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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Traditional To Online Publishing: Why Is the Transition So Gradual?

Forging onward to where no one had gone before, the second decade of the 21st century just catching its breath, the internet in 2011 was already generating the seeds that would subtly yet dramatically revolutionize the world of publishing. Even with traditional publishing houses already making plans to get into digital format as part of an envisioned hybrid market, the alternative of "blogging a book" (by subscription, or profiting off email lists or links to one's "real" books or services) could be expected to reduce manuscript submissions.  Additionally, the higher royalty percentages proffered by digital publishing companies that minimize costs by adapting the old "vanity press" model (without charging authors) could be expected to take a big bite out of the editorial and proof-reading model of the traditional publishing houses. To be sure, even just from their initial adaptations to broaden out to the digital format, such houses were not necessarily expected to become extinct as a species. Nevertheless, the future of publishing could already be seen as happening on the web. The enigma here pertains to why the economic slope toward easier (i.e., sans gatekeepers) and more lucrative publishing has been so sticky.
The juxtaposition of very different technologies illustrates the tectonic shift underway. Image Source: Alphapublication.com
Undoubtedly, some people found the unfathomable possibilities glimpsed from the internet to be all too alluring. Meanwhile, others held on for dear life to the melting icebergs of traditional publishing as though out of some instinctual reflex hardwired into the human genome. Viewing the shift as a Hegelian leap forward historically in the unfolding spirit of freedom already from the vantage-point of 2013, I found myself mystified as to the sheer gradualness of the massive shift. Inertia? Fear of the unknown? Stifling incomprehension of things very different? Whereas global warming had seemed to hit its threshold rather quickly and the internet was travelling at a rapid velocity through change—perhaps even warping the time-space dimensions in its universe—I found myself wondering when the threshold point of water pouring in would finally sink the vaunted publishing houses that seemed only to be fortifying themselves by closing doors more on passengers deemed marginal (profitwise).
I don’t believe the nature of the holdup is merely the refusal of the status quo to give into new theories, as described in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Rather, I think the answer goes back to the staying power, evolutionarily speaking, of tens of thousands of years when homo sapiens lived and passed on genes in a steady-state environment without the artifices of complex societies.  Simply put, just as global warming in the Artic was surpassing the adaptive ability of some northern ecosystems already in 2013, the pace of qualitative change in publishing opportunities was travelling past the speed of the human cognitive-neurological capacity of sense-making, not to mention comprehension and responding to the new stimuli.

Like dinosaurs, traditional publishers could only feel their moorings loosening and wonder what hidden force was causing the tremor. Indeed, the very ground underneath was already slowly moving, with much more kinetic energy to come. Like rats on the Titanic just after the shutter from impact, writers with the least to lose were beginning to sniff around the novel ebook alternative, barely able to make out the foggy shape ahead of an industry without traditional publishers, or at least without their annoying yet presumably necessary gate-keeping function. Vintage labels being required for tenure, young scholars teaching at academic institutions could not very well follow the rats. Meanwhile, tenured scholars were generally too accustomed to their well-worn ways to grasp the potential in publishing online, whether essays (or even chapters in-process) on a blog or entire ebooks linked to a blog and Facebook. With Google getting into the knowledge dissemination “business” and non-profits like Coursera providing free online courses taught by scholars at some of the best universities around, the internet platforms were poised to offer those scholars with some academic freedom and freedom of mind various means to revolutionize not only publishing scholarship, but also doing research and teaching. As in the case of the traditional publishers, the “rub” lies in the capacity of the human mind to move from a long-standing paradigm to think along a new line based in assumptions that would have seemed nonsensical ten or so years earlier.
Attached to the industrial framework undergirding the status quo in the modern world that was slowly giving way to another (post-modernity?), traditional publishers reacted by instinct to the sense that the tide was beginning to go out. Specifically, the reactive, knee-jerk strategy hounded costs by letting marginally-profitable authors go in order to prop up profits. It does not necessarily follow that the resulting level of quality would be higher.
By 2013, being published online was a formidable alternative to submitting a manuscript to an editor. That some well-established authors had already taken the plunge, even walking from their long-established publishers out onto clear ice with little way of ascertaining its thickness gave the up-and-coming writers enough confidence that they, too, could venture out on the ice without falling through.
Whereas the world of traditional publishing was built around scarcity, which could be controlled in order to gain pricing power, the internet platforms thrive in the midst of abundance. Whereas traditional editors are oriented to controlling the content that gets through, the tech mentality is geared to easing the way to publishing so as to maximize content. Whereas traditional publishing depends on mass production of content that can fetch a good price—the manufacturing model of the industrial revolution being still the immediate context—online media companies view themselves as providing services while the users contribute the content.
I suspect, however, that the scarcity-abundance dichotomy is overdrawn. Eddies of original content online may in fact be able to capture revenue, assuming that particular users do not “steal” the content by posting it on alternative sites open to the public. Although illegal in terms of copyright law (unless the author allows for duplication or reposting), “stealing” does not seem to quite fit the world of the internet where information is so freely available. Indeed, copyright law itself may turn into a leaky sieve that must inevitably give way on the internet. As in the case of laws forbidding pot, any presumed sense of control may finally be deemed illusory. Assuming sufficient enforcement of copyright law and the existence of writing that is well-crafted, unique, and of value to readers, the internet may turn out to be a spectrum of information ranging from free to highly monetized. Blogs that are essentially diaries will probably remain open-access, whereas on the other extreme ebooks will be priced sufficiently that writers can make a living from them (perhaps by building a large readership up first through a cost-leadership strategy).
Even for a given contributor of content, the spectrum may apply. Established scholars, for example, might sell an ebook for a decent price to recoup all the work that went into the research and writing. The same scholar might embed lecture videos in free blog posts that together make up a “book” or “course” that serves as a vehicle by which to bring certain ideas to as many minds as possible. Just as there are pitfalls in “stealing” suddenly not making sense, the potential for leaps in creativity  can be glimpsed just from the sudden obsolescence of  “book” and “course” in figuring out just what something never before seen online is.  “For this world in its present form is passing away.”[1]
According to Michael Wolff, traditional publishers focus “on what ought, or what ought not, to be said.” They hold the cards—the control—and they relish it. Like horses with blinders on, they “can only look on in wonder and stupefaction” at what blogging and ebook platforms have been doing.[2] Particularly baffling, attempts to control scarcity in the midst of abundance in order to gain pricing power can only be futile. From the standpoint of the industrial mass-production framework that assumes scarcity, that it is the content that is the product and has market value, and that mass production is necessary to capitalize on economies of scale, it’s all about controlling the scarcity to gain pricing power.  Where the dissemination of content cannot be controlled, the traditional editor would sooner face exhaustion than make the cognitive leap to the new assumptions that don’t seem to make sense.[3]
In short, as the web evolves like an ecosystem trying to keep up with accelerating climate change, the apparently sudden arrival of new species on the internet naturally confronts the eye and leaves the human mind grasping for linguistic straws that are too brittle to bend and thus to make sense out of the foreign things. As a result, the lag or gap between the emergence of a potentially fecund online opportunity and actual usage on a large scale can be considerable. I suspect the mind of a homo sapiens can only take so much of the unrecognizable before disorientation as an obstacle in itself to be surmounted kicks in. Because the internet is not based on the old assumptions of the industrial revolution, the human mind is particularly vulnerable to crashing when trying to use new apps or platforms and stubbornly resistant to rebooting using a different operating system and browser. By implication, tech people could help the rest of us out by putting more effort into including basic explanations of what it is that they have created and how to get started.   

[1] 1 Cor. 7:31.
[2] Michael Wolff, “’Reader’s Digest’ For the Digital Era,” USA Today, September 15, 2013.
[3] If you have seen the ending of the film, The Others (starring Nicole Kidman), you have an idea of how disorienting it can be to have one’s fundamental assumptions turned inside-out. It is as though societal assumptions somehow get infused into our very being. Not only do we resist any extractions and replacements, many of us may instinctually freeze-up from the sheer extent of disorientation in stumbling upon the unrecognizable alien.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Business Culture Forming Higher Education

“Publish or perish” is the infamous mantra of those intrepid scholars who work at research universities and many prestigious Liberal Arts & Sciences colleges dotting the map of the world. The need to demonstrate regular output is perhaps nowhere more stressed (hence, stress) than in the United States. As if the declining number of tenure positions (amid increasing reliance on adjuncts, not coincidentally) at colleges and universities in the U.S. were not enough of a challenge for the newly-minted doctors aspiring to the intellectual freedom that goes with the protection of tenure, that the young scholars are increasingly being subjected to an "assembly-line" process wherein faculty administrators treat their junior colleagues' published journal articles like chocolates on a conveyer belt puts scholarship at odds with itself and thus is utterly self-defeating from the standpoint of society gaining new knowledge.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Blogosphere: A Nebula Spawning Nascent Business Models?

It is certainly no understatement to say that the world of publishing will never be the same. In fact, change may have already become the new constant in the industry by the time ebooks took off, thanks mainly to the phenomenon known as “blogging.” I suspect this term is already obsolete, due to the differentiation that has taken place under the rubric, and yet we are like turtles even just in noticing the need for change to keep up with change.  How, in other words, might blogging catch up to itself?

The term “blog” has come to cover such a vast terrain of writing genres and purposes that additional descriptors are often necessary to convey a blogger’s particular niche.  For example, Robert Reich, a lawyer who teaches at Berkeley, draws on his professional expertise and government experience in blogging on public policy. He cross-posts on the Huffington Post so his ideas will reach more people. Meanwhile, a retired grandmother undoubtedly exists out there in the blogosphere, writing about her grandchildren—what they have been doing lately, perhaps even a picture of what one drew in art class and a video of another learning how to skate. Being on Facebook to keep in touch with old friends who live far away, the grandmother might provide links to the text, pictures and videos on her home page. Because the lawyer and grandmother are doing very different things, the terms “blog” and “blogger” have become inadequate to the task of distinguishing the various types of blogs. That is, the terms have become too vague as descriptors (and even misleading).

How, for instance, might we distinguish the bloggers whose blogs are essentially businesses from the bloggers who blog as a hobby? How can we distinguish between essays written by professionals and scholars and diary entries written by teenagers? I suspect that because blogging began closer to the latter (as depicted in the motion picture, Julie and Julia), the term itself (as well as “a blog”) carries a certain “inertia-bias” that subtly undercuts the credibility of content beyond “what I did today.” Given the rate of change in the “industry,” I would have expected the “comet trail” to be shorter (i.e., less residual reputation). In short, we need some new terms to differentiate the branches now that they have grown so far from each other; merely pointing to the tree trunk is no longer sufficient to indicate a particular branch. A better analogy might be the expanding space of the universe eventuating in more distance between galaxies. At some point, two clusters (of galaxies) should be classified as in different regions of space—space itself having expanded sufficiently—because one locater term alone will have become too vague for either cluster to be located easily. 

Generally speaking, blogging has come to reflect the complexity and diversity that exist within our species. What Robert Reich “blogs” about is eons away from the blogging depicted in Julie & Julia. I instinctively resist admitting to people that I “blog” because I have seen the dismissive response. So I tend to tell people that I write essays applying academic theory to current events in ethics, business, and government. “They can be found at my web-site,” I demur—gilding the lily so as to stave off any implication that I’m posting recipes on a blog. I referred to my site as a newsletter until someone told me that more credibility goes with the term, “a blog.” As Jack Nicholson said in one of his films, “Never a break!”

The other area where the blogosphere has been slow to catch up with itself—as if it were travelling close to the speed of light in slower time—is monetization. I suspect that dirty word has suffered from the residual tail of inertia wherein “diary” or “political pundit” is still the default for “blog.” Who in their right mind wants to pay to read what some stranger did the day before, or what Joe the plumber thinks about Congress (Joe ran and lost—so much for Palin’s pig-tails). However, where Robert Reich is applying his legal or governmental knowledge and experience, he has every right to expect his writing to fetch a good price. I have drawn the line between essays like this one that are only loosely analytical and others that involve academic work on my part. At some point, the presumption that what I have spent decades learning should be free (as if by some right) becomes insulting.

Therefore, along with the new terminology that is necessary to distinguish between disparate sites, the monetization spectrum from ebooks to online diaries needs to be demarcated—say, for example, in distinguishing between a scholar’s book or article in the making, a lawyer’s critique of a court ruling or a proposed law, a novel in the making by a new writer, a budding political pundit’s view on how government officials are doing, and a teenager’s advice on the perfect date or how to hit a home-run (or both!). From a monetization standpoint, these qualitatively-different contents should not all be monetized at the same subscription price (or amount of advertising). In fact, not all of them should be monetized! Staying with the terms “blog” and “blogging” prevents us from making such distinctions, which I contend are intrinsic, albeit clogged up. Under the circumstances, I am amazed that some “bloggers” have been able to treat their “blogs” as businesses and can rely on them to make a living. Considering the fusion of not only books and courses, but also “radio shows” and videos with websites (or “blogging”), pressure will only build until value meets price.[1]

      The "Crab" nebula is 6,500 light-years from Earth and 5 light-years across. The nebula is the remnants of a massive star that collapsed and exploded (i.e., a supernova). New suns and planets form out of the elements. Viewed from Earth as a "visiting star," the nebula was first recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054 CE. Interestingly, that was the time of the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. 

Lest it be said, “Oh, the market will do that,” the blogosphere can be likened to a stellar nebula in which only the faint outlines of heavenly spheres are as yet discernable to the naked eye. We might have a nebula in search of business models not yet extant. Hence, this essay is a sort of plunger designed to push the clogging pulp through the pipes and out of the way, so new water can flow, facilitating a new movement. What is needed of course is brain-power, not shit, matching the thought that went into the software that gave rise to the blogosphere in the first place.

Like global warming outstripping the ability of ecosystems in the far North to adapt, the blogosphere is so foreign to us that our ability to adapt to it cognitively (and strategically as entrepreneurs) has so far been outstripped; so too has our perceptual and cognitive ability to update terminology. Assuming rather simplistically that market competition will somehow squeeze out new, more discerning terms, and novel business models, each capable of connecting to a particular type of "blog" in the still-forming industry, is naive. Instead, innovative strategic and "critical" (i.e., assumption-questioning) thinking, along with trial and error, is necessary before competition can have a chance to fine-tune or reject the various models that have been introduced. Treating all the requisite innovation as technological is like ignoring dark matter in solving gravity equations.[2]

1. MOOCs, or very large online courses, demonstrate just how difficult it is to create a viable business model when the industry is so new and unlike any existing industry. I suspect the model wherein users are charged only if for verified-identity certificates will fail because they do not enable college-credit. More of a difference is necessary from the content that available without charge. Of course, the college or university whose faculty member teaches the MOOC benefits from the publicity, and the MOOC non-profit could perhaps support itself via advertising and/or charging the participating universities a fee (though that might discourage participation).
2. "Blog" picture source: www.dailyblogtips.com

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Larry Summers Bows Out: “Advise and Consent” Triumphant

On September 15, 2013, the White House announced that Larry Summers, Barak Obama’s prior chief economic advisor and a Secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Clinton administration, no longer wanted to be considered to fill the upcoming vacancy as chairman of the Federal Reserve. In the announcement, Obama (or an advisor) wrote, “Larry was a critical member of my team as we faced down the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and it was in no small part because of his expertise, wisdom and leadership that we wrestled the economy back to growth and made the kind of progress we are seeing today.”[1] Unfortunately, this statement suffers from a sin of omission, which admittedly had been minimized by the media as well. Accordingly, the Democrats in the U.S. Senate who had just come out against a Summers nomination can be regarded as done the nation a vital service. Moreover, the “check” of the “check-and-balance” feature of the U.S. Senate’s confirmation power worked.

With all its open points of access, democracy can have a splintering effect on a point worthy of public debate. The media dutifully plays its “scattering” role before any reasoned train of thought can gain traction in the public domain. For example, at the time of Summers’ retraction, the New York Times reported that a “reputation for being brusque, his past comments about women’s natural aptitude in mathematics and science, and his decisions on financial regulatory matters in the Clinton and Obama administrations had made [Summers] a controversial choice.”[2] A reader could be forgiven for concluding that personal vendettas, public gossip, and single-issue (not even monetary policy!) political activists have points just as important as the matter of Summers’ past decisions on financial regulation.

Any political interest having succeeded in getting its point to a microphone is deemed just as relevant or decisive as any other. Democracy is the great relativiser. The great equalizer. Is rule by "members of the club" the only practical alterative, or is it American democracy merely its front, only superficially relativising and equalizing the relevant and the less-than-relevant?
       Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubin. In the late 1990s, they pressed Congress to keep financial derivatives unregulated. A case of government doing Wall Street's bidding?   Image Source: pbs.org
Obviating the scattering effect, we can zero in on Obama’s attribution of “expertise, wisdom and leadership” and ask whether they apply to Summers when he joined Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin in the late 1990s to lobby Congress to remove the CFTC’s authority to regulate financial derivatives. At the time, Brooksley Born, chairwoman of the CFTC, was recommending to Congress that mortgage-backed derivatives be regulated. That the unholy triumvirate, blessed by Clinton and supported by Wall Street, succeeded with the help of Sen. Phil Gramm in discrediting Born kept the financial system vulnerable to being blind-sided by a collapse in any of the securitized derivatives markets.

It is difficult to fathom how financial regulatory expertise, wisdom, or leadership could possibly pertain to Summers in his lobbying capacity during the Clinton administration, even if he did go on to help Obama mop up the fiscal thaw after Lehman's bankruptcy. Yet, sadly, Summers’ down-right discraceful bullying of Born, and being wrong on top of that on whether financial derivatives should be regulated were barely mentioned in the public discourse leading up to Summers’ decision to withdraw his name from the president's consideration.

Fortunately, the public can rely on the informed advise and consent power of the U.S. Senate. Is it just a coincidence, however, that bullish financial markets answered Summers' decision? Or was it the other way around: Summers' decision being the answer to a message he had received from Wall Street? 

To be sure, Summers was "generally considered to be in the pocket of Wall Street."[3] Citibank had been paying him for what the Federal Reserve refers to as "participation" in "Citi events."[4] Additionally, his efforts to keep financial derivatives, including CDOs, unregulated enabled Wall Street banks to make "kazillions of dollars."[5] However, bankers have short memories, given the inertia of the financial interest of the moment. Traders and bankers tended to favor Yellen, according to a poll conducted by CNBC; whereas Yellen got 50 percent, Summers came in at a mere 2.5 percent.[6] Besides sporting an abrasive (Harvard?) manner, Summers had given vocal hints that he might tighten monetary policy, even reduce the Fed's bond-purchase program sooner than Yellen would.

Particularly given Summers' nature, I have trouble believing that he woke up one nice fall morning and decided to cave in to anticipated "political obstacles" to his getting confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Put another way, more was likely behind his loss of support among Democrats on the Senate committee than even concerns the senators might have had about Summers' prior participation in turning Congress against Born's plea to regulate derivatives. Could it be that Wall Street CEOs were pulling the strings, reaching from Boston to Capitol Hill without even leaving finger-prints?    

1.Annie Lowrey and Michael D. Shear, “Summers Pulls Name from Consideration for Fed Chief,” The New York Times, September 15, 2013.
2. Ibid.
3. Mark Gongloff, "Larry Summers' Withdrawal from Fed Race Is Good News for Wall Street and the Economy," The Huffington Post, September 16, 2013.
4. Reuters, "Fed Contender Larry Summers Cancels Citigroup Events," CNBC, September 14, 2013.
5. Gongloff, "Larry Summers."
6. Mark Gongloff, "Wall Street Overwhelmingly Favors Yellen Over Summers for Fed Chair: CNBC Poll," The Huffington Post, July 26, 2013.