Today on the Self-Publishing News podcast: Amazon changes its ebook returns policy, much to the relief of authors. Also, Substack allows private, curated audiences. And in the Tech Corner, humans strike back against AI. News Editor Dan Holloway and News and Podcast Producer Howard Lovy discuss these and other stories making the news this month in indie publishing.
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About the Hosts
Dan Holloway is a novelist, poet and spoken word artist. He is the MC of the performance arts show The New Libertines Earlier this year he competed at the National Poetry Slam final at the Royal Albert Hall. His latest collection, The Transparency of Sutures, is available on Kindle.
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last eight years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcripts: Amazon Changes Ebook Returns Policy and More
Howard Lovy: Hello, and welcome to the February 2023 edition of Self-Publishing News from the Alliance of Independent Authors. I'm Howard Lovy, ALLi's news and podcast producer, and book editor at howardlovy.com. Joining me is ALLi News editor Dan Holloway.
Hello, Dan. How are you?
Dan Holloway: Hi, Howard. I'm good. How are you?
Howard Lovy: Oh, I'm fine.
Dan Holloway: I gather you have some news for us that is relevant to our news.
Howard Lovy: Yes, exactly. I've decided to take something out of my life to make room for writing and editing more books, and that's journalism. It was a tough decision. I've been a working journalist since 1985, but I've decided to quit and focus purely on writing and editing books. The process of pitching publications for low pay just isn't sustainable anymore.
I came to this conclusion a few weeks ago after recording a podcast with my creative mentor Orna Ross at ALLi, and it's time to focus my time on the most sustainable and enjoyable parts of my career, and journalism just isn't it anymore.
That serves as a segue to our first story, which has to do with, I guess, the demise of journalism. I guess we'll discuss the US Department of Justice's antitrust case against Google, which claims that the tech giant has over 90% of the US advertising market share, and this dominance has led to huge layoffs in the journalism industry, and I can personally attest to that.
Dan Holloway: Yes, I know lots of people who can attest to that. So, that's the main news, is that the Department of Justice is launching this antitrust case against Google because its market shares of advertising is seen as too big.
The Author’s Guild has welcomed this, not surprisingly, because the main people this seems to be affecting are journalists.
So, because journalism in the age of the internet, or journalism in general, has always relied on advertising revenue, more than its subscriptions and sales revenue, especially in the internet age, and Google has essentially taken internet ad revenue and eaten it.
Howard Lovy: Well, that's kind of old news, so why is this just making the news right now?
Dan Holloway: Because, as I say, we've just had an antitrust case filed by the Department of Justice. To be honest, I don't know the answer, because I don't want to say anything about American politics that will get me into trouble. So, I don't know why just now. I do know that this isn't the first time that similar cases have been brought.
The European Union has been looking at this kind of issue for a long time, and one of the pieces of legislation that has been causing controversy in Europe is the so-called link tax, which I'm sure we will have covered at some point. Which was basically demanding that news aggregators, so anyone who aggregates content where that content is being created by a journalist, by a professional, they should be paying some kind of royalty to the publisher of that content. This was designed to stop platforms like Google and other aggregation platforms from stealing all the ad revenue from journalists, or at least paying some of it back, because people were simply getting their news from reading these little snippets at the top of Google search, rather than getting it from the site who is producing it.
I don't know why it's taken the Department of Justice so long to catch up.
Howard Lovy: Now, some journalists are also discovering new ways to make their voices heard, and one of them is Substack, and they're making the news now because they are launching a new tool for creators which allows them to create private accounts and curate their own audiences.
So, tell us more about that.
Dan Holloway: Yeah. Well, you are the Substack expert. Does your quitting journalism mean that you'll no longer be running a Substack?
Howard Lovy: Well, I'm still running my Substack because I still write occasional things in my genre, and I have a platform and people who follow me in terms of what I have to say about Jewish issues in particular.
So, I don't see it going away. I've just been personally negligent and budgeting my time to actually work on my Substack newsletter.
Dan Holloway: That's really interesting in terms of our general thoughts about journalism, as opposed to other sorts of writing, long form, high quality articles, because Substack would itself as a journalist platform, whereas you think of more traditional journalism, like you say, as pitching to people, to publications.
Howard Lovy: Right, and if I decided to really go full force into it, I would grow my subscriber base, launch some kind of premium content in there. It takes a lot of effort to do that, and right now I just have to figure out how I want to budget my time.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, and the thing that Substack's doing at the moment is basically letting you choose who you let subscribe.
So, traditionally with Substack anyone can subscribe to your content, they just click the link, and they get your free content, and they click the link and pay money and they get your paid content.
What this does is it adds an interstitial, as it were. So, if someone says they want to subscribe, it's like having a private account on Twitter. Someone says, I want to follow you, will you let me follow you? And you then either click yes or no, and the point of that is for people who, like you, write about things that might not always attract the audience you want to attract, and you might spend half your time fighting trolls rather than actually being able to communicate.
Howard Lovy: Absolutely, yeah. I get hate mail all the time. I get hate tweets. So, this concern about safety is very real for some journalists.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, and this feels like a way of making sure that you have some way of protecting yourself by controlling your audience.
Howard Lovy: Also, don't forget, that all authors can access our free guide to author safety and pass it along to other authors, and in our show notes, I'll link to it where you can download it for free.
Let's move from there to Amazon. I understand that that Amazon has amended its returns policy. They promised to change the policy by the end of 2022, and they finally made an update.
Can you give us more details on the update?
Dan Holloway: Yes. So, this was the e-book returns policy that caused a lot of fuss last year. Amazon allowing people to return e-books even when they'd been fully read because their returns policy was based on the amount of time since you'd bought, rather than the amount of the book that you'd actually read.
They promised that they were going to change that so that no one who had read more than 10% of an eBook was able to return the book. They said they'd do it by the end of last year. It looks as though they have finally done it, sort of a month or so into this year. So, it's taken them a little while, but they've finally got there.
Howard Lovy: But this is a big deal for indie authors though.
Dan Holloway: It's a really big deal, yeah. Especially for people who write in the sorts of genre where people read a lot and they read really quickly, because people were being given a fortnight to read a book and still get a full refund, and in genres like romance, thriller, and science fiction, people read quicker than that.
So, they were just able to buy books and then read them fully and return them without a problem, and authors were ending up with negative income because they were getting income in one month and they were having to pay it back the next month, and if that came to more than their sales for that month then they'd end up with a negative account.
Howard Lovy: Yeah. So, hopefully this this new policy will take care of that.
Dan Holloway: Fingers crossed.
Howard Lovy: All right, well I hear our tech theme music in the background, which means it's time for our tech corner, and when it comes to technology, artificial intelligence continues to make the news. We devoted a whole show to it last month.
So, let's discuss the potential impact of the UK government's proposed copyright exception for text and data mining.
Dan Holloway: They've made it sound fascinating.
Howard Lovy: I know, but the exception would allow AI to be trained on any text obtained by legitimate means.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, and this caused a lot of fuss when it was proposed last year. ALLi had fed into the consultation on this. The UK government wanted to know if it should change the laws around copyright and AI. They decided they wouldn't change anything except for this widening of the exception for the purposes of text and data mining, so that you could basically, if it was possible to get hold of something legitimately, then you could use that to train your AI.
That essentially meant that if someone bought your eBook for 99 cents, and they happen to be an employee of Google, then Google could use it to train its AI for things that might be worth, I guess, unlimited amounts, and you would never be able to charge a license fee for it. So, someone could come along to their AI and say, write me a news article in the style of Howard Lovy, and if Google had come across your work, knew what your articles were like, and paid you 99 cents for it, then you'd get nothing for something that was clearly being trained on your expertise.
Authors had asked for the right to charge a license fee. The usual way of handling something like that would be to charge a licensing fee. So, this was very unpopular, and the government has finally said, no, actually, we're not going to go ahead with this. So, they're not widening the exception. So, this is part of what we're seeing as a general pushback on AI, which means that it's going to become slightly harder for industry to train its AI on our work without asking our permission.
Howard Lovy: Right, good. Well, I need those 99 cents.
In sort of related news, tell us about what's happening at Findaway Voices, they're no longer training AI in audiobooks?
Dan Holloway: Yeah. Well, this came up, it was uncovered a few weeks ago, I don't know whether it was Nate Hoffelder who actually uncovered it. He was the first person I saw who broke the story on Twitter. That for, it turns out at least two and a half years, there's been this clause in Findaway Voices' terms and conditions saying that, as the uploader of an audiobook, you were granting them the right to use the content of that audiobook to train AI speech.
Obviously, this wasn't popular because, well, there's several reasons.
So, first of all, it was slightly odd because authors were being asked to sign away rights they didn't have, because the rights to the voice in the file belong to the narrator, not the author. So, it was slightly odd that the author was being asked to sign away these rights.
Second, these are narrators who, this is their line of work, this is what they get paid for, the same as we've had with cover artists, and they were being told essentially, you can only do paid work if you agree to that work being used for purposes that will essentially put you out of business.
This was turned up; it then emerged that Apple had a similar contract or a similar clause in its terms and conditions. Victoria Straus of Writer Beware has got involved, raised the profile of this, and the Screen Actors Guild and the Television and Radio Guild in America became aware of this, and they obviously represent voice actors, and they got so cross that they had a meeting with Findaway, and Findaway have backed down and said that they will no longer have that clause in their contracts, and anyone who had signed up to that clause, they will no longer hold people to it, so they will no longer be giving away people's rights.
Howard Lovy: Well, good. Last month, the theme was AI is winning and today it's revenge of the humans.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, the legal system seems to be that, in little ways people are suddenly realizing that there are all these implications to what's going on, that people hadn't been thinking about, that could be affecting people's livelihoods, and they're starting to take action that will protect people.
Howard Lovy: AI got another sort of black eye, Google announced its new AI chatbot called Bard, which is a rival to Open AI's ChatGPT, but the bot isn't off to a great start. Some experts noted that Bard made a factual error in its very first demo.
Dan Holloway: I love this. You can't help laughing, but it feels like a very short belly laugh, rather than a long, satisfying laugh. So, yeah as it's demo, you can imagine that this is the sort of thing that wouldn't have happened if Steve Jobs had been presenting. In part, because he would never be so daft as to do a live demo, he would've pre-recorded it.
Google asked it, what should I tell a year nine student, or it might have been a nine-year-old, about the James Webb telescope. It was one of the big news items last year, there was the launch of the James Webb telescope, and Bard came back, oh, it was the first telescope to take a picture of an exoplanet, so a closeup picture of a planet outside of our solar system.
And of course, the first picture to be taken of an exoplanet was almost 20 years before the James Webb Telescope was a thing. Google ended up losing, or its parent company, ended up losing a hundred billion dollars of valuation as a result of this.
Howard Lovy: Ouch.
Dan Holloway: Which is an ouch, yeah, someone had a bad day at the office. So, you have to laugh. The problem I think is that this sort of factual error is something that is happening a lot at the moment, but it will happen less and less, and very soon won't be happening. That feels like a temporary win for humanity.
Howard Lovy: Well, I've noticed that these chat bots like to please the user and telling them what they think they want to know. I don't know, maybe I'm personifying them more than they should be.
Bing made news last week. They use Open AI's ChatGPT, and it was saying some strange stuff involving love and existence and all kinds of philosophical stuff, but it was all based on prompts by the user that kind of led them toward these very bizarre answers.
Dan Holloway: Yeah, these things are fairly easy to manipulate at the moment.
Like you say, they take the context of the question, and they look for similar contexts, and that can lead them into some very strange places. It sort of reminds me a little bit of the, I don't know if you know the Chopra Meme generator.
Howard Lovy: No.
Dan Holloway: The one where you have to work out, is this an inspirational quote or is it something meaningless that's been put together by a computer to imitate Deepak Chopra's inspirational quotes, and you really can't tell the difference. It does feel a little bit like that, like you say, that it's coming up with things that it thinks you want to hear that sort of sound meaningful in some way but are not.
Howard Lovy: Right. Well, I'm an egomaniac like most writers, so I asked it about me. I asked Chat GPT, can you tell me about Howard Lovy? And it says, no, I don't have any information.
Then I said, can you tell me about Howard Lovy journalist, and then it goes into this, I couldn't have written it better myself or hired a PR agency to do it, but it talked me up as a journalist and told me about my many accomplishments and all that. It really praised the hell out of me.
Dan Holloway: We did something similar at work, because obviously my day job as in a university, and universities are terrified of Chat GPT because people are using it to write essays. So, I asked it about our senior academic in the department and it said, I have no idea who you are talking about.
Then I told it a little bit, I said, oh, this is the professor of linguistics at Oxford University, and then all of a sudden it came back with a boom and there's this like biography that could have been written by, really well researched, really thorough, and it had clearly put together some generic things about what it thinks about a professor of linguistics at Oxford University.
Howard Lovy: Well, this is all very fascinating, and of course we'll continue to follow it on your column on the Self-Publishing News website.
I'll talk to you again next month.
I'll talk to you again next month; I'm trying to think what the dates are. We will probably have some news from London Book Fair.
Oh, wonderful, that's right.
Dan Holloway: Okay. Talk to you later.