The Sound Of Silence

The question about the rights of a writer and a commenter is full of gray areas. It used to be pretty straightforward when publishing was limited to print. Readers used to write letter to authors and editors. Reviewing of text was in the hands of few critics or peers who had the credibility to comment. Books used to exchange hands via libraries and used books stores, gaining annotations along the margins with every exchange. The chain of dialogue was always consecutive and never concurrent.

Online publishing does not enjoy this privilege.  The web has opened the flood gates of social interaction. Anyone can express any opinion and find a large audience with few measured efforts. Publishing your thoughts is easy. So is commenting on it. We live in a day and age where everyone is “Google expert” and feels it’s their right to express opinion. We rarely stop to think – what, why, who, when, where and how we should articulate our thoughts.

Lack of barriers means there is a growing gap between what gets published and what actually needs to be published. Similarly, who comments on what is a complicated concept. In both instances, someone decides that it is a good idea to break the silence and write about a topic or for someone to comment on someone’s work.  Perhaps this Zen story can convey the conundrum of social interaction:

Four monks decided to meditate silently without speaking for two weeks. By nightfall on the first day, the candle began to flicker and then went out.

The first monk said, “Oh, no! The candle is out.”

The second monk said, “Aren’t we not suppose to talk?”

The third monk said, “Why must you two break the silence?”

The fourth monk laughed and said, “Ha! I’m the only one who didn’t speak.”

Each monk broke the silence for a different reason. The first monk became distracted by one element of the world (the candle) and so lost sight of the rest. The second monk was more worried about rules than the meditation itself. The third monk let his anger at the first two rule him. And the final monk was lost to his ego.

There is no right or wrong way of looking at who gets to moderate feedback or who is entitled to give one in the first place. What we, as a society, need to spare more thought to is our reasons for breaking silence. Yes, freedom of speech gives us the write to express ourselves, but this fundamental right comes attached with duty. We’re responsible for what we express. And that applies equally to the writer and the commentator. Self-moderation is what we need, where online text is concerned.

Maybe there was a fifth monk in the story, who slept through peacefully, blissfully unaware of the value of his silence.

 

 

“Daunting no more?”- PUB802 Reflection

I remember speaking to Professor Alperin briefly in the fall semester about how much the Technology syllabus looked difficult. I was nervous going into the course because of the lack of knowledge I thought I had. The grading system, which I have now come to understand, was initially a big shock. With all of that in mind, now that I am at the end of the semester with the help of hindsight, I can finally say that I am confident to have conversations about technology and its evolving forms. I know what Big Data is, I know what the different business models on the internet are. I can talk during the “eBooks vs print” debate and give a nuanced opinion. The ability to articulate my stance clearly is something I have learnt from the class discussions but especially the Hypothes.is annotations. Never have I been more engaged with academic readings (seriously I actually looked forward to reading them). I set aside entire mornings and afternoons to leave my comments and reread articles because I knew that my opinion would be valued.

A week that made me realise that we cannot live in an opinion vacuum was the week on Copyright Law. The issue of copyright restrictions in relation to the publishing industry is contentious. The class discussion on it,  which happened quite early on in the semester, set the precedent for how I handled subsequent discussions. I am generally a leftist person, a liberal, I would say. However, when it comes to copyright law in the creative sector, I take more of a conservative stance: one that states that the laws should be extended for the benefit of the author and subsequently the publisher. This is a stance different to the majority of the class but I at least felt that my reasoning and opinion as much as it was contested, was listened to. And on that note, I stand by it.

I would have preferred more classes or mini-lessons from Professor Alperin. The student-led system of teaching is interesting but I sometimes missed an overriding voice of experience. That being said, I was happy to lead the class with my colleague, Octavio. The reactions and feedback from our peers was a confidence boost and if ever we have the opportunity to lead discussions or classes again, we have learnt how to engage an audience (for three hours straight). A few recommendations for the future based on my personal experience in the class: When assigning blog prompts, the students leading the class should discuss the topic with peers beforehand. This is something I wish Octavio and I had done and I feel like other weeks could have benefitted from this too. The language in the syllabus could be changed to be more inclusive – this was mentioned earlier during the semester but “Incomplete and Complete” ring better than “Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory”. More guests from the publishing industry, working with evolving technological forms could be invited to add dimension to the range of opinions we have access to (kind of like when Jamie Broadhurst came in week 8).

In conclusion, I believe that my biggest takeaway was the perspective I gained on audio books and audio production. This has shaped my thinking regarding where I want to go in my career from here on out. I am grateful that this class gave me a chance to explore this further, with thoughts on how to incorporate it into my business plan.

I will miss annotating the same articles with my peers but be sure to find my opinions in public forums. (Daunting no more).

Let the authors and publishers determine the terms

My answer to this week’s blog prompt is more complex and complicated than a yes or no. I do not think that my stance is firmly grounded on one side or another. For me, it depends largely on a case-by-case basis whether or not the writer has the define who can comment or not.

Most likely, it is inevitable that even if there is not a convenient means to comment, create annotations or marginalia notes that that shuts out all online socialization over a text. There will be another platform to discuss, comment or make notes about the work through forum communities and websites like Reddit. For example, if a Youtuber disables comments on their video then that community can easily jump to that YouTuber’s subreddit and create a discussion post about the video. While the writer or content-creator can discourage it, and make it harder for online socialization to occur, I can only imagine that it is nearly impossible to completely shut it all out.

Then again, Audrey Watters brings up a great point in her blog post Un-Annotated where she says: “This isn’t simply about trolls and bigots threatening me (although yes, that is a huge part of it); it’s also about extracting value from my work and shifting it to another company which then gets to control (and even monetize) the conversation.” This brings up the messy ground where the authors also have the right to protect themselves from those trolls and bigots. Especially women on the internet who face a higher level of these types of attacks and threats all the time.

However, in some other cases where the writer writes a controversial or ignorant piece and disables comments to keep their echo chamber up then that is where I would take issue. If there is no constructive criticism, peer review or annotations then that can also be very problematic.

Although it is not a specific written piece, the arguments on both sides reminds me of the case where Discord, a private instant messaging app, began to shut down neo-Nazi, alt-right and other various hate-speech servers. It is important that it is also the publishers or server’s responsibility to shut down these types of toxic and hateful content. Websites like Blogger, Livejournal, WordPress, Medium and even YouTube (for the case of digital content publishers) should also have the right to shut down online socialization just as much as the author.

It is all hard to say. But ultimately, text that has a vibrant commenting section is a clear indicator of how much buzz it is generating and allows the writer to connect with their audience. Disabling the comments would mean to sacrifice all of that. On the other hand, the author may want to protect themselves for good reason and to keep their content securely within their copyright and no outside influence. It all really all depends on what your goals, why you decided to write the piece or create the content you did and what message you want to perpetrate.

 

REFLECTION

Being a user of technology at every seconds of my life, I was excited to learn more about technology in this course. PUB 802 was a very interesting course; I have learnt as evidence by this reflection.

My lecturer, Mr. Juan Pablo Alperin, has afforded me the opportunity to learn more technological terms and trends. We were also exposed to different materials highlighting the importance of integrating technology in the publishing industry. As I reflect on the course, I must say that I have really learnt a lot.

I believe that technology integration continues to increase in the publishing industry. It is important that we, as future publishers, possess the very skills and behaviours to better survive in a digital age.

Applying technology at school has had a great impact on me as it has given me more knowledge, such as sannotation, e-book and Amazon. This course has taught me different ways that I can use to plan effective technological integration for working in the industry.

In this class it was challenging at times, especially with the weekly assignments but I have learned to use different technological tools. I opted to try different things even though I wasn’t sure how it would work, but because of my determination and curiosity, I did it anyway and it worked. I guess this says that I take risks in learning on my own at times.

As I willingly accepted the opportunity to explore educational technology, my darkened state was lit as it was brought to my attention how technology savvy the 21st century learners are. However, as the course progressed new information surfaced. At some point in the course I felt frustrated, but I continued to do what I had to do, knowing that it would only redound to my success.

As I continue to reflect I realize that this course has helped me to understand that the use of interactive educational activities can promote higher order thinking skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. I have proven this to be true, based on the discussions and group activities done in the class. This course has helped me as I work with my colleagues and we collaborate and make decisions to create meaningful, learning experiences.

Without a doubt technology has become a vehicle for educational growth and I am happy to be a part of this vision. This course has definitely helped me to realize it.  

Reflections on the Class

When I started the MPub, I thought I was going to end up in editorial. It wasn’t until John’s Text and Context class and my own self-led research into scholarly communications that I realized I might want to go into tech. This class, Tech Theory, was really important to me as I prepared for an industry that I didn’t have as much background in as I would have had I gone my original route. Though I understand PUB802 was more theoretical where PUB607 would balance out the practical technology, I do wish both courses had been running the entire semester concurrently.

What worked for me

1) Hypothes.is annotations

We’ve talked a bit about digital reading behaviors, but I think annotating via Hypothesis really helped me concentrate on the content and get something out of it. It was helpful that reading the articles was incentivized beyond being able to successfully participate in class discussion the next day. Though I do think it could have been rewarding to have our annotations publicly visible, I understand why we didn’t. Perhaps for future classes, there could be a consensus requested. Engaging in the reading and knowing I had to contribute to a building conversation also helped me stop from skimming. I’ve started annotating pages that weren’t for class, and I think it’s a plug-in that I’ll keep installed and use in the future.

2) Student-run classes

I appreciated the opportunity to educate myself really well about a certain topic and have to be responsible for knowing as much as I could about it. In the future, however, I wish that this aspect of the course was better structured and laid out in advance.

3) Industry guest: Jamie Broadhurst

Jamie’s presentation on the data involved with Fire and Fury was super enlightening. Having recent, real-life examples of how the tech we’re learning about is used in the industry was helpful to orient our perspectives on the way things may work.

What I think could change

1) Shorter student-run segments of class

Though we didn’t always know how long we’d have that day to lead the class we structured, it was often upwards of two or two and a half hours. In the future, I think it would be better to have students lead for about an hour and a half, after which we would have instructor-led or industry guest-led lessons to fill in the gaps that students may have a bias against or be missing.

2) More industry guests

I noticed an overall trend that when comparing fall semester to spring semester, fall semester had far more industry guests. Because half of our classes in the spring semester involve tech, I think it would be helpful to invite more tech-focused industry guests into the classroom. I feel that as students we have a more limited network of acquaintances in magazines and tech than we do of Vancouver’s book publishing scene. More industry guests could also help students who are, in the spring semester, still struggling to find places to apply for their career placements, as I believe many of our cohort chose placements with guests that had visited throughout the program.

3) Cross-over classes?

It might be neat to occasionally cross the practical and theoretical between PUB607 and PUB802. If crossover classes aren’t an option, it would at least be nice to structure 802 to have parallel components with 802.

Overall, I enjoyed the course and learned a lot. I feel much more ready to embrace a role involving publishing technologies. My fellow students did a good job of preparing their classes, and my perspectives on the industry has changed a lot

Reflections on PUB802

Each student will write a final essay (approximately 500-750 words) that outlines their experience in the course, and the ways in which their thinking about the roles of technologies in publishing, and in our lives, has changed as a result. Students can focus on a single takeaway, on several, or discuss the course as a whole. The takeaway need not be about a specific piece of knowledge, but rather about the experience as a whole.

Technology, in general, has never been my strong suit. I’m interested in learning more about technology and how it works, but, much like science, I’ve never really been able to wrap my brain around how a lot of it works. I was excited and nervous to start the technology course because I knew I would learn a lot, but I was worried about having little prior knowledge. I came into the first class of PUB802 assuming that the class would be a practical lab and we would be learning how to use various publishing technologies, so I was surprised when I found out that it would be mostly lecture style. Given that the media and tech projects were done differently this year, I would like to offer a suggestion to combine the technology and tech project courses—starting both in January—instead of combining the media and tech project courses. I think combining the lecture style learning (like PUB802) and practical lab learning  (like the workshops in tech project) would be beneficial to students, especially those with different learning styles.

Now that I’ve offered a suggestion for future classes, I will focus on how the class was run and how it helped my learning. This class can be broken up into a few sections: annotations, blog posts, class lead, and other assignments.

Annotations:

Using annotations for our online readings was brilliant. MPub has been difficult and time consuming, and some readings end up not being read because work takes priority. Having the annotation requirement ensured that I read everything for every week, which improved my participation in class and overall learning. The only thing I would suggest for this is to ensure the people who are leading that topic are still participating in annotations by answering and asking questions and prompting further discussion and threads in the annotations.

Blog Posts:

I’ll admit that it was tough to get these done every week. The blog post questions weren’t hard or time consuming, it was just another thing to do every week that usually got pushed to the end of the week. That being said, I found them incredibly valuable. For the weeks I wasn’t leading the class, I was still encouraged to participate in the discussions and come up with my own ideas and thoughts about every topic. This definitely contributed to my learning about technology in publishing because I was forced into deep thought about every topic, but I could focus that topic around the things I’m interested in: small presses, speculative fiction, short fiction, etc. Putting things into a perspective that I enjoyed and understood was a great way to think about new things.

Class Lead:

Again, this part of the class was beneficial because I dug deep into a specific topic and facilitated discussion with my peers. I tried to participate in the annotations more, as I suggested people should do above, but I think I could have done better if it was more suggested that I do so. I also think Juan should weigh in on the discussion a bit more than he did, especially during some weeks. Leading the class is definitely beneficial to everyone’s learning, but Juan knows more about every topic than we do and it would have been nice to have a bit more lecture from him.

Other Assignments:

I particularly enjoyed the open knowledge assignment. I think it was valuable for me to learn how to use Wikipedia, and I believe in contributing to open knowledge because it’s important for accessibility. I was less keen about the reflections assignment, though. It made sense to do something like this at the beginning of the semester, but doing the reflections essay and three forms of feedback (written, scantron, and the single question) in class seems to be a bit overkill. That being said, I appreciate that Juan is open to receiving feedback and it genuinely seems like he cares about improving his teaching style and his class for future years, which is never a bad thing.

A book is a book is a book: On Marginalia and Authority.

Publishing is to make public”. This is a statement that has been repeated plenty of times over. To publish is to seek out eyeballs. Whether it is done on the individual level (via self-publishing) or the collective level (traditional publishing), when work is put out there, audience engagement in some form, is sought out. “Eyeballs” are multidimensional: audiences do not only read works but they form opinions of works and make them known. They comment, they highlight, they leave marginalia on texts, both online and in print. Do they have the right to interact with texts that have been made available to them? Yes, they do.

Is marginalia authoritative if it is never found, never made public or if it never garners an audience? It has been argued that marginalia in print is long-lasting however in my opinion, it is less likely to gain an audience of more than a handful of the same people. For example, if a codex has a print run of 10 000, distributed all over Canada. And a person finds marginalia in one of the 10 000 books, possibly on a library shelf buried besides other books, their likelihood of being able to trace back to the original creator of the marginalia is low and their ability to create an instant community around the musings is even lower. In the digital sphere, however, marginalia is usually credited to a specific person (eg. on Hypothes.is) and as much as S. Brent Plate argues that this marginalia is ephemeral, the likelihood of more people interacting with it quicker is higher. Furthermore, the ease of community building around online marginalia could also be based on the fact that everyone is commenting on the same article despite their geographical location. In print, the marginalia might be in book 528 of the 10 000. Unless posted online (yet again), can this marginalia reach the author and be in conversation with them? The likelihood is no. I take into account that entire communities have been formed around print marginalia but these are the limitations of it in this digital era.

The point I am getting at here is that both audiences in print and online should be allowed to interact with texts if those texts have been made public. Whether they can “shape the text” however will be determined by the visibility of their marginalia and the community they can build around it.

Writers are also able to determine who can comment on their work by the simple act of defining the public it reaches and not publishing to all groups. They can choose language that deters certain people from engaging with their works for example. This has a tendency to be discriminatory however. By censoring interactions the writer becomes  a propagator of an opinion vacuum.

To summarise:

1) Audiences can react to texts if those texts have been made public. To publish something is to garner eyeballs. Interactions between published work and reader are part and parcel of the publishing process.

Marginalia requires an organised public of its own to be authoritative.

2) The writer can determine how their work is disseminated thereby deciding who has the right to comment on it. This can be discriminatory.

3) Should authors seek out eyeballs and subsequently not allow those eyeballs to engage with their works? I think not.

Small fun fact, on this topic of marginalia: I am a person who had first edition Jane Austen books and doodled in them because a book is a book is a book.

 

The Dumpster Fire of Online Comments Sections

When thinking about online publications one issue that presents itself that is not as prevalent in print publications is the role of the content creator and their responsibility or freedom to control, moderate, or even block annotations, comments, or marginalia on their work. This raises two very interesting questions; do online content creators have the right to control how people interact with their content and do they have a responsibility to ensure their content is not being used in a way that could be considered malicious. These are two very different questions that online content creators are forced to consider when they publish their work. I don’t believe there is a clear right or wrong in this situation but that there are best practices.

Firstly, let’s start with considering should content creators be allowed to control things like comments on their publications or is this a form of censorship. Audrey Watters explains in her post about blocking hypothes.is that she has felt the need to block comments (including hypothes.is and genius) on her blog to avoid “having to wade through threats of sexualized violence in order to host conversations on [her] ideas.” As someone who is has been creating YouTube videos in some capacity for nearly a decade I can understand the desire to keep your website, blog, or YouTube channel as your safe place. To make a comparison between the online world and meat space, if you thought of your website as your house you have the right to control who is allowed to enter your house and under what circumstances they would no longer be welcome. The concept of freedom of speech is complicated but in the comparison of your website being your house no sensible person would claim censorship if you kicked them out of your house after making violent threats towards you. Now the complicated part of this argument is if you consider a website a private space like a house or if by the very fact that it exists on the world wide web it is therefore a public space, and how is this complicated if you do not own the platform on which you are hosting your online content? I will not pretend that I have the answers to these questions, and any resolution that you come to is likely to upset one group or another. I am inclined to believe that your intellectual property is a private space that you can see to control in any way you see fit, even if you don’t own the platform on which you are posting. YouTube actually has built in capabilities to allow content creators to moderate the comment sections on their videos. This is done by allowing the creators to ban key words that frequently pop up in malicious comments, going through and being able to delete individual comments, or turning off the comment section all together. Controlling who can comment directly alongside your work does not prevent people from making comment about you on other platforms but it does provide content creators to have a sense of agency over their publications and the paratext that appears next to it.

This brings us to the complicated issue of content creators and their responsibility to control the comments, annotations, and marginalia so it is not malicious or filled with hate speech. It is unrealistic to expect an online content creator to manage a comments section consisting of thousands of comments, however if they are made aware of offending content and do not take action to remove it are they accountable. This is a similar logic to how copyright violations are often handled on platforms such as YouTube. It is reasonable to assume that there is content on YouTube that violates copyright, however it is unrealistic to expect YouTube to seek out every piece of violating content so an understanding has been made that once made aware YouTube must act or else they are held accountable for providing the platform for this content to be posted. Even if it is established that the online creator’s website is a public space and therefore not subject to private space regulation, there are limitations on freedom of speech and stipulate hate speech is not protected by the freedom of speech. Therefore expecting an online content creator to remove hate speech within their comments section is not forcing them to engage in censorship. While saying that a content creator removing hate speech from their comment section is not a form censorship it is still negotiable if it is their responsibility to be the moderator or not. An adjacent issue that I wanted to quickly touch on is the similar responsibility of content creators to control how their work is being used and consumed. A popular example is the Pepe the frog meme being adopted by Alt Right groups. This is an extreme example but it is relevant to think of how content can be manipulated by audiences.

These issues are considerations that online content creators must grapple with when publishing their content in online spaces. Again, while it is impossible to reach a right or wrong answer on whether online content creators have the right to control how people interact with their content and do they have a responsibility to ensure their content is not being used in a way that could be considered malicious, these questions are important to consider and to come to individual conclusions that are defendable when deciding to publish online.

Give the Reader What They Want—In a Way That Works for Everyone

Audiences have always interacted with text, whether it is hand-written marginalia as Plate describes itor online comments and annotations as Watters describes it. Some people have no problem annotating and commenting online, but despise it when others write in physical books. Other people hate online comments sections, but enjoy making notes in the margins of their books. Everyone has their own opinions and, ultimately, you cannot please everybody.

Personally, I took notes in the margins of my school textbooks all the time, but I couldn’t bring myself to do the same in the books I read for pleasure. Reading comments sections on most websites makes me sad because most often comments tend to be negative and fights break out; however, I do comment on specific websites and forums frequently—places I know are more professional and people are less likely to cause petty fights. I suppose I’m a happy middle in between the two people described in the last paragraph.

I had never thought of marginalia and comments being a problem—if you don’t like the comments section, stay away from it, and if you don’t like people writing in books, make that clear when you lend a book to someone. Stay in your happy bubble and everything will be okay. However, that is thinking about it purely from a reader’s point of view—what about the author?

I definitely think it is up to the reader whether or not they want to interact with the text, however they may choose to do so. I had never thought about it from the author’s point of view, and what if they don’t want people interacting with their text in that way? Watters makes an interesting point in her blog post “Un-Annotated” about not wanting comments, annotations, marginalia, or anything like that on her websites. I understand her point about not wanting to “wade through threats of sexualized violence in order to host conversations on [her] ideas,” but I’m not sure I understand why she went from allowing comments to not allowing any—surely there’s a middle ground we can work with here.

I’ve always been told that having people comment on your blog post (and social media, for what that’s worth) is a good thing. It allows your audience to connect with you in a way that they normally can’t in person, and this can drastically improve the way your audience sees you if you’re responding to and engaging with them. However, as stated above, I hate most comments sections because of exactly what Watters is describing. In an ideal world, we would have control over that. Perhaps a step between allowing commenting and disabling it altogether would be to install a plugin that filters out comments that have certain words or combinations of letters that could indicate a negative comment (negative here meaning hurtful, not “I don’t agree with you” because those comments are valuable). Many websites aimed at kids already do this (Neopetsand Runescape, for example). Obviously comments can still sneak through, but filters can be improved and it will reduce the number of negative comments being posted. I think something like this is at least worth a shot before completing removing the ability for readers to comment altogether—give them the chance to continue the conversation.

Author, Authority, Authoritarian

While thinking about the dichotomies involved when we talk about authorship of a work, it struck me that when I think about the word “authority” I don’t usually associate it with the word “author” — though pretty clearly that was the idea behind the concept whenever some old Latin guy or gal coined it yesteryear.

As Wikipedia lays it out for me:

Middle English: from Old French autorite, from Latin auctoritas, from auctor ‘originator, promoter’ (see author).

[I “see author”]:

Middle English (in the sense ‘a person who invents or causes something’): from Old French autor, from Latin auctor, from augere ‘increase, originate, promote.’ The spelling with th arose in the 15th century, and perhaps became established under the influence of authentic.

So now we’ve conglomerated a family of meanings and associated terms: author, authority, and authentic denoting originality, promotion, and invention. In the most denotative sense of the term, authority stems from the original author or writer’s creation of a thing. They have (?) the innate authority — or power, as we’ve come to view the term — over that work.

In the digital age of global marginalia and annotations, we’re now challenging those ideas of authority, or perhaps redefining them. There is nothing in particular in the etymology of the word authority that gives us an idea of a timeline; we can decide, perhaps, that an author has authority over a piece until it is passed to the next person (Copyright law, anyone?), or we can decide that an author has authority over a piece ad infinitum. At some level, I think the discussion is one of respect, but on another I think that publishing something — making it available to a public — is in the act itself asking for a response from your audience.

Though their complications with audience interaction didn’t manifest in the same way, I believe Audrey Watters‘ views on marginalia echo those of fiction author Anne Rice. Rice, back in the early 2000s was so vehemently against fan’s appropriation of her content for fanwork purposes — art, fanfiction, et cetera — that she sought legal action against her fans. The contention then was that she was alienating her own fanbase. Though many authors who shared Rice’s opinions turned around and came to accept fan culture, those sentiments are still harbored by many today, as we can see. A public is hard to form if the members of that public have no way to communicate with one another, and an effect of that is that the author/authority of that content works against their own interests.

So, should readers be able to interact with or shape the text? Should is hard to say, but will is definite. It’s an inevitability that authors will have to face. And annotations software like Hypothes.is don’t affect the original copy of the work; that maintains its shape.

Does a writer have the right to define who can comment? The writer has the right to give that comment context, of course, but to define “who can comment” is inherently discriminatory. In practical terms, most writers aren’t in control of the platforms they publish on anyway, and most websites have some means of moderation. Ever more popular these days is also the Reddit-style peer review system in which readers of a particular piece up and down vote comments according to how valuable they feel that comment to be. Peer reviewed community commenting seems to me a lot more reader-friendly than banning a particular group of people.

Should audiences be limited in their socialization over a text? Not if authors want an audience. But ultimately, it is and should be up to the author.

“The More One Knows, the Quaggier the Mire Gets” – Sarah Vowell*

Having recently prepared a project that relies on the concept of “digital fatigue,” I have read a lot of information online on the topic. There are blog entries, such as Frank Buytendik’s futurist-focused one, where he writes, “we are moving towards a #digitalsociety. Not only business changes, not only work changes. Life itself changes.” At the same time, there are medical warnings against the continued and growing exposure to screens. For example, Dr Aizman’s talks about ocular muscle strain and writes, “digital eye strain is very common because of our reliance on digital technology.”

Yet if you put these two observations together, you’re in Quagmire Land. Somewhere somehow, the eyes (which recent studies say are part of the brain and not separate organs) have to both do the work you’re demanding of them, and preserve themselves as part of providers of one of your five senses. Perhaps this is why content-retention when reading materials online is not as reliable – there is ocular and brain stress that steals away from the energy one devotes to reading and reading comprehension.

So – should publishers care? is a question that one wonders as a budding publisher. I think the most reasonable answer is, “it depends on the publisher.” When I was finishing my Graphic Design diploma, the Head of the Department and Portfolio instructor had us do rigorous research in terms of our “dream companies.” I had learned about Scholastic through my part-time work with children and made it one of my three winning companies. Now, at the tail end of the academic portion of my Master of Publishing, I know that if I were to indeed become a part of the team, I would use the type of medical and psychological research being done to encourage children to read real books, as well as educate parents on the necessity of perpetuating this method of reading. In fact, if you haven’t heard this interesting factoid, it has become public knowledge over the last few years that the children of Silicon Valley techies attend no-technology schools. While this New York Times article is a bit outdated, it offers a peek at some of their methodologies, such as  “Andie’s teacher, Cathy Waheed, who is a former computer engineer, tries to make learning both irresistible and highly tactile. Last year she taught fractions by having the children cut up food — apples, quesadillas, cake — into quarters, halves and sixteenths.”

Isn’t that so ironic? That the masterminds who brought personal computing to global levels are segregating their own children from their inventions? They must know something we don’t know.

So that’s if I were involved in publishing geared towards children and education.

Now, on the other hand, given Buytendik’s prediction that our future lives are inescapably digital and will become more so over time, I can imagine improvements to technology that publishers could (and would have to) take advantage of. I have not seen any VR-reading yet but sci-fi films often touch upon scientists finally unravelling the mysteries of the brain and plugging materials directly into neurons, the way we transfer data via cables or miniSDs into devices in the present. While growing up I was never much of a sci-fi fan, it never ceases to fascinate me that all writers’ “predictions” from past decades are now part of our daily lives. A vast majority of people are so ungrateful, too, in their unquenchable thirst for “better” “faster” “more.”  So with this new technology, new reading formats would inevitably dictate the way readers would access information. Thus publishers would have to indeed lend an ear, if they wished to survive into the 22nd century.

I’m 31 now and know that life will be so vastly different when I am 81.

*Vowell said this about American History but I find it applicable to everything in life.

Anna Stefanovici

Who Can Comment?

Occasionally throughout this last year, the definition of publishing has been thrown around the classroom: to make something public. And if something is public, then I believe that others should have a right to interact with it, comment on it, share it, and so forth. If you are producing something for the public to consume, then they should have the right to respond or interact with it in some way. It should not be a one-sided conversation.

If we didn’t allow interaction with text then there would be no criticism, and the counter public would have a much harder time organizing and affecting change. Without discourse, culture would not evolve—it would be the same people in positions of power saying the same things. We need to be able to hold people accountable to their words, and one key way we can do this in a democratic society is by having discussions in public spaces, such as in the comment section online. To stop people from commenting would be to censor people; and would be just another, more obvious way that we decide who has a voice and who doesn’t (the other way being deciding who gets published in the first place).

And while the majority of the time I think audiences should be allowed to socialize and discuss publications, it is also important to recognize that there are times when this can become dangerous. As we know, there is a difference between free speech and hate speech, and the latter has no place in public discourse (or anywhere!).

For example, in 2015, CBC decided to temporarily close comments on stories about Indigenous Peoples due to what they referred to as “uncivil dialogue” taking place in the comment section. Comments are still closed today (although not on the Facebook comment section), and I would argue for good reason. Often, the comments added nothing to the discussion about the story or the issue, but were racist generalizations. In this case, the cost (harm caused to people who read these comments) outweighed the benefit (people being allowed to engage in conversation). People’s well-being should come before everyone else’s two cents.

Similarly, if people abuse their right to comment (such as issuing death threats on Twitter), then I support them losing their ability to contribute to the broader conversation. If we are going to have discussions about texts, then we must do so in a way that does not attack a person or group of people and cause real harm.

Public Posts = Public Conversation, Deal With It

Yes, I believe that audiences should be allowed to interact with a text, but only through the margins, unless it is a defined creative or evolving space like Wikipedia where it is expected that the content may change over time by readers. By allowing comments and interaction with other readers, people can find community, have healthy and friendly debates, and be pushed to think about their views and the views of others. It is a way of extending learning through the discussion of writing and reading.

Granted, not all comments are good comments. Audiences should be limited only in the sense of not being able to troll or spam users (either writers or other people commenting) with unrelated comments or abuse on a text. Plugins like Hypothes.is, it seems, are generally being used by like-minded, curious, and educated people who want to open discussion about different types of thought — the communication appears to be mostly civilized. If authors really were experiencing trolling and spamming through plugins like this, it could be a development of future editions of the plugins to have a scanner that detects fake posts and doesn’t allow them to be posted (again, only with the exception of spam text).

All that being said, I think that writers do not have the right to define who can comment on their text. It may seem at first glance that a simple solution would be to ban all commenting on a text, like Audrey Watter’s post, Un-Annotated. However, by banning all comments and discussion, not only do writers challenge the right to free speech, but drastically cut any chance of their texts building that sense of community, trust, and even following. Posts and articles become “talking at” a person, rather than “talking with” a person. In reading Watter’s post, I immediately felt that she was rude, self-centered, egotistical, and rude, to use polite words. Why would I want to read someone’s article or post when they have such an ego that they don’t think that other people’s comments are valid or important? By making their writing public they are subjecting it to public critique, and people are going to talk about it whether the author likes it or not. If no one is allowed to discuss the piece because the author is too lazy or finds it to difficult to either monitor the comments or relinquish control altogether, they probably shouldn’t be making their writing public.

Let’s get more digital content goin

Publishers are stuck in the age of print, and are trying to force the digital environment to conform around print standards. While ereaders are great for their portability and convenience, for a lot of readers, there’s not enough that’s different to draw them away from print. As Hachette Group CEO Arnaud Nourry put it, “The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic.

I half agree. While there can be much more done, ereaders are still in their infancy, and will grow to incorporate enough features to be worthy as a whole new media-consumption tool, separate from books. Some features I would like to see added to ereaders include:

  • Audiobook Incorporated with text
    • In which audiobooks also come with the text of the book, and a highlight follows the words of the text currently being read. This is for accessibility and further reading assistance for those with greater barriers to reading.
  • Pop-up glossary
    • The ability to highlight a word and have definitions appear in a hoverscreen. It would look much like how hovering your mouse over a hyperlink in wikipedia opens a small hoverwindow with a glimpse into that hyperlink’s page.
  • Annotations
    • This should be obvious.
  • This.

However, it’s not realistic for a publisher to just make a better ereader. Instead, there are other digital content strategies a publisher can adopt. Talking about digital content actually makes me reminisce a lot on book project last term. My group spent a long time devising how to include digital content in our publishing plan, and what we came up with is exactly what I would like to see done in the real world.

So without further ado, I’ll take a cue from CuePub.

One thing I learned during the book project exercise is how much variety there is to possible digital content. We managed to come up with four unique ways to use digital content to enhance the four books, rather than just port them to a digital platform.

One of my favourites was what we did for the graphic novel – we envisioned an environment for fans to create and upload their own fan stories. As a publisher, helping and encouraging communities, especially for serialized publications, helps grow and strengthen the fan base. If you have a series that inspires strong attachment to character, a series that people will write fanfiction for and upload somewhere else anyway, why not host the community yourself and encourage their attachment to the series?

However, what I most want incorporated in a publishers’ business plan is not digital content to complement a printed book, but digital books that are a completely separate catalogue from printed books. What penguin is doing in india with mini-books for mobile is genius. Finding ways to create digital-only content, to neither be secondary to nor replace the print book, is something more publishers should be doing.

ent-Retaining digital readers

Picture: The Van der Graaf or Tertiary Canon, used for page design creates harmony by its rules -which- lead the textblock to having the same ratio of the page, but it also positions it in perfectly whole units.

Publishers should care about the difficulties created by digital reading, leading to users nowadays to lose attention and becoming distracted while reading online or, being the case, any digital platform.

When you design a book, you ideally set a page size, layout and ortho-typographic characteristics for it. Every publisher worth his/her salt has to guarantee an ideal formatting of their books so they help the reader to get a better understanding of the content.

There is no agreed philosophy on this, some say roman fonts are better for long books, some say grotesques are better, some defend wider margins and white space, while others keep broad columns filled with text. In any of those cases, there is a clear purpose on the Publisher’s part to satisfy the readers needs as per their mission and philosophy.

We all remember “The Crystal Goblet” by Beatrice Warde, taught in our Design class, where you can only delight on the content when you do not nottice the recipient. I also remember seeing a documentary where they said, the cup has to be wide, so the corners of your mouth, which have lots of sensory terminals, could soak in the wine (or water) and you get a much improved sensation while drinking. I found this to be true, but what matters of these couple metaphors, is that, just like Pottery does to your drinking, Editorial Design also have its ways to enhance the readers experience. And its because of their mere existence, that Publishers have the responsibility to apply them to every field they intervene.

Several studies, some of which we reviewed last week  (here is another, just for completion purposes), point out that reading online hinders the optimal comprehension (i.e. to grasp the nature, significance, or meaning of… something) of the content. Yet, these platforms are common among all of us, whether for reading books, or to learn other contents, not available elsewhere.

So why would a digital publisher should not care about their readers fully comprehending the contents they publish and thus, provide the optimal format for this? The only reasons I can think of, is the ignorance of these format conventions, or the ways to code or implement them in their products.

Beyond these formal rules, there are other factors that keep readers distracted from the text, these have more to do with the multi-task and all encompassing lifestyles we are continually being suggested, it has nothing to do with the comfortability of reading on one or other platform. People have always been able to drink something while reading, but now they also need to be checking the screen of their phones at all times, the result (I soaked my book while drinkng my tea and checcking phone”. Before this, the -dial- phone also ringed some times, or night came and people could not read, there was hardly a time when you could do nothing else but reading (except an IELTS certification exam of course), but since books have existed, people have taken measures to provide an optimal reading, from creating spaces dedicated to the activity, to the lecterns, reading lamps, seats and many other gadgets. It was even a ritualized activity! And they have also invented a bunch of reasons why they don’t read.

Nowadays, most people believe it is a “democratic” privilege to be able to read on the go, while on the bus or train, from the screen of a reader, tablet or smartphone. It is also believed, everything on the screen is something to be readable, while it is not, sometimes it is not even legible. This is where publishers of all kinds have messed up with the act of reading on their part.

Lets consider the famous “accessibility” feature of digital texts, an elegant name for “zoom in/out” in most cases. Does this help people read better? From the designer point of view, it is an aberration, because the screen size limits the column width, and with this, all the careful work usually done on a printed book is thrown in favor of bigger letters and shorter lines. The mere fact to be scrolling down to reach the next line is a distraction. When people had “accessibility” problems with printed books, they bought a magnifying glass,there are some like a sheet you put on top of the book and you have your accessibility, you don’t mess with the layout, period. This may be a rudimentary example, but it shows how these technologies are not necessarily new.

So yes, it is not only their responsibility but also their fault things are screwed up like this.

So what can be done? From the design POV, first and foremost would be to learn the basic -and advanced- principles of formatting texts, including the editing canon, even if you are not going to do the formatting, you will at least know how it would look like. Then, learn how they can be implemented in digital works.

Primitive digital books in PDF preserved page format, today we have CSS to do that online. For all the myriad of possible digital texts, we have to learn how to control the text flow on a screen, and what are the best results that can be achieved with them.

Text now interacts with video, hyperlinks, buttons, menus, etc. The digital reading age is in fact too young and ever changing, but most of the basic obstacles have been overcome, so it is a matter of putting some interest to the task, not just writing a long column for a blog or leaving the available space after that huge banner in your website. Ebooks need a major set of rules, and it  will just take a successful publisher to find the ideal format, at least for one of the many platforms out there. Its a worthy excercise, an ongoing one I insist, contrary to the centennial rules of book publishing, we are living the age where these matters are about to emerge.

Final note: And fear not because we are human beings, capable of adapting to new standards, given enough time, so even if no one achieves a successful result, we will deal with reading on five or six different ways anyway

Oh! and just a final note: That Van der Graaf thing, was not exclusive to
Europe…

 

Audio for Small Publishers. Hooray!

In 2014 I founded Kamaria Press, a not-for-profit African and Caribbean publishing house. The original business plan was to publish the works of Black authors using Amazon CreateSpace for the production and distribution of print books. As a student with not much experience in the publishing industry, I assumed that the works that Kamaria Press was to release needed to be in print for the company to be validated/recognised as legitimate. A long history of viewing print as the default book format influenced my early business plan.

It took me a while to realise that as a startup publisher with no external funding, printing with CreateSpace as beneficial as they portrayed it to be would run me into a loss within my first year of business. (Not-for-profit presses need to make surpluses too in order to carry out their mission). I was then introduced to eBook publishing as a viable business model but a lack of tailored expertise on how to produce them in-house meant that I did not pursue this route.

But as we all know digital publishing is not limited to eBooks and a survey I did amongst Black readers in the UK proved that audiobooks would be a popular reading format for them (my target audience). With this knowledge, I am looking to create an audio-only imprint which will be a significant part of Kamaria Press’ offerings going forward. Despite claims of audiobooks being extremely expensive to produce (insert the advice from Kevin Williams, publisher at Talon Books), I believe that small presses such as Kamaria Press can incorporate audio content using certain practical steps.

 Set-Up

According to Dr Hannah McGregor, publishing professionals can use USB or preferably analog microphones to achieve high-quality sound when recording podcasts and audiobooks. They are relatively easy to find and can cost as little as CAD$500 (a small investment when placed in the bigger picture). Here is a list of 25 of the best podcasting microphones, some of them can easily be used to record audiobooks too. I plan to invest in an analog microphone because of the elevated “warm” sound that they produce. I also plan to use built-in recorders such as Garage Band and Hindenburg to save and edit my books. This strategy is, for the most part inexpensive, and I want to start recording multi-page stories before moving on to longer texts.

Public libraries such as the Vancouver Public Library have recording studios and microphones which can be used by members whenever available. Depending on them is not a sustainable business strategy but it is viable start for an up and coming publisher.

Furthermore, if I or one of the Kamaria Press volunteers enrolls into an audio editing course then the knowledge capital of the organisation will increase as well as the ability to edit audiobooks in the long run. Another one-off investment. I, for example, will not have to hire outside help to edit thereby keeping costs low something that is crucial for startups.

Another option would be to use Amazon’s self-publishing audio arm, Audible’s Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) but I am trying to avoid the same problems I had with CreateSpace. Creating as much financial autonomy is a key part of  Kamaria Press’ business strategy.

Final Thoughts

As the fastest growing segment in publishing, it has been reported that “books in every imaginable genre [are selling] better as spoken rather than written word – four times as well” to be exact. It is of utmost importance that digital content particularly audio content be integrated into current business plans even for small publishers. I have attempted to discuss cost-effective ways of incorporating audio content into a small/growing publisher’s business plan. I truly believe that audio is for both the big and the small.