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Can Kuro5hin Replace Random House?

By tudlio in Media
Tue Jun 05, 2001 at 04:53:38 PM EST
Tags: Kuro5hin.org (all tags)

A story posted to the queue today wonders why we write. It's an interesting discussion and well worth reading, but it doesn't address a question I'm even more interested in: why do we write for free?

If the paper publishing industry has a purpose other than making money, it is:

  1. to encourage the production of written material
  2. to sort bad writing from good writing
  3. to distribute good writing to an audience

I don't think it does any of those things particularly well.

Encouraging the production of written material

Of the potential pool of talented writers, only a very small percentage can live off their writing. For a variety of reasons that range from the expense of production to the inefficiencies of distribution, publishers don't make much money. What they make, they mostly keep.

Because they don't pay well, potentially talented writers can only write when they're not busy trying to pay the bills. The end result: less written material than could be.

Sorting bad writing from good

The publishing industry relies on the judgement of appointed individuals to decide what gets published and what doesn't. Editors try to guess what people will want, and because the costs of being wrong are high, they guess conservatively. They go with what's worked in the past, which means they pay for writing from established names. Good writing that doesn't fit into an editor's past experience of success won't get published, and bad writing from established writers will.

Distributing good writing to an audience

The publishing industry produces physical goods with high marginal costs. Although the total expense of producing a piece of writing goes down as volume goes up, it does so slowly and approaches a non-zero limit. What's more, because it's a physical good there must be a physical exchange for it to reach its intended audience, a slow and limiting process.

The alternative

You can see where I'm going. The Internet, and specifically sites like K5 provide viable alternatives to the print publishing industry. K5 is designed to sort bad writing from good, and to let the intended audience itself do so, guaranteeing that published works are what the audience wants to read. Likewise bad writing, no matter who its from, doesn't get published. As for distribution: the nature of electronic text makes distribution virtually free, instantaneous and potentially global in scope.

But it doesn't pay to write for K5, so anyone who writes for K5 does so on their own time. Presumably there's some potential good writing that's not getting done. Would paying for writing improve a K5-like site? What would be a fair scheme for such a site to employ to pay for writing? Would you pay a subscription fee to access such a site? And would the creation of such a site somehow sully the purpose and intent of free, community-moderated publications?


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


What would happen if K5 paid for stories?
o Nothing 4%
o The quality of writing would improve 15%
o The quality of writing would decline 18%
o I could quit my day job 4%
o The suits would move in and take over 34%
o Tom Clancy would become a regular contributor 5%
o The world would be a better place 0%
o The revolution would be well and truly over 15%

Votes: 104
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o why we write
o Also by tudlio

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Can Kuro5hin Replace Random House? | 44 comments (43 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
The mojo whores would take over. (4.00 / 2) (#1)
by marlowe on Thu May 31, 2001 at 09:54:59 PM EST

Their hobby will have become a profession.

The quality of typing will probably go up, at least. Spelling, too.

-- The Americans are the Jews of the 21st century. Only we won't go as quietly to the gas chambers. --
What, then .. (3.75 / 4) (#4)
by Eloquence on Thu May 31, 2001 at 11:37:18 PM EST

.. separates a "mojo whore" from a professional writer? The term is idiotic, just like "troll". I don't care what motivates someone (and it's usually hard to tell without telepathy), I care what he does/says.

But if wide overuse of the word whore leads to the international legalization of prostitution, I'm all for it.
Copyright law is bad: infoAnarchy Pleasure is good: Origins of Violence
spread the word!
[ Parent ]

Perhaps nothing at all. (none / 0) (#23)
by hjones on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 08:26:40 AM EST

Don't mind me. I'm feeling a bit jaded about the publishing industry today.
"Nietzsche is dead, but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we -- we small-minded weaklings, we still have to vanquish his shadow too." - The Antinietzsche
[ Parent ]
Why I write (4.00 / 2) (#2)
by paulT on Thu May 31, 2001 at 11:06:35 PM EST

To paraphrase:

Writing is like sex: sometimes something useful comes out, but that is not the reason I am doing it.

"Science is like sex: sometimes something useful comes out, but that is not the reason we are doing it" -- Richard Feynman
You've messed up the Feynman quote (4.00 / 2) (#8)
by guffin on Thu May 31, 2001 at 11:56:48 PM EST

It's actually "Physics is like sex; sure it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it"

[ Parent ]
Ummmm.... (none / 0) (#26)
by minusp on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 10:19:24 AM EST

Look up the word "paraphrase" sometime...

Remember, regime change begins at home.
[ Parent ]
Thanks (none / 0) (#29)
by paulT on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 11:03:29 AM EST

I can't remember where I acquired the quote from but I'll check it out more thoroughly.

[ Parent ]
im-ur (4.33 / 6) (#3)
by fluffy grue on Thu May 31, 2001 at 11:32:12 PM EST

Our friends at IM-UR are doing this. They charge a membership fee, and then the top stories' authors get money for it. As a result, the most sensational, banal crap shows up the most, and the place is flooded with said crap. Not that it was any better to begin with, but now the crapper-crappee relationship there has been formalized.

I think that K5 is doing just fine with getting a story posted to K5 as its own reward, thanks.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]

IM-UR is dead (4.00 / 1) (#11)
by Blarney on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 12:37:15 AM EST

I just looked at their site, to see how it's going, and got a page saying that they're closed. Guess that their business model sucked after all.

The enemy is dead
I can't believe what I said

[ Parent ]

Oh well (3.00 / 1) (#14)
by fluffy grue on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 01:31:30 AM EST

Can't say I'm surprised. Can't say I give a shit, either. :) "I guess that the world isn't ready for collaborative, peer-reviewed journalism after all," or something similarly sarcastic.
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

subscription vs.tip (3.66 / 6) (#5)
by mami on Thu May 31, 2001 at 11:42:52 PM EST

No, I wouldn't pay subscription, at least not now. As K5 users are the writers and the editors, who decide which story to will get out of the queue, there is a conflict of interest.

Let's say there were a scheme by which each story which makes it out of the submission queue would get paid $ 50.00.

I think people would start to submit more, then authors would start to write what they expect people would like to read, which I think is not good. A writer who is sincere writes about that what is important to him, not to the audience. The users would get tired constantly to make decisions about too many stories.

If the submitted stories are of political nature, the (rating) war will intensify to cut out the "enemy's" story.

So far the comments are more interesting than the stories at K5, but I don't think I would want to pay for them.

A reward system would make K5 a nicer place though, I think. Or a writing competetion. The best story gets elected on a weekly basis and gets a reward. Or a tipping feature.

I agree with this too (4.50 / 2) (#18)
by rusty on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 02:22:39 AM EST

Interesting article. I agree with your take on it, though, mami -- I think one of the reasons it does work here, when it does, is that money doesn't come into it. We can afford to be experimental, to vote for weird stuff or for things that challenge people, because we don't have a monetary focus. Like, for example the "Confusing Meta-Story" that looks destined for the front page.

I think a totally voluntary tip system might work, to an extent. I don't think it would provide a steady income for anyone, but I also don't think it would harm the site any. Such a thing is still under consideration...

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]

premises (3.25 / 4) (#6)
by alprazolam on Thu May 31, 2001 at 11:48:01 PM EST

The publishing industry exists to:
  1. Make money
  2. Make money
  3. Make money
As far as the possible 'by-products' you make the assumption that the audience is willing to pay for good writing. This is certainly questionable, as they most likely don't know what good writing is. Then you rebut yourself but fail to mention why something done online would be different than anywhere else. Are you suggesting Kuro5hin change its goals from what it does now to going public and maximizing shareholder return? You do realize that Rusty doesn't live off of food he gets from garbage cans, right? He earns a living running this site, at least, although I'm not sure how anybody else is compensated. Do you want him to make more money? Rather than modifying this site, why not save his discretionary income and invest it in some other project? More important than asking 'what benefit does not subscribing pay' is what benefit does shifting business practices pay?

Plato discussed this a long time ago.... (none / 0) (#10)
by Blarney on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 12:33:46 AM EST

I regret that I can't remember the exact dialog that this subject was discussed in, but I believe that Plato discussed this through his Socrates character.

They were all discussing what the ideal ruler of a state would be like, when a tough guy walks in, calls them idiots, and explains that a ruler of a state is like the shepherd to his sheep - he simply squeezes profit out of them with no regard for their well-being.

Socrates refutes the guy - he goes through a list of professions. Shepherd, doctor, warrior, they are not all in the "profession" of making money. They make money that they may continue doing what they do and being rewarded for it. A doctor is not a doctor to make money - he makes money in order to survive and as a reward to him for performing his work.

[ Parent ]

you don't know many publishing people (4.00 / 2) (#15)
by streetlawyer on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 01:59:51 AM EST

This just isn't true. Publishing people are, in the vast majority, in business to produce books. Of all the industries I've had any dealings with, it's the least commercially driven.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]
you're right (none / 0) (#27)
by alprazolam on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 10:28:42 AM EST

i don't know anything about the publishing industry. but making the assumption that the large publishers are publicly owned i think its a fair wager that competition is going to drive a large amount of them out of business.

of course all that is extraneous until somebody answers the question of what possible benefit going subscribtion would have.

[ Parent ]

quite fair (none / 0) (#28)
by streetlawyer on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 11:01:53 AM EST

Competition in fact does drive a lot of them out of business, all the time. They tend to scrape by on the back of occasional big hits, and book-loving investors who think they can buck the trade (compare the restaurant industry). It's also felt among big publishing combines that having a loss-making literary imprint adds "tone" and helps to attract skilled editors and designers to a publishing business that is financially dominated by pulp fiction and dirty mags. Random House wouldn't be Random House if they were cut down to their profitable divisions.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]
"Publishing" is a many-headed beast (5.00 / 1) (#32)
by Kellnerin on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 12:43:24 PM EST

You're right, and you're wrong. The people who work for publishers, particularly in editorial, are mainly in it because they "love books", can't imagine not being able to read, and want to be part of the process that creates books-as-content and books-as-artifacts. They're certainly not in it for the money; it's right up there with academia as far as financial rewards. However, most publishers these days are part of massive conglomerates who bought them because for some reason or another they thought that books are a good way to make money (it isn't). The corporation is obviously out to make a profit, and editors certainly have that in mind as well (who wants to publish a book that no one will buy?) but that's not the whole story, not by a long shot.

Of course, I take issue with the original article's assessment of the role of publishers, too. I don't know that anyone ever claimed that the mere existence of publishing houses would encourage people to write (though the fact that the structures exist to disseminate one's writings and perhaps make some money in the bargain is a help -- writers will write, anyway). There is certainly a gatekeeping aspect, and a publicity and distribution aspect. That last one includes both making sure millions of people get their Stephen King and also that a few thousand might have a chance to read something different and special. But there's also the role in shaping the books that do get published (the author-editor relationship, subtle refinements that makes a good book great, proofreading and some fact-checking) and the fact that in the end, you have a book, not pixels. Now I'm an old-fashioned bibliophile myself, but I believe there's something about a well-made book that's more than just its content. Some may feel differently, but I think there are enough people who still like to browse the aisles of a bookstore, picking up books and feeling the paper in their hands, to keep Random House and its ilk around a while longer.

--Stop it, evil hand, stop it!--
[ Parent ]

Old-fashioned bibliophiles on the Net (none / 0) (#39)
by dennis on Sun Jun 03, 2001 at 07:24:57 PM EST

I've bought several books that I first found online, fulltext. Some of them started out online, and were picked up by print publishers later (like Phil Greenspun's Database-Backed Websites). It happens a lot with computer books, but it's also happened with novels. And science fiction publisher Baen Books makes several of their titles available fulltext at their online library.

Pretty much any time I find a book online, fulltext, and decide I want to read it all, I'll spring for the print edition. Earlier today, after taking a sudden interest in reading Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, I popped over to gutenberg and downloaded it. After I've perused it a while, maybe I'll head over to the local megastore and pick up a copy. That's the way everything oughta be, doggone it.

[ Parent ]

er.. (3.00 / 4) (#7)
by rebelcool on Thu May 31, 2001 at 11:55:05 PM EST

not everyone has a computer. Most people dont, in fact.

COG. Build your own community. Free, easy, powerful. Demo site

Beer Milkshakes! (3.80 / 5) (#9)
by Blarney on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 12:01:42 AM EST

Maybe K5 could boost its popularity and credibility by hiring a "professional" writer, just like The Other Site did. Mr. Katz provides a lot of foul merriment over there. You can always vent your frustrations by posting "You suck katz" or something (even if it isn't a JonKatz article - nobody's perfect!). Also, you can play the "Jon Katz" game.... you go up to somebody and start saying something like "Like Open Source and p2p, 'multimedia' is a term that..." and if you can finish the entire sentence before the other person shouts "JONKATZ! AAARGH!", you win!

Seriously, though, I think the reason that Jon Katz sticks out like a sore thumb is that his hired work has a fundamentally different style from the masses of unpaid commentaries there. K5 has much better commentary - I've yet to see the Nazi p0rn story here - but it is still the same sort of writing.

Most likely there would be a clear and obvious difference between the paid stories and the unpaid stuff. Maybe it'd be peanut butter and jelly, or maybe it'd be a beer milkshake.

OT: Beer Milkshakes (4.00 / 1) (#43)
by gnomon on Thu Jun 07, 2001 at 10:47:18 AM EST

This is wildly off-topic, and I apologize in advance for wandering so far astray from an interesting topic of discussion, but there's something I have to clear up about the end-block of your comment - the part which compares peanut butter and jelly with beer milkshakes (implying that the former is great and the latter is not).

Beer milkshakes are actually pretty damned good.

I never would have believed it if I hadn't tried it myself, but my brother made one on a whim once (el-cheapo (but fresh) vanilla ice cream, skim milk, Sleeman's Honey Brown - drop in mixer, mix /carefully/ because the mix of beer and melting ice cream tends to foam up quite a bit) and it impressed the hell out of me.

I thought it was going to be horrible, and your comment implies that you think it would be too, but it wasn't just "not disgusting" - it was actually enjoyable! The flavour of the beer balances the sweetness of the ice cream, and the diluted carbonation stimulates the tongue without overwhelming the flavour (as is far too common with many beers and most soft drinks).

Admittedly, I haven't made more than three or four since then, but on the other hand I haven't made more than two or three /non/-beer milkshakes in the same period. Anyhow, give it a try before simply writing the idea off as completely kooky. You might be surprised. At worst, you'll be disgusted at the flavour and the fact that you just wasted a bottle of beer and a scoopful of ice cream, but I don't think that's tool likely.

One caveat: the colour of the end product is not exactly pretty. I'd imagine it would be even worse if you use Guinness (my beer of choice) instead of a light-coloured beer like Sleeman's, but I haven't yet experimented with this.

[ Parent ]
Adaptation and cost models. (3.42 / 7) (#12)
by delmoi on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 01:01:32 AM EST

Can Kuro5hin Replace Random House

I don't know. Can Random House adapt? Just invert the answer to that question.

Actually, this article was rather interesting. I'd actually been thinking about a k5 site but with mooola instead of mojo. The way I figured, each person would be charged $6 a month to read/write on the site. But, rather then have the site editors distribute the money, each user gets to decide who gets paid out of their share. So, if you liked a comment, you could send a half a penny to the commenter, like a story, you can send a couple cents. The site could be paid for by taking a small 'tax' off of transactions (like 1-5% or so)

The real hard part would be gaining momentum. In the heady dot-com days a VC might have been willing to pay those first pay checks, but I doubt it would fly today.
"'argumentation' is not a word, idiot." -- thelizman
The "gimme" mentality (none / 0) (#19)
by Kyrrin on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 03:06:58 AM EST

The problem with this idea, of course, is the "gimme" mentality that's so prevalent in (myself included) many 'net users. "Why should I pay for something like that?" people will ask. "I can get it free from <insert other Scoop site here>". You'd also get people who were in it just for the cash, and would spend all their time trying to write the comments/stories that would get the money. I don't see anyone ever making a living off a site like that, but I know that if I had money at stake, I'd spend more time thinking about what might please the audience instead of what I wanted to write.

I think that there's a clear and visible difference between someone who's doing something because they love it (Open Source hackers, fanfic writers, Internet weblog contributers) and someone who's doing something because they get paid (corporate programmers, professional authors, Jon Katz). One's not necessarily worse than the other -- they're just entirely different mindsets.

For instance, I'm a writer. I write mostly fanfic for various anime and RPGs. One of the things that I'm working on now is a huge, novel-length work for the game Final Fantasy 7. I've been working on it since 1998, and will probably be working on it until 2008 at the rate I'm going. I've spent hours of my time on it, and have turned out well over 300K of text so far -- and I'm only on chapter 8 out of 20. Will I ever see a dime on it? No. I don't even have banner ads on the site that hosts it. I do it because I love to write, I love the characters, and I love the story. I've written some things intended for publication, too (not like I've ever actually sold anything, but that's besides the point), and when I do, I'm always sitting there and thinking, "Will this sell? Is this too extreme? Should I tone this down?"

There's a certain artistic integrity that comes from doing things solely because you love doing them. However, there's a certain respectability in getting paid to do something and do it right -- and there's feedback in the fact that if you do it wrong, you won't get paid, or you won't get another contract/sale from the same editor. I think that there's room for both ways of thinking -- in fact, I think that we need both ways of thinking. It's a good balance.

"I'm the screen, the blinding light; I'm the screen, I work at night. I see today with a newsprint fray, my night is colored headache grey, don't wake me with so much..." -- REM
[ Parent ]
The internet has a short attention span (4.00 / 4) (#13)
by John Milton on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 01:10:05 AM EST

This would only work with short stories, and I don't think there are many stories on K5 that I would have paid for. How much would a meta be worth? The selects material on a good basis. If lots of people like a big name author's works, they're probably going to like his next book. Odd styles usually aren't received that well either. People really want the formula books. Most of them just want the author to spice up the formula a little bit.

This isn't like the mp3 debate. You can listen to a song in about 3-5 minutes and make a quick decision. In that industry, people don't need sheperds. There's plenty of alternative stuff that gets published too. Go to Hastings or Books-a-million and look on the cheap racks. There's a reason those books are there. People want a recognisable face.

"When we consider that woman are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should Treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit." -Elizabeth Cady Stanton

two quotes (4.30 / 13) (#16)
by streetlawyer on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 02:10:10 AM EST

(When asked whether the American college system was strangling new writers)
"I don't think it's strangling enough of them" -- Kurt Vonnegut.

God protect us from anything that aims to "increase the production of written material". There's far too much of it already, and too much of it is crap. If something isn't worth killing a few trees for, and isn't worth paying the cost of production of a physical book (or newspaper), it probably isn't worth foisting on an already overloaded public.

"Good writing by unknown writers gets ignored while bad writing from established writers gets published"? Let me guess. Has fucking diddums had his 1000 page dungeons-and-dragons manuscript sent back again? How unspeakably arrogant to presume that you are in a position to gainsay the judgement of editors, the vast majority of whom are outrageously talented writers themselves in my experience, and who make a profession of being able to judge and lead to public taste. "The Public" have a glorious history since the invention of the printing press of selecting the most unutterable, bland, formulaic crap, with the occasional political pamphlet thrown in. We owe almost all progress in literature in the industrial age -- TS Eliot, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway are the names which come to my mind -- to the genius of editors, not to public taste.

"Get laid, books are crap" -- Philip Larkin

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever

True, and... (5.00 / 7) (#22)
by kuwaerufivechin on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 06:52:25 AM EST

The thousands-of-unpublished-geniuses myth (when maybe there's really tens-of..., if that--and they'll show up somewhere eventually) arises from a belief that's almost universally held, yet so strange I've never fully grasped it: Everyone can be a writer.

I don't know-- Maybe because basic literacy is common (sort of), and the averagely-literate person conceptually conflates "literature" and "self-expression," the averagely-literate person with a self and a pencil considers himself skill-equivalent with James Joyce, or at least Stephen King ("If only I had time to sit down and..." &c.).

I never hear anyone spouting a thousands-of-unbuilt-genius-architects theory, or a thousands-of-unplayed-genius-composers theory (perhaps because I don't hang around with crappy architects or crappy composers). I think we all understand that leveling a bookshelf doesn't make us Le Corbusier, and humming "Show me the Way" doesn't make us Pierre Boulez. That level of skill and "vision" is obviously as rare as it seems to be; that shit's really complicated.

But since we all spend our days scribbling on Post-Its and making crafty goatse.cx links and weeping over our diaries, we think that writing a good book is just a matter of doing that same kind of thing over and over again for a really long time--like all we need is some "free time" to tell "my story," with "feeling" and "connect with people" on an "emotional level" or something. That's how Shakespeare did it, right?

[Insert witty and profound summation here; it's easy, right?]

PS: Everyone get your "unpublished" genius authors here and here.

I mean, we're trying to save the whales. They're stuck up there. --FZ
[ Parent ]
Bimbos of the Death Sun (none / 0) (#24)
by wiredog on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 08:36:52 AM EST

Has ... diddums had his 1000 page dungeons-and-dragons manuscript sent back again?

The above line reminded me of "Bimbos of the Death Sun" by Sharyn McCrumb. A comedy murder mystery set at a SF con. If you've ever done cons, read it, it's extremely funny. If you haven't done cons you'll wonder what the heck is going on.

"Anything that's invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things", Douglas Adams
[ Parent ]

So Everything's Perfect As Is? (3.75 / 4) (#34)
by tudlio on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 07:01:14 PM EST

God protect us from anything that aims to "increase the production of written material". There's far too much of it already, and too much of it is crap.

Good point. I should have said, "increase the production of high quality written material." There is a ton of crap out there, and every bit of it was approved by those same editors whose judgement (we learn in your third paragraph) I was arrogant to question.

Look, I've sorted through slush piles. I know that 99% of literary submissions are unmitigated crap. I'm not suggesting that there ought to be a way for that crap to get published. I am suggesting that there are a significant number of talented writers who can't make a living from it, and that society at large is impoverished because of it.

No system for sorting good fiction from bad fiction is perfect. But IMHO the current system leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I think any stroll through your local mega-stores remainder racks is evidence for my position.

insert self-deprecatory humor here
[ Parent ]
the quest for perfection (5.00 / 3) (#40)
by Kellnerin on Sun Jun 03, 2001 at 10:30:16 PM EST

I still don't quite understand how any system of publishing would "increase the production of high quality written material", unless by "production" you mean the making into books of, not writing of high quality material. A lot of high (and not so high) quality writing is already being done, with no promise of financial reward. I'm not sure that paying people more will lead to any increase in quality (witness established authors who do pull down 6+ figures every time they turn in a manuscript, and therefore can just turn in anything that can reasonably be called a manuscript, whether there's any merit in it or not).

Perhaps it's true that some people aren't writing that Great American Novel because they have to work two jobs as it is, just to make ends meet, but if a publisher went around handing out royalty advances large enough to support a family to everyone who might just have a masterpiece bubbling up inside of them, they wouldn't be around very long.

If you have indeed spent time reading slush, then you know that as bad as the "crap" that gets published may be, the stuff in the slush pile was, by and large, even worse. No one's saying that editors are infallible, but do you really think it'd be better if everyone had to wade through the slush to find the stuff worth reading? The remainder stacks in bookstores are no indication whatsoever of the quality of books that are published. If anything, they are an indication of how much of a gamble publishing is, where a publishing house has to sink a significant amount of resources into producing several thousand copies of a book, and happily swallow the losses on every copy printed that doesn't end up in the hands of a satisfied customer.

For any number of reasons, publishers end up with more copies than they can sell for the next ten years in the warehouse, and need to make room for the next year's crop. It could be because the book wasn't that good to begin with, or it could be that it happened to be one of three books on cat poetry, or courageous sea captains who sailed in the arctic, or how to decorate your home with pillows, all published at the same time, and the others just sold better (maybe they had snappier covers, or a more photogenic author who landed a spot on The Today Show, or they got a spot on that coveted front table instead of being shelved in "Anthropology"). It might also have been a great book, and every reviewer gushed over it, so that bookstores started ordering like crazy, so that the publisher went back and printed more, only to have the reprint hit the warehouse at the same time as a wave of returns from the very bookstores who had gone nuts over it a few weeks ago, abandoning it for the next hot thing as soon as it stops absolutely flying off the shelves. To make a long, sad story short, wonderful books end up remaindered all the time.

I would like nothing more than to see a system that can find and support talented writers, and turn their work into books that others can enjoy. Publishers really do want to do this, and they're playing with the idea of eBooks and print-on-demand to try and make it work, but it's not as simple as you think.

--Stop it, evil hand, stop it!--
[ Parent ]

It's The Business Model (1.00 / 1) (#41)
by tudlio on Mon Jun 04, 2001 at 06:02:31 PM EST

I would like nothing more than to see a system that can find and support talented writers, and turn their work into books that others can enjoy.

That's a far more eloquent way of saying what I was trying to express in the original post.

Publishers really do want to do this, and they're playing with the idea of eBooks and print-on-demand to try and make it work...

I think that there are many individual people in the publishing industry who have noble goals. Even if the entire industry were made up of those people, however, as publicly held corporations (most of 'em) they have a legal obligation to maximize their investors profits. Which in an inherently risky environment means taking fewer risks.

Your points are all well taken. What I'm trying to say is that the publishing industry's business model doesn't well serve the goal of finding and supporting talented writers, or at least it doesn't do it as well as it could.

...but it's not as easy as you think.

I don't imagine it's very easy. However, I think it might be a lot easier if in developing an alternative we throw out the established business model and replace it with something different.

A discussion of what, exactly, that would be is what I was hoping to provoke. Thanks for getting me, at least, to think a little harder about it.

insert self-deprecatory humor here
[ Parent ]
some ideas, though not entirely my own (none / 0) (#42)
by Kellnerin on Mon Jun 04, 2001 at 11:14:41 PM EST

Publishing is unlikely to dump its model and start from scratch, partly because no industry is likely to do that, and partly because publishing of all professions has probably evolved the least since the invention of movable type. Perhaps in this Information Age of ours they'll finally have to catch up, and indeed they are starting to stir themselves slowly, and cautiously.

The system as it is now isn't really all that bad. The problem is that what works quite well on a small level, with a few friends getting together to publish some books "at random" (as Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer did when they founded Random House), works less well when these small houses are bought and sucked into a large media empire. The corporations want to make money, consistently, with growth, growth, growth, and books just aren't the right business for that -- they're too unpredictable. You have to take a chance on books, to go with your gut as to what is a fine work, but the bean counters don't tend to believe in that kind of thing. The major bookstore chains, Barnes & Noble and Borders, also do their part to make the selection more vanilla than it might otherwise be. Their superstores have tremendously high rents, so they're forced to concentrate on high turnover, when the magic in books is really the quiet gem sitting on a shelf waiting to be discovered, not the Sure Thing on the front table (whatever a Sure Thing is in books, anyway). And with that going on in the stores, rather than independent booksellers who know what they like, know what their customers like, and will stick by a book they believe in, the publishers can't afford to let a book sit in the warehouse until it finally takes off ... which takes us back to the rant about remainders.

One way to "fix" publishing today is to make it less of a risk to sign up an author and publish their book. A peer review model might work -- I'll be keeping my eye on iPublish and the like -- but I'm a bit wary of that. I tend to believe that good communities are small communities, but if it's small then it's not a very good indicator of the potential audience for a book. In theory it would be great if you knew, before you even published a book, that thousands of people already liked it and would buy it, but I think that it's asking a lot to make people wade through the dross to find the stuff that's good, or even readable.

The other thing iPublish is doing to hedge its bets is to publish the works that come out of its web community in eBook format, rather than paper. Lower production costs, lower risk. But publishers are still nervous about going digital -- they'll have the same issues with "infringement" and so on that the RIAA and MPAA have, only they haven't been in the spotlight as much because by and large people don't feel that an eBook is as good as the real thing, as opposed to DVDs or MP3s (not to mention the lack of a real standard format).

Print-on-demand is exciting, though, since it allows a publisher to produce a book without committing to a significant print run. Jason Epstein (another grand old man of publishing, at Random House), thinks this is the Future. You could walk into a Kinko's or some other vendor, step up to a machine that allows you to browse a vast catalog of choices, punch in a code, and in a few minutes have a nice, freshly bound paperback book in your hand. As adamba has pointed out, though, print-on-demand isn't quite ready for prime time, though Random House and others are really starting to get into it, and maybe with them behind it, it will be a different story. One nice thing about print-on-demand is that even if a book gets pulped for lack of sales, it need never go officially "out of print". Just keep the Quark documents around that it was printed from, and you can spit out a reasonable facsimile with relatively little effort.

Actually, on some level this can (and does) happen without any fancy technology. A bunch of smaller presses, who don't have the resources to publish lots of first editions, often buy up the reprint rights to books that the big players have basically given up on. That gives some books a second chance, but unfortunately the smaller publishers don't have as much of a distribution presence, and you're back to the whole chain store problem.

Anyway, I'm done rambling for the time being, but I'm sure there are many, many other possibilities that haven't been thought of yet, or tried, or written about in places I would have read about them :) If you think of any, let me know ...

--Stop it, evil hand, stop it!--
[ Parent ]

Oh, and I forgot... (3.00 / 3) (#36)
by tudlio on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 07:08:27 PM EST

...it's based on GURPS, not D&D, it's only 998 pages, and I wrote it entirely in Elvish. The only reason it's not published is that those damn editors keep insisting I punctuate it.

insert self-deprecatory humor here
[ Parent ]
K5 has already replaced Random House (3.60 / 5) (#17)
by Luke Francl on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 02:17:44 AM EST

K5 has already replaced Random House as my premier source for news and opinions about K5.

Definitely need gatekeepers (3.75 / 4) (#21)
by nobbystyles on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 05:43:18 AM EST

As a filter for the amount of dreck being produced whether in films, books, tv programmes and music. The problem is that a k5 type 'dreck' filter won't work as no one has the time to sit down and read or watch much of the content being produced. It's OK for K5 type articles as most of them are relatively short so even a lazy person like me can skim through them and give them a relatively fair moderation.

I haven't the time or patience to wade through random books so I rely on the editors of publishing houses, book reviewers and recommendations of friends and relatives to pick books that I would like. This has worked well so far with only a minority of books I have bought being duds... The system works well in my opinion. Of course great works may be unfairly ignored but in most cases 99% of unpublished works are fairly crap. I know this from friend in publishing who I think is fairly open to experimental works...

Don't think it would work (4.40 / 5) (#25)
by RangerBob on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 09:07:24 AM EST

You did hit it on the head about it being very hard to make a living as a writer. Some are able to devote full time efforts to it, but many can't. I think there are probably thousands of excellent writers out there that we'll never hear about because they simply can't give up their day jobs and still feed their families. But I don't think there's any way for them to get by on web publishing.

The problem with Utopian schemes of people gladly giving money is that they are too naive. There are too many people out there who refuse to pay for anything, even if it does give them enjoyment. There was an article on Slashdot a while ago about why models such as the one that Stephen King tried are doomed to failure. Even if a site charged to read good writing, people would copy the writing and freely give it away, claiming that the writer owed society and that "information wants to be free". It's happening with music now, and it would happen with electronic publishing.

Until people realize that the world doesn't revolve around them and that the world doesn't owe them, you'll always have these types of problems. There's too much of a "gimme gimme" culture now to hope that people would pay. And no, isolated instances of people giving money to artists don't mean a thing, because they're simply too isolated now to have any real impact.

Funny definition of "doomed" (none / 0) (#30)
by dennis on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 11:31:25 AM EST

There are too many people out there who refuse to pay for anything, even if it does give them enjoyment.

Doesn't matter. There are also plenty of people who are happy to pay for things that give them enjoyment, and the cost of digital distribution is so much lower that those people are enough.

There was an article on Slashdot a while ago about why models such as the one that Stephen King tried are doomed to failure.

Since this was one of the first experiments, and King made half a million bucks profit, I don't see how people draw this conclusion.

[ Parent ]

Funny supporting arguments :) (none / 0) (#35)
by RangerBob on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 07:07:10 PM EST

Doesn't matter that you say people will pay. Those that won't are in the majority. So why doesn't everyone release on the Net then? Why do we have record companies? Why do we have publishing agencies? I'm sorry, but Utopian arguments place way too much credit on the common person to pay. People are too mature and have too much of a freeloading instinct. Until people grow up, artists have to rely on what they're doing now to get by.

Oh, and if you'll look, there are a lot of people who funnled more money King's way than they had to. Why? Because they wanted it to succeed, even though there were a whole lot more freeloaders out there. If people would grow up and just pay for things, others wouldn't have to support them. And yeah, I'm sure the next comment will be "but it succeeded, people made up for the freeloaders". But the point continually gets lost that they SHOULDN'T HAVE TO.

[ Parent ]
Shouldn't have to (none / 0) (#38)
by dennis on Sun Jun 03, 2001 at 04:55:49 PM EST

it succeeded, people made up for the freeloaders...but...they SHOULDN'T HAVE TO.

Or to put it another way...if I want to support the band with fifty cents or so, I shouldn't have to shell out eighteen bucks to support the manufacturers, distributors, marketers, and other monopolistic gatekeepers who insist on keeping their privileges by passing laws against the technologies that make them obsolete.

[ Parent ]

Paying for work vs. a copy (4.00 / 1) (#44)
by marx on Tue Jun 12, 2001 at 05:40:48 PM EST

Even if a site charged to read good writing, people would copy the writing and freely give it away, claiming that the writer owed society and that "information wants to be free".

Haven't you listened? Noone believes in intellectual property anymore, it's dead. Compare the way a musician makes money to that of a carpenter. The musician works for a while, and then he sells the work, i.e. he sells copies of his intellectual property. A carpenter on the other hand, agrees with the customer on what he should do, and on what he should be paid, then he does the work. See the difference? Making money from intellectual property is just like being any other property owner, i.e. you sit around and people pay you money for using your property. When the property is copyable at no cost, it doesn't make much sense to keep paying the owner does it? This is the difference.

To implement a scheme like this, we should of course ditch all the intellectual property crap. The payment is agreed before the work is done. With a reputation system this will be no problem. The problem is of course as always getting people to pay anything at all in the first place. I don't think this will be a problem either though. If Radiohead tells me "hey, if we don't get any money, we can't pay our rent, and we can't write new songs", I would want to participate in a scheme which would pay their rent in exchange for them producing music. I can see why authors and musicians wouldn't like this though, because then the people would essentially decide their standard of living, but unless the industry wins, and we get Big Brother to kick us in the ass unless we pay for our copyrighted things, I believe this development will be inevitable (just look at Napster, this is people's gut reaction to copyrighted things).

Join me in the War on Torture: help eradicate torture from the world by holding torturers accountable.
[ Parent ]

What do you get ... (4.40 / 5) (#31)
by Kellnerin on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 11:56:00 AM EST

... when you cross K5 with Random House (by way of an eviler-than-Bertelsmann corporation)?


This is AOL/TW's attempt to get in on the writing community/peer review gig, with the carrot being the possibility of being published as an eAuthor (or is that iAuthor) and maybe, just maybe, as a Dead Tree Author. (Way to mix those metaphors, Kellnerin!) It uses a moderation system similar to K5's, where readers rate a submission from 1-5, with the requirement that you must rate 3 submissions before you submit one of your own (how they got the first submissions, I dunno). Note, however, it does not charge a subscription fee to participate. Anyway, the site only launched about a month ago, so it remains to be seen how it all shakes out, though they have had an impressive amount of traffic considering I didn't see any publicity for it at all. I've been meaning to start lurking there but I spend too much time in the K5 queue already ...

I guess I have three problems with a subscription K5, and it's not just about wanting free beer. Adding money to the K5 mix would almost certainly sully its purpose. It's not a place for personal gain; it's a place for discussion and sharing of ideas (at least as I see it). Mojo is worthless inasmuch as it's basically just ego points. You don't really need to be a trusted user because the trusteds generally do a good job of filtering spam and leaving the garden variety junk alone, but someone needs to be trusted to do that, which is the only reason to keep score. We already have an issue with people with multiple accounts modding themselves up, or bringing friends on just to vote up their stuff, or modding others down maliciously. Once you start dealing in something with Real World value, things get even stickier.

When I read a story in the mod queue, I ask myself, "Would someone who comes to K5 like to read this?" and if the answer is yes, I vote it up. When I read a book proposal from someone who wishes to be dead-tree published, I ask myself, "Would someone pay $20+ for a nice hardcover of this?" -- and often the answer is no. Lots of it is interesting, but if it were in a bookstore, it'd be more a flip-through-and-put-down than a buy-and-take-home. Here, I can vote up something of mere curiosity value (like a lot of the "check out this weird site" MLPs, as opposed to the ones that are lazy news stories). So actually, I think more gets "published" when money doesn't enter into it (and I believe this holds true even at smaller amounts of money). Of course it doesn't help the writers put food on the table, either, but it depends on what your goal is.

K5 is also a special case because the "editors" (moderators) are the writers are the audience (there are lurkers, but if you have a subscription model, I assume these would go away). Everyone with an account can see the mod queue anyway, and has paid their money, so it's like trying to sell material to yourself. "Do I think this is something other K5ers would pay for?" makes no sense because they've already paid, and they can already read it. If the question is, "Is this something I want to pay my own money for?" then a tip system, as others have suggested, works better.

--Stop it, evil hand, stop it!--

I doubt iPublish will work for book-length stuff (4.50 / 2) (#37)
by adamba on Sat Jun 02, 2001 at 11:50:25 PM EST

Publishing a book is actually a big gamble. Almost all books lose a little money and the publishers make it up with the rare bestseller. Furthermore, most of the expenses -- reviewing manuscripts, editing them, marketing, etc. -- won't change no matter what technology is used. So although print-on-demand will allow publishers *some* leeway in lowering their standards (since there won't be the upfront cost of an offset print run), it won't fundamentally change how the system works.

The way it is now, writers first need to get an agent interested, then the agent needs to get a publisher interested. The agents in a way have it even worse, because the publishers are using them as a first-level screen against most of the crap out there. Agents also don't get paid unless a publisher accepts the book. So agents wind up being super-gunshy and really only accept books they think publishers will like. The days of an agent developing a writer are over. Most agents don't even want to work to develop a book proposal, they want it ready to send off when the writer submits it.

Anyway, what iPublish is trying to do is get random schmoes to do some of this work for Time Warner. But how many people are really going to read book-length manuscripts just on the off chance that their work will be noticed? A system like this may work well for short articles like on K5, but few people -- especially unknown writers who presumably have another job also -- are going to wade through three 100,000 word manuscripts of unknown quality just so that their work can be evaluated by others.

Also note that iPublish is really focussed on eBooks, which are a big non-event right now. Don't believe what it says about "and you may even be published as a traditional book through Time Warner Trade Publishing" -- yeah right. That will happen so rarely as to be irrelevant. I think exactly one print-on-demand book has been picked up by a traditional publisher, and the author's sister was a known author. Self-published books are picked up at a rate that can be counted in fingers-of-one-hand per decade.

- adam

P.S. My print-on-demand oddysey is chronicled here if anyone is interested.

[ Parent ]

The money... (4.00 / 4) (#33)
by Farq Q. Fenderson on Fri Jun 01, 2001 at 02:27:26 PM EST

The money would have to come from somewhere. I can think of the three obvious places: advertising, voters and viewers.

Advertising is simply ineffective at this level, unless the increased writing interest raises viewership, raises ad value and makes it possible. I doubt the ratios would work out, though.

Voter fees could easily upset the balance, since there would suddenly a paid-for elitism, and he who has the most money controls the press. I don't really like this situation at all... since there's a bias that many readers will have no control over.

Subscription, or paying readers would likely be the best system, since those who view also control - much like it is now. The difference is that people have to pay to view, and can be paid to write - not a very good deal if you're just a viewer.

IMO, it -could- work, but I wouldn't want to see it happen to K5, not in any of the ways I just mentioned (unless advertising can be made to work - and without disruption.)

Furthermore, I see no -need- for it to happen, I write because I like to, and that's reward enough. It's not all money... there's something else there, and that's an important point.

This isn't to say that it's not a good idea, but the Protestant Work / Money Ethic seems to have too many people brainwashed to think that money is the only thing worth working for, and work (for money, of course) is the only thing worth doing. I recommend that these people get a copy of the Hacker Ethic and read it. Wow.

farq will not be coming back
Can Kuro5hin Replace Random House? | 44 comments (43 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
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