Digital text, books and media are currently being re-imagined in ways that are likely to have a big impact on authors and author earnings, says Orna Ross, Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors. It’s Self-Publishing 3.0 and we need to understand what’s coming if we are to have a say in how it develops and ensure authors don’t lose out.
In the tech world, Ted Nelson is a living legend. Working most notably during the 1960s, his ideas around the links between technology, text and social change were mind-blowing.
He invented hypertext, the software system that allowed extensive cross-referencing between related sections of text and graphics. He seems to have been the first person to describe digital media and how we might interlink, collaborate and share in a network and his Xanadu project was the forerunner of the World Wide Web.
For years Nelson’s work, superseded by Tim Berners-Lee’s design for HTML, has been sidelined and ignored but an increasing number of people are suggesting that we need to return to where Nelson was in his thinking back in the day, if we are to reclaim the potential of the Internet to democratize information.– and ensure creators get paid for their contributions.
And ensure creators get paid for their contributions.
Who Owns The Future?
One of the loudest voices in this debate is Nelson devotee, and outspoken critic of Silicon Valley values, the philosopher and computer scientist, Jaron Lanier. Lanier’s most recent book Who Owns The Future is full of compelling ideas about the connections between society, technology and what the tech world calls “information” (all the data, text and images we circulate online).
Yep, that does include your books.
Lanier greatly favors the original hypertexted, networked media and commercial vision he calls “Nelsonian” over what the Internet we got.
He is critical of a Silicon Valley that posits an ideal of free information, which ignores the reality that behind every piece of web information and “artificial” intelligence lies a living, breathing, human person. And the way in which the ideal has been used by corporations to extract data from people, without any recompense.This has given us the tech giants: Facebook, Google, j
This has given us the tech giants: Facebook, Google, YouTube and the rest.
Lanier calls them “Siren Servers”. In Greek mythology, The Sirens were dangerous creatures, who lured sailors to shipwreck with their seductive music, bodies and voices. Lured like the mythical sailors by surface seductions like an ego-boost or bit of fun, we cheerfully hand over our data, our IP.
Facebook, Google, YouTube, Amazon are giant media companies, but the media they’re using is ours.
Nelson’s vision, instead of a few super-players, was one, single, universal store in which everyone would be both buyer and seller. Key to this vision was a value system, linked to intellectual property and copyright: that every individual owns his or her own information and that this information has a value.
As Nelson envisaged his network, two-way links (instead of the one-way linking favored by html) would facilitate micro-payments from multiple sources which would see that value acknowledged.
“We’re impoverished compared to the world that could have been and should have been when the Internet was initially conceived,” says Lanier.
“The general principle that we pay people [micropayments] for their information and contributions is critical if we want people to live with dignity as machines get better,” he says.
Now, with blockchain technology, this original vision looms again.
This is, we believe, an important set of issues for today’s authors. Three long posts (this one today, the second in my first Monday column next month and the final after publication of an ALLi white paper on the topic) are offered in the spirit of kicking off the conversation and growing awareness around unfolding opportunities.
Drawing on 1. the core principles of copyright and intellectual property i.e. that information has a value that should accrue to its creator; on 2. Lanier’s understanding of big tech as “siren servers” and on 3. the possibilities inherent in another emerging technology, the blockchain, these posts, and our white paper, will attempt to:
- explain how Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, the key concepts of copyright and intellectual property and the new blockchain technology connect in ways that authors need to understand
- explore how we might create a world where it is agreed, morally and financially, that each of us owns our own information, our own story
- outline ALLi’s Blockchain for Books campaign
- consider the potential for what we are calling self-publishing 3.0 and the mindset authors need to develop, if we are to avail of this opportunity, creatively and commercially.
No Such Thing As Free Information
In publishing, we refer to corporate publishers as the “Big Five” but self-publishing has its own Big Boys: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, YouTube et al. Boys is the apposite term; these companies (with the exception of the Huffington Post, which uses a similar model) are the brainchildren of what my great-aunt used to call “whippersnappers”, young men who have all made great fortunes from this business model.
Good for them, you might say, and at one level, yes indeed. But if you are an advocate for authors (and indeed for democracy) you must notice that the fame and fortune is built on something that belongs to other people: intellectual property.
Intellectual property (IP) freely given to them — but nonetheless, not theirs to use in this way, if we buy into a value system that values IP.
For Jaron Lanier, big tech is as bad as big oil or big finance and his book explains how these have much more in common than we commonly realize. We are blinded by youth, the flip-flopped, surfer-dude surface of tech culture. And by rhetoric about free information.
So we fail to see the common thread: that gigantic corporate repositories of information about our lives are being used by a few for their own benefit, to make themselves super-rich and super-powerful.
In the past, it was utilities like coal and steel that created “robber barons”. In our era, those that have the most data and the most powerful computers to crunch it, accrue the most influence and money.
Organisations owning super-servers can be national or international intelligence agencies, stealthy high finance schemes, or web 2.0 winners like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.What these have in common is that their model is based on either surreptitiously eliciting data or getting people to freely give it up.
If we look behind the free information rhetoric, we can see that it’s all very deliberate. The web 2.0 business model is to suck up as much of this data as possible and use their powerful computers to crunch their way to massive profits (and information banks), while pushing all the risk away from the company, back into what they call the “system” — code-word for other people.
And that’s where Nelson’s ideas and the new tech structure of the blockchain come in.
“Anyone in a Nelsonian system can reuse material to make playlists, mash-ups, or other new structures, with even more fluidity than in today’s ‘open’ system,” Lanier says. “At the same time, people are paid.
“Information isn’t free but [it] is affordable [for all].… This is the half-century old idea on which I build.” The challenge, as he sees it, is keeping the fun bits of free culture, while IP “needs to be made much more sophisticated and granular. It needs to be something that benefits everybody – as commonplace as having pennies in your pocket.”
The building block of intellectual property is one that all authors are familiar with. We’d find it hard make a living without it. In Lanier’s vision, its value extends beyond the writers, artists and innovators who have traded in it to date.
“IP is a crucial thread in designing a humane future with dignity,” says Lanier. “Not everybody can be a Zuckerberg or run a tech company, but everybody could – or at least a critically large number of people could – benefit from IP.
“IP offers a path to the future that will bring dignity and livelihood to large numbers of people” if their data and information is valued.
It was thanks to the agreed legal framework of copyright and intellectual property protection — hard won rights by activists of the past — that authors were able to find dignity and livelihood within what is now being called Publishing 1.0 and 2.0.
Publishing 1.0 was digital “desktop publishing”. It made books and other written artefacts cheaper than ever to produce but it wasn’t until the combined power of ebooks and the interactive social web came along that things really took off.
Publishing 2.0 began ten years ago with Amazon Kindle and social media. For the first time, authors had a way to let countless numbers of people, all over the world, know about our books — and put a buy button under their noses at the same time.
This gave a critical mass of authors the ability, for the first time in centuries, to say, “Thank you, but no” to corporate publishing, an utterly revolutionary and liberating shift.
As a result, in addition to the stars that publishing always created and that still shine at the top of the self-publishing firmament, a large group of mid-list authors now earn decent monies from publishing their own writing (information) and charging for it.
The more indie authors who do well, who build successful businesses, who move from trade-publishing to self-publishing and back again for different projects, the more impact this revolution is having on readers and writers. And — because ours is a highly influential community — on society and its values.
The Value of Information
Authors have largely done a better job of maintaining the value of their creativity in the digital era than artists and musicians. That is largely down to two things: our community and the Siren Server that dominates our sector: Amazon.
Amazon’s payments to authors are up to 70% while YouTube’s to musicians are zilch. Nada. Zip. For that we should give thanks.
Other factors are that the community of readers — many of whom are also writers — value words deeply and are prepared to pay. They tend to be older and wiser than the young music downloaders, who are now growing up into a world where they want to make creative careers … but the value has been siphoned off by the siren servers.
They thought their downloads were free but now they’re paying a heavy price for them.
It’s not just young music lovers, though. We’ve all, even authors, been fooled into thinking that we shouldn’t expect to pay, or receive, any money for what we do with our brains and hearts online.
And authors are still highly vulnerable in the current system. We see that naked vulnerability in the panic waves that break across the online author community whenever Amazon, and to a lesser extent other platforms like Nook or Ingram, make changes to their terms and conditions.
Now, with blockchain technology (of which more in Part 2), we are facing into Publishing 3.0 and it looks like Nelson’s vision of millions of micro payments between individuals, cutting out the middleman, could become a reality.
At the very least, we need to take a step back. Authors have an important role to play in emerging systems, a role that extends beyond our own self-interest.
Lanier’s work eloquently explains how in a world of 3D printing and the Internet of Things, millions more people will be squeezed out of the value chain, if we don’t understand that “free” information is actually human-generated words, images and ideas, and put a value on creation and information.
Micropayments are not problem free, not least in what Clay Shirky has called their cognitive cost, and blockchain tech too presents challenges. But publishing, in both trade-publishing, and self-publishing, provides business models that have found ways to make micropayments work.
The payment to an author from the average book, whether it’s a royalty from a trade publisher, or a commission from a self-publishing platform, is tiny — but when you get a global readership, as you do when corporate publishing puts it weight behind a title, or with a global self-publishing platform that distributes digitally, those tiny payments add up.
Authors have been paid this way for centuries and some have even managed to get rich this way.
The Indie Mindset
The coming changes have the potential to be even more democratizing than Publishing 2.0, especially if this time round, authors — a smart bunch of people — understand what’s happening in advance.
But whatever happens with blockchain or other tech, it’s clear that the only authors who can benefit from the opportunities are those who have developed an independent, creative and empowered mindset.
This goes much further than the stale tussle (still given too much attention in too many quarters) between trade-publishing and self-publishing.
As authors, we have a huge collective task if we want to unfold the best possible future for our books, our readers, other writers, and society at large.
Upholding and augmenting the value of words probably does mean finding our way back to where Ted Nelson was when, as he and Lanier see it, things started to go wrong.
In short, the Internet business model based on big tech extracting big data for free needs to radically change — and may be about to. At ALLi, we believe this presents an opportunity for authors who are willing and able to seize it.
Could we possible develop a creator-led financial model for the first time in recorded history? As our news editor, Dan Holloway, put it in his inimitable, poetic fashion in a recent discussion of the topic on ALLi’s Member Forum, if authors want an author-centric publishing ecosystem,
we need to … be first on that boat rather than desperately siloing ourselves in the hull of the old ship with a bucket.