MonthNovember 2016

Kindle Unlimited vs. Scribd – The Value of E-book Subscriptions in a Competitive Digital Market

In 2014, Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited, an e-book subscription service that charges subscribers a monthly fee for unlimited access to a catalogue of over 600,000 books. Kindle Unlimited was Amazon’s breakthrough into a competitive market with other subscription services such as Scribd, which was launched in 2012. Netflix’s international success inspired start-up companies like Scribd to take on a similar concept yet with a different technology; e-books. Netflix earned “more than $5 billion in 2014, so it was no wonder companies wanted to create ‘the Netflix’ of other types of digital media such as e-books” (Owen, 2015). Scribd was quickly gaining appeal with their consumers which prompted Amazon to jump on board with the trend. In the year 2012, a “percentage of Americans who owned e-reading devices doubled. The year prior, Amazon announced it was selling more e-books than print books — hardcover and paperback combined” (Price,2012). It took some time for Amazon to establish their platform in this category, but by 2014, Amazon was confident in Kindle Unlimited and its ability to become a strong competitor in this new style of reading.

Kindle Unlimited currently charges $9.99 per month whereas Scribd charges a slightly cheaper rate of $8.99 per month. Both Kindle Unlimited and Scribd are targeting an audience of speedy readers or those looking to read on a consistent basis, each providing a thirty-day free trial. The New York Times even agreed that “the deal sounds appealing. Someone who reads two or more books a month could save a little money. For those who read far more, the savings could be substantial” (Wood, 2014). Kindle Unlimited and Scribd also include audiobooks in their catalogues which have become a popular e-book reading preference with consumers. Trip Adler, CEO of Scribd, was impressed with the results of adding audiobooks to their catalogue. A year after audiobooks were launched on the subscription service, Adler stated that “reading time on Scribd has doubled and 84% of people listening to audiobooks on the service also read e-books” (Alter, 2015). This was phenomenal progress for the company, as well as the publishers. Kindle Unlimited also enhanced the features of their audiobooks by syncing the reader’s place in a book. Both companies are competitive by offering different features, however Scribd has been reviewed as the most ‘hassle free’ of the two.

Subscribers of Kindle Unlimited have the ability to browse for free and paid-for e-books in Amazon’s catalogue. Mixing their free catalogue with paid for e-books, is Amazon’s way of increasing profits. Amazon also uses the Kindle to their advantage because you cannot use a Kindle to read content on Scribd. Many readers prefer Scribd because it is a more appealing alternative to those who are turned off from capitalist companies such as Amazon who influence consumers to stay current with the latest technology. Amazon excels at persuading consumers to spend more money, which is something Scribd steers away from. For those who don’t have the ‘Kindle’ reader and are satisfied reading on their computer or Android tablet, Scribd is a competitive option.

Scribd was “initially designed as a platform to distribute academic papers and quickly evolved into a subscription platform for books in general” (McElhearn,2014). Scribd is attracting the likes of self-publishers with their ‘Scribd Membership Program’. The membership program allows the publisher to place their work on the service providing instant access to the readers. This program also allows self-publishers to be compensated by Scribd while their work is getting noticed. Scribd looks at self-published content as “a perfect situation for readers since a monthly fee grants them unlimited access to all those titles and perfect for our authors who now have a large audience of readers” (David, 2016). Each self-publishing author is paid every time a subscriber reads their work, while publishing companies who have given access to their books are compensated at retail price every time their book gets a read.

Scribd has been beneficial for self-publishers due to the increased publicity, compensation and creativity, but at the same time has become detrimental to the company.  Unfortunately, the program has deceived its subscribers who, are promised a choice of 400,000 books in their catalogue. The Scribd catalogue now includes approximately 50% of self-published work leaving e-book subscribers unsatisfied. The Scribd “promise” of access to 400,000 books is actually a lot of “documents, such as catalogs, court filings, instruction manuals, comics, PDFS and more” (McElhearn, 2014). This has been a turnoff for subscribers who find themselves sorting through thousands of e-books looking for preferred or specific titles. Not only are Scribd subscribers disappointed, they feel lied to. In addition, thousands of the advertised books are unavailable to readers outside of big name publishing countries like the United States and United Kingdom. It would be very frustrating for a subscriber to sort through thousands of titles that are either unavailable or are of the self-published variety.

Kindle Unlimited subscribers are limited to the number of newly released e-books because of Amazon’s inability to make deals with big name publishers. Amazon has poor relationships with big name companies and as a result “none of the big five publishing houses — HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, MacMillan, Hachette or Simon & Schuster — are on board. So Kindle Unlimited is lacking many popular and newer books” (Wood, 2014). If the subscriber is looking for classics, Kindle Unlimited is the preferred subscription service to sign up for. For those who are paying a ten-dollar monthly fee and under using their subscription, may be more interested in making a one-off purchase from Amazon for a few extra dollars, than burdening themselves with a monthly commitment.

Fast forward to February 2016, Scribd has had to re-vamp their subscription model. Scribd is now limiting subscribers to a maximum of three e-books and audiobooks combined per month. For the same price of $8.99, Scribd subscribers have been stripped of their privilege to an unlimited supply of e-books. The new format issues subscriber’s monthly credits, where each book holds a credit. If these credits are not used, they will carry over to the next month and accumulate until the reader uses them. The Scribd CEO, Trip Adler, insists that this change will not affect the readership considering “97% of its customers read less than three books per month” (Albanese, 2016). There is much speculation that this change was crucial in order for the company to avoid bankruptcy. As a result, Scribd has had to cut back on specific genres in their catalogue, most notably Romance titles. The Romance readers were reading so many e-books that it was becoming too difficult for Scribd to maintain financial stability. Simultaneously, in order for Scribd to secure top publishers, they had no choice but to pay them full retail price, a compensation plan that proved to be unsuccessful.

The question remains, are e-book subscriptions worth subscribing to? In my opinion, the answer is no. In the article Words with Friends: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads, Lisa Nakamura discusses that in our digital age, “we are both collecting and being collected under a new regime of controlled consumerism, where society of controlled consumption is premised on the transformation of the consumer from subject to object of capitalist accumulation” (Nakamura, 2013, p.241). Unfortunately, Scribd exposed the flaws in their business plan as well as the evident cracks in the subscription model. It was essential for Scribd to change their layout in order to survive in a market with powerhouse companies like Amazon. Their false hope that readers would pay the subscription fee and not actually use the service seemed to have worked against them.

I believe that e-books are an essential part of digital media but I don’t think the publishing industry is ready for e-book subscriptions at this time.  The publishing industry attempts to interact with digital media and is constantly creating “new social valences of reading” (Nakamura,2013, p.238). The publishing industry insists that “reading new platforms and apparatuses are central to determine the reading experience in attempt to suture it to a discourse futurity” (p.238). Scribd has struggled to keep up with the demands of the publishing industry and the voracious readers who were eager to engage with this new model of digital media. Nakamura explains that our generation is now asking questions like ‘how are you reading?’ or ‘what are you reading on?’ and if a service based model of consumption cannot keep up by providing desired and available books, maybe a subscription service just isn’t enough to survive in a “fetishized culture of product innovation” (p.238).

Although Scribd is abandoning their old model and have lost subscribers as a result, it doesn’t mean the future of subscription e-books is necessarily dead. The New York Times said it best, “e-book subscriptions seem like a logical evolution in the world of on-demand digital media, but the full potential simply isn’t realized yet” (Woods, 2014). While I don’t think the publishing industry is ready for e-book subscription services now, there may be opportunities in the future. It will be interesting to observe how Kindle Unlimited and Scribd will maintain sustainability in the e-reader market.

 

Work Cited

Albanese, A. (2016, February 16). Scribd Revises its Subscription Model. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/69414-scribd-tweaks-its-subscription-model.html

Alter, A. (2015, April 16). Scribd Expands Audiobook Catalog in Deal with Penguin Random House. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/17/business/media/scribd-expands-audiobook-catalog-in-deal-with-penguin-random-house.html?_r=0

Hoffelder, N. (2016, February 16). Scribd Just Gutted its E-book Service. Retrieved from http://the-digital-reader.com/2016/02/16/scribd-just-gutted-its-ebook-service/

McElhearn, K. (2014, May 22). Scribd is just like Netflix for eBooks; and Just as Sucky. Retrieved from http://www.mcelhearn.com/scribd-is-like-netflix-for-ebooks-and-just-as-sucky/

Nakamura, Lisa. (2013, January). “Words with Friends”: Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads. PMLA 128 (1). 238-243. Retrieved from https://lnakamur.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/nakamura-22words-with-friends22-pmla.pdf

Owen, L. (2015, July 1). What Scribd’s growing pains means for the future of digital content subscription models. Retrieved from http://www.niemanlab.org/2015/07/what-scribds-growing-pains-mean-for-the-future-of-digital-content-subscription-models/

Price, L. (2012, August 10). Dead Again. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/12/books/review/the-death-of-the-book-through-the-ages.html?_r=0

David, P. (2016, October 16). Scribd Help Center. Retrieved from https://support.scribd.com/hc/en-us/articles/210129306-How-do-authors-benefit-from-Scribd-s-premium-membership-program

Wood, M. (2014, August 6). Aiming to be the Netflix of Books. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/07/technology/personaltech/aiming-to-be-the-netflix-of-books.html?_r=1

 

The ‘shadow industry’ of self-published books

Book publishing is in an ongoing phase of disruption: how we manufacture, distribute, market, and sell books has changed radically in the past decade, and the pace of change does not seem to be slowing down. Especially with modern technology and the opportunities in various social media to reach a mass number of readers without the benefit of expensive marketing campaigns, writers have found a new and exciting market to expose their talents. There was a time when self-publishing was equated with vanity, however, because of the digital revolution, democratization has happened. Writers now have the opportunity to become their own entrepreneurs, coming up with creative writing and distributing it through their blogs or websites and eventually marketing their books to the intended audience on the various social media platforms. Experts have attributed this success to the ability of the writers to build a closer relationship with the readers in the participatory nature of social media. The self-publishing industry is booming, conquering over 30% of the market share in America. Self-publishers are constantly innovating and sharing their creative ideas through the internet’s several highly interactive websites tailored for the success of up and coming authors.

We can find hundreds of examples of great successes in the publishing industry of self publishers. One of the most recent success story is of course the erotic romance novel series, Fifty Shades of Grey. The author of the book, E.L. James, began her journey as a humble, self-publisher, inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s characters in Twilight, Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. She initially published episodically on fan-fiction websites of Twilight under the pen name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”, however as she had gotten more popularity she started plugging them into her own website,  FiftyShades.com. The series was originally titled Master of the Universe, however, she later decided to split them into three parts and publish her first book call Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011. Within just a few years her series of Fifty Shades of Grey sold more than 125 million copies worldwide and has topped best-seller lists around the world, including those of the United Kingdom and the United States.

Andy Weir’s The Martian was also originally published chapter by chapter on his blog for free in 2011. The book based on a man travelling to Mars and creating a living garnered a lot of interest from science-fiction fans. He researched related material so that it would be as realistic as possible and based on existing technology and also took suggestion from the fans as he continued writing. At the request of fans, he made an Amazon Kindle version available at 99 cents. The Kindle edition rose to the top of Amazon’s list of best-selling science-fiction titles, where it sold 35,000 copies in three months, more than had been previously downloaded free. Weir sold the print rights to Crown in March 2013 for over US$100,000. In March 2013, Twentieth Century Fox optioned the film rights, and hired screenwriter Drew Goddard to adapt and direct the film. The film was released on October 2, 2015 and grossed $228.4 million in North America and $400.9 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $630.2 million.

Eva Lesko Natiello, author of New York Times and USA Today Bestseller, The Memory Box, a psychological thriller about a woman who Googles herself and discovers the shocking details of a past she doesn’t remember, spent seven years trying to find a publisher for her work before she finally gave and self-published it. Amanda Hocking wrote 17 novels while working as a group home worker in Minnesota. She self-published them all as e-books, selling more than a million copies. Self-publishing has proved most beneficial for romance novel writers. Especially when they capture their audience in a series about a fictional family and market their books for under $5.00. Barbara Freethy has sold more than 2,000,000 books writing about the Callaway family. The ease of self-publishing e-books has allowed these prolific authors to establish a huge fan base within a short period of time.

However, while it has become increasingly easy for authors to publish their own work there are certainly a few drawbacks that self-published authors have to face in these platforms. Firstly, since the process is so quick and easy, everybody and their brother and sister is an author. The competition is too high and the probability of your book getting lost in the enormous collection of self-published book is also quite high. Secondly, since there’s an abundant number of books in these websites, majority of them are usually pretty bad, therefore readers are often skeptical about starting a self-published book since starting a new book is a big commitment. Unless a book creates enough hype through word-of-mouth or in this case recommendation from their virtual book friends, it’s really difficult to have an immediate impact in the market. Finally, in the world of self-publishing, where anyone can put a document on Amazon and call it a book, many writers are seeing their work being appropriated without their permission. Some books are copied word-for-word while others are tinkered with just enough to make it tough for an automated plagiarism-checker to flag them. Despite all of these drawbacks the market for self-published books continue to grow, so much so that some researchers claim that we are currently experiencing a time of self-published revolution.

Internet based entrepreneurs have not wasted too much time to take advantage of this untapped market of creative publishers as there are now a growing number of websites designed to help them reach their intended audience. Websites such as LULU,  CreateSpace and Kindle by Amazon, Blurb, Smash Words etc. lets authors publish their own work in their websites to be sold to millions of people around the world. It’s easy to produce and easy to publish, hence the growth of self-published books has been huge in recent years resulting in the decline of print books as well as e-books published by the big five publishers of the industry. According to AuthorEarnings report from January 2015, 30% of the ebooks being purchased in the U.S. do not use ISBN numbers and are invisible to the industry’s official market surveys and reports; they claim that all the ISBN-based estimates of market share reported by Bowker, AAP, BISG, and Nielsen are wildly wrong. Furthermore, they have also claimed in the report that 33% of all paid ebook unit sales on Amazon.com are indie self-published ebooks, hence, 40% of all dollars earned by authors from ebooks on Amazon.com are earned by indie self-published ebooks. The amount of money spent on self-published books went up from around $510m in 2014 to $600m in 2015. This proves that the data provided by the official publishing industry fails to include a third of the e-book market and their claim that ebook sales are “plateauing” or “declining” becomes highly suspect. In fact, the market share for e-books could well be greater than print books if the number of self-published books from the ‘shadow industry’ were accounted for.

References

Self-Published Book Beats the Odds By Making New York Times Bestseller List – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eva-lesko-natiello/selfpublished-book-beats-_b_11909842.html

Is self-publishing coming of age in the digital world? – http://www.bbc.com/news/business-35482345

Bestseller Success Stories that Started Out as Self-Published Books – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ronald-h-balson/bestseller-success-storie_b_4064574.html

January 2015 Author Earnings Report- http://authorearnings.com/report/january-2015-author-earnings-report/

How Has Self-Publishing Changed In The Last 2 Years? Interview With David Gaughran. – http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2014/09/18/lets-get-digital/

Self-publishing a book: 25 things you need to know – https://www.cnet.com/news/self-publishing-a-book-25-things-you-need-to-know/

Stealing Books in the Age of Self-Publishing – http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/06/plagiarism-in-the-age-of-self-publishing/485525/

The Publishing Industry in 2016: A Status Update – https://janefriedman.com/publishing-industry-2016-status-update/

‘Huge, untracked shadow industry’ in e-books – http://www.thebookseller.com/news/huge-untracked-shadow-industry-e-books-318277

Publishing Trends In 2016 With Jane Friedman – http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2016/01/18/publishing-trends-jane-friedman/

Big Data and the Slow Shift of Traditional Publishers

The publishing industry has conventionally been built on a series of traditions that over time have remained rather stagnant, and slow to evolve throughout history. With practices and procedures firmly established in a pulp-based print culture, publishers have appropriated new technologies sparingly. This type of model has suited publishers in a linear progression that has typically allowed them to preserve such customs (Lloyd, p. 1). While indeed appropriate for the print and analogue era, the landscape of arguably all industries has begun a vast shift into digital in recent years. Such shifts are imperative to study as publishing has finally embraced eBooks across most mass-markets, as an example. However, eBooks are nothing short of contemporary, as big data is currently the talk of scholars and the industry. Presenting a case of possibly tracking every movement a reader makes, big data essentially allows for publishers to gain access to a valuable resource that been off limits previously. Although what needs to be addressed is an assessment of whether or not big data in its current state is worth an investment across most publishing firms.

Firstly, it is vital to outline what big data is, and what exactly it can do for publishers as an innovative technology. According to Lambert, big data is “set of data too big for a normal computer to handle because there is just too much of it. You need a large server to store all the information, and a truly powerful database to sort through it and make relationships between parts of the data” (2016). Thus one can infer immediately that big data is in an abundance, it is practically everywhere in the networked society of the digital age. The precedent is not simply to acquire it, but rather to make sense of it by achieving results. Big data is everywhere as texts themselves and social media have created new platforms and formats that produce this information. From a cultural perspective, Sayers highlights how technology has commonly referred to a physical device, but has undergone changes to specify a “system of methods to execute knowledge” (2016). In this sense, big data as a technology is akin to the production of knowledge and culture, which is fundamentally a similarity to the role of publishers. Hence why the acceptance and management of big data for publishers is not only to use it, but also a transformation in the framework of how they operate in response to it.

One prominent example of such success is seen in the duality of Amazon and its child company Goodreads. Goodreads is a social network website in which readers can record their reading habits, write reviews, buy books, and of course get title suggestions. As a catalogue the site functions on certain algorithms that display popular book titles, through the use of big data collected. This rise of “play labour” as Goldberg notes, has become a “network incessantly, independent of place,” and reading should now be viewed not as antithetical to social networking—solitary, private, outside capital but as commodified and digital” (Nakamura, p. 2). In past when a book was sold, to many the job was done as the value was maximized. Although in the current age that has become questionable. As readers become “prosumers”, they create and perform labour through reviewing, sharing and inviting others. Publishers have always known that word of mouth has been a significant force in selling books, yet in a time where that reach is unlimited, they still have cold feet. In comparison major conglomerates in the market such as Amazon and Google, are taking advantage of this old trick by offering cheap and even free books to create such spaces (Nakamura, p. 7). Again as publishers have been increasingly slow to adopt big data, the question remains why have they stalled something that is supposedly a boon to them?

Exploring big data from a beneficial viewpoint, there has been no shortage of industry and media coverage. Many articles have been released covering topics such as discoverability, wearable technology, and even books monitored to how far the reader got through. So now that this data is being collected, has it been rewarding for the publishing industry? In one such case, Wired released an article about a supposed “bestsellers code”. This article talks about how a machine’s classification system was used to predict which books would be bestsellers by specific characteristics (Althoff, 2016). The algorithm created by the machine looked at word usage, protagonist qualities and so on, which surprisingly had positive results. It reportedly had an 80% success rate, which is a gesture by its creators to see a larger movement away from instinct, and more decision making based off data in publishing (Althoff, 2016). Something like this is part of the transition that the publishing industry needs to consider if it is going to capitalize on an advanced system. Generally speaking, publishers have mainly worked with sales data as their primary source of consumer data. This is a very limited scope as it ignores the various other fine details that go into reading a book, as Kobo aimed to showcase in their 2014 whitepaper. In this report, Kobo suggests that with digital reading it is possible to measure customer engagement, which can lead to publishers “unlock previously hidden equity” (Kobo, p. 2). With the capacity to measure and analyze such statistics, publishers can look for trends, find out in depth demographics, and even improve book quality. Thus Kobo argues that big data will improve productivity for publishers by getting them to not only consider sales data, but as a way to revolutionize business models in understanding how reader experiences can impact new revenue streams.

Kobo certainly makes a strong case for why publishers should adopt big data, as the sole information they have been frequently using has not always been reliable. Data on the publishing industry has been quite complicated throughout its history. The primary way book data has been recorded is through the Nielsan BookScan method, which only measures sales data through ISBN. Among some of the biggest issues with sales data is the context; what exactly is included? For publishers at the very least, there are many aspects to consider such as eBook sales, returns, library sales and so on. As such when using BookScan as a source of data to make decisions, it has been missing many additional areas that could be further utilized. As a veteran in the industry Lincoln Michel discusses how BookScan only gets data from select major bookstores, not including data from giants such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, which can lead to roughly a 75% accuracy rating (2016). Prior to big data, publishing as an industry had not really been measurable, and as such seen varying success based off of intuition and estimations. Big data as a game changer to the industry then poses as a disruptive technology to the long-established order and customs that linger in publishing. This dismantlement of old ways is difficult to apply to an industry “several hundred year-old that is only beginning to have access to this kind of data. It is incredibly new and it is going to take changes within [such] organizations.” (Albanese, 2015). The use of big data in publishing can create fear as it is something still relatively new, and being applied to an industry that is reluctant to evolve. Evidently, Micah Bowers who is founder and CEO of e-reader app Bluefire, states that big data can “take away the magic” of traditional decision making, which could lead to job loss and panic about the process to get desired outcomes (Albanese, 2015).

While big data has many advantages such as tracking audiences, reader activity, and discovery to ultimately improve profit, many publishers are still hesitant. The traditional aspect has been a commonly known issue, but there also is a technological one depending on the firm. Big data as a modern novelty, comes at quite a hefty price. It is not an issue of obtaining the data, but figuring out how to process it as that is where the majority of the cost is. Therefore, in the digital age it is commonly thought that technological developments are increasing accessible, although there still is a divide to some extent that persists (Sayers, 2016). From this one would assume that publishers on the fence are skeptical to put much faith into a new costly technology, as they may not achieve results that warrant the price. Additionally, there are problems with big data in terms of how it is automated and mechanical. Katherine Flynn who is a literary agent, remarks that “You get exposed to things you wouldn’t have necessarily thought you liked. You thought you liked tennis, but you can read a book about basketball. It’s sad to think that data could narrow our tastes and possibilities.” (Althoff, 2016). Big data is then in opposition to publishing as a creative industry that is variable, as it presents a more fixed and ridged response. Thus the publisher must take on a more active role if utilizing such data as a way to ensure a balance of human calculation and machine to ideally produce bestsellers. Overall Lloyd summarizes the future of publishers best as “need[ing] to view themselves as shapers and enablers rather than producers and distributors, to take a project rather than a product approach and to embrace their position as merely a component element in a reader, writer, publisher circularity” (p. 8).

 

References:

Albanese, A. (2015, January 15). DBW Panel : Can Publishers Take Advantage of Reader Data? Retrieved October 31, 2016, from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/conferences/article/65290-dbw-can-publishers-take-advantage-of-reader-data.html

Althoff, S. (2016, September 16). Algorithms Could Save Book Publishing-But Ruin Novels. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from https://www.wired.com/2016/09/bestseller-code/

Kobo. (2014). Publishing in the Era of Big Data: Kobo Whitepaper Fall 2014. Retrieved October 31, 2016 from http://news.kobo.com/_ir/159/20149/Publishing%20in%20the%20Era%20of%20Big%20Data%20-%20Kobo%20Whitepaper%20Fall%202014.pdf

Lambert, T. (2016, September 24). Tracking reader habits using tech: Good or bad for readers and writers? Retrieved October 31, 2016, from https://teleread.org/2016/09/24/tracking-reader-habits-using-tech-good-or-bad-for-readers-and-writers/

Lloyd, S. (2008). A Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the 21st Century. The Digitalist (Pan MacMillan).

Michel, L. (2016). Everything You Wanted to Know about Book Sales (But Were Afraid to Ask): An In-Depth Look at What/How/Why Books Sell. Retrieved October 31, 2016, from https://electricliterature.com/everything-you-wanted-to-know-about-book-sales-but-were-afraid-to-ask-1fe6bc00aa2d#.uu8hexadh

Nakamura, L. (2013). “Words with friends”: Socially networked reading on Goodreads. PMLA, 128(1), 238-243. DOI: 10.1632/pmla.2013.128.1.238

Sayers, J. (2016). Technology. Retrieved November 01, 2016, from http://keywords.nyupress.org/american-cultural-studies/essay/technology/

Crowdfunding Novels: Connecting Authors and Audiences

Crowdfunded models offer a new and growing method of publishing for authors looking for a third option that does not rely on a traditional publisher and does not involve the risk of (and carries less stigma than) simply self-publishing. Online crowdfunding campaigns are nothing new–for example, YouTube and podcast creators often use Patreon accounts where followers who enjoy their content can donate small amounts per month in exchange for bonus content, to help ensure continued content, or simply as a tip. However, this has been slow to catch on in the book world, especially with longer-form writing such as novels, and publishing a novel through alternative means that do not involve a gatekeeper to ensure quality content carries more stigma than does self-publishing visual and auditory media.  

Several platforms are changing this. Authors can crowdfund books in ways that range from bare-bones (using Kickstarter or Indiegogo to host their own campaigns, with no outside company contributing to publication, and then self-publishing), to platforms that function essentially like a vanity press (where pledges and preorders take the place of a cheque from the author paying for publication), to partnerships with publishers who also aid in promotion and distribution after the project has been successfully crowdfunded.

At its best, crowdfunding allows an audience to have direct contact with the creator without a corporate third party acting as a barrier, and to be involved to whatever capacity the author or platform allows in the book’s creation. It allows authors who would rather bypass traditional publishing, with its emphasis on a small number of blockbuster novels, to focus on communicating with a smaller but dedicated audience. This idea is not a new one, as through history, most famously in the Renaissance, artists have relied on patrons (usually people with financial, political, or religious power) to support them rather than releasing their work through a third party and relying on income from sales. Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, subscription models where novels were published piece by piece in periodicals were common; while not strictly crowdfunding, this did mean that the author was producing ongoing work for an active list of subscribers. Communication technology today allows creators to combine these two methods–rather than one rich patron, artists are supported by a community of people who believe in the value of their work.

Unbound, one of the most successful crowdfunding platforms, allows authors to pitch their ideas first to the site’s editors and then to readers, who pledge support to the projects that appeal to them. I enough money is raised, the author will finish the project, after which Unbound completes the book’s design, editing, and production.  Because of their partnership with Penguin Random House, Unbound is able to distribute books in stores throughout the UK. Authors then receive 50% of the royalties from book sales. Unlike many crowdfunding platforms, Unbound still acts as a gatekeeper for authors’ submissions, but without the support of the Unbound community, a project will not succeed. Dan Kieran, co-founder and CEO of Unbound, says that Unbound’s “users love to be involved in the process and have critical taste. They are not passive consumers–they’re micro-patrons” and that once an author has an established base backing them, “it’s an easy market to tap into.” The platforms Publaunch, which is still in beta mode, and Inkshares, which has so far completed 61 projects, accomplish essentially the same thing as Unbound, though without the initial editorial screening–any book that reaches its funding threshold will be published–and without any partnerships with traditional publishers.

Gillian Rudd of the University of Liverpool writes that Unbound and similar platforms can act as alternatives to “the hegemony of the literary prize panel and traditional publishing houses.” She also sees Unbound’s requirement for a project to be approved by editors prior to the Unbound community as a feature that could lead to the same homogenization she criticises the industry for, but ultimately is hopeful that crowdfunding platforms can shake up the publishing world. She believes they have potential to provide original alternatives to novels from traditional publishers–which are often chosen based solely on their bestseller potential rather than originality or quality–or to more “highbrow” literary prize lists such as the Booker Prize, which she feels has become repetitive and monotonous in recent years with few diverse voices. Rather than deciding to publish a book based on its perceived sellability, crowdfunding requires an audience to confirm a book as sellable prior to production, and since hosting a funding campaign is less risky than paying for a print run, it allows more room for diversity and experimentation. As Ethan Mollick writes, “the unique value of crowdfunding is not money, it’s community”–he sees  platforms that result in collaboration as helpful beyond simply their funding results, as they require movement away from an “expert-based process” and toward a model where diversity is an important facet of innovation. Having a climate where more people can pitch an idea and potentially be heard results in more ideas, as well as ideas continuing to build upon each other and not stagnating in isolation.

In many ways this model benefits both readers and authors, but drawbacks exist as well and crowdfunding is far from a magical or easy solution. Especially when using crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, with no book-specific platform and third party to oversee the process, lack of contractual obligations and less structure than in traditional publishing mean that many crowdfunding projects never get off the ground. They can dwindle away from lack of interest or the author’s lack of diligence even after followers have donated their money. Even for projects that are completed, because readers can’t flip through the book before contributing money or read reviews from previous readers, they have less assurance that they will enjoy what they pay for.

From the author’s perspective, crowdfunding can be complicated too. Depending on the platform they choose, they may have to take over many of the jobs that publishers would traditionally take care of and either pay to outsource labour such as design and marketing to professionals or put in that work themselves. As well, there is some risk involved in hosting a crowdfunding campaign, if not in monetary cost (since there is no corporation to take care of any unforeseen expenses), then in time and cost to the author’s reputation if the campaign fails. Some authors, such as Josh Fruhlinger, have found that crowdfunding results in unexpected pressure during the creative process and that the high expectations of those who contributed money can be daunting.

Overall, the increase of crowdfunding publishing platforms highlights the ability of–in this case, the need for–print and digital media to exist side by side and to complement each other, rather than detract from each other. In order to successfully crowdfund a book, an author nearly always requires a pre-existing audience who enjoys their work and is willing to support them, a major reason why crowdfunding has been successful with content that is usually released in smaller, periodic bites such as podcasts or Youtube videos. Rather than detracting from print and polarizing the two media, online platforms offer more options for authors who are disillusioned with traditional publishing and the difficulty (and amount of luck necessary) in securing a book deal–and the more experience and success they have had creating an online community and connecting with potential readers digitally, the more likely their print work is to succeed.

Dan Kieran of Unbound believes that Unbound reaches “a very specific part of the author’s audience.” This results in a model that does not necessarily encroach on traditional publishing’s domain, but provides a new framework that traditional publishers are becoming interested in as well. If so, we could continue to see the lines between traditional corporate publishing and self-publishing relying on self-promotion blur in the future (for instance, with platforms like Swoonreads, which does not crowdfund but allows readers to provide input about which projects Macmillan should publish). In the meantime, as traditional publishers continue to pour their effort into a few hopeful bestsellers and creators continue to interact with a variety of media and platforms rather than simply print, crowdfunding books offers a new method for authors to connect their material to audiences, especially if they are willing to put time and energy into establishing a faithful audience and marketing themselves and their work.

Audiobooks Move into the Mainstream

Last year, audiobook sales in the US and Canada were up 20.7% over sales in 2014 (Maloney, 2016), totalling $1.77 billion (USA Today). Production has gone up as well, by nearly 500 percent since 2011: 35 574 titles were released in 2015, compared to 7 237 in 2011 (Cobb, 2016). Clearly there has been huge growth in audiobook publishing in the past few years. If this growth is anything to go by, listening to audiobooks is no longer relegated to being a lesser alternative to reading print. What is behind the audiobook’s move into the mainstream? In this paper, I will look at the influence of the dominant player in the audiobook market: Amazon, and their subsidiary Audible. I will also touch on some of the recent social changes that are happening alongside the uptake of audiobooks. Perhaps the most important factor that has brought audiobooks into the mainstream is the digital revolution, which also led to major upheavals in other media, such as print books and music.

Businesses have had a hand in the rise of audiobooks. One example is, of course, Amazon. Amazon owns Audible, the biggest producer and seller of audiobooks (Maloney, 2016). Commins (2016) describes how, In the past decade, Amazon has done much to bring audiobooks to people’s attention. First, they increased the number of audiobooks available: in 2007 they bought the largest independent audiobook producer in the U.S. at the the time, Brilliance Audio; in 2008, they bought Audible.com, the largest distributor; and in 2011, Audible, now owned by Amazon, launched the Audiobook Creation Exchange, a site that connected narrators, authors, and publishers for the purpose of producing audiobooks.

According to Commins, (22016), after increasing the supply of audiobooks, Amazon turned their attention to promotion. In 2012 came Whispersync for Voice, a feature that allows readers to stop midway through an ebook and pick up where they left off in a matching audiobook, or vice versa (I will revisit Whispersync and its implications as a technology later in this paper). To encourage people to buy the audiobooks, Amazon bundled them with their matching ebooks at a reduced cost for the audiobooks. In 2013, Amazon started offering the Find Your Match service, which looked at the Kindle ebooks customers had bought and notified the customers if their ebooks had matching audiobooks, increasing audiobooks’ visibility. Amazon has also offered free audiobooks through various channels to hook potential customers, whether it’s including one with Audible’s free trial, bundling them with Amazon’s own products, or giving existing Audible users the ability to share one with their friends. In the case of Amazon, we see how the actions of a major corporation have helped push audiobooks onto people’s radars and into the mainstream.

Although audiobooks existed long before they started booming, it is only recently that many people have started seeing them in a way that set them on their upward trajectory. In the past, audiobooks were considered secondary to the printed book: a “compensatory” medium, they were associated with children and people with disabilities, only used to overcome difficulties with reading print (Have & Pedersen, 2015). In the 1990s, Kozloff found that in popular writings, audiobooks were also associated with “illiteracy,” “passivity,” and “lack of commitment,” among other unflattering attributes (as cited in Have & Pedersen, 2013, p. 131132). Things are looking up for the audiobook, though, if its current success is any indication. Have and Pedersen (2013) argue that people today value the mobility of the audiobook, and that this perceived advantage has led people to see other advantages in listening to audiobooks, such as convenience and the ability to save time.

The way Have and Pedersen word their argument has a hint of technological determinism (Kember & Zylinska, 2015), in that it suggests an individual quality of the audiobook has brought about social change: wider acceptance and adoption of audiobooks. It is just as possible that social change has influenced people to find new uses for the audiobook. More likely, it’s a combination of the two: as life for many people has become more and more fast-paced, technology has developed to make the audiobook more and more portable and convenient.

The digital revolution has had a profound impact on the audiobook industry and market. Audiobooks are much easier to produce now than in the past. For one, it costs much less to produce many digital copies of one file than sets of CDs or cassette tapes. Producing the recordings is also more efficient with new technologies, according to Cobb (2016). Before, snail mail was used to send printed materials to be recorded and receive completed recordings. Digital materials can be exchanged much more quickly. The ability to read off a tablet screen means one no longer has to contend with the noise of turning printed pages. It is simpler to edit digital recordings than recordings made on physical media. The necessary equipment and tools are more accessible: narrators can have their own studios at home and work from them. All the people involved in production—writers and engineers, for example—aren’t limited by location anymore, and can communicate and work together from anywhere. With all these new efficiencies brought by digital technology, more audiobooks can be produced in a shorter amount of time, to meet the growing demand.

Technological changes on the consumer side have also influenced the audiobook market. While dedicated audio playback devices have existed for a long time, the Pew Research Center reports that 64% of adults in the U.S. now have a smartphone (as cited in Maloney, 2016). That means 64% of American adults have devices capable of audio playback and downloading audiobooks from the Internet. With the smartphone, it is possible to enjoy audiobooks on the go.

Why else are more people choosing audiobooks? According to a 2015 report by BookNet Canada, 76% of audiobook listeners prefer digital downloads over other formats, such as CDs and cassettes. The reasons for this include the fact that digital files only weigh as much as the device that contains them, and are less prone to physical perils such as skipping and even melting (Maloney, 2016). The BookNet report states that the main reason listeners choose audiobooks over other formats is that it allows them to multitask. This, along with listening in the car, are two things not typically allowed by print or ebooks. Mrjoian (2016) commented on the uses people are finding for the audiobook: “More plainly, audiobooks have the ability to integrate into our busy lives. Whereas some people feel anchored by print, audiobooks give you the leeway to wiggle around a bit.” Have and Pedersen (2013) make the same observation, arguing that mobility and the ability to do other things while listening to an audiobook are “affordances” of the audiobook (p. 132). This and another property of digital audiobook, its compressed audio file format, make the audiobook suitable for “distracted listening” (Have & Pedersen, 2013, p.132). They argue that this is because other stimuli from the environment can bleed through and affect how the sound of an audiobook is perceived, making sound quality less important (Have & Pedersen, 2013). Based on various properties, the audiobook seems to lend itself to uses that contrast with those of the printed book.

Another reason people might be choosing more and more to listen to audiobooks is the possibility of consuming content across different media and situations, uninterrupted, via Amazon’s Whispersync for Voice feature (mentioned above). With this feature, one could read an ebook of a novel, stop mid-sentence, and immediately listen to the rest of the sentence in the matching audiobook. Thus, one could experience the same story linearly through several media. Such an experience would be hypermediated (Bolter & Grusin, 1998): to the user, several media would compose the text, and the necessity of switching from the ebook to the audiobook would draw attention to the role those media play in the experience of the text. Bolter and Grusin (1998) also argue that hypermediacy is often effected in pursuit of immediacy. Indeed, the intent behind Whispersync seems to be to enable the seamless experience of a text regardless of whether one can sit down to read it. As Katz says, “it’s the story, and it is there for you in the way you want it” (as cited in Alter, 2013). Audiobooks and ebooks together can make each other transparent, so that a user can have a more immediate relationship with the content contained within them.

In the past five years, the once niche audiobook has started to become mainstream. This is due in part to the efforts of that big general player in publishing, Amazon. Digital technology has also played a big role, allowing people to produce or consume audiobooks more easily. At the same time, life’s increasing demands has people looking for ways to multitask, shifting attitudes towards audiobooks  so that they’re no longer seen as the second choice after reading text. Unless audiobooks somehow become less accessible, multitasking stops being desirable, or people stop wanting to read books in any fashion, the audiobook’s popularity should continue to grow.

 

References

  1. Alter, A. (2013). 10 tips on writing the living Web. The Wall Street Journal.
  2. Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. 1998. Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Remediation.  In Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
  3. Cobb, M. (2016). The Audiobook Boom: What’s Happening and How Can I Be Included?. Digital Book World.
  4. Commins, K. (2016). How Amazon and Audible Are Pushing Audiobooks into the Mainstream. Digital Book World.
  5. Have, I., & Pedersen, B. S. (2013). Sonic mediatization of the book: Affordances of the audiobook. MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research, 29(54)
  6. Have, I., & Pedersen, B. S. (2015). Digital audiobooks: New media, users, and experiences. New York: Routledge.
  7. Kember, Sarah, and Joanna Zylinska. 2015. Mediation and the Vitality of Media. In Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 1-28.
  8. Listen Up: Audiobook Use in Canada. March 2015. BookNet Canada.
  9. Maloney, J. (2016). The Fastest-Growing Format in Publishing: Audiobooks. The Wall Street Journal.
  10. Mrjoian, Aram. A Brief History of the Audiobook. Book Riot.

The Science of Art: The Role of Big Data in Publishing

Nicholas Lisicin-Wilson
301249830
Hannah McGregor
PUB 401
1 November 2016

          With the rise of technology and computer algorithms in all aspects of modern society, the collection of user data became not only a possibility, but an inevitability. For years now, marketers have used data to inform targeted marketing, understand their audience, and cater to their customers’ needs. So as publishing has moved more and more onto online platforms, the question arises as to how big data can or should be applied in a creative entertainment industry. More than simply a practical question, it is moral and ethical as books have immense cultural capital in our society. To many, a book created with user data in mind is not a pure creative expression, but rather is soulless and caters to lowbrow tastes. But in the semi-chaotic market of bookselling, where entire companies can be raised or ruined by a single title with an unpredictable performance, replacing intuition with mathematics is a difficult temptation to avoid.

          Despite being a relatively recent phenomenon, e-reader data collection can track a large number of metrics including “How far you read in a book and how fast […] what books you buy, […] your reading habits, what part of a story turns you off and makes you want to stop reading, when you read, how fast you read certain parts of books, and even what device you read them on” (Lambert). Additionally, digital tracking opens up the ability to always “know where your readers are (geographically) and how that might influence their reading habits and even what they read” (Lambert). In addition to retailers, subscription services such as Scribd and the late Oyster also track subscriber action, primarily to judge completion of a book for scaled pricing (Howard). Effectively, every digital reading platform has the legal freedom to collect, analyze and utilize user data, opening doors that simply did not exist in print.

Previous tracking of reader preferences relied on intuition and vague market data: “In the past, before digital reading, publishers had at hand the blunt instrument of units sold and could draw inferences by analyzing sales by region and broad demographics, and then anecdotally what people, or reviewers anyway, thought of the content” (Kobo). For an industry with an uncertain future, more sophisticated tracking is an opportunity that cannot be passed up. Alexandra Alter reinforces this need to advance, saying that “Publishing has lagged far behind the rest of the entertainment industry when it comes to measuring consumers’ tastes and habits. TV producers relentlessly test new shows through focus groups; movie studios run films through a battery of tests and retool them based on viewers’ reactions.” A dependence on experience, hunches and “postmortem measure[s] of success [that] can’t shape or predict a hit” (Alter) seems to be another symptom of the publishing industry’s difficulty in abandoning outdated traditions.

As with any form of private data collection, consumers are wary of how their information is being collected and used. In 2014, Adobe drew ire when it was discovered that its Digital Editions e-reader was finding and transmitting data from users’ libraries back to Adobe servers in unencrypted plain text (Gallagher). Gallagher also suggests that Adobe “may be in violation of a recently passed New Jersey Law, the Reader Privacy Act” as well as “The American Library Association’s Code of Ethics.” Nate Hoffelder, who originally discovered and spread word of the security concern, describes the situation as “spying on users” and a “massively boneheaded stupid mistake,” emphasizing just how sensitive a subject online privacy is to consumers. While this data is valuable to publishers, transparency and security need to be of utmost importance lest they find their brand’s reputation stained by a data leak or unexplained overreach.

In Kobo’s whitepaper “Publishing in the Era of Big Data”, they conclude that “We are at the very earliest stages of the possible when it comes to applying Big Data to the publishing world but even with these relatively simple tools, much can be learned to benefit overall business” (11). Publishers have already begun using the troves of data available to inform their business decisions, and are experimenting with more creative uses. At the most basic level, readership analysis can be used to judge a book’s performance with more depth and detail than previous methods. “Perhaps the most compelling use of ebook tracking data could be used to give backlist a boost. Kobo highlights an unnamed book that has high user engagement but low sales, meaning most people read it all of the way through, but not too many people are buying it in the first place” (Howard). Using engagement (completion of a book and time spent reading) as a judge of quality, Kobo and others hope to find great books that were forgotten due to poor marketing or positioning and give them a second chance at success. Tracking engagement for a particular author allows publishers to see more clearly how their titles are performing and can help determine whether to sign them for more books and the size of their advance. Kobo (5) uses the example of tracking readership across an entire series to see where engagement hit its peak (and then determine why), and decide when it is time to change the formula or bring the series to a close.

However, at a more profound level than sales decisions, some publishers and authors are wondering how big data can be implemented directly into the creative process. Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers have created an algorithm that can read and analyze a book, then use the trends found in this data to determine common qualities among bestsellers (Althoff). They suggest that these trends can be used to identify future blockbusters and inform publishers where to spend their time and resources. However, some fear that Archer and Jockers’ blockbuster algorithm “Can homogenize the market or try and somehow take [editors’] jobs away from them” (Archer qtd. in Althoff). There is a general anxiety surrounding the inclusion of readership data in publishing. Lynn Neary writes: “The idea that data collected from e-readers might be used by publishers to improve a writer’s work strikes [author Jonathan] Evison as wrong;” Jonathan Galassi, president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, adds to the same thought: “The thing about a book is that it can be eccentric, it can be the length it needs to be, and that is something the reader shouldn’t have anything to do with […] We’re not going to shorten ‘War and Peace’ because someone didn’t finish it” (qtd. in Alter). Most writers and publishers seem to agree that while collected data is intriguing and that it can and should inform marketing decisions, it has no place in the creative process. However, already this opinion is not unanimous, and some authors like Scott Turow disagree: “I would love to know if 35 percent of my readers were quitting after the first two chapters […] because that frankly strikes me as, sometimes, a problem I could fix” (qtd. in Neary).

Ebooks and the collection of big data being as new as they are, only time will tell how deeply they become ingrained in the publishing process. Althoff points to “A larger movement in the publishing industry to replace gut instinct and wishful thinking with data.” In a field as typically conservative and slow to adapt as publishing, it is encouraging to see that already marketers have looked into creative uses for reader data and begun implementing them in the same way as supermarkets, online retailers, and the like. But when it comes to the art of writing and the creative process, big data becomes more of a double-edged sword. A rift may be forming between those who view writing as an independent outlet that cannot be influenced by commercial demand, and those who take a more economic approach. For years, industries such as film, music and television have created works specifically to meet consumer’s wants, and in the uncertain market of publishing, data collection may be the most practical solution.

Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra. “Your E-Book Is Reading You.” The Wall Street Journal, 19 July 2012. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.

Althoff, Susanne. “Algorithms Could Save Book Publishing—But Ruin Novels.” Wired, 16 Sept. 2016. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.

Gallagher, Sean. “Adobe’s E-book Reader Sends Your Reading Logs Back to Adobe—In Plain Text.” Ars Technica, 7 Oct. 2014. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.

Hoffelder, Nate. “Adobe is Spying on Users, Collecting Data on Their eBook Libraries.” The Digital Reader, 6 Oct. 2014. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.

Howard, Sam. “Our Ebooks, Ourselves: What’s Happening with Our Ereader Data?” Publishing Trendsetter, 12 Feb. 2015. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.

Kobo. “Publishing in the Era of Big Data.” Kobo, Fall 2014. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.

Lambert, Troy. “Tracking Reader Habits Using Tech: Good or Bad for Readers and Writers?” Teleread, 24 Sept. 2016. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.

Neary, Lynn. “E-Readers Track How We Read, But Is The Data Useful To Authors?” NPR, 28 Jan. 2013. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.

What is so “rebellious” about Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls?

By Celine Diaz

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Publishing has always been considered “risky business.”

Most books never become bestsellers, so each traditionally published book poses a fair amount of financial risk to publishing houses. Authors, too, risk slaving away for years or months trying to perfect works that may never land prominent spots on bookstore shelves. In both cases, authors and publishers are left wondering the big, money-saving question: “What do readers actually want?”

With the rise of digital technology, we might finally have an answer to such publishing woes: crowdfunding.

What is crowdfunding?

Typically facilitated by online platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, crowdfunding involves collecting money from “ordinary people” (who are called “backers”) to help fund numerous projects in exchange for additional perks.

In the case of publishing, this means all sorts of wonderful things for authors who, perhaps for the first time, can feasibly publish without going through a traditional publisher:

  • Crowdfunding provides upfront funding for a book before it is even published, reducing financial risk significantly.
  • Crowdfunding ensures that the book is, in fact, what readers actually want, and that there will be an audience for it (after all, no one would “back” a book that they were not interested in).
  • Crowdfunding does wonders for marketing the book prior to its publication, heightening anticipation and tapping into word-of-mouth online marketing capabilities through social media, blogging, etc.
  • Crowdfunding allows authors to profit more from sales in comparison to the meagre royalties offered by traditional publishing houses.
  • Finally, crowdfunding provides more freedom for authors and readers to explore topics that traditional publishing “gatekeepers” have refused to let in.

But could crowdfunding actually work?

Before dismissing crowdfunding as absolutely “bogus,” consider the case of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, which raised a whopping $1 million in crowdfunds compared to its original goal of $40,000. The book, written by Elena Favelli and Francesca Cavallo, is now the most funded children’s book in the entire history of Kickstarter (no surprise there).

The hardcover picture book features a collection of stories about inspiring women throughout history. It offers a tiered model for perks given to backers in exchange for their funding. These perks include a copy of the book, coloring books, homeschooling kits with lesson plans, posters, tattoo packs, audiobooks, and—perhaps most interesting—the chance to have the name of a daughter, niece, or friend printed in the book as one of the “girls who are going to change the world.”

Yet I suspect that the appeal behind Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls goes beyond material perks and into the social realm. Those who fund and purchase Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls are not simply consuming products individualistically, but are part of a larger social movement that supports building up young girls by exposing them to female role models.

Which brings me to my next point:

Crowdfunding exemplifies a key characteristic of the digital networking world, which is, as Nakamura puts it, “social.”

Media are socially realized structures of communication, and when it comes to connecting people across space and time, nothing accelerates this communication process faster than digital media. Put simply, the internet does wonders for facilitating networks and providing numerous capabilities for people to be “social” and develop communities.

As in the case of Goodreads, a social networking site where readers can rate and share books publicly with others on virtual “bookshelves,” crowdfunding similarly creates communities of people who are interested in publishing particular kinds of books of shared value to them.

People present themselves to the world in terms of the books they read. Crowdfunding immediately puts the “backer” in alignment with the book’s contents and values. In short, those who “back” crowdfunded projects are part of a larger community; they gain social capital. Reading becomes less of a solitary, private activity and more of a social “declaration,” which is accelerated through social media and other kinds of online networking practices.

Digital media also makes the process of collaboration easier, challenging the traditional notion of a single author or illustrator behind every piece of work. In the case of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, each picture was illustrated by different female artists from across the globe.

 

So what makes Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls so “rebellious?”

It represents a significant shift in power relations—both in content and production.

“We realized that 95% of the books and TV shows we grew up with lacked girls in prominent positions. We did some research and discovered that this didn’t change much over the past 20 years,” stated authors Favelli and Cavallo. “We are filling a vacuum. We are responding to a clear need … We could see how much female stereotypes were still around.”

Content-wise, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is a subtle cry against the stereotypically submissive roles that women are often portrayed in by traditional media, such as the “passive housewife” or the “oversexualized creature” that exists for the pleasure of men. In contrast, this book introduces young girls to inspiring female role models who are admired for their contributions, not the extent of their submissiveness.

Crowdfunding offers an intriguing opportunity for a diversity of voices to make it into the publishing world, which is especially empowering for minority groups (women, people of color, members of the queer community, etc.), whose voices are largely ignored by traditional publishing houses.

Similar to xerography, which challenged print culture’s monopoly on knowledge by giving subcultures, minority languages, and micro-communities a chance to spread their messages, crowdfunding carries the potential for diversity and democratization—a stark contrast to the standardization and consolidation of traditional publishing.

With crowdfunding, power relations have clearly shifted.

Authors can bypass “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing to connect directly with readers. More significantly, readers play a key role in cultural production, a process in which they were previously excluded.

No longer are readers simply passive consumers of cultural products that were developed from the top-down. Now they play an active role in determining which types of content get published, since they, after all, provide the financial means for doing so. This time around, publishing takes a “ground-up” approach, carrying the potential to subvert pre-existing hierarchies, such as the “author as authority” (since authors are entirely dependent on readers for the existence of their books).

Just as readers inscribe themselves directly onto books by writing on the marginalia, “backers” of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls inscribe themselves figuratively and literally into the book—their values embedded in its contents in the form of financial support, and their names printed on its very pages as one of the “perks” of funding. No longer are readers simply stating, “I read the book, and therefore I support the effort to introduce better role models for young girls.” Rather, they can claim support by having funded it. They have participated in something bigger than themselves—a collective movement to bring the book and its message into being.

Looks like ‘old’ and ‘new’ media can coexist after all.

Finally, the production of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is a good example of why digital (‘new’) media does not necessarily mean the obsolescence of traditional (‘old’) media. In this case, both forms coexist and even serve to support one another.

Although the crowdfunding and marketing efforts took place primarily online, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is still hardcover print book. It seems that readers have not grown tired of the codex form yet, but now prefer purchasing books online with platforms such as Amazon (which has partnered with Kickstarter to sell successfully crowdfunded projects).

Other companies have assumed a hybrid model, making them a cross between a crowdfunding platform and a traditional publisher. Companies like Unbound facilitate crowdfunding on their platform, presenting potential book ideas to their established readership. Unbound then operates like a traditional publisher for books that manage to achieve their funding goals, taking over distribution and marketing efforts. Authors are given higher royalty rates than they would have gotten with a traditional publisher, and they are also welcome to submit their work without a literary agent.

As eloquently summarized by Michelle Gaudet, traditional publishers could learn a few things from the crowdfunding phenomenon: “Readers want to be more involved in the media creation process; authors want to have more say in what is ‘worthy’ of publication; and the validity of publishing ‘gatekeepers’ is now coming into question.”

Will crowdfunding work for every aspiring author? No. Authors who already have an established fan base or strong social media presence are more likely to succeed with crowdfunding than unknown, newly emerging authors.

However, the capacity for crowdfunding to democratize publishing, to give voice to the previously ‘voiceless,’ and to put more power in the hands of the readers, is extremely intriguing and worth further exploration.

The Lack of Diversity in Book Publishing

Modern publishing originated with Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 15th century. Movable type made it possible to reproduce books in mass quantities – for the first time, common people had access to written knowledge (Prickett, 2013). However, the publishing process itself was not democratic. Newspaper owners amassed wealth and power, and the most wealthy were able to buy their competitors. With the market becoming increasingly concentrated, this meant fewer and fewer opportunities for people to participate. Arguably, the publishing process as structured by the industry today has become even less so democratic over time. The rapid growth of retail chains and the emergence of publishing corporations have been major developments in shaping the North American market, greatly contributing to the field of trade publishing becoming polarized. As Thompson (2010) explains, the publishing field is an intensely competitive domain characterized by a high degree of inter-organizational rivalry – in terms of their competitive position, publishers must compete both in the market for content and in the market for customers. Essentially, the publishers themselves play the role of middlemen, who have to compete with others for access to the most highly valued content and for the attention of consumers. More importantly, they hold the power to decide which books should be brought to the attention of consumers in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

When we examine the field of trade publishing, it is apparent that there are a small number of very large corporations which, between them, hold ownership over a substantial share of the market, and a large number of very small publishing operations. We can begin by identifying the “Big Five” – the major trade book companies in the United States – as Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Harper Collins. How does the publishing landscape become polarized in this way, and what does this mean for the large corporations that become so dominant? In my other Publishing course, Marketing for Book Publishers, we discussed how Penguin Random House publishes one third of all books in Canada, and 45% of books are sold at Indigo. These figures are a strong representation of the clustered economy and how the strongest players function interdependently within a complex space of power and organizations. Thompson (2010) explains that one of the main reasons why large corporations have come to occupy such a prominent role in the field is that there are real benefits of scale that can be achieved in trade publishing. The Big Five benefit from getting maximum exposure, resources, and mainstream acceptance; consequently, the authors we tend to hear about and whose work is reviewed commonly, publish their books with bigger publishers because of these same reasons. Big publishers can better withstand and exploit the semi-chaotic nature of the market as they are in a stronger position when it comes to getting their books into the main retail channels an securing positions of visibility within these channels. This is due to the fact that they have the resources necessary to achieve high levels of visibility within the key retail channels, whereas small publishers often do not.

It is important for us to recognize that this polarization of the trade publishing field is a real issue that needs to be addressed. The industry’s lack of diversity is reflective of a broader issue that has social, cultural, and political implications and consequences. The chief executive of Penguin Random House, the UK’s largest publisher, has warned that the books industry will “become irrelevant” if it continues to fail to reflect the society we live in (The Guardian, 2016). Tom Weldon states, “It ties in to some of the conversation since Brexit. Whatever you think about the outcome of that vote, it was a very clear signal, not just to the publishing bubble, that voices are not being heard… When a publisher has a bestseller, it’s easy to [just keep publishing] what sold yesterday. [But] there are amazing writers out there who we aren’t commissioning. The whole industry needs to change.” I believe that Weldon makes a powerful statement by drawing a parallel between the current political landscape and the publishing field in order to expose the issues in the industry. Democratic governments certainly are accountable to answer to their citizens; through voting, people frame the institutions that govern them. Similarly, the lack of democratization within the industry, top to bottom, results in writers from underrepresented communities continually being excluded from the conversation. Thus, it becomes the responsibility of us all to determine how we can foster a call to action for publishers to take ownership of the issue in order to challenge this status quo and progress in a positive and impactful way.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center has conducted years of research which has produced data that confirms the number of diverse books published over the past twenty years has been stuck in neutral, never exceeding, 10 percent (Low, 2016). In 2015, they conducted a survey to establish a baseline that would measure the amount of diversity among publishing staff. The results included responses from 8 review journals and 34 publishers of all sizes across North America. The most significant findings tell us that just under 80 percent of publishing staff and review journal staff are white. While all racial/ethnic miners are underrepresented when compared to the general US population, the numbers show that some groups, such as Black/African Americans, are more severely underrepresented. What I find most compelling from their research is the following question that they raise: Does the lack of diverse books closely correlate to the lack of diverse staff? The percentages, while not exact, are proportional to how the majority of books look nowadays – predominantly white (Low, 2016). How come publishing has made so little progress in its efforts to diversify, particularly racially? Agents and editors typically represent what interests them. Consequently, unconscious bias seems to play a significant role here, as there is a large element of judgment and personal taste involved in the acquisitions process in deciding which books to buy. Jeff Shotts, executive editor at Graywolf Press, explains that “it often feels that the knowledge and understanding gaps between white industry “gatekeepers” and more diverse writers and readers will not adequately narrow and close until we have a more diverse publishing industry, top to bottom” (Aiello, 2016). It is important to address the structure of the industry in order to highlight the dominant white culture that is deeply rooted and self-perpetuating in the business. A change has to happen within the industry itself, where those who are in positions of power have to be willing to actively look for projects outside their own immediate spheres of understanding and familiarity. As the “gatekeepers” of the industry, they have the privilege of exploring and growing the existing repertoire of authors to publish a more broad range of writers.

There is a need for a shift in conversation – we have to talk about books differently and adjust the attitude that multicultural books can appeal to all readers and are not only catered to minorities. Additionally, as consumers of mainstream culture, we must acknowledge the monumental hurdles that are in place for people of colour to find their way into the literary and publishing culture, stay, and succeed (Aiello, 2016). How do we respond to book publishing’s lack of diversity in a meaningful way? Thankfully, this call for more material from diverse writers from many editors in the industry has set in motion many different initiatives in response. For example, Penguin Random House UK has launched a new campaign, WriteNow, which is intended to discover and mentor authors from the UK’s underrepresented communities, whether they means they are writers from poorer backgrounds, from LGBTQ or BAME (black, Asian, minority ethnic) communities, or writers with a disability. In partnership with writer development charities, this project aims to find, mentor, and publish new writers from underrepresented communities with different stories to tell. Together they will be hosting 150 writers at one of three event days in London, Birmingham, and Manchester, where writers will learn about getting published from authors, literary agents, and Penguin Random House staff as well as getting one-to-one feedback on their book from an editor. The publisher will then ask 10 exceptional writers to join their new year-long mentoring programme, with the goal of publishing these 10 writers in the end (Penguin Random House, 2016). This project is significant because although people from underrepresented communities can strive to change the industry, this change ultimately has to occur from within the dominating white culture first. While recognizing that books and publishing do not reflect the society we live in, WriteNow opens up the opportunity for underrepresented writers to connect with publishers and readers and provides them with access to the networks, knowledge, and skills they need to pursue and excel in their writing careers. I appreciate how the campaign has a linear timeline in their work with the aspiring writers and includes a comprehensive mentoring programme because it holds the publisher at an increased accountability as they have an invested stake to see through the book becoming commercially successful.

Another initiative that has been met with great success and excitement is the #WeNeedDiverseBooks (WNDB) campaign, which emerged out of the controversy that erupted in April 2014 when BookCon announced its initial all-white author line up. The goal of the campaign was to bring awareness to the publishing community that readers want books that relay a broader rage of experiences and perspectives (Gupta, 2014). The campaign’s proposed message was to urge people to post a photo explaining why the need for diverse books is important and then build a conversation around diversity in literature. Furthermore, participants were encouraged to actively seek out and buy diverse literature in bookstores and libraries and upload photos of them onto social media. While the viral nature of the social media campaign has calmed, the grassroots group has continued to push forward in advocating for more diversity in children’s book publishing. A publicist for WNDB explains that the hashtag has been removed from the organization’s name because “we wanted to make the statement that we are ‘more than just a hashtag’ and illustrate our movement beyond ‘hashtag activism,’ into creating tangible and substantial change” (Kirch, 2014). Unlike some other online activism efforts, WNDB is successful in producing a call to action with its participants and preserving the campaign’s momentum by continually announcing new initiatives to keep their audiences actively engaged. WNDB, along with other organizations, announced these new initiatives at the “The World Agrees: We Need Diverse Books” conference, where the event was described as feeling like a political rally, rather than a discussion about books (Kirch, 2014). This is exactly the momentum we need to drive change!

Studies such as those conducted by The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reveal the magnitude of the lack of diversity within the trade publishing field, but initiatives like WriteNow and #WeNeedDiverseBooks are powerful examples of the industry taking steps in the right direction that are bringing about lasting change. As Warner (2016) states, the best conversations happen when everyone gets together to address such problems – not just when white people talk with white people about the issues at hand, or conversely when a panel of people of colour talk to an audience of people of colour about what’s challenging, or how to get ahead. In highlighting the lack of diversity in the industry, these conversations simultaneously create an avenue to celebrate talented writers who otherwise, are overlooked.

Works Cited

Aiello, A. (2016). Equity in Publishing: What Should Editors Be Doing? Pen America. Retrieved from https://pen.org/conversation/editorial-roundtable-diversity-equity- publishing

Gupta, P. (2014, May 1). #WeNeedDiverseBooks goes viral. Salon. Retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2014/05/01/weneeddiversebooks_goes_viral/

Kirch, C. (2014, June 2). #WeNeedDiverseBooks Announces Initiatives. Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry- news/trade-shows-events/article/62693-bea-2014-weneeddiversebooks- announces-initiatives.html

Kirch, C. (2014, July 31). ‘More Than a Hashtag’: We Need Diverse Books Moves Forward. Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/ pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/63508-more-than-a- hashtag-we-need-diverse-books-moves-forward.html

Low, J. (2016, January 26). Where is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey Results. Lee & Low Books. Retrieved from http:// blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015- diversity-baseline-survey-results/

Penguin Random House. (2016). Write Now. Retrieved from http://www.write-now.live/

Prickett, K. (2013, October 16). The History of the Democratization of Publishing. Torque. Retrieved from http://torquemag.io/2013/10/the-history-of-the- democratization-of-publishing/

The Guardian. (2016, October 10). Publishing risks ‘becoming irrelevant’, warns Penguin Random House boss. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/ books/ 2016/oct/10/publishing-risks-becoming-irrelevant-warns-penguin-random- house-boss

Warner, B. (2016, February 12). How White People Can Respond to Book Publishing’s Lack of Diversity. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http:// www.huffingtonpost.com/brooke-warner/how-white-people-can- resp_b_9212452.html

Thompson, J. (2010). Merchants of Culture (2nd ed). Malden: MA.

Why e-book sales are declining? – It’s more than just an increased price

According to the Pew Research Center, printed books are hanging on and remain significantly more popular than e-book in 2016 (Perrin, 2016). It is welcome news for publishers, who have suffered from the drastic change in the e-book landscape for over five years. Perrin (2016) reports, “When people reach for a book, it is much more likely to be a traditional print book than a digital product. Fully 65% of Americans have read a print book in the last year, more than double the share that has read an e-book (28%).” Media remarks that the deceasing in e-book sales is resulted from increasing of its cost: “The biggest reasons why e-book had such a bad year … [is] the return agency pricing. This dramatically increase[s] the cost in e-books by 10 to 30 percent and people [buy] less” (Kozlowski, 2016), “the big 5 publishers, which includes Penguin/Random House, Macmillan, Simon and Schuster, Harper Collins and Hachette implemented a new pricing mechanism that has seen the price of e-books increase from $9.99 to $14.99, or even $17.99″ (Kozlowski, 2016). However, a decrease in sales is not just resulted from the increased price. The recent articles, which are published over the last 4 months, have revealed that the lack of concentration and comprehension on e-book and its digital text, the use of multi-purpose devices, and the experience of digital fatigue are reasons for readers’ major transition to the print book. From the experience of reading an e-book, readers have realized that reading a print book helps concentrating and comprehending the texts better. The lack of concentration is the major issue of reading an e-book because more readers are now tending to choose smartphone, tablets, and computers, which are considered as multi-purpose mobile devices, to read the book. Lastly, many e-book readers have noted that they are suffering from digital fatigue. These three consequences have not only led e-book to be a fad but also changed consumers’ preference back to print books.

Throughout their experiences in digital reading, readers have realized that reading an e-book on a digital device results a lack of concentration and comprehension. Kozlowski (2016) highlights, e-books are inherently flawed because they have fewer spatial landmark, making it harder to concentrate. Numerous studies have revealed that it’s hard to concentrate when reading an e-book and this inhibits reading comprehension, because our brains cannot properly pause and digest what we are reading on digital devices. The chairman of National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia states that reading a book requires a degree of active attention and engagement (Albanese, 2016). This is possible with the print book, but not with the e-book. Andrew Piper, the author of Book was There (2012), illustrates how reading a print book is at variance with an e-book. He first argues, “Books, like hands, hold our attention” (p. 7). The margins of the book give authors and readers a space to pinpoint the important information. It enables readers to concentrate more on highlighted information. However, it is hard to know where its contours are when reading a book with digital text. Piper remarks that digital texts are somewhere, but where they are has become increasingly complicated, abstract, even forbidden (p. 15). This shows how readings that are available on the digital have made harder for readers to decode texts whereas print books are grasping readers’ attention. On top of that, Piper also claims “the book’s handiness is a sign of its reliability. Books are things that can be trusted, a fact that has much to do with the nature of their tactility” (p. 5). The book has a strong ability to conjoin the different faculties of touch, sight and sound into a single medium and its ability helps residing within a more diverse ecology of information (p. 7). He strongly believes that these three senses are the best guarantee that a message will be received, that individuals will arrive at a sense of shared meaning. On the other hand, readers cannot feel the impression of the digital: “The touch of the page brings us into the world, while the screen keeps us out” (Piper, 2012, p. 15). Although digital devices have enabled readers to access to a book more convenient, the e-book and its digital text are making harder to concentrate and decode text compared to the print book.

Moreover, Perrin’s critical analysis of the book reading and its trend in 2016 has uncovered that Americans increasingly turn to multipurpose devices which include smartphones, tablet and computers rather than dedicated e-readers when they engage with e-book content (2016). Between 2011 and 2016, the use of tablet computer has increased by 11 percent and smartphones has increased by 8 percent. On the other hands, dedicated e-readers only increased by 1 percent. Unlike the e-reader, which is primarily designed for the purpose of reading books, smartphones, tablets and computers are mainly designed for multi-functionality such as listening, socializing, communicating, and gaming. Mike Shartzkin, the founder and chief executive of the Idea Logical Company argues, “As more and more people are reading on multifunction devices, there are all kinds of temptations that intrude on book-reading time” (Alter, 2016). Peter Hildick-Smith, the president of Codex also claims that electronic devices are optional for reading books. He uncovers that the current range of e-book reading devices, including smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers, has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print, even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages (Milliot, 2016). Piper (2012) also comments, “reading devices become tools of mobilization rather than iteration. Reading is nomadic rather than domestic” (p. 55). These evidences indicate that books that are available on digital devices can interrupt the flow of reading. For example, when reading a book on the smartphone, you will be easily distracted by notifications from your social media and emails as well as phone call. Multifunctional devices are not made for reading, but American readers still prefer reading on their mobile devices, which they carry all the time.

Lastly, Milliot (2016) exposes that a new e-book consumer phenomenon has remarkably emerged, which is called digital fatigue. Piper (2012) depicts fatigue as one of the basic conditions of the digital: “when we look at screens, we become prematurely tired, the optical equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome” (p. 36). According to the survey that was conducted by the Codex (Milliot, 2016), among book buyers who spends almost five hours on their daily personal on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18-24 years old has stated that they want to spend less time on their digital devices. Consumers always have the option to choose physical books, they indicate a preference to return to print book. 59 percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books. Reading a book in a smaller screen, brightness of the screen and movable text have led readers to a mental fatigue, which makes it harder to read and concentrate. Peter Hildick-Smith exposes that consumers tiring of their digital-device experience will have further digital fatigue, leading to continued e-book sales erosion (Milliot, 2016).

Majority of people predicted that the print book will be soon deteriorated as the e-book, which was initially launched by Amazon and Barnes and Noble in 2007 and 2010, emerges and changes the reading behaviour. However, the study conducted by Pew Research Center reveals that it is a false assumption. PRC’s survey conveys that readers are predominantly turning to printed books over digital books and e-book sales are gradually dropping because of the increased price. However, recent articles unveil that people tend not to read the e-book as a major reading format due to the lack of concentration and comprehension, the increased use of multi-purpose digital devices, and the sign of digital fatigue. Unlike print books, which grasp readers’ attention, e-books are much harder to focus and comprehend its text due to its spatial landmark. E-books which make it easy to download and read instantly on digital devices and readers’ preference to read books on digital devices starts to expand due to its mobility and convenience. This has resulted reading to become an optional activity and get easily distracted by the notification from the email, text message and social media. The increased number of readers suffering from a digital fatigue is also the case in decline of e-book sales. Readers who report the experience of tiredness are more likely to return to print book. It is interesting to see what will happen to the e-book in 2017.

 

Work Cited

Albanese, A. P. (2016, Sept 16). Print or digital, it’s reading that matters. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/71500-print-digital-and-what-really-matters.html

Alter, A. (2016, Sept 23). Audiobooks Turn More Readers Into Listeners as E-books Slips. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/23/business/media/audiobooks-turn-more-readers-into-listeners-as-e-books-slip.html

Kozlowski, M. (2016, Aug 9). HarperColins reports e-book sales are down. Good e-Reader. Retrieved from http://goodereader.com/blog/e-book-news/harpercollins-reports-e-book-sales-are-down

Kozlowski, M. (2016, Sept 17). E-books are on the decline and people are switching back to print. Good e-Reader. Retrieved from http://goodereader.com/blog/electronic-readers/e-books-are-on-the-decline-and-people-are-switching-back-to-print

Milliot, J. (2016, June 17). As e-book sales decline, digital fatigue grows. Publishers Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/retailing/article/70696-as-e-book-sales-decline-digital-fatigue-grows.html

Perrin, A. (2016, Sept 1). Book Reading 2016. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016/#the-share-of-americans-who-have-read-a-book-in-the-last-year-is-largely-unchanged-since-2012-more-americans-read-print-books-than-either-read-e-books-or-listen-to-audio-books

Piper, A. (2012). Book was there: Reading in electronic times. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Finding the Words: Digital Publishing and the Rise of Translated Texts

Translation plays an important role in the spread of important texts and documents on a global scale. The past century has seen a rapid increase in globalization, and through various digital technologies, particularly the Internet, the ability for people to communicate instantly from anywhere in the world has become readily available, increasing the need for translation. This has led to massive development in on-demand translation software, such as that used by Google Translate, and an increase in translated texts being made available to a global public. This paper aims to analyze the influx of translation due to the rise of digital publishing and globalization and the largely Anglo-Western bias prominent within the industry.

The Long Tail and Translation:
Amazon has been one of the founding fathers of taking advantage of the Long Tail, offering a much larger inventory on demand and using the digital storefront of the Internet rather than a brick and mortar store to allow for a seemingly endless stock. In doing so, Amazon is able to “treat consumers as individuals, offering mass customization as an alternative to mass-market fare” (Anderson 2004). This has also been their approach with respect to translated books. Through their translation branch, AmazonCrossing, Amazon seeks to address the massive gap between literary texts in translation largely produced through small presses, and books produced by large corporate presses, which are typically international big name authors such as Haruki Murakami and Stieg Larsson. AmazonCrossing is discussed in an article interviewing Chad Post, head of non-profit translation press Open Letter Books.

Post states in his interview with Len Edgerly that he personally experienced a “lack of what was not available for international books and books in translation.” This emphasizes that there are unique and important ideas in some languages that are not being addressed in others, indicating a gap that could easily be filled by translated texts. The article begins with the citing of some statistics from last year: that 151 presses in the US published some form of translation in 2015, and that AmazonCrossing led with 75 titles (nearly 14% of all translated texts in the States), three times more than the next publisher (Edgerly 2016). While the number of presses invested in some form of translated literature is inspiring, the remaining numbers suggest just over 1000 titles being translated in the US. This is barely even a drop in the bucket when compared to how many texts are produced by the country in a year. Therefore, while translation may arguably be on the rise, it is still a largely insignificant area of publishing in the US. In addition to the lack of international representation in literature, the texts that are translated are not as diverse as we might hope for in today’s global culture. Of the three translated books that the author mentioned having read in the past year from AmazonCrossing, two were from Europe (written in Danish and Polish respectively) and the other being translated from Turkish (Edgerly 2016).

However, while a large player in translated literature in the US, AmazonCrossing is not the only publisher of translations. Edgerly’s article mentions one other translation press, Open Letter Books, based in the University of Rochester. Post works “as publisher of Open Letter Books, which has a staff of three people” and claims that “it’s pleasing to see that he is now helping to increase the supply of translated books” (Edgerly 2016). Of the two translated texts mentioned in the article by Open Letter Books, one was A Greater Music by Korean author Bea Suah (the other being Argentinian novel Gesell Dome). While this exhibits an expansion into a more global realm of translation, at the end of the day this translation publisher is tiny and unable to compete with the numbers of AmazonCrossing. Moreover, as a largely consumer-driven company (rather than the academically-driven Open Letter Books), AmazonCrossing can be seen as a representation of what the public wants, which is a small number of mainly European-to-English translations. Ultimately, while the overall interest in translation does appear to be growing, it is still a largely Euro-centric entity in a Western world reluctant to branch out.

However small the number of translated texts may be, there has been enough of an increase in readership that people are taking notice. In a Publishers Weekly article from last month, it was announced that the National Book Foundation will be conducting a study of translation in the United States. In addition to the expected analysis of how many translated texts are published and where they are purchased, how availability of translated texts affects these numbers, and also how this availability affects the ways that people read (Maher 2016). Of note, the study will also analyze the diversity of translated works, which I hope will expose the Euro-centrism I mentioned earlier. Ideally, this exposure will result in a truly diverse range of texts, and support what National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas says: that “all readers and all literature” must be valued and represented (Maher 2016).

Algorithmic Translation:
In a world where people increasingly engage with material in languages different than their own, the need for instant translation services has dramatically risen. One of the most widely used examples of this is Google Translate. However, how does this process of computerized translation actually occur? Importantly, Google Translate is not a translator, it is a search engine, creating matches by scanning the internet for translated material that matches the phrase it is currently trying to translate (Allen 2016). It is a process that relies on stock phrases, attempting to make language finite and rely on a set amount of sentences. However, what people fail to realize is that their assumption that Google Translate results are “unvarying, literal, mathematical, algorithmically precise translation” is largely untrue, unable to account for literary voice and spirit or, as we may expect of an automatic translator, grammatical sentences more original than the stock set that it relies on (Allen 2016).

Adam Geitgey also addresses the functionality of Google Translate, dubbing it “Machine Translation,” and introducing it as a new means of computerized translation called “sequence-to-sequence learning” (Geitgey 2016). Geitgey discusses the evolution of this method of translation, from original (and widely inaccurate) word-for-word translations, to translations with language-specific rules and algorithms, to a new reliance on probability and statistics rather than the grammar rules of particular languages. In doing so, this translation process generates thousands of potential translations based on previous translations already deemed accurate and then ranks them based on the likelihood of correctness. This method of Machine Translation has been used by Google Translate since the early 2000s, however it still has its flaws. Likely the most upsetting example of a current flaw in this system is that when translating between two less common languages, English is introduced as a middle man to account for the lack of direct translation between the two languages, resulting in a less accurate translation (and a further example of the linguistic dominance of English on a global scale). A more recent attempt to overcome the issue of a lack of word-for-word translation comes from a 2014 development of a “recurrent neural network” that utilizes the results of previous translations to alter the results of future calculations through accuracy reports. (Geitgey 2016). While still early in development, in the two years that the technology has been developing it has already met and begun to exceed translation technologies that have been in place for twenty years. Hopefully this technology will be able to account for issues between common languages, but how recurrent neural networks will be able to address less common languages remains to be seen.

It is largely thought that despite attempts to write algorithms for producing good literature, no computer will be able to write a book the same way that a human does. However, I believe that this same truth can also be applied to translation. The process of rewriting a book into a different language is not a word-for-word endeavor, and requires an understanding of metaphorical and literary language as well as the ability to produce a book that an audience can connect with. Is computerized translation of literature going to carry the same emotional weight as a human translator? I have my doubts.

An Unsatisfactory Conclusion:
Despite the developments being made in the field of translation, I still hold several concerns. To begin, the ratio of translated texts is widely skewed, and the vast majority of translated texts are those from English into other languages. Conversely, the comparatively few number of texts being translated into English are typically texts that have achieved significant popularity in their languages of origin and that have a demand for translation. This demonstrates just how strong the dominance of the English language is becoming, even in an increasingly global sphere; the demand for the availability of originally English texts remains high, whereas the reverse holds true for only a miniscule number of other texts. Post is quoted as saying that “what drew him to world literature was the greater experimentation and innovation he found there, compared with American authors,” and I argue that some of this innovation is lost when authors feel obligated to write in another language (Edgerly 2016). Therefore, rather than globalization and translation resulting in a balanced flow of ideas from many points of origin, there is an imbalance in which languages are being valued over others, even exhibiting instances of linguistic imperialism. In a world where communication is constantly referred to as a network, the relationship between “The West and The Rest” is still largely one-sided.

References:
Allen, Esther. (2016, August 26). Can Google Help Translate a Classic Novel? Retrieved from: Publishers Weekly. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/71273-google-translating-a-classic-novel.html

Anderson, Chris. (2004, October 1). The Long Tail. Retrieved from: Wired. https://www.wired.com/2004/10/tail/

Edgerly, Len. (2016, August 27). Found in Translation: How Amazon is filling a gap in world literature. Retrieved from: Teleread.org. https://teleread.org/2016/08/27/found-in-translation-how-amazon-is-filling-a-gap-in-world-literature/

Geitgey, Adam. (2016, August 21). Machine Learning is Fun Part 5: Language Translation with Deep Learning and the Magic of Sequences. Retrieved from: Medium.com. https://medium.com/@ageitgey/machine-learning-is-fun-part-5-language-translation-with-deep-learning-and-the-magic-of-sequences-2ace0acca0aa#.gpelbe6qb

Maher, John. (2016, October 4). NBF to Conduct Translation Study. Retrieved from: Publishers Weekly. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/71659-nbf-to-conduct-translation-study.html

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