Reflection of Learning

After having spent the past several days moving out of my apartment in Vancouver it feels like PUB 802 was so long ago. The content of this course was something that I was already enthusiastic about and had a basic working knowledge of many concepts, however the discussions that occurred both in class and within the online annotations certainly pushed my thinking and challenged my beliefs.

I spend a considerable amount of my leisure time watching educational YouTube videos including video series about the history of the internet, intellectual property, and machine learning. As these were topics that were discussed within the course, this prior exposure to concepts allowed me to contribute during class discussion as well being able to share these resources with classmates within annotations as well as in the MPub facebook group. The fact that I regularly seek out this type of information for fun shows that this content is something that I have a keen interest in and am consistently looking to further expand my understanding. This course provided additional resources to continue to learn about these topics and to build upon my existing knowledge.

There were times throughout the course that my opinions and believes were challenged. There were two areas that pushed my beliefs the most, the first was digital tracking. Prior to this course I was aware of digital tracking however I was not of the opinion that this digital tracking was wrong, something to be alarmed by, or that this data could be used in malicious ways. After news of the Cambridge Analytica scandal first broke it caused me to reflect on how this information could be used and for what purposes. I had previously thought of digital tracking to be solely for the purposes of marketing and advertising. While it is sometimes unsettling to see an ad for the pair of shoes you were just browsing for on Amazon, there is nothing inherently nefarious about Google Ads. I was surprised by the sheer number of my classmates that had installed different ad blockers on their web browsers because I firmly believed that ad blockers were morally repugnant and punishing online content creators for not wanting their content to be placed behind pay walls. What pushed my thinking was the sheer number of trackers that were installed on websites and how the information they were harvesting could be used to influence politics. This use of digital tracking is something that I find much more unsettling than Google Ads and while I am not about to install an ad blocker onto my web browser, the discussions in this course have resulted in me installing Ghostery and thinking more critically about the potential for digital tracking. Another topic in the course that has challenged my thinking is the idea that companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple (GAFA) alter people’s consumption habits. While I was willing to admit that these companies had a tremendous amount of influence over people I had not considered how Amazon opening a physical retail location was for the purpose of shaping people’s shopping habits to better suit the business model of Amazon. Unlike my thoughts on digital tracking this was nothing something that I had a firm stance that was contrary to the course discussions, but rather that it was not something that I had considered as motivation prior to PUB802.

Both of the topics that challenged my thinking the most within the course are areas that I would consider to be the somewhat alarming reality of how technology (and giant tech companies) shape and influence individuals. My first blog post in this course rejected Adam Gopnik’s categories of  “Never-Betters”, “Better-Nevers”, and “Ever-Wasers”. While I did not align myself within a particular category, and I still believe that people’s interactions with technology is a spectrum and cannot be easily fit into three neat categories, I would consider myself to be between the Never-Betters and the Ever-Wasers at the start of the course. I still maintain a level of optimism that I think it a defining feature of the Never-Betters, however this course has caused me to reconsider certain areas and as a result I have moved more towards a more realist understanding of technology and therefore am closer to the Never-Betters on the spectrum that I was in January.

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 that she has felt the need to block comments (including 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.

BookTube as Word of Mouth Marketing for Publishers

There are many ways that a new or growing publisher can incorporate digital content into their business plan. This could mean producing digital content that they seek to sell, such as ebooks, audiobooks, or other forms of digital reading but it is not limited to just this. There is also the possibility to produce digital content for marketing purposes. Much of what we have learned about marketing in the publishing industry is that word of mouth is one of the most powerful forms of marketing. According to BookNet Canada 50% of readers discover new books through word of mouth. According to Suzanne Fanning, the president of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association,  in her interview with Forbes the three key elements to a successful word of mouth marketing (WOMM) campaign is engaging with the customer, provide positive reasons for the customer to talk about you, and finally empower the customer and their opinions by providing a context in which they can talk and share. While WOMM marketing is traditionally done face to face, it can also be successfully translated into online spaces, what is important is that a sense of the personal remains. One way a publishing company could create a sense of a personal connection with their readers is to show the literal faces behind who publishes the books, this can be done with the creation of YouTube videos.

YouTube is no new place for the publishing industry. BookTube is a thriving community on YouTube where people create videos talking about their favourite books. Some of the most successful BookTubers have audiences of hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans. Many publishing companies have been sending BookTubers ARCs so that hopefully their forthcoming titles will be featured on the channel. Christine Riccio (polandbananasBOOKS), the most popular BookTuber, is quoted saying in a Publisher’s Weekly article that “So often readers feel isolated, [but] with YouTube, reading is a community experience”. This goes back to the desired sense of a conversation that is necessary for effective WOMM. However because of the power that these big name BookTubers possess they are being approached (or bombarded) with far more books than would ever be possible to review. As a result very few books are featured by small or even medium sized publishers. Back at the end of November I conducted a short study about the top ten most subscribed BookTubers and the type of books that were being reviewed. I was only interested in videos that featured a single title rather than the abundance of tag videos, hauls, and other multi-title quick run-throughs. After collecting the data it was evident that over two thirds of reviewed books were published by one of the Big Five Publishers (Hachette, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster). The remaining titles were often published by other large multi-national publishing companies such as Scholastic and Bloomsbury.

This is possibly because larger publishing companies are disproportionately sending ARCs or copies to BookTubers, or more likely because these titles have buzz that is being generated with substantial marketing budgets which makes these BookTubers interested in and anticipating the release of these titles. If small or new publishers want to have their titles be promoted on YouTube we come back to the age old adage “if you want something done right, you must do it yourself”.

Outside of BookTubers there are multiple publishers that have a presence on YouTube. While many publishers have not successfully capitalized on this market there are a few that have impressive YouTube channels. The most successful YouTube channel owned by a publishing company is Harper Collins’ Epic Reads, with over 143,000 subscribers. While online video content can be expensive or time consuming to produce, it doesn’t need to be expensive and it can be worthwhile. Natalie Gagnon from Vancouver Magazine has started to produce a substantial amount of online video content, particularly dynamic slideshows, covering events, and behind-the-scenes videos of the creative process. These are all videos that publishing companies could produce without a lot of additional costs or time. One of the issues that most publishing companies make when trying to produce YouTube content is that they exclusively make book trailers. These can be expensive to produce well, often come across as cheesy, and as a result get very few views. Instead publishing companies should take cues from DFTBA Records and produce online content that mirrors their now defunct series “The Warehouse”. During its run “The Warehouse” was a weekly show hosted by Matthew Gaydos that would primarily show off new products available for sale in the online store. This is very similar to content that would be included in a publisher’s newsletter but YouTube provides viewers the ability to directly respond to the company in the comment section. Gaydos was very sucessful at hosting this store because he built relationships with viewers and facilitated conversations. This goes back to the key elements of successful WOMM that Suzanne Fanning outlined. Overall producing good YouTube content can allow for publishers to successfully engage in WOMM and to build relationships with their readers.

The Folksonomy of Responsive Teachers

An ongoing conversation within children’s literature communities is the overall lack of diversity. This conversation really started to build momentum in 2014 with the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks going viral. Suddenly more people were starting to think critically about the types of books that existed for young readers and how not every child was able to “see themselves in the pages of a book.” This quickly became the vision of We Need Diverse Books and this viral sensation turned into a registered non-profit to seek change in the publishing industry.

While many people were only starting to think critically about the diversity of children’s books back in 2014, for many people this was something they had been demanding for some time. One group of customers that holds a considerable amount of pull that saw this need well before the catalyst even of the all-white, all-male panel of authors at BookCon was teachers. Within the world of children’s publishing one of the most powerful customers is the educator. Not only do teachers make up a substantial portion of the overall sales of children’s literature but they are also a major social influencer in many children’s early experiences with literature and therefore can act as taste makers. The nature of working closely with at least 20 children every day requires teachers to be tuned in to the needs of young readers. Teachers saw that the books available were not reflecting the diversity of their classrooms and they began to advocate for change but also to share resources with their colleagues of what books do exist. These lists of resources were created because such books were not effortless to find and required a tremendous amount of time to research.

Teachers have to be responsive to best serve their students, and as a future children’s publisher I want to be responsive to best serve young readers. I will not be working directly with children so I cannot be responsive in the same way that educators can, but I can learn from how teachers respond to the needs of their students with the resources that are available. Ideally I would like to capture data about how teachers are using books within their classroom to best suit their students needs to see where we as publishers need to change. Teachers were seeking out diverse children’s books long before it became such a buzz word in the publishing industry and they were finding and sharing these resources, this data, with each other. This can help us as publishers to navigate where teachers are seeing gaps in the market that need to be filled. These gaps could be large societal issues like diversity but also smaller needs like relevant content being taught in classrooms.

There are many places across the web that such data could be aggregated from, but a resource that is tremendously popular with educators is Pinterest. There are thousands of lists on pinboards of teachers gathering classroom resources. Publishers, teachers, librarians, and parents make posts about different books or share lists from blogs on the website, these resources can than be sorted into boards, such as “books about women in science”, and tags can be applied so that other teachers looking for similar resources can easily discover the boards. If publishers take note of the folksonomy that exists within the Pinterest community, make an effort to ensure they have a presence on this social media site, and observe how their books are being sorted into different boards and the tags that are applied, a lot of valuable information can be gathered about not just who buys what books but what those books are being used for.

Metadata and the Machine

Artificial Intelligence has much to offer for any industry and the publishing industry is no exception. One potential application for these systems is in creating comprehensive metadata. Metadata is gathering data about other data. Within the publishing industry this would be gathering information like author, genre, and topics about books. ONIX is the industry standard for metadata and promises a plethora of benefits. The ONIX website cites the benefits of the system as:

Providing a consistent way for publishers, retailers and their supply chain partners to communicate rich information about their products. It is expressly designed to be used globally, and is not limited to any one language or the characteristics of a specific national book trade… As a communication format, [ONIX] makes it possible to deliver rich product information into the supply chain in a standard form, to wholesalers and distributors, to larger retailers, to data aggregators, and to affiliate companies.

Metadata is clearly extremely useful but also very time consuming to create good metadata. To create metadata a person or a team of people must consume the data in order to gather information about it. This is a very slow process that takes hours and hours of work. When my boyfriend, Peter, first started working at a small documentary company he was creating metadata from footage for a polar bear documentary series the company was working on. For months Peter would watch footage of polar bears and record information like if the polar bears were near snow or no snow. No matter how good a person is at their job they cannot create the metadata faster than they can consume the source object. A branch of Artificial Intelligence called Natural Language Processing has multiple capabilities that will allow machines to create comprehensive metadata with much greater speed than humans are capable of. Natural Language Processing is the development of computers to be able to understand and process large amounts natural languages, where natural languages are how humans naturally communicate rather than computer coding languages. These natural languages for the purposes of the publishing industry would be published books and manuscripts. Instead of having an employee read a book or a manuscript and then recording metadata the machine can rapidly process the text and analyze or extract information. Andreessen Horowitz explains the different types of analysis and extraction that Natural Language Processing is capable of. The forms of analysis that are the most applicable are sentiment analysis (understanding the affect of the text), entity extraction (pulling key words from the text and sorting them¾this would be useful to build a metadata that includes concepts discussed in a text that doesn’t have a detailed index), information extraction (building on the information from the entity extraction and providing context), summarization (creating summaries of the text), and finally document analysis (the classification and categorization of documents and its content¾this is the overarching method of creating metadata). It won’t be long before the use of Natural Language Processing machines will replace interns and entry level positions from creating metadata. The machines are able to accomplish the same work that employees are able to do in seconds rather than months and cost a whole lot less to do so. Publishing companies as a result with have better more robust metadata that is cheaper and faster to produce.

Online Publishing and the Quest for Diverse Books

Internet business models are in general trending towards removing the space between the creator and the consumer. The complex filtration systems of traditional business models are disappearing and there is a profound increase in creators only going through a single intermediary, such as an online hosting platform, to reach their intended audience. This calls in to question the value of industries such as the publishing industry that function to filter and ideally refine content from authors before it eventually makes its way to the reader. This new business model is potentially detrimental because it will require authors to have capital in order to publish their books. I believe that the publishing industry must put an emphasis on publishing diverse and innovative books in order to continue to stay relevant within this changing market.

Harrison Kitteridge envisions in their article “Creating the Uber of Publishing” a future where books will be almost entirely self published eBooks and made available through a large platform. Kitteridge goes on to explain that these self published authors will hire freelance editors, designers, and other professionals to oversee tasks that were traditionally done within publishing houses. This model currently exists within the publishing industry and is sometimes referred to as “custom publishing” or “vanity publishing”. The primary difference between traditional publishing and this new model is that the author would retain the copyright and any money from sales would go exclusively to them (instead of earning royalties). This new model would also shift the risk of publishing books from the publishers (who are now all hypothetically working freelance) onto the author. This business model is problematic because the authors that can afford to take on this risk as well as pay freelance professionals are people with expendable income. Traditional publishing allows for writers from all backgrounds to be potentially published, but this new model means that only the wealthy can afford to print their books. The publishing industry is already notorious for its lack of diversity and this new business model would potentially exacerbate that.

When you consider the types of books that are produced by custom publishers it is evident that you need to have capital in order to have your book be produced. Custom publishers take on a great deal of work from corporate clients wanting to publish a book about their company to use as a marketing tool. Similarly during my time working at McNally there was a local self published author who was producing a series of picture books but had to stop because she could no longer afford the expenses. This is very similar to what Anil Dash discusses in his article “Tech and the Fake Market tactic” and how the internet went from being a free space that anyone could join on equal playing ground to becoming a place where only people with a considerable amount of capital can afford to have their content standout within the crowded market space. While this is not a perfect parallel it is worth considering how the internet is not a meritocracy and that money controls a lot of what happens in online spaces.

Kitteridge’s predicted future for the production of books would see the end of publishers being “gate keepers” and instead the ability for the authors to pay will become the new barrier to access. If the overall goal is for high quality books that reflect the diversity of readers then neither of these models are perfect however I am more inclined to believe that publishing companies that exist not just to make money but because of passion projects are far more likely to produce these books than individual authors trying to standout in a crowded marketplace where you have to pay to play at the highest level.

Brick and Marketing Stores

When considering the implications of online retailers moving into traditional market places it is important to make the distinction between small scale businesses like Bonobos and Blue Nile that are discussed in Mark Walsh’s article “The future of e-commerce: bricks and mortar“, and corporate giants like Amazon. The scale between these two groups is not at all comparable so what is motivating them to open brick and mortar locations is logically not the same. For the purposes of this assignment I will be considering why a small online business would move into a traditional marketplace as a form of marketing and brand awareness.

One of the major concerns for any business is how to attract new customers and generally make the public aware of the company. Magazine companies are faced with this issue and an industry strategy is to use the presence of the magazine on the news stand to increase their visibility. Single issue sales typically account for a minimal amount of overall magazine sales so most of these companies are not making a profit off of having their issues available on the news stand. An average return or pulp rate for magazines is about 70% of the print run. Given these rates the profitability of employing a magazine distributor to put the magazine on news stands in major retailers is minimal however the visibility gained is an invaluable form of marketing. A similar business model is likely being applied with small online retailers. By having have physical brick and mortar location the online store is able to gain visibility and attract new customers. Seeing the company’s name when passing the location allows for potential customers to gain awareness of the name and become curious as to what the company is. Rather than getting lost amidst the crowded online retail space these stores are able to be found by customers in a given geographical location.

Etsy is a popular website that allows people to sell handmade goods in a small store within the website. While many stores can find moderate success just through search algorithms most are buried under the thousand of comparable stores. Etsy stores are also moving into physical spaces to gain visibility however these physical spaces are temporary. Craft sales are an event where many handmade good retailers come together to sell products and have existed for decades (not unlike brick and mortar stores), however there has been an increase in etsy stores attending craft sales. These etsy stores are able to sell products at these events however they are temporary markets. The hope of these etsy sellers is that by handing out business cards at these craft sales they will also increase traffic to their online stores.

Overall I don’t believe that online retailers moving into brick and mortar stores is a devolution because they are simply practicing a similar strategy that magazine companies have used for years. The intention behind these physical stores is not to replace their online store but to attract new customers and drive traffic to the website.

Long Live the Independent Bookstore

In 2014 France passed a bill that forced Amazon to stop offering free shipping to customers. This piece of legislation was to update an already existing law that dictates all retailers cannot discount books more than 5% of the publisher’s listed price. It is little surprise that in a country where the government is dedicated to prevent large corporations from using prices that other companies cannot compete with is also a country that has a thriving independent bookstore market. While many countries that Amazon actively sells into have experienced an epidemic of bookstores closing, France’s bookstore market has remained relatively untouched. A future in which Amazon’s control of the sale of books declines will likely brought about by similar legislation in other countries.

Independent bookstores are able to offer many things that Amazon is not, such as a knowledgeable staff, events and book launches, and shelves upon shelves that you can wander through and discover books. While Amazon has a very sophisticated algorithm to aid you in your next book purchase the e-retail giant lacks a level of discoverability for new and unknown titles. These services come at a cost to the bookstore but do not translate into a direct monetary value for the customer. Given our society’s current capitalistic culture these services are currently not highly valued­­–possibly because people try to take advantage of these services without paying the higher retail price on books. If Amazon were to wipe out all Independent Bookstores from the market customers may come to realise that they miss the services that brick and mortar stores have to offer, however it is unlikely that this would damage Amazon’s sales because they will have become the only viable option for book sales.

Throughout my time working in an independent bookstore I was confronted with the reality that a large percentage of book buyers would buy their books at the cheapest location available. I have lost count of the number of times a customer would ask me if we would price match Amazon’s listed price, or asking me to write down the titles I had spent time recommending because they’d rather buy them off of Amazon because they wanted to save money. A local independent bookstore cannot hope to price competitively with a giant corporation such as Amazon and for the customers who are looking to find the best deal possible, Amazon was nearly always the answer. If governments made an effort to limit the monopoly that Amazon holds by outlawing predatory pricing it would destabilize Amazon as one of the “big four”.

The Fluidity of Never-Betters and Better-Nevers

In his article “The Information: How the Internet gets inside us“, Adam Gopnik defines three groups of people that describe how society interacts with and thinks about technology. The three groups are the “Never-Betters”, the “Better-Nevers”, and the “Ever-Wasers”. Gopnik’s main argument is that some people are overly optimistic about technology (the Never-Betters), some people are overly pessimistic about technology (the Better-Nevers), and finally that some people have what Gopnik views as a rational and well adjusted view of technology (the Ever-Wasers). The key to being an Ever-Waser is to not fear or demonize the technology but to also believe that the technology will not miraculously solve all of society’s problems and that new technology will often recreate similar structures that already exist.

The defining feature of Never-Betters is that every new technological development is met with optimism that it will somehow change the world for the better. For example the ideology that the web will remove barriers so that everyone’s voice can be heard is a very positive message that Never-Betters would use to explain the potential for positive social change. However it ignores the fact that it also provides a platform for voices that spread hateful messages. Similarly people point to the Arab Spring and how through social media large groups of people were able to come together and remove oppressive governments from positions of power; what it ignores is that these same social media platforms can also be used by radical hate groups to stage violent protests such as the white supremacists that gathered in Charlottesville. The Never-Betters by definition are looking towards a hopeful future and that technology is a potential key to progress.

Conversely the Better-Nevers view technology as an unknown and potentially dangerous change. The Better-Nevers look at the past as the definition of what is good and that has society makes changes that distance itself from the past those changes are detrimental; if the Never-Betters look to the future with rose coloured glasses than the Better-Nevers look to the past in this way. They see how new technology changes society, view it as for the worst, and ignore how other technology that they grew up around did very comparable things. For example Better-Nevers will point to how people don’t socialize as much anymore because they are busy using their phones but they don’t necessarily have a problem with people watching television for hours. One form of technology is viewed as isolating people and the other brings people together when in actuality both involve spending time with a screen. The defining feature of the Better-Nevers is that every new technological development (outside of technology that already existed) should be met with fear or suspicion.

These are obviously simplifications of groups of people that paint Never-Betters as naive and Better-Nevers are stuck in the past. I do not believe that people fit neatly within either category and that people’s interactions with technology is far more fluid. A Never-Better may be resistant to change and when YouTube makes large changes to their interface they may respond with anger and fear that the website will never be the same. Each individual exists on a spectrum and their position on the spectrum is ever changing.