What has happened to all the powerful women in book publishing?

I recently read a post on book industry site Book Machine by Felice Howden, on the recent changes in the global book publishing industry, with specific regard to gender imbalance.

With the Random House/Penguin merger there has obviously been some consolidation in management, and the venerable Gail Rebuck, who has been chairman and chief executive at Random House UK since 1991, stood down from her role running the business. In the same week the chief executive of Harper Collins, Victoria Barnsley, left after 13 years. Both women were succeeded by (eminently suitable, I might add) male replacements.

As The Guardian points out,

The suddenness of the change is startling – from 2000 to 2012 three of the big four British publishers were overseen by women. In the Guardian’s Book Power 100 list two years ago, Rebuck was ranked ninth and Barnsley fifteenth, and Rebuck took 10th place in Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour power list for 2013. Now, arguably, there are none.

While in Australia the gender power balance is quite different, what happens in the worldwide publishing scene now affects us more than ever. Most of the big 5 (going to take a little while to get used to saying that) have recently restructured in a vertical manner, so that the new arms of the business are directed from either US or UK strongholds.

Felice’s post struck a chord with me, as a female working in book publishing. I am one of the many women who have noticed that while we outnumber our male counterparts in the lower ranks of publishing, most of the top jobs are occupied by men. Obviously there are a number of reasons for this, chief among them the fact that women are required to delay their careers rather more than men if they choose to have children.

Reading Felice’s piece I thought about the number of brilliant women who have inspired me in my career (Katie Crawford, Cate Paterson, Nikki Christer, Sam Missingham to name but a few). Read an excerpt of Felice’s ‘Finding Feminism: A Woman in Publishing” and let me know what you think.

“Four years ago, I would have probably said we don’t need feminism anymore. I would have said we’re doing ok as a culture and don’t sweat the small stuff like discrepancies in wage, promotion opportunities, and people yelling ‘nice tits’ when you’re walking down the street in the middle of the day. I would have said this stuff will disappear with time, or possibly denied they even happened. Of course, this was before I knew page three existed (because, no, it’s not normal and where I grew up it wasn’t a thing), before Robin Thicke, and before last week’s news that two of the biggest jobs in publishing, previously held by women, are going to men.

I am not suggesting that men don’t deserve these jobs. Both men seem incredibly well qualified to hold their respective positions.  But every time something like this comes up, I am (and in fact most people are) reminded of how our industry is overwhelmingly female, and the top jobs are held overwhelmingly by men. I don’t know why that is. I also don’t know why there is a difference between men and women’s pay.

I found feminism partly through the fact that I noticed these problems, and partly through the incredible women I know who work in publishing. Because there are so damn many of them. The ones who stare you down; the ones that ask difficult questions; the ones with brilliant ideas; the ones working late and hard on a bottomless pit of a project;  the ones that make me laugh with how much they cut through the shit when a conversation is in danger of spiraling towards circularity. These women inspire me to be ambitious.”

Continue reading Finding Feminism: A Woman in Publishing over at Book Machine.

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This post was originally posted on Momentum’s blog. You can follow Anne on Twitter @annetreasure.

Who Wants to Read This Stuff? The Business of Storytelling in a Digital World

It’s often said that writers write for themselves. This might be true, but as a publisher it’s my task to be the reader’s advocate. The first question I try to ask when considering a new project is to consider the audience: “who wants to read this stuff?”

In the digital realm, particularly at the experimental, pointy end of digital, this question of audience is, I think, rarely considered as a first step. The excitement of shiny gadgets and new software overwhelms our puny publishing minds. So instead, the first question is often – “what can it do?” and the second question is “what else can it do?”

The answer to that question is – “pretty much anything”. There are bog standard ebooks, of course, but it goes much further than that. There are transmedia stories, geo-located stories, multimedia enhanced stories and fully interactive pseudo-gaming experiences. We can serialise books, we can release short stories and we can make apps and games.

In other words “What can it do?” is an exciting question and it’s full of potential rather than limitations. But it’s my contention that when it comes to the business of storytelling – whether you’re trying to entertain, educate or inform people – it’s not a very good question. To put it indelicately, there’s a very short distance between asking the question “what can it do?” and disappearing up your own arse.

My argument is basically this: the colourful and exciting part of digital publishing innovation is – for the most part – not something that readers actually want. Pushing the boundaries of what a book is – whether it’s by blurring the lines between different kinds of media or questioning the linear nature of traditional narrative – is not something that people are looking to book publishers to provide. Too much of what we call innovation is basically turning our content into a showroom for device manufacturers – and we do it to the detriment of more important and more useful innovation at the back end of the publishing business.

This is not to say that every example of a book app or interactive book-like experience is bad. Consider The Waste Land or The Sonnets that have been released by Faber & Faber. Both of these apps successfully meld critical annotations, video, audio and multiple text versions into a unified whole without distracting from the fundamental purpose of the text. It’s interesting that poetry, perhaps because it’s so dense, seems to lend itself quite naturally to this kind of enhancement. There’s a lot to unpack in poetry. Poetry itself isn’t necessarily linear and it’s often intended to be performed rather than read so it seems the marriage of technology and literature is happy one in this instance.

However you might not want the pace of your Lee Child novel interrupted by a quick video of the author reading a couple of paragraphs or Tom Cruise running about in the trailer for the new movie. That would probably somewhat lift you out of the story.  And yet publishers return – again and again – to cheap gimmicks and unnecessary tricks to try to enhance what doesn’t need to be enhanced.

The real experiments that will actually help publishers make books that people actually want to read – for a price they want to read them for – are distinctly lacking in sex appeal. They aren’t books – they’re improvements to things like workflow, content management systems, metadata optimization, distribution efficiency and rights management.

For example, a digital-only, format independent workflow drastically improves the speed and quality of ebooks and other digital content production.

Metadata – the information about a book like price, category, the book blurb and author information – is essential to making a book discoverable in an online retail environment. There is now solid evidence that improving the accuracy of metadata increases sales for books.

Distributing our content in a global market is a new challenge that needs some creative thinking and a lot of resources to get right. We need to get better at working with our overseas colleagues to make sure our content is available simultaneously or as quickly as possible.

I won’t go on about rights management too much as it’s a bit of a bug bear for me, to the point that Momentum has now removed these controls from our books. Suffice it to say that digital rights management is bad for readers in the same way that awkward user interface design in book apps are bad for readers. It interferes with the purchasing and reading experience in a non-intuitive way.

These are the kinds of invisible improvements to a modern publishing business that have helped Amazon to become the biggest single bookstore in the world – and allowed them to single-handedly take on publishers at their own game.

More than a few publishers are steadfastly refusing to make some of these changes. Among those that are making deep systematic changes – and there are plenty – many are moving so slowly that they are risking losing the race.

Meanwhile, many modern publishers are distracting themselves with experiments that do nothing but provide a nice press release and show-off the latest capability that Amazon, Apple or Google have built in to their newest device. And it’s not just publishers. I’ve been on a number of panels with industry pundits who love to talk about the death of the book and how technology is going to radically alter our sense of what narrative is and how we are going to consume stories in a completely different, non-linear and interactive way.

What an utterly exhausting proposition.

Nothing I’ve seen in the past year of running an experimental digital imprint has led me to believe there is a voracious horde of early adopters out there who want this type of content and that publishers are failing to deliver it. I’m not saying it won’t ever happen, but it hasn’t happened yet and I see no indications of it coming other than the fact that it’s technological feasible.

The next decade is inevitably going to provide some creative re-imagining of the boundaries of what a book is. And that is a good thing. Technology can and already does help us deliver content around the world for a fraction of the cost that it did only a few years ago. The self-publishing revolution means that there are now very few roadblocks for authors to get their content read by audiences. There is now an audience for serialised content and short stories that seems to have sprung out of nowhere. This is the actual revolution at the foundation of the publishing business. The boundaries of what publishers can and should do have already shifted while we weren’t paying attention – there’s no need for us reinvent the wheel when it comes to storytelling and narrative. We must remember what it is we’re good at – looking at that manuscript, whether it’s delivered by horse and cart or email – and asking the question “who wants to read this stuff?”

This post was adapted from a speech delivered at The Future of Writing symposium at Macquarie University on 14 November.

Do You Own Your Ebooks?

An email from an acquaintance today in light of the Amazon library deletion scandal caused me to write a long rant about digital rights management (DRM) and ebooks and copyright so I thought I’d share some of it below.

It amazes me sometimes that we’re still all talking about DRM and ebooks. I feel like it’s a conversation we’ve been having for a very long time, and made very little progress with. But ultimately that’s the nature of an industry undergoing such huge changes. Protecting the legal rights of authors and readers while also trying to run a business and not violate any licensing agreements can be a nightmare for even the most informed publishing functionary – to an outsider I think it must look like complete and utter nonsense.

There are different issues at work here. One is the legal rights of the reader/consumer and the other is the technology used to restrict those rights.

When it comes to legal rights, most publishers aren’t selling the ebook file itself – they sell a license to use it under certain circumstances. They give the reader the file – but the reader doesn’t ‘own’ this file. This is pretty standard for selling digital content – if you sold the file with with no restrictions then the person who bought it could copy and send it to all of their friends or re-sell it themselves with no legal recourse for the copyright owner (the author, not the publisher). I don’t know of any publisher of any digital content that sells digital files without restrictions – whether they’re using DRM or not.

The second issue is a technological one. Most publishers sell their content with DRM, which on top of the legal restrictions also physically restricts readers from transferring content to other readers or between devices by using encryption software. This software is usually implemented by the retailer (Amazon, Apple or whoever) at the behest of the publisher. Some publishers, like Momentum, have asked retailers not to include DRM on our files. This isn’t because we think users should be able to own the file and use it without restrictions, but because we believe that a reader who buys an ebook should be able to transfer that book between devices without the technological difficulty inherent in using encryption technology. Basically it’s extremely frustrating for a reader who has legitimately purchased a book to transfer that book between multiple devices if it has DRM on it – and that’s why we removed it. We wanted our readers to be able to buy a book from Amazon and read it on their Kobo reader if they wanted to – and now they can.

To be clear – Momentum is still technically selling a license for our books, not the files themselves – we just don’t physically restrict readers from transferring their ebooks between devices. The reason for this is basically down to the nature of digital content – it isn’t some kind of Orwellian urge to control what readers do with their reading material. If we ‘owned’ a digital file in the sense that most of us ‘own’ paper books, by current laws we would be able to do whatever they wanted with it (including selling copies for a profit), which would in most cases violate the contract under which retailers sell ebooks and the rights publishers license from authors. Authors ultimately own the copyright for their content and license it to publishers who can then sub-license it to readers.

In the Amazon case mentioned above, the reader violated Amazon’s terms and conditions in some way that Amazon hasn’t made clear to anyone. As a result, Amazon closed their account, which means they no longer had access to the encrypted files that were stored on their device. If that reader had bought any of Momentum’s ebooks, this wouldn’t have been a problem, as they could have just moved their ebooks to a different device. As far as I know, without DRM Amazon cannot yank a book from someone’s device – but I might be wrong. At any rate, because all of the reader’s books had DRM on them, they lost their entire library (albeit temporarily – Amazon has restored the reader’s account as far as I know).

As much as I think this is a horrible situation for the reader – and this is precisely why we dropped DRM from our books at Momentum – these stories do seem to crop up intermittently and don’t seem to have any real effect on the ebook market. Ultimately the convenience of digital reading outweighs most people’s concerns about it. I’d love it if more readers cared about this stuff as it’s something I care about, and we’ve made Momentum a more reader-friendly place as a result. However, my general impression is that for the most part Amazon’s ecosystem works pretty well and these situations tend to be anomalies or bureaucratic oversights rather than some kind of concerted effort to defraud readers.

Having said that, I’m curious about what you think. Has Momentum’s decision caused you to buy more books from us? Do you seek out DRM-free ebooks consciously? Had you even heard about the story mentioned above? Sound off in the comments and let us know.

Originally posted at The Momentum Blog

So We Dropped DRM – What Does That Actually Mean?

[This post was originally posted on The Momentum Blog.]

As some of you might already know, we announced yesterday that we’re dropping DRM (digital rights management) from all of our books. The chatter on social media last night and this morning leads me to believe there’s still a bit of confusion about what DRM is, what it’s for, why we chose to drop it and what it actually means for you – assuming you are someone who might buy or want to buy our books.

What is DRM?

First of all – what is digital rights management? Basically, it’s a type of software that limits what you can and can’t do with a legitimately purchased piece of digital content. It’s used on everything from computer games to music, movies, books and television episodes. It’s the reason why when you rent a movie from iTunes you only have 48 hours to watch it, and it’s the reason why when you buy a book from Amazon you can’t copy it to your Sony or Kobo e-reader.

However, DRM is not the same thing as territorial rights. Territorial rights are to blame when you try to buy an ebook from a store and you get the dreaded ‘This book is not available from your location’ notice. It’s also what stops Australian users from using US services like Hulu, Pandora and, until recently, Spotify. Typically, content publishers buy a licence from the copyright holder that gives them the right to make that content available in particular ways within a particular geographical territory. Digital retailers of all kinds can usually work out where you’re buying or viewing content from and block you if they don’t have the right to make it available to you.

Does territorial copyright make sense on the internet? Not particularly. But ultimately it’s not just up to publishers to solve the territorial rights problem – if authors and agents want their books to be available to the world they need to make those rights available to content publishers and many still don’t.

Happily at Momentum we’ve worked extra hard to make almost all of our books available globally. In other words, our authors have licensed their books to us to sell them worldwide. This has been the case since we launched in February.

What is DRM For?

This might seem like a fairly obvious question with an obvious answer, but it’s actually kind of complicated. DRM ostensibly exists to protect a creator’s copyright – it stops readers from tampering with a file, copying it, converting it into other formats and even stops illegitimate users from opening or viewing a file. This is why publishers use it and it’s also why many authors still want it applied to their books – they are afraid that without DRM their books will be copied without limitation by anyone who gets their hands on it.

In practice, however, DRM is relatively easy to remove from a book. This is why piracy of books and other digital content is so rampant – it only takes one person with a working knowledge of how to remove DRM from a book to make it available to the entire world for free. In other words – DRM is extremely bad at doing its main job.

Given that this is so, what else is DRM for? DRM stops readers who buy their ebooks from one retailer transferring their purchase to an unapproved reading device. For example, you can’t read an ebook with DRM on it from Apple on your Kindle, and you can’t read a Kindle ebook on your Kobo Touch. So the answer to that question – what is DRM for? – becomes clear. The purpose of DRM is to encourage readers to buy their ebooks from a single source.

So Why Are We Dropping DRM?

At Momentum we have a commitment to accessibility. As I mentioned earlier, we’re working hard to make our books available globally. All of our books released so far are available for under $10, and most of them for $5 or less. Ensuring that you can buy your books from wherever you want and read them on whatever device you want is part of that commitment.

Dropping DRM is not about encouraging piracy. Piracy is a reality of the digital era, and this situation is extremely unlikely to change. Some people are always going to pirate content and spread it around without permission. Let me be clear, here – this isn’t something we support. Authors deserve to be paid for their work. But we believe that the best way to fight piracy is to remove the barriers to purchase – make books cheaper, make them available everywhere and to any reader from any platform.

What Does Dropping DRM Mean For You?

The simple answer is: not all that much. You can still buy our books from all the same places for the same prices. Come August, however, if you want to read your Kindle book on your Kobo or your iBookstore book on your Kindle – you can. We’re still working with our retail partners (and in talks with others) to make our books available in as many places as possible – but that’s a separate issue to our decision to drop DRM.

So if you are thinking of buying our books, I urge you to encourage your friends to buy books from us. Most of them are the cost of a cup of coffee (or two), and they can buy and download them while waiting for the bus. Ultimately dropping DRM is an experiment – if it proves to be successful, then we’ll keep doing it.

And we really want to keep doing it.

[This post was originally posted on The Momentum Blog.]

Franzen Knows a Lot about Writing but Less About Publishing

I’m a fan of Jonathan Franzen’s books. I read The Corrections voraciously when it was released and did the same (in digital format) with Freedom. He’s a witty, insightful writer and essayist and is rightfully spoken about as one of the greatest living American literary talents. This is why it disappoints me so much that he engages in arch-snobbery of the kind quoted virtually everywhere on the web this morning. I haven’t seen anything like it since the last time Franzen got his snob on. He was wrong about Oprah’s book club and he’s wrong about ebooks. Let’s start with a quote:

Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

He’s confessing right here from the get-go that this entire argument is based on a ‘feeling’. Specifically that screens feel less permanent than paper. This in itself is intellectually weak (and quite unlike Franzen when speaking about other less emotional topics). But it’s also wrong. Let us interrogate the term ‘permanence’ here. Franzen is talking about the specific physical permanence of paper and ink. Paper books last pretty well, but on the continuum of physical permanence, they don’t last nearly as well as, say, stone tablets (stone tablets, for example, don’t burn). But stone tablets are inconvenient to create, to sell and to move about. Even Franzen would probably agree with that (though I may be underestimating his emotional rigour). On the scale of difficulty, we can say that the paper book is to digital books what stone tablets are to paper books. The sheer physicality of the dead tree format means that it is an effort (an economic effort) to make (and keep) available to readers. A digital book, once published, will never go out of print. It is virtually free to distribute. You can burn an e-reader, but the ebook still exists out there in the ether and can be re-acquired, usually for free. Digital information is almost impossible to destroy.

But this brings me to Franzen’s other point, and I suspect it’s his main one. Digital books are easy to change. This is what he means by impermanence – and he probably should have started with that instead of his whole paper-and-ink metaphorical fuckwittery:

For serious readers, Franzen said, “a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience”. “Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change,” he continued. “Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

For serious readers. Have you ever read anything so laced with smug self-satisfaction? But I digress. Digital books are easy to change. This is Franzen’s main point. And he’s right, on a number of levels. For the same reason that digital books are cheap and easy to produce and distribute, it is commensurately easy to make a change to a digital book and then make that change available to readers. But does this automatically mean that digital books will be endlessly fiddled with? This was the same argument made by Nicholas Carr on the Wall Street Journal last year and it’s been comprehensively disemboweled by many responders – including Bethanie Blanchard at Crikey.

In a nutshell – just because you can do something doesn’t mean people will. The threat to justice and responsible self-government is more than compensated for by the benefits of the format. There are plenty of very good reasons why publishers don’t endlessly fiddle with books, but if we want to take up Franzen’s capitalist ball and run with it then a very good reason is that it makes no economic sense. It costs money to change a book, even a digital book, because editors need to check and re-check everything and further mistakes can be introduced. There is virtually no economic benefit to significantly changing a fiction title from its original form. We’re better off just starting from scratch with a new book.

More importantly, for Franzen’s argument in particular, is that no printed book is completely permanent either. I’ve never seen a book published that didn’t have a few errors that weren’t corrected in a subsequent edition. Plenty of non-fiction titles are re-issued frequently to take in new information, and this is generally seen as a valuable addition for readers. Franzen himself has benefited from this, after famously refusing to continue at a reading for Freedom because the publisher had messed up some of the last minute corrections. To correct these errors thousands of books needed to be pulped and the book was reprinted. Do we really believe that the original version of Freedom – errors and all – is helping prop up justice and responsible self-government?

The threat of disruption to our lives by technology is a valid concern for any modern thinker. But I would have thought that someone who put a bit of thought to the issue would realise that digitising books is not the best example of this. Specious arguments like Franzen’s hold back the reasonable inclusion of digital formats in ‘serious’ literary discussions – endlessly miring us in pointless witterings about the smell of books instead of discussing the content, which is ultimately why we read (and why we should read) in the first place.

It’s About the Content, Stupid

Most people will agree these days that when it comes to ebooks, what’s important isn’t the format, but the content. People don’t buy ebooks because they like ePub files, they buy them because they want to read the book inside it. This is less true for some dead tree books, but it’s certainly true for the majority of disposable paperback reads. I’ve found that the increasingly shrill choir of people telling me they’d never read a book on screen simply haven’t ever tried using an e-ink reading device.

However, despite this, most publishing houses and the editors who work for them still see the page as the smallest unit of the book. The physical representation of that page is what the book is – even before it is typeset. The page is the end point – it is the reason to edit a book and perhaps even the reason to write the book in the first place. But, increasingly, it isn’t really what a book actually is.

That might sound like a whole lot of nonsense words strung together (not particularly unusual for this blog), but what I’m getting at is that while we might philosophically understand that a book is not the pages it is printed on, most of us in the industry don’t behave as if this is true.

Even our language is tainted by the page paradigm. Every time a digital book is created (no matter how it is created) it is a ‘conversion’ (from a ‘proper’ paper book format – even if that proper paper book doesn’t yet exist in real life). Most editors I know still genuinely believe that a proofread that takes place on screen is inherently inferior to one done on paper. They believe this despite any evidence other than anecdotal, and will probably take this belief to their graves, long after the majority of reading is done on-screen.

Having spent the last couple of weeks working at Faber and Faber and seeing a truly ‘media neutral’ workflow in action, I am now beginning to understand what a massive shift needs to take place if the publishing industry really is looking down the barrel of a books market where more than 50% of the books published are digital. That shift isn’t necessarily about learning new technologies or coding languages – though it’s likely that both will be true – it’s about shifting our perspective away from the page and towards the structure of the content we publish.

David Watkins, once the Managing Editor at Faber, and now the ‘Head of Editorial Text Management’, says that there is a kind of ‘occult mysticism’ surrounding the conventions of print. He describes his exposure to the code that underpins Faber’s format neutral workflow as – initially, at least, ‘forbidding.’

It’s what most of us [editors] have spent our entire careers avoiding … But actually it’s very straightforward when you get to grips with it. In a way it’s quite old school. [Old school] editors think in terms of content, not in terms of appearance. If there’s a hierarchy of headings, they aren’t thinking that’s an 18 point or 14 point, they’re thinking that’s an A heading or that’s a B heading. That distinction between content and appearance got lost a little bit [with the introduction of easy-to-use publishing packages like inDesign]. Thinking of work independently of format, once you get over the stumbling block of the language in which you describe the work, you’re just back to first principles really.

Seeing a room full of editors talking about XML and CSS is certainly a novel experience, but I suspect it’s one we’re going to be seeing a lot more of in the next few years. And when you get down to it, it’s not all that more arcane than editorial mark-up or the ins and outs of Microsoft Word’s Find and Replace feature.

I, for one, welcome our new coding and tagging overlords. But what about you? I know a few editors and authors read this blog. What do you think of working on-screen? And what do you think of your future job as code monkey? Does it terrify you? Or is it all a part of the new world? Sound off in the comments.