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

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

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

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

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

 

Opening Access to Children’s Literature

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

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

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

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

 

Today’s Digital Collections of Children’s Literature

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Conclusion

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

 


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Digitization. http://massdigitization.com/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marketing and Advertising

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

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

Submissions

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

Per the Submittable website:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Platforms

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

Who Is Being Excluded?

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

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

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

Ways We Can Improve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

The Advent of Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile in India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some (rather tangential) notes:

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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