Ethics or audience? Indie publishing questions the ethics of cooperating with Amazon

Catching up

I am miserably behind; not just in writing invoices, creating holiday gifts or doing my part of the brand-new Putzplan (housecleaning schedule) – I’m also behind on writing about the stimulating discussions and events I’ve attended lately. This past week or two, I was able to attend the Zugang Gestalten conference in Berlin, where many initiatives presented on their open access projects, from Europeana (European digital library site and app) to the Rijksmuseum, which has completely opened their digital archive for public use. As their digital director Lizzy Jongma says, “please use our images and make them visible” – but don’t forget to send the museum a picture so they can keep track of all the creative ways their art is being reused and reimagined. Then I was at the Netzkultur festival, which featured some thought-provoking speakers on what data protection – and the lack thereof – means for artists and writers. Juli Zeh made a strong case against allowing data to be used for prognostication, since glimpsing the future also means a certain responsibility to act – and this is a level of power which neither government nor the private sector can be trusted with. As Zeh says “wer keine Geheimnisse hat ist kein Mensch” (those without secrets are no longer people).

Data for convenience: a fair trade-off?

Yet certain internet companies are excelling precisely because their users have more or less no more secrets. Not just that, the more transparent we make ourselves, the more personalized and convenient their services are – whether Google’s customized search or Amazon’s tailored recommendations. Recently, in a rare TV interview on Sixty Minutes, Jeff Bezos explained that Amazon’s “customer-centric” philosophy. Thinking about the ease of purchasing on Amazon compared to other websites, customers’ loyalty to the online retail giant seems well-founded: they’ve created a simple and intuitive platform where one can find just about everything one wants at a competitive price. Of course this isn’t the whole story of Amazon, which has also been known to resort to bullying tactics with publishers, tax evasion and poor treatment of their workers.Fiction_Canteen

Small presses debate Amazon: Better to compromise your ethics or audience?

However, a recent panel discussion on digital publishing organized by Transfiction highlighted how Amazon has become an unavoidable if not indispensable platform which book publishers can’t get around – or they face the possibility of losing a large chunk of their audience. In Germany, the conversation about Amazon is mainly an ethical one: is it ethical to support a company which pays and treats workers poorly (evidenced by the major strikes in two of Amazon’s German warehouses)? And is it morally acceptable to support an online retailer whose competitive practices turn brick and mortar stores into little more than showrooms (e.g. one bookseller on the panel talked about how customers would take pictures of the books to buy them online)?

Amanda DeMarco of Readux Books pointed out that first and foremost, a publisher’s moral obligation is to reach readers. As this new publisher found out from her own experience, trying to bypass Amazon means that fewer readers will discover and buy your books – which is a far bigger disservice to authors and translators than it is to the online retail giant. In fact, the two digital only publishers represented on the panel – Culturbooks and Mikrotext – say that Amazon sales represent the majority of their total sales. So why would they even think of surpassing their most important sales channel?

However, to stay competitive on e-book platforms, publishers (and authors) have to sell their books at competitive prices. And for digital-first publications, low prices are also crucial to make the inhibition threshold as low as possible, since the titles cannot be found on bookstore shelves. Some of the publishers present at the Fiction Canteen admitted that they aren’t able to pay advances to authors and translators, but instead offer them higher royalties. This sharing of financial risk seemed ethically sound to most members of the panel (including Zoe Beck and Nikola Richter, who are both writers themselves), but not to a German translator in the audience, Katy Derbyshire, who elaborates on her position here.

Moderator and organizer of the event, Lucy Renner Jones, compared the changing payment models in digital publishing to the transformation in digital photography, where photographers were expected to “diversify or die”: suddenly everyone was expected to own their own digital equipment and use the corresponding editing programs, but accept lower wages. Granted, writing and translating are still much more lo-fi than photography, but it is true that authors are expected to shoulder a lot these days.

As I mentioned a while back, even traditionally published authors are expected to contribute to marketing their books, in particular by being active on social networks. As these channels require so much time and energy to use properly, there is a certain parallel to the photography metaphor. Moreover, if it becomes the norm that translators get most of their payment from royalties, then they’ll have just as much incentive to help market the books they translate. So not only does this payment model require the contributors to share the financial risk, it also encourages them to shoulder additional work. While this may not be an issue for authors, who put years of work and passion into their writing, as Derbyshire points out, it is a lot to ask from a translator, who is first and foremost providing a service to a publisher.

Trumpfing convenience with community

But where does that leave us in the David and Goliath debate about cooperating with Amazon? Everybody on the panel (which also consisted of Nerys Hudson, from Dialogue Books, and Volker Oppmann from LOG.OS) seemed to agree that boycotting Amazon is not an option, since getting books/ebooks into the hands of readers is the whole point. Mike Shatzkin recently said that publishers’ new value proposition has to be “we will help authors reach their whole audience”, which means making their books available in as many channels as possible. Until a formidable alternative to Amazon emerges (in Germany beam is worth keeping an eye on, and LOG.OS has big plans), indie publishers have little choice about working with Amazon, alongside the other ebook retailers. However, it’s still important to think about what independents can offer that Amazon can’t, and how to best leverage those advantages to win loyal readers in the long term.

Hudson made the point that where Amazon falls short is community – while it may be convenient, readers are hard-pressed to trust its algorithm like they would trust the recommendations of a friend or community bookseller. There is still plenty of room for growth and experimentation among the indies, as the Berlin bookshop ocelot has shown with their recent online store, which combines personal recommendations and blog reviews with the ability to personalize the online shop to suit each user’s taste.

As Bezos said in his interview, “complaining isn’t a strategy”. Instead, independent publishers and retailers need to get busy innovating and thinking about the long term of their business models – as these publishers in Berlin are definitely doing. This includes not only connecting with readers, but also working together with authors and translators as equals, since without them, there would be no literature to spread in the first place.

Netzkultur // Networked culture

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Playfully approaching the brave new digital world

Lately it seems like there’s a digital festival, installation or conference everywhere you look in Berlin. Nevertheless, it seems like it’s hard to find the right balance between art and politics, theory and practice. At the recent Cyberfest festival, one one hand the artists praised the possibilities the internet has opened up to them to collaborate on art and disseminate it for little cost – it’s a veritable digital playground. However, towards the end of the talk surveillance was mentioned, along with the question of how free are we to really express ourselves in this brave new digital world?

Making your digital mark, or erasing footprints?

And so it goes for many arts practitioners – including bloggers and writers. Many of us make the most of the internet’s possibilities – after all, web presence is indispensable if you work in media– , with perhaps a vague sense of insecurity about who might trace our footprints on the web, and what the consequences might be. On the surface, the benefits seem to far outnumber the risks, and that warm, fuzzy feeling of being connected outweighs everything else. Nevertheless, digital has changed everything: such as the way and the pace at which people consume culture (ie faster, but in smaller, byte-sized bits), and the volume of content we suddenly have access to (see my link list if you don’t believe me – I could read literature all day every day and never have to pay for a book again in my life). In other words, the networking of culture opens up possibilities and creates a new set of choices, both for what we share in our networks and what we consume. And since those of us who haven’t mastered programming or studied computer science are still bumbling around in the dark and relying on trial and error as we improve our digital literacy, it wouldn’t hurt to open up this discussion to the experts. In fact, I think it would make light years of difference to get more interdisciplinary and actually learn a thing or two about how all this pixel magic works.

A hackathon for the arts

So what better way to warm up this weekend than by cozying up with some cultural hackers to hack our way to a more sophisticated, knowledgeable digital culture at the Berliner Festspiele? This Saturday, the first event of Netzkultur, a 3-part series, will take place. All afternoon there will be hands-on workshops taking place where visitors can experiment with blogging, Twitter, mixing (and remixing) with Audacity, and learn how to protect your data at a “cryptoparty”.

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Stephan Porombka (author of Der letzte macht das Buch aus & Schreiben unter Strom)

Unlike a normal hackathon, the motley crew sharing their knowledge at Netzkultur is made up of wordsmiths and musicians. The author Juli Zeh will kick off the event with a talk on the internet as a ‘realistic utopia’. Then the real play begins, with workshops using 3D printers, audio editing and blog platforms. UdK professor Stephan Porombka is available for Twitter ‘office hours’, and sound artists will be talking about their methods. There will also be discussions on Surveillance & Culture (with Michael Seeman), Invisible Powers – man, machines and utopias (Frank Schirrmacher) and Who is Programming Whom? (Ralf Bremer (Google Deutschland), Helena Hauff (Produzentin), Petra Löffler (Bauhaus Universität Weimar) and Stephan Thiel (Studio NAND)). In the evening, international artists and bands will be sharing the results of their experimentation on the stage.

Getting back to the big picture and thinking about a more cross-disciplinary approach to digital culture, Netzkultur seems to be doing just that – combining theorizing and practice, and getting artists, programmers and hackers of all kinds in on the action. And with Nikola Richter from Mikrotext curating, how could you expect anything less?

It should be a fun and horizon-expanding day. I, for one, will be wearing my play clothes – those pixels can leave nasty stains.

Blurring boundaries, artificial walls: A discussion on digital versus print

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On Friday night I attended a discussion panel on “print or digital: literature finds its way”. It was put on by Ocelot, the Berlin-based bookstore which recently celebrated its first birthday and (re)launch of its brand new, customizable online shop, in cooperation with the neighboring Phillip Schaefer library for the Lange Nacht der Bibliotheken.

For the Print or Digital discussion, three author/publishers represented print (Hendrik Rohlf from diaphanes, Markus Feldenkirchenn from KEIN&ABER, Peter Graf from Metrolit Verlag) while the other two participants – Nikola Richter (mikrotext) and Wolfgang Farkas (shelff) – spoke from a perspective of e-publishing. Although nearly all participants represented an indie publisher, the moderator more or less divided them into two camps – and two sides of the stage – to discuss the pros and cons of digital publishing, reading and the changing meaning of the book as an object. It was a shame that the moderator wanted to turn it into a debate at all, since it would have been much more interesting to let each indie publisher talk about what they are up to in e-publishing. Instead, only Nikola Richter (Mikotext founder) and Farkas (Shelff Cofounder) really touched on how focusing on digital changes the process of publishing and marketing books.*

Wolfgang Farkas (Shelff), who also founded the German independent press Blumenbar in 2002, was surprised how freeing it is to be an e-only press. It reminds him of the living room literary salon evenings he and his colleagues had when they were starting Blumenbar. Digital publishing enables editors to “return to a fresh, direct way to produce books”, says Farkas.

Nikola Richter of Mikrotext agrees. Richter, who is herself a blogger and published author, explains that she publishes with the author’s perspective in mind. It’s also freeing to have a much quicker turnaround with ebooks, which can be produced in a matter of weeks or months. In addition, a lot of the German ebook presses are focusing on shorter, hybrid forms of literature (some of which I outlined in this post). In this sense, Richter considers that Mikrotext is publishing the short form prose that may have otherwise never been published – at least not in book form.

Whereas the defenders of print regressed into platitudes about what constitutes a “real book” and scoffed at the low number of ebook sales in Germany, the ebook publishers weren’t afraid to admit that they’re on unfamiliar ground. Farkas explained that his initiative Shelff had a longer incubation phase because “at first we didn’t really know exactly what ‘digital publishing’ meant”, or all the possibilities that e-publishing opens up.

For Richter the answer is the ability to leverage the online presence of her author,s who write by and large online, such as Jan Kuhlbrot, whose prose pieces incorporate the input of his blog readers, or the Syrian writer Aboud Saeed, whose ebook (The Smartest Guy on Facebook) consists of a series of Facebook status updates. By making the most of these authors’ already existing readership, Mikrotext’s books can have a far reach based on word of mouth alone. Saeed’s book will now be the first Mikrotext to be transformed from pixels to pages, since the press will be releasing it as a print book. In digital form, “these books have already found a readership,” says Richter; once they’ve proven their worth, it’s only natural that they will likewise reach readers in print.

In short, although this was by no means a proper debate, from my perspective the e-only presses nailed some of the key advantages of digital. They are excited about the flexibility of publishing both short and long formats, fast turnarounds and reaching readers in a variety of places. And whatever the future holds for digital reading in Germany, these initiatives have the advantage of being small, with little overhead, low production costs and of course no physical storage costs. Assuming they find their readers, these e-only start-ups could very well be the trailblazers in a much bigger movement to publish more off-the-beaten-path literature digitally. At least a reader can dream …

*aside: I really hate to neglect discussing the incredibly cool Metrolit, Kein & Aber and diaphenes publishers in this piece, since each has a very interesting focus; Metrolit on cosmopolitan culture and history, also in literature and illustration; Kein & Aber produces books, ebooks and CDs; and diaphenes, which puts out a number of books on literature, art, philosophy, essays and more, including a series of “eTexts” – individual articles which the press sells or offers for free as open access.

Indies everywhere! New German publishing initiatives on the horizon

Once again, time has gotten away from me and it’s been a whole month since my last blog post. For the past four weeks I’ve been busy interviewing various small presses for the Frankfurt Book Fair and polishing my Master’s thesis till it shines.

I’ve also been exploring German publishing at a few events as of late, such as the Pub N’ Pub series, where the longtime publishing figure Elizabeth Ruge spoke on the role of the publisher – and why it’s important to experiment more with the possibilities of digital. For example: to enable text-to-voice functions on ebooks for the blind.

I also went to a “Nachwuchstreffen” for students of book publishing, where I was encouraged by the forward-thinking keynote speeches by Leander Wattig and Volker Oppmann. In particular, Volker Oppmann is someone in German publishing to really keep an eye on, as he has a huge project in the works, Log-os, which intends to position itself as an open-source platform for book buying and social reading which may become the independent alternative to Amazon.

Small presses sprouting up on the German landscape

In the spirit of delving more into German publishing, here are a few of my recent finds in Berlin and slightly further afield – all of these were founded in 2013 – talk about the year of the small press! What most of them have in common is they are focusing on the small form – from Mikrotext’s e-singles to Readux’s “teeny books”. There is also a definite enthusiasm to try out new formats, publish genre-bending short work, and even release titles in English. With no further ado:

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Beben: This press is named after the German word for “quake”. With a focus on e-book novellas meant to shake things up, so far Beben has released 6 titles: from skewed creation myths, to unsettling social criticism, to a criminal posing as a mushroom hunter, and a lighter story of the Wnukis, who perhaps have the secret to happiness; these off-the-beaten path shorts could be well on their way to ushering in a renaissance of the novella.

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Mikrotext: An e-only press started by Nikola Richter, blogger and author of Superdemocraticos fame, Mikrotext has released a smattering of political, experimental, and above all, highly modern literature. Take Thomas Pelzer’s Spam Poetry (inspired by his spam mailbox), Chloe Zeegan’s Berlin Trilogy or Aboud Saeed’s The Smartest Guy on Facebook (Facebook posts about Syrian revolution), every e-book (and e-single) that Mikrotext has published seems to be both a product of its times and at the same time reflecting about its social-historical context in a nuanced way. And they have two titles in English!

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Readux: This new press for literature in English translation is one of the only projects here to put out books in the revolutionary format of paper – and these beautiful books definitely deserve a place on one’s shelf, not just for their aesthetically pleasing cover designs, so that these literary morsels can be devoured, marked up and shared. The first four titles  include the likes of Franz Hessel, who documents 1920s Berlin in lively prose, and Gideon Lewis-Kraus, whose essays explore the city’s continued magnetic pull today. Also, the press will release 4 little books three times a year, in a magazine-like cycle. Readux Books is the brainchild of Amanda DeMarco, who writes the books & publishing blog of the same name. I salute her for this high-quality first series, and am happy to note the books can also be bought as a set!

Fiktion: These last two projects are brand new and still surrounded by an aura of mystery. Fiktion ups the ante with a publishing model that seems too good to be true: they want to release books simultaneously in German and English, create an international network of writers, make their ebooks available for free, and experiment with new formats. Their manifesto is available on their site, but the truly curious are well advised to join their newsletter. Although not strictly an “indie” project, since they’re backed by German Federal Cultural Foundation and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (where Fiktion will host a conference on literature in the digital age), it will still be exciting to see where this thought experiment leads.

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Kladde: The last project is likewise enigmatic. Their website is virtually empty, but they’ve already been nominated for the Virenschleuder Preis for creative marketing. This video comes the closest to explaining why. Much like Unbound in England, Kladde aims to fund its carefully selected (and oh so mysterious) book projects via crowdfunding. They seem to hint that the “crowd” might participate in more ways than financially, but again, we’ll have to stay tuned to find out what precisely sets this project apart.