CategoryStudent Essays

Verification is the Key to Successful Crowdsourcing

Despite the immense increase in accessibility of digital content creation, the current condition of publishing in the digital sphere has not come without its limitations, and content creators are not always independently capable of reaching the material and financial demands necessary to pursue their endeavours. These challenges present themselves in manifold ways, most often stemming from time constraints, individual skillsets, and the monetary means necessary to fund one’s ventures.

Crowdsourcing was thus borne as a way of tapping into the external talents, creative insights, and knowledge base of broader online communities to further one’s projects and ensure audiences are able to receive what they want most. This essay will investigate how crowdsourcing has been adopted by journalists and those working toward the digitization of print books. By offering a comparison of how crowdsourcing is being utilized in these two endeavours, I hope to inspire discourse of how crowd sourced journalism may be more effectively implemented in the future.

 

Crowdsourcing as Commons-based Peer Production

Crowdsourcing in the present decade has witnessed the rise of volunteer captioning, translation and citizen journalism, proving to be a consistently employed strategy for content creation. As Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum discuss at length in their article “Commons-based Peer Production and Truth”, crowdsourcing is akin to what they define as commons-based peer production:

 

“Facilitated by the technical infrastructure of the Internet, the hallmark of this socio-technical system is collaboration among large groups of individuals, sometimes in the order of tens or even hundreds of thousands, who cooperate effectively to provide information, knowledge or cultural goods without relying on either market pricing or managerial hierarchies to coordinate their common enterprise.”

 

Indeed, the above examples (captioning, translating, and citizen journalism) coincide with this definition, because the efforts undertaken are done so collaboratively, with the aim of enhancing the spread of knowledge and culture, and are done so freely without the expectation of financial compensation. Drawing on Wikipedia as an early example, Benkler and Nissenbaum illustrate how peer production begins with “a statement of community intent” and achieves its ends via “a technical architecture that allows anyone to contribute, edit and review the history of any document easily.”

 

Digitizing Books, One Word at a Time

First introduced as Google Print at the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair, Google Books has now scanned over 25 million book titles using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology. OCR works by creating electronic conversions of images of typed, handwritten, or printed text which Google Books then stores into its digital database. Since its inception, Google Books has slowed its output for two primary reasons: Copyright violations, and errors in scanning relating to the OCR process. Such errors include pages being unreadable, upside, crumpled, blurry, as well as fingers obscuring text.

To begin remedying these scanning errors, Google acquired reCAPTCHA in 2009 as a means of amending the unreadable pages and blurry scans resulting from the OCR process. reCAPTCHA is an evolution of CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) in which the scanning process errors of OCR are amended by users of websites. We have all filled out web-based forms containing CAPTCHAs at some point in time, and as their name implies, their purpose is to ensure that the user filling out the form is a human and not some sort of computer program.

recaptcha

From Wufoo Team’s Flickr

The co-founder of reCAPTCHA, Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon, explains reCAPTCHA’s inception in his Ted Talk “Massive-scale online collaboration”:

 

“Approximately 200 million CAPTCHAs are typed every day by people around the world…and each time you type a CAPTCHA, essentially you waste 10 seconds of your time. And if you multiply that by 200 million, you get that humanity as a whole is wasting about 500,000 hours each day…”

 

Ahn wished to effectively seize these accumulated hours spent typing in CAPTCHAs by putting them to a secondary use, ultimately benefiting the global collective knowledge base. His innovation means that for every CAPTCHA an individual enters on a web form, books are being digitized one word at a time. He continues to illustrate how reCAPTCHA technology draws on the commons-based peer production to remedy text from books that OCR has difficulty accurately deciphering:

“OCR is not perfect, especially for older books where the ink has faded and the pages have turned yellow… Things that were written more than 50 years ago, the computer cannot recognize about 30 percent of the words. So what we’re doing now is taking all of the words that the computer cannot recognize and getting people to read them for us while they’re typing a CAPTCHA on the internet.”

If you’ve noticed that CAPTCHAs now contain two words instead of one, it isn’t to speed up digitizing efforts. Rather, a two-step process is being followed. The first word is one that has already been verified as being correct, and an individual’s correct inputting serves to verify they are human. The second word is one still requiring verification, and is being shown in CAPTCHAs to ten other people as a means of ensuring the correct digitization of a text. As of 2011, 750,000,000 people (10% of the world’s population) have helped to digitize at least one word of a book because of reCAPTCHA.

 

Journalism and Crowdsourcing: The Truth is out There

Traditionally, journalists have had to rely either on sources on the ground or on connections acquired via personal connections or professional external networks. It is undoubtedly beneficial to have a pool of experts at one’s disposal to provide statistical context, ideological interpretation, legal knowledge, etc. Likewise, it is enviable to have dedicated individuals who interview scholars, document raw footage, and correspond with locals as events unfold in real time. However, not all events are created equal – “home-grown” stories vs. international reporting, for example – and not all events are known beforehand (ex. Natural disasters), making on the ground coverage not always possible. Additionally, budgets do not always permit live reporting, especially for smaller publications already stretched thin paying in-house staff, freelance writers, and photographers.

The consequences of these monetary and time constraints most often manifest in the type of stories chosen for coverage, and the level of depth awarded to their investigation. As Madelaine Drohan explains in her report Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?:

 

“When time is at a premium, other parts of the job inevitably fall by the wayside, like the research required for accuracy, context and balance. Journalists and their editors are tempted to avoid harder, longer projects that require both money and time in favour of quick and easy hits…”

 

Drohan also states in her report that time-crunched journalists are “prone to circulating misinformation” and are “more inclined to put opinion over fact.” Thus, new solutions such as crowdsourcing journalistic efforts serve to combat these stresses to ensure timely coverage and the enhanced accuracy of details.

Crowdsourcing can be observed in multiple dimensions, from interviewing to corroborating details, and from video footage to audio recordings. Certainly, Benkler and Nissenbaum’s discourse on commons-based peer production apply to these activities, aligning with the two core characteristics of peer production itself: Decentralization and the use of social cues and motivations (rather than finances and commands) to drive and navigate the actions of participating agents. In the most direct sense, these efforts are inspired by a “call to action” by the news publications we read regularly, inviting us to share our photos and videos, our eye witness accounts, and to correct any errors our typos noted in the articles posted.

bbc

As seen on the BBC at the end of an article regarding wildfires in Israel

vancouver-sun

The end of an article on the Vancouver Sun’s website, inviting readers to submit comments regarding typos and missing information

Returning to Drohan’s report on journalism, it becomes apparent why news outlets are so dependent on peer production to source details and footage, and to amend the content of articles – the financial limitations and time constraints plaguing the 24-hour news cycle prove challenging, even for large-scale outlets like the BBC. Realizing these demands, news outlets are honest about their inability to rapidly turnaround factually correct and investigative pieces, inviting readers to wear the badge of citizen journalist in order to fill in the missing pieces and to provide refutation whenever necessary.

Another side of commons-based peer production in journalism concerns news outlets and government intervention. In his TED Talk titled “Citizen Journalism”, journalist Paul Lewis powerfully illustrates how journalism benefits from crowdsourcing to expose the truth being covered up by government bodies. His talk focuses on two stories involving the controversial deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jimmy Mubenga that he wished to investigate further. In both instances, authorities released details of their deaths in a skeptical, misleading fashion. As he explains, his decision to put out a call to action on Twitter stemmed from the following:

 

“For journalists, it means accepting that you can’t know everything, and allowing other people, through technology, to be your eyes and your ears… And for other members of the public, it means not just being the passive consumers of news, but also co-producing news… This can be a very empowering process. It can enable ordinary people to hold powerful organizations to account.”

 

Upon receiving tweets, emails, and raw footage from members of the public surrounding both of the stories above, Lewis was able to determine the truth behind Tomlinson’s death – he was knocked to the ground by police with a baton to the back of his leg – as well as Mubenga’s death – he was held down by three airplane security personnel until he lost consciousness.

While the truth behind these two cases is undeniably thanks to commons-based peer production, it is crucial to note that discretion is necessary when relying on crowd sourced information, because information gleaned via social media messaging and email needs to be combed for bias, lies, and credibility to the same extent as traditional journalism. As Lewis asserts: “Verification is absolutely essential.” Similarly, Anahi Ayala Iacucci of the Standby Task Force, a non-profit dedicated to providing a humanitarian link between the digital world and disaster response, explains the necessary processes of judgment and filtering when making sense of the deluge of information shared on social media: “Crowd sourced information is a lot of noise… not always comprehensible, not always relevant, not always precise or accurate, and that’s still something journalists need to do [curate and verify].”

Because individuals exist who aim to spread false information and divert attention elsewhere – as well as to outright confuse and deceive – I believe it is necessary to re-consider the means through which discretion is performed and information is corroborated. As Benkler and Nissenbaum explain, common-based peer production must seek to achieve a system of checks and balances in order for a project’s or task’s goals to be successful:

“It enforces the behavior it requires primarily through appeal to the common enterprise in which the participants are engaged, coupled with a thoroughly transparent platform that faithfully records and renders all individual interventions in the common project and facilitates discourse among participants about how their contributions do, or do not, contribute to this common enterprise.”

When crowdsourcing in journalism fails, it is because of the very means through which information is sourced. Social media may be transparent in the way that it is a public platform, but it lacks transparency in terms of traceability and faithful recording; individuals do, after all, delete posts or accounts and amend details shared, but once a post has been shared and then read and re-shared, the damage is already done. Moreover, not all participants possess overlapping motivations surrounding journalistic efforts. As I said above, many people are out to confuse, mislead, or outright lie about events because of wide-ranging personal interests.

 

 Reading Crowd Sourced Journalism and reCAPTCHA Together

The success of Luis von Ahn’s reCAPTCHA efforts is contingent on the meticulous method of verification he imposes; showing CAPTCHAs to ten different individuals to ensure their correct digitization demonstrates the level of checks and balances necessary to render commons-based peer production effective. Returning again to Benkler and Nissenbaum, one can observe this systematic order in their example of Wikipedia: “The ability of participants to identify each other’s actions and counteract them—that is, edit out “bad” or “faithless” definitions—seems to have succeeded in keeping this community from devolving into inefficacy or worse.” In the case of reCAPTCHAs, this identification of actions can be accepted as the corresponding text typed in a web form, and the editing can be perceived of as the check performed when verifying which CAPTCHAs yield overlapping interpretations.

Unfortunately, peer produced journalism in its present state does not result in the same level of scrupulous verification. With news stories being churned out in incomplete variations to keep pace with the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, and news being heavily aggregated by sites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, proper checks of facts and footage are not consistently being conducted prior to publication. Moreover, people are more likely to share a story than read it, and online reading completion rates aren’t always reassuring, exhibiting the severity of unverified news sources being circulated en masse.

Thus, there is a great need for peer produced journalism to implement more thorough systems of verification, and to shift its focus from speed of delivery to accuracy of reporting. Just as the Standby Task Force works to help “filter the noise” of crowd sourced coverage to produce accurate mapping during crisis response, online news outlets, too, should consider partnering with similar external organizations to better corroborate details and “filter out” incorrect and misleading information.


 Works Cited

Benkler, Yochai and Nissenbaum, Helen, “Commons-based Peer Production and Virtue”, https://www.nyu.edu/projects/nissenbaum/papers/jopp_235.pdf

Heyman, Stephen, “Google Books: A Complex and Controversial Experiment”, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/arts/international/google-books-a-complex-and-controversial-experiment.html?_r=1

Weir, David, “Google Acquisition Will Help Correct Errors in Scanned Works”, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/google-acquisition-will-help-correct-errors-in-scanned-works/

Wufoo Team, https://c2.staticflickr.com/4/3598/3683064794_95824f2135.jpg

Massive-scale online collaboration, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ht4qiDRZE8&t=609s

Drohan, Madelaine, “Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?”, http://www.ppforum.ca/sites/default/files/PM%20Fellow_March_11_EN_1.pdf

Citizen journalism, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9APO9_yNbcg

Death of Ian Tomlinson, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Ian_Tomlinson

Unlawful killing of Jimmy Mubenga, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controversies_surrounding_G4S#Unlawful_killing_of_Jimmy_Mubenga

The importance of crowdsourced mapping in journalism, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSrpZ8UXyzw

Standby Task Force, http://www.standbytaskforce.org/about-us/

Dewey, Caitlin, “6 in 10 of you will share this link without reading it, a new, depressing study says”, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/06/16/six-in-10-of-you-will-share-this-link-without-reading-it-according-to-a-new-and-depressing-study/

Manjoo, Farhad, “You Won’t Finish This Article”, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/06/how_people_read_online_why_you_won_t_finish_this_article.single.html

Babeling Tongues: Literary Translation in the Technological Era

According to the Canada Council for the Arts, “It all starts with a good book. Then a translator, writer, or publisher is inspired to see it translated.” Indeed, in the present moment, translation is becoming ever important to both the globalizing world generally and the publishing industry specifically. Despite the increased role translations must undoubtedly take in the world market today, Three Percent, a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester, reports that “Unfortunately, only about 3% of all books published in the United States are works in translation… And that 3% figure includes all books in translation—in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%.” This paper justifies the need for increasing the number of translations available in the market, and explores the problems and possibilities doing so.

This essay is divided into three sections. It begins by examining the role of language in literature. It will use the political importance of a wider canon and the mass appeal of World Literature to establish the importance of works in translation. It will then explore the different processes by which professional translators and machine translation softwares approach the translation of texts. In this section, I will demonstrate how machine translations differ from human translations in their conception and execution. The final section of this essay will discuss the limits and possibilities applicable to both types of translation. In particular, it will suggest that machine based translations are, at present, largely capable of translating only literally, while literary translations require translations that go beyond simply literal forms, relying as they do on cadence, metaphor, connotations, and a detailed knowledge of context. Finally, I conclude by showing how work in this regard remains nonetheless open as different groups are attempting to perfect machines equipped with Artificial Intelligence that can deal with more complex types of decision-making required for such translation.

On Translation and World Literature

In order to realize the importance of translation today, we must first recognize that we are at present in the present 21st century, in which the world has become incredibly globalized. In this globalized world we have, for the first time in history, so many individuals from so many different cultures interacting with each other on a daily basis. Consequently, such individuals speak to each other on a daily basis, and also take interest in the literatures of each other. This having been said, the communication predominantly takes place in English, which has, because of the British empire, historically been a very important language at the global scale. Thus, though individuals may speak several languages at once, the dominant language of communication across cultures is English. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find someone who does not find that English is the global language of the present world.

The position of English deserves more thought, particularly as, according to the Kenyan scholar Ngugi wa Thiong’o, languages are not politically neutral. They are not inert objects used simply for communication, but rather, every language is “both a means of communication and a carrier of culture [emphasis added]” (Ngugi 13). By calling language a carrier of culture, Ngugi informs us that each language, in its very form and vocabulary, carries the experience of a certain people. Effectively, languages carry “the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world” (Ngugi 390).

Though insightful in itself, Ngugi’s provocation proves particularly pertinent when we consider the historic progenitors of English language: usually first-world, native speakers, who are almost always white. And while, in the past, this fact may not have been an issue as the language circulated in only this same sphere of people, it is problematic in the modern world where the literature published has failed to match the diversity of its leadership. Indeed, as The Guardian’s recent list of the 100 Best Novels attests, the majority of what is considered ‘great literature in English’ is still considered to come from the people mentioned above. Despite surveying novels across five centuries, the Guardian list acknowledges less than 10 novels by authors of colour. Political repercussions notwithstanding, this difference reflects present literary trends even outside of novels published originally in English. At present, we find ourselves in a world whose supposedly ‘global’  literature does not represent the diversity of the people who read it. Given the role of editors and publishers in shaping the literary landscape, such individuals and groups must strive to ensure that the available literature reflects the experiences of those who are to read it. An integral step in this process is to make more English translations available for the current, global readership of the language.

Apart from the responsibility they hold, publishers need to increase the translations they publish because, quite frankly, it makes economic sense. Literature in translation is a growing market, particularly in diasporic communities whose second and third generation readers cannot read their original languages, yet still desire to reconnect with their roots. Moreover, as more and more people are have become aware of the limited perspectives inherent in ‘purely English’ literature, they have also recognized the importance of books in translation. As a result, they have created a huge demand for literature in these languages that reflects their respective cultures. Moreover, such books are also of interest to native English readers as such individuals are curious to know what people from other countries are writing about. For this reason, many authors have gained worldwide appeal despite never having written in English: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, Yukio Mishima, and Jorges Luis Borges– to name just a few.

This immense demand for translations is visible in that such books generally claim much more than of the market than the ratio in which they are produced. According to Nielsen,

“‘On average, translated fiction books sell better than books originally written in English, particularly in literary fiction.’ Looking specifically at translated literary fiction, [we can see that] sales rose from 1m copies in 2001 to 1.5m in 2015, with translated literary fiction accounting for just 3.5% of literary fiction titles published, but 7% of the volume of sales in 2015.” (from The Guardian)

Given the above-mentioned statistics, it is obvious that the translation market is an incredibly fruitful avenue for publishers to explore. Moreover, given how small the current production share of translations is, there is still a lot of potential for exploiting the market for translated literature. Rebecca Carter corroborates this point as she notes that “Amazon had identified an extremely strong and under-served community: readers with an interest in books from other countries.”

In light of these findings, it is obvious that we need to increase the number of translations available, and to see what avenues are available for rendering high-quality translations. As we seek to do so, I argue that it becomes prudent that we look into newer methods of translation, particularly machine-based translations (MT), which could possibly prove more efficient and economical than traditional means. As such, it is necessary for us to see how these two processes of translation, by humans and by machines, work, and what the problems and possibilities are of each.

Translating: By Machine and By Hand

At present, the dominant translation methodology is that followed by professional translators. Given that translation is a niche profession, we must examine the motivations of professional translators in order to understand the techniques they use in translating works. Deborah Smith, translator of, The Vegetarian, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, explains that “[p]art of the reason I became a translator in the first place was because Anglophone or Eurocentric writing often felt quite parochial” (from The Guardian). Smith’s view is very much in tune with the current ascendancy of World Literature and the movement towards a more global canon. Andrew Wilson, author of Translators on Translating, and a translator himself, is “struck by the enjoyment that so many translators seem to get from their work” (Wilson 23). In fact, the various accounts from translators in his book indicate that passion is the driving force behind the profession. Per Dohler is immensely proud of himself and fellow translators because “[w]e come from an incredible wealth of backgrounds and bring this diversity to the incredible wealth of worlds that we translate from and into” (Wilson 29). While many translators, like Dohler, come with a background in literature and linguistics, others, like Smith, are self-taught.

Building off the motivations expressed by these other translators, Andrew Fenner describes a general approach to translation. He points out that, firstly, the translator reads the whole work thoroughly, in order to get a sense of the concepts in the text, the tone of the author, the style of the document and the intended audience. The translator then follows this by translating what they can. They prepare the first draft, leaving unknown words as is. After doing so, the translator leaves the work aside for a day, and allows their subconscious to mull over ambiguous words or phrases. They then return to the work sometime to later to make checks, to correct any errors, and to refine the translation. Lastly, the translator repeats this last process a few more times (Wilson 52-3).

The salient feature of Fenner’s process is that the human translator takes into consideration the work as a whole. They do not imagine the text simply as an object built from the connection of the literal meanings of words. This idea of the work as a whole being reflected in each individual segment will become exponentially important later, when we explore machine-based translations. For now, however, we must only note that this approach ties into Peter Newmark’s diagram of the dynamics of translation:

The Dynamics of Translation

Note: 9 should say “The truth (the facts of the matter) SL = Source language TL = Target Language

As the above diagram shows, the translator must keep in mind both the source and target language’s norms, culture, settings, as well as the literal meaning of the text – a challenging task to say the least– one that involves a complex system of processes and judgements.

Machine translations, in contrast to human translations, use a different series of processes, which generally do not take into account different factors in the same way. For the purposes of this essay, we will look at two machine translation softwares: Duolingo and Google Translate. By its own admission, Duolingo uses a crowdsourcing model to “translate the Internet.” Founder Luis von Ahn strove to build a “fair business model” for language education– where users pay with time, not money, and create value along the way. Duolingo allows users to learn a language on the app, while simultaneously contributing to the translation of the internet.

Ahn introduced the project and the process of crowdsourcing these translations at a Ted Talk:

He claims that Duolingo “combines translations of multiple beginners to get the quality of professional translators” (from video above). In the video, Ahn demonstrates the quality of translations derived from the app. The image below contains translations from German to English by a professional translator, who was paid 20 cents a word (row 2), and by multiple beginners (row 3). Comparing Translations: Professionals versus Duolingo Beginners

As is evident, the two translations seen in the bottom rows are very similar to each other. Using the ‘power of the crowd,’ Ahn estimates that it would take 1 week for him to translate Wikipedia from English to Spanish, a project that is “$50 million worth of value” (from video). From this estimate alone, we can see that machine translation provides the possibility of saving a lot on the cost of translation– a prospect that, in itself, may allow for many more  translations to be produced with the same amount of financial capital.

Apart from Duolingo, one of the more common translation softwares is Google Translate. Unlike Duolingo, which relies on the input of many users translating the same sentence, Google translate works in an entirely computational manner. It performs a two-step translation, using English as an intermediary language, although it undertakes a longer process for certain other languages (Boitet et al.). As the video below shows us, Google translate relies on pre-existing patterns in a huge corpus of documents, and uses these patterns to determine appropriate translations.

While we grant professional translators the benefit of doubt, in that we do not expect their translations to be ‘perfect,’ it is important to note that we seem to have exalted expectations of work done by machines. Machine translations, with their statistically sound algorithmic models, are assumed to provide accurate and appropriate translations. As we go forward with this essay, especially as we discuss the limitations and possibilities of these approaches to translation, it is important to realize that while machine-based translations may indeed advance the pace and quality of translations, we still cannot always assume their translations to be perfect, or always reliable.

Translating: Problems and Possibilities

In terms of limitations, I have noticed that the primary issue with machine-based translation at present is that seem capable only of doing literal translations. In short, this method of translation is most suitable in translating individual words occurring in simple sequences, one after the other. Now, this limitation proves especially debilitating because many texts, particularly literary texts, do much more than simply convey literal meaning. As Philip Sidney explained in his Defence of Poesie, Literature with the capital L means to both “teach and delight.” Literature, in its attempt to delight and entertain, involves an infinitely complex interaction between words, their sound and cadence, their denotation and connotation. It is not simply an object of beauty, but ascends to the level of metaphor, symbolism, and leitmotif, and, n so doing, becomes an object of beauty. To put it simply, when we talk about Literature, it is not just what is said (what we can see in literal translation) that matters, but also how it is said (which is not easy to execute).

Given this supra-literal quality of literary fiction, we must question the applicability of machine translations to such literary forms. Indeed, because machine translations do not seem capable of accounting for this metaphoric dimension of literary language, they may be better suited to types of writing whose goal is the simple transferral of meaning, or communicative writing. Machine translations are thus more applicable to knowledge-orientated genres of writing such as encyclopaedic articles, newspapers, academic texts, whose main focus is to educate and whose core linguistic operations are literal and not metaphoric. However, though machines seem less apt for translating these more complex forms of writing, I maintain that there is the possibility of having machines perform translations of such texts with the aid of limited human intervention, and Artificial Intelligence.

According to a recent study of Google’s Neural Machine Translation system conducted at MIT, the quality of machine translations could possibly be made to be very similar to translations performed by a professional. Tom Simonite reveals that, “When people fluent in two languages were asked to compare the work of Google’s new system against that of human translators, they sometimes couldn’t see much difference between them.” The inherent challenges of translating literary works lie in that multiple connotations of the same word are often context dependent, and therefore, programming a system that can intelligently select one connotation over the other is no easy feat. Will Knight explains the advancement of artificial intelligence, “In the 1980s, researchers had come up with a clever idea about how to turn language into the type of problem a neural network can tackle. They showed that words can be represented as mathematical vectors, allowing similarities between related words to be calculated…By using two such networks, it is possible to translate between two languages with excellent accuracy.”

The official MIT report concludes: “Using human-rated side-by-side comparison as a metric, we show that our GNMT system approaches the accuracy achieved by average bilingual human translators on some of our test sets.” Now, there is definitely no indication that this model is perfect, as yet, but it is a fascinating possibility for the future of translation.

Similar to how we read and process language in texts, Google’s software “reads and creates text without bothering with the concept of words” (web). Simonite describes that the software, in a manner similar to humans’ processing of language, “works out its own way to break up text into smaller fragments that often look nonsensical and don’t generally correspond to the phonemes of speech.” Much like the professional translators approaching the text in chunks that they feel are appropriate, this software does the same. For publishing, the benefits of machines performing high-quality translations equivalent to that of professional translators are manifold.

Primarily, such form of translations would mean lesser production times per translation, and increased accessibility of the work. In the current system where translations are usually performed only when funding or grant money is available, or when there is an assured demand or number of sales in the target market, quality machine translations would ensure that lack of funds would not hinder the development of a translation project. When professional translators themselves may not be readily available for certain languages, machines could step in to do the work. Of course, the financial and physical accessibility of such software to publishers themselves is another matter of consideration. But these are dreams worth considering, and pursuing.

The question remains, however: how can this machine translation model be perfected? Without delving too much into the technicalities of the matter, one finds that it is evident that one of the best ways to fine-tune translation models such as these is to provide the system as much parallel data as possible. According to Franz Josef Och, the former head of Machine Translation at Google, Google Translate has relied on documentation from the Canadian government (in both English and French), and files from the United Nations database. In a similar manner, we can ask publishers to provide literary texts, either original works or translations, to which they currently hold the copyright. By providing copious amounts of data, and by using processes of machine learning, we may be able to teach computers to increasingly translate better. This, in turn, could lead to very advanced machine translations, capable of even translating highly metaphoric forms of literature. In so doing, we can possibly arrive at a stage where, as in the words of Jo-Anne Elder, the former president of the Literary Translators Association of Canada, “A translated book is not a lesser book.” In pursuit of this goal, our aim must be to not simply give up in recognition of the present hurdles confronting machine-based translations, but, like a literary Usain Bolt, we must strive to ascend above them, and succeed.


Works Cited

About Three Percent.” Three Percent. University of Rochester. Web. 7 Nov. 2016.

Boitet, Christian, et al. “MT on and for the Web.” (2010):10. Web. 24 Nov. 2016.

Carter, Rebecca. “New Ways of Publishing Translations – Publishing Perspectives.Publishing Perspectives. 05 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.

Duolingo – The Next Chapter in Human Computation. YouTube, 25 Apr. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. Vol. XXVII. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. Web. 24 Nov. 2016.

Flood, Alison. “Translated Fiction Sells Better in the UK than English Fiction, Research Finds.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 09 May 2016. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Google. Inside Google Translate. YouTube, 09 July 2010. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.

Knight, Will. “AI’s Language Problem.MIT Technology Review. MIT Technology Review, 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.

Literary Translators Association of Canada.Literary Translators Association of Canada. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

Medley, Mark. “Found in Translation.National Post. National Post, 15 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

McCrum, Robert. “The 100 Best Novels Written in English: The Full List.The 100 Best Novels. Guardian News and Media, 17 Aug. 2015. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.

Och, Franz Josef. “Statistical Machine Translation: Foundations and Recent Advances.” Google Inc. 12 Sept. 2009. Web. 25 Nov. 2016.

Simonite, Tom. “Google’s New Service Translates Languages Almost as Well as Humans Can.MIT Technology Review. MIT Technology Review, 27 Sept. 2016. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

The Butterfly Effect of Translation.Translation. The Canada Council for the Arts. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: J. Currey, 1986. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.

Wilson, Andrew. Translators on Translating: Inside the Invisible Art. Vancouver: CCSP, 2009. Print.

Wu, Yonghui, et al. “Google’s Neural Machine Translation System: Bridging the Gap between Human and Machine Translation.” (2016). Web. 25 Nov. 2016.

Objective Journalism in the Online Age: Paramount or Pipe Dream?

The traditional ideals of journalism are under siege, colourfully illustrated during John Oliver’s entertaining diatribe on modern journalism on Last Week Tonight. In particular, the idea of objectivity – one of the cornerstones of journalistic integrity – is in flux in the online age. This is especially relevant in regards to headlines, which media outlets are beginning to be laxer with allowing their bias to show in. In an ideal world, the public should be presented with the unbiased facts that they need to come to their own informed decision, but this type of coverage is becoming more and more rare.

There is a plethora of considerations in regards to online publishing that go beyond objectivity and good writing, but in turn influence those two concepts. Headlines in an online age must keep in mind Search Engine Optimization (SEO), click-through rates, and the fact that traditional journalism has to be competitive with think pieces written by citizen journalists – which can be more appealing to share online and therefore can go viral. If mainstream journalists include buzzwords in their headlines, which are more likely to be Googled or shared, they may be adding bias to the piece – whether that bias is intended or not.

More than occasionally, social media users share or retweet articles based solely on the headline, without ever having read the article itself. Caitlin Dewey, for the Washington Post, reported on a study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute which stated that “59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked: In other words, most people appear to retweet news without ever reading it.” Given that Facebook’s algorithm favours the posts that are most interacted with, these blind shares help determine what others read on their newsfeeds. Even for those who do click through to the article itself, studies show that they are unlikely to read it in full. In these cases, when consumers are forming opinions based solely on headlines and/or short summaries, any explicit bias in a headline becomes far more important than the editor or journalist who chose it may have originally intended.

When Oxford Dictionaries announced “post-truth” as its 2016 international word of the year, it was unsurprising in a time embroiled in emotions in regards to Brexit and the US federal election. Post-truth is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Living in a post-truth society, it is perhaps unsurprising that mainstream journalism is struggling against a tide of “fake news” that can be at best annoying and mischievous, and at worst, propagandistic. The Washington Post reported on Russia’s involvement with the fake news cycle during the US election, saying “[t]he Russian campaign during this election season … worked by harnessing the online world’s fascination with “buzzy” content that is surprising and emotionally potent, and tracks with popular conspiracy theories about how secret forces dictate world events.”

It must be noted however that the idea of “buzzy” content is not unique to fake news, with sites like Buzzfeed dominating the online world using clickbait-y headlines that promise “You Won’t Believe” what is contained in their articles (or listicles.) So, if these are the headlines that have the average web user clicking through to an article, how can the mainstream news media compete without abandoning the original ethical principles journalism? Further, should they even be “competing” at all? To take it a step further, when the news being covered hits passion points for the journalists reporting on it, should they be allowed to take a personal stance if they feel it is important? For example, criticisms of Donald Trump’s stances on immigration. Perhaps we need to look back to allow us to move forward.

The Idea of Objectivity and Bias in Mainstream Journalism

Objectivity and bias are oft debated topics in the world of journalism and ethics, going back much, much further than the 2016 election cycle. Some, like Walter Lippmann, argue that objectivity is paramount to an informed population, while others claim that it is impossible to truly avoid bias and that it is lazy for journalists to not use their investigative skills to present the public with fully formed opinions. In cases of social justice issues, the lines between what bias is acceptable becomes blurred.

So, can journalism ever achieve true objectivity? As Robert McChesney said in his essay “That was Now and This is Then: Walter Lippmann and the Crisis of Journalism” for Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights “institutional and human biases are unavoidable, and the starting point is to be honest about it” (159). In Liberty and the News Walter Lippmann said that “the really important thing is to try and make opinion increasingly responsible to the facts” (38).

In the essay “A Test of the News” that Lippmann co-authored, he also referred to the public’s perception of the news as “a widespread and a growing doubt whether there exists such an access to the news about contentious affairs. This doubt ranges from accusations of unconscious bias to downright charges of corruption” (Lippmann and Merz 1). However, the main omission to this rule is when the news that audiences are consuming aligns closely with their own pre-existing biases. In The News: A Users Manual Alain De Botton argues the dangers of personalizing the news. That is, audiences only paying attention to subjects that are already of interest and in line with their current beliefs. The tendency to seek out news that confirms standing notions and ideologies rather than challenges them is something that becomes a risk of a society that consumes media passively. Yet, when topics that are overwhelming seen as negative are covered, for example racism or homophobia, does it become okay to allow this bias to creep into the coverage of such events? Chris Hedges, in his essay “The Disease of Objectivity,” said that aiming for objectivity takes the journalist away from empathy and passion, and distracts them from one of the main abilities of reporting: a quest for justice. These are all things society should theoretically be striving towards.

What Would Walter Lippmann Say?

Robert McChesney, who I quoted in the previous section, is a scholar and professor, concentrating on the history and political economy of communication with a particular interest in journalism and self-governance. During his essay “That was Now and This is Then: Walter Lippmann and the Crisis of Journalism” he addresses many common criticisms of Walter Lippmann’s popular works, such as claims of him being elitist and “anti-democracy.” Most of the piece, however, focuses on Lippmann’s lesser known works that deal directly with journalism: “A Test of the News” an essay co-authored with Charles Merz, and Liberty and the News, a short book.

Lippmann was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, writer, and political commentator, who was outspoken in his views regarding journalism’s role in democracy. He is best known for his works Public Opinion and The Phantom Public. However, McChesney argues that the importance of “A Test of the News” and Liberty and the News is magnified by the fact that they were written at what he calls “the climax of the last truly great defining crisis for journalism” (McChesney 153). This lends to a feeling of them being intensely timely and “of the moment” for the 1920’s. And this is, of course, relevant to today because we are now in another defining crisis for journalism.

The main issue of the day was the emerging trend towards organized propaganda, or what we now consider public relations. Lippmann referred to the public’s perception of the news at the time as “a widespread and a growing doubt whether there exists such an access to the news about contentious affairs. This doubt ranges from accusations of unconscious bias to downright charges of corruption” (Lippmann and Merz 1). With the rise of fake news, and further the fact that media is relying on native advertising and content marketing to fund online publications, these same doubts are once again becoming realized.

In “A Test of the News” Lippmann focuses on the New York Times coverage of the Russian Revolution from 1917-1920. He was upset with how the news was colored by “the wishes, distortions and lies of [anti-revolutionary] forces as gospel truths” (McChesney 153). The New York Times was particularly guilty of being misled by its reliance on the government as an official source of information. The frightening implications of such a system led Lippmann to propose that journalism not be considered a private enterprise, but as a public institution, and therefore suggested that public money should be used to improve its quality.

Lippmann, somewhat surprisingly given his socialist background, had no class analysis when evaluating the state of the commercial news system. He did not “entertain the idea … that those with property and privilege greatly benefited by an ignorant and ill-informed populace.” (McChesney 155). To him, the power of the news was in the hands of the editors, not the publishers. On that particular note, McChesney commented that Lippmann did not take into account how the concerns of said publishers influenced who became the editors, which fairly clearly shortsighted.

Lippmann particularly respected C.P. Scott, publisher and editor of The Manchester Guardian. After his death, his family placed The Guardian in a nonprofit trust, to “preserve the financial and editorial independence of The Guardian in perpetuity while its subsidiary aims are to champion its principles and to promote freedom of the press in the UK and abroad” (McChesney 176). Today, The Guardian is still widely read and respected around the world.

Despite his support of The Guardian becoming a nonprofit newspaper, Lippmann was not actually calling for all news media to adopt the model. Instead, he was calling for them to change course from the current status quo, and to embrace professional training. He called for standards of “the highest quality of factually accurate and contextually honest information unpolluted by personal, commercial, or political bias” (Lippman and Merz 41).

In his work Lippmann wanted to stray away from society remaining “dependent upon untrained accidental witnesses” (Lippmann 46). However, it seems that we are currently moving closer towards that again, with the rise of citizen journalism, which quite often invites personal biases.

Despite common criticisms of being elitist, Lippmann was determined that for the news media to succeed in changing for the better, the public needed to become more loudly involved. “Change will come only by the drastic competition of those whose interest are not represented in the existing news-organization” (Lippmann 60).

He posed the following as “jobs” for the reporter:

  1. Ignore bias (personal or otherwise) to ensure an accurate understanding of events
  2. Operate under, and enforce, a professional code of honor.

Under these guidelines, schools of journalism boomed after World War I, and “the notion that the news should be unbiased and objective became commonplace” (McChesney 158).

However, McChesney pointed out that somehow the current standard of professional journalism in the United States has “veered dramatically from the core values [Lippman] prescribed” (McChesney 158). He cites the coverage of the lead up to the War on Terror as a large example of the presses tendency to take the claims of the government at face value.

Knowing the history and context of Lippmann’s works, we must acknowledge that his vision is not entirely feasible in a world ruled by the commercialism he disregarded. The resources that Lippmann’s theories relied on are no longer in place, and instead we are left with what McChesney calls the shambles of commercial journalism in a significantly monopolistic news media system.

What Should We Be Aiming For?

In the case of news stories related to social justice, where empathy and passions are more likely to be involved, it becomes a question of if the news has an obligation to report as objectively as possible, or if reporters can fulfill their personal, moral obligation to express distaste towards subjects such as homophobia and racism. When it’s a topic that is overwhelmingly seen as outdated or distasteful, should journalists be allowed to show their bias as long as it does not affect accurate and fair reporting? Potentially, emotional decisions could be made, leading to inaccurate reporting being posted online. In the days of the Internet, tides of public opinion can change quickly. With the rise of citizen journalism and the blogosphere, opinion being touted as fact is becoming increasingly common, and the mainstream media (especially in regards to news reporting) should be held to a higher standard of objectivity.

This is not to say that journalists cannot follow their passions and take up the mantle for a cause like Chris Hedges recommended. Rather, they just must keep journalistic integrity in mind while doing so. Perhaps rather than trying to remain wholly objective, they should be trying to examine more angles than just the standard two disparate ones that journalists look for to prove they are unbiased. While standard news writing does not allow for in depth analysis due to both word counts and time constraints, reporters such as the late David Carr of the New York Times are champions of well-researched, dogged investigative reporting. Acknowledging that a certain amount of bias is unavoidable, and doing their best to align opinion with fact is integral to journalists keeping the public informed on world issues while staunching the flow of rampant misinformation. For society to progress beyond issues of sexuality and race, which should be outdated and obsolete, it is important to have passionate whistleblowers who have the skills and training necessary to get to the heart of the story.

The crucial lessons in Lippmann’s works remain relevant today, no matter the format journalists are publishing in ­– online or in print. The relationship between journalism and democracy, and the importance of the public’s role in holding them accountable, remain. Therefore the difficult, but not impossible, mission of creating an independent fourth estate is central to ideas of self-government and freedom. Despite journalists’ bias and feelings of moral obligation, the mainstream news media must do their best to maintain unbiased coverage. Presenting the facts of a news event without using language that leads their reader to a conclusion, but rather allows the reader to come to their own, is one of the main purposes of media coverage. Citizen journalism can be extremely biased and one-dimensional, and as such, it is increasingly important for the mainstream news media to remain unbiased in their reporting. If the tendency towards bias can be ignored by professional journalists, mainstream media has the potential to infiltrate the Internet with better researched pieces.


Works Cited

Botton, Alain De. The News: A User’s Manual. New York: Pantheon Books, 2014. Print.

Dewey, Caitlin. “6 in 10 of you will share this link without reading it, a new, depressing study says.” The Washington Post 16 Jun 2016. Web. 25 Nov 2016.

Hedges, Chris. “The Disease of Objectivity.” Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights. New York: New Press, 2011. Print.

Journalism: Last Week Tonight with John OliverLast Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO, 7 Aug 2016.

Lippmann, Walter and Charles Merz. A Test of the News: An Examination of the News Reports in the New York times on Aspects of the Russian Revolution of Special Importance to Americans, March 1917 — March 1920. New York: New Republic, 1920. Print.

Lippmann, Walter. Liberty and the News. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920. Print.

Maksym Gabielkov, Arthi Ramachandran, Augustin Chaintreau, Arnaud Legout. “Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Read on Twitter?.” ACM SIGMETRICS / IFIP Performance 2016, Jun 2016, Antibes Juan-les-Pins, France. 25 November 2016.

Manjoo, Farhad. “You Won’t Finish This Article.” Slate 6 Jun 2013. Web. 18 Nov 2016.

McChesney, Robert. “That Was Now and This Is Then: Walter Lippmann and the Crisis of Journalism.” Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights. New York: New Press, 2011. Print.

Timberg, Craig. “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” The Washington Post 24 Nov 2016. Web. 26 Nov 2016.

Looking at Accessibility and Inclusivity Online

Through the following observations on the current state of accessibility of digital content, I hope to inspire discourse toward making the internet more inclusive for users, with a focus on members of the blind and deaf communities.

To preface the conversation:

Data from 2015 shows that 11.5% of Canadians still do not have in-home access to the internet, as reported by the World Bank. Given the national population from a year ago, this leaves 4.1 million Canadians deprived of the ability to access, participate in, and create content in the digital sphere from their homes. This data represents access based on available infrastructure, and doesn’t take into account those with local infrastructure whose lack of access stems from financial barriers. A Vancouver Metro news article from February this year cites CRTC data from 2015 indicating that 41% of low-income Canadian households do not have internet access.

The Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) states that half a million Canadians are living with significant vision loss, with 50,000 individuals losing their sight completely each year. The Canadian Hearing Society states that one in four Canadian adults reports some degree of hearing loss, and cites StatsCan data reporting that over a million Canadian adults live with hearing-related disabilities.

For those living without access to the internet at home, local libraries provide users with the ability to access scholarly resources, read online articles, watch videos, listen to podcasts, and participate in conversation on social media platforms and forums.  In 2013, the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) saw 6.9 million visits by users, which included 1.3 million internet sessions and 572,554 searches on databases available through VPL.

However, not everyone is able to visit their local library and access the full spectrum of its offerings. For some, the cost of bus fare to and from the library on a consistent basis proves too expensive, or the library does not have the technology necessary to provide visually impaired and hearing impaired individuals with the same range of access other patrons are able to enjoy.

Individuals without in-home access to the internet are also excluded from submitting their work to many literary magazines and creative writing contests because of the popularity of Submittable, a cloud-based submissions manager used by many publications and organizations. If a publisher or organization only accepts submissions through Submittable, individuals without internet at home are not granted the opportunity to have their opinions and voices heard, resulting in said publications being inclusive only to those with access to Submittable.

 Internet Access for the Blind: Available Technologies and Trends

At present, there are multiple devices on the market for blind and visually impaired users: Traditionally speaking, devices like the Pacmate QX 420, HumanWare Apex, and Pacmate BT 400, and more recently, voice-over software for electronic products.

Pacmate QX 420, HumanWare Apex, and Pacmate BT 400

These are Braille note-taking devices drawing on voice recognition as a first point of access, meaning that the user speaks into the device, which then outputs a single line of Braille text on-screen one at a time. But humans do not think in lines of text – they think in strings of phrases and entire paragraphs of joint ideas and images. Bold, italics, bulleted lists, and more advanced formatting options are also not possible, further restricting a user’s creativity and ability to organize content.

Other immense shortfalls of these devices are their mechanical, closed-system platforms that do not allow users to easily edit content or award them with privacy (imagine reading your diary out loud with your family in the room). Moreover, they cannot display full web pages in Braille (display is restricted to what one sees when browsing on a mobile device), or permit the user to read e-books or .pdf uploads. They’re also very expensive – ranging between $6,600 and $9,500.

Seeing Through Sound

More recently, electronic devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones have powerfully integrated voice-over software (Voice Over for Apple products and JAWS for Microsoft products) to enable blind and visually impaired users to access digital content in a way much closer to how others do. Users run their finger across the screen, and the software reads the corresponding names of apps, textual contents of web pages, emails, menu list options, etc. out loud. Navigation on a laptop varies, in that users generally do not rely on the tracker pad and instead employ keyboard commands because of the size and display difference of the screen; full web pages showcase much more information, and these keyboard commands enhance navigability.

Molly Burke, a blind vlogger on YouTube, posted a video to her channel demonstrating how she engages with digital content on each of her electronic devices. When using social media sites or posting to YouTube, she explains that she prefers using her iPhone or iPad because sites like these are much more difficult to navigate on a laptop, and because she has more control with her finger being directly on the screen. For typing longer documents and emailing, laptops are more useful because of the full keyboard.

Because there is a discrepancy in how easy it is for blind users to navigate on different electronic devices, there is still work needed to ensure that these individuals are not excluded from content published online and in apps. For example, browser extensions and ads that cover up portions of a screen create accessibility issues for users, because the voice-over software is no longer able to read all of the content being displayed. Further, web developers need to consider the accessibility needs of blind and visually impaired users, ensuring that easy navigation via current voice-over software is considered at all times throughout the development process.

An example of fundamental accessibility considerations may be found in the checklist on Web Accessibility in Mind’s (WebAIM) website. This checklist comprises four key components of web accessibility for both blind and deaf users, stating that all elements of a web page should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Because many blind and visually impaired individuals rely on voice-over software, it’s imperative that online publishers and app and extension developers are trained in these aspects of web accessibility to ensure that users are not excluded due to poor navigability and operability.

Some examples of fundamental accessibility considerations for blind and visually impaired users include:

  • Contrast levels
  • Instructions existing independently from sounds and visuals
  • Colour not existing as the sole means through which meaning is conveyed
  • Page functionality is available via keyboard
  • Navigational order of links is logical
  • Each page contains a descriptive, relevant, and accurate title
  • Semantic mark-ups (<strong>, <ul>, <ol>, <h1>, etc.) are used appropriately

poor-accessibility

Taken from Google’s “Web Fundamentals in Accessibility”

                                                                                            Google’s “Web Fundamentals in Accessibility”  

The upper version is less accessible for blind and visually impaired users for the following reasons:

  1. The text is lower contrast, making it harder to read for individuals with vision impairment.
  2. The labels on the left are a great distance from their corresponding fields, making it challenging for individuals to associate them, especially if the user is needing to zoom in a lot to read the page.
  3. The “Remember details?” checkbox isn’t associated with the label itself, so it wouldn’t be easy for users to know if they had checked off the box.

A recent article published by the CBC discusses current typographical trends that are making websites less readable. As developer and technology writer Kevin Marks explains, the value of fashionable aesthetics is detracting from practical, accessible choices, with greyer, skinnier sans-serif typefaces being a popular choice among designers. Higher resolution screens on tablets and smartphones drive designers to select these lighter typefaces, but they worsen contrast levels between background and text, ultimately making reading more challenging for visually impaired users. Designers, therefore, should be mindful of choices concerning typefaces and contrast levels when laying out content published online.

Returning to Touch­­

In recent years, there has been substantial efforts toward re-visiting Braille devices as a way to enable full-page digital display at a user’s fingertips, moving away from voice-over software.

A powerful example of these efforts is the Blitab – a tablet being touted as “the iPad for the blind.” With a combined 285,000,000 blind and visually impaired people worldwide, co-founders Kristina Tsvetanova, Slavi Slavev, and Stanislav Slavev are driven by their motivation to provide members of the blind and visually impaired community with the opportunity “to grow and prosper, where education, technology, and knowledge are open to them.”

Smart liquid technology is the Blitab’s distinguishing feature, creating instant tactile relief via small liquid bubbles that transmit the Braille text that users pass their fingers along. The bottom of the Blitab possesses a small screen which shows the contents of a web page, and the larger upper portion is the area comprising the tactile relief. Because the Blitab is fully electronic rather than mechanical, entire web pages are able to be viewed by the user rather than single lines or isolated portions. Moreover, the Blitab is capable of converting Word documents and PDF files directly from USB sticks and memory cards, enabling users to read e-book files. Tactile relief also permits visual objects such as maps and geometric shapes to be created, improving accessibility to navigation tools, textbooks, works of non-fiction, and diagrams.

O Captions, Where Art Thou?

Information from Social Media Today’s “Top 5 Facebook Video Statistics for 2016” reveals that 8 billion video views are generated each day on Facebook, with videos earning 135% greater organic reach than photos. 85% of these views occur without sound (largely due to the popularity of food gif recipes and branded videos), which greatly opens up accessibility to deaf users and those with other hearing-related disorders; not only does it enable these individuals to watch and share content that otherwise would not be open to them, it also encourages publishers to create captions to accompany their uploads in their quest to attract greater audiences and reach on Facebook through shares. Videos uploaded to YouTube, on the other hand, fail on the caption front.

Offering a multitude of ways to help uploaders with the captioning process, one would think this would not be the case, especially considering companies such as Rev provide creators with closed captions for their videos for $1 per minute of audio, which is quite cheap considering the length of most videos online (3-7 minutes). Rikki Poynter, a deaf vlogger on YouTube, has created a series of videos on the subject, educating other YouTubers and viewers how to caption videos in the most accurate, accessible fashion. She explains the options offered, which include YouTubers uploading a text file containing a transcription of their video (either created by the user or by companies like Rev), manually entering captions into YouTube’s subtitles box, or crowdsourcing captions from viewers.

As she explains in another video, however, crowd sourced captions do not always result in a desired outcome. Often times, these captions include spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors that prove challenging to follow, are not properly synced with what is happening in the video, and can even contain extraneous content such as jokes or commentary added by the person doing the captioning.

cbc-marketplace

The above are two examples of poor captioning in the YouTube upload of the CBC’s Marketplace episode from October 28, 2016 (and yes, that is CBC - not the Centers for Disease Control).

The above are two examples of poor captioning in the YouTube upload of the CBC’s Marketplace episode from October 28, 2016 (and yes, that is CBC – not the Centers for Disease Control).

In response to the abundance of inadequate captioning, the movement #NoMoreCraptions has gained momentum with the mission of educating content creators about the problems deaf users experience when captioning fails to be mindfully executed. #NoMoreCraptions draws on the regulations for captioning enforced by the Federal Communications Corporation (FCC) in the USA (and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Corporation (CRTC) in Canada). These regulations do not extend to video uploaded to websites, so advocacy efforts are aimed at educating YouTubers and others who caption videos about these best practices with the hope of improving the quality (and resulting accessibility) of captions in online videos.

One important component of the CRTC’s regulations centres on the delivery and speed of captions:

“Captions must be verbatim representations of the audio, regardless of the age of the target audience. Speech must only be edited as a last resort, when technical limitations or time and space restrictions will not accommodate all of the spoken words at an appropriate presentation rate.”

Because captions are the only means through which deaf viewers are able to know what is being spoken, it’s important to consider the effect when spoken words are edited. People naturally use filler words, start sentences that they don’t finish, and utter swear words and slang when talking. If a person captioning selectively removes these filler words and unfinished sentences, and replaces swear words and slang with other words, the resulting captions will vary immensely from the true contents of the video, providing a false impression of the people in the video to the viewer; in many cases, an individual’s tone, speaking style, and level of articulation will change drastically when captions are not verbatim representations.

A free, open-sourced project boasting the same name has also been initiated by Michael Lockrey, which can be found here. Deaf himself, he created the site to combat YouTube’s automatic captions (craptions) by providing a fast and easy-to-use way for individuals to fix the captioning errors found in videos. Users begin by pasting a video’s URL and proceeding through four steps to amend all the errors they wish to fix. Users can then download their captions.

In an interview with Amara, a non-profit dedicated to reducing barriers to accessibility and fostering a more democratic media ecosystem, Lockrey describes his discontent with the present state of captioning on YouTube:

“YouTube has admitted recently that only 25% of YouTube videos have captioning and most of these only have automatic craptioning, which doesn’t provide me with any accessibility outcomes, and I wrote a blog post recently that suggests that this means that only 5% of YouTube videos are likely to have good quality captioning and this simply isn’t good enough.”

This is extremely problematic for multiple reasons. For one, upwards of 95% of all videos uploaded to YouTube are either not accessible at all or are not adequately accessible for members of the deaf community. Second, automatic captions serve as a cop-out for content creators by allowing them to claim they’ve captioned their videos when really they have not. Finally, it means that even some of the largest online publishers such as The New York Times have not been, or have only very recently begun, captioning their videos.

With this survey of the current accessibility challenges facing blind and deaf users, it’s clear that the emphasis on accessibility standards needs to not only be communicated in the media, but actively encouraged among designers, developers, and creators to ensure all users of digitally published content are granted inclusion.

– References –

The World Bank, “Internet users (per 100 people)”, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/IT.NET.USER.P2

Statistics Canada, Population by year, by province and territory (Number), http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/demo02a-eng.htm

Matt Kieltyka, “Low-income Canadians struggle to afford Internet, bridge digital divide”, http://www.metronews.ca/news/vancouver/2016/02/02/low-income-canadians-struggle-to-afford-internet.html

CNIB, “Fast Facts about Vision Loss”, http://www.cnib.ca/en/about/media/visionloss/pages/default.aspx#canadians

CHS, “Facts and figures”, http://www.chs.ca/facts-and-figures

Vancouver Public Library, “Annual Report 2013”, http://www.vpl.ca/about/details/AR2013_text

Submittable, https://www.submittable.com/

Molly Burke, “How I use technology as a blind person! – Molly Burke (CC)”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiP7aantnvE

WebAIM, “WebAIM’s WCAG 2.0 Checklist for HTML documents”, http://webaim.org/standards/wcag/checklist

Google, “Web Fundamentals: Accessibility”, https://developers.google.com/web/fundamentals/accessibility/

Dan Misener, “Having more trouble reading websites? You’re not alone”, http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/misener-web-readability-1.3831009

Blitab, http://blitab.com/

Social Media Today, “Top 5 Facebook Video Statistics for 2016 [Infographic]”, http://www.socialmediatoday.com/marketing/top-5-facebook-video-statistics-2016-infographic

Digiday, “85 percent of Facebook video is watched without sound”, http://digiday.com/platforms/silent-world-facebook-video/

Rev, https://www.rev.com/

Rikki Poynter, “3 Ways to Caption Your Videos!”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7t-1kFDPceo

Rikki Poynter, “#NoMoreCraptions: How To Properly Caption Your Videos”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O4YcVQt5NM

CTRC, “Quality standards for English-language closed captioning”, http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/archive/2012/2012-362.htm

No More Craptions, http://nomorecraptions.com/

Amara, “YouTube Automatic Captions Need Work: A Chat with Michael Lockrey”, https://about.amara.org/2015/05/01/youtube-automatic-captions-need-work-a-chat-with-michael-lockrey/

Amara, https://pro.amara.org/ondemand

Michael Lockrey (TheDeafGuy), “OMG! I just found out there’s only 5% captioning* on YouTube”, https://medium.com/@mlockrey/omg-i-just-found-out-theres-only-5-captioning-on-youtube-9bbb8bc604f6#.dtm620kyj

Margaret Sullivan, “Perfectly Reasonable Question: Closed Captions on Times Videos”, http://publiceditor.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/24/perfectly-reasonable-questions-closed-captions-on-times-videos/?_r=2

 

See Spot Digitize: What the internet can do with children’s literature

When I was a little kid learning to read, every book I encountered was in print. I was in high school before I read an e-book and the iPad didn’t come into play until I was in university. It is difficult for me to picture my favorite childhood stories splayed over a screen instead of a printed page. I think back to my mom reading to me when I was young and cannot picture her holding an e-reader instead of a physical book. There is a nostalgia that encompasses these memories and makes it difficult to accept the very real change that has happened to childhood today: the screen.

Working as a server, I see it constantly; a family squishes into a booth and one child holds his hands out for the tablet. Children are learning to use technology before many other childhood milestones. A 2010 study by AVG claims that “more small children can play a computer game than ride a bike” (AVG Now). Yet, out of all categories of books, children’s literature has remained largely untouched by the e-book trend, with print sales actually growing (Nowell).

A 2016 article by Alison Flood discusses how many parents (the actual customers for children’s books) are concerned about the amount of time children spend reading on digital devices. Of the 1500 UK parents surveyed, 92% acknowledged some apprehension around their child’s use of digital media and e-books. Flood explains how “some parents think digital reading has no place in shared family life. They think they might contaminate [children’s] reading experiences if they endorse digital books.” While I have every sympathy for the sense of loss parents feel when their children prefer a screen over a page, I do believe that the digitization of children’s literature has a very important role to play.

Though I am not convinced that traditional children’s books should be abandoned, I do believe that the digitization of children’s literature can have benefits both for children and for the book industry. Making children’s stories available digitally can open up access and even shape what kind of children’s literature is being created.

 

Opening Access to Children’s Literature

During September of 2015, world leaders met in New York and set seventeen Global Goals to be met by 2030. Among other ambitious goals, such as putting an end to world poverty and hunger, was global internet connectivity. The major push for connectivity stems from the argument that the internet brings an indiscriminate access to knowledge. On the action plan’s website, Eloise Todd argues, “Connectivity can mean that people living in poverty are empowered to make their own decisions, to have access to nutritious food, a home, and to be free to express their opinions.”

Not mentioned in this argument is the potential for global internet access to increase world literacy rates by providing unprecedented access to children’s literature. According to the UN 17% of the world’s adult population and 122 million youth around the world are not literate.  Even in North America, literacy rates have remained stagnant. A 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Education and National Institute of Literacy found 14% of US adults were below a basic reading level, and only 13% were considered “proficient” readers. One cause of the low literacy rates may be a lack of access to literature. A 2001 study found that even when people living in low-income communities can afford to purchase children’s books, they may have trouble even finding them in stores. One Philadelphia community had a ratio of one children’s book for sale to every 300 children (Neuman, 17).

In 1999, another study looked at the relationship between literacy and access to children’s literature. Researchers provided high-quality children’s books to impoverished child-care programs in Pennsylvania and found that the close proximity of books to children learning to read can support early literacy development (Neuman, 288), begging the question “How can we expose children to greater quantities of print and meaningful language opportunities at a very early age…?” (Neuman, 289).

Despite being called the World Wide Web, in 1999 the internet reached only 4.1% of the world population, compared to approximately 49.2% today (Internet World Stats). It is unlikely that the internet would have appeared to Neuman at that time as a realistic solution to her question. Yet, by 2007, Google had partnered with libraries to digitize a million titles (Mass Digitization). Today, most books are made available immediately in both digital and print formats.

 

Today’s Digital Collections of Children’s Literature

At the moment, only a few digital libraries stand out for their commitment to providing access to children’s literature, specifically.

Children’s Books Online: The Rosetta Project began as early as 1996 and is a website run by volunteers with the goal of supporting access to antique illustrated children’s literature from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The website is still operating today, but it is difficult to navigate and needlessly chaotic with clip-art style pictures and animations. Despite these downfalls, in 2001 Children’s Books Online was the largest collection of digital children’s books, providing access to 83 titles (Druin, 2).

In 2002, a research team from the University of Maryland partnered with the Internet Archive to create The International Children’s Digital Library (ICDL), as a response to a perceived lack of online access to children’s literature, and viewing Children’s Books Online as the best available option at that time. The ICDL began with 183 books from 14 countries, and today provides free access to over 4000 fully digitized books in 59 languages, with the goal of promoting compassion and encouraging children to explore cultures different from their own. The website for the ICDL is far more user friendly than Children’s Books Online, with easy navigation for young users and the ability for both parents and children to register accounts so they can track their reading and select a preferred language.  The ICDL has been a major movement towards opening access to children’s literature around the globe.

While I have so far only discussed free digital collections of children’s books, there are also some subscription-based services that fill a similar void. One example of this type of digital library is the website Epic!,which offers unlimited reading for $4.99/month. While not free, Epic! contains over 15000 titles, making it over three times the size of the ICDL. The reason subscription-services can offer so many more titles is because they are able to pay for titles not in the public domain. While I will not further discuss the ongoing war between copyright law and open access efforts, it is important to note that copyright is perhaps the largest obstacle to the ultimate goal of so many of the projects I’ve discussed thus far: to provide global access to knowledge and literature.

 

The Potential of Digital Children’s Libraries to Alter What is Being Produced

Online digital libraries are not only important for the access they provide. They are also responsible for changing the type of literature being produced, including children’s literature. This is happening in a variety of ways.

Some of these projects provide financial incentives for creators and the model for these incentives can shape the content being produced for children.

Magic Blox, for example, came into existence in 2009, and like that of the ICDL, its mission statement involves allowing children to find books from other countries, and thereby learn about foreign cultures and languages. Magic Blox forms a sort of bridge between open-access and subscription-based models by allowing anyone one free read per month, but offering unlimited access on a pay-per-month basis. Rather than providing access to currently published titles, the way Epic! does, Magic Blox uniquely works with a “global Creator Community of authors and publishers” to provide new titles daily. This means that authors and illustrators are creating works specifically for the Magic Blox website, which in turn shares profits with the creators based on the “monthly reading performance” of each book.

So, how does this effect what kind of content is being written? It has to do with how the reading performance is measured. Each month, Magic Blox pools 50% of its revenues and distributes these to the creators based on the percentage of unique reads each book has. So, a creator will need to get her work read by as many different accounts as possible, and this is where the model of the digital library may begin to shape the work that is being produced. Magic Blox features a “Trending Now” list that would be a popular feed through which young readers and parents discover new books. If getting on the “Trending Now” list is the best means for creators to profit from their work, this could significantly alter the work being created for Magic Blox, leading to a lot of like-minded English stories about animals and Caucasian children (judging by the current list). Ironically, this result works directly against Magic Blox’s mission of exposing young readers to different cultures and perspectives.

Other projects can alter the themes of emerging children’s literature by raising awareness about niche audiences in the market and previously unexplored content demands. These digital resources have the opposite effect of Magic Blox. Instead of encouraging homogeneous content, they point out areas where there is not currently enough content to meet the demand, or where the content that does exist is not easily discoverable.

One strong example of this is the app We Read Too, created by computer science student Kaya Thomas in 2014. While We Read Too does not contain digital copies of books, it is a directory that contains information on over 600 titles. In a recorded presentation on We Read Too at the 2016 BookNet Tech Forum, Thomas describes her childhood struggle to find children’s books by and about people of colour.

“Millions of children and teens of colour have few options when it comes to finding books that are written by someone of their same background or a book that features characters that look like them,” she explained.

Thomas began working on We Read Too in an effort to help today’s young readers find and read books written by people of colour, or featuring characters of colour. She manually found and entered information on each of the first 300 books in the app, due to the fact that there is no metadata about author ethnicity. Users are now able to suggest books to add to the directory.

We Read Too has the power to change what kinds of books are being produced for children by indicating to publishers and creators a niche segment in this market that is currently undersupplied and in demand. The We Read Too directory helps readers locate, and thus purchase, books about and by a minority group, and in doing so, creates more demand for those titles. By shining a spotlight on this void in the market, We Read Too can impact how much children’s literature by people of colour is being produced and consumed. We Read Too may not offer children’s titles digitally, but it does show an online need for digital access to books about minorities or targeted to minority audiences.

 

In Conclusion

I would like to finish by restating that I am not recommending that everyone should go digital and abandon the physical children’s book. Rather, like most decisions involving the internet, it is a case of moderation. I believe consumers need to respect what both mediums have to offer. Digital libraries can be an excellent way to discover new works and to expose children to types of stories that are not readily available in their school libraries, such as stories in different languages or about different cultures. I believe digital libraries need (and in many ways, already have) to recognize that parents are not going to give up their nostalgia for children’s books any time soon, and that the goal cannot be to replace physical libraries entirely. Instead, digital libraries should continue doing what they do best, providing solutions to the very real problems of access and discovery in niche markets.

 


Works Cited

AVG. “Forget Swimming and Riding a Bike.” AVG Now. 19 Jan. 2010, http://now.avg.com/forget-swimming-and-riding-a-bike/

Bookshare. https://www.bookshare.org/cms

British History Online. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/

Children’s Books Online. “About_Rosetta.” http://www.childrensbooksonline.org/About_Rosetta.htm

The Digital Comic Museum. http://digitalcomicmuseum.com/index.php?dlid=18254

Druin, Allison, et al. “The International Children’s Digital Library: Description and Analysis of First Use.” University of Maryland. Jan. 2003, http://hcil2.cs.umd.edu/trs/2003-02/2003-02.pdf.

Epic! “About Us.” https://www.getepic.com/

Flood, Alison. “Majority of parents worried about children’s digital reading, survey finds.” The Guardian. 11 Feb. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/11/most-parents-worried-about-childrens-digital-reading-survey-booktrust

International Digital Children’s Library. “Background.” http://en.childrenslibrary.org/about/background.shtml

Magic Blox. “How It Works.” http://magicblox.com/how-it-works

Neuman, Susan B. “Access to Print in Low-Income and Middle-Income Communities: An Ecological Study of Four Neighborhoods.” Reading Research Quarterly 36.1 (2001): 8-26. http://www-personal.umich.edu/~sbneuman/pdf/AccessToPrint.pdf

Neuman, Susan B. “Books Make a Difference: A Study of Access to Literature.” Reading Research Quarterly 34.3 (1999): 286-311, https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/scmsAdmin/media/users/sn1150/BooksMakeADifference.pdf

Nowell, Jonathan. “Children’s Print Book Sales Buck the Trend.” Publishers Weekly. 16 Apr. 2015, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/66291-children-s-print-book-sales-buck-the-trend.html

Mass Digitization. http://massdigitization.com/

Project Gutenberg. https://archive.org/details/gutenberg

Statistic Brain. “Illiteracy Statistics.” Statistic Brain. 22 Aug. 2016, http://www.statisticbrain.com/number-of-american-adults-who-cant-read/

Thomas, Kaya. “Tech as Equalizer: We Read Too.” BookNet Tech Forum 2016, April 1 2016, https://booknetcanada.wistia.com/medias/xy1tqjtruv

Todd, Eloise. “Connecting everyone: Internet access for all by 2030.” One. 27 Sept. 2015, https://www.one.org/us/2015/09/27/connecting-everyone-internet-access-for-all-by-2030/

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “Statistics on Literacy,” UNESCO, 2016, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/education-building-blocks/literacy/resources/statistics

The Universal Digital Library. http://www.ulib.org/

Inclusivity in the Online Age: Maybe We’re Not Doing as Well as We Think We Are

2668834386_ef9cfbd4e0_z

During the twenty-first century, there has been a massive societal shift towards inclusivity. That is, the act of including those who may otherwise be excluded or marginalized. This shift is not new in publishing, particularly here in Vancouver, with magazines that aim to publish a diverse array of voices and stories such as Room operating locally. However, what is relatively new is our commitment to speaking out about it more publicly.

The Magazines West Conference, commonly referred to as MagsWest, is put on by the Magazine Association of British Columbia and takes place every November. This year’s conference boasts two events focused on inclusivity: the keynote speech by Léonicka Valcius which is titled “On Equity and Inclusion” and a session by Jónína Kirton, with Chelene Knight, called “Encouraging Inclusiveness in Magazines.” Kirton and Knight, both editors at Room, also took part in a panel called “Inclusive Magazine Publishing: Barriers and Strategies for Writers and Publishers” at this year’s WORD Vancouver festival, also sponsored by MagsBC. They were joined by Elee Kraljii Gardiner, the founder of Thursdays Writing Collective, and the panel’s moderator, broadcaster and novelist Jen Sookfong Lee. Throughout the discussion, panelists addressed the barriers that marginalized writers regularly encounter in their quest to get published, and tried to put forward solutions that magazines could implement in an effort to become more inclusive. One of the points that Kraljii Gardiner, who works closely with residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, put forward is that publisher’s reliance on the web is problematic for swaths of potential writers. As a person who comes from a place of “e-privilege” (a term that Kraljii Gardiner used) I had only ever experienced the ways that the web has made publishing more inclusive, and throughout this essay I want to explore the ways in which publishers have become reliant on the web to the point of exclusivity.

I do not believe I had been alone in my perception that the internet has made publishing more inclusive, largely because in some ways it is true that is has. It becomes an interesting dichotomy because in many ways the internet has allowed for easier, less expensive access. Students like myself, who tend to be lower-income but have easy access to the internet at school, tend to rely on web access a lot. In general, eBooks are less expensive, and less intrusive in limited space, than print books.

In his TED talk “Laws that choke creativity” Lawrence Lessig spoke to how the internet allows for user-generated content, and the celebration amateur culture. In this case he was speaking about non-commercial use, but this has become true for many aspects of publishing. Online publications do not have to worry about page counts the same way print publications do, and therefore have the ability to publish more content by a more diverse array of voices. In fact, due to this many online versions of print magazines actually offer additional content compared to their print counterparts.

Self-publishing, both articles and eBooks, gives the author more control over their work. Further, the web, and particularly social media, gives them the opportunity to both self-promote and to find or establish the niche communities that make up their intended audience. Websites like Medium have been developed to give an established platform to those who wish to publish articles online. Online editorial collectives help those who cannot afford to hire a freelance editor to prepare their manuscript prior to self-publishing or submitting to traditional publishing entities.

Inclusivepublishing.org was created to help publishers learn how to create digital content “in formats accessible to people with print disabilities.” As such, the web has allowed those who were previously unable to partake in much of today’s traditionally published content to now access it.

However, all of these aforementioned benefits are only available for those who have easy and regular access to technology. So in what way is the publishing world excluding those who do not?

Marketing and Advertising

As I was walking along West Hastings Street on my way to school early this September, I was surprised to see an entire wall plastered with posters for the Vancouver Writer’s Fest. As a person who has a Twitter account primarily to keep track of submissions deadlines and literary events in the city (another example of my e-privilege), it struck me how rare it was to see printed marketing materials around the city.

Social media has begun to be perceived as a “silver bullet” — though marketing professional Zoe Grams of ZG Communications cautioned our Masters of Publishing class against viewing it that way when she spoke to us this fall. This is due to the fact that it is relatively low-cost, as the largest budgeting consideration for social media is simply time, as opposed to the printing costs associated with posters, bookmarks, and the like. The Key Performance Indicators are easy to track, as likes, shares, and posts using dedicated hashtags provide notifications to whomever posts the content. Further, the broad audience reach of social media makes it easier to disseminate ideas and content. If a company does content marketing well, their customers become brand ambassadors. Thus, publishers have begun advertising their contests and deadlines primarily online, and particularly through social media.

Submissions

If you have considered submitting your work to a local literary or arts journal lately, you have probably encountered something called Submittable, which is an online platform that publishing houses and magazines use in acquisitions.

Per the Submittable website:

“Accepting and curating content submissions for publication is the most common use of Submittable and is what the classic Submittable client uses our software to do. Without the right software, managing submissions can be a time and labor-intensive process for magazines, newspapers, and film and audio organizations. Submittable has centralized the submission, payment, and management platforms into a single online location. Allow your submitters to easily submit in any medium, including documents, images, sound, video, and more; establish your team member accounts; and vote on and accept entries in one efficient and user-friendly place. All you need is a browser.”

With such features, it becomes apparent why publishers have begun utilizing it as a tool. Some publishers have begun to accept only online submissions, whether that be via email or Submittable, due to a myriad of reasons. These include the streamlined process Submittable promises, environmental concerns (less paper is used when submitting online), and lack of space to store manuscripts (a place I interned had manuscripts piled waist high and four stacks deep.)

Conversely, other publishers have refused to allow online submissions at all. Geist, a literary magazine, used to allow for online submissions but per the submissions page on their website they no longer do. I can only assume that the relative ease of email meant that they received an onslaught of submissions. The publishing house I interned for described themselves as “a little old school” and liked to read and mark up manuscripts on paper, and did not want to take on the cost of printing their many submissions themselves.

All of the above reasons are valid in my mind, and I can understand how publishers would want to make their acquisitions as simple as possible. Juggling multiple submissions platforms can be time consuming, and logging manuscripts is generally a task delegated to an intern in a time when most publishers are trying to do more on a skeleton budget. However, the heart of any publishing program is the work they are publishing, so when it comes to submitting, shouldn’t the ease for the writers be at least tantamount in importance to making it easy for the magazine or press? Refusing to accept both hard copy and online submissions is again detrimental to making the acquisitions process truly inclusive.

Table: How 20 BC Book Publishers and Literary and Arts Magazines Accept Submissions:

Online only
(Submittable or email)
Hard copy only Both hard copy and online (Submittable or email)
The Capilano Review
Poetry is Dead
Room Magazine
SAD Mag
The Malahat Review
Anvil Press
Arsenal Pulp Press
Geist Magazine
Ronsdale Press
Heritage House Publishing Co.
Talonbooks
Adbusters
Brindle & Glass
EVENT
Greystone Books
Harbour Publishing
NEO-OPSIS Science Fiction Magazine
New Star Books
Prism International
subTerrain
5/20 6/20 9/20

As this chart shows, only 45% of the local publishers whose submissions pages I looked at accepted both hard copy and digital submissions, with 55% accepting only one or the other.

Author Platforms

When speaking of skeleton budgets, and the concept of publishers doing more with less, there has been a new emphasis on the author being expected to assist in marketing their own book. Thus, one of the considerations that publishing houses take into account when receiving an unsolicited manuscript or proposal is the authors social platforms. Are they well-followed and considered an authority on their topic on social media? Do they have a built in audience of people who will buy the book because they already follow them? While this is not the number one deciding factor in acquisitions, it does seem to be an aspect that does hold at least a small amount of weight.

Who Is Being Excluded?

According to Internet Live Stats 88.5 % of Canadians use the internet. With a population of 36,286,378 as of 2016, this means that 4,165,859 people are without internet access. In marketing class, we have discussed the concept of “personas” which are basically character sketches of an ideal audience for the product or service you are offering. When I considered the above statistics, and therefore the people that publishing’s reliance on the online world impacts, I was left with more than one persona that was excluded. For the sake of this essay, I have concentrated on five below:

  • The first is an elderly person who is intimidated by new technology, and does not understand how to utilize social media. Throughout their lifetime they have had a wealth of experiences, and they participate in the oral storytelling tradition by sharing those with their children and grandchildren.
  • The second, a person who lives remotely and does not have internet access in their home, but reads print books voraciously in their spare time and journals their own experiences.
  • The third, a writer who is shy or suffers from anxiety. While they may have the technical skills to follow the magazines and publishing houses they wish to submit to on social media, they do not see themselves as having the ability or charisma to build up the kind of online presence and following that publishing houses look for in first time authors.
  • The fourth, a Downtown Eastside resident. Certain circumstances in their life have left them without consistent, safe housing, and although their ability to access the internet on a regular basis is not a primary concern, they love storytelling and have a lifetime worth of experiences to share.
  • Fifth, a writer, whom for whatever reason, wishes to publish anonymously or under a pseudonym (as is their moral right). While the initial impression may be that the relative anonymity of the internet would actually make this easier (think: the famous The New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner in 1993 proclaiming “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”) events over the last few years have proven this may not be the case. There is a reason that, in 2015, The New Yorker published another cartoon that seemingly referenced the original. This one, by Kaamran Hafeez featured two dogs looking at each other and saying: “Remember when, on the Internet, nobody knew who you were?” Recent notable examples of authors publishing under pseudonyms and then being outed online include J.K. Rowling and Elena Ferrante. Rowling was outed online after publishing The Cuckoo’s Calling under the name Robert Galbraith, and Ferrante’s real identity was the subject of a much criticized witch hunt by Italian journalist Claudio Gatti. Which the prevalence of social media and the frequency with which it is used, when something like this is uncovered it can spread around the world in the matter of hours.

I have no doubt that there are worthwhile works coming from writers that fit these personas, and I can only imagine how many more would be produced should publishers make more of an effort to reach them.

Ways We Can Improve

All of this is not to say that the publishing world should not be utilizing the abilities of the web. Firstly, it would be inadvisable (if not insane) not to at this day and age, when the stats I’ve cited earlier show that 88.5% of Canadian’s are online in some capacity. Secondly, there are many ways that publishers can utilize the web to indeed be more inclusive, such as the examples I have listed throughout this essay. The point is, that in our current-day obsession with the internet, the thought of going offline no longer seems to occur to us. This is slightly ironic in an industry that romanticizes and even fetishizes printed books. So how do we, as present and future publishing professionals, utilize all the unique and important opportunities the web has given us without becoming reliant on them? A balance needs to be found.

The fourth persona that I mentioned is the inspiration behind Thursdays Writing Collective, which was founded by Elee Kraljii Gardiner who is a writer, an editor, and a founding member of CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts). The Collective holds free workshops for residents of the Downton Eastside, and they describe their mission as two-fold: “to hold a space for writers and to bring that work to a wider audience.” As such, they have published chapbook anthologies for the work created during the workshops. In 2010, they also started Thursdays Editing Collective which consists of professional editors and writers who work with the workshop participants to submit their writing to other publications.

After attending WORD Vancouver’s “Inclusive Magazine Publishing” panel, I reached out to Kraljii Gardiner via Twitter and asked her if she would be willing to answer some follow up questions to expand on some the points she made during the panel discussion. Thankfully, she agreed and provided me with some further thoughts on access and how our local literary community is doing with it.

She echoed the concerns I mentioned about publisher’s reliance on using social media, commenting that they are using “the same old rut of twitter and Facebook to reach the same old people. It is a well-worn path with which they reach the familiar audience.” This seems directly at odds with the oft stated goal of wanting to publish a diverse array of new voices that represent Canada that you hear from many publishers. As someone who has been an active part of the Vancouver literary scene, she admitted that she hasn’t “been stunned by anybody’s efforts, to be honest” when it comes to reaching out to those who do not have consistent access to the web. She did qualify this however by acknowledging her own e-privilege and the fact that she herself is very social media oriented.

Thursdays Writers Collective has instigated a sponsorship program for submissions fees, with Kraljii Gardiner reaching out on Facebook to ask if the writers she had connected with online would consider sponsoring a Downtown Eastside writer by paying their fee. They have successfully implemented this program a few times, with the most recent partnership being with subTerrain who she described as great. The group gathered names of donors, collected submissions from the writers by telling them about the opportunity and then sent them in. The donors paid Thursdays Writing Collective and TWC paid for the submission fees all at once. She explained that they did not pair donors with writers directly, saying it would be “tricky and a bit personal and heavy.” They pitched it as “if you are submitting to this contest why not consider sponsoring a DTES writer at the same time” and it got a great response. She wishes that literary magazines and organizations would commit to having a donation button on their websites for this at all times.

When I asked her what practices she would like to see magazines and publishing houses adopt to reach out to those without good, reliable internet access, she was able to make concrete suggestions that were also relatively low cost and easy to implement. These included:

  • Reaching out by faxing or calling mosques
  • Recording announcements for co-op and student radio stations
  • Printing out hand-sized info pamphlets for community centers and libraries
  • Craigslist announcements
  • Posting bookmarks on bulletin boards at community colleges, night schools, and ESL schools

She cited her personal experience from editing V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, saying: “I used the bulletin boards in the DTES as well as COOP radio and strategic word of mouth campaigns. I also made an arrangement with the library to have a box for handwritten submissions so people wouldn’t have to pay postage. I was going off what the writers at TWC told me helped and didn’t have any prior model to follow.”

Kraljii Gardiner’s own experiences are examples of publishing professionals utilizing their online channels to promote inclusivity. Perhaps these can become a part of a new standard, the model that she had sought when she began Thursdays Writing Collective. In examining the ways in which we acquire manuscripts, both in the technical submissions process and in the decision making process for the voices we represent, as well as diversifying the way we reach potential writers, we can potentially get ourselves out of the rut we have created. Hopefully, the more we discuss these ideas in public forums such as professional development conferences, the more publishers will make true inclusivity a priority in their publishing programs.


Works Cited

“About: Submission Guidelines.” Brindle and Glass, www.brindleandglass.com/submission_guidelines.php. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Call for Submissions: Let Them See You Sweat.” Poetry is Dead, www.poetryisdead.ca/blog/call-submissions-future.html. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Contact.” Arsenal Pulp Press, www.arsenalpulp.com/contact.php. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Content and Publishing Submissions.” Submittable, www.submittable.com/examples/content. Accessed 10 October 2016.

Fleishman, Glenn. “Cartoon Captures Spirit of the Internet.” The New York Times, 14 December 2000, web.archive.org/web/20141030135629/http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/14/technology/14DOGG.html. Accessed 13 October 2016.

Grams, Zoe. “Marketing Plans for Books.” Simon Fraser University, Vancouver. 6 October 2016.

“Guidelines for Manuscript Submissions.” Ronsdale Press, ronsdalepress.com/submissions/. Accessed 13 October 2016

“Guidelines for Writers.” Anvil Press, www.anvilpress.com/submit/. Accessed 13 October 2016.

Inclusive Publishing. DAISY Consortium, inclusivepublishing.org/. Accessed 10 October 2016.

“Internet Users by Country.” Internet Live Stats, www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users-by-country/. Accessed 13 October 2016.

Kraljii Gardiner, Elee “Re: Access Questions.” Message to Jessica Key. 6 October 2016. E-mail.

Lessig, Lawrence. “Laws that choke creativity.” TED. March 2007. Lecture. Accessed 8 October 2016.

“Magazines West 2016.” Magazine Association of British Columbia, www.magsbc.com/events/magazines-west-2016. Accessed 12 October 2016.

“NEO-OPSIS Submission Guidelines.” NEO-OPSIS Science Fiction Magazine, www.neo-opsis.ca/guidelines. Accessed 13 October 2016.

Room. Room Magazine, roommagazine.com/. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Schedule.” Word Vancouver, wordvancouver.ca/2016-festival/schedule/. Accessed 12 October 2016.

“Submission Guideline.” Adbusters, www.adbusters.org/submissions/. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submissions Guidelines.” Geist Magazine, www.geist.com/writers/submit. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submission Guidelines.” Talonbooks, talonbooks.com/submission-guidelines/. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submission Guidelines.” The Malahat Review, www.malahatreview.ca/submission_guidelines.html. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submission Guidelines for Authors.” Heritage House Publishing Company, www.heritagehouse.ca/submission_guidelines.php. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submissions.” Greystone Books, greystonebooks.com/pages/submissions. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submissions.” New Star Books, www.newstarbooks.com/submissions.php. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submissions.” Room Magazine, roommagazine.com/submit. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submissions.” SAD Mag, www.sadmag.ca/submissions/. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submissions.” The Capilano Review, www.thecapilanoreview.ca/submissions/. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submissions to Harbour: Guidelines for Writers.” Harbour Publishing, www.harbourpublishing.com/submissions.php. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submit.” PRISM international, prismmagazine.ca/submit/. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Submit.” EVENT, www.eventmagazine.ca/submit/. Accessed 13 October 2016.

“Thursdays Editing Collective.” Thursdays Writing Collective, www.thursdayswritingcollective.ca/thursdays-editing-collective-2/. Accessed 8 October 2016.

“Who We Are.” Thursdays Writing Collective, www.thursdayswritingcollective.ca/about/who-we-are/. Accessed 8 October 2016.

“Writer’s Guidelines.” subTerrain, subterrain.ca/about/35/sub-terrain-writer-s-guidelines. Accessed 13 October 2016.

Wyatt, Daisy. “How JK was revealed as the true author behind the Robert Galbraith novels.” The Independent, 16 October 2015, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/how-jk-rowling-was-revealed-as-the-true-author-behind-the-robert-galbraith-novels-a6696576.html. Accessed 11 October 2016.

 

 

 

On the Shoulders of Giants: The Growth of Amazon in India

It seems that a study of publishing is not complete without an in-depth examination of Amazon and the changes that it has wrought in the industry. This essay will briefly explore Amazon’s beginnings and the business mantra that has driven its expansion over the past twenty years. Amazon has historically been a very growth-oriented company, and this focus is apparent in its business practices and expansion. The essay will follow Amazon’s outward expansion to Europe and East Asia, and discuss the specification of the company’s services in each of these locations. It will then explore Amazon’s foray into India. It will outline the problems and successes Amazon has faced in the Indian market, and the response it has entailed from native competitors (both web-based and not) in this market. I suggest that the Indian book market has particular characteristics that have made it difficult for Amazon to grow in India with the same kind of efficiency it has in other places.

The Advent of Amazon

The story of Amazon’s beginnings has been well documented in digital and print media, with numerous articles and books on the e-commerce giant and its infamous CEO Jeffrey Bezos. While this is common knowledge to most, it is important to mention that Amazon started out as a bookstore. Bezos wanted Amazon to be the “biggest bookstore on earth,” and in fact took a course by the American Booksellers Association on ‘how to start a bookstore’ (Brandt 70; 1). In 1994, Amazon.com was established, and on July 16, 1995, it was live and open for business (Brandt 81).

Over the next few years, Amazon grew immensely as a result of their intelligent business strategies. The primary reason for Amazon’s unprecedented success is their loss-leader pricing strategy. More often than not, the Amazon price of a book will be slightly lower than the price at your local bookstore. Amazon has long since mastered the art of cinching deals with publishers to get the maximum discount for books, so that they may sell it for ‘cheap.’ Despite the agency-pricing model that allows publishers to set book prices, Amazon still has control over discounts (such was the contract Simon and Schuster signed with Amazon). Publishers have increasingly become more compliant with Amazon, because they know that it is in their best interests to let Amazon have its way with prices and contracts. UK editor Philip Jones admitted, “The worst thing that could happen [to book publishers] would be for Amazon to go away” (Oliver). George Packer notes:

“In its drive for profitability, Amazon did not raise retail prices; it simply squeezed its suppliers harder, much as Walmart had done with manufacturers. Amazon demanded ever-larger co-op fees and better shipping terms; publishers knew that they would stop being favored by the site’s recommendation algorithms if they didn’t comply. Eventually, they all did.”

The power and influence that Amazon wields over publishers is enormous, so much so that Amazon has been termed “Literary Enemy Number One.” Amazon has found it easier to negotiate deals with publishers both inside and outside North America based on its immense reach and the recognition that its name carries.

Indeed, Amazon has been conscious of the way it is perceived in society because this perception itself is a source of power. It is no surprise that growth is one of Bezos’ central concerns. In Amazon’s early years, Bezos went so far as to under-report the number of books in Amazon’s inventory (1.1 million instead of 1.5 million) so that they could report an increase in later years (Brandt 70). This strategy shows how eager Amazon is not just to grow, but also to produce an image of itself as growing at an exponential rate. According to TechCrunch, Amazon’s book inventory alone comprised 3.4 million titles in 2014, a number that would grow at the rate of one title every five minutes. Based on those calculations, that puts their 2016 inventory at around 3.6 million titles. It is very plausible that this number is largely understated, but Amazon’s data is a well-guarded secret, so it remains unconfirmed. Number of book titles aside, Amazon’s online presence has grown outside of the USA’s borders.

Robert Spector claims that the mantra at Amazon in 1996 was “get big fast” (97). In 1998, Amazon opened its online stores for the UK and Germany, on the domains amazon.co.uk and amazon.co.de respectively. According to Spector, Bertelsmann (owners of Penguin Random House) were keen on partnering with Bezos to help with Amazon’s European takeover. They ended up investing in Barnes & Noble’s online site instead. In 2000, amazon.co.fr and amazon.co.jp were set up for French and Japanese markets. Bezos made sure to adjust Amazon’s business model in each of these locations, so as to ensure maximum customer satisfaction. For example, their operations in Germany ran 24/7, a practice frowned upon for German brick and mortar stores (Spector 188). Similarly skirting the laws in France, Amazon decided to offer shipping at one cent as a response to the government’s ban on free shipping. In both France and Japan, Amazon had to ensure that their warehouse stocked French and Japanese books, so as to cater to the non-English speaking market. Such issues were simply not a concern for Amazon’s previous operations in the USA or UK, but also display the need it felt to adapt itself in each market in order to assert dominance.

Meanwhile in India

While Bezos was off conquering most of Europe, much to the joy of competitors, he left the Indian market untouched. In 2012, Frankfurter Buchmesse valued India’s book market at $2 billion (USD). According to Euromonitor, the e-commerce market has grown by 140% in 2015, with sales of Rs.1.3 trillion (over $19.5 billion USD). Unfortunately, more recent statistics tracing the sales of print and e-books on e-commerce websites are not available. A 2013 report concludes that the Indian book market is comprised of 40% academic texts, 30% children’s books, and 30% trade books (Mallya). Academic books also dominate the e-book landscape in India, with STM books comprising 84% of all e-book sales (Mallya). According to a recent Statista report, Indians spend the most amount of time reading – approximately 10 hours per week. The German Book office places India’s literacy rate at 74%, which includes non-English languages (although the Government of India reports a lower rate of 64.8%). It is evident that India holds much promise for booksellers, both traditional and otherwise.

Amazon’s foray into the Indian market was rather late – amazon.in was set up in 2012. By this time, two former Amazon.com employees Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal had set up a local e-commerce website called Flipkart in 2007. Unsurprisingly, Flipkart started out as an online bookstore, and soon expanded into other categories (see here for a history of Flipkart’s growth). It now holds a 52% retail value share in the Indian e-commerce market, and has been named “E-commerce company of the year” over Amazon India, and other local competitor, Snapdeal (Euromonitor). It is safe to presume that Flipkart is Amazon’s direct competitor in India.

The Indian market is unlike the other markets that Amazon has gone into. As an example, Cash on Delivery (COD) is the preferred method of payment in India, and all major online retailers in India offer this service. More importantly, the primary means of differentiation between the Indian market and other markets is the sheer variety of languages prevalent in India. India has 22 scheduled languages apart from English. In fact, 41% of the population reports Hindi as their primary language (Government of India).

The immense number of languages in India is a key hurdle for prospective online retailers. Indeed it is difficult, particularly for smaller companies with overhead costs, to form a team and intelligently curate books across such a wide variety of languages. Moreover, it is difficult for such small companies to stock appropriate quantities of books in their warehouses. Given that the markets for each individual language are often very small and specific, it may not even be worthwhile for such small stores to stock books across a wide variety of languages. This is particularly true because a majority of the books in these markets circulate through small-presses, and local brick and mortar stores in the particular states where the language is prime. Rather, mid-sized online stores may be better suited to sticking to one language, such as English, and developing a detailed inventory in this language.

However, the conundrum of the Indian market is still not this simple. According to Forbes, “[t]he statistics on English speaking ability tends to be unreliable for a host of political reasons, but it is generally accepted that somewhere in the range of 30% are able, to varying degrees, speak English—though only a third have some semblance of reading and writing aptitude.” This fact presents certain problems to book e-tailers in India. Though the Indian market is indeed massive, it is divided into exceedingly disconnected segments in terms of language. And within this mass collection of languages, there is very little transference of languages, which means that most people will only be fluent in one language and thus will not be able to buy books in other languages. In the case of English, this means that only 30% of the entire Indian population can be prospective buyers for books in the language.

Even for these books, we find that the online market is inherently marginalized. This is for two reasons. Firstly, though 30% of the population can speak English in some form, as the Forbes quote above shows, only about 10% of the total population can read English. This means that the effective market for English-only bookstores is immensely small relative to the whole population. Secondly, it also means that should booksellers attempt to stock books in languages other than English, they may also need to make their websites accessible in these languages. The necessity of including such different languages within an Indian online marketing platform compounds the problems of establishing a diverse and successful online book trade in India. Flipkart, for example, does not offer access in any language other than English, and the same is true for Amazon. These statistics raise important questions for the developmental strategies of online retailers in India.

In contrast to Flipkart, Amazon’s already exponential growth has allowed it to sufficiently penetrate the Indian market. Indeed, Amazon’s position as an immense power in the global electronic marketplace means that it is capable of taking away the majority of customers in the small and very selective market actually available to online retailers in India. Their cost-cutting techniques allow them to undercut all of the competitors in the marketplace including Flipkart. In general, the price of a book is almost always lower on Amazon.in when compared to other stores. Such strategic play on Amazon’s part has brought consequences for other retailers such as Flipkart, who cannot mark down their prices to the same degree. Moreover, given Amazon’s global size and reach, it can afford to be more accommodating to complaints received from customers, such as those pertaining to the replacement of a book. It can also afford to feature in its stock a large selection of non-English books, as has recently been the case with Telugu-language books. Given the enormous technological capital Amazon wields, Flipkart’s market value has been decreasing. As of July 2016, Amazon successfully took the lion’s share of the marketplace as it surpassed Flipkart’s sales for the first time since its arrival in India.

However, one cannot write off Amazon’s Indian competitors so easily. Even though Flipkart’s market value has been fluctuating and often decreasing since Amazon’s arrival, the company is still valued at $9 billion after 4 years of Amazon in India. The persistence of the Flipkart brand poses important questions for Amazon. One wonders why despite Amazon’s lower prices, more accommodating customer support, and heavy financing, Flipkart has continued to survive as one of the major players in the Indian market. Though little research has been conducted into this question, it is plausible that Flipkart’s continued patronage stems from a loyal customer base. If Amazon is to monopolize the online book market in India, it must first attempt to ascertain the nature of this loyalty. For example, this loyalty to Flipkart may stem from a perception of the company as being “more Indian” than Amazon. While Flipkart is an Indian and India-based company, Amazon is an extension of a large Seattle-based global chain, and this fact may deter consumers who value the “localness” of their goods and health of the economy.

It seems then that the way each company markets itself to consumers may be integral to deciding their success or failure in the future. If Flipkart begins a campaign to assert its true Indian-ness relative to Amazon, then it may realistically see a larger share in the market. However, a similar truth holds for Amazon. If the global giant can successfully entrench itself into Indian society and culture, and make itself seem authentically Indian, it may be able to further reduce the value of its competitors in the Indian market. The possible domination of the Indian market by Amazon in the near future may thus be brought about by a combination of its global strengths (better service, larger inventory, lower prices) and perceived local authenticity.


Some (rather tangential) notes:

  • While writing this paper, I was disappointed to find very little research (by which I mean statistical data) on the publishing industry in India. Neilsen Book Scan reports were not open to the public, and did not include Amazon’s operations (which may make their data slightly irrelevant). Some of the statistics quoted in this paper come from Euromonitor, which I accessed via McGill University’s proxy, so I apologize if everyone cannot login to view this information. All this calls for open-access!
  • The two print books that I used for this paper are accessible at SFU’s library.
  • There was an interesting comment in Mallya’s report regarding the numerous e-readers and tablets available in the Indian market – which is strikingly different from the North American market dominated by iPads and Kindles. The impression I received was that Indians are more inclined to buy a multi-purpose device as opposed to a dedicated e-reader, which makes me wonder whether sales of digital formats will take off in India with the same success as in Europe and North America.
  • I found a rather detailed article in Fortune Magazine that takes the reader inside Amazon’s operations in India – it is slightly long, but an easy read for those interested.
  • I would have liked to look into Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) laws that apply to companies like Amazon, but unfortunately, the economics behind them is beyond my understanding.

Works Cited

ANI. “Flipkart Is the ‘E-commerce Company of the Year” Business Standard. Business Standard, 02 Sept. 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Aula, Sahit. “The Problem With The English Language In India.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 6 Nov. 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Biggs, John. “There Is One New Book On Amazon Every Five Minutes.” TechCrunch. 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Brandt, Richard L. One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2011. Print.

“Digital Consumer – Connected Commerce: India.” Euromonitor International. N.p., 3 May 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

“Flipkart: About Us.” Flipkart.com. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

“Flipkart Online Services Pvt Ltd in Retailing (India).” Euromonitor International. 18 Jan. 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

“Flipkart Valuation Downgraded by Morgan Stanley 3rd Time in 6 Months.” Live Mint. N.p., 27 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Frankfurter Buchmesse. “Perspectives on Publishing in India 2014-2015.” (2014): 1-15. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Gessen, Keith. “How Did Amazon End Up as Literary Enemy No. 1?” The Hive. N.p., 06 Dec. 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Griswold, Alison. “France Banned Free Shipping. So Amazon Made It Cost One Cent.” Slate Magazine. N.p., 11 July 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

“Internet Retailing in India.” Euromonitor International. N.p., 18 Jan. 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

“Literacy And Level of Education.” Census of India. Government of India: Ministry of Home Affairs, 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Mallya, Vinutha. “India.” Global EBook: A Report on Market Trends and Developments (2014): 72-82. Web.

Milliot, Jim. “S&S to Go Agency With Amazon.” PublishersWeekly.com. N.p., 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Oliver, Sam. “Amazon Said to Be ‘Increasingly Ruthless’ in Negotiations with UK Publishers.” Apple Insider. N.p., 27 June 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Packer, George. “Cheap Words.” The New Yorker. 24 Feb. 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Pilla, Viswanath. “Amazon India Launches Online Telugu Book Store with over 10,000 Titles.” Live Mint. 29 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

“Scheduled Languages in Descending Order of Speaker’s Strength.” Census of India. Government of India: Ministry of Home Affairs, 2011. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Spector, Robert. Amazon.com: Get Big Fast. New York: HarperBusiness, 2002. Print.

“Which Countries the Read the Most.” (2016) Statista. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Verma, Shrutika. “Has Flipkart Lost No 1 Slot to Amazon?” Live Mint. N.p., 23 Aug. 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Self publishing

My essay will explore self publishing through two major points of view: one of the publishers’ and one of the author’s.

The option of self-publishing has stirred a lot of controversy amongst the publishing industry’s professionals and authors. Authors prefer to have more control of their own book, to have their hands on the manuscript while it’s being edited and published, rather than to leave it all to the publishers–if an author choses to self publish their book, they have to support all the upfront costs. However, publishing professionals feel that the phenomenon of self publishing is devaluing the written word, and devaluing the quality of the print book, as the self published book hasn’t been trough proper editing, proofreading and typesetting.

My essay will start with an overview on how self publishing was introduced to the publishing world. I will talk about how important projects like project Gutenberg and important figures like Virginia Wolfe who started Hogarth Press in order to publish her own books have pioneered the phenomenon of self publishing. I will also mention how the appearance of POD (Print on Demand) has made self publishing even more possible and accessible to almost anyone. Furthermore, I will explore what means of self publishing there currently are.

Self publishing – what it involves

Self publishing is the publication of a book by its own author, without the help of an established publisher. The author is in control of the entire publishing process: the design of the cover and interior, proofreading and editing, distribution, formats, marketing and public relations. What distinguishes self-publishing from the traditional publishing is that the author decided to publish their book independently of a publishing house. The advancement of technology made the self publishing process easier to be accomplished. Almost anyone can write something and post it on the web as an ebook for free.

The two means of publication, that have made self-publishing easier and more possible are ebook publishing and Print-on-Demand. With the advancement of ebook publishing, anyone can post what they write online, at a minimum cost, almost for free. Anyone has the opportunity to read an ebook on their smartphone, laptop or eReader. Print-on-Demand is a printing technology and business process that allows copies of the book to be printed when an order was placed. The books are then delivered to the customer.

Self-published books have to have ISBNs when made available in a shop or online, unless the author is selling the books directly to the public.

The most used mean of self-publishing, by far, is ebook publishing and it’s the quicker and most cost effective, as ebooks can be created and published with no up-front cost. There are a variety of formats for ebooks and the means to create them are endless, especially nowadays.

Ebooks publishing platforms include: Pronoun, Pubit, Bookbaby, Lulu, Smashwords, Blurb, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, CinnamonTeal Publishing, etc. Ebook formats include: e-pub, mobi and PDF.

Print-on-demand allows authors to offer to their readers a self published book in high quality print, as needed. There are numerous companies that offer printing of single books at a cost not much higher than those paid by publishing companies for large print runs. Such companies are: LighteningSource, Createspace, Blurb, Lulu, iUniverse, etc.

There is also the option of paying someone be your publisher, e.g. vanity presses (also known as subsidy publishing). In this case, the author pays a vanity press to do the publishing process for them: turning a manuscript into a book and making it available through major distribution channels.

History

In 2008, more books were self published than published traditionally. One year later, approximately 76% of all books published were self published, making publishing houses reduce the number of books they publish. Let’s take a look back to when this new trend of self-publishing started.

It is being said that authors have been self publishing for ages, in fact at the beginning of times that was all they could do, as there were no publishing houses to aid with the publishing process. It all started 3000-2000 B.C. when ancient scribes were picture-writing on clay tables and papyrus scrolls.

A bit later, in 1450 Johannes Gutenberg changed the course of publishing by improving the mechanical printing press with the movable type. The course of publishing history in the West was forever changed, as the first mass production of books were printed.

Benjamin Franklin wrote and published the yearly pamphlet Poor Richard’s Almanack, a compendium of essays, weather forecasts, household tips, aphorisms, and proverbs, many of which are in our spoken language today.

William Blake self-published some of his best known works: Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1783-1820). Apart from being an author, he was also the illustrator for his works. He designed all the accompanying illustrations and etched them onto copper plate. He printed and coloured the pages by hand, in order to create illuminated manuscripts.

Jane Austen chose the vanity press route in order to publish her first novel Sense and Sensibility. Even though her novels were popular, she received little recognition for them in her lifetime. She struggled to publish her first novels, therefore offered to pay the publisher in order to have them printed.

Hogarth Press was the first renown example of a press started by an author. Virginia and Leonard Woolf started Hogarth Press in order to publish her books and other authors’. Her initiative inspired other authors like Kelly Link (Small Beer Press), Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s).

The invention of the World Wide Web is when the first seeds of online self-publishing got planted. In 1993, it was announced that the technology was made freely available to everyone.

The year of 1997 marks another key point in the history of self publishing: the founding of Lightening Source, one of the largest print-on-demand (POD) companies in the world. The POD technology allowed books to be published one at a time. This technology has opened up the market giving the opportunity to more small presses to be created. This service has made self publishing even more possible.

In 1999 the blog-to-book phenomenon is born. Blog hosting services like Blogger, LiveJournal and WordPress are giving people the opportunity publish themselves on the Web.

In 2006 the first Expresso Book Machine was introduced to the printing world. The EBM can print a book within a few minutes, at the point of sale. It can be found in locations around the world: Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, and the NYU Bookstore in New York City.

The Expresso Book Machine explained

Ebook gave self published authors the possibility to have their content available online, freely. Companies like Smashwords and BookBaby make it easy for writers to self-publish and distribute e-books worldwide.

Next, I will cover how self publishing affects the traditional book, how publishers are perceiving this new type of publishing, and what is the future of the book if self publishing comes into the picture.

Publishers and self publishing

Why are publishers so eager to proclaim their role and relevance in the publishing process these days? It is mostly because of the increased competition, and one of their biggest competitor nowadays is self publishing and ebooks publishing.

Approximately 20 years ago, the only way to publish a book was to print it and sell it on store shelves. The book publisher was the only one who could help make this possible, they were the key to publishing a book: they were editing the book and then distributing it. The author had to go through the selection process the publisher had in place, hoping that their book gets picked –there was a high chance it would not be. Nowadays, anyone who has Internet can write a book and then publish it on a blog, as an ebook or pdf and have it for sale at the world’s largest online book seller, Amazon.

Today, the role of the publisher is put at question. The authors have various ways to publish their book, they can take it all in their own hands and self publish the book online and in print,  they can go the way of vanity publishing, where they basically hire a professional publishing house to do the tedious work of editing, designing, marketing and also distribution. They don’t have to work hard in order for their book to be picked by the very thorough selection criteria of a world renown publisher.

Traditional publishers have to remind authors about their fundamental role in publishing the book. They help pick and curate the best titles, they edit the book professionally and bring to the market a high quality end product. Traditional publishers have been concerned that self publishing will devalue the market for many reasons. First is that not every book is worthy to be published. When an author self publishes a book, they are the ones making the decision to publish or not. The second most important reason is quality assurance. Is the book in a good enough state to be published? It is being said that the author is the least qualified person to make this decision.

Random House on  why authors need to work with professional publishers

publishingperspectives.com:

Traditional publishers will have to refocus on what they can do best,” he said, “helping an author to publish. They will be service providers for those authors who choose to concentrate on writing. They will be responsible for the right publishing strategy that maximizes the value of the author’s work.”

Authors and self publishing

For an author, self publishing is regarded as a much desired opportunity. They can finally publish their book online/ print without having to wait years to be approved by a publisher. Self publishing democratizes the publishing market and takes the control from the publisher and gives it to the author. Through self publishing, authors have the opportunity to enter into publishing.


Also, self publishing is becoming more and more easier as there are so many companies that offer to help authors self publish their book. Smashwords is a company that distributes books to all the major ebook stores, and give authors 70.5% proceeds on sales. They also provide marketing advice (vital for a self published books in order to garner sales) and provide authors with tools to manage the marketing for a book.

Dr Geuppert argues that: “The main reasons for choosing self-publishing are creative freedom and control; simplicity of process; fun; and the speed of publishing. Self-publishing authors agree that through self-publishing, they have been able to strengthen their capability to work independently as well as their creative competencies.”

However, authors are not aware that when they self publish they are, in a way, cluttering this industry with books that perhaps, should never be published. There is no selection criteria when it comes to self publishing, and companies who help authors self publish their book, have no concern when it comes to the question: should this book truly be published? This might result in a devaluation of the book, all thanks to self publishing.

Conclusion

The question remains: is the book devalued by self publishing?

Authors regard self publishing as one of the greatest opportunities as they have the chance to do something they have wished for: publish their books and also, be in total control of the of the publishing process. This would not happen if the author is taking the traditional way to publish a book. They will have to wait, perhaps, years in order to get published and also, allow the publisher to be in control of the publishing process. 

Publishing houses are concerned because they are directly competing with self publishing sites. They risk to go out of business if authors will choose to go the traditional way of publishing. They are also concerned about the quality of the self published book, which can directly affect literature. Self published books are not being professionally edited and published, the author is making the decision when the book is ready for print. Self publishing is cluttering the book industry with books that should not be published.

In conclusion, the publishing industry is changing due to the appearance and popularity of self publishing. Traditional publishing houses have to remind authors about their fundamental role in publishing the book. They help pick and curate the best titles, they edit the book professionally and bring to the market a high quality end product. The future of publishing with self publishing in picture, is yet unknown, but one thing is certain: authors have to understand the risks and downsides of self publishing and what this could mean for the books market.

Making it Big in the Blogosphere: The Strategies Fashion Bloggers Employ to Monetize Their Brand

The explosion in branding oneself online over the past decade has led to a whole new career option that not so long ago could not even have been conceived of. The rise of fashion and lifestyle blogging—which chiefly involves young women (although there are a few men, such as Bryanboy) posting their daily outfits and interacting with followers on a range of social media platforms, including their own personal websites, in addition to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. What started out as a hobby for many of these women in the mid to late-2000s has now become an incredibly lucrative business, with top bloggers such as Chiara Ferragni of The Blonde Salad, Emily Schuman of Cupcakes and Cashmere, and Leandra Medine of Man Repeller raking in millions of dollars a year thanks to sponsorships, advertising, and their own spin-off fashion lines. These bloggers have, over the past decade or so, established themselves as members in the top league of the fiercely competitive world of fashion blogging, and have forged a career for themselves where none existed before—no small feat.

So, how exactly did they do it? What magic formula enabled these individuals to captivate an audience and draw them, initially, to their websites, and then to their social media platforms? Well, to start off with, all the aforementioned bloggers entered the playing field early in the game, starting their blogs in the mid-2000s, and employed the use of social media and online growth strategies right from the start. Since then, they have managed to brand themselves into recognizable names (at least for those with even a passing interest in fashion blogging), and command annual salaries in the multi millions.

While all bloggers—be they fashion or otherwise—no doubt rely on many of the same online tactics to promote their websites and personal brand, I will be focusing on those who are primarily in the fashion and lifestyle blogosphere in this essay, highlighting the online practices they employ to reach and maintain a wide audience, which thus enables them to generate income through attracting sponsors and advertisers.

One thing all bloggers need in order to be successful is the ability to generate income through a number of diverse streams. According to Marianna Hewitt of the “Ask a Blogger” column on the Harper’s Bazaar website, fashion bloggers nowadays generate income through a combination of a few of the following six ways: affiliate links, sponsored content, collaborations, marketing campaigns, classes, and photography/other creative services (Hewitt, 2015).

However, before bloggers can reach this stage of generating an income via these streams, they need to be able to demonstrate to advertisers and sponsors that their websites receive substantial numbers of views every day; essentially, they need to have built up a significant following, and there are a number of strategies they can employ to do this.

Good SEO practice is one such element that helps provide bloggers with that key factor to success: discoverability. Every blogger who has made it big once started off as an unknown, but through strategic use of SEO was able to create an online presence. For a fashion blogger, whose posts chiefly consist of outfits, titling the post in such a way as to be discoverable via a Google search is essential. For example, a post that features the blogger wearing overalls would ideally be titled something like “How to Wear Overalls,” or “How to Style Your Overalls”—basically, a title that features the keywords someone wanting to know how to wear their overalls would search for.

In her post “Beginner SEO Tips for Fashion Bloggers,” Jennine Jacob breaks down what exactly SEO is and why it is so important for bloggers. While social media platforms bring in roughly 30 percent of new visitors to a blog, it is traffic from SEO that drives the remaining 70 percent. Citing the Beginners Guide to SEO, she notes that “[s]earch engines are answer machines” and that every time a person searches for something online, “the search engines scour the billions of documents and do two things – first, return only those results that are relevant or useful to the searcher’s query, and second, rank those results in order of perceived usefulness. It is both ‘relevance’ and ‘importance’ that the process of SEO is meant to influence” (Jacob, 2013).

In the early days, building a community with fans/followers is crucial for bloggers starting out. Discoverability is one thing, but of equal importance is hooking readers in so that they are likely to return to websites again and follow bloggers on their social media platforms. In addition to presenting an attractive and unique perspective with good photography, bloggers can also work on building a rapport with their readers—encouraging questions and responding to them in the comments section. Once bloggers—through hard work, stategic online practices, and, no doubt, a lot of good luck—have amassed a following, they can now start to focus their attention on monetizing their website.

Initially, in the earlier days of fashion blogging, banner ads proved to be quite profitable, but today, readers are for more likely to see the native advertising as described above on their favourite websites. Both bloggers and advertisers have started to realize that readers are pretty savvy and intelligent, and probably unlikely to click on a big, flashing ad at the top of a blog just because it’s there. However, native advertising—similar to an advertorial in a print magazine in that advertised content fits in seamlessly with the rest of the content being produced—seems to be more successful.

Top bloggers have the luxury of being selective about who they collaborate with for these ads, as they know that their readers have come to trust their favourite bloggers’ tastes, and can usually be able to tell when a blogger is being inauthentic in their professed love of a certain product, as opposed to when they are genuinely recommeding something. Affiliate links have long been a core part of generating income on websites—these are links to products featured by the blogger on their website. Typically how this works is that once a reader clicks on the link, and buys anything from the company’s website (not just the product in question), the blogger promoting it (the referrer) will get paid a commission (Phelan, 2013).

Many top bloggers are connected with partners via RewardStyle, the brainchild of blogger Amber Venz, who started the company in 2010. The premise is simple: the invite-only program sets up the 14,000 bloggers in the network (known as “publishers”) with its 4,000 retailers. The publishers receive up to 20 percent commission for each affiliate item sold from any of their posts. What many readers do not know is that each time they click on an affiliate link, the link stores a cookie on the reader’s computer for up to 30 days. If a purchase based off the affiliate link is made within 30 days—as long as the reader does not click on another affiliate link, as the browser can only store one cookie at a time—the blogger will make a commission off the entire purchase. While it is reported that only 1-2% of readers who click on an affiliate link will go on to make a purchase, it can be quite lucrative for top bloggers whose links receive thousands of clicks (Adams, 2014). Although readers often do not consciously realize that their purchases are helping to fund a blogger’s lifestyle, most blogs do make note of the fact that they use affiliate links.

Successful bloggers can rightfully boast that they “make money while they sleep,” as is the case with Blair Eadie of Atlantic-Pacific—an ASOS dress she wore on her blog was bought by 83 people within a day of the post going live—and Tina Craig of Snob Essentials, who received a sale in the middle of the night from a reader in the Middle East who had purchased a $46,000 handbag (Phelan, 2013).

Another similar affiliate program is ShopStyle, formerly known as ShopSense, which launched seven years ago, and today works with over 10,000 publishers/bloggers. By the end of 2015, the site, which features 12 million products from 1,400 retailers, and receives over five million searches per week, was expected to drive $1.2 billion in retail sales, according to executive vice president Melissa Davis. Davis also noted that “people…shopping from these bloggers’ sites convert more quickly than average shoppers…[and] 76 percent will convert with two days, [buying] from trendier brands like ASOS, H&M, and J. Crew” (Strugatz, 2015).

In research conducted by ShopStyle’s parent, Popsugar, and CJ Affiliate by Conversant, the effect bloggers had on consumer behaviour online was studied, with the subjects being 2,500 Popsugar and ShopStyle visitors during the fourth quarter. It was found that three out of four people in the study “visit blogs at least once a week for inspiration” and seven out of ten said that blogs are “an essential part of their shopping experience.” Additionally, three-quarters of the sample said that they used blogs to seek out new items, while 85% reported that they “consult or read product reviews before buying an item.” Lastly, more than nine out of ten claimed that “[blogs] introduced them to products they wouldn’t have found on their own” (Strugatz, 2015).

How bloggers profit from content posted on their actual websites is one thing; there is also the strategic use of their social media platforms—including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and, the latest fad among fashion bloggers, Snapchat—to consider when taking into account how these women generate revenue.

Many bloggers use Instagram in collaboration with partners; this frequently involves a company paying a certain amount to bloggers in exchange for a post or few featuring the company’s merchandise (and, of course, praising it). In an article on the Harper’s Bazaar website, blogger Danielle Bernstein of We Wore What revealed how this strategy is highly lucrative. Like many bloggers in her league, she has a “rate card” that “sets her range for the cost of a single piece of sponsored content (i.e. one Instagram shot) from $5,000 to $15,000. This rate can go up or down, depending on the terms of the deal, such as if a brand wants a long-term commitment or multiple Instagram pictures.” Bernstein also noted that (at the time of the article’s publication), her Instagram following was at 992,000—she estimated that once it hit the 1 million mark within 10-15 days, she would be able to charge “a good amount more” for sponsored content. According to Thomas Rankin, co-founder and CEO of Dash Hudson—a program that allows users to make their Instagram posts shoppable—bloggers of upwards of 6 million followers can charge anything from $20,000 to $100,000 a shot (Schaefer, 2015).

The latest craze among bloggers seems to be Snapchat—an “app that allows users to take pictures and 10 second (or less) videos and [either] send them directly to people or add them to ‘your story’ so all your friends or people that follow you wil see it…[once] the viewer sees the snap it’s gone” (Sula, 2015). With 100 million+ users, the app is growing every day, and Sula notes that while Instagram once had people skeptical (“there’s no way it’s going to be bigger than Facebook!”), Snapchat could follow a similar trend and overtake the app. For bloggers, she says, it has the potential to be a stream to collaborate with brands and advertisers on, thanks to the fact that unlike other social media platforms, it is “100% engaging.” She points out that in order for users to view a Snapchat or Snap Story, they have to be actually holding down their finger on their phone; “[unlike] just scrolling down through a feed, they are actively looking at what’s going on.”

Additionally, top bloggers are now starting to roll out their own products as another source of income. Chiara Ferragni, the Italian blogger behind The Blonde Salad, developed her own shoe brand, The Chiara Ferragni Collection, in 2013. The collection, which currently retails from $217 to $400, is estimated to rake in 10 million euros/$11 million in 2016. It’s an incredible success story for the former law student, who started posting amateur outfit shots online in 2009 and now has an online fan base in the multi millions (Lundstrom Halbert, 2015).

Similarly, Emily Schuman of Cupcakes and Cashmere, who started her blog in 2008, now has added her own products into the mix: two bestselling books (published in 2012 and 2015), and a clothing line, issed by fashion brand BB Dakota and carried exclusively by Nordstrom and ShopBop, which launched last year. While Schuman doesn’t quite have Ferragni’s multi-million fan base, she is currently followed by nearly 400,000 users on Instagram, receives 6 million page visitors a month, and has had collaborations with Juicy Couture, Coach, and Estée Lauder, in addition to a clothing line she designed in partnership with Club Monaco. When asked what the key to her success was, Schuman, who left her job in advertising in AOL towards the end of 2009 to work full-time on her blog, notes that “[at] an early point, I understood the metrics necessary to generate income. It took about a million page views a month for the advertising to start sustaining the blog.” She strategically went about aiming for this monthly goal, using the strategies mentioned above—SEO, building a loyal community of followers on her various social media platforms—and was lucky enough to be able to not only reach this goal but greatly surpass it.

So, while the bloggers who have managed to make it big—the Chiara Ferragnis and Emily Schumans—are able to rake in millions of dollars in revenue each year, is there still room for fledgling bloggers entering an oversaturated market to eventually make their mark in the blogosphere? While it can be said that today’s top bloggers “got in at the right time”—a factor that may have been key to their success—there is no reason to suggest that there is no room for new voices. Advertisers are constantly on the look out for fresh voices, and with the right strategic planning, employment of social media platforms, lots of hard work, and plenty of luck, there is no reason why someone starting a blog today should not have the same success as her/his predecessors (Boyd, 2015).

 

Works Cited

Adams, Erika (2014, August 26). Gossip, Money, Bloggers: A Hard Look at RewardStyle. Retrieved from http://www.racked.com/2014/8/26/7579283/amber-venz-rewardstyle-profile

Boyd, Sarah (2015, July 1). Blogger Emily Schuman Set to Release California Inspired Clothing Line. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/sboyd/2015/07/01/blogger-emily-schuman-set-to-release-california-inspired-clothing-line/#6f23883e7a9c

Hewitt, Marianna (2015, August 18). Ask a Blogger: Exactly How Do Fashion Bloggers Make Money? Retrieved from http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a11902/how-do-fashion-bloggers-make-money/

Jacob, Jennine (2013, April 17). Beginner SEO Tips For Fashion Bloggers. April 17, 2013. Retrieved from http://heartifb.com/2013/04/17/build-traffic-how-to-approach-seo-like-a-human/

Lundstrom Halbert, Mosha (2015, August 13). Chiara Ferragni: From Blonde Salad Blogger to Multimillion-Dollar Shoe Designer. Retrieved from http://footwearnews.com/2015/fashion/designers/chiara-ferragni-blonde-salad-shoes-photos-51789/

Phelan, Hayley (2013, August 20). How Personal Style Bloggers Are Raking In Millions. Retrieved from http://fashionista.com/2013/08/how-personal-style-bloggers-are-raking-in-millions#1

Schaefer, Kayleen (2015, May 20). How Bloggers Make Money on Instagram. Retrieved from http://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/trends/a10949/how-bloggers-make-money-on-instagram/

Strugatz, Rachel (2015, June 10). ShopStyle Banks on Bloggers, Relaunches Influencer Network. Retrieved from http://wwd.com/media-news/digital/shopstyle-collective-bloggers-10145965/

Instagram: The App with Incredible Potential as a Marketing Tool

In the five or so years it’s been around, Instagram has managed to catapult itself from a social platform casually used by people to share pictures with family and friends to a multi-million user app that is being increasingly used as a marketing platform. Defined as “a free photo sharing application that allows users to take a photo, apply a digital filter, then share it on a variety of social networking services, including [its] own,” Instagram was developed in San Francisco by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, and launched on Apple’s App store in October 2010. In April 2012, the app was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion in cash and stock, and since then has been growing from strength to strength (Basu, 2012).

It’s easy to see why users were initially drawn to the app: it is the definition of the old adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In today’s society, the immediacy of such a platform is very attractive—you simply reach for your phone, snap a picture, share it and within seconds that image you felt the world, or, at the very least your friends, needed to see (your lunch, those flowers, that dog) is immediately out there.

Compared to other social media platforms, there is something pleasing about how streamlined and clutter-free Instagram’s interface is. Unlike Facebook, for example, Instagram is all about the pictures. (Of course, captions are allowed, and often add much to the image, but on the whole it’s safe to say the app is very visually based.) Whereas on Facebook your newsfeed is likely to be bombarded by your friends’ statuses, photos, and scores on Candy Crush, Instagram offers an uncluttered, steady stream of images. And, compared to Twitter, which may be considered to be the verbal equivalent to Instagram, users can instantly get the gist of what the people they follow are trying to convey without having to actually read anything. (It must be noted that while Twitter does permit the sharing of pictures, these are essentially secondary to its main purpose, which is conveying written messages in 140 characters or less.)

So, while all of these qualities make Instagram an attractive platform for the average user, what exactly is it about the app that makes it such an attractive marketing platform? In this essay, I will attempt to argue why Instagram’s features make it so ideal for this purpose, and why more and more businesses are using the app as a marketing tool.

In the early days of Instagram, the app was primarily used in a more casual way; simply as a way for friends to share mundane snaps from their day (jazzed up a little by one of the several filters the app featured, of course). In recent years, however, it has becoming increasingly used as a marketing platform, while still retaining the attractive interface that first had users flocking to it. (While users often complain about the subtle changes the app brings in every so often, the overall feel of it has changed very little over the past few years.)

In “Ten Reasons to Adopt Instagram as a Marketing Tool,” the author notes that “social media marketing can be tricky because the whims of the population change at a moment’s notice” but fortunately for Instagram, it currently has “the cool factor in spades,” having recently overtaken Twitter as the second most popular social media platform behind Facebook (Villegas, 2015).

Unlike other platforms such as Facebook, Instagram was designed as a mobile app, with a desktop version being added only long after the app had become “culturally relevant.” The fact that most of us are constantly on the go and glued to our phones has huge appeal for marketers—as Villegas puts it, “[their] customer base is always a click away from seeing [their] posts and becoming engaged with [their] company.”

It has to be said that while the very visually based Instagram doesn’t lend itself to every business (it’s hard to imagine an exciting or aesthetically pleasing feed produced by a law firm, for example), it does, suggests Villegas, “afford companies to market themselves in new and unique ways” with features such as hashtags, time lapse videos and Instagram-specific themes such as Throwback Thursday. On the subject of hashtags, the author notes that while these are now obsolete on Twitter (who knew?), and never really caught on on Facebook, they are “extremely powerful” on Instagram, and have a two-pronged effect: when using them you can both promote your business while also making it easier for consumers and other businesses to find you.

Another reason why Instagram should be used as a marketing tool? It can be used to conduct market research, via its native hashtag search engine, which gives users an idea of how popular certain hashtags are. This information allows the user to target which hashtags are most relevant to their business, and use them appropriately. In addition, apps such as Followers+ can be used to run analytics on posts and followers to help users better understand how well their posts are engaging with their audience.

Also of note is that of the top three social media platforms, Instagram is the most youthful, with more than 40% of its users falling in the 16- to 24-year-old category, while Facebook and Twitter have more appeal for older demographics. Villegas notes that any business that targets this demographic but does not yet have a presence on Instagram is essentially not worth its salt (2015). A study conducted by BI Intelligence found that overall, the app is “skewed towards urban, youthful women,” but it should be noted that even those businesses not targeting this particular demographic should not dismiss the app as a “useless opportunity” (da Cunha, 2015). Why? Because according to da Cunha, Instagram is showing similarities to Facebook, its parent company, which initially was a social network for students of Ivy League colleges but now has “a wide international presence and includes demographics of every age, gender, race, etc.” She notes that “[she’d] be willing to bet that your parents are on Facebook.” Essentially, while Instagram’s chief demographic (as of 2015) were young women living in urban settings, it won’t be long before even older men living on farms (for example) will be jumping on the Instagram bandwagon.

The growth potential for Instagram right now is “tremendous,” with the stats bearing testament to this. In 2013, the app grew by 66% (“the biggest jump of any of the top ten mobile apps during that time period”), and brands that advertise with Instagram “receive 15 times as much engagement as they do on Facebook.” Additionally, Instagram’s sponsored posts program has proven to be more successful than Facebook’s counterpart, “boasting tremendous results in terms of ad recall and converting viewers into followers.” While Instagram’s sponsored posts come across as “organic and relevant,” the sponsored content on other social media sites can feel “spammy and unengaging,” according to Villegas. As an avid Instagram user myself, I can attest to this—several of the accounts I currently follow were initially introduced to me via a sponsored ad on my feed. And I have definitely doled out many a like to the images produced by sponsored content, which at present only advertises itself as such with a discreet “Sponsored” on the right-hand corner, and a button you can click to “Find Out More.” On Facebook, by contrast, I tend to find sponsored content irritating, and I have never “liked” a business or wanted to know more about it simply because it popped up on my feed.

Another attractive aspect of Instagram is how ideal it is for launching a marketing campaign featuring user generated content: “[companies] can enjoy the benefits of residual marketing that happens organically, and all they have to do is advertise the promotion and monitor the results by clicking a hashtag. It’s a win-win, especially given Instagram’s ubiquity and reach.” Lastly, Instagram has been proven to significantly increase revenues, which, of course, is “the ultimate goal of any marketing campaign.” A study by Shopify—a “Canadian e-commerce company…that develops computer software for online stores and retail point-of-sale systems” (Wikipedia)—found that Instagram referrals had a “higher average order than those customers who were referred by Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest.”

It is worthwhile to look into the history of advertising on Instagram in a little more depth. While these paid ads were initially only for large companies, Instagram is now making it easier for “any company in 30 countries” to advertise on the platform with a “self-serve” option. Furthermore, “analysts at Kenshoo, a marketing software company, predict that [Instagram] could make as much as $1 billion in annual revenue in the next three to four years,” with Emarketer having predicted that the app has made $595 million in ad revenue in [2015] alone (Griffith, 2015). It should also be noted that advertising on Instagram has huge appeal for businesses because, “unlike many mobile advertising platforms, Instagram has the ability to target its ads to very specific audiences using technology and data from its parent company, Facebook.” And because this specific targeting is so desirable, the pricing of ads on the app has been on the high side, with an average cost-per-thousand views (CPM) of $6.70 (a figure that is likely to change as more advertisers come on the system, according to Kenshoo). Likely because of its niche targeting, Instagram also boasts impressive clickthrough rates: “users are two and a half times more likely to click on ads than on other social media platforms,” says Kenshoo.

Additionally (as I mentioned in my other essay for this class), there is huge potential for advertisers to collaborate with bloggers and celebrities to promote their products. The rates can seem ridiculously high to those of us not in the spotlight—for example, Kylie Jenner reportedly can command $300,000 for a single Instagram post endorsing an advertiser’s products—but all things considered, a celebrity like Jenner has at present a dedicated following on Instagram of 57.1 million users, which is a staggering amount (Brown, 2016).

So, what does the future hold for Instagram as a marketing tool? It appears Instagram is treading carefully for the time being when it comes to advertising on the platform, not wanting to cause outrage amongst its 400 million plus users, who are extremely verbal when it comes to venting their frustration at changes the app brings in (Griffith, 2015). (The latest proposed change, in which users’ feeds would be arranged not in chronological order, but rather in the order of which users they interact with the most, had users in an uproar.)

In “The Future of Advertising on Instagram” (Allen, 2015), the author notes that when the app “officially switched on its ads API [in August 2015],” a huge turning point was marked. Prior to this, ads could only be bought by contacting an Instagram sales rep directly (and then, this was only for larger companies in certain locations), but the changes brought about mean that Instagram can grow at an even more rapid pace. Analysis conducted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch predicted that the app’s revenues “could increase tenfold over the next two years, to reach near $1 billion in 2017, and continue to skyrocket, to over $3.8 billion by 2020.” While Instagram overtook Twitter in late 2014 in terms of the number of monthly active users, it has yet to overtake it in revenue—but at the rate it’s expanding, it’s almost a given that it will do so within the next year or so.

All things considered, the future is looking remarkably bright for Instagram’s foray into being viewed as a powerful marketing tool. While no one knows quite what the future holds for social media platforms, it is pretty much guaranteed that advertisers will be flocking to the app in increasing numbers in the coming years as the opportunities it presents for reaching out to a huge number of users are vast.

Works Cited

Allen, Robert (2015, August 25). The Future of Advertising on Instagram. Retrieved from http://www.smartinsights.com/social-media-marketing/instagram-marketing/the-future-of-advertising-on-instagram/

Basu, Kaustav (2012, April 9). A Brief History of Instagram. Retrieved from http://visual.ly/brief-history-instagram

Brown, Kara (2016, January 19). Here’s How Much Celebrities Make in the Instagram Product Placement Machine. Retrieved from http://jezebel.com/heres-how-much-celebrities-make-in-the-instagram-produc-1740632946

Da Cunha, Margot (2015, January 6). 10 Instagram Marketing Tips to Make People <3 Your Brand. Retrieved from http://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2015/01/06/instagram-marketing

Griffith, Erin (2015, September 9). Instagram Gets Serious About Ads, Opening Platform to All. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/09/09/instagram-advertising/

Shopify (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shopify

Villegas, Felipa (2015, February 11). Ten Reasons to Adopt Instagram as a Marketing Tool. Retrieved from http://getlevelten.com/blog/felipa-villegas/ten-reasons-adopt-instagram-marketing-tool

 

Please Bot Responsibly

Please Bot Responsibly: A Compendium of Audience Building Bot-haviors

By Erik Hanson

Building an audience on social media can be a laborious, time-intensive endeavor, so it only makes sense to use technological affordance where they are available. One such technology, social bots, are capable of making audience building an easier task by automating many of the time intensive tasks. A common place for social media audience building bots is Twitter, with which this paper will concern itself. It will argue that although bots, through increased sophistication in automation, have the capacity to aid greatly in building an active and engaged audience, one must exercise caution when designing and implementing the bot in order to navigate the challenges of being labeled as a spam bot, managing users’ expectations of bots interactions and embracing the possibilities of semi-autonomous bots.

Source: adweek.com

Twitter bots are here to stay.

Continue reading

Pull vs Push: How has the paradigm shifted?

Pull vs. push: how has the paradigm shifted?

The pull vs push strategy as employed in marketing has undergone a paradigm shift. In the old days, it was about pushing products out. Manufacturers had the power to decide what to process, the retailers sold what was handed to them. According to an article in The Frontline, “The push system involved manufacturers deciding what they’re going to produce and then trying to get retailers to buy it and sell it for them.”

Enter Walmart.

The world’s largest retailer isn’t so only in name—“It has over 11,100 stores in ~27 countries. With a market cap of over $275 billion, it ranks among the top ten companies in the S&P 500 Index”. (Analyzing Walmart – The World’s Largest Retailer)

Walmart revolutionized the pull vs push strategy by placing the power in the hands of retailers. “The retailers have more and more say over what is being produced, under what pricing, at what time. They’re basically playing a key role in dictating exactly what will be produced, when and where.” (The Frontline)

Pull vs Push in Publishing

Now let us consider the pull vs push phenomenon in the increasingly digital world of publishing. Allowing readers to pull in the content they wish to read is not only vital but pretty much the only option left to publishers today. “We’re moving to an environment where it will be about consumers pulling rather than publishers pushing a product,” said David Steinberger, president of Perseus Books. Adds Rajiv Jain, chief technology officer of photo-marketing site Corbis: “Discoverability has always been an issue, but there’s now infinite shelf space.” (Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content)

In the olden days it was a matter of laying content out at the bookstore. Publishers chose the books that ought to make front shelf. This made them further choose the books to publish—which happened to be the ones they felt were front-shelf worthy. There may have been countless novels and stories that never saw the light of day because of such monopoly. Either that or a miraculous change of events led the publisher to see the error of its ways. Following is an example of one of the biggest errors of judgment in publishing history:

The Christopher Little Literary Agency received 12 publishing rejections in a row for their new client, until the eight-year-old daughter of a Bloomsbury editor demanded to read the rest of the book. The editor agreed to publish but advised the writer to get a day job since she had little chance of making money in children’s books. Yet Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling spawned a series where the last four novels consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history, on both sides of the Atlantic, with combined sales of 450 million. (Best-sellers initially rejected)

While the traditional routes of marketing books were limited, publishers enjoyed power. But with the emergence of the Web that changed. There is now “infinite shelf space” as Jain put it. Social media platforms emerged to compartmentalize that space quite well. SEO giants emerged to make sure the platforms remained viable and connected. Giant online retailers such as Amazon emerged to capitalize on it further and self-publishing became a glowing testimony to power changing hands.

Enter Web 2.0

Going back to square one for a bit, let us examine the word “push” in detail. The official US poster of Terminator genisys  at a bus stop, advertising both Arnold Schwarzenegger in his full, machine-with-a-soul glory and the dates when the movie would hit theatres is an example of “pushing” content out. It is already there. Terminator fans see the poster and know what they have to look forward to and when. They do not put in any effort to looking up the details on their own. In the “push” case, you are basically shoving matter out and hoping your customer picks it up. This type of strategy works well in cases where the brand is established beyond a doubt. Terminator is a franchise and the mighty and as-impassive-as-ever Schwarzenegger, its selling point. Push in such a case works fine. Fans are bound to hit the theatres.

Now let us look at “pull”. If I want to read fiction involving, say, North Korea, I google the very words: fiction involving North Korea. Google promptly comes up with about 404,000 searches (in 0.51 seconds). The sites that stand out prominently are Wikipedia, Goodreads, Amazon, and even important news sites, in this case, The Guardian. While “pull” here involved a bit of work—thinking up what words to search—the reward was a collection of about 400,000 sites to choose from! That is a lot of content to choose from and conversely speaking, not at all the monopolized rendering or “pushing out” of content as a publisher would have traditionally preferred.

I find something intriguing—The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. A Pulitzer prize winning novel, it deals with themes of propaganda, identity, and power in North Korea, and has been published by Penguin Random House. The very first site advertising the same is Amazon.com and along with this novel, Amazon recommends what other books customers look at—for similar themes or simply by virtue of them all being award winners.

Screenshot (43)

But it doesn’t stop at that. There is more.

Goodreads does even better. It lists out entire e-shelves of books that have anything to do with North Korean literature.

Screenshot (42)

Not to be left behind, Wikipedia has its own “Category: North Korea in fictionas well as North Korean literature”. The Guardian weighs in with “The best books on North Korea | World News…” And that’s not all, scroll down a nanometer and you can see The Washington Post proudly brandishing its own list of “10 illuminating books about North Korea”. And this by no way is the end of the list.

But already, I have choices. I now have “Aquariums of Pyongyang: 10 years in the North Korean Gulag” by Kang Chol-Hwan and “Nothing to envy: Ordinary lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick to add to my list of intriguing North Korean literature.

Push to pull (by reluctant publishers) to push (by interested readers)

This is where things become more interesting—turning push to pull. Publishers who want to succeed must realize that the time to push content out is past. Readers pull in what they want and in turn, it is the readers who “push” content out further. And this is where the shift comes in—readers choose what to push out. Control has changed hands.

Using social media platforms, publishers make sure everything they have is out there. The Orphan Master’s Son exists on Goodreads, Amazon, Wikipedia; it has a Facebook page, it has been tweeted about, and it has also been bandied about on Pinterest and Tumblr. But from here we enter murky territory. The success of the novel does not depend on the social media platforms that the publisher has used to make its existence known. At least not anymore. And not from a lack of making an effort at pulling readers in but simply because readers now have choice. They can choose if they still want to read The Orphan Master’s Son—even though the publishers think it is the best and even though it now has a Pulitzer Prize to its credit.

In fact, while “pulling” my own content in, I decided I found Escape from Camp 14 by American journalist Blaine Harden more intriguing. So not only do I pull that content in, I choose to push it out further. I decide to pin it on my Pinterest page on books I have read so far. Other interested “Pinteresters” look it up, and repin it from me.  I like its “Facebook” page. My close friend on FB who “follows” my activities, looks it up intrigued. And now it seems he has read it too because the 500 “likes” for “Escape from Camp 14” just increased by one more reader. I vote and add to its scores of 90 and 8,907, respectively, on Goodreads. In all this rigmarole, The Orphan Master’s Son lies forgotten—and not because it is an inferior novel in any way. It must be an excellent book with harrowing themes of love, betrayal, dark underground tunnels, and harsh labour camp laws—not very different from Escape from Camp 14 itself. Yet my choice is all that mattered in the moment I chose to go with Escape from Camp 14 and not the latter. Flustered publishers had already done their bit—they had tried pulling in readers for both books as best as they could.

But this is exactly how the pull vs push paradigm works today. Readers pull in what they like and choose to push it out further. Publishers are relinquishing control.

“In cyberspace, it’s hard to push material in front of readers the way it has been done by a bookstore, a newspaper delivery boy or a mail carrier. But bookstores are disappearing. And readers often reject commercial e-mails from publishers. Many online readers use a search function when they want news or information rather than seek out a particular website.” (Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content)

Fear of discoverability to “infinite shelf space”

The question that emerges is what does the publisher do? Or lets go back a bit and analyze why publishers were so anxious to push out certain types of content while blatantly disregarding other precious gems as discovered by serendipity. After all, Louis L’Armour received 200 rejections before Bantam decided to risk it. He is now their bestselling author with 330 million sales. (Best-Sellers Initially Rejected)

What is it that they feared? Discoverability.

And that has now changed. With Web 2.0 and the relentless social media presence brought on by it, there is immense scope for discoverability. Or rather, with the “infinite shelf space”, publishers are at a loss as to how to control the flow of media.

Initially, plagued by fears of discoverability, publishers chose what to publish, thus maintaining a tight rein on the entire process from tailoring content to choosing the book cover. Now the digital world has made discoverability quite easy and, therefore, even trickier for publishers.

So these are the questions plaguing a publisher these days: How do they ensure their products are discovered when readers have a million others to choose from? How do they make themselves useful? David Steinberger, president of Perseus Books asks, “How do you invigorate that pull?” It gets better, which social media platform do you choose from? Or does all or any of it matter in the end if it all depends on the reader?

Attempts at pulling in readers: the grimaces, the sacrifices

Communities around brands

“According to Conde Nast group president David Carey, newspapers and magazines foster communities of readers that “form around our brands.” For example, Wired magazine hosts events that attract as many as 50,000 people. At the same time, former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz warned that in the digital world, communities based on content producers’ brands are fragile. “It would be easier for publishers to work together to create a New York Yankees website than to get Yankees fans to come to a newspaper website,” he said. (Pull vs. Push: Publishers Search for New Ways to Help Readers Discover Their Content)

Why didn’t a publisher buy Goodreads?

The twist came the day Amazon bought Goodreads instead of a publisher! After all, if you want to build a community of readers around your products, a better platform than Goodreads cannot be imagined.

A “social cataloguing” website, it allows “individuals to freely search Goodreads’ extensive user-populated database of books, annotations, and reviews. Users can sign up and register books to generate library catalogs and reading lists. They can also create their own groups of book suggestions, surveys/polls, blogs, and discussions. In December 2007, the site had over 650,000 members and over 10,000,000 books had been added. As of July 2012, the site reported 10 million members, 20 million monthly visits, and 30 employees. On July 23, 2013, it was announced on their website that the user base had grown to 20 million members, having doubled in close to 11 months.” Courtesy: Wikipedia

Of course, as Hoffelder suggests in his article “There’s A Reason That No One in Publishing Bought Goodreads“,  it could be about “publishers not being able to afford the rumored $150 million that Amazon paid for Goodreads, but they probably could have afforded it when it was smaller.” In fact in 2010, 3 major publisher got together to announce “a new site that would give them a direct digital connection to readers. It’s called Bookish, and it does give Hachette, Penguin, or Simon & Schuster a direct connection to readers. But the connection it offers is so very, very different from Goodreads that the differences tell us quite a bit about these publishers’ priorities.”

Goodreads vs Bookish

The contrasting differences here are examples of how publishers realize that the time to “push” content out is long gone but are still living in denial.

“Goodreads was launched to encourage readers to show up and be bookish. The community formed around them.

Bookish, on the other hand, was launched in order to provide Hachette, S&S, and Penguin with “direct digital customer relationships”. The publishers got to build it from the ground up, and the manner in which it functions says a lot about the type of ”direct digital customer relationships” these publishers want to have. The word relationship implies that there is more than one party speaking, and that is not the point of Bookish. This site exists to be little more than yet another marketing channel for publishers.” (Goodreads vs Bookish)

Going after Facebook and Twitter: not exactly a success story

Shareaholic report has shown that Facebook still reigns as king of social media. With an outstanding 22.3% of overall traffic to sites coming from Facebook, it is one of the best places for publishers to promote their content. (Facebook vs Pinterest vs Twitter: What Should Publishers Use?)

In fact, desperate publishers would even team up with rival organizations to pull readers in. In a recent blog, a writer says, “The Daily Dot regularly posts other publishers’ articles on its Facebook page, which featured 40 such articles in the past week. The site works with around 35 publishers, including Mental Floss, Maxim and Wired. Seven of those sites have agreed in turn to post Daily Dot stories on their own Facebook pages.” (In search of Facebook love, publishers form link-sharing pacts with each other)

Earlier last year, “nine major publishers began publishing articles straight to Facebook under the social network’s long-anticipated product, called Instant Articles. Facebook sweetened the deal by letting publishers control the ad sales, branding and content; sell ads on the articles and keep all the revenue; and get data on their readers.” But the attitudes are not as bracing as they seem. Not every publisher is happy about such strategies—after all, who likes to relinquish control.? “BuzzFeed and NBC News were the only ones to go all in committing to using the product. Others, like The New York Times and the Atlantic,” … took “a more cautious approach”. (How publishers are using Facebook’s instant articles)

Moreover, a few thousand “likes” hardly mean that their content is being read or that their books are being bought. Keeping readers engaged on their Facebook page is another matter.

Regarding the success of the “Instant Articles”, a blog post explained how it has led publishers to sacrifice their own site visits for the 1.5 billion pairs of eyes that visit Facebook, not to mention it only means more revenue for Facebook itself. “As TechCrunch eloquently wrote, ‘[they] are in danger of becoming dumb content in the smart pipes of platforms like Facebook and Twitter’.” Moreover, “With channels like Facebook, you’ll never see the full picture. As such, you can’t compare it to your own data, you can’t use it to build your own interest graph, and you have no control over who your content gets matched with.” (Are Facebook’s Instant Articles Actually Beneficial to Publishers?)

There was a time when Twitter was used to tell compelling stories.

“Previously, the platforms were willing to pass people on to a publisher’s website where they could show ads, promote their other posts, and forge a relationship worthy of a subscription fee or frequent repeat visits. The platform just wanted to be a gateway, and run ads between these chances for discovery.”

“Now, the platforms want to absorb the Internet, becoming the destination — a sit-down restaurant, not a take-out counter. The latest example of this is howTwitter’s newspapery Moments feature assimilates the content of tweets it aggregates on mobile, but hides the vital link back to the publisher’s website without users even knowing.” (Twitter And Facebook Are Turning Publishers Into Ghost Writers)

Pinterest might have some hope

As Mary Hiers says, “Pinterest has had an astonishing rise to prominence since it started as a closed beta operation in March 2010. By August 2012, Pinterest was the fourth largest source of traffic worldwide.

According to Matt Crystal, Head of International at Pinterest, “Pinterest is quickly becoming an important part of the audience development and engagement strategy for publishers. Publisher content is a great fit for Pinterest, and because every Pin links back to its source, we drive significant traffic to publishers of all kinds.” (A Publisher’s Guide to Pinterest Strategy)

As journalist Alastair Reid reports, “The notion of saving pins to a board is powerful,” he said. “It signals consumer intent and starts a chain reaction of sharing.”

But this is where the news stops being so good. Pinterest is still heavily dominated by female users, according to a research survey—users into crafts, fashion, lifestyle, and cooking. So this site might not be too conducive for content from every type of publisher. Plus, again content trafficking is solely in the hands of readers. It all depends on which pin they want to repin, which has absolutely nothing to do with which publisher has advertised that pin!

Tumblr? Nah…

“For publishers, social media is mostly about driving traffic… Several publishers report it doesn’t drive much traffic”. Amanda Michel, The Guardian’s U.S. open editor, said it “doesn’t have obvious transactional value.” Another social editor for a large publication said it is “more of a fun, rogue little playground.” (Is Tumblr a Must For Publishers?)

Conclusion

The bond between readers and publishers weakened a long time ago. In a Web-besieged world where content can flow in through apps, devices, computers, tablets, and other digitized screens, expecting a steady inflow of dedicated readers is out of the question. With the emergence of Amazon, bookstores—a publisher’s direct link to readers—already started going extinct.

But that was not all. Amazon’s Kindle Publishing System came along to make things uglier—for the publishers. This system has turned self-publishing into a wholly exciting and global phenomenon. In fact, Hugh Howey, with his hugely popular Wool series, which he initially released as a self-published book on Amazon’s aforementioned platform, is a live example of how a traditional publisher can be rendered completely useless.

Reluctant but still desperate to drive content, publishers started using social media sites to help generate traffic to their own sites. But here they are faced with several challenges, each more complicated than the next. This is the age of the web, meaning an explosion of content and shorter attention spans. Jumping from content to content can hardly ensure a dedicated readership to a particular website. In fact, in this day and age, distraction rules and therefore, quality of content suffers.

As mentioned above, it is totally up to the reader whether they want to follow content to its birth parent or simply forgo it and choose from the million other options. There are hundreds of sites to choose from. Choices offered by social media are endless. Therefore, publishers can hardly have a say in it.

While Fifty Shades of Grey outsold Harry Potter, raking in millions for Penguin Random House, it left more than one mouth hanging open at the incredulity of this phenomenon. Even the parent company could not have anticipated such phenomenal success! In the traditional days, a publisher would have outright rejected such ambitious content. And in the unlikely event that a publisher did risk publishing it, the book could hardly have hit headlines, had it not been for the ease with which its content was picked up—and read discreetly!—on tablets, ipads, and a multitude of other such devices with screens. In addition, let us not forget the enthusiastic reader tweets, retweets, pins, repins, likes, shares, and downloads!

Last but not the least—it is a dog eat dog world out there. Social media platforms themselves cannot only be concerned with the joys of a publisher. This is quite clear with the “Internet absorption” that is going on currently. “Facebook doesn’t need any individual publisher, but they all need the social network. Facebook never wants you to leave, so it’s swallowing up where you might try to go. A few years back, its News Feed brimmed with links to content hosted elsewhere. News articles, YouTube clips, business websites, ads for ecommerce stores.” (Facebook’s Quest To Absorb The Internet)

Yet these are desperate times. “With way more content than its algorithm can stuff into people’s feeds, supply is high, and Facebook controls the demand. If it’s willing to give publishers a way to stand out in the feed and get more traffic, they’re willing to try it rather than risk being left outside the garden walls.” (Facebook’s Quest To Absorb The Internet)

The rest is of course up to a reader. There is no saying what will take one’s fancy. These are days of the vampires, werewolves, and shades of gloomy colours!

It is not a pretty picture. But it is all there is. For now.

Game of Tomes: Embedded and Emergent Narrative in Video Games

Whether we like it or not, playing, discussing, and creating video games is an ever popular past time being enjoyed by an increasingly wide range of the people. This medium tends to be disregarded as without intellectual or cultural merit, unlike books and films that are highbrow, because of the negative image of those who game. It is important to appreciate just how significant video games are to our culture, as they are increasingly becoming the way in which many individuals consume stories. This essay will explore the current standard of video game narrative, the appeal of these games for those who consume them and the future of game writing and development. While there are only a few scholarly articles written on this subject, there is a high level of conversation on the subject among gamers and much of the information in this essay comes from those who engage in games the most.

Continue reading

Wither the PDF

In an age of unprecedented document sharing, the Portable Document Format, better known as the PDF, is ubiquitous. Though there are no official statistics, a Google search for PDF formatted documents in 2007 returned 236 million documents compared to 37 million Microsoft Word documents (1), and the number can only have grown since then. The reasons for its popularity seem clear. It is described by creator Adobe as being “used to present and exchange documents reliably, independent of software, hardware, or operating system”. It offers document control, visual consistency across screen and print and ease of sharing. However, it is also limiting and fails to maximise on the potential of digital documents, particularly in the realm of scholarly publishing. When considering the nature of digital reading and the evolving nature of scholarly work, it is clear that the PDF falls short of enabling users to get the most out of the digital realm. Instead, researchers should look to other formats like HTML to create dynamic, interactive documents that allow both authors and readers to interact with a text in any way they see fit.

The PDF was originally conceived by Adobe co-founder John Warnock in 1991 when he launched the Camelot Project. His vision was to solve the issue of universal communication and formatting of printed information. At the time, fax machines were the most advanced method of sharing documents quickly, but were limited by poor quality, high communication bandwidth and being device specific. More generally, digital formatting and layout were considered complicated (2). The solution Warnock devised was built on PostScript, a device-independent page description language that had been widely adopted as a standard for application outputs. PostScript was limited, though, by requiring a powerful computer to process it and a PostScript capable printer. To circumvent these, Warnock proposed a new language, a subset to PostScript, that did not require a complete PostScript parser to process. Then, with a new version of the PostScript interpreter, any PostScript file could be converted to the new format, that included a structure storage system, creating a self-contained file that could be sent anywhere and viewed or printed exactly as intended (2) (3). Warnock predicted that this new format would work even on small machines, enabling widespread adoption, as well as allowing distribution of documents via email, text searching capabilities and improved document archiving. This concept was revolutionary in a time when the web was in its infancy, exchanging ideas was limited to emails, bulletin boards and chatrooms, and documents were restricted by incompatible platforms and software versions (4).

From this vision, the PDF was created. PDF 1.0 was released in 1993, and early feature additions included password security, internal and external linking, interactive elements like checkboxes and digital signatures and improved colour and web-capture features (5). In the decades since, these features have been developed and strengthened, with other options like redaction and some minor editing tools added. It is undeniably one of, if not the most commonly used format in document management today, fulfilling Warnock’s dream of a device- and OS-neutral format that preserves a document as originally intended. His predictions around emailing documents and archiving have also proved accurate. Its importance was perhaps most clearly recognised in 2008 when the format became an ISO standard, ensuring its survival as an easily available format for stakeholders that include governments and multinational corporations (6). It also affirmed that future PDF viewing software will be backwards compatible, meaning they can open earlier PDF versions, again ensuring the long term usefulness of the format for archiving (7).

However, the very nature of the format that made it so revolutionary when it was first conceived is what makes it unsuited to the digital age we now find ourselves in. Where the PDF was designed to improve viewing and printing, technology has evolved to a point where a document’s uses and its readers’ needs go far beyond that. Historically, readers have not been able to contribute to published information, but production is no longer done in isolation, and publishing is no longer a one-way process (8). Editing, reviewing, commenting, annotating, sharing and collaborating are all possible in ways that could not have been accounted for in the original development of the PDF, and it has not effectively adapted to new demands. What staticity and near universal compatibility do offer is a powerful tool for print production, and with the related PDF/A format a reliable option for archiving digital-born documents (9), but for nearly any mode of communication beyond that the PDF is restrictive and stifling.

Before considering new demands, though, it is important to note that one half of the PDF’s most basic raisons d’etre – improved viewing – has suffered over time. Screen technology has evolved as quickly as other digital technologies, particularly with the rise of mobile, tablets and touchscreens. With their fixed format and proportions, PDFs are not mobile responsive, making them extremely difficult to read on handheld devices. As early as 2001, Jakob Nielsen, a user experience expert, was lamenting that PDFs only served to replicate the look of a printed page, which didn’t work for display in a browser window, and that navigation was difficult, resulting in a poor user experience (10). Since then, digital reading has moved even further from the printed page and is fast becoming the predominant mode of reading. This requires specifically designed tools and reading environments that enable new forms of publishing information that go beyond replicating a traditional paper page on-screen (11). In addition to this, an often overlooked form of reading is also affected by the limited visual focus of PDFs – they have widely been found to be inaccessible for readers with disabilities who rely on screen readers, requiring extra software, and even with that offering inconsistent results (1).

Along with the visual presentation of text, digital reading involves a level of interaction and co-creation of documents that has not previously been possible with print. Looking at the tools users might require, PDF does offer some, in limited forms. Commenting and highlighting are possible, but they exist in isolation and are not seen by anyone unless the document is sent directly to them, and this process can’t be carried out by multiple authors concurrently. Moving from reading to production, editing and workflow functions are limited to paid versions of the Adobe Acrobat software suite, and still fail to match the collaborative nature of digital work in the same way that digital first platforms like Google Docs do. This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that PDF is an open format, and several tools have been built to try to allow for more varied and productive uses. Simple tools like A.nnotate allow in-browser PDF annotation for individuals and groups, but others like Utopia Docs make a direct connection between static PDFs and the online world. It acts as an alternative PDF viewer, reading the document for what is available within it, then seeking out additional information from publishers or the community to build a more complete, connected picture (12). This kind of tool is significant considering the reality of how much research is currently stored in PDF format, and that any challenge to that dominance is unlikely to see much existing research converted. In this sense, Utopia Docs fits with Willinsky, Garnett and Wong’s vision of researchers and scholarly publishers learning to use PDFs more effectively, rather than seeking a new standard format (13). However while their discussion of how PDFs could be better executed is comprehensive and informative, even they concede that all of their recommendations could equally apply to a PDF successor, and they do not solve all the issues PDFs present.

To continue with considering forms of digital reading, there remains one that the PDF again fails to account for – machine reading. Digital documents are increasingly being read by programs, not people, meaning they need to be structured appropriately for that purpose (14). While PDFs do contain metadata to enable some machine reading, their design deliberately retains as little information as possible to reduce the file size, prioritising the information necessary for accurate display. This makes it difficult to extract and can lead to inconsistencies (13). Further, while viewing a PDF is simple, uses beyond that can be easily limited through digital rights management (DRM). As research methods have developed alongside new technologies, scholars are looking to use text and data mining to form new insights, but many publishers are employing DRM to limit these activities. While researchers expect to be able to interact with texts and data beyond simple (human) reading and they have the capacity to do so (15), many copyright holders claim that this breaches their rights. It took a supreme court ruling in the UK to confirm that these activities do not violate copyright (16), but this applies only to their jurisdiction and researchers internationally are still in uncertain territory. While the challenges to text and data mining go beyond the format that the information is stored in, PDFs simple control of a document’s uses that can affect even the smallest forays into text analysis. Further, if PDF is being used for archiving, any DRM measures can have an impact on future accessibility of research, although PDF/A forbids encryption (17).

Another limitation is that once downloaded, a PDF disappears from view in the network, and so there is no way to track or measure how it is used. In scholarly publishing specifically, this drastically reduces the possible measures of how research circulates, in particular discounting them from any altmetrics that measure social engagement. In some cases this anonymity has been used to scholars’ advantage in times of need, notably with the recent popularity of SciHub, which uses legitimate credentials to download a PDF of a paywalled journal article, delivers it to whoever requested it free of charge, and stores a copy for future searches. In response to this, publishing consultant Joe Esposito referred to PDFs as “a weapons-grade tool for piracy”, because of the ease of sharing and the few identifying features of any given PDF (18). However, beyond this, Esposito has also pointed out that a PDF journal article dropping out of the networked environment when it is downloaded reduces the measure of its reach to download numbers and citation counts, both of which fail to properly capture the complexity of an article’s impact (19). Without the links and traces that most communications leave online, there is less available data about the use, impact, and visibility of research within the academic community, and beyond it (20). While these data are largely used to complement or predict traditional measures of impact by updating them for the digital age (21), altmetrics also have the potential to foster a system that values public use of research and offers a more level playing field for researchers in developing countries (22). By distributing and circulating research in a closed-off format, the research community is losing valuable data.

After considering the shortcomings of the PDF format, it is important to then consider what alternatives are open to scholars and publishers to continue their work and make the most of the opportunities offered to them by digital technologies. Some suggest reverting to PostScript, the original language that PDF is based on, whose limitations around computing power and printer-compatibility are now all but obsolete. Others recommend plain text formats in some contexts, for storage and data management. Pettifer, McDermott, Marsh, Thorne, Villeger and Attwood (12) offer a detailed comparison of various formats that may serve different needs:

PDF Comparison

However, leaving aside archiving and printing, it seems that the most universal and versatile format is HTML. HTML was invented around the same time as the PDF and its strength lies in its simplicity and flexibility (2). The language was actually first invented for scholarly communication, and offers comprehensive metadata, unlimited linking, simple reference management (23). It also allows for better searching, more simple and cheap tools and plugins, more creativity in formatting, mobile capability, and most importantly, it allows authors and readers to maximise what it means to create and experience a document online. Where a PDF is a terminal format, HTML creates living documents that can evolve and change over time. It also enables all the functions that a PDF limits – searching, text and data mining and reader interaction in the form of annotation, commenting and review. It is also held as the highest standard of accessibility for disabled readers (1). In essence, it enables digital reading in a way that, despite improvements over time, the PDF format is unlikely to ever achieve. It also leaves open the possibility for new and more creative engagement in the future.

Ultimately, the dominance of the PDF looks unlikely to be shaken overnight. It remains a default setting for document management, and does serve as an excellent tool for printing. However, that strength alone speaks to how inadequate the format is in an age where print is less and less relevant as a method of consuming information. It is a relic; a terminal format that once created assumes that what is written will not change, and will be read in isolation. For scholarly publishing, this not only affects the creation of and contributions to research, but limits how that research can be used, and how its influence can be measured. Looking to the future, researchers and publishers should consider all the possibilities of how scholarly work could be used, and that how their readers might want to engage with it. While change may happen slowly, this consideration of the appropriateness of a format, rather than defaulting to the norm, should be the first step in broadening the horizons.

 

References:

1 – Turró, M. R. (2008). Are PDF Documents Accessible?. Information Technology & Libraries, 27(3), 25-43.

2 – King, J. (2004). A Format Design Case Study: PDF. Hypertext ‘04: Proceedings of the fifteenth ACM conference on Hypertext and hypermedia, 95-97

3 – Fanning, B. (2007). PDF Standards.

4 – Quora.com, How was the PDF format created?

5 – Thomas, K. (1999). Portable Document Format: An Introduction for Programmers.

6 – ISO.org, PDF Format Becomes ISO Standard.

7 – PDFA.org, PDF/A FAQ.

8 – Jones, T. (2012). Why Digital Books Will Become Writable. Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto.

9 – Han, Y. (2015). Beyond TIFF and JPEG2000: PDF/A as an OAIS submission information package container. Library Hi Tech, 33(3), 409 – 423

10 – Nielsen, J. (2001). Avoid PDF For On-Screen Reading.

11 – Pearson, J., Buchanan, G. & Thimbleby, H. (2013). Designing for Digital Reading.

12 – Pettifer, S., McDermott, P., Marsh, J., Thorne, D., Villeger A. & Attwood, T .K. (2011). Ceci n’est pas un Hamburger: Modelling and Representing the Scholarly Article. Learned Publishing, 24, 207–220.

13 – Willinsky, J. Garnett, A. & Wong, A. P. (2012). Refurbishing the Camelot of Scholarship: How to Improve the Digital Contribution of the PDF Research Article. Journal of Electronic Publishing, 15(1)

14 – McCoy, B. (2014). The Inhuman Future of Digital Reading. Journal of Electronic Publishing, 17(1)

15 – Carpenter, T. (2016). Text and Data Mining Are Growing and Publishers Need to Support Their Use – An AAP-PSP Panel Report.

16 – CopyrightUser.org, Text & Data Mining.

17 – DigitalPreservation.gov, PDF/A-1, PDF for Long-term Preservation, Use of PDF 1.4.

18 – Esposito, J. (2016). Sci-Hub and the Four Horsemen of the Internet.

19 – Esposito, J. (2008). Downloads as Failure.

20 – Holmberg, J. H. (2015). Altmetrics for Information Professionals.

21 – Sud, P. & Thelwall, M. (2014). Evaluating Altmetrics.Scientometrics, 98(2), 1131-1143

22 – Alperin, J. P. (2013), Ask not what altmetrics can do for you, but what altmetrics can do for developing countries. Bul. Am. Soc. Info. Sci. Tech., 39: 18–21

23 – Fenner, M. (2011). A very brief history of Scholarly HTML.

A Fistful of Data: Franco Moretti and the stuplime experience of big data

In the past few years, the digital humanities have become one of the sexier modes of literary study in the academy. The merging of scientific processes of inquiry and the art of subjective, qualitative study has been embodied in the work of Franco Moretti, professor of English at Stanford University and founder of the Stanford Literary Lab. Moretti is part of the vanguard of the digital humanities, striking forward with equal parts innovative method and charisma. In many ways, the digital humanities have become synonymous with Moretti’s name and his work, which has included Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005) and Distant Reading (2013), among others. Moretti’s scientific approach to literature has sparked a discussion on big data and what it means to use quantitative studies in the humanities. His work has involved looking at thousands of titles of literature and analyzing the meta data from those titles; he has analyzed relationships between characters over time, changing title lengths during a constrained period, and has created visualization maps to illustrate his findings. The digital humanities and the use of big data to analyze literature have been critiqued in the academy, but what is our emotional reaction to this big data, as an initial instinct rather than as a slowly formed intellectual opinion? This paper will explore the use of big data in the digital humanities and how this big data results in an emotional response akin to awe and boredom. Our confrontation with big data results in the experience of what Sianne Ngai calls “stuplimity,” a term that will be further defined later, but which explains the complex emotional response to something both sublime and tedious. This response to literature’s big data is not caused by the individual texts themselves, but rather by the enormity of the data as a whole. It also inspires a sense of reverential respect for the individual partaking in the data collection: are digital humanists the new heroes, traversing untravelled frontiers? Finally, I will consider how the collectors and “scientists” of big data are heroes of tedium, uncovering new information about the study of the humanities through means of qualitative formalism.

Continue reading

The German Ebook Market and the Success of the Skoobe app

According to an interview last year with the managing director of the German Booksellers and Publisher’s Association, Alexander Skipis, “Germany is a nation of readers. As the second largest book industry in the world, the German market functions as a role model for both quality and diversity, and market performance is generally stable. We are eager to maintain and expand this state of affairs.” (Sussman, 2015). While this is coming from someone promoting their own segment of the book market and therefore might be taken with a grain of salt, it is undeniable that Germany is a huge player in the world of books, acquiring a turnover of 9.32 billion Euros last year.

One of the things that really stands out in the German book market is the strength of their print and brick and mortar retail sales. In 2014, physical bookstores still outperformed online retailers in Germany (Sussman). To go hand-in-hand with this, ebook sales have not taken off at all in this part of the world. This essay will explore why Germany has this stagnant ebook market and how one subscription based ebook app took off despite this.

As in North America, ebook sales in Germany have been rising. However, unlike in the US and Canada, they have risen at a very slow and almost reluctant pace. As you can see in the following graph, in 2014 the numbers reached 4.3% of the overall German book market (Sussman, 2015).

German graph

Looking at the overall picture since 2010, one can see that growth was never particularly huge, but has slowed down even more in the past three years. If you compare this to the North American ebook sales numbers, there is a dramatic difference. The graph below illustrates US ebook sales and shows a rise to 20% of the book market by 2014 – in huge contrast to 4% in Germany (Statista).

US graph

A Bloomsberg business article from a number of years ago, when this trend of slow sales in Germany was just manifesting itself, noted a few potential reasons for this (Winter). This article suggested that Germany is set up to support print books but not ebooks and that certain economics play into the slow adoption pattern (Winter). For example, print books are exempt from the full 19% VAT tax, with only 7% being added on to the price set by publishers. For ebooks, this tax is still applied in full (Matting). There have been some moves on the part of cultural ministers in France, Germany, Italy, and Poland to lower this tax, but is hasn’t met much success yet (Adamowski).

Another key factor cited in the Bloomsberg article and elsewhere, is the long held pride in print books that Germany has (Winter). Since the time of Gutenberg, German book printing and publishing has been a thing of high regard and print book sales have reflected this throughout their history. Elements of the current economy such as the VAT tax reflect this value.

Despite how small the ebook segment of the market is, a particular subscription based ebook app has taken off with relative success. At a time when subscription models in North America are under debate, this case study can provide us with some insight into what it would take to have a successful subscription model.

Skoobe 01
This German app is called Skoobe – if you are particularly adept you might notice the name spells “ebooks” backwards. Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck, two publishing media conglomerates, launched the app in 2012. On its website Bertelsmann describes itself as “a media, services, and education company that operates in about 50 countries around the world” (Bertelsmann). Among many other organizations, they own Penguin Random House and the magazine publisher Gruner + Jahr which publishes magazines all over the globe. In 2015, it generated more than 17 billion Euros in revenue and currently employs 117,000 employees (Bertelsmann).

Holtzbrinck is also a huge media group that focuses almost exclusively on publishers. They have brought four well-known publishers with long histories together: Macmillan Publishers, Nature, Springer, and S. Fischer. They describe themselves as “As a media group dedicated to science, education and the wider cause of reading the Holtzbrinck Group aspires to provide first class service to our authors, researchers, academics, educators, librarians and readers” (Holtzbrinck website).

In the publishing industry we often hear people ask why publishers have not taken up the reigns on digital publishing enterprises such as Kobo or Goodreads or something new we cannot even imagine. Skoobe is unique in that it stemmed from the owners of some of the largest publishers in the world. These two media corporations together have a lot of money and experience in the publishing and media world and were able to put that towards their new venture.

 

Skoobe app

They launched Skoobe as a German-language-only service providing subscribers a large library of books for 9.99 Euros per month. You could have five books out at a time and register your app on three devices (Hoffelder). Another key highlight was that you could stream your books online or read offline across multiple devices.

Today, four years later, they have over 150,000 high quality books available, with hundreds of new ones coming online everyday (Skoobe). Last year, Skoobe expanded into Spain and they now have books in German, English, Portuguese, and Spanish (Hoffelder, 2014). In a Buchreport article from 2014, Skoobe reported that its app had already been downloaded over a million times since its launch two years before (“Ins Ursprungsland der Flatrates”). So despite the low rate of ebook sales in the overall German market, Skoobe is claiming good success with its subscription model.

And this is in the midst of intense debate in North America around whether or not the subscription ebook model is sustainable (Klosowski). In our part of the world, subscription services like Kindle Unlimited, Oyster, Scribd, and Bookmate have opened, but with varying success. Oyster and Kindle Unlimited are US only services, Bookmate is focusing its services in Russian, the Ukraine, and Turkey, and all of them work on different platforms and different devices with little consistency.

Last September, Oyster fell and its staff moved over to another company and in July, Scribd reduced the romance titles they were hosting, “due to the high volume at which subscribers presumably read those titles” (Duffer). In other words, this model has been struggling to find it’s footing in North America and causing many people in the publishing world to question its viability. As Ellen Duffer put it in a recent article on subscription models, “This recent movement [Oyster and Scribd] has sparked an increase in doomsday analyses of the subscription ebook model” (2015).

So how is it that Skoobe is finding such success in Europe despite the fact that the German ebook market is far smaller than the one in North America? And what is it that we can learn from Skoobe’s success?

A key downside that is often cited for the North American services, is that they all work on different devices. In other words, there is a need for one service that works across all iOS, android and other e-reader devices. This is what Skoobe provides. There are now even a number of e-reading dedicated devices such as Icarus Illumina that comes with the Skoobe app installed on them. This ease of use across multiple platforms, including Kindle Fire, provides users with an easy-to-use service that is far more accessible than equivalents that only work on one platform.

Furthermore, there is no denying that having a close connection to some of the world’s largest trade publishers through its founders was key. One of the things criticized in North American is that US providers of subscription services do not offer access to the bestsellers and instead have large volumes of books that nobody wants to read (Illian). Additionally, Jason Illian from the Entrepreneur notes how many of the world’s top publishers who produce these bestsellers are just not on board with the subscription services out there, and therefore, services like Oyster and Scribd just cannot get the books people want to read (Illian).

This doesn’t seem to have happened to the same extent in Germany, and the reason for this is that media and publishing companies started Skoobe and they already had a stake in the publishing industry (Duffer). With publishers like Penguin Radom House and the two largest German publishers Bertelsmann SE & CO and George von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group under your wing, you can rather quickly start to bring under contract other presses (Duffer). Skoobe currently hosts titles from more than 1,600 publishers including almost all of the German bestselling titles.

Although I was unable to find any information on the payment system that Skoobe works out with their publishers, Skoobe puts themselves forward as a company in close relationship with publishers and their collaboration with so many across the industry indicates that these partnerships are going well. This kind of collaboration is what is needed in North America.

Chrisitan Damke, the founder of Skoobe was quoted as saying, “Skoobe aims to enlarge the market for major publishers by offering easy ebook access to price-sensitive readers who don’t necessarily want to own the books” (Kozlowski). Skoobe argues that by providing a subscription service, they allow publishers to reach readers who might not normally spend money on a given book, but will read it for free if it is part of a flatrate service. This expands the reach of the book. According to data provided by the company, three-quarters of the books that users read – and enjoy with high satisfaction rates – within Skoobe are ones the readers claim they would not have been likely to purchase as an individual book before reading them on the app (Albanese).

Skoobe has also established themselves as a service that provides high quality books, as the current CEO Constance Landsberg said in a recent interview at the Frankfurt Book Fair, “Publishers are growing their title base constantly [on Skoobe] and are establishing strategies on how best to use the potential of subscription services. Skoobe is proving to be a great opportunity to market titles, especially from the backlist, and new authors alongside bestsellers and new releases” (Albanese).

She went on to say that 80% of their customers rate their books as “very good” after reading them and this is something they take great pride in (Albanese).

Thus they have been able to avoid the fear that many authors have regarding the subscription model: that their books will be undervalued in an environment that is full of bad quality books that could come from anywhere – something that is sometimes the case with North American versions of this same kind of service where many self-published books drown out the books the service can get from publishers (Weinberg). Instead, Skoobe not only provides new readers for certain authors, but also 25% of the readers on Skoobe buy print versions of books they discovered there (Albanese).

Thus, the North American publishing industry should look to the success of Skoobe and see that subscriptions can be done. This case study has shown that it is okay for ebooks to not hold a large part of the book market, and owners of publishing companies can still be in the subscription ebook business and make a success out of it. CEO Constance Landsberg acknowledges that it is essential to keep all parties involved benefiting from your business model – customers, authors, and publishers. With this in mind, Skoobe has been able to provide an accessible service across multiple platforms that offers high quality books, all in a very small ebook market. If they can do it, so can we.

Resources:

 

Adamowski, Jaroslaw. “France, Germany, Italy and Poland Call for Lowering VAT on Ebooks” Publishing Perspectives. April 2015. http://publishingperspectives.com/2015/04/france-germany-italy-poland-call-for-lowering-vat-on-ebooks/#.VvGzZxIrKRs
Albanese, Andrew Richards. “Frankfurt Book Fair 2015: Skoobe – Subscription Ebooks are Succeeding in Germany” Publishers Weekly. October 2015. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/international/Frankfurt-Book-Fair/article/68326-frankfurt-book-fair-2015-skoobe-subscription-e-books-are-succeeding-in-germany.html
Bertelsmann. Accessed March 24th, 2015. http://www.bertelsmann.com/company/company-profile/

dpa. “Deutscher Buchmarkt weiter im Umbruch” Zeit. October 12, 2015.

http://www.zeit.de/news/2015-10/12/literatur-deutscher-buchmarkt-weiter-im-umbruch-12121402
Duffer, Ellen. “Subscription E-Book Service ‘A Success’ In Germany.” Forbes. Oct. 31 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/ellenduffer/2015/10/13/subscription-e-book-service-a-success-in-germany/#1891ec8f2a15

German Book Association, ebooks:

http://www.boersenverein.de/de/portal/Presse/158382?presse_id=1100374

G., Nelly. “Meine Erfahrung mit Skoobe – der Ebook Flatrate.” Nelly’s Lesseecke blog. June 19th, 2015. http://nellysleseecke.blogspot.ca/2015/06/meine-erfahrung-mit-skoobe-der-ebook.html
Hoffelder, Nate. “Streaming ebook Service Skoobe Gains support from the Illumina eReader.” The Digital Reader. July 22nd, 2015.

http://the-digital-reader.com/2015/07/22/streaming-ebook-service-skoobe-gains-support-for-the-illumina-ereader/

Hoffelder, Nate. “Skoobe Launches in Germany.” Digital Reader. March 2012. http://the-digital-reader.com/2012/03/01/skoobe-launches-in-germany-publishers-do-like-ebook-rentals/

Hoffelder, Nate. “Skoobe Expands into Spain.” Digital Reader. October 2014. http://the-digital-reader.com/2014/10/28/skoobe-expands-spain/

Holtzbrinck. Accessed March 24th, 2015. https://www.holtzbrinck.com/

Illian, Jason. “Why the Subscription Model for Ebooks Doesn’t Work (at Least Not Yet)” Entrepreneur. June 26th, 2015. http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/247762

“Ins Ursprungsland der Flatrates” Buchreport. October 2014. http://www.buchreport.de/nachrichten/nachrichten_detail/datum/2014/10/28/ins-ursprungsland-der-flatrates.htm?no_cache=1

Klosowski, Thorin. “Are Ebook Subscription Services Worth it?” Lifehacker. January 31, 2014. http://lifehacker.com/are-ebook-subscription-services-worth-it-1513205735
Kozlowski, Michael. “Macmillan Buys Into the Ebook Subscription Model Via Skoobe” http://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/macmillan-buys-into-the-ebook-subscription-model-via-skoobe

 

Lischka, Konrad. “App-Test Skoobe: Das taugt Ebook flatrate” Spiegel Online. 2012. http://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/web/e-books-flatrate-skoobe-a-821881.html

 

Matting, Matthias. “VAT on Books and Ebooks in German Speaking Countries” How to Publish in Germany. September 2015. http://www.how-to-publish-in-germany.com/vat-on-books-and-e-books-in-german-speaking-countries/

 

Shaw, Hollie. “Ebook sales are flattening, but does that mean the technology is dying as consumers unplug?” Financial Post. July 15, 2015. http://business.financialpost.com/news/retail-marketing/e-book-sales-are-flattening-but-does-that-mean-the-technology-is-dying-as-consumers-unplug

 

Skoobe website. https://www.skoobe.de/

 

Statista. “E-book share of total consumer book sales in the United States from 2009-2015.” Accessed March 23rd, 2016.  http://www.statista.com/statistics/190847/ebook-share-of-total-consumer-book-sales-in-the-us-till-2015/

 

Statista. “Statistiken und Umfragen zu E-Books.” Accessed March 20th 2015.
http://de.statista.com/themen/596/e-books/

 

Süssman, Ingrid. “German Ebook Sales Reaches 4.3 of Overall Book Market” Publishing Perspectives.  June 24th, 2015.  http://publishingperspectives.com/2015/06/german-ebook-sales-reaches-4-3-of-overall-book-market/#.VuoTlJMrKRs

 

Süssman, Ingrid. “German Book Market 2014: Nonfiction Up, Overall Sales Down.” Publishing Perspectives. June 16th, 2015.
http://publishingperspectives.com/2015/06/german-book-market-2014-nonfiction-up-overall-sales-down/#.VuoAGJMrKRs

 

Weinberg, Dana Beth. “Which Authors Do Subscription Service Benefit?” Digital Publishing. April 2015. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2015/which-authors-do-subscription-services-benefit/?et_mid=745706&rid=240986630

 

Winter, Caroline. “The Story Behind Germany’s Scant E-Book Sales.” Bloomberg. April 19, 2012. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-04-19/the-story-behind-germanys-scant-e-book-sales

© 2017 kburckha. Unless otherwise noted, all material on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


Theme by Anders Noren

Up ↑