23 February 2013

Giant Squid, Anyone?

xkcd no. 1176Today's sausages are mostly products of the Department of Paying Attention to Context and Speaker. So, for that matter, is the opener...

  • With a well-stated, overly polite, but truly "well, duuuuuh" guest article, The Grauniad somewhat self-importantly informs us that publishers don't know how to flog their wares to readers. Mr Williams, however, never states the actual reasons for this, although his article dances around one of them. (Given that Mr Williams has a day job as a literary agent, I suppose telling the publishing industry that its model is far more completely broken than he implies would be a bad career move.)

    (1) For all of their influence and (individual) promotability, the sales and marketing departments at publishers are incapable of matching authors to readers — only, at most, books to bookstores. This is the necessary implication of publishers' preference for authors with an existing platform: That the publishers are incapable, or at least not reliably capable if one is feeling particularly generous, of establishing a definable audience for a given author or work. One look at what passes for sales and marketing from the perspective of the potential, unaware-of-specific-work reader brings us to "well, duuuuuh": The active avoidance of the work itself is not just common, but virtually universal. Instead, we get third-party descriptions of the work that are frequently written by people who have not read the work. Even "non-literary" people know that, and know not to trust the flap copy, or radio ads, or short gushy anonymous marketing pieces masquerading as reviews that frequently summarize one or two plot points. Nonetheless, that's how the publishing industry persists in trying to sell its wares.

    (2) The people who actually have read the works in question — the editors — are judged not on the success over time of their entire lists, or on how they set up individual authors and other aspects of the imprint for future success, but on the initial laydown sales of preordained sales winners (normally those authors who do bring a platform to the publisher). Sales over time don't count; sales outside of traditional platforms don't count; awards don't count; and the farther down the list one's titles are, the less success counts... and the more immediate perceived failure hurts. Although this is precisely the area in which someone with Mr Williams's background would be expected to be most critical, he isn't; again, there's that conflict with his day job lurking there.

  • Rob Horning at Dissent offers an interesting book review that ends up musing on the transformation of "bureaucracy" from an essential protection against tyranny to a purported form of tyranny — at least in the minds of the economically ambitious. I think Mr Horning misses the point of paperwork though: It is not to either enable or disable certain transactions, but to ensure that there is a relatively complete, discernable record of the enabling (and disabling) of those transactions. That record has two, almost entirely retrospective, purposes: To facilitate later policy considerations based upon actual evidence instead of the anecdotes offered by those who have the time and money to present those anecdotes, and to act as a preemptive shaming of those who knowingly engage in improper transactions (and thereby, hopefully, deter some of them). Neither aspect of paperwork — or the people who deal with the paperwork — has a damned thing to do with senses of entitlement... and if one takes a look at virtually every criticism of Büroismus, one will find that the critic's perspective is that of one who was "entitled" to a different result than the system gave him or her. Sometimes, that includes me...
  • At least Mr Horning appears to have actually read the book he's reviewing; too much of the British press — through self-interest — refused to read Ms Mantel's criticism of not the Duchess, but of the press's depiction of her. I'm gobsmacked that the tabloid press is incapable of accepting that it's entirely focused on marketing considerations instead of substance... gee, does that echo the first sausage on the platter at all?
  • Last, and far from least, a British lament on the various copyright debates that goes not nearly far enough — because the writer is being measured and academic, not because he's incorrect. One of the IPKitties is concerned about the absence of authors in the debates on copyright. The US Copyright Office's Orphan Works Inquiries are one example of the problem. I remember being awfully lonely at the west coast public "roundtable" on orphan works in 2005; I was the only representative of natural-person authors (and I include creators of nonwritten works) at the table — the other 19 represented transferees. Sadly, that reflected the makeup of comments in the 2005 Inquiry all too well, particularly in the initial-comment round (when only one written-works-authors' organization even provided an independent comment... out of over 600 received). The situation in the current round on orphan works is a little bit better, but human creators' interests — even including those who are primarily reusers of others' material — are advocated in less than a quarter of the comments provided. Things are even worse when considering information-age infringement issues, such as this all-too-typical "conference" on the DMCA that has no panelists whose perspective is that — or arguably primarily aligns with that — of the individual creators who most need a low-cost, low-formality means of objecting to online infringements of their works.

    This is unacceptable and inexcusable. It's easily explained as a combination of the power of financial initial positions to set agendas and, specific to the Copyright Office, agency capture, but that's not an excuse. The ground was set when Congress — possibly, indeed probably, exceeding its constitutional power to do so — redefined "author" to include, and often exclusively mean, "patron" in the 1976 Act... without ever using the word "patron" in subsection (b). No other nation has gone so far, so claiming that it's a necessary means of complying with international norms is more than a bit much. The echoes of the complaints about "bureaucracy" in and around the second sausage on this platter should not be ignored... because in this instance there really is an unfulfilled entitlement; it's not only an ethical one, but a constitutional one. Indeed, there's an excellent argument that, under the current confused jurisprudential framework, virtually all of the proposed systems for dealing with orphan works constitute regulatory takings.

    The current debate over copyright, especially as it is on the 'net, uncomfortably resembles the partition of a colony by colonial powers without a voice at the table for the indigenous peoples (or at least not one drowned out by moneyed interests like the East India Company). It seems to me that we've made that mistake a few times before with unsatisfactory results. We really, really shouldn't be repeating it.