today.
Given special recognition by Spain’s ministry of culture, the installation includes a restaurant and bar area—in what once was a leather tannery—and outdoor spaces for performances in warm weather. And everything, from the emphasis on reading to the foundation’s barrel-ceiling conference center, is connected by long, cobble-stoned walkways and promenades, creating the idea of spaciousness and cohesion.
The total area of Madrid’s Casa del Lector comprises some 8,000 square meters. Technically known as the International Center for Research, Development, and Innovation in Reading, the center was opened in late 2012 and took some seven years to create on the foundation’s plan, as Luis González explained.
He pointed at one point to Gutenberg on a glowing timeline display, and somehow, the Casa del Lector seemed not so far from our most personal understandings of what reading means to us, on that afternoon, slightly overcast, in Madrid.
And in its programmatic materials, the center’s information reads:
“In this space the meeting of the general public and the professional world is favored.
“The adult, the young person, and the child. The word, the image, the art.
“There is no cultural manifestation that, for your knowledge and enjoyment, does not require a full exercise of reading.”
Built in intriguing patterns of red brick and heavy stone, the complex is at once both welcoming and compelling: you can enjoy a stroll down its wide, main avenue, but not without being constantly aware that reading is expected of you—and of all of us.
Maybe the research mission wasn’t such a loss, after all. Some day, Madrid’s Casa del Lector may be the inspiration for deeply programmed and facilitated literary programming in “houses of reading” in other parts of the world.
Reader analytics can be a boon to publishers, fine-tuning marketing and consumer understanding, according to specialists at CONTEC Mexico.
By Adam Critchley & Porter Anderson for Publishing Perspective Published in June 28, 2018
‘An Aladdin’s Lamp for Publishers’
The analysis of reader emotion and sentiment can allow publishers to build strategies based on readers’ profiles, observe tastes and trends, and discover niche markets, while facilitating greater precision for book launches.
“Analysis is fundamental for publishers’ marketing departments to know who their readers are, and for discovering their tastes,” says Myriam Vidriales, director of communications and marketing in Mexico for Spain’s Grupo Planeta.
Vidriales spoke at CONTEC Mexico on innovation in publishing earlier this month, saying “Knowledge gleaned from data about readership, can also encourage a publisher to make riskier launches.
“To know the reader of each book is like having an Aladdin’s lamp. Each book is a special product, it’s unique. We’re not selling shampoo,” she says.
“And reader categories have multiplied. Young adult has divided into various groups, and there are age groups that defy simple classification. But while technology helps us identify those niches, the big challenge is understanding those values and how to apply them to marketing strategies.”
Vidriales says however that many publishers resist engaging in big data because it is seen as a purely commercial device, and that the size and complexity of each company determine how that data is used.
“One thing is to have big data, the other is to know how to analyze it. Publishers need to understand their readership. Beyond selling books, it’s all about using data to better serve readers,” Vidriales says.
‘Data Helps You Plan and Predict’
Having access to such data is comparable to meeting readers in person, according to Álvaro Jasso, CEO of the Mexican ebook publisher Malaletra. Jasso says he equates readership data analytics to traveling the country in a camper van and meeting readers face-to-face.
“Data helps you to plan and predict, and without knowing reader reaction or behavior,” he says, “you can’t see the way forward.”
But Jasso also points to the need for smaller publishers to be able to access that data, rather than having it be exclusively available to the bigger houses.
Data analysis in Mexico has been aided by the arrival of Nielsen’s BookScan and bestseller lists in 2017. David Peman, territory manager at Nielsen Mexico, says these metrics can reveal sales trends that help in publishers’ distribution decisions.
And according to Planeta’s Vidriales, “Publishers know a market intuitively, but only in a fragmentary way, and data can even influence a book’s title,” citing as an example the use of ‘guide’ over ‘manual’, given book buyers’ preferences for the former.
Using what Planeta’s Spanish-language platform Oh! Libro describes as its “magic” algorithm, this book recommendation website allows users to find reading suggestions based on their profile and preferences.
The site highlights books recommended by readers, thus acting as a walk-in bookstore, while making recommendations according to specific users’ tastes, gauged from their opinions expressed on the site.
‘The Goldmine of Successful Publishing’
Based on Barcelona, Spain, tech company Tekstum also relies on data and artificial intelligence to help publishers interpret readers’ preferences. Tekstum analyzes social media content and generates “sentiment reports” that can help publishers better understand how readers feel about particular books, genres, and more.
The company’s founding CEO Marc Santandreu says that gauging readers’ opinions is “the goldmine of successful publishing.”
Launched in 2015, Tekstum’s analysis of emotion and sentiment creates a “sentiment cloud” that tracks reader feedback, inspired by Robert Plutchik’s theories of emotion, and whose “wheel of emotions” tracks the prevalence and overlapping of various sentiments. “Algorithms will not replace publishers, booksellers, or librarians, but they will facilitate their work, allowing them to make better decisions, and make personal and more precise recommendations”Marc Santandreu
Santandreu tells Publishing Perspectives, “Knowing readers’ predominant emotions is a qualitative way of knowing their tastes,” Santandreu says, “and data helps publishers make better decisions. Culture needs to rely on technology to improve its dissemination. “Algorithms are capable of automatically analyzing thousands of opinions to find patterns within reader behavior and achieve a radiography of reactions.”
Santandreu acknowledges that the Spanish publishing industry initially has been resistant to the arrival of this and other technology.
“Publishing used to work on intuition,” he says, “but with technology, publishers can become much more efficient, and technology and culture need to walk hand-in-hand and create more of a demand-based business model. A multitude of tools can allow us to improve discoverability and sales.”
He acknowledges that there’s a margin of error when analyzing data gleaned from readers’ opinions, given the proliferation of false reviews on sites such as Amazon. “We always say the first 10 reviews on Amazon are written by authors’ relatives and friends,” he says.
But he adds that the credibility of reader sentiment also depends on the number of reviews, as a handful of negative reviews weigh little against thousands of positive ones. Nevertheless, “Five percent of data has to be taken with a level of prudence,” Santandreu says. “But if many people are saying a book is addictive, it probably is.”
He describes the publishing sector as “very conservative and traditional” and slow to embrace market research, unlike many other sectors, which constantly analyze product demand.
“Spain’s publishing sector is little-by-little increasing its use of data,” he says. “Algorithms will not replace publishers, booksellers, or librarians, but they will facilitate their work, allowing them to make better decisions, and make personal and more precise recommendations,” says Marc Santandreu. “And that ultimately helps readers.”