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Book Publishing’s Reality TV

Will book publishers be able to maintain their cultural authority into the future?  Should they?

These seem to be the questions implicit in a recent article in the New York Times, “Site Lets Writers Sell Digital Copies.” The focus of the piece is a new file sharing site called Scribd.  In a nutshell, Scribd allows users to upload all sorts of document files to the web, whereupon anyone with internet access can read, download, embed, comment on, and share them.  The site also provides pricing and encryption options for writers who’d rather not give their work away for free.  Scribd scoops up 20% of the revenue.

Scribd is the latest in a wave of self-publishing platforms, including blogs, digital journal archives, wikis, and more.  Collectively, these types of sites allow writers to bypass publishing’s traditional gatekeepers and thus to reach the public more directly and with less — if any — editorial intervention.

It’s hardly news to say that these developments make book publishers and other cultural authorities quite anxious, given how easy it’s become for writers simply to bypass them.  It may be news, however, to say that publishers shouldn’t see Scribd and other self-publishing platforms as threats.  Instead, they’re opportunities.

Think about it this way: sites like Scribd are the reality TV of book publishing.

Love it or loathe it, you cannot deny the brilliance of a show like American Idol.  Essentially it amounts to a months-long focus group, where potential music buyers vote on who they’d most like to become a signed recording artist.  The presumption is that many who’ve voted will then go on to buy singles and albums by the people they’ve seen featured on the show.

American Idol demonstrates how amateur cultural production and a more traditional, hierarchical approach can be made to harmonize.  Why not use sites like Scribd toward similar ends?

Indeed, marketing has long been a major sore point for the book industry, filled with guesswork and erroneous conclusions about what will and won’t ultimately sell.  So why not take some of the guesswork out of book marketing?  Why not use Scribd or some other site to focus-group books (or parts thereof) up front before investing all the time and resources to publish them?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: why would people buy something that they might well be able to obtain for free, or at a comparatively reduced cost?  That’s where the publisher comes in.  Pubishers have long imagined their work to be about proferring cultural authority; in the model I’m proposing here, their work would be more about proferring cultural authenticity.  That is, their job would be to produce the definitive tangible object — an object whose content may nonetheless continue to evolve in the digital realm.

Think about it: the contestants’ live performances from American Idol are available for purchase online, but I’d venture to say that most people would consider the studio recordings of their songs to be the “real thing.”  This is how academic journal publishing has been working for some time now, by the way.  Journal publishers have recognized the ease with which academic authors can post pre-prints (e.g., .doc files) of their work online.  In response, the publishers are now insisting that PDF journal offprints that are posted online be referred to as final, definitive versions of scholarly articles.

People love things, and indeed they love to consume what they perceive to be “real” things.  When your authority starts waning, book publishers, what you need to start selling is exactly this type of authenticity.

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Amazonfail and Algorithmic Culture

I’m rather late in adding my two cents to the recent controversy over Amazon.com, which broke a little over two weeks ago.  For all that I write about the late age of print (and Twitter, blog, etc.), my difficulty in keeping pace with the internet makes me suspect that I’m a Gutenberg guy at heart.

In any case, for those of you who may be even further behind than I, a PR disaster came crashing down around Amazon.com over Easter weekend.  Author Mark R. Probst, who writes gay-oriented fiction for young adults, noticed on Friday, April 10th that there were no sales rankings listed for two recently-released — and quite popular — gay romance novels.  He later discovered a similar trend among hundreds of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) titles on Amazon, including his own book, The Filly.  An initial inquiry into the situation brought this response from Amazon: “In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude ‘adult’ material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists.  Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.”

Needless to say, many people were outraged by the company’s apparent decision to classify GLBT books as “adult” and effectively to de-list them from its website.  The rest is pretty much history at this point.  Folks began Twittering en masse to #amazonfail, where details about — and inconsistencies in — Amazon’s listing process were revealed.  Among the more painful revelations?   As Feministe reported, A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality and related anti-GLBT screeds continued to be listed and ranked.  Meanwhile, the LA Times blog Jacket Copy noted that Amazon hadn’t classified Playboy: Six Decades of Centerfolds as “adult” (duh) but had given the label to philosopher Michel Foucault’s provocative but hardly titillating History of Sexuality, volume I.

Once Amazon had a chance to regroup, it began issuing this statement:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.  It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles — in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer added: “Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as ‘adult,’ the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from ‘false’ to ‘true.’).”

Some people are understandably skeptical of Amazon’s explanations.  Though the company has admitted to making a huge mistake and taken steps to rectify the situation, regaining the trust of its customers will undoubtedly take time.  Clearly the whole situation was hurtful to a great many people, and a disaster for Amazon.com.

I wonder, in retrospect, what might it all tell us about the late age of print?

If Amazon is to be believed, the root of the problem lies not with any one person per se (the “ham-fisted” employee in France notwithstanding) but with what Alex Galloway, a professor at NYU, calls “algorithmic culture.”  By this he refers to the abrogation of the work of culture — the sorting, ordering, classifying, and judging of people and things — from human beings to machines.  You might think of algorithmic culture as an operational layer that sits on top of another, informational layer — call it database culture.  Put the two together and you realize just how much cultural work actually takes place more or less independent of human action.

I’m currently teaching a graduate seminar about mass culture.  In these days of interactive media and extraordinary customization, it’s become popular — even required — to rail against mass culture as dehumanizing, repetitive, and more.  But a question I always insist my graduate students confront is, “What did the mass culture paradigm do well in its day?”

The Amazon situation from a few weeks ago poses an analogous scenario.  It’s become de rigueur among many to decry traditional cultural work as “elitist,” given how it sets up a privileged few to determine what’s worth paying attention to, and why.  The assumption seems to be, if we could just make the process more open and democratic, then we’d move further in the direction of a more inclusive public culture.

The folks over at #amazonfail, and indeed all those who chimed in on the book ranking and listing controversy, have begun to show us that algorithmic culture has its weaknesses, too, and that there may be benefits to a more “traditional” approach to cultural valuation and classification.  If nothing else, the latter has an immediate doer behind the deed, who can be questioned about her or his choices.  Algorithmic culture may provide for more “democratic” forms of participation, particularly in the area of tagging and reviewing.  On the flipside, accountability exists at a much further remove.  If handled improperly, algorithmic culture can open large swaths of material to the  threat of “global replace,” in which a one becomes a zero and all hell subsequently breaks lose.

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