Aug 092014

Just received this email from Amazon on the subject of e-books.  In itself, it’s a novel and a half, but makes for fascinating reading:

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read).  A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures.  And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Hachette CEO, Michael Pietsch:

Copy us at:

Please consider including these points:

– We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
– Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
– Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
– Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

P.S. You can also find this letter at

So my question is as per the title of this blogpost: “Are e-books the revolution paperbacks once were?”

I’m not a real expert in the matter, but one thought does come to mind: whilst I love the Kindle infrastructure and the upsides it’s added to the cross-device reading experience, alongside things such as its lending-library facility (a really cool idea and implementation), paperbacks, once purchased, could be re-bought and resold second-hand, handed on, passed on and shared for as long as one wanted.  I’m not sure that Kindle’s e-books have all these options – nor would work as a business model if they were ever added in the future.

Anyhow.  Despite the above caveats, I am sympathetic to what seems to be the general thrust of Amazon’s argument – at least, at the time of writing this post.  So what do you think?  Any other immediate reactions?  Any responses?  Do you care either way?


Oct 292013

I’ve been having a few problems recently.  Mainly as a result of my off-and-on relationship with technology.  I’ve documented them here and here, so if you want to bring yourself up to speed you might want to read these posts before we continue.

You can understand that I felt aggrieved enough with Carphone Warehouse and Blackberry for not repairing something still supposedly under guarantee.  This was the bit of their reply which most upset my sensitive soul, when I queried CPW’s initial refusal to do anything at all (the bold is mine):

The reason for this is that, upon review, your handset was missing buttons. This type of damage, regardless if it caused the fault on the device or not, invalidates the warranty and means that we cannot repair this without a charge.

As it seemed pretty clear that no other option was available to me, I didn’t reply to the email in question.  Then yesterday I got a follow-up which went as follows:

Dear Mr Williams

We have not received a response from our recent email.

If there is anything else that we can assist you with, please let me know.

If we haven’t heard from you in the next 7 days, we will close your case file down.

So that was when I found it in myself to reply.  This is what I said:


Many thanks for your follow-up.

I think your email made it very clear I have no other options in this matter.  I hardly felt a response was even expected.  However, as you have asked for one, I’d like to make it clear I will no longer be purchasing nor recommending products or services sold by CPW – either online or in its shops, either in Britain or in Spain – nor shall I be investing in any Blackberry products in the future (if, that is, the company manages to remain at all viable).  Any phone contracts I have which I suspect may benefit your group will, when they come up for renewal, be moved to other providers.

That’s about all I can do.

Your bottom lines are safe.

Kind regards,

Miljenko Williams

Meanwhile, my second major techie issue seems to rumble inconclusively on.  Last week I contacted Tesco about the failure of my two-year-old 3G Kindle’s screen.  Whilst contacting their helpline connected me directly with Amazon, I felt my contractual relationship should be with the shop I bought the product from.  Amazon offered me an upgrade I would obviously have to pay for.  My initial reaction was that I would rather it be replaced for the exact same keyboarded model.  It had been a birthday present from my eldest son and I valued the object as such.  The gentleman on the customer helpline said no similar models were made any more by Amazon, and an upgrade was the only option.

I then phoned Tesco’s helpline again, this time choosing non-Kindle options from the menu in order to speak to a Tesco person him- or herself.  And this time I pursued – as per the advice from our local store – the “electrical products out of warranty” path, where you can put in a request for a pro-rata compensation payment to be made, if the product you’re complaining about is judged to have a life expectancy beyond that which it has shown.  I was given a timeframe of 48 hours for a response, I think it was.  Unfortunately, that was last week and this is this week.

Now I’m obviously going to have to negotiate Tesco’s complex menu system all over again in order to chase the case up.  But before I do, I thought I’d put down my preferred outcome in black and white, along with a few wider observations on what corporate capitalism is doing to us all.

Kindle is a great system for binding you into Amazon’s infrastructures, that is true.  It also offers significant benefits – if, that is, you’re prepared to accept the limitations the system leads to with respect to ownership, portability of content and so forth.  But where it wins out – its ability to be accessed from a multitude of devices and allow you to pick up from where you left off absolutely anywhere – is precisely where it is damaging our previous and singularly healthy attachments to artefacts.

In the past, when we gave someone an object of certain value, this object maintained both its operational ability, its physical integrity and its sentimental value for many many years.  Out of love, out of respect and out of a generosity which characterises him, my eldest son wanted to make what he felt would be a present I would always treasure and remember him by.  And he got it right – an electronic book: something I have been fighting for and arguing in favour of for over a decade now.  What more could a loving son want to gift an aspiring editor-father than something in the very vanguard of 21st century publishing?

But now I realise, at least as per Amazon’s intentions (and possibly Tesco’s too – I have yet to find out), my treasured birthday present has become – two short years and a few months later – a mere accountant’s calculation in an upgrade path to tablet-ownership.  Yes.  Corporate capitalism, and here I mean both Amazon and Tesco, both Carphone Warehouse and Blackberry, both Apple and Samsung, as well as practically everyone and their mother, is in the process of making us about as promiscuous with our artefacts as any grasping capitalist could hope for; about as promiscuous with our objects as any Sixties’ hedonist ever was with their bodies; about as promiscuous and uncaring about the intrinsic value of what we give to another as any shallow consumer manages to be with their trashed-upon and popcorned entertainment.

To be honest, I don’t want a brand new super-duper all-colour upgrade.  That wasn’t what my dearest son gave me just over two years ago.  What I want is for the object he gave me, the very object he gave me, the very same serial-numbered present, to return to the state it was in during the summer when I was still able to finger its well-designed curves.

Yes.  It’s the object he gave me which I want to recover.  It’s his present, not your largesse, which I want to be able to remember him by.

So does no one out there, no one at all, understand in any way what I am getting at here?

Does no one else see what we are losing?

Does no one else care to care?

Sep 252012

I’ve come across the idea behind the title to this post many times in the last decade.  I started out on this journey when I did a Spanish Publishing Master; was then exposed to the rough and tumble of one open source community; exchanged thoughts and emails with fascinating thinkers in the field; and remained, quite generally, an interested – though inexpert – amateur in the subject.

Yesterday, I posted a well-received article on the subject of the Guardian‘s proposal that traditional newspaper publishing’s business model should be sustained through a blanket broadband levy on all British Internet users.  Lots of people have said far more complex and convincing things, though, about why such a move wouldn’t save newspapers or journalism.

I think, to be honest, unless – for some shady reason – government gets hooked on this idea, nothing further will be done.

I have thought for a long time, mind – not the the only soul to do so – that copyright is now the problem not the solution.  But I’ve never really been able to put it into words (well, I have, but not widely broadcast words …).  I’ve also kind of lost a friendship (not exactly, but you know what I mean – there now exists a certain distance) as the result of disagreements entertained on these pages and elsewhere, and in relation to the subject of the Internet and copyright abuse.

As always is the case, however, nothing is new.  This was my idea from 2011 as to how to resolve the problem of creators needing a piece of the action, after subscribing to the Guardian‘s Kindle version.  First, on the need to sustain plurality:

[…] we should want to make the Kindle experience conducive to plurality.  For that is exactly what the Internet has provided us with over the past decade.  If anything good has come out of the free-content era, it’s the broad access to multiple opinions that such a structure has provided.  Unfortunately, all I can see on the horizon – if the subscription costs are to remain so relatively high – is that inevitable return to those silos of prejudice that traditional newspaper publishing used to imply.

If we truly want a plural press, we need a public which is truly exposed to a wide variety of opinion.  If, in the future, I am only to blog on what the Guardian publishes, my blogging will be far the poorer for that.  Yes, of course I can make a conscious effort to restrict my contact to social-media and non-mainstream content – but do I really want to do such a thing?  After all, if any lesson has been learned since the News International scandal, it’s that social media needs a good mainstream media if it is to function at all well.  Without the resources of a properly funded and properly plural professional journalism, blogging, tweeting and other social media activities will never reach the truths that need to be exposed.  As an echo chamber, social media is absolutely perfect – as a revealer of dirty deeds, it lacks the money, the lawyers and the visibility to kickstart any serious investigation into the ills of the rich.

Then, to a possible solution:

Social media needs the mainstream media like never before.  But not at £10 a month.  Rather, £10 a month should buy a package of media which allows us to read as broadly and widely as before – yet this time contributing a little of our ill-gotten gains to ensuring the plurality we all must desire.

I’d suggest that such packages would not be based around the product from existing content manufacturers (deriving an access to everything from the News International stable for example) but instead be created around interest groups which cut across the walls media empires want to sustain: everything for political wonks would include the publications I mentioned above; science and technology fans could include anything from Top Gear to MIT’s bi-monthly publication; religious interests could be covered by access to a widerange of cross-faith publications …

Finally, to clarify the objective:

The list is clearly endless but the objective would be essentially didactic – a deliberate intent to socially engineer our thought by allowing the plurality of the press to be hardwired into our subscription systems.

But all of the above suggestions were still operating within the broad schemes of current copyright structures.  And as such structures will predictably lead to the criminalisation of more and more people in the future, especially whilst copyright proponents continue to refuse to change their business models in line with already widespread behaviours, we’re obviously getting into a position where the state must equally invade privacy and citizen space more and more in order to apply the laws so many of them are clearly evading.

Where not avoiding.

Funny how the difference is allowed to operate only for the one percent – but not for your regular teen file-sharer.

Anyhow.  In a comment to my broadband post yesterday, a fascinating link has been added.  And listen to this: it apparently dates from 2003 – eight years before my own thoughts.  The executive summary at the head of the .pdf in question can be found below:

Executive Summary

The institution of copyrights has its origins in the feudal guild system. Copyrights provide an incentive for creative or artistic work by providing a state-enforced monopoly. Like any other monopoly, this system leads to enormous inefficiencies, and creates substantial enforcement problems. The size of these inefficiencies and the extent of the enforcement problems have increased dramatically in the Internet Age, as digital technology allows for the costless reproduction of written material, and recorded music and video material.

The artistic freedom voucher (AFV) is an alternative mechanism for supporting creative and artistic work. It is designed to maximize the extent of individual choice, while taking full advantage of the potential created by new technology.

The AFV would allow each individual to contribute a refundable tax credit of approximately $100 to a creative worker of their choice, or to an intermediary who passes funds along to creative workers. Recipients of the AFV (creative workers and intermediaries) would be required to register with the government in the same way that religious or charitable organizations must now register for tax-exempt status. This registration is only for the purpose of preventing fraud – it does not involve any evaluation of the quality of the work being produced.

In exchange for receiving AFV support, creative workers would be ineligible for copyright protection for a significant period of time (e.g. five years). Copyrights and the AFV are alternative ways in which the government supports creative workers. Creative workers are entitled to be compensated once for their work, not twice. The AFV would not affect a creative workers ability to receive money for concerts or other live performances.

The AFV would create a vast amount of uncopyrighted material. A $100 per adult voucher would be sufficient to pay 500,000 writers, musicians, singers, actors, or other creative workers $40,000 a year. All of the material produced by these workers would be placed in the public domain where it could be freely reproduced.

Under plausible assumptions, the savings from reduced expenditures on copyrighted material would vastly exceed the cost of the AFV. Much of this savings would be the direct result of individuals’ decisions to use AFV supported music, movies, writings and other creative work in place of copyright-protected work. A second source of savings would be the result of lower advertising costs, since much of the material used in advertising supported media would be in the public domain.

In contrast to copyright protection, which requires restrictions on the use of digital technology, the AFV would allow for the full potential of this technology to be realized. Creative workers would benefit most when their material was as widely distributed as possible. They would therefore have incentives to promote technologies that allow for recorded music, video, and written material to be transferred as easily as possible. By contrast, copyright enforcement is demanding ever greater levels of repression (e.g. restriction on publishing software codes, tracking computer use, and getting records from Internet service providers) in order to prevent the unauthorized reproduction of copyrighted material. The police crackdowns on unauthorized copying by college students, and even elementary school kids, would be completely unnecessary for work supported by the AFV.

A question of choice, then.  A copyright killer which allowed normal copyright to continue.  A choice in a world where choice has become mandatory.  Re-engineering copyright without telling existing copyright holders “The game’s up!”.

What, if anything, could go wrong?

The arguments are – at face value – pretty convincing.  So those of you who have a far better grasp of the implications – what are your opinions on this?


Footnote to this post: a tangential thought, but one that is coming to my mind more often recently.  We are always being told – I say it myself – that overall the quality of journalism on the web and in society is expanding, multiplying and generally improving our lot.  As citizen journalism begins to take up the communication reins and “professionalise” its own instincts, many feel the future will lie in a hyper-localisation of information gathering – perhaps aggregated, sorted and filtered automatically by tools such as Poblish.

But I do wonder if this perception isn’t an example whereby we look to a societal benefit and ignore an individual need.  Yes.  When burnout takes place, and an excellent blogger gives up the ghost, there will always be another excellent blogger waiting in the wings in order to spread his or her own.

And yet there is this question: what happened to our understanding that people – discrete and specific individuals, that is – matter just as much as societies?  Why can’t an excellent blogger propose blogging to the end of his or her days?

Why, in reality, are we so very happy to accept what we might term the “wave of ants” approach to earning a living out of generating content?

That is to say, to put it crudely, that there’ll be plenty more fresh meat out there prepared to produce great stuff and work for nowt, in order that we might sustain what – individually – is unsustainable.

Society’s benefit isn’t the only criteria here.  An individual’s need to earn an individual living surely should also count for something … shouldn’t it?

Aug 112012

A couple of days ago I posted on the subject of money and how those who use it to define everything appear now to want to impose their criteria on everyone else.  Today, I am minded to recall the thesis of that post as I finish an afternoon stint reading a good Kindle book on my wife’s sunbed out in the garden.

This gentle hour or so in a much improved Spanish afternoon – yesterday was unbearably bochornoso and hit 37 degrees – created in my being such an utter sense of wellbeing that I really couldn’t help feeling: “Why isn’t this kind of experience available to all?”

Can it really be beyond our sophisticated and technologically analytical age to develop the kind of society where such simple freedoms are – realistically – available to all?

Why shouldn’t more of us be able to enjoy such wellbeing?

Why can’t we use money to maximise humanity’s happiness – instead of concentrating it in wells of pitiful limitation?

Why are those in power pushing us towards competing with each other more and more – instead of encouraging us to work together to common interests?

Why in a world where competition is the name of the game – and, thus, where plurality should be a guiding factor – does difference become a potential indicator of shame and suspicious behaviour, and homogeneity the only globalisingly accepted virtue?

Why have we allowed the concept of the free market to become distorted by those who use their monetary wealth to corrupt for their own benefit the appreciable tenets of competition and diversity?

And when will all the above finally cease?


Footnote to this piece: sadly, Dave Semple, over at Though Cowards Flinch, has formerly announced he will no longer be blogging. I’m inclined to believe that many of the questions I ask above have their answers in his considerable writings over the years.  He feels that blogging has had little effect.  I think his kind of blogging will continue to resonate for a long time.

I posted a comment at the foot of his piece and republish it below as a kind of manifesto in favour of keeping faith with the blogosphere – or, at least, as thinking people might wish to continue to conceptualise it:

I think your best blogging was as you described it: agitational propaganda. I wouldn’t be so harsh on the wider activity though. I think it has many similarities to being a teacher. Not because it is didactic but – rather – because you never know the impact you’ve had (or will have) when someone stumbles across your writings. Intellectually coherent bloggers are more common than you might presume and just because some notable use blogging as a lever to greater power doesn’t mean we all do.

We’re not all the blogging equivalents of churnalists, though there *is* a lot of that – where people coattail the main news to spike their hits.

Myself, I’m very occasionally read and I may be spitting in the well of insignficance but in order to feel at peace with the awfulness of this world I do have to bear witness.

Bearing witness means more to myself than my readers? Yes, perhaps it does. But, in the worst case scenario, it’s better than being locked up in a hospital because one can’t deal with what’s out there.

And in the best case scenario, it fills that well just a little so that one day someone may be able to climb out of it.

We’re small. I am, anyway. I have to take small steps. Blogging is one of those steps.

And just so you know, the only reason I now blog on the open Internet – instead of burrowing away inside Members Net and trying to reason from my mindset of relative privilege with your determined class anger – was because of the things you wrote.

You didn’t intend to teach me, Dave. But I did learn from both your behaviours and your content.

I don’t, after all, think I could have written the stuff I’ve posted in the last couple of days if I hadn’t escaped from the self-serving cosiness of the aforementioned environment.

So you see. You saved at least one soul – can’t that sometimes be enough?


Good luck with all your endeavours, anyhow. Even when you’re wrong, as I think in part you are in what you say above, you’re engaging. And I’ve never got the feeling I’m wasting my precious life on this earth whilst I’ve chosen to read something you’ve written.

Oct 292011

I’ve got something sad to report.  Not sad in a universal sense – nor sad at a personal level.  But sad all the same.

I read this report this afternoon on tablet users and their willingness to pay for their news.  In it, we discover:

But the figures came with one pitfall: “News is valued but willingness to pay is low.” The majority of tablet owners (85 percent) had never paid for news on their tablet, and 78 percent said that news on the tablet was not worth more than any other medium. Out of those who had not already paid for news, only 21 percent would agree to pay $5 a month for their favorite tablet news source. Most turned down the $5 charge, even if it were the only way to access it.

And it’s funny how things you read sometimes make you take steps you’ve resisted out of belief, altruism or simple inertia.

Whilst living out in Spain I used to buy the El País newspaper on a daily basis.  At one point, I even subscribed to foreign newspapers such as the International Herald Tribune.  But there was one thing I could never escape: that piling up of unread old news which I felt I was obliged to read, and which simply served to add to my fret list.

In fact, the only subscription I could ever properly deal with was the Guardian Weekly.  As its name suggests, it was delivered to me weekly, came on a very fine, very white, crinkly and airmail-friendly paper – and contained news from (if I remember rightly) the IHT and Le Monde too.  I used to really love awaiting its arrival – used to really love the weekly as well as worldly perspective.

And so it is that we fast forward to a digital age – and this post, where I dealt with a number of issues surrounding the Guardian‘s Kindle edition: especially in relation to what I considered was a lost opportunity in the subscription model being used.  In this piece I suggested that:

Social media needs the mainstream media like never before.  But not at £10 a month.  Rather, £10 a month should buy a package of media which allows us to read as broadly and widely as before – yet this time contributing a little of our ill-gotten gains to ensuring the plurality we all must desire.

I’d suggest that such packages would not be based around the product from existing content manufacturers (deriving an access to everything from the News International stable for example) but instead be created around interest groups which cut across the walls media empires want to sustain: everything for political wonks would include the publications I mentioned above; science and technology fans could include anything from Top Gear to MIT’s bi-monthly publication; religious interests could be covered by access to a wide range of cross-faith publications …

The list is clearly endless but the objective would be essentially didactic – a deliberate intent to socially engineer our thought by allowing the plurality of the press to be hardwired into our subscription systems.

Described in such a way, it now probably doesn’t have a chance of getting off the ground, of course.

On the other hand, we do do it with online music subscription services such as Spotify and  So why not do it with thought in the way I describe above?

What’s really stopping us?

In a world where collaboration should be our aim – rather than the polarisation which our current political class is offering us – we need systems and structures which encourage us to regularly cross boundaries and frontiers of thought: not out of a desire to triangulate us all out of all possible ideological attachment but, rather, out of an honest wish to learn more about the unknown.

A Spotify for writing then?  We might observe that’s what Kindle – and tablet users more generally – need right now.  But far more importantly, and far more urgently, it’s what our whole society requires of its future generations – if we are not, as a species, to repeat the crass and now self-evident errors of this current crop of makers, shakers and breakers.

Oh – and the sad news I have to report?  Well.  After almost four months, I’ve discontinued my subscription to the Guardian‘s Kindle edition.  The reasons I gave – because they ask you to say why when you do – were “too expensive”; “no time to read it”; and “other”.  And my other?  Back to the Guardian Weekly concept, I think: “I would like to subscribe just to the Observer [which comes out on a Sunday only] when I would have time to read it”.

In part, I think all the above is true.  But in part, it’s also because I can get it elsewhere for nothing.  (For example, for the moment, on the Kindle’s own browser.) 

Thus it is that a monetisation which allows good writers to write for a living is not an easy process to engineer. 

In the meantime, as a result of the upsides of the open web, we do have that plurality of access which allows us to believe in a better world. 

And in the meantime, before they paywall it all, we can still try and gather to ourselves that plurality of thought; that wisdom and ingenuity only a broad mind which is allowed to read broadly can reach out to.

Sep 252011

I’ve been reading “What next for Labour?” and “The Purple Book” in parallel today.  You can see the results of some of my thoughts and reactions to both here.  Alternatively, you may wish to follow the posts via

Meanwhile, the first post I made in relation to these two pieces of work focussed on their covers – and you can see the result of my initial responses here.

Although it’s early days yet, “The Purple Book” is shaping up to be a vigorously fashioned set of theses which might be described as providing us with the framework for the writing of an Act II for New Labour.  It appears to be a highly partisan piece and seems to contain a line of argument which indicates it’s primarily a vehicle for those who would see Labour post-Blair as an unhappy blip – the medium-term objective being to encourage it to recover its Blairite stride in time for the 2015 general elections.  If my initial perception is right, “The Purple Book” is, therefore, a traditionally couched propaganda – even where interestingly documented and discussed: commissioned by those it is meant to represent, it is aimed at devising a future Labour Party in a certain, didactic and inevitably impositional way.  Whilst it mentions the mistakes previous failed renewals of Labour have always committed – lecturing as they have done the voters for their inability to choose “correctly” – it doesn’t resist the temptation to tell us how we should think or behave.

“What next for Labour?” seems a different book altogether.  It is less polished than “The Purple Book” – but this is to be expected.  Whilst the latter sets itself up as a document of reference for future leaders (and, perhaps, more interestingly, leaders-in-waiting), in what we might term the traditional and pyramidal view of how to conduct ourselves in politics, “What next for Labour?” would appear to be a book for everyone who considers themselves Labour.  “A mixed bag,” you might say – in every best sense of the phrase.  People edgily trying to take bites at the bobbing apple that is modern Labour thought.

An x-ray of the Labour Party as it currently stands, in fact.

Rather than a perfected clone-in-the-making – which is where “The Purple Book” quite scientifically, as well as, generally, convincingly, tends to look to be positing itself. 

So.  On the one hand, the statistical powerhouse of politically number-crunched modern thought.  On the other, the earnestness of people who are looking to make a better Party.

I wonder, as a comment on one of the quotes I’ve shared, whether Ed Miliband’s destiny is not to be Prime Minister but, instead, the man who finally sorted democracy in the Labour Party.  For if he does not sort the issue in the way I for one believe is surely necessary, then we are condemned to return to the triangulation which invokes the lowest common denominator of people like the Murdochs of this world.

That is where New Labour led us.

That is what Ed Miliband now needs to save us all from.

And on this very brief and tentative exposure to both of these books, I do wonder which one will really end up grasping the imperious need to properly sort out our own political behaviours – before, that is, we try and prove to others we have the right to sort out their society.

Sep 242011

Liverpool is a grand city.  I love visiting it.  I believe it has a new museum.  I loved the old one, so would love to visit the new one.

I was going to turn up at the Fabian Fringe events tomorrow which I believe are being held in Liverpool Town Hall – and don’t require the kind of off-putting security arrangements that Conference itself seems to demand of us.  But my wife had arranged a visit to Liverpool One with some friends of hers – and meanwhile, my daughter came down with a rather strange illness that worried us for a while; though she appears now to be fully recovered.  Even so, I don’t want to leave her in the charge of her eldest brother: not because I don’t believe he couldn’t look after her – he’s very good and gentle with children in general – but simply because, as a parent, I don’t think it’s fair to ask this responsibility of him.

She was mighty ill on Tuesday.  She’s bounced back as young people often, thankfully, do.  I just don’t want to tempt fate, is all.

That’s all I don’t want to tempt.

So instead of actually being at the Conference Fringe in person tomorrow, I thought I’d spend the day tweeting comments on quotes taken from “What next for Labour?” and “The Purple Book”, both of which I’ve downloaded to my Kindle.  You can find some quotes I’ve already selected from the former, as well as the link which’ll take you to the same for the latter, at this dedicated Amazon Kindle page.  My intention is to be constructive and contextualising – supportive to the wider Labour project as I hope, once the week is over, most of the attendees to this year’s Conference will also prove to be.

I may see some of you on Monday – the only other day I might be able to go.  If not, be good, kind, democratic, thoughtful – and, above all, usefully socialist.

Sep 182011

During the time I was studying to be an editor, great emphasis was placed on the importance of the front cover of a book.  Less so, perhaps, in these digital days – we aren’t seduced any more by the colours, the stamped titles on the sleeve, the weight of the book or the smell of the paper itself.

In fact, the technology doesn’t allow us to be.

But front covers, even so, continue to tell their story – as we search online for a connection that manages to make that final sale.

There are two books out there at the moment which I’m currently considering whether to invest in.  They are competitors too.  Reviews can be found for “The Purple Book” here and “What next for Labour?” here.  And the criteria which I’m using to weigh up the final decision include technology, cost, perceived inclusiveness and ideological approach – and therefore their covers, too.

I generally buy my books from Amazon – and, lately, via the Kindle.  But, even so, I tend to hunt them out and read up on them first – using my PC and broadband as in the olden days.  Thus it is that further investigation led me to these two pictures – here and here respectively – of the front covers of the books in question.

There is little I can say about the cover of “The Purple Book”.  I believe it’s mainly written by people from Progress (a self-denominated “[…] New Labour pressure group which aims to promote a radical and progressive politics for the 21st century”) – and if not written by them, certainly sanctioned by this so-called party-within-a-party.  As Peter Watt says in his review of the second book I’m focussing on today:

I strongly recommend that people buy and read it. But there is a downside to The Purple Book: that it will, inevitably, be seen as being partisan. Because of course it is. Speaking as a fully signed up member of progress, I am completely comfortable with the direction of its partisanship. But the Labour party is a coalition (I know that this is a bit of a dirty word, but I think we may well have to get used to it) and there will be many therefore who dismiss The Purple Book simply because it is from the progress stable.

So what does the cover of the “The Purple Book” say to you?  Corporately impeccable surely; efficiently managerial too – this could, in fact, easily be an in-house publication from any multinational company out there.  From what Peter Watt says, this might not have been the intention – but, certainly, if you’re wandering randomly around a bookshop of bricks and mortar, this cover has a kingly version of New Labour written all over it.

I could never deal with purple as it’s always represented absolute power to me.

Obviously, then, if I’d been the editor of this book, and even keeping in mind Progress’s colours and public image, this would not have been the cover I would have chosen.  It says very few things – and the things it does say are wrong.

But then neither would I have chosen the cover for the second book, “What next for Labour?”.  A short time ago I had the opportunity to exchange a couple of tweets with one of its editors – and unhappily seemed to get him on the back foot, which really wasn’t my intention.  But one of his responses I really do have to take issue with – and it relates to the importance or not of a front cover:

@eiohel it is inside what matters and as has been said it has many women who have contributed inc 2 pieces on women, feminism and poverty

And I do understand how important the content of a book is; and I do understand how the cover is simply a frame.  But I also do most strongly feel that a frame is never simply a frame – and if we’re truly interested in selling our wares, the choices we make when we fashion that frame will, for better or for worse, also fashion our sales.  As well as the life, understanding and historical location our baby will enjoy from its public in the future.

So if you titled a book – most wisely in my opinion – “What next for Labour?”, what then would you be expecting to see on the cover?  Things relating to the past or things relating to the future?  Things relating to the 20th century or things relating to the 21st?  Leaders and pyramids or flat hierarchies and people?  Broadcast communication from the top to the bottom or networked dialogue of all in society?

Some of the latter, it has to be said, is to be found with the inclusion of what is presumably a computer screen.  But the rest of the image, at least to my mind, shows historical leaders who represent the past crouched around a very end-of-20th century way of accessing the virtual world which now commands our lives.

If the objective of the imagery used is to tell us that Ed Miliband is a bridge between the past and the future, then “What next for Labour?” is not the future but a reluctant present.

A reluctant present which is, currently, becoming a very miserable place to be.

In the meantime, whilst those of us who know Labour’s history – and even care enough to remember it – may dwell in its past with great intellectual and emotional enthusiasm, to the casual reader this book cover serves no purpose whatsoever: it signposts no young men, women nor children at all – nor indicates how they might explicitly form part of what’s on the horizon.

Which will I end up reading?  Probably “What next for Labour?”.  At least it has a Kindle version – even if at eight quid a throw it’s at the pricey end of digital downloads.  I’ll be able to search and easily highlight; flag up to my Facebook followers its wisdoms; carry it around with me wherever I go; and, alongside everything else I’ve got on the boil, drop in and drop out of its content whenever.

But if I do read “What next for Labour?”, it won’t be because of the cover.

The cover is to a book what the eyes are to a lover.  It’s the only way you can seduce a reader who has a million alternatives to choose from.

Remember that, dear political editors.  And try and do better next time.

Aug 282011

I’ve been trialling the distribution of my blog via Kindle (here and here) for about a month now.  I’ve also suggested – first over at Munguin’s Republic, and then here and here at this place too – that a blog on national identity called, with a single RSS feed and pay-for distribution via Kindle/KindleApps/other devices, might also be a valid proposal.

In both cases, at no time have I suggested the open web version with comments facility be disabled.  My own blog rarely has comments – so this might be less of an issue if I were to do this (although recently we’ve been having some splendid debates around the subject of Eric Schmidt’s recent speech); but I would hope that in the case of the commenting side of things would be as lively as the original content.

So why then would anyone wish to subscribe to a Kindle version of a blog, without the corresponding comments or other add-ons the Internet has us accustomed to – especially when there are now tools to send web content to your Kindle, Android and Apple devices and especially when it’s now so easy to access web content via many highly mobile devices?

Well.  Here we have some reasons:

Paradoxically, the Kindle’s greatest technological achievement is to make us forget the lessons of the past ten years [of hyperlinked text]: to return us, in fact, to a world where the hierarchy of writers who narrated tales to a spellbound audience reigned grandly over us all.

Oh, the Internet is here to stay – I’m not suggesting otherwise. All I am saying, I suppose, in reality, is that for many of us out here on the techie side of the web, the Kindle will serve to help us recover a former intellectual glory and attachment to the exclusively written word. All of which explains why I firmly believe that, in both its current and future manifestations, Amazon’s Kindle will ensure the cementing of our relationship with what is now clearly going to be a benevolent hierarchy of literary intelligences.

And here we have an example:

I’m pleased to say that, so far at least, our strategy is paying off. We are now joined by thousands of new readers, who access (and pay for) The Spectator on Kindle or iPad. They now make up 8 per cent of our sales, a figure that is growing fast: two years ago, it was zero. We were one of the first magazines to launch on the iPad and have been with Kindle for almost two years. Soon, we’ll be launching a new App. And, yes, Coffee House will be given a lick of paint too. We charge for the magazine but have no intention of charging for the blogs. Coffee House, the best posts and most intelligent comments online, will remain free.

But I am proposing to go even further than the Spectator.  I am proposing to use blogging technologies as the backbone for a number of editorial projects, whose monetisation would involve the use of ads on the web and ad-free subscription on portable devices such as Amazon’s Kindle.

How so and why so?

And, what’s more, with what moral justification?

For the web has always been open and inter-communicative; has always built its best thought on the basis of a free exchange of ideas.  The assumption that operates behind such an infrastructure is that ideas belong to no one – only their implementation and servicing can be charged for.

Which is precisely where I find the justification for charging for Kindle, Android and Apple-device versions of the very same content we intend to continue to distribute on the open web.

We would not be charging for the content itself, nor for the ideas so propagated and exchanged.  Rather, it would be from the value-added services such a distribution would imply that the right to charge for access would originate.  That is to say, in purely traditional publishing terms: the three grand virtues of the ordinary printed book: readability, legibility and outright portability.  All three of which we find greatly improved in most e-book readers and certain tablet PCs.  And none of which are particularly impressive on standard desktop and even laptop PCs.

In traditional open source parlance: we would not be making money out of the ideas themselves but, rather, out of our ability to support people and help them access and use these ideas for themselves.

There is, quite naturally, a separate matter in all of this: you may be able to justify your right to charge for freely available content in such a way but will anyone, in the end, wish to actually pay for something they have become accustomed to getting for nothing?

That’s a different issue, of course – and its answer will depend on how well the content-providers, the 21st century editors, that is, who are beginning to shape this new environment, manage to engineer both micro-subscription systems for users as well as micro-payment systems for authors.

Nevertheless, the experience which for example the Spectator is clearly having is editorially noble, exemplary and worth keeping in mind.

And we shouldn’t forget how the Kindle has turned heads this summer, precisely as it teaches us, once again to our grand and imperious fascination, to remember and delight in author-led reading hierarchies – the very essence of publishing through the centuries.  As the Observer rightly pointed out recently:

Amid the encircling gloom of riot-torn streets and economic meltdown, there is one silver lining to celebrate. Young and old are reading as never before. 2011, the year of the ebook, has become the summer of the Kindle. On planes, trains and automobiles, we are witnessing a sea change in our reading habits unprecedented since Gutenberg.

Once upon a time, it was said that the virtual book could have no answer to the three Bs (beach, bath and bed). But lately, here at the Observer, we detect a trend in reading that’s exposing the digital book to sand, soap and seduction. Popular Kindle reading has reached a tipping point. The average UK shopper now spends £4 per month on ebooks and 53% of Kindle users say they are now reading more books than ever before. Better still, grumpy bibliophiles are falling in love with the Kindle’s sleek, reader-friendly lines, its lovely facsimile of the printed page and, yes, its literary chic.

But what’s far more important, in all of this, at least in my mind, is that this process of monetisation of the digital idea is actually compatible with the principles of the open web.

Whether it remains so remains to be seen.

In the meantime, I continue to be hopeful.

And I hope you do too.

Aug 252011

A brilliant little tool called has just come my way via Adrian Short’s Twitter feed.  This is what the tool currently says it does:

ABOUT is a service focus on Web Reading, help user to get better mobile reading experience.

This service support Kindle (Email), Android (Native App) and iOS (Web App), in the future it will support more devices. Browser Extension/Bookmarklet based on MooTools, back-end services running on Google App Engine, part of the UI design reference form V2EX.

The Team

We are a small team, most of the time we are in Xiamen, a quiet coastal city in China

This service is a work in progress, any feedback is highly welcome and will help us in adding new features.

*** English is not our native language, it is a little difficult for us to reply emails, usually it might be a little slow for response, and we can not reply every messages, but we will read all your feedbacks and suggestions. You are welcome to tell us if there are spelling / grammatical errors, we will fix them as soon as possible.

Essentially, by using, you can send the content (I assume only text content, and potentially some images) of any web page to your Kindle-, Android- and Apple-enabled devices, for reading later at leisure.  In the case of the Kindle, which is the example I am most familiar with, it involves configuring your device to accept emails from and thus allowing you to send and convert the content you’re interested in.  If you don’t want Amazon to charge you the standard 3G charge for conversion of 20p per 1MB or part of, you need to ensure you configure your device for the emails in question to be sent to your address, and then use wifi to download the content.

More background and support can be found at’s blog.

In the meantime, here is a piece I recently wrote on the reading experience Kindle provides, with some links to other posts I’ve also been minded to produce.

One of which being the most read piece has ever had!

Aug 242011

Tris has kindly posted an article of mine, with fearsome photo included, over at Munguin’s Republic tonight.  This post is in relation to a call for editors, content curators and non-mainstream authors for the project  If you have any online comments on the subject, I’d be grateful if in the first instance you might make them over at the Republic itself.  Below, you can find an even longer version (as is my unfortunate wont!) of these proposals, with further background to the ideas which are driving it.


Tris has kindly offered me the opportunity to post a piece here at Munguin’s Republic on an editorial project called, which I’m working on at the moment.

Most of you will have never heard of me, so if you want to find out more you can go to, which is where I blog.  In particular, this post which tris kindly and productively engaged with, and which relates to this initial post on the subject of itself.
In short, I’ve been a language teacher in Spain, a volunteer for a while on an open source site, a discreet blogger for longer than I care to remember – as well as, lately, working in a back-office operation in a bank, a job from which I now find myself redundant.  I’m also a trained editor, having studied publishing in Spain whilst I lived there.

The editorial project I’ve mentioned is looking to use simple web technologies and Kindle/KindleApp/tablet and other devices in general in order to generate interest in the sharpest non-mainstream media writing which is currently produced in England, Scotland, Wales and, if possible, the two Irelands.  In order to do so, I am looking for people in each geographical area to take on the responsibility of curating the writing in their area, and producing short (maximum 300 to 900-word) engaging and quirky daily overviews which pull together, link to and quote from non-mainstream authors.  This content would then be distributed via an open website with comments facility as well as a single RSS feed, to Kindle and KindleApps to begin with, but hopefully other pay-for-subscription systems in the future.

Any income so generated would be split between the editor/curators.  Meanwhile, the project is open to the idea of micro-payments to authors who are linked to and quoted from, and who in any case would benefit from increased visibility and be supported with an author-specific intranet/website containing editorial guidance and input.  This intranet would also contain information on how to monetise content using parallel channels, for those authors interested in such options.

It’s a new untested market, so it’s probably quite a tall order – but, even so, the start-up costs are pretty small, so “all” we would be spending (often not negligible, mind) is our own free time.

As an example, and in order to test the technologies, I’m currently trialling distributing my own blog via Kindle here and here.  If you have a Kindle, you can subscribe to a 14-day trial subscription to see how it works.  After the 14 days, if you decide to continue it costs £1.99 a month for blogs which post multiple times a day.

Now every decent editorial project should have an ideology behind it.  In my opinion, the ideology of this project will depend in part on who finally participates – but, initially, into the mix, the two axes I would be looking to focus on are:
  1. traditional party political formations
  2. the identities which make up England, Scotland, Wales and the two Irelands
It’s having at least two axes that really interests me, precisely because you end up adding the most value to thought by crossing frontiers on a regular basis (a very short post of mine and its related comments from tris highlight this advantage in its very absence here).
My only personal contact with nationalisms of any kind, in the absence of a positive example of English nationalism, is with what happened in Croatia at the time of its independence.  This was a desperate situation which may have required desperate measures, and some of the things done in the name of Croatia were as unhappy as very many done in the name of the ex-Yugoslavia.  So I understand the reticence many people have to nationalisms and nationalist parties.  What they neglect, of course, here in the UK, to notice is that the established political parties in the UK, one of which I am a paid-up member, also form part of a clearly identifiable appeal to the “greater nationalist” sentiments of Great Britain.  
We should not forget that New Labour’s slogan was “New Labour, New Britain”.
So if I am inclined to prescribe the ideology of – apart from serving to make visible new writing and ideas – then it would be something along the lines of the following: “Cultural dissonance, that frontier between identities and ways of doing, where channelled constructively, is where all progress lies.  If we want to progress in remaking our politics for the benefit of all identities, we need to be clear of the importance of understanding that all political DNA is connected; ideas which may attract or repulse have a historical set of links which tie them together.  That is what we must remember – and act accordingly.”
The Spanish have a saying pertinent to the argument: “Hablando se entiende la gente” (“By speaking we understand people”).  From my little contact with Munguin’s Republic and its team of editors/writers and commenters, it’s easy to see that the blog demonstrates the value of such positions, as well as such editorial approaches. can only hope to be equally editorially coherent.


In the meantime, the request for help and support is now out there.  From around England, Scotland, Wales and the two Irelands, we need the sharpest writing, sharpest writers and sharpest editors from non-mainstream media to want to collaborate in this proposal and shape its future.  
Finally, apologies for the extension of this piece – all I can say in my favour is that I did run it past tris prior to its appearing on the web.  Any comments online are most welcome, whatever their nature.  And any comments you’d like to send me offline, please do me the favour of emailing to, and if possible CC-ing tris into the conversation.

Aug 182011

This article certainly brings a smile to my editorial face, as Fraser Nelson describes how the Spectator is driving sales via digital services:

I’m pleased to say that, so far at least, our strategy is paying off. We are now joined by thousands of new readers, who access (and pay for) The Spectator on Kindle or iPad. They now make up 8 per cent of our sales, a figure that is growing fast: two years ago, it was zero. We were one of the first magazines to launch on the iPad and have been with Kindle for almost two years. Soon, we’ll be launching a new App. And, yes, Coffee House will be given a lick of paint too. We charge for the magazine but have no intention of charging for the blogs. Coffee House, the best posts and most intelligent comments online, will remain free.

Meanwhile, I was encouraged to respond thus:

This is good news and shows the way forward for many editorial products. But I think it’s only possible to go the digital way if the content is engaging and quirky. And adds value to the whole British intellectual landscape. Not every magazine or newspaper can claim that, but the open web, which is your most direct competitor, can – and has accustomed us to such virtues.

I’m not a right-winger, but do find your content interesting. I’ve been subscribing to the Guardian Kindle edition this summer and the reading experience is far better than web. So you never know – you may shortly see me subscribing to the Spectator too!

So whilst the web must still flourish and can develop and expand its reach, hybrid approaches – or perhaps, we might say, value-adding services – which allow us to add editorial improvements to the legibility and readability of content may also continue to innovate, operate and find new audiences.

As well as allowing us to fashion a way of earning a gainful living.

Speaking of which, if you want to see how readable a blog can get on a Kindle device or Kindle App, why not subscribe to my blog for fourteen days?  It’s a free trial subscription and you can subscribe at both and – as well as directly via your Kindle by searching for “”.

Since I’m now duly self-employed and exclusively dependent on my ability to train, write, edit and publish, the cause is a good one.

Or at least, with your permission, that’s what I’d like to believe!

Aug 052011

It’s an uncertainly sunny morning here in Salamanca – though warm as is almost always the case.  My wife is watering the garden and the smell of damp pine drifts in through the open window.

I don’t remember a bad summer all the years we have been coming here.

And for the first time in over a decade, we have a decent Internet connection too.  3G router included.  The best of both worlds.

Thus it is I’ve been able to both see my blog on the Internet and subscribe to its Kindle version (here and here) to compare the two reading experiences.

In conclusion, reading on the Internet forgives verboseness more.  Internet readers become more accustomed to skimming and picking out their nodules of interest in amongst masses of hyperlinked data.  Authorship becomes less important as curatorship becomes ever more so – the curator of information becomes more the author of intertextual content, in fact, as I recently described in this post.

Meanwhile, the Kindle it would seem is on a pedagogical mission to reconvert us to the delights and pleasures of old-fashioned reading.  In the latter, each word counts – inscribes its own weight and purpose.  A curious sensation it is, to recover a charming habit of old.

This is where the iPad and Kindle diverge quite substantially.  Not in technology either.  That’s not the key.  I read recently that growth in e-book ownership was overtaking growth in tablet PC ownership – at least in the US.  Price may have something to do with it – e-books are, after all, generally cheaper things to buy.  But I think the essential matter to hand has more to do with concept than price or technology.  The iPad is the Internet squared – and along with social media sites such as Facebook is looking to carve out for itself pieces of exclusive real estate which will allow it to monetise behind relatively closed doors the access to and practice of surfing on what used to be an open web.

The iPad attempts, with all its bells and whistles, to follow the customer by adding value to skim and hyperlink instincts.  The Kindle and its competing brethren, on the other hand, are leading us back to a previous age where every word counted.  The former aims to support us and affirm us in what we already do; the latter aims to turn us into messianic believers in better – and once-treasured – habits.

There is room for both, of course.

But I have found myself subscribing to the Guardian and Observer newspapers’ Kindle versions even as I know their content is freely available elsewhere.  Their facility of navigation and ease of access wherever one finds oneself, coupled with the Kindle’s mightily long time between charges, are important factors in whether such monetisation will one day be more widely accepted.

The e-book attraction is, therefore, a powerful argument.  I’m not really very clear if piling on the technology as the iPad would have us do is going to win this argument.  Niche and simplicity have always been keywords in our virtual worlds.  E-books capture these two ideas far more effectively than the hungry, flashy and all-encompassing tablet PCs.

And there may be a lesson in that we have yet to fully appreciate.

Aug 012011

This thought occurred to me today in a tweet I posted not long ago, where I asked the following question:

Here’s a question dear #Twitter: can you #photocopy a #Kindle? Not is it legal, mind – rather, does photocopying damage the e-ink screen?

But as my following tweet pointed out, the legal aspect would also be quite interesting.  Even if the document being photocopied was out of copyright, the version itself of that document would be held on Amazon’s servers – and, by extension, the Kindle itself – in a closed and rights-protected environment.  So would a photocopy – even for personal use, and even if technically possible – be allowed or not?  Or does, right now, the law simply not contemplate the situation?

Answers on a virtual postcard to …

Jul 302011

I’ve been using my 3G Kindle mightily over the past week or so.  It’s an ace travelling companion for car journeys across France.  It offers free Internet which has allowed me to keep abreast of the terrible events in Norway.  It has allowed me to upload audible books from my computer and listen to them on its built-in loudspeakers or via earphones.  I downloaded a copy of a couple of books and short story collections by Fitzgerald – and have already finished “This Side of Paradise”.  As I mentioned in a post on the Kindle some weeks ago, I have recovered my fascination for reading content from cover to cover.  I have – in a way you could say – escaped the burden of promiscuous hyperlinkery.

For several reasons, I’ve also subscribed to the Kindle version of the Guardian.  This costs around £10 a month, and also includes the Sunday Observer.  Again, as with literature, the device has allowed me to recover the experience of reading outside my comfort zone – that is to say, to read not only what interests me immediately but also what the papers’ editors judge is worthy of my attention.

The Kindle is, therefore, a powerful tool in a remote-control generation: it is an anti-remote control in fact; something traditional publishers should fulsomely support if they are looking to perpetuate the long and honourable tradition of author-led hierarchies.

But I do wonder if in its discrete rehearsal of the old within the new – of traditional immersive publishing packaged in a wonderfully digital box – the pricing philosophies followed are as wise as they could be.  Don’t get me wrong: £10 a throw for around thirty newspapers a month is pretty good when compared to its paper alternative, especially when one finds oneself travelling abroad and yet still able to get the daily paper as soon as it’s published in Britain.  I’m just wondering if, for the longer-term health of the publishing and content industries, for its plurality and reach I mean, this is the best way of going about things.

I’d love for example to also subscribe to the Telegraph and Independent.  But that would mean another £24 or so – quite prohibitive right now for where I find myself.  There are a few magazines I’d also love to download to my Kindle – a sci-fi one or two and maybe the Spectator and the Economist.  As it is, and with a decent Internet connection to hand, I am more or less able to do the above for the cost of the connection alone – as most publications still publish outwith paywalls.  But surely the objective should be – as it always has been when we compare real and virtual worlds – to provide as similar experience as possible for as similar a price as practicable.

Here, we should want to make the Kindle experience conducive to plurality.  For that is exactly what the Internet has provided us with over the past decade.  If anything good has come out of the free-content era, it’s the broad access to multiple opinions that such a structure has provided.  Unfortunately, all I can see on the horizon – if the subscription costs are to remain so relatively high – is that inevitable return to those silos of prejudice that traditional newspaper publishing used to imply.

If we truly want a plural press, we need a public which is truly exposed to a wide variety of opinion.  If, in the future, I am only to blog on what the Guardian publishes, my blogging will be far the poorer for that.  Yes, of course I can make a conscious effort to restrict my contact to social-media and non-mainstream content – but do I really want to do such a thing?  After all, if any lesson has been learned since the News International scandal, it’s that social media needs a good mainstream media if it is to function at all well.  Without the resources of a properly funded and properly plural professional journalism, blogging, tweeting and other social media activities will never reach the truths that need to be exposed.  As an echo chamber, social media is absolutely perfect – as a revealer of dirty deeds, it lacks the money, the lawyers and the visibility to kickstart any serious investigation into the ills of the rich.

Social media needs the mainstream media like never before.  But not at £10 a month.  Rather, £10 a month should buy a package of media which allows us to read as broadly and widely as before – yet this time contributing a little of our ill-gotten gains to ensuring the plurality we all must desire.

I’d suggest that such packages would not be based around the product from existing content manufacturers (deriving an access to everything from the News International stable for example) but instead be created around interest groups which cut across the walls media empires want to sustain: everything for political wonks would include the publications I mentioned above; science and technology fans could include anything from Top Gear to MIT’s bi-monthly publication; religious interests could be covered by access to a wide range of cross-faith publications …

The list is clearly endless but the objective would be essentially didactic – a deliberate intent to socially engineer our thought by allowing the plurality of the press to be hardwired into our subscription systems.

Described in such a way, it now probably doesn’t have a chance of getting off the ground, of course.

On the other hand, we do do it with online music subscription services such as Spotify and  So why not do it with thought in the way I describe above?

What’s really stopping us?

Jul 132011

I remember, way back in the mists of time, a Guardian newspaper readers’ competition to define exactly the smell of the paper.  The conclusion?  I seem to recall it was “cat piss”.  And it was true.  I can smell it even as I write these words.  The most moral British newspaper of all – in its marvellously ink-laden printed manifestation – smelt of something that is generally quite impossible to remove; something that is generally quite impossible to rid oneself of.

Apposite, don’t you think?  At least in the light of its doggedness (sic) with respect to the News of the World.

Before I went to Spain, I used to be a regular purchaser of both the Guardian and what later became its sister paper the Observer.  Then, in Spain, I transferred my allegiances to another world-class paper, El País – a paper which taught me how to communicate in Spanish; a paper which I applied to learn journalism with but unfortunately failed – only managing to get through to the second round of entrance tests.  (I’m not sure quite why I failed to get on – if not for my Spanish, then perhaps it was because I wrote a piece in the exam which suggested that Hugo Chávez might have a positive effect on Venezuelan society in much the same way as, in Britain, Thatcher had had.  Far too idiosyncratic and off-the-wall, perhaps, for such a respectable and respectful beast as our clearly liberal El País.)

Anyhow, for much of my adult life, prior to that time, I had been a fan of author-to-reader hierarchies.  I then was lucky enough to get onto a Master in Publishing, organised by the University of Salamanca and the company Santillana, part of the same group as El País.  Here, by some of the best in Spanish edition, we were taught all anyone could ever want to know about the subject – both from a technical as well as a moral point of view.  In particular, and I remember it very clearly in a brilliant first lesson, we were taken on a mind-spinning journey through the history of the book, which not only terminated with a brand new search engine called Google but also signalled the imminent appearance of the book’s digital equivalent.

I was, in fact, planning to set up a digital publisher – and remember being quizzed by editors far better than myself on the ideas I was contemplating springing on their  profession.

There was real and palpable fear at the time that the electronic book was going to destroy a whole industry.

Well.  That was almost a decade ago.  And only now am I able to read my beloved Guardian without its characteristic smell of feline.  I started a month ago on my brand new Kindle, using its experimental browser and free Internet connection to read its mobile version in the clear black and white of the device’s digital ink. 

And this was an essentially hyperlinked version which I have already experienced via my smartphone.  So it was no real revelation.  Competent and efficient.  The Internet in all its common glory.

But the other day I noticed the Guardian had started with its downloadable subscription version for the Kindle.  I decided to try out its 14-day free trial.  I’m three days into it.  And I like it very much.  As I have already commented in my previous post on the Kindle’s virtues, I have recovered my love of author-to-reader hierarchies – not only in the novels and short stories I’ve already downloaded but also, now, in newspapers.  Precisely what Rupert Murdoch as editor excelled most at in his editing of reality – that immersive cover-to-cover experience of being led through a gradually untangling maze of perceptions – is precisely what has encouraged me to return to the Guardian as willing participant in the hierarchy of being written exclusively for; perhaps more importantly, for their digital future, also as paying subscriber.

As this tweet argues:

If Rupert Murdoch drops his 39% of BSkyB I will become a paying member immediately of that station. That should be sweetener enough.

And so it is that the Guardian‘s persistence in bringing journalistic criminality to book has regained my approval – whilst Amazon’s ubiquitous device has allowed them to find a means to obtain my hard-earned cash.

No papers piling up unread in the sitting-room. 

No heavy monthly subscription fees – both the Guardian and Observer for a tenner a month. 

A blessed re-encounter with a habit of a lifetime. 

And renewal in my belief that there still exists in the heart of Britain a cross-party liberal conscience which no foreign body can excise.