The decline in serious reading continues thanks to profiteering

hooked app

The Atlantic points out what we’ve known for a long time: Many students graduate unable to write coherent sentences or make a logical argument using writing. After all, why write when you can just text or Snap?

“In “The Writing Revolution,” Peg Tyre traces the problems at one troubled New York high school to a simple fact: The students couldn’t write coherent sentences. In 2009 New Dorp High made a radical change. Instead of trying to engage students through memoir exercises and creative assignments, the school required them to write expository essays and learn the fundamentals of grammar. Within two years, the school’s pass rates for the English Regents test and the global-history exam were soaring. The school’s drop-out rate — 40 percent in 2006 — has fallen to 20 percent.

The experiment suggests that the trend toward teaching creative writing was hurting American students. In a debate about Tyre’s story, we asked a range of experts, from policymakers to Freedom Writers founder Erin Gruwell, to share their thoughts on Tyre’s story.

So we can all safely agree that a lot of children are simply not writing well enough to function in the workplace. We don’t mean write fiction novels; we mean do enough to hold a good-paying job.

So we would assume the solution is for businesspeople to take a chance on returning us to learning the basics, right?

Nope.

New app offers ‘books for the Snapchat generation’

“Umm…why do u have Claires phone?”

“Well if u must know i sat down on this park bench to read”

“And sat right on someone’s phone. Claire’s I’m guessing”

“What r u reading?”

That’s an excerpt from a book meant to be read on an iPhone or Apple Watch. It’s available on an app that launched this week called Hooked.

Prerna Gupta describes her app as “books for the Snapchat generation.”

Hooked will feature short fiction for young-adult readers. Gupta said that 80% of young-adult novels are read digitally. So the teen-set seemed like the most natural audience.

Each book will be roughly 1,000 words and is designed to be read in about five minutes. The stories will be told entirely through dialogue and read like texts. Messages show up on screen when readers click “Next.”

“Epistolary literature is nothing new,” she said. “Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ is one of my favorite books and the story is told entirely through letters.”

Gupta, who envisions the app as being like “Twitter for fiction,” turned to some of the top MFA programs to recruit alumni writers.

“We listed that we had paid creative writing opportunities and the response was overwhelming,” Gupta said.

While she wouldn’t disclose actual figures, Gupta said pay varied by story but was very “competitive.”

Initially, the app will only feature content from screened contributors. However, eventually users will be able to submit content of their own.

The app is free to download and features one free story a day. Readers can unlock more stories with the subscription service. A week of unlimited stories costs $2.99. A month is $7.99 and a year is $39.99.

There are currently over 200 stories and Gupta said they add more every day.

Stories are broken into categories such as “Dark & Stormy,” “Primal Terror,” and “Love as Deep.” There’s even a section called “Telepathic” that is “hand-picked” by Hooked editors to “blow ur mind.”

If you were able to stop pounding your computer in anger at the sleaziness of this app, then you should take note: sorry, improving literacy is NOT THE GOAL of these business ventures. Pandering to people’s already-short attention spans is not going to make kids smarter. I don’t think too many of us think the problem is that we have TOO MUCH serious thinking in this world.

There is no such thing as a 1,000 word “book.” Even flash fiction, the shortest form of long-form fiction there is, is 1,200 word limit. It’s okay to promote short stories, but you not get any meaningful text if you write a cell phone-style story.

Think about the last time you read a deep, profound fiction story in less than 1,000 words. The kind of story which makes you think. Yeah, I can’t either. If you want to Tweet a flash fiction piece, go right ahead. There’s nothing wrong with it. But these people ought not to act as though they are contributing to improved literacy.

What this appears to be is rich people preying on poor, aspiring writers by promising them what the internet generally will not do for them-pay them for their work. Toss up work you can write in 5 minutes, and you will get paid for it. Who among you wouldn’t take that offer? Unfortunately, you will end up so desperate to make any money you will do what you have to do to get attention, even if that means writing nonsense for the occasional money, distracting you from focusing on more serious efforts. What, you thought you’d rake in six figures writing flash fiction?

This is how Silk Road merchants made so much money: whoever controls the distribution controls everything. How else do you think social media companies make so much money without providing any content? Because they are great at getting you to give away your content for free, because they convince your customers that anything you write or post has no value at all. If you don’t agree to give away everything for free, customers will just go with whoever will. Essentially, you have no choice, whether you want to or not.*

*disclosure. Many people’s thoughts really ARE worth nothing. Ouch.

They then go to people uninterested in reading and, rather than promote a way to encourage learning, they seek to make a profit off exploiting people. This is no different than the trashy Reality TV and “pop music” industry where profanity and shallowness are celebrated and encouraged. The people running the shows and those who act in them get rich, but they leave behind a lot of impressionable young people who are less able to think deeply or do anything but curse or act dumb to be “cool”.

I know those who run these types of industries will make the usual claim that “hey, at least people are reading.” But in all honesty, encouraging shallow reading of other people’s texts is not an improvement. If anything, it teaches people to have “twitter thoughts”: anything which can’t be explained in 140 characters isn’t worth understanding. This attitude already has ruined political debates. This is not a case of a problem that need solving. This is a case of a married couple seeing $$$ and figuring out how to exploit that.

Most likely this app will fail within 2 years, though the market will decide that. I just can’t see too many people shelling out $40 a year for a blast of shallow short stories when you can already read flash fiction on the web for free (or at least for less). What we need is for business to create new ways to improve learning and literacy, so people will not just read, but understand what they read so they will become thinkers. I have seen far too many business people exploit this gap by pandering to the lowest-common denominator in our media. Pardon the language, but we need to call out these BS artists who are not helping us with the problem.

Image from CNN Money.

My op-ed in the newspaper: Do you agree or disagree?

I had an op-ed published in The News Journal yesterday. The NJ is a Gannett company newspaper, the same company which owns USA Today. The topic was downloading and supporting indies. Please read and comment on it. Now, as I am on good terms with the editor, I did promise to get his page some traffic, so I will post only the first half of the roughly 700 word article here. Read it, and let me know what you think.

Please consider the indie before downloading

The letter Taylor Swift wrote to Apple asking the company to pay artists whose music is streamed during customer’s free trial period shed a light on a continuing battle between digital creators and consumers that don’t want to pay for digital work.

Many musicians applauded Swift. Large companies like Apple, Google and Spotify routinely make money off others’ talent and do as much as possible to compensate as little as possible. You can go online and read horror stories from musicians who had hundreds of thousands of streams for their songs on those services, but whose royalties barely cover one night at Dover Downs. This is especially a problem for so-called “indies,” or people who create music with a small record label or none at all, and rely on their music sales to earn a living.

Part of the challenge, in addition to persuading people to pay for artists they like, is piracy. Someone decides they like a movie, song, e-book, or game and upload it without permission to file sharing sites where artists get nothing for their work. Even worse, these sites make it easier for someone who doesn’t respect intellectual property rights to just take an artist’s work and start selling it illegally without compensation. This is a problem for all creative industries, but unlike multinational corporations, indies are unable to fight piracy at all.

Unfortunately, those who are not creators tend to assume that if one isn’t making money from their work, then their product must not be worth buying. The problem with that belief is, in the age of diffused media, being discovered by enough people to earn a living becomes more difficult without money, endorsements or name recognition. This has resulted in many unknown creators giving away a lot of work for free, in the hopes of being discovered. As the public became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content, and as if the ease of finding stuff for free was just too easy, the incentive to pay any creator disappeared.

Read the rest of the article here 

Amazon to pay you for giving away free samples

In a move which may make some authors happy, Amazon has decided to pay authors by the number of pages written:

“(Reuters) – It could soon pay more to write lengthier books, if you are an author self-publishing on Amazon.com Inc’s Kindle ebook platform.

Starting next month, the e-commerce giant will pay independent authors based on the number of pages read, rather than the number of times their book has been borrowed.

The move is aimed at authors enrolled in Kindle Direct Publishing platform – which lets authors set list prices, decide rights and edit the book at any time – and is applicable to e-books made available via the Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library programs.

Self-publishing has transformed what it means to be an author. Simply uploading a document and adding a cover layout to it can turn anyone into a published writer on ebook platforms such as Kindle and Smashwords.

Amazon said on Monday the move would better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read.

“We’re making this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors,” Amazon said on its self-publishing portal.

Amazon uses a complex method to determine payments for independent authors – payouts are based on a fund, the size of which is set by Amazon every month.

Under the new plan, authors will get a share of the fund proportionate to the number of pages read.

While independent authors have largely embraced Amazon’s self-publishing platform, the company has in the past been involved in bitter fights with large publishers.

The company had a stand-off with publisher Hachette Book Group and some authors last year over pricing. The fight ended when Hachette and Amazon reached a multi-year agreement for e-book and print book sales in November.”

This change appears to be encouraged by other self-published indie authors but the gist is this: For those who were in Amazon’s KDP program or in Kindle Unlimited, writing longer stories didn’t benefit the writer, so many self-published authors began writing novellas and publishing those as they were shorter and the payouts were better. This way of doing business allowed people who sold short stories at 99 cents to make as much as an author discounting a book to 99 cents. if you get the same rates either way, then why write a 70,000 word book when you can put a short story trilogy of 25,000-30,000 words and sell that?

Everyone gives away page samples, and this move encourages authors to give away more free pages. This way, if someone “tries it before they buy it” you can still get paid. It’s along the same lines of the whole Taylor Swift vs. Apple controversy where Taylor called for Apple to pay artists for songs people streamed during their free trial period. No word if Amazon’s timing was perfect or if they reacted immediately to what was happening with the music industry.

The only catch is, you have to be in KDP to get this benefit. One argument going around is that this is a move by Amazon to try to convince more authors to go exclusive with Amazon. If you can get paid for free samples, versus putting up your book elsewhere and not getting paid for free samples, where you would go?

Actually, that IS the question for all of you. Who among you would take up Amazon’s offer to pay you for sample pages read, in exchange for going exclusive?

Books in 2014: Year in review

This post is about the state of book publishing. Whether you’ve gotten a book published or if you’re looking to get one published, here are some highlights:

  • $5.25 billion: Amazon’s current annual revenue from book sales, according to one of Packer’s sources. That means books account for 7% of the company’s $75 billion in total yearly revenue.
  • 19.5%: The proportion of all books sold in the U.S. that are Kindle titles. E-books now make up around 30% of all book sales, and Amazon has a 65% share within that category. Apple and Barnes & Nobles make up nearly all of the rest.
  • >50%: The decrease in the number of independent bookstores over the past 20 years. There used to be about 4,000 in the U.S.; now there are fewer than 2,000. Amazon’s arrival on the scene is only part of the story here, of course; the decline of the indies started with the debut of big-box stores like B&N and Borders. (Forbes.com)
  • E-books Still Outsold by Hardcover and Paperback E-book sales accounted for 23% of unit sales in the first six months of 2014, according to Nielsen Books & Consumer’s latest survey of the nation’s book-buying behavior. Paperback remained the most popular format in the first half of the year, with a 42% share of unit sales. Hardcover’s share of units was just ahead of e-books, accounting for 25% of unit purchases.
  • The fight is over Amazon and Hachette’s feud over the price-setting of Hachette books sold on Amazon ended with Amazon winning some ground, though a look back shows it was probably a draw. In the short-term, Hachette may have held its ground, but the fact that Amazon controls so much of the book selling market means they can outlast their print and brick and mortar store competitors (if the company can keep from losing more money).
  • Print isn’t dead despite the belief that someday no one will hold a paper book, there are more small indie presses than there were ten years ago.
  • The top ten publishing houses of 2013:
  • Rank (2013) Rank (2012) Publishing Company (Group or Division) Country Mother Corporation or Owner Country of Mother Corporation 2013 Revenue in $M 2012 Revenue in $M
    1 1 Pearson UK Pearson UK $9,330 $9,158
    2 2 Reed Elsevier UK/NL/US Reed Elsevier UK/NL/US $7,288 $5,934
    3 3 Thomson-Reuters US The Woodbridge Company Ltd. Canada $5,576 $5,386
    4 4 Wolters Kluwer NL Wolters Kluwer NL $4,920 $4,766
    5 5 Random House Germany Bertelsmann AG Germany $3,664 $3,328
    6 6 Hachette Livre France Lagardère France $2,851 $2,833
    7 10 Holtzbrinck Germany Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck Germany $2,222 $2,220
    8 8 Grupo Planeta Spain Grupo Planeta Spain $2,161 $2,597
    9 11 Cengage* US Apax Partners et al. US/Canada N/A $1,993
    10 7 McGraw-Hill Education US The McGraw-Hill Companies US $1,992 $2,292

(Publishers Weekly)

We won’t have final 2014 numbers for publishing companies for some time, but in the meantime one thing’s pretty clear: despite the consolidations in the publishing industry, smaller indies are managing and an increasing number of best-sellers are coming from self-publishers (basically, anyone not with a Big 5 contract). Even though many kids don’t read (a goal of mine I want to work on), people have not yet thrown away all the books for Angry Birds.

What do you think 2015 will hold?