Monday, January 30, 2012

A weaker Barnes and Noble could raise questions about the future of book publishing

The New York Times Business Section yesterday, in Sunday Business, offered a big story by Julie Bosman, “The Bookstore’s Last Stand” about Barnes & Noble and its introduction of the Nook as an answer to Amazon’s Kindle -- and as a way to stop BN's own business decline. The article is called “The Bookstore’s Last Stand” with link here

CNET offers a buyer’s comparison of Kindle, Nook and iPad, by John Falcone, Nov. 23, 2011, link here.     I’ll add that I haven’t purchased any device yet:  I still travel with a Windows Notebook and hardcopies, but I am seriously considering the iPad.

Bosman discusses the impact that a weaker Barnes and Noble would have on the mainstream book publishing industry.  The independent bookstore has taken a hit from the larger chains (we’ve lost Lambda Rising), but the chains (Borders) are losing out to the Internet in multiple ways.  A place for book signings and cultural events is in jeopardy. 

Publishers can make great profits on big hits like Harry Potter and Stephen King novels, but it is harder now on midlist authors (it has been for some time), and non-fiction, outside of memoirs by celebrities and some how-to books like cookbooks, tend not to sell well.  The loss of bookstores makes it even harder. 

A newer generation is conditioned to expect visual entertainment and has less patience for reading. 
The legal and cultural environment of the Internet is certainly a factor.  It might be a different world, as I’ve noted (even on the previous posting) if there weren’t as much downstream liability protection to service providers for user-generated content.

When I self-published my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book with a printing in July 1997, I expected to sell hardcopies by word-of-mouth. At the same time, I did a transfer to Minneapolis.  Once in Minnesota, that did happen to an extent; I even made a cable television appearance there.  Authorship then was still a source of celebrity.  But as the Internet and the Web 1.0 environment  supported by search engines grew,  I quickly turned to “fame” generated by Google – which could mean that a few hundred thousand people  worldwide would get to know me online, even if they didn’t have to “pay”.  That did happen. I think my book and Internet strategy was a significant, if little known, part of the eventual repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell”.  But I haven’t transitioned to Web 2.0 and the heavily segmented social media environment so well.  Okay, I’m 68.

But what if it hadn’t been able to use the Web this way?   Would I have sold more copies instead?  Very likely, I believe, yes.  Word-of-mouth efforts and symposiums would have gotten even more attention.  The original book (with its glaring typo error on the back cover about the “age” of the Bill of Rights) was carried in the LGBT section of the downtown Minneapolis store for most of 1999, and BN then had a regular LGBT book forum there.  It was also carried in various Lambda Rising stores. 

In the meantime, the publishing world has gravitated toward cooperative or supported self-publishing, where the author takes on more of the expense and risk (as I did in the 90s).  At the same time, knowledge management compendiums like Wikipedia say they don’t like to see articles turning to self-published works (except when from material about the subject). 

iUniverse still promotes author discounts and encourages authors to try to volume-sell their own books (after buying larger orders from print-on-demand), either through conventional (now) social media networking, local advertising, or even mentorship.   The problem is that, in most cases, older non-fiction just doesn’t sell.  (In my case, people are rapidly forgetting that “don’t ask don’t tell” could come back in a different administration, and that isn’t good.)  Newer work can be sold.  Authors have to stay busy creating and polishing new content. That’s a reality.  Never rest on your laurels. But you don't need to become a huckster. 

Here's the Los Angeles Times on the Nook Tablet:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

New book from St. Martin's details the problems of online reputation, online security for visible individuals and almost all businesses

On my blogs, I have written extensively amount online reputation.  Much of my concern has been based on an older risk, in the Web 1.0 world, that manager, teacher, or anyone who makes decisions about others in the workplace, could demonstrate prejudice in front of search engines merely by expressing well-intended views or opinions about political and social issues (like race or gay rights) in an unregulated public space.  Over time, the issue of reputation became more complicated, especially with Web 2.0 and the growth of social media, where others could so seriously injure someone’s standing in front of others, causing job loss or even worse.

A new book carries this further, showing that many companies, and many people whose own reputations depend on how well they run these companies, as well as politicians and celebrities, have to spend a tremendous amount of attention to digital reputation.  Attacking the reputations of competitors has become an “accepted” way to do business.  This may be part of the “cheating culture” already presented here before (March 28, 2006).

Here are the details:

Authors: Richard Torrenzano and Mark Davis
Title: “Digital Assassination: Protecting your Reputation, Brand, or Business Against Online Attacks
Publication: New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-312-61791-2, hardcover, 289 pages, 11 chapters, with endnotes and index.

The Amazon link is here.

(Just a quick note on the title: Microsoft Word tells me that “from” is the right idiomatic preposition, not “against”.)

The book is outlined around “seven swords” (of)  and “seven shields” (against) digital destruction.

The swords include volume bad-mouthing (leveraging search engines), impersonation, anonymity, placing “truth” out of context, and (with the most detail of all), hacking.  The shields involve a careful approach to online presence.

Since the advent of social media, it has become clear that almost no one can simply stay offline in order to escape “conflict”.  There is no call to “run away” from the problem of online reputation by becoming a Luddite.  One has to contemplate carefully just how much material (and about what) to put online, as that will affect his or her search engine results.  The authors recommend that people blog or write about only their areas of expertise. In my case, because so much concentric material is “generated” from the way one particular incident in my life was interpreted, and because I’m not in the business of volume-selling to people, I do think my own “best practices” would differ from those of most other people. In fact, the best behavior of “content generators” (such as artists or musicians) would differ somewhat from those whose living depends on selling the work (or political stakes) of others.  The old, trite soap opera question “Who do you work for?”  really matters, I think.

The authors offer an interesting comparison of the cultures of Google and Facebook. Google was originally more concerned with public self-broadcast, which can result in social connections (as it did very much for me). Facebook was more concerned with the friendship rings within which components of information circulate.  One problem is that “Facebook culture” could wind up creating a climate of social conformity if misunderstood by employers and families (as it has been).  On the other hand, “Google culture” (until more recently), could  eventually result in anarchy, which can in turn generate new forms of exclusionism, maybe even fascism.  The authors could be clearer on the significance on both Google+ and Facebook (especially the latter) that account holders use their real names or identities, precluding leading a "double life" online. 

The authors, at least indirectly, do take up the problem of downstream liability, discussing both the DMCA safe harbor and Section 230 at the end of the book.  The authors do not argue for public policy changes to increase downstream liability, but rather argue that individuals and businesses (especially) must learn how to work in the topology or “analytic measure” of the global digital world.  They seem to think that major policy changes are unlikely. The book apparently went to press before SOPA and Protect-IP proposals became controversial.  The authors do say (p 171) that under current law it’s illegal (in the US and the west) to hack or set up a company just to hack or to counterfeit or to pirate. But there’s no legal penalty for using materials stolen by others (a point that gets caught up in SOPA).

The author’s longest “sword” chapter deals with hacking and the near impossibility of defending against very determined attackers.  They discuss the risk to critical physical infrastructures, including nuclear power plants, the general power grid, and the entire petrochemical industry.  I remember that these grim possibilities were discussed in the Minneapolis papers in early 2002, shortly after 9/11.  Why are the systems associated with critical infrastructures (or even national security, including nuclear weapons launch) reachable from a public Internet?  (Banks seem to be different and more secure, but I wonder, given the identity scams.)  This does sound like a public policy question.  The proposals by Thomas Friedman and even our president to build a smart Web to manage all home energy use could be undermined by the vulnerability to hackers. 

The risk that all this poses to “ordinary users” is quite variable.  Again, people who must “sell” or whose own contributions to the content involved online may be more vulnerable.  The authors warn the reader about the desirability of disconnecting home wireless routers when not in use, and in taking other measures that could increase the risk of ordinary technical problems and disruptions. 

In my own mainframe information technology career, I had few concerns.  I worked "internally" and "retired" at the end of 2001; I had published my first "controversial" book in 1997 and become active in Web 1.0 by 1998.  In my day, one could lead multiple lives. No more.  

There has been controversy over how much “moral responsibility” or “karma” ordinary “amateur” web publishers should accept given that they are accepting the risks (along with the low cost) of a technology where it is very difficult to prevent deliberate malicious behavior and where some people (usually more vulnerable and less savvy or less intact) get badly hurt.  Should a home wi-fi owner be held responsible of a criminal drives by and uses it to disseminate child pornography?  Should computer users be held responsible if their own computers are hijacked to launch attacks?

A world where there is more downstream liability (or, in some prosecutorial circles, “absolute liability”) would mean a world where “average people” can do much less on their own without the supervision and approval of third parties (or at least without the equivalent of an Internet “driver’s license”).  There would return the higher barriers to entry of the past.  It would be less “democratic” or “egalitarian”.  It also might be safer and more sustainable, and force people to take more responsibility for others.  There’s another debate just under the surface of this book.

Richard Torrenzano speaks in this YouTube video by Leading Authorities. He says he and Davis approached the book from the viewpoint of reputation, not just technology.  (Daniel Solove’s book on Reputation is reviewed here Jan. 12, 2008.)  I’m surprised he doesn’t specifically discuss Michael Fertik and his company “Reputation Defender” (or “”) in more detail.

Would this book lend itself to documentary film?  "Online Reputation" certainly would make for a good PBS POV segment. 

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

William Patry: "How to Fix Copyright" follows earlier book; he takes the concept of "gatekeeping" and attempted monopoly head on, but is short on specific policy solutions

Author: William Patry

Title: “How to Fix Copyright

Publication: 2011: London, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-976009-1, 323 pages, hardcover, Introduction and twelve chapters.

Amazon link:

On Oct. 2, 2009, I reviewed an earlier similar book by Patry, “Moral Panic and Copyright Wars”.  The new book certainly seems timely given the recent appearance of Protect-IP (Senate) and SOPA (“Stop Online Piracy Act”, House) in Congress, which I have been following in detail on my main “Bill Boushka” blog.

But Patry is still short on specifics as to how to draw the legal lines – apparently he even had some disagreement with his publisher on this.  What Patry does explain – more cogently the second time around – is how copyright law probably doesn’t serve the public interest very well. Instead, it protects “an establishment”.

Patry spends a lot of space explaining how the music, movie and publishing industries have functioned for years (particularly book publishing, far back into European history in the previous millennium) as “gatekeepers”, maintaining artificial scarcity in media so they could maintain cash cows with maximum profitability for producing a relatively narrow range of and volume of media works for the public.  The whole model fell apart in the 1990s as the Internet generated first efficient platforms for UGC (user-generated content) and propagated mechanisms for users to download music and other content and circumvent the established bricks-and-mortar retail mechanism.

“Oversupply leads to gatekeeping”, he writes.   Gatekeeping had led to a world where established companies and agents could determine what could “get published”.   But there are really two problems.  One is that “amateurs” or at least neo-professional newbies produce media for lower cost and compete with legacy media, possibly threatening it.  This is really possible only because legal mechanisms (Section 230 and the DMCA Safe Harbor) largely shield service providers from potential downstream liability.  The concerns over Protect-IP and SOPA largely come down to fear that these downstream liability protections could be undermined or gutted, basically ending the ability of service providers to support “amateurism”.

The other problem is what really gets more attention in most legal actions.  Content providers get the law to regulate how devices can be used to copy content even for person use – leading to provisions in the DMCA that, with digital content, preclude what would have been Fair Use in the past.  Consumers can be precluded from making even their own personal copies.  This moves out into areas trying to regulate P2P networks and mass litigation against users (the RIAA lawsuits, and more recently suits concerning movie downloads by the US Copyright Group) which music producers have found just don’t work.

Patry doesn’t get into the copyright troll problem illustrated by the litigation brought by Righthaven against bloggers for reposting content from client newspapers, mostly smaller papers in the South and West.
Patry points out that at one time legacy media wanted to protect news facts from republication and sometimes wanted to charge search engines for showing links!  I think this went on around 2000, about the time the courts were deciding that html hyperlinks could not constitute copyright infringement because they are basically bibliographic attributions.  Video embeds, I think, could raise interesting questions.

Patry argues that legacy media are turning to the law to regulate a marketplace to their favor, instead of relating to new technology by being willing to price media properly and creatively.  Music companies, for years, lazily sold CD’s at higher prices than low-income consumers could afford, when these consumers could afford singles.  Steve Jobs forced them to accept “singles” pricing with iTunes.  Companies cannot save inflexible and outmoded business models, he argues, just by turning to the law to regulate away low cost competition or even “off the books” borrowing of material.

Is “intellectual property” to be viewed by policy makers as a traditional “property right”?  Patry says supposedly libertarian construct is a canard.  Creativity is not encouraged by a copyright system that encourages “winner take all” and a few superstars, and recycling of old material (like movie sequels) for short-term profits.  Creativity also involves some legitimate amount of “copying”. Patry explains how this works in classical music (variation forms), and it’s obvious he has a background in formal music. (It’s a stretch to say that the finale of the Brahms First came from Beethoven’s Ninth, but certainly the artistic and social “context” did.)

Patry discusses a facile metaphor (“The answer to the machine is a machine” from an obscure book by Charles Clark) and shows how it could be misused to support legacy regulation.

There’s a degree of social responsibility called for. Content owners are rapidly learning that it is often in their best interest to price according to ability to pay.  Even Verdi dealt with that in the 19th Century.

Visitors will want to visit the website for Creative Commons, here

Here is some of Patry’s Feb. 2010 NYC lecture, “Law is not a business solution”.

Here's an interesting piece on Slate by Matthew Yglesias, "Should we stop online piracy: why a little copyright infringement is good for society and the economy", link here.  The relevant economic concept is called "deadweight loss".