Text Transcript for Session 6: Changes in Media Technology Small and Large
Practicalities of how creative works circulate—physical size, the cost of a copy, which venues can or will stock them, how they reach audiences—can exert enormous control over works, creators, and publishers, with effects similar to censorship even if no one intends it. And they can also be exploited to act as intentional censorship. This week’s experts discuss the impact of successive small innovations in media technology on book publication, comic books, and music.
- Charles Brownstein & Ted Adams (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund)
- Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden (editors & publishers, Tor Books, Macmillan)
- Aram Sinnreich (digital music, piracy)
- Plus series hosts Ada Palmer and Adrian Johns
[Ada Palmer] Welcome all to this session of Censorship and Information Control During Information Revolutions. Today we are going to look at changes large and small in information technologies and how they affect publishing, what can be sold, what can be produced. So today we’re going to be looking more on the information control end then the censorship end of the spectrum, but everyone here is also very engaged with the censorship end, as well. So we have people who’ve worked on music, people who’ve worked on visual media, people who’ve worked on pornography, people who’ve worked on television, as well as people who’ve worked on both fiction and nonfiction books, so a lot of different perspectives on the production, circulation, and commercial viability of different forms of media, both literary and other creative works. So as our first ping-pong volley today, I wanted to invite Patrick and Teresa to talk a little bit about the tiny incremental changes often forgotten that they’ve seen book publishing undergo. We’re all very familiar with discussions of e-books and e-books revolutionizing book printing and what’s happening and lots of melodramatic discussions about whether books or dead, et cetera. But these are publishers who have seen many small technological changes, pre e-book, in fact, as well as during e-book, in what is produced, what can be produced, what is sold, what can be sold. And I think if we kick off with that, then others will have exciting parallels to draw from their own experience–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I, I know what to say. Well, um, go ahead.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Okay, sure. Um, in the run up to this discussion, I was thinking about, well, censorship, I mean, how much experience do I actually have with that, and I got to thinking about what actually keeps words from getting out onto the air or onto the pages of books, and mostly, what I’ve seen is not censorship the way that we think about, not the Orwellian kind of censorship, but people deciding, or even just assuming without thinking about it, that the audience ought not or ought not see this, or wouldn’t be interested in seeing this, or we couldn’t possibly make a profit selling this, and it’s a remarkable amount of communication fails to ever reach the public court for those reasons. And we like to think that when we make those judgments, we’re right, but it’s better to tell a story. Here’s a quick one. It used to, there’s still gay bookstores out there, but there used to be a lot more. It was a big thing. And one of the bits of fallout from that was we started getting sales figures showing us exactly how much science fiction and fantasy was selling through gay bookstores. Answer, a really surprising amount. And what I watched was within just a very few months, gay content go from being something that the editor kind of mumbles about when the book’s being presented for the first time to a selling point that you put on your documentation so the sales force will be clear on, you know–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Something that the market
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Gay content, because what we knew from just this one change, that we were getting information broken out in a particular way, was we have a huge audience there.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, some of the editors are being chided by the sales folks for not highlighting LGBT et cetera content, which was a huge change that took place over a period of a year or so.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] I thought it took about two months.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] It was pretty rapid. Can I take the uh–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Go.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] People, there’s a lot of sort of folk knowledge that’s exaggerated about various recent changes in book publishing, and particularly, in genre fiction publishing, but book publishing in general. I’ve been working in the industry for over 30 years, and when I was first an editorial assistant at Doubleday book clubs in 1984, publishing was in a total crisis, and everybody was about to lose their jobs, and nobody reads, and the usual panic, which none of which was true.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] That’s been happening about every six months ever since.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Barnes & Noble is going to destroy book publishing. Amazon is going to destroy book publishing. Nobody in America reads books, et cetera, et cetera. E-books are going to destroy book publishing. Almost nobody realizes, but the single biggest change in the conditions and circumstances and channels of book publishing, and one with the actual biggest sociological impact in the last 50 years is the complete collapse of the mass market paperback distribution networks that took place from about 1989 to about 1999. This is something that almost nobody knows about, and it really, really changed a great deal about how American society takes in books. I think a lot of people in this room are probably too young to remember that from about the late 1940s to sometime in the mid to late 80s, most supermarkets in the United States had large paperback racks, like 128 pocket wire displays.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Or at least a spinner.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] And they had, spinner were for smaller stores, like convenience scores, Rexall’s, pharmacies, et cetera, et cetera, but the point is they just didn’t sell torrid romances and bestselling authors, they sold everything. You know, they sold Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. They sold Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and Marshall McLuhan, public affairs books, books of informed opinion, literary fiction, Gore Vidal…
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Translations of Euripides, collections of modern poetry,
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Translations of
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Anything.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Of Sartre, whatever. Basically, the, I could keep backing up on this history and telling it backwards, but essentially, the mass market paperback as we understand it was a revolutionary invention. It was really finalized in the late 1940s. We’d had the technology since the early, late 1800s, early 1900s, to cheaply produced lots and lots and lots of cheap paperback, paper bound books,
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Paperback editions.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] But they didn’t become a primary avenue of actual book publishing for several decades, because the small number of actual retail bookstores in the United States, and they were quite small in number up until after World War II, didn’t wanna take them, because the amount of vertical shelf space, spine out, that would take like two 25 cent paperbacks, they could sell a $2.95 hardcover in that same amount of space. So they weren’t interested, and attempts at founding mass market lines just foundered–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Also, it just looked trashy.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] So, the big innovation of the late 40s was that the people who invented modern mass market paperback publishing essentially turned their backs on retail booksellers, and said, we’re just gonna piggy back on the existing magazine and periodical and newspaper distribution networks. We’re gonna make our books as much like periodicals as we can. We’re gonna sell them in monthly lists rather than seasonal lists, and we’re gonna offer the same terms that Harper’s and Look and Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post offer, which is retailers take X number of copies, and the unsold copies, they tear off the covers, send them back for full credit–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] At the end of the month.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] At the end of a month, exactly. That was wildly successful. Suddenly there were books all over bus stations, train stations, drug stores, all kinds of non bookstore outlets.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] May I interject just a moment here?
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] One of my favorite facts is that there were just a few hundred bookstores in the country, year I was born. There were entire states that didn’t have a bookstore. It was widely assumed that most people were not interested in reading. They certainly wouldn’t want a wide range of books, and so you were lucky if there was a bookstore in your city in a lot of places.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Can I continue with the mass market–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, but just really quickly, and then when the paperback, when they actually came out with distribution for paperback, what turned out was that there was a huge appetite for books about just about anything, and they, they–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Classics.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] They kept tossing stuff out onto the paperback racks just to see, are people actually going to buy this one? Boom, and suddenly the way that we understand people and their intellectual lives, no matter what kind of job they hold, changed at that point, and quite wonderfully.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, basically, this was the situation from the successful launch of the mass market paperback in the late 40s all the way up to the mid to late 80s. Shortly after the huge initial success of mass market paperback distribution through non bookstore outlets, the bookstores relented and started selling them as well. But still, the non bookstore channels were the primary ones, and this is really important because it’s a fact that has actually persisted for the last hundred years or so in America. About 50% of American families ever have a member who sets foot in a bookstore once in a given year. The other 50%, nobody every goes into bookstores, basically. So what happens to the kids of the, before the invention of the mass market paperback, and its distribution through non bookstore outlets, there was really very little opportunity for the kids in those other families to walk past a tempting range of books that they could afford. For 40 years–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And comic books.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] This is actually applicable there, as well. But for 40 years, the kids of those families, whenever they were in a grocery store, or a drug store or whatever, were being exposed to the kinds of books I was just mentioning, Gore Vidal, Normal Mailer, Silent Spring, whatever. Along with current bestsellers and genre fiction and so forth. I mean, I grew up in the midst of all this. When I’m talking to science fiction audiences, I talk about how when I was 12 years old in 1971, I bought a extraordinarily avant garde literary science fiction short story collection called Fun With Your New Head by Thomas M. Dish at the You Tote ‘Em convenience store down the road from me in Scottsdale, Arizona. This is unimaginable these days. It’s like saying I bought an issue of the Hudson Review at the 7-Eleven. It would not happen. But it was totally routine. The thing about the voracious, attached to the periodical distribution system, mass market distribution system, it would take anything, no matter how good. And why it ended had nothing to do with consumer demand. This is really why I feel that this story falls into the purview of this program. It wasn’t that Americans suddenly stopped wanting to be able to buy a broad range of literary and genre and popular and nonfiction–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And trashy.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Polemical.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Don’t leave out the trashy.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Trashy and pornographic and whatever books in their grocery store. What happened is a big sort of rationalization of retail practices. The late 80s was a period where a lot of regional supermarket and other similar chains started going national, Albertsons, Safeway, et cetera, et cetera. They were going national and they were also harnessing much more sophisticated IT to manage their inventories and so forth, and they started asking, why do we want to be dealing with this weird, funky, very locally based magazine and periodical system.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Describe briefly.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Basically there were like 800 wholesalers spread around the United States. Some of them handled as much as like half of a state. Many of them handled territories like one-quarter of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Many of them were businesses that were basically.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Mom and Pop.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Six guys and six station wagons, whose basic job was just getting periodicals and newspapers and some paperbacks into spinning racks and wire racks and so forth and so on. And the nationalization of these chains, and the application of lots of much more rigorous inventory IT basically caused a sort of spiral of these wholesalers merging with each other. I mean, you know, supposedly, at least according to Tom Doherty, who’s the founder of Tor, it started in the Puget Sound area with Safeway saying to the 12 wholesalers they dealt with between Olympia and Bellingham, Washington, we don’t wanna deal with 12 wholesalers. You guys figure it out. We wanna deal with one of you, the others should sell to the other.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And they said, we can’t do that, we bid for territories. They said, we’re taking bids.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Exactly, we’re Safeway. You do what we say.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And the winner gave them a couple of extra points of profitability.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] So the net result of this is that as of now, there’s like one wholesaler in the country, Reader Links, that basically supplies what paperbacks actually do get into non bookstore outlets. And it’s a very constrained list–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] You’re missing a connection there, which is, which is that because they gave away profitability, and book distribution was already a very marginal business, they started going out of business. So they just merged into each other as they collapsed.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] While it was going on, I remember Teresa observing that it’s sorta like watching the monasteries disappear under Henry VIII. There’s a vast quantity of knowledge on the ground that’s just going to waste. These companies sell to each other, and bunch of people who’ve been doing this for decades, very skillfully, all retire. And you can see that the stupidification of paperback distribution happen all through the 90s. While writers and readers and literary people are all wringing their hands over the terrible Barnes & Noble, which at that time was growing enormously, this was the real disaster that was going on. In fact, the growth of Barnes & Noble was actually a kind of counterweight to this, and kept a lot of authors’ careers going. The thing is that paperbacks, mass market paperbacks were always a very tiny appendix to the enormous business of getting copies of Playboy and TV Guide up into all those grocery shelves.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And Good Housekeeping.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] And if you are a gigantic colossus that has suddenly come into being and is responsible for like seven Western states’ distribution, and the people who still have jobs, or the people who 10 minutes ago were running the equivalent of one-quarter of Tulsa, Oklahoma–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And the fact that they’d taken over all this new territory doesn’t mean they actually have capital to deal with this.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Or mental capital, mental bandwidth. You’re gonna look at ways you can simplify your job, and that’s how, why in the 1990s, this incredibly diverse ecology of the distribution of mass market paperbacks simplified into what was called famous author distribution. You know, you’d have a much smaller wire rack, and the grocery store would have like six huge one stripe per major author, Stephen King, Richard North Patterson, whatever. This is actually even before, you know, Harry Potter and so forth. So, it’s a terrible story that I basically set forth to point out just how many massive market failures there are in modern American literary and intellectual publishing, et cetera, life, that vast changes in who gets offered what, who gets to buy what, who gets to look at what, that have nothing to do with anything anybody actually wanted. We are back to a situation where, still, only about half of American families ever go into a bookstore, and those kids, they don’t have the–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Or don’t go into a specialized comic shop.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Exactly, and you could say, well, Amazon, e-books, and all that, but these things require credit cards. Lots of bright kids in those families do not have credit cards.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] It requires a bored kid looking at something really interesting and bright colored in the store while they’re waiting for their mom or dad to finish ringing up at the register, and so it’s not happening anymore.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] So for reasons of just little marginal increases in profitability and efficiency, we basically had a kind of silent cultural catastrophe, where we lost something truly great. And a great deal of book publishing, including category publishing, has gone back to being a carriage trade.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And as a rule of thumb, it’s always worse in comics. Their distribution system collapsed even worse than ours.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] That’s true. Anyway, that is the end of that rant.
[Ada Palmer] Yes, well, and on that note, perhaps we can hear from our comics friends on reflections on similar phenomena or different phenomena.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, what happened to your spinning racks?
[Ted Adams] Yeah, it was similar, but the difference being that the comic book stores took advantage of that. So instead of having the equivalent of a Safeway or a big retail chain, now we have thousands of Mom and Pop stores, so individual entrepreneurs who are selling comics, and selling new comics and used comics. Thinking about the technology and how it impacts a publisher, I was thinking, not so much on the print side or the distribution side, but a couple of examples came to mind for me. We did a book, and I’m about to swear, so if that’s gonna offend you, now’s the time to cover your ears, that was called, Shit My President Says, and it was the illustrated tweets of Donald Trump done by cartoonist named Shannon Wheeler. And the largest online retailer, who shares a name with a famous forest, would not promote that book if we spelled it out S-H-I-T, but if we spelled it out S-H-asterisk-T, then it would go into their promotion.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] The largest publisher of pornography in the English language doesn’t want to use the word shit in a title?
[Ted Adams] For promotion purposes, yes. So I think that raises an interesting question. Is that censorship? Well, yes, probably. But in this case, was it, can we still get the point across and do the marketing that we want by everybody knowing what the word is? You know, so it’s probably not a dramatic version of censorship, and Shannon Wheeler, who did the cartoons, was okay with making that change, understanding that it was then going to open up the biggest market for us as a book publisher and for him as an author. But the other way that I see technology changing publishing is where, and it’s another example of self-censorship, which is when you’re, where really the technological change has happened is the way that we interface with our customer, and so, even five years ago, we had very little direct interaction with a customer. It would happen at a convention. If you happened to be at a comic store, it might happen there. People would write letters or send you emails, but with the advent of social media where everybody is communicating at all times, our writers and editors are constantly faced with communication from people who say they are consumers, and I think that starts to become part of the question is, are they actually consumers? Or are they just people who are advocating because you’ve published something that they don’t like? And where I think that’s troublesome is that if you are an editor for my company, and you are working on a comic book, a Transformers comic book, or a Star Wars comic book, and you’re constantly being berated on social media in a really vicious way, where you’re being personally insulted, sometimes you’re being physically threatened, people are not acting with traditional social norms in the way that they’re communicating with you, does that lead writers and editors and artists to self-censor because they don’t wanna put themselves in a position where they’re having to face this online mob? And as I said, in many cases, an online mob that is really not their reader or even a potential customer.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Those guys lie a lot.
[Ted Adams] One last example that social media for us was we publish a series of comics on the Powerpuff Girls, which was a cartoon that came back a couple years ago. And one of the things that my company does to have commercial success is we do a log of variant covers, so the content will remain the same, but there might be four or five different covers for collectors to collect. And those covers can range a pretty wide gamut of content. So for the Powerpuff Girls, the licensor of that content, who sold us the rights to do the Powerpuff comic books wanted to do a cover that was examining what the Powerpuff girls would look like as real teenagers, as real superhero teenagers, and not in this sort of manga style that they’re presented traditionally in the cartoon. So the editor of that book who was a woman hired a female artist to do a representation of the Powerpuff girls as teenage superheros, and there was a retailer actually not far from here in Michigan who went online and said that this was, we were sexualizing the Powerpuff girls. So he was bringing his own bias to this cover, seeing sexuality where no sexuality was intended, which I can assure you, from having spoken with both the editor and the artist, but because of social media, he was able to turn that into a story that then forced the licensor to come to us and say, we’re not gonna allow you to distribute that cover, so that cover, it was printed, it was in the distribution channel, but we had to pull it because this one single retailer said that he saw it as sexualized, and he was able to make enough noise via social media to get the licensor to say we don’t wanna take that risk, we don’t wanna risk offending people. And so I think that that’s where, in modern terms, where technology really interacts with self-censorship in a lot of cases. And in this case, it’s not, it’s commercial censorship. You can certainly find that piece of art, if you were to search for it online, I’m sure you could find it online, but as far as actual physical distribution of that content, it was, without any question, censored.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I do wanna note that on the Shit My President Says, then there’s Amazon insisting on an asterisk. Over 10 years ago, a philosopher, an academic philosopher named Harry Frankfort wrote a short, quite funny, but philosophically serious book called On Bullshit, which was an analysis of what we mean when we call something bullshit.
[Audience] It’s a great book.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] It’s a great book. It was a number one New York Times bestseller. It was published by Princeton University Press, not IDW. Amazon didn’t make them put an asterisk on the I, nobody did, it didn’t have an asterisk on the I when it was shown in the–
[Ted Adams] Part of that is our power. We’re distributed by Penguin Random House, so it’s one of the largest publishers in the world, but they would have, just to be clear, they would have sold the book if we’d kept it as Shit My President Says.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Oh, I’m sure that’s true.
[Ted Adams] They just wouldn’t promote it, and so that was–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] But I just looked up this 12-year-old book by Harry Frankfort on Amazon just now, and it’s still got a promotional price. I’m just basically say thing, there is a–
[Ted Adams] It’s not the discounting of the price–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] There’s a caste system.
[Ted Adams] Right, no question there’s a caste system, but we’re not talking about promotion, just so it’s clear, I’m not talking about the discounted price, I’m talking about, they have a complicated algorithm where if you buy into, if you allow them to buy into that algorithm, then they’ll promote your book in different ways.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Sure, sure.
[Ted Adams] They’ll essentially rise it in their search results.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] It is absolutely a caste system, you’re right. The more prestigious the publisher, the gamier the stuff they can get away with.
– Yeah, yeah.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Because it’s covered under the rubric of art and culture, not sleazy stuff that’s getting published for money. Much difference in those.
[Charles Brownstein] To return to the topic of distribution, and how this has affected comics, and to a certain extent the broader culture, it’s interesting to note that Patrick was describing the consolidation efforts in the paperback industry in the 1990s. At the same time, there was a collapse, for different reasons, in the comic book industry in the 1990s, that led from comics being distributed by something like a dozen regional distribution houses to ultimately consolidating under one distribution house. This was largely driven by a corporate decision that Marvel had made to acquire their own distributor and self-distribute, sending the rest of the distributors and retailers kind of scrambling to retain the volume that was necessary that was being lost by Marvel going away, and it created a catastrophe, it created a mess, and it created a need for the industry to figure out how to survive under a different margin structure. And so we started to see whole bunch of different experiments in how publishing worked, you started to see the shift towards book publishing, and the rise of the graphic novel format, which is interesting side effect in that area. The death of Superman, you know, being a title that, in graphic novel form, was kind of an unprecedented best seller. So put that over here, you know, in one piece of thinking about the discussion. Moving into the consolidation area, the observation that Teresa made about how the precocious kid doesn’t have a credit card to go online and sample books, coupled with the fact that you lost a number of comic book stores, you lost a great deal of bookstores, reduces the opportunity for sampling of all kinds of content. And I was that kid that learned about stuff by going into Waldenbooks, and being bored at the supermarket, and going into those racks that Patrick’s describing. So those sampling opportunities have really shifted into the library environment, and so what’s very interesting looking at the contemporary climate of where censorship is happening, it also corresponds to where those without the economic wherewithal to browse, or to purchase in these environments where distribution is happening, are going towards the library environment, and that’s where it’s fascinating to see the shift in censorship that’s happened over the 17 years that I’ve run Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, where I took this job in 2002, figuring, well, for the rest of my life, I’m gonna be the guy that defends creepy porno comics. And I’ve been horrified to find that now I’m the guy that is defending mainstream young adult graphic novels for young adult readers, stuff like Drama by Raina Telgemeier, or stuff like This One Summer by the cousins Tamaki, and part of this corresponds to the fact that the sampling environment, where people are accessing this content, is the public library. This is where the kids that don’t have the credit cards are going to access this kind of material. They’re being able to access comics material, which were low value speech for half-wits and children in the 20th century, into being quasi-respectable because the economic model for publishing shifted in the late 90s and early 2000s from the periodical format as a kind of bastard child of the magazine, into the book format, which became a little bit more viable, making it possible for this stuff to move into a library environment in the first place. So those convergences happened, and ultimately have positive results, but what you’re seeing right now is a climate where we’ve gone from really being concerned about protecting the outer fringe of expression, the right of adults to access adult material, to people expressing concerns about the welfare of minors, and not in the traditional let’s protect the children from nude images, let’s protect the children from the explicit adult depiction of sexual content, but to let’s protect the children from the ideas that I don’t want my children to be raised around, such as the chaste kiss in Drama by Raina Telgemeier, such as the discussion, the frank discussion of miscarriage with no visual depiction in This One Summer. And so it’s a constantly evolving set of circumstances that corresponds with the distribution, with the changes in technology, and with the venues where those that do not have the means can access materials. It’s a fascinating and constantly evolving problem and climate.
[Aram Sinnreich] You know, it’s so interesting how analogous the process that you guys have described is to what happened in the recorded music industry between the 1990s and the 2000s. So exactly the same consolidation on the distribution side led to the kind of, you know, for most of the 20th century, recorded music was sold in the U.S. in Mom and Pop shops, independently owned neighborhood based shops that were organized in terms of the dedication of floor space around discovery, around sampling, around investigation and you know, kind of serendipity. And each one carried a different, none of them had a massive library, but each of them carried a different and distinct library, and that’s why you’d have multiple music shops even in a single relatively small economic zone. And then in the 1990s, you get this massive consolidation of distribution, and all of a sudden, there’s this growth of these nationwide and sometimes international music chains, the Tower Records, HMV, Sam Goody, and what they do is they all not only standardize their inventory so it’s identical, no matter which shopping mall you go to walk in the door, but they also nationalize, and to a certain extent, internationalize end cap promotion. So exactly the same handful of acts that are receiving millions of dollars in promotional dollars from the record labels are being promoted within the retail environments in all these stores. But then something really interesting happens, which is about, they have this kind of like five or 10 year window, and then the big box retailers–
[Ada Palmer] Could you specify what years?
[Aram Sinnreich] Who were not, sorry?
[Ada Palmer] Sorry, could you specify what years in that five to 10 year window, which, can someone closer to it–
[Aram Sinnreich] Oh, the late 1980s to the late 1990s.
[Ada Palmer] Thanks.
[Aram Sinnreich] And then, yes, so what happens is in the mid 90s or so, you get the big box electronics retailers and general retailers, you got Walmart, Costco, Best Buy, Circuit City, using that infrastructure, that consolidated distribution infrastructure that the big box music retailers had pioneered to put them out of business. ‘Cause they start selling music at under wholesale as a loss leader to bring people in the door, and by the year 2000, Walmart is the single largest retailer of recorded music in the world. They control something like a third of the entire American retail market, and they started it with exactly the same kind of censorious policies that you guys are describing on the book side, where they would tell record labels, not because of necessarily overtly sexual or violent content, but on the basis of values. We don’t like what this song is about. We don’t like the art on this album cover. Guess what, major labels, you have to change it if you want us to stock it. And if we don’t stock it, you’re not gonna have a hit.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] This is the rule, only white people are allowed to sing about outlaws. If black people do, it’s evil rap music, and it’s contributing to delinquency, et cetera.
[Aram Sinnreich] You’re absolutely right. Rap and hip hop and R&B were the primary targets of the censorship in that era, and it was only the, so okay, the next phase that happens is the real estate boom following the dot com crash in the early 2000s increases the cost of brick-and-mortar real estate by sometimes 300, 500 percent per square foot. All of a sudden, the big box retailers don’t see any point in using music as a loss leader, and all of the dedicated music stores go out of business. They all went out of business in 2007, Tower Records, HMV, Sam Goody, they all folded because of real estate costs, and because they were having their lunch eaten by these other guys. So all of a sudden it’s like 2007, there’s no place to actually buy recorded music. The Mom and Pop shops got killed by the music conglomerates. The music conglomerates got put out of business by the brick-and-mortar big boxes, and the big boxes deprioritized music because they needed to use DVDs and video games, which actually had a higher margin on them than music did, and so everybody starts to buy online. That’s exactly the moment that Apple blows up. But that creates a crisis that I don’t think you have in the book industry, which is the decoupling of the products, where instead of selling albums, all of a sudden they’re selling singles, and, of course, most consumers only want two or three singles off of an album. Which means that the demand drops overnight by 50, 65 percent.
[Ada Palmer] I’m reminded by these, all of these different factors, which are really about how changes in distribution and especially standardization of distribution means that instead of a thousand different books, or different albums, each of which sells a hundred copies, you instead have 100 books or 100 albums, which each sell a thousand copies, so that you have maybe the same mount of stuff being purchased by people, but far fewer different titles, whether it’s different novels or different artists, or, and the same can happen with film. And the affect of that on art, the affect on that of what’s produced is substantial. Which reminds me of an anecdote from an author friend of mine. A plumber had come to her house to fix the plumbing, and while chatting, asked her what she did, and she said, I’m a novelist. And he said, how many novels have you published? And she said nine. And he said, how many have been made into a movie? And she said, none of them have been made into a movie. And he said, oh, you must be incredibly unlucky to have had nine novels out and none of them made into a movie. But if the only books you ever see are the ones that are in a rack at a grocery store, almost all of them say, now a major motion picture on them, or soon to be a major motion picture, because that’s what gets into those magazine racks. So for somebody whose main book consumption was that space, it appears suddenly as if almost all books are movies, whereas a few decades earlier, instead you had the same number of books in any given grocery store, but a much wider range of books over all grocery stores, only a few of which are a movie. And that’s a very telling sampling of how these changes in distribution affect not only what art is out there, but even people’s perception of what art is out there. And he genuinely thought there were only that many novels every year.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I do wanna make just one point of clarification. I actually think that book publishing is in pretty good shape, aside from the stuff I’m talking about. Certainly in the genres fantasy and science fiction that Teresa and I work in, we’re having a real, we’re having a real golden age of brilliant authors becoming quite commercially successful. People like N. K. Jemison and John Scalzi, et cetera. My concern is not about the health of the art, it’s more about the health of the society, the fact that we really are simply turning our backs on and walking away from those 50% of American families that, from the kids in those families. The grownups, they’ve made their choices. I’m not worried about them. But it’s their offspring that it bothers me, ’cause I remember being a nine-year-old who was fantastically affected by the ability to buy, or 11-year-old, to buy a huge range of things for 95 cents in grocery stores. It was a tremendous cultural benefit that has just evaporated for no good reason.
[Charles Brownstein] Well, the scale of mass promotes a kind of homogeneity, this is what we’re describing.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Well, that’s the thing is that the golden age of the mass market paperback did not promote homogeneity. It promoted a vast diversity. It was when it consolidated into–
[Charles Brownstein] The scale had consolidated back–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Exactly, yes.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] I don’t think you get the same number of sales. I think that more people read when there’s that greater variety, something’s gonna catch their eye. But when it collapses in, when you get a smaller number of choices, fewer people buy fewer books, or comics, or magazines, or music, for that matter.
[Adrian Johns] It’s worth saying that there are sort of, there’s a history of social science research that goes into these kinds of questions about diversity of readership, the different ways in which communities, often not metropolitan communities but out in second, all the cities and things like that, pick up what varieties of textual material there are, and make, as it were, culture out of them. This, sorry?
[Ada Palmer] Face forward so the mic can pick you up.
[Adrian Johns] Face forward, and um,, to some extent it’s a literature that seems to exist in the kind of perpetual present, and nobody’s really written very much about its development and its internal evolution of research strategies. But I think one of the interesting source points for it, actually, is a moment in the mid-20th century, running from roughly, I would say the late 30s to the late 50s, when there was this kind of concern, almost a cultural panic, about something like the demoralizing effects of mass circulation paperbacks, combined with things like comics, and also tabloid newspapers, which went through their peak production period in the mid-20th century. So in the UK where I come from, newspapers were sold in absolutely phenomenal amounts in the mid-20th century, and there was this moment of concern that working class audiences especially might be seeing a dramatic homogenization of their culture, because it was thought by academics, essentially, that they were reading, like, pulp fiction, comics, tabloid newspapers, and nothing else. And it was thought that this was going to kind of wipe out what had been a romantically patron notion of working class cultural diversity. And in the UK, the founding study of this is actually a book that’s had tremendous cultural influence by a man called Richard Hoggart, who at that point was a minor English literature professor at, I think the University of Hull, if I remember right, who went off into working class communities and actually just asked, what are you reading and what are you doing with the reading that you’re carrying out? And he wrote a book called The Uses of Literacy, which I think has been in print constantly since it came out in the early 1950s. And one of the interesting things, this is your obscure fact for the day, so one of the interesting things about The Uses of Literacy is that Hoggart wanted to say something about the ways in which working class readers creatively sort of imaginatively engaged with forms of literature that were often portrayed as merely trash, and the genres that he picked on was American detective novels, which were being imported in large numbers and sold in places like market stalls in Britain in the 1950s. And he was told by the copyright owners that he couldn’t actually quote from real pulp fiction novels, so he invented some, and so through this book, and if you know that he’s invented them, they’re actually quite funny, there are all these quotations from American sort of pulpy detective novels that Hoggart has actually conjured up out of his own imagination, and they’re given titles. And one of the titles is Death Cab for Cutie, which is where that comes from.
[Teresa] So that’s where that comes from.
[Adrian Johns] But anyway, that book, it originated an entire sort of social scientific tradition, going into exactly these kinds of questions that we’ve been raising here about homogenization, diversity, the relationship between, as it were, working class communities and mass produced literature. Which is a kind of research tradition that, I would say, sits in the background somewhat, and isn’t addressed by non-specialists as much as it might be.
[Ada Palmer] It’s also something that I’ve mentioned several times in this series, Orwell’s essay on the prevention of literature, which we read, which has so many complaints about the constraint of the press, which feel exactly like the complaints about constraints on the press that people make now, but it also has a lament about the death of reading and the death of published paperback books, and that this is caused by the consolidation of publishing among a few hands, and he’s complaining about this, again, in the later 1940s, so the consolidation process, and proliferation and consolidation, and then a new proliferation and a new consolidation is something that’s been a constant, not only of what’s been happening over the past century, but also of what people have been very conscious of happening and affecting publication over the past century, and over and over, it’s been discussed in often apocalyptic terms as different waves of consolidation have happened, each of which have genuinely had a huge effect on what’s produced.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I tend to be an optimist in the long run about these things. It’s like, you know, one of the many apocalypses I’ve watched book publishing go through in the last 30 years is the sudden, although long foretold, death of Borders, you know, the second biggest chain. The actual net result of the death of Borders was an enormous increase in the number of indy bookstores, because Borders had, the existence of Borders in all those towns had bene basically just making it just not quite possible to get an indy bookstore started, and that sudden absence created a ton of opportunity. I don’t wanna sound like–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And they weren’t doing a very good job–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I don’t wanna sound like some kind of free market evangelist, because that’s bullshit, but that was a particularly good example of the cycle of consolidation and being followed by a cycle of proliferation that you’re talking about.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Remember when home desktop computers were first started to become available, and there was a lot of questions about, sure, you can sell these to people, but what are they actually going to do with them? Maybe it’s like, your wife can keep her recipes on them or something, but really, what do people need with computers?
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Because people don’t think like good science fiction writers.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Yes, it’s, the combination of computers, and–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] The inability–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Connecting with the Internet, and suddenly there was this insane proliferation of, you know, there’d be some guy out there with a nondescript job who’d put up a website discussing every, what is it, every Imperial dynasty in the history of the world, you know, or–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] People in 1980s were unable to foretell the growth of entire genres of fan fiction to rapping Roy Orbison and cling film. I’m not making that one up.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, indeed, before the Internet, there were no commercially published sources of slash, which is a major taste in erotic literature for women that was completely non-served, except in these very hard to find small niches, and god, there’s a lot of it online now.
[Charles Brownstein] Well, and one of the really interesting proliferation issues right now is that there is more content being produced on a regular basis now than perhaps at any other time in human history. There’s more content than there are channels for the content to flow through.
[Adrian Johns] At risk of, everybody’s talking about things like comics and mass production, paperback literature and things like that, which are all very interesting. At the risk of kind of bringing it back to the level of the totally boring, you know, I live in the academic world, and that has a publishing industry of its own, which has its own peculiar character. So one of the things about that is that we tend to assume that print runs for books over the 500 years of printing generally go up, but in fact, the average print run for an academic monograph now is lower than it was for Copernicus in 1543. I don’t, the last time I looked it was about, you may know more recently than I do, but the last time I looked was maybe five years ago, and it was down then to about 350 or 400 copies. At which point, you almost might as well just photocopy something and send it off to your friends. And this is coupled with a couple of, two other things, one of which is that if you do a PhD now, it’s very likely that the academic publishing world will dictate to you that you embargo your dissertation digitally, so you might send out physical copies of it, paper copies can still distribute, but the digital copy, and these things are born digital now, so they often include, you know, things like color illustrations, the digital copy has to stay completely secret, and there will be like one version of it, which is lodged in a library system somewhere. So the publishing industry basically prevents the circulation of–
[Aram Sinnreich] So, I actually have a tragic personal story about that, Adrian. But when I got my dissertation, when I finished my dissertation and got my doctorate in 2007, you know, I wrote a dissertation about remix culture, which was a kind of exciting new subject at the time. And my university, the University of Southern California created the kind of digital repository of our dissertations, so that was not something we could embargo, but I did wanna sell it as a book. And Cory Doctorow offered to post a link to my dissertation on Boing Boing, and so I asked a bunch of friends who were more senior academic, what should I do? Should I let Cory Boing Boing it, to use the verb version of the word, or should I ask that he don’t so that I have a better chance of selling it to an academic publisher, and most of the academics I spoke to said, under no circumstances should you let Cory post it onto Boing Boing. And then one friend of mine, a guy named Siva Vaidyanathan, who you guys might know the work of, said at the time, no, no, you’ll totally get famous. You should totally do. And I didn’t take Siva’s advice, and so I told Cory, thanks, but no thanks, don’t post my dissertation. And then I went on the academic publishing circuit, and ended up selling my book to U Mass Press, where Siva was the series editor. So I didn’t do myself any favors by not allowing the dissertation to be posted online, and I think that’s, to this day, 12 years later, I regret that decision, but I think you’re absolutely right. Hundreds, if not thousands, of academics are faced with that choice of, you’ve just spent three years working on the most important project of your life. You’re going to keep it secret in an effort to develop your career, or are you gonna try to share it with the world, which is the only reason that you spent the time and energy on it in the first place? And that’s tragic. And in my PhD advising, I try to teach my students to thread that needle, but it’s a very difficult balancing act.
[Adrian Johns] Yeah, it’s, the trouble is that if you’re a PhD student, you have no, you know, sway with these industry types, and they are increasingly more or less gateways into, or gatekeepers for academic careers. And at the same time, of course, the actual price of the monographs they do issue goes up and up and up, and they issue them in fewer and fewer copies, to the extent that I’ve somewhat cynically come to think that the business model of academic publishing is aimed at an end point where they publish zero books at infinite price.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I don’t wanna make a brief for the predatory practices of academic publishers, but I do wanna point out that one of the things that I think is driving the smaller and smaller print runs is the technology that people were very excited about 15 or 20 years ago, under the general rubric of print on demand, the dream, the great failed dream was that every bookstore would have the giant print on demand device, and you would go and program the book you wanted into it, it would spit out a fully printed hardcover book with a jacket and everything–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] The refutation of this is how often does your office’s copier break down?
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] That’s right, yeah, but in fact, the suite of technologies called print on demand, what it wound up being was a way that established incumbent regular old publishers could print books in much smaller runs economically, without the unit cost being astronomical. 25 years ago, to print 250 copies of a hardcover, you’d be paying five or 10 dollars a copy, which is just not economically plausible. Now you can do it for something like three bucks a copy.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Actually, that’s part of a much larger process.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] And the other thing going on is that warehousing costs are going through the ceiling, so if it’s possible to print fewer copies and you can save on warehousing costs, you can always print more copies if there’s more demand. I think that’s the logic. It’s a terrible thing, but I think that’s the logic.
[Charles Brownstein] Well, and it’s not terrifically dissimilar to what has happened in the comics business, and perhaps, Ted, you can speak to the viability of low print runs in our field, and just the fact that there’s so much content, including some really strange archival choices being done for very specialized low audience and a high price point.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, we do that, too.
[Ted Adams] From an academic perspective, we do a number of books that are about the history of comic strips in the United States and about the history of comics books, mostly in the United States, and it’s complex printing. The books are typically oversized, so in the case of some of these books they might literally be two or three feet tall.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I’ll bet many of them are printed on the other side of the Pacific.
[Ted Adams] Yeah, so all Asia printing, which is certainly, from a labor cost perspective, much more economical than trying to print here in the States, and a little bit from a cost of goods, pure cost of good standpoint, as well. But where the technology really came in there is the ability to scan and reproduce previously produced works, so there is a famous cartoonist actually here in Chicago named Chester Gould who created Dick Tracy, and we have published, at this point, we’ve published I think somewhere around 25 volumes of Dick Tracy, which is, and our intention is to publish his entire body of work, and we’re able to do that because the technology now allows us to scan those strips, and eventually to be able to print those books, like I said, that are fairly complex printing projects that are not, they are on specialized paper, they have ribbons, they have a dust jacket, so it’s an expensive proposition to go into that kind of publishing, and not something that you could do really in any kind of effective way even 10 years ago. So I think it’s interesting from a historical standpoint, technology allows us to examine things that we might not have been able to examine before. As far as print runs go, the comic book business is not as price sensitive, so we are able to charge a little more for content than maybe some of the, some of the sort of peer publications, if you would. So a comic book typically now is $3.99. It’s not uncommon for a comic book to be $4.99. There are many versions that are $7.99 or $9.99, so this is an expensive form of entertainment when you look at how much Netflix costs you for a month. So if you’re looking at $7.99 or $9.99 for Netflix, and you have more content than you could ever possibly consume in a lifetime, and you could spend that same amount on one single comic book, it’s a very different consumer choice, and so, for better or worse, comics are, they still appeal primarily to collectors, and so there is that little less price sensitivity.
[Charles Brownstein] But you also get a specialization in terms of audience. It’s not terribly dissimilar from numbers that were being described with the academic presses. I mean, you can’t really speak in the hundreds.
[Ted Adams] I think you know, trying to hear you say that, because I suspect that, not the graphic novel form, but the true traditional comic book form, meaning what we all think of as the 32-page–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] The floppy.
[Ted Adams] The floppy.
[Ada Palmer] The single issue comic.
[Ted Adams] That, as we’re speaking today, is potentially at its lowest print runs ever. Where that’s being made up is the digital versions and then the collected editions, which we call graphic novels. And so, the graphic novel format can have tremendous success where you can sell hundreds of thousands. We publish a book called March, which is the autobiography of John Lewis–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Oh, you publish that.
[Ted Adams] And was never available as comic books, it was only ever available as graphic novels.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] That was awesome.
[Ted Adams] And was fortunate to sell, thank you, and been fortunate to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
[Patrick] It won like a National Book Award or something.
[Ted Adams] It won a National, yeah, it was the only graphic novel to win a National Book Award. So, anyhow, I think, the comic book version, you could make the same argument that you made with the academic press, that this is the worst time to be publishing traditional 32-page comic books, but the upside is is that we have this other version where we collect ’em into graphic novels and have broader distribution.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Can I ask a question? Something that has puzzled me for a long time about the comics industry, and I’ve heard that it’s changed to some degree. I don’t know how much, nobody ever cites me numbers. For a while, I worked at Valiant Comics, and I was shocked down to my toenails when I found out that they didn’t reprint issues that sold well, and I looked at that. There are so many perverse disincentives built into that. Are they doing more of that now?
[Ted Adams] I think it’s such a heavy periodical business, and at the retail level, is being refreshed every single week, so every Wednesday, they’re wiping out what was there before and then putting everything new, and so it’s hard, and it’s hard to get the book back in print fast enough to be able to react to demand, because your graphic novel is maybe six months away, and so, and if it takes you six weeks to get a second printing. Now with that said, my company and other comic publishers, there are occasions where you do second printings or third printings, but it’s much more the exception than the norm.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] So it’s a matter of you’re not able to get it there fast enough to take advantage of it.
[Ted Adams] And the market, the market has just then moved on to whatever is out this week. So not looking back as much. There’s an interesting case right now where, you may have heard, that DC Comics had an issue of Batman where they showed Bruce Wayne’s penis, and was big.
[Ada Palmer] Yes, we got a copy for the class.
[Ted Adams] Oh, okay, so–
[Ada Palmer] It’s available for all of you who want to see Batman’s penis. Uncensored–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Tumblr did mention that a few times.
[Ada Palmer] We have it here. University of Chicago.
[Ted Adams] It’s an interesting, I think it’s an interesting, so DC took a lot of slack, you all know about it. You probably Weren’t, didn’t know much about Batman comics until you heard that Bruce Wayne’s penis was in a comic. So they got a lot of national attention, not necessarily attention that I suspect they wanted to get, but at least people were talking about Batman, and they were talking about Batman comics, but they made the decision, and what made me think of it is, they made the decision, even though there is unbelievable demand for that comic, if you have one, it’s worth like 50 bucks now. They made the decision not to do a second printing even though there is significant demand. They could probably sell a hundred thousand copies if they wanted to, but they made the decision not to do that again. I suspect, because, they got this unwanted attention.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] They’ve already got the attention. They might as well make money off it.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I thought they were publishers.
– Yeah, it’s–
[Charles Brownstein] They’re a media company.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Oh, that’s true, they’re primarily a, they’re owners of IPE, yeah.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] But so much of the money that is spent per issues of that will go to, not to the publisher or the creators of it, but to downstream…
[Ted Adams] Hundred percent, it helps comic book shops, absolutely, if they have something that is a hit, that people, then allows them to take risks on other things. So comic stores and comic publishers, the comic stores are different than bookstores, because bookstores order on a returnable basis, so they have very low risk when they make an ordering decision. Comic book stores order on a nonreturnable basis, which means that if they buy it and it doesn’t sell, they can’t return it. It’s their problem, it’s their mistake, and so because of that, they have to be very risk-averse, and where they can get the money to take risks is things like this Batman comic that then allows them to have more cash flow, that allows them to take bigger commercial risk.
[Ada Palmer] In the case when that comic came out, our local comics shop who supplied all of the comics for our exhibit emailed me to say, hey, do you want me to save you this Batman. They’re gonna censor it. It’s gonna be a thing. And I said, yes, which is why the class has one. But he said, that was absolutely the big seller of that month, and was the only sort of moment of, yes, absolutely every copy of this we ordered has sold. We need to get more if we can, short-term. A number of the comments people have made have reminded me of how the, it’s not always transparent where flexibility does and doesn’t exist in the plan of a publisher, or the production process of a book. And you’ll often encounter something such as, X amount of this has sold, and it was a big hit. Logically, they should reprint it. And from the outside you say, of course they would, but from the inside, you know, you have to book time on the printing machines X months in advance, and the publisher only has X many bookings, and all of these other details are visible from the inside, that I’m semi-aware of just from hearing people who are, publishers and printers chat about, and then different publishers are also aware of to different degrees, and one of the elements of academic publishing that I think you see less in the small print runs than in the policy toward dissertations, for example, is that one of the virtues and purposes of academic publishing is that it is through grants and subventions and money coming from universities, buffered from a need to be commercially successful on the large scale. There is money there so that when somebody prints an absolutely invaluable hittitology book, which the 11 people who care deeply about hittitology in each country desperately need, you want to be able to produce 150 copies of this book, because it’s an important valuable book. It needs to go into libraries. It needs to be there for people. And a grant is what makes that possible. And this is wonderful, because it protects these works, and it means that no matter how obscure the academic topic, Brill or some other publisher, usually Brill, will step forward and produce the very small print run of the book that needs to happen. But it also means that academic publishers don’t have the same pressure as other publishers to start adopting or even investigating new avenues, so I’ve often had friends ask me, hey, why does X academic publisher not make an e-book of Y book. And I’ll go talk to X academic publisher, ’cause I’ll know X academic publisher, and I’ll say, why haven’t you made an e-book of X book, and they say, oh, well, it’s difficult. And I’ll say, if you made one, people would buy it, and you would make money. And they’d say, really? And I would say, yes. I didn’t know e-books made money. Yes, e-books make money. If you produce e-books, you would make money from them. And, but they’re–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Well, I mean we do have to pay a stipend for each pixel.
[Ada Palmer] Yeah, you do have to pay for the formatting and the processing of it–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] No, no, I was joking.
[Ada Palmer] It probably wouldn’t pay for itself with the hittitology book–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] No, e-books are pure profit.
[Ada Palmer] Yeah, there are these others that some academic publishers have never had to go near because the grants are there. And the grants need to be there, but it’s interesting to see where the pressures of the market being even slightly palpable has some benefits, even while it’s also indispensable to be buffered from them. But I would love to hear others of you comment on the sort of invisible infrastructural back end issues of, logically, the printer should produce more of A, but here are all the invisible reasons that impact–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Two things, two things. Right now, we actually are in trade and hardcover and paperback publishing, in one of those squeeze points. And what I mean by right now, I mean this month, next month, probably the next three or four months. We’re basically, due to various printing and binding companies buying each other, we have a sudden shortage of printing and bindery time, so everybody’s being–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Is this Kevin Core’s fault?
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] This is, that’s all mass market stuff. No, this is, but so you know, everybody’s being, having to be very disciplined about getting their stuff to the printers and binders exactly the time when they said three months earlier that they were going to and so forth and so on. This will hopefully resolve itself. In a broader sense, there’s corporate conglomerate publishing and there’s corporate conglomerate publishing. I mean, one of the reasons, I can’t speak to the pressures on people at Harper Collins or Simon and Schuster or Random Penguin, which I refuse to call Penguin Random House. They should have called it Random Penguin. Everyone in the industry calls it that. But at Macmillan, we have one fantastic piece of luck, which is that we are completely privately owned, the entire global conglomerate is owned by two siblings, Stefan von Holtzbrinck and his sister, and so we don’t have to meet any quarterly earnings expectations or any of that sort of, basically, what Stefan says is what we do. And if he says, this program, I’m not expecting to make any money for five years. It’s totally experimental and speculative. We’re gonna see if this works. That’s fine, you can say that, and nobody can say no.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Can I talk about–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] So we do do a bunch of experimental stuff.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Can I talk about the technology some?
– Sure, sure.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] As an overall, oceans rise, empires fall, and it gets easier to put books into print. Three things that are always true. The uh–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] It doesn’t get easier to sell them, but it gets easier to put them into print.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Selling them is a different thing. Basically, okay, here’s publishing. You have to, there has to be the reader, there has to be the distributor, there has to be the publisher. There should be an author somewhere, and they have to come together. If the readers don’t know to go and find books, it becomes very hard to sell them. If you don’t have the distribution system, the books do not get out to where readers can find them–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] If you don’t have discoverability.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, you don’t have discoverability, et cetera, and so these all have to happen simultaneously, or at least they need to creep forward very, very slowly, each one of them, so that they kind of keep pace with the others. But it is, it’s another reason for lower print runs. It gets easier and easier to put a book into print. Once upon a time, you had to be there with the stick, and you’d be putting bits of handset type into it. And that took a very long time. And you also had to collate by hand. Hot lead made everything a lot faster. And it led to much larger media conglomerates, because the machinery was expensive, and so to keep ahead of your competitors, you would buy the bigger machinery, but then you needed more customers so that you could sell everything that you’re producing. The huge change, the other huge change that’s not distribution, that happened was the invention of offset printing. And what offset printing meant was that you could reproduce a book without having to completely reset the type. All you needed was the image of the page. Probably lose a little resolution, it’s the same thing that let you reprint all–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Reprint all the Dick Tracy.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] From Chester Gould much more easily. And then within that, the whole process has been getting faster and easier and just a whole lot slicker.
[Charles Brownstein] And one of the interesting side effects of this is that the results of the changes of technology and the thrift of technology is that you’re having an expansion of the diversity of expression that is possible. And so it might well be that, you know, for every possible subject area, there’s a readership, and that readership might only be 40, but this is potentially the environment we’re moving in to. One of the interesting areas to study is the Dojinshi culture in Japan. This is fan-made publishing that is, you know, kind of hobbyist publishing, that is a massive culture in Japan. There’s a institution called Comiket, or Comic Market, which occurs twice a year, tracks about half a million consumers per day coming to get these, you know, thousands of books that are produced by, somewhere in the neighborhood of about 5,000 circle tables. Each circle is four to five people that are making this kind of fan-made publication with very good production value, that maybe, you know, they make a couple of hundred. I picked up a zine about guinea pigs, you know, and maybe they make a couple of hundred of them.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Who’s not interested in guinea pigs?
[Charles Brownstein] But you know, there’s just all kinds of opportunity for people to find ways to express themselves, and here in the States, you’re seeing that in the explosion of crowd funding, and the opportunity for crowd funding to give voice to a lot of voices that previously were unable to be heard. So it’s never been a good time to sell books, I think that’s universally true, but it’s a really good time to make them and get them out there if you’re not concerned with making a living from them. And that’s a whole other subject of discussion.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] It’s an interesting subject.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] What was the name of that Japanese…
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Dojinshi–
[Charles Brownstein] Dojinshi is the area. And this is hobby, and just briefly, this is hobby publishing. I was struck by, you know, walking around this thing, and let me tell ya, the last time I was in that kind of a sweaty crowded environment, I was at a Slayer concert in Shane High School. And this is people that have desk jobs, salary jobs, you know, and they’re making their One Piece fan fiction, or they’re making their Bleach fan fiction. You know, it’s a very interesting environment to people that are feeling empowered to make this stuff for the love of it, and for the free expression aspect of it. I’m sorry go ahead.
[Adrian Johns] Thanks, that’s actually clarified something for me. So a few years back, must’ve been probably the late 1990s, early 2000s, I got obsessed with this Japanese company and spent some time out there talking with them, and what they’d done was that they’d set up 400, essentially, store front operations throughout Japan, each one of which had huge printing plot in it, digital printing. This was the early days of real digital printing, where it wasn’t sort of completely beyond the practical scope of things to have an actual desktop publishing thing where you could actually just sort of go in there and produce a book yourself using the machine. And this was the idea, was that people could go and they could actually make books. And the guy who ran it had this sort of vision that he was going to radically democratize the act of authorship, where you take the act of authorship to be not just sort of writing a text, but going all the way from writing a text to arriving at your finished product, which is bound and wrapped and then you can sell it to someone. And it was, so it incorporated automate, actually, using early AI systems, things like page design, , that kind of thing. And it was kind of amazing project, and it, in the end, collapsed, but it collapsed for an interesting kind of ancillary reason, which was that he was the first per– this company was the first company, apparently, to digitize the entire kanji character set, which was about 50,000 characters in Japan. This was in the late 80s. And they got prosecuted, they got sued for copyright infringement by the typography industry. And the thing is that you can’t actually copyright characters, there in Japan or in Britain or in America, you can’t. There’s reasons why, technical, legal reasons why you can’t, but you can’t do it. But the idea was that you wrap up this small startup company in legal shenanigans for years, until they basically run out of money, and this was what happened to them, essentially, they ran out of money through the legal shen– They actually won the legal case in the end, but by then it was too late. But the thing about that is that, and what you say about the fan fiction compository of practice where you get together, makes it clear that maybe that’s the kind of thing that this guy was trying to aim at. Because the fact is that if you go back over hundreds of years, since the invention of printing, there have been repeated efforts by authors to, in their eyes, liberate themselves from publishers by basically taking control of that intermediary process between the writing and the getting the end product out to the retailers. So there have been societies of authors, you know, and these have been set up, you can basically see that they arise about once every generation since about 1500. And they can succeed in very small scales. If you have something like a very, very specific sort of sub-discipline, or very kind of antiquarian project or something like that, but as soon as they try to scale up, they’ve always failed, I think, for some reason or another. But I think one of the reasons why they’ve always failed is there hasn’t been this kind of, uh, already existing culture of getting together, like a collective sensibility where authorship itself is taken up and made into a sort of, like a collective activity like that. Maybe you could do it if you had something like that.
[Ada Palmer] You’re reminding me of a couple more elements from Dojinshi production culture that are very interesting to compare with this, and one is these are incredibly lush projects. I’ve got some crates at home, which I’ll show you when we’re done with this. But they’re often very, very short, bu they’re printed on the finest quality paper and the cover will be a metallic paper with little fiber textures in it, which are carefully chosen to go with the color, so you’re talking about absolutely lush, loving attention given to a 12-page thing, of making it at the absolute peak of sort of production quality with color inks and very complicated artistry.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] They’re beloved.
[Ada Palmer] Another element is that it has, and it needs this to thrive, it has a very active symbiosis with the professional publishing market in Japan as well. One thing that has to be the case for this to thrive is no publisher will sue a Dojinshi author, right? ‘Cause every Dojinshi author is, in fact, infringing copyright by printing and selling this material, except for the ones that are making universally out of stuff that’s out of copyright for some reason content, but there is a symbiosis between the industries there, and there is a general recognition that the distribution of Dojinshi also spreads enthusiasm about series, enthusiasm about new series, increases the sale of collectibles, which are an enormous part of how the production of anime is funded in Japan, and so there’s a completely different attitude in that, and you see every time a new fan product from an industry develops, there are these moments in which the industry decides, is this ally or is this adversary? One of the most recent venues in which we’ve seen this is with Let’s Plays. This is the video game phenomenon where you have a professional video game player who videotapes themself playing a video game and then puts them on YouTube, and other people watch them play the video game. And some video game companies have regarded this as copyright infringement, and sue, and try to shut it down, and other video game companies regard this as free advertising and let it happen, or even sometimes send copies of their games to notable Let’s Players to encourage them to play the game.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Much smarter.
[Ada Palmer] And you know, at any given point, when a new set of creativity arises in that way, that touches on the edges of information control, industries themselves develop patterns and cultures of how you use this. Do you use this symbiotically or not? And as a final example from Dojinshi culture, manga authors who have become professional and are publishing professionally sometimes, not only continues to produce Dojinshi, but even produce Dojinshi of their own work, in which they include the content that they didn’t feel comfortable putting in the professional version, or that publishers didn’t want them to put in the professional version. So, for example, Gravitation, which is a boys love manga, comparatively obscure in Japan, better known in the U.S. because it was the first major boys love series to come out on video in the U.S., and therefore was the explosive moment of discovery for a lot of young women, of wow, there is a boys love genre out here for us. So it actually has a much larger fandom in the U.S. than it does in Japan. But the author of Gravitation also released a series of extremely sexually explicit Dojinshi of the characters having extremely sex all over the floor, all of the characters, all over the floor, all of the time, in exactly the way that she doesn’t depict them doing in the professional comic, which also fades to black after a kiss, and there’s a bed, and then it’s the end of the scene. And it’s a fascinating symbiosis of this is an author who wanted to do this, and also wanted to do that, who wanted to produce the professional version of this, and also wanted to, on an exploratory level, produce the pornographic version of this, and this symbiosis between the industries, and the comfort of the industry with this allows that to happen. But imagine if authors of mainstream books in the U.S. also published a pornographic spin-off book version of their own thing and put it not with their publisher, but privately printed. The reaction of the publisher to that would be completely different. And that’s a print culture question, and an industry culture question.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] I hope the publishers would be sensible about it. And you know, we don’t know that there aren’t authors doing that. Not very many people on AO3 are operating under their own names.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Good point.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, somebody said pros writing fan fic, it’s the new black. Writers publishing stuff privately, as we would say, just for distribution as they can, yeah, goes back a very long way, and frequently, what you’ll get is a commercial author who has something that he doesn’t figure, he or she doesn’t figure is going to get a broad audience, or their publisher won’t like it, or whatever, and so they publish it themselves, and later causing self-publishing enthusiasts to describe them as a self-published author, which is nonsense. But yeah, that has been going on for a long time. The basic fact is is that somebody, if someone has a reading experience and it’s good, they like it, they have a good time, they’ll go out and read something else.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] By the same author.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] By the same author, or the nearest equivalent they can get, or maybe they’ll get brave and try something that they haven’t read before, but I remember when Harry Potter was blowing all the records up, you know, and people would say, well, how do you feel about that? Aren’t they your competition? I’d say, when they’re finished reading a Harry Potter book, they need something else to read. Next one could be one of ours. And generally, yeah, it’s the bouncing stuff back and forth actually, as far as we can tell, it increases readership. And I am, by the way, fascinated by the fan fic universe. I remember when it was mimeograph publications underneath dealers tables at SF conventions. But the speed at which new tropes and ideas develop there, the speed at which people simply generate text is breathtaking, and there’s so much of it. A surprising amount of it is above the line, the quality line, where you can get professionally published. A lot of these people–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] It’s just not legally publishable.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, it’s, what distinguishes fan fic is not that it’s written by fans, or that it’s got sex scenes in it. What distinguishes it is that it cannot be published legally. This means there is no cap on how good it can be.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] That’s right, yeah. I have read online fan fic novels that were at the top level of literary genre fiction in skill.
[Charles Brownstein] And this is the inversion of the Dojinshi scenario, because the Dojinshi scenario is that, not only is it tolerated to use prominent IP, but to a certain extent, encourage to use prominent IP, which is the inversion of here, where you know, it winds up being licensed, and you know you have a very narrow window with which you can use those materials.
[Ada Palmer] IP meaning intellectual property.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Sorry, sorry.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] At the workshop where Patrick and I teach every year, we go around and ask students, you know, what do you want, what are your ideas of long-term goals for your career, if you’re doing pipe dreams. And increasingly, especially over I’d say the last four or five years, I’m hearing them say, I wanna see people write fan fic of my work, which I completely approve of. It means people care about what you’ve written.
[Charles Brownstein] What do you attribute the motivation to produce very high level fan fiction, considering that there’s not a monetary or professional element to it?
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Well, some of it’s social, but a great deal of it is simply, that was Buffy, season six? No, it wasn’t! I know how the story goes. That’s bullshit, this is how it goes. Really, it’s throwing the book against the wall, and–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Has generated more fic than you would believe.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Absolutely, yes.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] It’s a serious reader dissatisfaction.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] But it’s also social. I mean, the way that the subculture has evolved, sites like AO3 and elsewhere. There’s an enormous amount of just challenge and response. Write me a story that involves the following three elements and make it good and make me cry. It’s amazing how well some people do it.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Steve Brust, professional author, big fan of–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden]New York Times bestselling fantasy author.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Of, uh–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Firefly.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Firefly. And he got a Firefly novel idea in his head, and the only way to really get rid of one of those is to write it.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] So he wrote it and distributed it among his friends as a Word document.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And it’s still out there now, ya know. You can find it if you’re interested.
[Ada Palmer] So, well, we’re at our halfway point break, so we’ll take questions after. I think I’d like to infinitesimally quickly reground the discussion we’ve had of distribution just in the reminder that Gutenberg goes bankrupt because there isn’t a distribution mechanism yet for a mass produced product that hadn’t been a mass produced product before, and it’s with the development of distribution mechanisms that even printing itself becomes viable. So as we talk about the growing pains of distribution mechanisms and production mechanisms, we’re also talking about the growing pains of the viability of all sorts of factors in the production of art and media, which we’ll continue to do after our coffee break. Thank you.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Thank you.
[Ada Palmer] Welcome back to the second half of our discussion of incremental and infrastructural changes in publication technology and how they affect what can be said and what can be sold. Did you wanna begin, since you had some great comments as we were wrapping last time?
[Charles Brownstein] Sure, I was struck by something that Adrian had said, that going back to the 1500s, each generation, authors attempted to break free of kind of a middle management structure, and I think that those of us that have worked with creative people know that authors tend to wish to address their audiences directly, free of middle management, so this struck me really strongly in how crowd-funding is proliferating right now, and Adrian’s comment about how it always collapses, it never quite works. I wonder, can it work this time? So perhaps, Adrian, you could speak to the historical precedent here, and I know that each of us on the panel has some experience with how author-produced content reaches an audience. Certainly the publishers deal with the selection process, and certainly working in the library environment, I see how difficult it is to collect these things and put them out into this climate, so how have historically we seen authors attempt to break free of a traditional distribution structure, reach their audiences, and how is this manifesting in our times? And are we going to finally reach a structure where authors actually can be working for themselves?
[Adrian Johns] Yeah, I think this is really, it’s actually something that’s a really big deal right now, which I’ll go to in a second. The, so it is the case that if you go back and look at specialists, histories of authorship for particular periods, roughly from, sort of, Aldus Manutius at the end of the 15th century through to at least the 1950s or so, you’ll find this repeated trope where a group of authors resent what they see as the sort of heavy-handed intrusion of, firstly, printers, and then publishers, between them and their readers. And they decide to get together and set up something like a society of authors, or a company of authors, or something like this. And the terms of it vary from time to time, and exactly what they want to produce varies from time to time. But it tends to have this liberatory rhetoric, right? That we’re gonna free ourselves from the yoke of publishers. I want to say, publishers, as a type, publishers only really come into being in the 18th century. The term publishing, is an older term, and publisher is an older term, but as a discrete sort of professional identity, they’re an 18th century thing. And that’s when you–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] It emerges from bookselling, basically.
[Adrian Johns] Yeah, but the idea that you have, as it were, a capitalist figure who’s not engaged in retailing, but who’s–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] The Macmillan brothers.
[Adrian Johns] Yeah, that speculates and cycles. Tonsons in the late 17th, early 18th century, who owned Shakespeare. So it’s really with that, emergence of that figure, that you start to see authors wanting to emerge and set themselves up as sort of freed from this figure of the publisher. And it’s never really worked, because publishers actually do things that matter. They don’t simply sort of skim off–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] It’s more than printing.
[Adrian Johns] Yeah, it’s more than printing. But what’s happening now is that there are issues like crowd-funding, which are changing the terms of investment and speculative financing for things. But in the sciences, especially, we’re seeing a move to try to again free scientific research from what’s seen as the constraints of the publishing industry, and in particular, the bete noir of scientists, which tends to be Elsevier, a company that, with interruptions, actually goes all the way back to the 16th century. Actually, not the same company, but you know, it has the same name. And the interesting thing about the open access movement is that it does really seem to be working, partly because it’s at scale. It’s not a sort of thing where a few mathematicians get together in a bar like the Bourbaki movement in the mid 20th century, but it’s really sort of impacting at the level of grant agencies. So for some biomedical research now, the, it’s written in to the grant expectations that you have to make your results available through some kind of open access system. And one of the other interesting things, so it seems to be actually working because it’s embedded at this kind of higher infrastructural level in the very funding culture of the sciences themselves. But the other thing that’s happening with that, I think this is really interesting, is that it’s changing the division between, as it were, raw data and knowledge, because with some of these grant agencies, the requirement is increasingly that you make your raw data also publicly available. This makes a lot of sense for things like biomedical research that are based on very large data sets. It’s a bit more bizarre, like, cause I find it sort of applied to me, right, have you had this? You apply for grants, and there is a line in the grant agency that says how are you going to make your raw data available to the public? And you think, my raw data? Like notes on reading books, you know. What are you going to do? But I suppose, you know, if somebody wants to see them, they can. But what’s happened then is that if before there was a kind of division where knowledge was something that was circulated publicly and was kind of developed, and raw data, or information or something, was what was kept behind the scenes because it was not refined, it was full of sort of dubious stuff that you would want to edit and think about, that distinction is coming under pressure with the move to at the same time liberate research from the artificial scarcities that are created by the publishing industry. And this is a battle that’s not won or lost yet, it’s in train as we speak, and it may well be that many of you here in this audience have experience of what it’s like now to work as scientific creators and authors in this emerging new world. And I think that’s where it’s really–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] It’s interesting.
[Adrian Johns] Working out now.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Well, yeah, I mean, speaking as a publisher, you know my attitude towards people who want to self-publish their fiction is go with God. A few of you will succeed, many of you will not, and that’s fine, I don’t feel particularly threatened by it. And as you say, at least in traditional trade publishing to the general public, publishers actually do add value. They do marketing, they do editing, they do copy editing and proofreading, they do book design.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] They do backlisting and catalogs.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] If you the author want to take up five more full times job aside from being an author, great. And a few of you will succeed. Hugh Howey is successful. He apparently has the energy of 12 normal men. That’s great. Most of us do not. But in the sciences, it’s really obvious from the outside that a great deal of scientific publishing adds no particular value whatsoever. It’s just a giant rent-taking scheme, and the thing about scientists and people in the technical fields is they are really good at exchanging information if you get the fuck out of their way, and that’s what they want to do. They do not want to have to screw around with all these operations that charge them hundreds of dollars to publish articles and impose all kinds of ridiculous restrictions, and slow down the progress of actual science. So I think it’s a completely different story there.
[Ada Palmer] And speaking from my experience to both paths of those, I spend a lot of time with hard science people here in the university, particularly chemistry department and astrogeology department people, and I many, many times will be with them at a dinner or with them at a lunch, and they’ll be talking shop, and then they’ll say, you know, X is published on this, but it’s behind a pay wall, so I’m not working on that, I’m working on this other thing. And how often you see, but it’s–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] And those pay walls are really expensive. So we’re not talking about a 24 dollar hardcover.
[Ada Palmer] And how often you see, but it’s behind a paywall actually shaping what a chemist has decided to do research on. In the middle of an article, what direction to have that article turn will be determined by the presence or absence of a pay wall. I think I can unpack, in a useful way, some of what Patrick was just saying about self-publishing requiring taking on four jobs, because I’m somebody who has published fiction professionally and published academic work through academic presses, and run three Kickstarters for publishing various things on my own, including the exhibit catalog for this project, and also through grant funding without Kickstarters, done two other academic publishing projects. So I have a lot of different angles of real experience on exactly what you get from each of these sources and what you don’t. The centerpiece with what you perceive when you’re doing, funding something through a Kickstarter as opposed to, for example, funding something through a grant, just to compare those to each other to start with, setting aside the professional publishing end. With crowd-funding, you have to do every step of the publicity all the way through it, and so for example, when I did an exhibit catalog through getting a grant, I work on that grant application, it’s a couple of weeks of intensive work putting it together, I send it off. I am powerless as to whether it will get that grant or not. There is that moment of absolutely powerlessness, and then, if you get the grant, you’re done, and you move forward, and the rest of it, you’re doing, you’re working on the actual project. With a Kickstarter, you’re in much more control, because it’s your effort that gets people to support it, but you have to do every single inch of getting it to people’s attention, blogging about it, tweeting about it, so the number of man hours that I’ve put in to the Kickstarter to make this project possible was probably 10 times the amount of effort that I put into getting the grant that made the other half of this project possible. And certainly, I spent as much time doing publicity, designing graphics that are exactly the correct ratio to fit in Kickstarter’s box, picking out photos that are exactly correct to look good on Twitter, which are separate from photos which are exactly correct to look good on Facebook, et cetera. I certainly could have written another entire exhibit catalog worth of scholarship with the time that went into doing that media stuff. And if you’re thinking about the self-publication of the novel, you can write two novels, or you can write one novel and do the publicity for it. So that’s a big chunk of it. But, on the other hand, what you have is, everything is you. And if it works well, it was you, and if it doesn’t work well, it was you. And if the cover is brilliant, it was you. And if the cover is terrible, it was you. And so there is a very powerful sense of power in that, which is different from the experience–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] One of the many services that us publishers provide is you can blame us when things screw up. It was never your book.
[Ada Palmer] And when the cover is terrible, or whether the cover is wonderful, it’s someone else. Which brings both the, you can blame others, but also this, this precious thing which I made, which is the most important thing in my life, which I am now trusting to somebody else, which they will either nurture successfully or drop in a gutter, and a great publisher will nurture it, and it will prosper in a way that is orders of magnitude beyond the reach of what I could every possibly achieve through my own media development, whether it’s the cover, whether it’s getting it blurbed, whether it’s getting it to the attention of people. But there is the other end of the powerlessness of the publisher can also decide to back, to sort of back burner this title, and it’s not going to get the TLC and it gets dropped, and you watch the most precious thing in your life get flushed away by somebody else’s negligence. So it has that symbiosis and triumph and disaster binary, which I think is a lot of where this impulse to get free from publishers comes from is from when you’re seeing these ventures go badly, but then always wanting to go back to it when you’re in this position of, oh my god, I can’t actually write a book this year. I have to do the publicity for the book I did last year, and that’s gonna be my whole year, and then returning to wanting to have someone help you with it, and I’ll finish with one more sentence and then see what Patrick wants to say. My Kickstarters have been a couple years apart. And in the most recent Kickstarter, unlike the earlier two Kickstarters, the instant it launched, I got a flurry of emails from professional Kickstarter helping services that you can, that offer you, we will do this package, and we will publicize your thing in this way, and you will get X percent increase in what you earn from it and et cetera, et cetera, if you give us a cut of what you get at the end. Which is exactly the same thing. Kickstarter is wanting to break free, and then Kickstarter runners discovering how hard it is, and then the cruel end of a publisher, another middleman service that professionalizes this process cropping up to do it. So we’re seeing what you see in the 16th century and the 17th century, and what we see in the 1940s, and what Orwell is arguing for with creating associations of free press, happening within the Kickstarter world as well. As at the one hand, you have absolute freedom, then the other hand you have the absolute duty to do everything yourself, and then the development of a professional service to do some of those things for you. There are also professional book cover designers who will design your book covers for a Kickstarter book.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] This is sort of analogous to watching services like Uber and Lyft reinvent the business You have one sentence.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Self-published novels, there are all these services out there, many of them not really very useful that will pop up and say, we will promote your book, we will package your book, we’ll do all these things for you, and it’s, well, anyway.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I wanted to make the point that crowd-funding and being published traditionally are not in the least opposed. There is quite a number of authors who are making part of a good living selling books to traditional publishers, and are basically, they’re Patreon or GoFundMe or Kickstarter proposition is help me write more books and have to work less as a legal secretary, and they have enough readers who are willing to kick in to do that. They get another $1500 a month and the books come out more frequently, and it’s a pretty good mixed model.
[Charles Brownstein] It’s been a part of your business, right, Ted?
[Ted Adams] Yeah, we’ve actually done a number of Kickstarters. Not as a capital raiser, cause obviously we don’t need to raise capital in that manner, but it’s an opportunity to sell direct to consumer, so we have a TV show that we produce called Wynonna Earp that has a really small, but very active, fan base, and so rather than try to go through traditional distribution and that sort of, all the inefficiencies that are associated with that, we go direct to the fans of Wynonna Earp via Twitter, and the cast will talk about it on Twitter and Facebook, and so it’s a way to really take something that’s very niche-y and be able to get right to that audience. We, of course, would then also do traditional distribution on top of it, so the Kickstarter will just be the start, and then we would, of course, operate through our traditional retail channels. We actually just finished a Kickstarter this week for a Wynonna Earp book. It sold, I would estimate, I didn’t see the final number, but where I saw it, it was probably, from a revenue standpoint, two to three times what we would see through traditional wholesale revenue. The big reason for that is that when you’re doing direct to consumer, you’re capturing a hundred percent of the retail price, less Kickstarter fees, which is whatever it is, five percent, but when you’re selling through traditional wholesale distribution, you’re giving up as much as 60 percent. So you’re taking 40 percent of the retail prices. So it’s not apples to apples when I say that it’s two to three times, but from a pure revenue standpoint, it is.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Aren’t you also getting a lot more information about who likes this
[Ted Adams] Absolutely.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And why do they like it?
[Ted Adams] And the ability to then further sell it direct to them, absolutely.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] That turns into a mailing list.
[Charles Brownstein] One of the other interesting areas that we’re seeing happening with technology is that it’s transforming how we think about the audience. So there’s the Kickstarter element on one hand, where you understand there’s a certain amount of demand, and the gamble seems to be is the complete demand exhausted by the Kickstarter, or is there more beyond this. And then the other piece of this is, you know, consumer preference disguised as activism, which you see in the cases of, you know, we want more content that looks like X, Y, Z. Is the demand for a Black Panther movie free market research for Disney? Or is it a push for different kinds of representation? You know, you can make an argument on either side, and so technology and the ability for consumers to exercise their preferences are informing different ways for gatekeepers to consider what they’re offering to their audiences.
[Adrian Johns] In my field of the history of the book, there’s a famous line by a bibliographer from about 40 years ago, to the effect that, whatever it is that authors do, they don’t make books. Because what authors do, this may be changing for us, but authors always had this kind of self-aggrandizing vision that they do make books, and that if they just write out, say, a novel by hand, transforming that into something that is then bound and sold and distributed and so on is mere trivia and is not really worth the money. But for one thing, as if you’ve read the text on copyediting that was circulated this week, you know, copyediting is–
[Ada Palmers] It was your, your chapters on copyediting.
[Adrian Johns] It’s actually a real craft, and I would guess virtually no writer is actually possessed really of the craft that can go from the text that they create and–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Nobody can copy edit their own work, including professional copy editors who also write.
[Adrian Johns] And this has been another source of the, both the realization as I just said that you need somebody like this, and a repeated hope that you can liberate yourself from publishers, because it’s not just about something like financing, it’s also about a kind of pride in your words not being changed by somebody else, even if the somebody else is actually pointing out things like grammatical errors that you’ve made. This, everybody, so there’s a book by Tony Grafton for example about this practice in the 16th century, where he investigates the traces left from printing houses, and talks about how you got to be a copyeditor in printing houses in that period, and it’s often sort of students who couldn’t get jobs. And for a certain, like, cadre of graduate students, this is almost like a horror story, right? You go into, you can’t get a job, you can’t get tenure, so you go off into the, and you become a copy editor. And there’s a certain amount of evidence that some of these people are like an alienated intelligentsia, and so they decide that they are going to correct the work of the professoriate to make it better, and the professoriate hates this because it’s often actually kind of changing the meanings that the text come through. And this, every, in academia there’s a whole set of urban stories about friends who’ve had books go through copy editing and have had the meanings changed dramatically. Like I have a friend, to give you one example, who better not be named, but she wrote a book about Linnean taxonomy, and it went through Cambridge University Press, and was handed to the copy editor, and this was when the university presses had started outsourcing all of this to India or somewhere like that.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Oh, dear god.
[Adrian Johns] And it went through this copy editor, who had a rather Puritan sensibility. And of course, Linnean taxonomy is full of sexuality, and this copy editor changed every single sexual reference in the entire text about Linnean taxonomy to be something that was asexual and neutral, and of course, this friend of mine was like, practically had a heart attack when she saw it. But everybody has a story like that, and what it does is to reinforce that authors really don’t make books. What authors are is the first, or a step in a process, which is actually quite a complicated sort of intellectually substantive process. It’s not just about something like financing. It actually affects the cognitive content of what’s there.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Well, a big chunk–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] May I speak to this one?
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Sure, go ahead.
[Ada Palmer] Yeah, leave this to Teresa.
– [Teresa Nielsen Hayden]I’m the former copy editor and I was for a part time managing editor of Tor. Managing editor of the magazine acquires stories. Managing editor in a publishing house is basically–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] A book publishing house.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Book publishing house is the person between hard core production and editorial, and making sure that they never meet. And so yeah, copy editing horror stories are a basic part of my universe.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Most copy editing is pretty good.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Most copy, the thing is, a really good copy edit is a marvel and it makes the author really happy, because they do good things for the book. It’s oh my god, I missed that, thank you so much–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] It’s like getting a very satisfying pedicure.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, you know, it’s wonderful. But a bad copy edit is a diabolically horrible experience, and authors really never recover from it. You get the–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden]They sort of get the manuscript back, and it has multiple stab wounds in it.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] No, it’s when they start of with a list of the nonexistent rules of comma usage that they have applied throughout a manuscript, and you know that bad things have happened, and they’re not about commas. It’s, you’ve mentioned General Cornwallis. May not be familiar to a lot of your readers. You might want to substitute some other better known British general of the same period. It’s like, if American readers are going to recognize one British general from that period, it’s going to be Cornwallis, it’s nobody else. Querying a book about ancient Greece, saying there’s this word democracy, it seems awfully modern. One copy editor said that, what was it, that was made about a character who had brown hair and blue eyes, and they said, people with brown hair never have blue eyes. And I immediately ran up to Tor editorial and told them about this, because everybody at that point in Tor editorial had brown hair and blue eyes by pure coincidence, and they all liked that quite a lot. But the horror of a copy edit, of a really bad copy edit is hard to describe, because you’ve got this universe, and it’s been yours. You’ve loved it, you’ve cherished it, it grew inside your head, you’ve owned the entire thing. And that seems very large to you, right? And the part where it gets turned into a book seems much smaller by comparison.
[Charles Brownstein] Question for you.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Go.
[Charles Brownstein] How much of this is about the idiosyncrasy of personality, and how much of this is about systematic information control?
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] In fiction, not a lot of it is about systematic information control.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Actually, the ways the copy editors go wrong in trade publishing are basically the fault of the fact that it’s been, that the publishing business has been a decision about a generation back to almost exclusively freelance it out. Big companies like Doubleday used to have in-house copy editors, and there was a kind of guild, sort of apprentice, et cetera.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] They learned from each other, and they got to see multiple examples of things, and it was, it really polished them up. But basically, copy editors are born, not made. After they’re born, you have to make them. But if you’re not a copy editor, if you’re not the kind of person who knows without thinking about it that Derringer, if it’s capitalized, has a different number of R’s in it, and you don’t think that’s a conversation pleasantry, you’re probably not a copy editor.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] We could go on about this for a great deal of time–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] I was making a point, though. But yeah.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Go on, finish it.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Anyway, so then, yeah, you have to turn it over to other people, and they’re going to make changes in this universe that has entirely been yours. And it’s like suddenly there are strangers on your planet for the first time. And it’s a very weirdly sensitive, and really it’s hard to describe how touchy that whole part of the process is. But a good copy edit, wonderful. A bad copy edit, really awful. And I don’t, if authors have had bad experiences with editing and copy editing, I can fully understand why they might want to disintermediate publishers entirely, because they’ve had these awful experiences that they don’t really recover from. It doesn’t change the nature of publishing, but they do want it.
[Ada Palmer] The question was how editing works for comic books, and how copy editing, specifically, works for comic books.
[Ted Adams] So it varies a little bit by publisher. So the two big publishers are Marvel and DC who own all of the superheroes that everybody knows, and those editors are very involved in the story process, so they’re, typically, if they’re doing a Superman comic, then they know what’s happening in all the Superman comics, and so they’re directing it in a pretty heavy hands-on way. As far as the copy editing goes, it’s, there’s less copy, obviously, to edit, so it typically would not go out to a specific person. In my company, we use proofreaders for a separate edit from the editorial process, but when you’re, there’s a bunch of different types of comics. So we do a lot of things where we take other people’s entertainment properties, so Star Wars or Transformers, or I mentioned Powerpuff Girls, and we take our direction from the people that own that content. So our editors essentially are taking their story direction from whoever, whatever corporate company owns that content. So those can either be very heavy-handed, where the licensing company is literally looking at every single panel, and might tell an artist to redraw something this way or that way, all the way to completely hands-off, where they have a level of trust with IDW that they’re not gonna do that. On the other end of the spectrum are what is known as creator-owned comics, which is what it sounds like. And typically, it’s a little more, I think, like probably like editing prose fiction, in that you just wanna help the creator present the best version of their material, and I think in comic publishing, we take, we probably lean a little bit more towards letting the creator determine what that vision’s going to be, rather than trying to be heavy-handed with what a copy edit would look like, or with changes to art or story, and a lot of that derives from, there’s a pretty ugly history in comics of creators being treated pretty poorly, and not owning their content. And so I think all modern comic publishers, when it comes to creator-owned content, are sensitive to that, and so it’s not likely that we would go in with a heavy hand if somebody brought their project to us. Although, with that said, my thing as a publisher was always I want a good title, and it’s always kind of shocking to me how often I would be presented with just terrible creator-owned titles that you can’t pronounce, it’s just a nonsense word, and so I would just be like, come on, we gotta have something to at least give this–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Vonda McIntyre’s rules of fantasy titles is they should neither be difficult to pronounce nor embarrassing to say.
[Ted Adams] Yes, right, exactly. So our first creator-owned comic was a book called Thirty Days of Night, and it was about–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] That’s a pretty good title.
[Ted Adams] It was a good title, and the high concept of it was that there’s a town in Alaska where the sun sets for 30 days, and the vampires come to town. So as a publisher, I knew good title, really good high concept, and so I can build marketing and get people excited around that. So I would say, from a publisher perspective, it’s the title that I would be pretty, would be more heavy-handed with.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Now, this is the bit of the process that you were alluding to you just before we went off on copyediting, which is very entertaining. You say, this is something you can do marketing around, et cetera, et cetera, so this is the real special sauce of what actually good publishers do is figure out who is the audience, what are the characteristics of this audience, what are the channels by which this audience can be reached, what are the most economical ways to do this–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] How can we set up the mating signals here.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Exactly, what mating signals we need to be broadcasting, et cetera, et cetera. And it’s always a moving target, because it changes all the time. Certain imagery on a cover of a paperback book or a comic book means in 1989, is it’s gonna have a totally different meaning in 2009 and 2019, and so forth, but it really is–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Constantly renegotiating.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] And it’s constant, and it’s an act of imagintaion. You have to know a hell of a lot about a lot of overlapping demographics, overlapping readerships, you know. There are these jokes about the Hollywood elevator pitch. He’s a chimp, she’s the pope, they’re cops, ya know.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] They fight crime.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] They fight crime, yes, exactly. But in fact, that kind of, it’s Knot’s Landing meets Bride of Nosferatu is often the way that you actually figure out the exact Venn diagram overlaps and then define the audience of this particular piece of work.
[Ted Adams] Absolutely. We were talking, you are all presented with so much content, you have so many content choices, it’s at this point pretty close to infinite. You have to be able to have something that people can say, oh, that’s what it is. I wanna try that.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] A point that Teresa makes, I’m gonna interrupt here, on your behalf, that you make in workshops about the single most ruthless commercial-minded, bloody-minded, terrible point in the entire publishing process is when?
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Is when the reader is standing in front of the, well, the big wire rack that used to be–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Or an airport bookstore.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Or trying to figure out, which book is gonna do it for them, and they are absolutely, readers are many things. Gentle is not one of them.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Nobody ever went into a bookstore thinking I want to support a sensitive new voice.
[Charles Brownstein] But the danger here, too, and I know that we’ve got a couple questions, so I’m gonna be brief, is to resist the temptation for pop culture word salad, which is one of the things that you see really frequently, and one of the things that I think is very important for creators to consider is, who is the audience? And as Will Eisner used to like to say, you must have something to say. And one of the dangers that we run into in this environment where the sweepstakes is it’s not real unless it’s a movie, so I’m gonna make something that can be transmedia, is that you wind up in this pop culture word salad to get your foot in the door to work your way up the food chain where the goal is to produce content, but not necessarily to produce something that speaks meaningfully to the condition of humanity.
[Ada Palmer] The question is about publishing anonymously, and its history, how it’s being used–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Or under a pseudonym.
[Ada Palmer] Used, sorry, publishing pseudonymously as well as anonymously, how it’s being used today, how it’s been used historically, and what relationship there is between the author as an object of criticism and the author using pseudonym or anonymity to dodge being an object of criticism.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] The single biggest reason an author will adopt a new pseudonym is that their previous books have failed to sell well enough. It’s much easier to sell a first book, because the first book could be wonderful, who knows? There’s a lot of hope. But, actually, the hardest thing in the industry to sell is a third book. It’s the third book, if the first two haven’t done very well, because then the bookstores are looking and say, okay, yeah, I’m sure that you think it’s really good, but ya know, sales were like such and such, and we’re not going to order a lot more.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, a notably successful example of this in modern fantasy prose publishing is the author, the bestselling other Robin Hobb, who’s name is Megan Lindholm, that’s her wallet name, and that’s the name under which she published her first three or four novels, all of which are superb, and all of which are now in print, but which were quite commercial failures at the time, and so she said, I’m just gonna reboot my career, and have another first novel under a completely different name. And it worked for her. You know, Assassin’s Apprentice is an enormous commercial success, published like over 20 years ago, still in print, and the old Megan Lindholm books are now back as Megan Lindholm, who also writes as Robin Hobb in much bigger type on the cover, so the career reboot is a legitimate reason.
[Ada Palmer] And to expand on that slightly, one thing that will often happen is bookstores will, when deciding how many copies of the new book by the author to order, look at how many sold for the previous book by that author, and then often order the same number, or perhaps slightly different in number, so one thing that’ll happen is someone’ll, for example, put out a few novels, and then put out a short story collection, which will often sell less than novels, just because fewer people buy short story collections. The person will then put out another novel. The bookstores will order the same number of copies of the novel as sold of the short story collection, which means the bookstore is now ordering, let’s say, five copies instead of 10.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Well, that’s also a failure of the sales force.
[Ada Palmer] From the store.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] But it happens.
[Ada Palmer] And then it looks as if the readership of the novels has just dropped in half, whereas the reason was the intervention of a different book in between. And indeed it is the job of someone like Patrick, and his sales team, to talk to bookstores about this, and let them know, you know, this one is a short story collection, it’s gonna sell differently. You should base your new numbers based on the novel, not the other thing. But you have to have people
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] But human effort is full of error.
[Ada Palmer] Make that argument. Otherwise there can be this permanent effect, because a lot of the beginnings of how much a book sells is how many copies a bookstore orders in the first place.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Yep, if it’s not out on the shelves, the reader’s not going to find it. Then there’s that thing that Iain Banks did.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Yes, the late Iain Banks published all his science fiction as Iain M. Banks, and all of his even more successful mainstream and thriller novels as Iain Banks. I always felt that he had it backwards, because M obviously stands for mainstream, but he was an incredibly successful author in the UK and a moderately successful author over here.
[Ted Adams] I have an example that’s sort of the other way, where we publish a writer named Joe Hill. And we published Locke and Key, and then Joe Hill also happens to be the son of Stephen King, but when I started publishing Joe Hill, I didn’t even know he was Stephen King’s son. He made the personal choice that he didn’t wanna trade under his dad’s name. He wanted to create his own career. The quicker path for him, commercially, without any question, would’ve been to say, hey, I’m Stephen King’s son, I’m Joe King. So he made that choice, which I’ve always thought was an interesting one.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Well, I think it’s not unlike what J. K. Rowling did with Robert Galbraith. She wanted to see if she could get a completely different audience based on her skills.
[Ted Adams] And King did it himself when wrote under Richard Bachman and was not having commercial success, and then it was discovered that those were his books, and those books were successful. I’m reading an author right now, Benjamin Black, who’s a mystery writer who is also, I actually don’t know his real name, but is a Man Booker Prize award winner under his real name, but he writes under Benjamin Black for his mysteries, I assume, because he wants to make sure the bookseller sell them in different ways.
[Ada Palmer] Speaking to the historical case a little bit, ’cause that was also part of the question. When I’ve studied historical works from 16th, 17th, 18th century that are pseudonymous, they’re almost always either under an intentionally obviously pseudonymous persona that’s designed to be conspicuously pseudonymous. You know, you’re writing your American revolutionary pamphlets–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] By a friend of liberty.
[Ada Palmer] Under Cicero, and it’s intended to be visible that this is a pseudonym. Or what was it, a friend of truth was the author of an anti-Machiavelli book that we have on display, for example. Intended to make the, which is intended at an audience that is very conscious of the fact that there is a lot of censorship in that society, and that a lot of things that you might want to say are things you could be prosecuted for saying, so you are, in fact, adopting this pseudonym, the obvious and intentional pseudonymous pseudonym as a marketing tool in part to let people know, this is going to be inflammatory content that I would not be comfortable having my name, or that I would be in danger having my name next to, and it’s not that that’s gonna make it sell better, necessarily, but it’s gonna make it find the right audience, just like having your book cover have the right font to cue to people this is a mystery novel. If you’re a mystery reader, you wanna read this, as opposed to this is a chick lit novel. If you can put a chick lit cover on a mystery or vice versa, it’s not gonna be picked up by the correct reader at the bookstore. And if you put a pseudonymous, this is by a friend of liberty on your pamphlet, it’s going to be spotted and recognized by people in a period when cover design doesn’t exist yet. In the pre-19th century world, there are no covers that are being produced with books, and so what you have is your title page, and your title page, unless you’ve had the extra investment of carving a frontispiece, your title page is just text. So you don’t have the subtlety, the amazing sophistication of fonts and colors and other cues that modern cover designers use so that when you walk into a bookstore, and there’s a sea of 200 books, you spot that one, and that one, and that one, which are your genre. And we’ve all had this experience, and you walk in and you see, now that one is clearly not my genre, why? The font. What about the font, that font is that other genre. They don’t have this yet. So they do have to rely more on the content of the actual text of that title page. Which is partly why you get books with titles like The Scandalous Tale of a Doctor from Padua Who Slept With His Maid and Then Murdered His Wife and Then Cut Out His Heart and Ate It, and Then Murdered the Maid, and How He Was Justly Punished By God. Which is my favorite book title.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Look that up on Book Scan.
[Ada Palmer] Because it’s trying to communicate that, but I think the pseudonym, the intentionally pseudonymous pseudonym, is visible that way. Now when we’re talking about historical cases, when you have a pseudonym that isn’t a transparently pseudonymous pseudonym, unless there was some kind of controversy such that we figured out who it was, we often have no way to tell, because for the pre-modern world, our documentation isn’t that good. We’re lucky if we know you existed at some point. You might have been born. Your name might’ve been John. That’s probably all we have. You, at some point, you may have owed somebody 15 shillings for candle wax, but other than that, you leave no documentary record. So a sort of successful pseudonym that looks like a real name, we don’t know. So it’s one of the arenas in which it’s most difficult to trace the history of the use of this. And this is one of the reasons I wish Adrian was here, ’cause he’s done some of that work, and he could come into that question for you. But for a lot of them, I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of books by a pseudonymous author that we haven’t been able to tell that this is even a pseudonymous person because the records don’t exist. Which is very different from our computer era, where we all have enormous numbers of records. And assuming a successful sorting algorithm in the future, a historian 200 years from now will know that everyone in this room exists. Won’t necessarily know that you were in this room. Won’t necessarily know nine-tenths of the things about you, but it will absolutely be preserved that you existed.
[Charles Brownstein] Cause you mean that the intellectual grid still exists.
[Ada Palmer] To look up your birthdate. We also produce huge amounts of paper. There is a lot of documentary material, which makes what the capacities of pseudonymity are very different in terms of at least the historical record. When a historian is answering this question, as opposed to a publisher or a marketing executive answering the same question.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] I think what’s really important is that unless the readers have read a number of your books and really cared about them, they don’t care who you are anyway, I’m sorry to say. If they really love a writer, then they will do endless research on them, but if they don’t, then no.
[Ada Palmer] We had a question here. The question is about the resurgence of the audiobook market lately, and whether this has helped or hindered the sale of books on tape.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I don’t think it’s hindered them. I have a couple of authors on my own list, notably John Scalzi, who are extremely successful on audio, and at times have sold more audio copies through those audio publishers than hard copies through me. But it doesn’t seem to, by and large, I don’t think he’s stealing sales from us. I think it’s an aggregate, it’s growing his market all around. So I don’t feel particularly fretful about it.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Certainly it’s a growing part of the market.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Mainly it means that people can consume books in physical circumstances in which it’s hard to hold a physical paper book. That’s the thing that really sells audiobooks, is long commutes, exercise regimes, running, et cetera, et cetera.
[Ada Palmer] And above all, the biggest thing that sells books is face to face recommendation. And anyone who has listened to the audiobook of a book, and recommends that book to friends, isn’t exclusively recommending the audiobook of that book, so if you have 30,000 copies of a book out in audiobook, each one of those people has a decent chance of selling a paper copy of the book as well.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] That’s exactly right.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] The really simple rule of thumb for why people buy books as it was explained to me as a young person-
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] This is based on Gallup demographic studies.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Just understand that every one of these reasons is going to be half the size of the previous one, okay, roughly speaking. First one, you read and enjoyed another book by the same author, single biggest reason, absolutely. It’s why sometimes like the name of the author is the only thing you practically can see on the cover. It’s because that is what’s going to sell the book. Second, it was recommended to you by somebody that you trust. Could be a reviewer, could be a friend, could be somebody whose commentary on Twitter, you believe it, could be a bookstore or bookstore employee that you talked to, but you believed them, and so you bought the book. Next, you like the cover. Honestly, everything else about why somebody buys a book comes after that, and it’s a very small fraction.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Yeah, basically, those three account for about 80 to 90 percent of why books sell.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] And of course, a lot of what is on the cover of the book and the front matter and the sales copy on the back, all of that is sort of bridging the gap between the reader and an author that they haven’t read yet.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] You like the cover doesn’t just mean you liked the art. It means something about the cover got your attention, got you interested, whether it’s a quote from another author, a piece of descriptive copy, the imagery, the typography, something–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Your whole impression of it, whatever just said hello, take me home with you.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] That’s right.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] You know. And it was good enough to make you actually open the book and read a few paragraphs and find out that they didn’t hurt, so yay.
[Ada Palmer] The question is based on both our discussions of the processes of being published through a collaborative process, whether it’s mainstream publishing or others, expose works to many moments at which they can be censored. But self-publishing also has limiting effects on the production of information, such as how much time you have sunk into doing it. Doesn’t mean that the production of a book is inherently always going to be censored by one or the other of these phenomena, or some phenomena, and that it is impossible to produce a book in such a manner that it–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I don’t think that traditional book publishing is, in itself, a censorious process. I think there’s a difference between censorship and editing. I think obviously the apparatus of publishing can be used in a censorious way, and certainly, a censoring way, yes. That’s a better word. But I don’t think, most, at least in my end of the field, most editing is collaborative. It’s a conversation between the editor and the author. The authors almost always bat last. I mean, I have seen, god help me, us let an eminent, now-deceased science fiction writer get away with an absolutely obvious math error that he insisted on–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Several of them.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Because he absolutely insisted, despite all logic and reason, and it’s his book, and it’s his name on the cover, so go with god.
[Ada Palmer] I think, in part, one of the things we’re getting at is the collaborative nature of producing a book, that there are many, many steps, which are all more successful when professionalized. You’re gonna get that better book cover–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] There are tyrannical people in publishing.
[Ada Palmer] But you’re gonna get that better book cover, when someone who really knows book cover design does it, and you’re gonna get that better copy edit when somebody like Teresa, who genuinely can look at a page of text and the typos like stand out in 3D, she doesn’t even, she isn’t even conscious of reading line by line, it’s a sort of super-human development of copyediting capacity that shows up.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] That’s the superhuman proofreading, the superhuman copyediting thing is the voice in your head that goes, hold up, the moon was in a different phase 200 pages ago. We don’t know how we do it, it’s just there.
[Ada Palmer] But the teamwork element is helpful, but any point at which an additional person is part of the process is a moment at which censorship can be injected into it, but only in the same way that, for example, the process of budgeting student clubs is a moment at which censorship can enter, because the Dean of students in charge of the Maroon in 1951 can say, I’m gonna pull the funding from this student club in order to silence the communist editor. Is this automatically a censoring moment, no. Is this a censoring apparatus, no. Is this a moment at which censorship can be injected into the process, yes. And so the teamwork of publishing also means 20 new moments at which censorship can be injected into the process, but it doesn’t meant that they have to be, or that they automatically are. But it means they are moments in which the vulnerability is there. But in return for that increased vulnerability, you also have an enormous increase of teamwork, in addition to which, all of these extra teammates are people who have your back against other forms of censorship, and if you have a censorious copy editor who’s trying to remove all of the sex from your books, you go to your editor, and you say, hey, Patrick, this terrible copy editor is doing a terrible thing to my book, and Patrick goes to bat for you from behind, because every member of the team could inject censorship, but can also inject resistance.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] That said–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] He’s got–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Oh, go ahead.
[Charles Brownstein] And I think, at this point, it’s really important to interject that everything that we’re describing here falls within the umbrella of the business decision as opposed to underneath the umbrella of censorship, and to a certain extent, reveals the privilege under which all of us are speaking today under the umbrella of the first amendment, where we can take for granted that we have the right to introduce our ideas into the marketplace of ideas, and allow them to compete there. Censorship, as it applies globally, that is to say, that the imposition of a state actor upon speech, and upon what can be expressed, you know, is a very different process that’s really outside of the weeds that we’re getting into here.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] I would distinguish censorship, control, and influence.
[Charles Brownstein] Right.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] To work with other people means that they will have, that they will influence what you’re doing, or better, or the process has broken down. Then there’s control, which is, could be something like no, we’re not going to put the cover on it that you suggest, we’re not going to call this book Noble Rot, nobody’s going to understand the title. Whatever, you know, and that’s the business decision end of it. I think of censorship as, attempting to change the meaning. And we don’t do that very often. If we like a book well enough to buy it, or like an author well enough to put them under contract for three books, what we’re saying is, yeah, you’re going to give us something, and we’re gonna work with that. And there has to be a really good reason for us to depart from that.
[Ted Adams] Yeah, same for us. I see censorship as government control, and what publishers are doing are just trying to make editorial decisions. We don’t, in our case, the way I’ve tried to build the company was to not be heavy-handed, and so… But with that said, I’ve published somewhere between four and five thousand books, so, do I have creators that are unhappy, absolutely. There’s no question. But we approach it from the mindset that we’re just trying to help them get their story out in the best way possible.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] I’m not entirely convinced that the only valid use of the word censorship has to do with control by organs of the state, but I–
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] If Barnes & Noble doesn’t want to take the book, you know, that’s–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Well, if Barnes & Noble has some kind of crank moral thing going that causes them to not want to take books from Asian people, or something like that, maybe it’s not technically censorship, but it’s something bad that’s in the same wheelhouse. There is, by the way, no buyer from Barnes & Noble that answers to that description. That was a made up thing. But I forget where I was going with that.
[Ted Adams] Or the Cuban government, who controls all publishing, so there is no private press in Cuba. If you have a book and you wanna get a publisher, it has to go through a government press, and if it’s, well, first of all, no author is gonna be dumb enough to turn in a book that’s anti-Castro, or anti-government, but even if they did, it would have to go through that government press. It’s just never gonna happen. We’re very fortunate in this country.
[Charles Brownstein] It leads to a very interesting dynamic where one of the areas that we’re in in the United States right now is this move to a kinder, more just, more tolerant society that doesn’t offend people. And so you do see a certain drive to try to hush speech that is in some way objectionable or offensive, and I understand the urge to that, but you know, it comes as a result of the privilege of being able to speak so freely and so broadly that the stuff that would’ve been silenced is exactly the stuff that’s being celebrated today. And I think it’s important to understand that there are other places in the world that do not have this same privilege that allows people to express themselves so broadly.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] You know, when I hear somebody online say, I’m a first amendment absolutist, what I assume about them instantly, is that they’re straight, white, male, and of American descent. Because people in that category, there are no words that you can apply to them that will hurt as much as the words that they can apply to people who are in other categories. And I, okay, this is not coming from me as a person who works in publishing. This is me as online moderator/community manager. I have far more often heard the first amendment invoked on behalf of people who are not being particularly thoughtful or interesting or original, but who think that they have this absolute right to say whatever they want to say, even if it kills the conversation. Like they’ll come into a lively conversation that’s already going on, and behave boorishly, and immediately, a number of people disappear from it that usually are the ones that you’d really like to keep, and they make a complete mess of things, but if you try to say, you may not do that here, or that was not what we were talking about, or we do not behave that way on this site, they feel that their first amendment rights are being violated, and I am–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] The first amendment does not require people to put up with boorishness in their own living rooms.
[Ada Palmer] To anchor us historically, and then, alas, we are just about out of time.
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] Oh, no!
[Teresa Nielsen Hayden] I know, as rich and lively as things are. The wording of the first amendment in the U.S., Congress shall make no law, is actually extraordinarily narrow, and if we’re trying to think about censorship, and we’re thinking of the bullseye of censorship being state censorship, right, the Inquisition wasn’t state censorship. The Inquisition is a privately run organization, taken over by different non-state entities, that operate in lots of different places. If you think about the degree to which, the U.S has private prisons, private prisons, which are privately run for profit by different people, they are sub-licensed by the state, and they are allowed to use force, right? The U.S. government could sub-license to the Inquisition in exactly the same way. The Inquistion–
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] Don’t give them ideas!
[Ada Palmer] As it operated, in Italy, in France, in Spain, in Goa, could operate in the U.S. today legally under the first amendment. It absolutely could, because it wasn’t state censorship. And that’s one of the indicators on the very specific narrowness of the first amendment, Congress shall make no law, which is extremely different from the enormous intellectual breadth of what the American people have made out of the first amendment in invoking it and discussing it and debating it, and bringing it into all sorts of conversations, constructively, destructively, argumentatively, cooperatively, to the degree that it comes up so much in film and media that there are many countries in the world where people believe that they have first amendment rights because they don’t realize that it’s only the U.S. that has the first amendment.
[Patrick Nielsen Hayden] In tons of other countries, people try to take the fifth in courtrooms.
[Ada Palmer] And all of these other things that you see because the U.S. discusses this material so much. So, you know, much as I’ve discussed in examples where we’re comparing U.S. to New Zealand in the past, what we have made out of the tiny sliver which is Congress shall make no law, what we have made out of that in discourse, and then also the enormous numbers of ways that American does also censor, whether it’s the Comics Code Authority, or whether it’s McCarthyist blacklisting, or whether it’s enumerable other channels that operate censoriously within the U.S., which are very, very real and very present, very different from what’s happening in Iran and Cuba and New Zealand and under the Inquisition. But all of these things exist in an ecosystem which is partly state, partly law, and partly a large variety of other things which we’ve touched on today. So let’s thank our speakers for another wonderful session.
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