The Olympic medal for media innovation goes to…

New York Times Fine Line Simone Biles

A version of this post first appeared on The Media Briefing, where I write about the media developments in North America, especially as they pertain to the search for new media business models. 

The Olympics are over, and the medals have all been handed out. But for me, the Games are not just an opportunity to see the best athletes in the world but also to see some of the most cutting edge digital media innovation. The 2016 Rio games also showed some of the tectonic shifts in media with viewership dipping on traditional TV platforms and up on on-demand and mobile platforms.

These are not simply vanity projects. As we saw recently with Politico’s Apple Wallet-powered EU Tracker project in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, a smart strategy executed well during major events can help you reach new audiences and power your growth to the next level.

Not to mention, that just like gold medal athletes hoping for lucrative endorsement deals after the games, media organisations are hoping to cash in, and this Olympics also showed how organisations are seeking new sources of revenue through digital commercial innovation.

New York Times’ The Fine Line

The Olympics are one of those big set piece events when top news groups, start-ups and the digital platform giants have time to plan and create trail-breaking digital media experiences.

Amongst the legacy media groups, the New York Times has once again made as much of a splash with digital media watchers as Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky have made in the pool.

One of the most talked about and ground-breaking Olympics features by the Times were a series of visually-led features called, The Fine Line. In addition to the Fine Line features, the Times also created incredibly simple but effective animations to show how the swimming races played out, for instance how teen phenom Katie Ledecky dominated in the pool.

New York Times Olympics Bodies Rio Olympics 2016 featureBut that wasn’t all the Times did. Another feature effectively gave a game-like feel to the content with a visual quiz in which the audience was asked to guess what sport the athlete or para-athlete was involved in by their body characteristics. Did they have muscular legs and or arms? Were they tall or short and powerful? It was really nicely done, and the Times made a point to say that the athletes and para-athletes wore as many or as few clothes as they felt comfortable with.

Commercial innovation to drive digital revenue growth

But, as we’ve seen so often in 2016, the best editorial innovation isn’t enough to guarantee a sustainable business. Fortunately, the New York Times also displayed some incredible commercial innovation as well.

In the middle of the Fine Line features is a native advertising feature for Infiniti’s Q60 that seems right at home in the format. In addition to flowing the Infiniti ad into the middle of the stories, it is peppered throughout them, appearing both in the navigation and on the front of every Fine Line segment. The ad even fits thematically with the content: The “Making an Ironman” native advertising video shows a man training for the triathlon world championships with product placement of the Infiniti Q60.

Infiniti’s content also appears in various New York Times’ social channels, including Youtube and the NYTVR app.

VR, mobile, programmatic and native advertising are all part of the New York Times’ strategy to dramatically increase non-display digital ad revenue because display has shown lingering softness for many legacy print publishers in the face of the dominance of Google and Facebook.

The New York Times has not been immune, and it reported in its most recent quarterly results that digital ad revenue dropped 6.8 percent, which looks bad but not when compared with the 14.1 percent swoon in print adrevenue.

The Infiniti native advertising package across multiple digital channels looks like the kind of bigger deal that New York Times CEO Mark Thompson talked about recently when he predicted dramatic digital ad growth in the third quarter.

Thompson and Chief Revenue Officer Meredith Kopit Levien told Ad Age that these bigger, multifaceted packages were taking longer to close, slowing the pace of ad deals in the short term, but dramatically increasing revenue in the longer term.

Thompson said that these bigger deals were in the “million-plus range”, and they both said that the revenue would start to be reflected in the NYT’s second half results. It gave Thompson the confidence to predict that the NYT would deliver double-digit growth in digital ad revenue in the third quarter.

Power to the platforms

Rio Olympics media innovation

In its recent results, The New York Times pointed out that mobile was powering a lot of their growth, and Thompson said mobile is “growing at rates that even Mr. Zuckerberg’s little firm would recognise”.

Mobile content took centre stage at Rio 2016, and Facebook and other major  digital platforms were seen as key to helping Olympic broadcaster NBC to make sure that its content reaches younger, more mobile audiences.

Before the games, NBC’s deal with Buzzfeed and mobile messaging darling Snapchat grabbed a lot of coverage. Buzzfeed is curating content from Snapchat, and Snaps from Rio appear prominently in its Discover section. Buzzfeed’s involvement makes sense in light of NBCUniversal’s $200 m investment in the company.

This kind of distribution is officially a very big deal as it was was the first time that Olympics content would appear on a non-NBC platform, according to Gerry Smith of Bloomberg News. More than that, NBC isn’t requiring Snapchat to pay anything for the privilege, but the broadcaster, which paid $1.23 B for the broadcast rights, negotiated an ad revenue share with the mobile messaging and content platform.

Facebook’s ambitions in Rio were much more global, and it struck a deal with the IOC and 20 official Olympics broadcasters to offer content on Facebook Live and recap content on both Facebook and Instagram, according to L&F Capital Management on the investment blog Seeking Alpha. Facebook also reportedly paid some athletes, including Michael Phelps, to provide exclusive live interviews.

Looking to make live events and sports a bigger part of its offering, Twitter announced content across Moments, Vine and Periscope in its coverage before the games. Twitter also announced a pivot in the Moments product as well, as it said that Olympic Moments would stick around in users’ timelines for weeks rather than days.

When I wrote the piece for the Media Briefing, we really didn’t have a full picture of viewership on traditional linear TV and also how audiences were turning to consuming video on mobile platforms. But we quickly got a sense, and for NBC, it wasn’t entirely good.

Bloomberg noted that ratings were down 17 percent overall in primetime and down by 25 percent in the 18-49 demographic. Gerry Smith of Bloomberg questioned whether NBC Universal had got its money’s worth in terms of their $12 bn investment in the Olympics. Smith went on to say:

The Summer Olympics ratings slip, the first since 2000, raises fresh doubts about what used to be a sure thing: live sports would be a huge and growing draw no matter what.

But while traditional TV viewership was down, online viewership was up by 25 percent. Regardless of the obvious switch from linear TV to on-demand formats, NBC still ended up having to give away some air time to advertisers to make up for the viewership shortfall on traditional TV.

Of course, if you want a stinging rebuttal of Bloomberg’s thesis, read this Medium post on how terrible the NBC streaming experience was by Brenton Henry. The real issue for Henry seemed was that the streaming options were really only available for cable subscribers.

I was tempted to shorten this article, but then the lengths of measure I had to take to view something that is available for free over the airwaves show there is clearly a problem. I’m sure NBC were patting themselves on the backs for how easy it would be to watch online this year, but that’s only true for cable subscribers, a slowly shrinking percentage of the US population, especially for Millennials.

As we’ve seen with ESPN’s woes, pay TV use is starting to decline as more people rebel against the ever rising costs of a bundle of channels and services they simply don’t want. The business model for paid TV is going to come under increasing pressure. The Olympics and NBC’s model only highlights that.

The role of belief in ebook pricing and what to do about it

(Cross posted from Chocolate and Vodka. Please comment there!)

So yes, I know it’s nearly Christmas Eve and I know I should be turning my brain off, but this blog post about ebook pricing by Declan Burke came across my radar today on Twitter (and yes I know I should have turned Twitter off too) and I couldn’t not reply.

Declan writes about his experiences with pricing the ebook version of his novel, Eightball, which he says started off at $1.99 and ended up at $7.99. He also briefly mentions the different pricing structures from publishers, and discusses the attitudes of some readers who appear to think that all culture should be free.

But the main bit of Declan’s post that caught my eye was his discussion of cost and value:

The other odd thing, from a personal point of view, is exemplified by the drop-off in sales for EIGHTBALL BOOGIE once its price started to go up. The e-book fan (or anyone with even the vaguest grasp of economics) will very probably be screaming right now at the screen a variation on, ‘It’s the economy, stooopid.’

I understand that. I really do. But from my point of view, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE is the same book regardless of whether it’s $1.99 or $7.99: it’s not a quarter as interesting, or funny, or thrilling, at the cheaper price, and it doesn’t come in at 25,000 words rather than 85,000 words.

It’s not my place, by the way, to say that EIGHTBALL is interesting, funny or thrilling. I’m just saying that whatever qualities the book had at the $1.99 price, those qualities remain the same regardless of whether I charge $7.99 or give the book away for free.

I suppose my central concern, when it all boils down, is that fans of e-books are confusing cost and value. That’s not to say that very good books aren’t being sold for $1.99, or $0.99, or even being given away free. But it’s patently self-limiting for a reader to impose an arbitrary price of (say) $4.99 on a book, and state that he or she refuses to pay any more, regardless of the quality of that book.

Unfortunately, I fear that Declan confuses inherent value with market worth, and the two are very different indeed. As writers, we would all like to think that our work has inherent value. The blood, sweat and tears that we leaked all over the page should, we tell ourselves, be valued by others as much as it is by us.

But the price that the public is willing to pay has little to do with any sense of inherent value; it is directed by what price the market will support. When it come to deciding what price we put on our ebooks, it is not sufficient to think about our concept of inherent value. We would all love our ebooks to sell by the shedload at a nice, high price. (And if we’re famous, they might well!) But for most of us, we should instead be striving to understand which price will maximise our profits. If we sell thousands at £1.79, is that going to bring in more profit than if we sell hundreds at £5.99?

And this is where almost every single blog post and news article I’ve seen on the subject falls flat on its face. The horrible, uncomfortable, inconvenient truth is that for independent ebook sellers and small publishers, we have no clue whatsoever as to what price will maximise profits. We just do not have the data. We have a few anecdotes from both ends of the spectrum, from the “I sold $millions” so the “I sold sweet FA”, and a very little from the middle where people are selling “enough”, for whatever value of enough they care to assign.

What we don’t have is what the big publishers have: Numbers. It’s impossible to compare the sales of a handful of books at different prices and draw any meaningful conclusions, because the books are not equivalent goods. My novelette Argleton is not equivalent to anyone else’s book because it’s not a perfect substitute.

If you’re in the market for a hammer, one is pretty much a perfect substitute for another. If I buy a hammer from Shop A, I am not going to buy a hammer from Shop B. But books are not substitutable goods. If someone buys Argleton, that doesn’t mean that they then don’t have any interest in buying Eightball.

Even comparing sales of the same title over time is more complex than saying “It sold a lot at $1.99 but nothing much at $7.99”, because market conditions change. It’s only in the large-scale aggregate that the numbers starts to provide genuine information. And sadly, that kind of data isn’t available to the likes of independent and small publishers.

So what do we fall back on? Belief.

I believe that my biggest problem right now is that not enough people know about my writing. My sole purpose is to introduce as many people as feasibly possible to Argleton in the hope that they will like it and be interested in my future work. That means that I believe that giving away Argleton for free is in my best interests.

But I also ideologically believe that free goods do not necessarily cannibalise the sales of the same goods offered commercially. We have some interesting data from people like Cory Doctorow, Lawrence Lessig and Tom Reynolds that even if they don’t increase sales, CC-licenced copies of books do no harm to sales either. For them.

Of course, things could be different for other authors or other genres but again, the truth is that we simply don’t have enough data to say one way or the other.

Additionally, I believe that me giving away my books free has no impact on what someone is willing to pay for Eightball, or any other book, because the two are not substitutes. I’ve heard the argument that authors who give away their books are undermining authors who sell their books, but I’ve not seen a jot of evidence, or even logical reasoning, to support that point. The book market is not a zero-sum game.

And I disagree with Declan over the idea that giving away books is a “race to the bottom”.

For now it seems that many authors are happily collaborating in a race to the bottom on price. The mantra is very much quantity over quality, to the extent that many writers, in a desperate bid to get noticed and put one foot on the bottom rung of the slippery ladder, are now giving away their books for free.

There’s a certain kind of logic to this, although it only exists inside the e-publishing bubble, which appears determined to eat itself. Because once you give away one book for free, the expectation is that all your books will come at no cost, an expectation that derives from an entirely understandable mentality that runs, ‘Well, if you don’t value your work, why should I?’

I’m a teeny tiny sample, but by this logic no one should buy the Kindle version of Argleton, but they are. By this logic, no one should ever buy any of Cory Doctorow’s books, but they do. And also, by this logic, no one should ever give good, honestly earnt money to a nobody writer on the promise of delivery of a book, which could be fundamentally shite, and with absolutely no guarantee that they are going to get what they paid for and then, knowing all that, actually pay more than the book itself is worth. And yet, they have.

Our beliefs are sculpted by our experiences and our ideologies. My experiences appear to show me that giving books away whist also selling them, and tapping into an amazing community of generous supporters to achieve the publication of a physical book not only works, it is profitable. My belief is that people will happily pay for books that they like and that those who pull the “culture should be free” line out of their arse are the same people who would not have bought my book anyway, so there’s simply no sale lost.

But, just like Declan, I lack hard data.

This, sadly, means that rather than eating our own young, independent authors and small publishers are doomed to chase our tails, cherry picking the case studies to fit our ideologies and rejecting the points of view of those who disagree with us.

There is only one cure to this: Independents need to have a standard set of data that we all regularly submit to one big database which we can then pull reports from. We need, collectively, to share what numbers we each have, because that’s the only way we’re going to get the kind of scale we need to turn anecdotes into data. And data is the only way we’re going to get meaningful insights into how book buyers really behave.

We can’t afford to fanny about getting all ideological and relying on our beliefs to determine our business strategies. My biggest worry about my current strategy is that I could be horribly, hideously wrong, but I have absolutely no way of testing my hypothesis on my own. If I am wrong, then I will change my strategy immediately, because I’m not interested in proving myself right. I’m interested in creating a new career for myself where I get to live comfortably and make up stories for a living.

Proofreading the Public Domain

This is cross-posted from Chocolate and Vodka, but I’ve included different invite codes in this post.

For the last few months I’ve been working with Book Oven, a Canadian start-up whose aim is to make it easier to prepare long texts for publishing by making it a simple, collaborative process.

The first thing we’ve focused on is how to proofread a manuscript for typos. The problem with reading a whole book all at once and looking for typos is that you can get so caught up in reading that your brain starts to skip the mistakes, seeing what it thinks should be there instead of what actually is. But what if you were presented with just one sentence at a time? You’d lack some context, it’s true, but you don’t really need a lot of context to know if “teh” is a misspelling of “the” or that “their” should be “there”.

That’s what we’ve built at Book Oven, and we’ve called it “Bite-Size Edits”. It presents you with a random snippet of text, with a sentence above and below for limited context, and if you spot a typo you can suggest a correction by editing the sentence and clicking “Suggest changes” (click on the images for a closer look or visit our complete How To).

You can also tell us that the snippet is OK as it is by clicking “No changes”, or that there’s something confusing about it by clicking “Skip”.

If our calculations are correct, it will take 100 people just 10 minutes to proofread a 100,000 word book, and we want to bring that collaborative power to bear on on the public domain. Thousands of texts have been uploaded to Project Gutenberg, but although they have been very carefully proofread some still have a small number of errors. Michael Hart, Project Gutenberg’s founder, called for help in removing these errors, so we’ve set up a version of Bite-Size Edits, which we’ve called the Gutenberg Rally, to focus just on texts from Project Gutenberg and Distributed Proofreaders (Gutenberg’s proofreading site).

If you’d like to pitch in, all you need to do is pick an invitation code from the list below and visit the Book Oven Gutenberg Rally site to create a new account. When you’ve successfully signed up, please leave a comment with the code you used and I’ll cross it off the list.
Now, just a little word of warning. The site is in alpha, which means that you will almost certainly find things that are broken! We have a feedback form that you can use to let us know and a forum to discuss things (which, is itself something that’s not entirely finished, as it’s not yet fully integrated – just sign in with the same username and password that you create when you join the main site). We’d love your feedback, so don’t spare the horses!

If you explore the site, you’ll find that you can start your own projects, upload your own text (.txt files only at the moment) and can send it to Bite-Size for the community to proof. Please feel free to experiment, but be aware we’re still ironing out bugs and that we have a lot more social functionality still to unveil!

So, for the love proof-reading, get cracking! Oh, but be warned. Bite-Size Edits has been described by one usability tester as “evilly addictive”. Don’t say we didn’t tell you…

(Obviously I can’t update the list whilst I’m asleep, so if you pick a code that doesn’t work, list it in the comments and try another!)

Invite Codes

Writing a book – is it really worth the effort?

For the last few months I’ve been wondering how to bump my career up a bit. It’s been an odd year work-wise: I had loads of leads and work before I got married, then lots of interest when I got back off honeymoon, which then dried up completely over the summer. If I can be painfully honest, I’m just crap at self-promotion and avoid it if I can. Instead of embarking on a marketing and promotional drive, I spent the summer working on Fruitful Seminars, which drove home even more strongly how much I need to learn how to do marketing.

Something I did do was talk to a number of people about what one thing I need to do to really ratchet things up a notch and, to a (wo)man, they all said “Write a book.”

Writing a book is, of course, something I would love to do and have been planning to do for about, oh, the majority of my adult life. Admittedly for most of that time I’ve been wanting to write fiction (and still do), but over the last four years I’ve more and more wanted to write a non-fiction book. I put together a proposal for a book on business blogging about two or three years ago, got an agent and had some meetings and calls with publishers, but it went nowhere. I’m glad, now, because the book I would have written then would not have been as good as the book I could write now.

Like so many things on my To Do list, “Write Book” is rather a big project, and even though it is broken down into its much smaller component parts, such as “research email habits”, it’s one of those things that is infinitely put-off-able. And it does get put off, quite a bit. As it stands, I have a list of topics I’d like to cover in my book, some research done, a few links to relevant pieces, and not much else. And unless something changes radically in my life, I’m not sure how I’m going to get that much more done. Writing a book takes commitment, and when life is chaotic it’s hard to carve out the time to devote to it.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I read Penelope Trunk’s post, 5 Reasons why you don’t need to write a book. On the one hand, it’s nice to have someone who has clearly given some considerable thought to the subject come down on the side of “don’t bother” (although I note that Ms Trunk has, herself, written a book, and one that I wouldn’t mind reading, at that). On the other hand, I’m neither emotionally nor intellectually convinced that a book would be a waste of time.

The emotional aspect to this I can get over with quickly – I want to write a book. No amount of logic is going to change that. I will write a book at some juncture, the question is, how much of a priority is it?

That’s where the intellectual aspects of such a decision really come into play. We’ve decided that yes, I want to write a book, but the reason I haven’t is simply because of time/commitment conflict – the curse of being self-employed. There are things I want to do, and things I need to do because someone’s paying me to, and things I think I ought to do in order to increase the number of things that I need to do that someone will pay me for. When work is quiet, you end up doing more of the things you feel you ought to do and less of the things you want to do. When work is busy, you do more of the things that you need to do, a few things you ought to do and often none of the things you want to do.

The end result is that you often end up not doing any of the things you want to do, because they’ve vanished into the black hole created by ought and need. Of course, the simple answer to this is to refigure one’s schedule to ringfence time for ‘want’, but that’s much easier said than done. When the priority is to put food on the table, want languishes on the bottom shelf, gathering dust.

(I’m also aware that there may be other psychological factors at place, such as fear of failure, inability to mentally conceive of the first step in the book writing process, etc., but I think the time one is the biggest problem as when I do sit down and do some work in that area I really enjoy it.)

But let’s put that aside for a moment, because that’s a productivity issue, and only tangential to the rest of my intellectual reaction to Penelope’s post. She says (and I suggest you read her post before carrying on):

1. People who have a lot of ideas need a blog, not a book.

I could not agree with this more. If you have lots of ideas, then get them into a blog. Talk about them. Discuss them. Refine them.

Getting a book deal out of your blog is easier said than done, especially if your blog is not focused on one specific topic. Blog about the psychology of cats, and you might get a deal writing about the psychology of cats. Blog about the psychology of cats, green technology, self-build, planning and related events, and whilst you might see the commonality, a publisher may not. If you are more scattershot than that, you’re doomed.

Books are great for fleshing out one central idea and delving into it in great detail, in a way that blogs sometimes aren’t. That’s not because there’s anything inherent in blog technology that prevents us from doing that, but because blogs tend to encourage us to flit from topic to topic and talk about what’s on our minds right now. If you obsess about one thing, then great! Your blog will probably be very focused. The rest of us sometimes struggle to keep things “on topic”.

Joint blogs, such as this one, also suck for producing a focused collection of posts that might attract a publisher. Kevin and I blog about sufficiently similar subjects that I think our audience is generally ok with our meandering about, but a publisher isn’t going to spend the time separating out his work from mine (hell, a lot of bloggers don’t even bother, often crediting me with his work, and visa versa), and then picking out the key themes.

2. A book is an outdated way to gain authority.

If only this were true. Books are a great way to gain authority, as shown by the dozens of authors that are given keynote slots at conferences or are invited to the RSA or other venerable institutions to speak. It would be wrong to imply that they didn’t have anything interesting to say or deserve those invitations, but oftentimes they are invited not because of their knowledge and experience, but because of the embodiment of their knowledge and experience – their book.

Books are also good at helping you access a different audience to the one your blog cultivates. One thing I learnt from Fruitful was that many of the people I need to reach to expand my business don’t read blogs, aren’t on Twitter, and have no real clue about the social web. And it takes a very long time for information to filter through from people who do read my blog to the people who need to know what I know, if it ever does. It’s an age old problem and one that marketers have been battling with since the invention of commerce.

Books, and articles in the mainstream media, expand your audience beyond your own echo chamber. I thought, with Fruitful, that because I have a good reputation and am well respected by my peers that I would easily be able to launch a seminar series. But my peers are the people who already know what I know, and the people who might be interested in learning what I know don’t know I exist. Books can introduce me to them in a way that my blog simply can’t.

3. Books lead to speaking careers, but speaking careers often lead nowhere.

I fear this may be true for some people, but I also think that this statement implies that the speaker exerts no control over their speaking career. The key thing here is balance – having enough speaking engagements to get you in front of people, but balancing that with real work that will inspire you and keep you at the cutting edge of what you do. There’s this little word that’s quite useful in helping prevent the proliferation of useless “make work” (which, let’s be honest, some speaking engagements are), and that’s “No”. I’m a big fan of no – it’s a very useful word used in the right way.

(I’m aware that a lot of people are allergic to the word ‘no’ and fear that it might cause a rift in the spacetime continuum that will suck us all into oblivion. To these people I would say that we should view ‘no’ in the same way as we view the Large Hadron Collider – it’s highly unlikely to create a black hole that will eat the earth and, used intelligently, it can contribute untold worth to humanity.)

4. You’ll make more money per hour flipping burgers than writing a book.

So true. If you only count money made by the book, and not the money made because of the book. Same case with a blog, of course – I make no money at all from Strange Attractor, but I do make money because of it.

The worth of a book to the writer can’t just be measured in royalties and advances, but also in paid speaking gigs and additional work opportunities (whether a new job or freelance/consulting openings). When it comes to money, books open doors, even if only just enough for you to shove your foot in.

There’s no doubt that books do still count for something – many of my friends are writing books, and many others think that writing a book is a good way to develop one’s career. You can’t discount the higher status awarded (often subconsciously, and whether they deserve it or not) to authors. We might like to pretend that we’re not that shallow, but we’re human, and we are.

5. When you’re feeling lost, a book won’t save you.

Very true. But when you’re lost, a blog won’t save you either. Nor will your job. Or trading in your antique Mac for a Harley and roaring off into the sunset. When you’re lost, you need to think lots about many different things and try to find yourself some direction.

I think the key thing, if you want to write a book, is understanding your own motivations for doing so. If you don’t want to write the book, but want to have written it, then book writing is probably not for you, because it involves, you know, actually writing. In the same way, if you want the speaking gigs without the airports, then you should probably not bother trying to become a public speaker.

But if you enjoy the process of research and writing, then I see no good reason why you should not attempt a book. How you prioritise that work in the face of an overwhelmingly long list of other things to do is another topic for another time, but, perhaps quaintly, I still see a lot of value in the writing and publishing of books.

CBDE special guests announced

A little unashamed pimping… 😉

Over the last few months I’ve working hard on the Creative Business in the Digital Era research project (hence my quietude here), which is examining the way in which businesses are using open intellectual property (IP) as a central pillar of their business model.

The project culminates in three free seminars in central London during March – a full day on 17th March, and two evening seminars on 18th/19th (with roughly the same content in each) – during which we’ll talk about what we’ve discovered about open IP businesses, and talk to people who are actually giving stuff away whilst also making money from it. We’ve managed to recruit three fabulous guest speakers:

Monday 17 March
Tom Reynolds, blogger, ambulance technician and author of Blood, Sweat and Tea, published under Creative Commons licence and in paper by The Friday Project.
John Buckman, entrepreneur, musician and founder of CC music label Magnatune.

Tuesday 18 March (evening)
– Tom Reynolds graces our presence again.

Wednesday 19 March (evening)
David Bausola, the creative mind behind interactive online comedy Where are the Jonses?

The seminar is aimed at people within the creative industry – e.g. music, publishing, film, TV, radio, visual arts, photography – and from any size of company, whether they are freelances or a C-level exec. The course materials are all being prepped out in the open, under CC licence.

As mentioned, the seminar is free to attend – if you are interested, all you need to do is to fill in our application form.

If you’re interested yourself, please do apply! If you have a blog, podcast or Twitter account and would like to mention our seminar, please do. And if you know of anyone who might be interested in coming, feel free to tell them about it.

Our deadline for applications is 15th February, so apply now!

X|Media|Lab Melbourne: Liz Heller, Buzztone

Sincere apologies to my fellow mentors for not getting some of my notes up sooner, but without WiFi on Friday and the mentoring all weekend, I usually ended up posting late at night. Friday, I stayed up until 130 in the morning. I did as much as I could in between sessions on the weekend, but being a mentor, I wanted to do justice to the groups who came to discuss their projects. As for continuing the late night blogging, exhaustion prevented me from doing more over the weekend.

Liz Heller started out in sociology, and she is fascinated how people travel in ‘groups and loops’. They formed a company called Buzztone, which “creates award-winning lifestyle, pop culture, urban and guerrilla marketing campaigns”. She went on to describe social motivations to keep in mind when thinking about social software and services:

We share a lot in common. We want to be a part of something. We want to share what we love. We all want to be just a little famous. We all want to think that we are the first to find something new. We all want to have friends.

People want to stay in touch with friends they already have. Social networks are seen as ways to deepen existing friendships not supplant them. (Bravo Liz. I couldn’t agree more. Media always cover online social networks as if they supplant not supplement real world social bonds. For most of the people I know, it’s just not so. And Liz added a new word my vocabulary: Frobligations, friends referrals through other friends that you feel obligated to befriend.)

Her work revolves around marketing campaigns that relied on some of these social needs. They used a social club and lots of social outreach to connect women to French wine. They used feedback from the members to feed back into the social club. (Again, I think this is a key thing that most ‘social marketing’ companies forget: Feedback. Most of the time, they focus only on seeding their message in social networks, not using those social networks to make their products better and their companies genuinely more responsive.)

They also developed a student network for Microsoft called Spoke. It was the first social network for tech students. It was global and regionalised. It helped to change student perceptions of Microsoft.

Social networks are a filter. She pointed out, OurChart (a social network for lesbians from the popular programme The L Word), Block Savvy (a niche urban-focused social network) and a number of others. (When people ask me about how I stay on top of developments in digital media and journalism, and one of the best tools I have is a the dozen or so digital journalism experts who blog in my RSS reader. They are my filter, my radar, my early warning trend watchers. Now, seeing all of these social networks developing, I must say that it reminds me slightly of the late boom when sites took an e-commerce model and chased increasingly small sales niches. Remember all of those pet e-commerce sites? I think there is value in focused communities online, but that is value to me as an end-user. I’m not so sure about value in terms of a sustainable business model. However, I can see the justification if you’re looking to build a social network around a marketing campaign, even if that isn’t my particular focus.)

Groups and loops for causes. She showed, a social network following on from Live Earth and Zaadz. Social media encourages face-to-face engagement. and all encourage real world events. (Again, it was really good to hear someone counter the media-driven myth that online social activity creates a world of anti-social people. Whether it’s Twitter, Flickr, Dopplr or my blog, these things reinforce my real world social interaction. They helped jump start my social life when I moved to London a couple of years ago. But as Suw says, Twitter gets her out to the pub to spend time with friends.)

I liked the ideas Liz was presenting. The marketing-sensitive consumer in me was possibly too aware of commercial purpose of some of these projects, but Liz wasn’t just talking about trying to infect social networks with marketing messages, which seems to me the purpose of some viral campaigns. Social marketing campaigns that don’t listen, aren’t social, even if they are targeting social spaces online, and her emphasis on using feedback from the community is often missed by many digital marketing companies.

And I really liked Liz’ emphasis that there is a symbiotic relationship between online and offline community. It’s a myth that online community is a parasitic drain on real world social interaction, and it’s great to hear someone like Liz challenge conventional wisdom.

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Open publishing – A few questions left

This week is my turn to work with the students on De Montfort’s Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media, which I am very much looking forward to. But first, an apology: I had promised to put together a video lecture, but it turns out that video is a lot harder than it looks. I spent most of the weekend struggling with the technology, only to end up at 1am this morning with a video which was both too long and rubbish. I’ve thus concluded that I need to acquire a few new skills before I start making rash promises about video – I hope you’ll forgive me, but I honestly think those are 30 minutes of your life that you can do better things with.

Everything I would have said in the video has already been published, however, in the Open Publishing category of this blog:

But I’m left with a few questions.

  • What are the numbers? How have Penguin, Tor and Baen seen sales develop over the live of an open book? Do they have any information that would allow a comparison between downloads and sales?
  • Does open publishing prolong the shelf-life of a book?
  • Is success genre specific, and focused on internet-literate readers such as science fiction fans and tech books?
  • Do authors who open publish earn more overall? Do they get more requests to speak, or write for magazines or newspapers? Do they get other paid gigs alongside their writing?
  • Will the model work when we don’t need paper at all? Is open publishing a blip, viable only during the period within which ebooks are non-interchangable with paper books?
  • Do ebook downloaders buy more books overall?
  • What’s the relationship between audiobooks and ebooks?

There is, obviously, a lot more to say about open publishing and my curiosity is very much piqued by what I’ve read and written so far. I look forward to delving into the topic even more and look forward to everyone’s questions and comments.

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Open publishing – The opposite of open is DRM

It’s difficult to have a discussion about open publishing without also considering digital rights management (DRM), the software that attempts to control what people do with digitally distributed content. For many publishers, the thought of publishing books under a Creative Commons licence is anathema, but yet they don’t want to pass up on the opportunity to distribute their material digitally online. Instead of experimenting with open publishing, they try to find a middle way and frequently they think that middle way is to use DRM to lock up their ebooks and audiobooks.

As you can tell from my tone, I’m none too keen on DRM. It’s something I’ve done a lot of work on with the Open Rights Group, where I was until recently Executive Director. Rather than rehash all the arguments here as to why I believe DRM is bad, I’m going to give you a nice list of links:

The problem with DRM is that it’s a fundamentally flawed technology which erodes our rights and favours contract law over copyright law. It prevents users exercising their fair dealing rights (called fair use in the US), restricts access to those with disabilities, and does nothing to benefit the consumer.

I have been surprised by the relish with which some publishers approach DRM, but in looking for a middle way they’ve ended up down a cul-de-sac.

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Open publishing – Collaborative writing

It’s not just publishing that is becoming an open process, but also writing. The advent of wikis and blogs allows people to collaborate on creative works with complete strangers, regardless of geographic divides. The idea seems a bit strange to creative writers used to what is most frequently a solitary pursuit, but for certain types of writing it can work very well. Opening your work up for proof-reading and criticism right from the beginning can be an emotionally difficult task for some, but bringing together a number of experts to work on a book and provide feedback can result in a much better end product.

Some types of writing are clearly good for collaborative writing – technical books, such as books about computer programming, or factual books with a lot of fine detail benefit from the insight and expertise of more than one person. One such example is The Django Book, written by Adrian Holovaty and Jacob Kaplan-Moss. Here’s a very quick tour of their site:

Clive Thompson did something similar way when writing a feature on radical transparency for Wired. He published his initial ideas about what the feature should cover, and asked his readers for their input. They gave him information and links to use in his research; discussed the implications of his ideas on secrecy, transparency and the hivemind; and helped him shape his feature with views from around the world.

And a project that De Montfort students might already be aware of is the Million Penguins wiki, a join Penguin/De Montfort project attempting to bring strangers together to write a novel. Rather than using a blog and comments to solicit feedback, this wiki allows people to write and edit the novel directly. Unlike The Dango Book or Radical Transparency, which are examples of factual writing where people can pool their expertise on a given subject, A Million Penguins is an experiment to see if people can write fiction together.

The problem with writing fiction is that it’s not just a series of scenes put into a logical order, it has to have an internal structure of its own, and that usually comes from one person’s imagination, or collaboration between a small number of people (frequently two). It’s also difficult for a group of strangers to write with a consistent voice, to avoid cliché, and to develop working plots, sub-plots, themes and motifs. But A Million Penguins is an experiment to see if people can self-organise, and to see how parallel storylines develop as individuals and small groups pick up a concept and run with it in different directions.

It reminds me somewhat of the email role playing games (RPG) that I’ve been a part of in the past, where people come together, each create a character and weave a story together email by email. Sometimes, email RPGs work really well – when you have a cohesive group who respect each other’s contribution, not only is it a lot of fun but the story that unravels is creative and interesting. But it only takes one person being difficult to turn a fun RPG into something tedious and annoying, and I fear that the same is true – possibly more true – of a wiki novel. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Wikis can also be used for non-fiction, just as blogs can be. Justin Patten is currently writing a book called Blogging and Other Social Media: Technology and Law, and is using a wiki to open up the writing process to other social media experts. Again, I think it’s slightly easier to write a non-fiction book on a wiki than a novel, but either way it’s a non-trivial task.

One issue that springs to mind is, how you deal with someone else posting content that infringes someone else’s copyright? It’s not feasible to double-check every passage added to the wiki by every user, particularly if your wiki takes off and you have a lot of contributors. It could be troublesome if such a passage was not picked up until the book was in print, potentially forcing all copies to be pulped if legal action was taken.

The answer is, I think, not just that you can generally trust your contributors, but also to encourage contributors to add in references if they spot a passage they recognise as being quoted from another source. Then, inclusion of infringing text – whether innocent or malicious – could be picked up fairly early in the process. Of course, there are no guarantees, but we’ll have to wait and see if this sort of concern is even valid.

One final method that I’ve used a lot for writing up collaborative conference notes is simultaneous note taking, using software like SubEthaEdit (on the Mac). SubEthaEdit allows multiple people to edit the same document at the same time – so you can see people typing, letter by letter. It’s an amazing tool for real-time collaboration, and I’d love to experiment with writing something substantive with it. Certainly it’d be a fun tool for co-writing a novel, so long as your collaborators are in the right time zone!

But this openness isn’t suitable for everyone or every project. Sometimes, the joy of writing is sitting, on your own, somewhere quiet, and just working through your own thoughts, figuring out what you really mean, getting your own words out of your head and into a medium where they can eventually be shared – when you are ready. Much of writing for me is about self-expression, and that’s something that’s never going to go away, no matter how much technology provides me with the tools and opportunity to collaborate. That’s not a rejection of collaboration, but recognition of the fact that I like to put my self into my writing, and no one else can do that for me. Neither way of writing is right or wrong, it’s just horses for courses.

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Open publishing – Open access in the scientific world

The creative world is not the only one grappling with the implications of open publishing. In the scientific world there has been great debate about ‘open access publishing’…

And here I run afoul of terminology. I’ve been using the term ‘open publishing’ to refer to the process of publishing your materials for free online, whatever those materials may be, at the same time as you publish a physical version that can be bought. When you start digging into Wikipedia, though, it seems that for some people ‘open publishing’ means the ‘process of creating news or other content that is transparent to the readers‘. I was going to cover that under the heading ‘open writing’, although it may be more accurately described as ‘open source journalism’ or ‘collaborative writing’ or ‘distributed journalism’ or ‘networked journalism’ or, frankly, any one of a whole number of different phrases.

I think this illustrates just how little consensus there is on these issues. There are so many shades of grey that people are tempted to think up new terms for each one, but I’m going to stick with these two:

  • Open publishing – making commercially published materials freely available online under a permissive licence that allows for at least some reuse.
  • Open access publishing – making scientific and medical research papers freely available online under a permissive licence that allows for at least some reuse.

Others may not agree with this, and certainly the issues are more complex than those definitions suppose, but they’re going to have to do for now. We can discuss nuances in the comments!

Good places to get started with open access are three of the Wikipedia articles: self-archiving, open access publishing, and open access journal.

Dr Ben Goldacre recently wrote in his Bad Science column (which is published by The Guardian, and which he self-archives):

There are some things which are so self-evidently right and good that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could disagree with you. The “open access” academic journal movement is one of those things. It’s a no-brainer. Academic literature should be freely available: developing countries need access; part time tinkering thinkers like you deserve full access; journalists and the public can benefit; and most importantly of all, you’ve already paid for much of this stuff with your taxes, they are important new ideas from humanity, and morally, you are entitled to them.

The parallels between this concept and the one underpinning the Creative Commons/Free Culture movement are fairly obvious. It’s not just culture that wants to be free, but also information.

The point of friction between author and publisher, though, is slightly different. In the cultural world, publishers get hung up on controlling their intellectual property rights, and in particular about both file sharing and commercial piracy. But the arguments hinge around one economic question: will open publishing bring the publisher (and thence the author) more sales and, therefore, make them more money?

Both author and publisher want to make money, and their needs are relatively well aligned. They both want the author’s work to be popular because popularity tends to result in higher sales, and it’s fairly obvious that releasing your work for free online increases the number of people who have access to it and thus the number of potential buyers. As mentioned in a previous post, the main debate is about the details of whether open publishing cannibalises or increases sales.

Note: The same works for music and movies, even if those industries haven’t quite figured it out yet.

With open access, the needs of the author and of the publisher are not aligned. The author of a scientific research paper wants their paper to be widely read and cited by other scientists. They don’t get paid for writing, there’s no fee from the publisher for their work – any increase in income comes indirectly from being a successfully published and widely cited authority in your field, and thus being able to command better salaries or larger grants. So the author is not interested in being paid for his or her writing.

The science publisher, on the other hand, is very interested in people paying for access to their journal. It’s how they make their money. Thus they see open publishing as a threat – who would pay to access their content if it’s available for free online?

This leads to two opposing publishing models: Reader Pays and Author Pays. The former is the traditional ‘we publish it, you pay for it if you want to read it’ model. The latter has been adopted by some open access journals, such as the Public Library of Science, the Journal of Medical Internet Research, and BioMed Central, which charge authors some sort of fee in order to cover their costs.

There is at least one other way, though, which could be called Third Party Pays, where the costs of publishing are subsidised by an institution, or covered by income from another source such as advertising, grants, etc. Some are even run by volunteers, thus incurring minimal costs.

According to Peter Suber, only 47% of open access journals charge authors a fee. He says:

Only a minority of existing OA journals actually used the most-studied and most-discussed business model for OA journals –charging author-side fees. (Let’s call these “fee-based” OA journals.) The majority of OA journals turned out to use business models that had rarely been acknowledged, let alone studied. (Let’s call these “no-fee” OA journals.) We thought we understood OA journals but we only understood a subset, and the greater part of the whole was still largely unknown.

I wish I could tell you how many different ways the no-fee journals have found to pay their bills, and which methods work best in which disciplines and countries. But I can’t. No one has done the studies yet. A few ships have approached the coastline of this land mass but we haven’t come close to penetrating the interior or producing a map.

As Peter says, it would be interesting to find out a lot more about the business models for the 53% of journals that aren’t charging their authors – the creative industries could potentially learn a lot from the publishing models used by their science publishing colleagues.

But the science publishing industry – where I started my postgraduate career, I have to mention – is not happy with open access. John Wiley & Sons, Reed Elsevier and the American Chemical Society are three of the biggest members of the Association of American Publishers, which has hired ‘PR pitbull’ Eric Dezenhall to try and swing the debate their way. This has been seen as an act of desperation and an attempt to derail real debate in favour of soundbite marketing tactics.

The threat is, of course, economic. If scientists prefer free open access journals to reader-pays journals, then the publishers’ business model is threatened. Some of the non-economic objections to open access, such as accusations that it does not support peer review, are clearly nonsense. Peer review – the process by which a paper is distributed amongst other experts in the author’s discipline so that they can critique it – requires only someone to arrange it and there is no good reason why an open access journal cannot peer review as well as a traditional journal.

Just like the cultural world, though, the genie is out of the bottle and sunning himself on a beach in Rio. Open access is not going to go away, and traditional publishers need to adapt or die. It’s scary, and the shape of future scientific business models is not clear, but there’s no escaping change.

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