What’s the Curation Algorithm, Kenneth?

A disturbance in the Matrix - Tokyo, Japan by jamesjustin
A disturbance in the Matrix - Tokyo, Japan by jamesjustin

I was recently talking with a couple of researchers who observed that the most interesting science isn’t usually in the big name journals, but rather in the mid-tier or even lower-tier publications where really radical thinking and unusual results find their way into the literature. The big name journals are publishing on popular topics well along in the scientific literature. They’re important, but less interesting.

Curating out of the middle is a major opportunity for publishers and others in the information landscape. Repetition, presentation, prominence, and context all provide curatorial power.

Kent Anderson, The Scholarly Kitchen

The concept of curation is a hot-button topic in publishing these days, often conjuring visions of the literary boogeyman: a faceless, soulless gatekeeper whose only job is to keep the riff-raff out of the Ivory Tower and off the bestseller lists.

It’s a frustrating meme, one of the pundit class’ many ill-conceived spins on the Kobayashi Maru, typically posited without any intention of offering a dramatic test of character.

My definition of curator is not at all like the anti-progress archivist Mike Cane prefers, but closer to that of a community organizer, a la Richard Nash’s vision of social publishing or Dan Holloway’s “Why not one of us?” call to arms.

In an era where anyone can be publisher, but few can publish profitably, it’s important to keep three things in mind:

  1. 1) Google makes everything discoverable and more difficult to find.
  2. 2) Aggregation is not curation.
  3. 3) Gatekeeper is not a four-letter word.

Anti-curators too often focus on commercial publishing and mass appeal, missing the real opportunities hiding in plain sight in various niches, or as Anderson defined it, “curating out of the middle.” For me, the primary appeal of publishing in the digital age is less about enabling anyone to publish, and more about breaking down the limitations of a print-based distribution system in order to make a wider variety of work accessible to a wider audience of readers.

Harlequin’s Malle Vallik, writing about their new digital-only imprint, Carina Press, nicely put the real opportunity in perspective:

In the olden days when I used to edit print books, I would have been intrigued by this idea but I would also have been trying to fit it into an existing category. After all, I couldn’t just make up a category. Instead I would most likely have asked Jane to increase the romance, make the mystery more thriller-like or women-in-jeopardy type storyline and possibly move the story to Regency times.

But now I’m free. I can ask Jane to write the book she envisions and if I love it as much as she does then we’ll publish it. Our brilliant marketers will create a plan on how to sell it as a historical military mystery. Boo Yah!

Despite being a division of a “traditional publisher”, Carina Press’ business model is rather innovative, with no author advances, no DRM, a direct-to-consumer sales model, and a surprisingly horizontal mission, promising “a broad range of fiction” including “romance… mystery, suspense and thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, erotica, gay/lesbian, and more!”

At the end of the day, a true curator is marked by their passion for, commitment to, and advocacy of an idea — and the only judgment that matters is that of the community they serve.

What’s the trick to beating the pundits’ rigged Kobayashi Maru scenario?

Do the unexpected: Love it, publish it and be willing and able to create a market for it.

17 thoughts on “What’s the Curation Algorithm, Kenneth?

  1. >>>In an era where anyone can be publisher

    And anyone can be a damned “curator” then, too. And FAIL at it, re: Google's RSS Reader.

    I don't know what your deal is with wanting to have a Sugar Daddy's approval. Get beyond that.

  2. Guy, I love that Carina model – the zero advance, digital only model is EXACTLY the one that gives publishers a way of experimenting (in a fit of Martin Luther-ness I nailed those theses to the wall of Harper Studio's blog the other day in fact).

    The question publishers have to ask themselves is this: were the advance & production costs an infuriating barrier to them publishing the books they really wanted to (as many claimed)? Or were they a good excuse not to have to think of another reason to publish work they didn't really get? If it was the latter, they need to think of another excuse fast.

    And bravo to Carina for taking the leap.

  3. And just to be clear – and in the light of Richard's comment on my own piece; I think Richard's business model is unclear; but I think his curation-model is spot-on – it's a model where a curator empowers a previously disenfranchised group, giving them the space to write and explore. Its' a model whereby the curator entrusts the creative process to the creative community and gets on with the business of telling the world about them. Of course there will be exclusivity (I questioned Richard quite vigorously on Cursor's porosity when you interviewed him, Guy, but in retrospect I think he's 100% right to keep a semi-permeable membrane up to protect the creative integrity of his group – provided there is some porosity on the borders) – but it is not the SAME KIND of exclusivity as we complain about with traditional curators. Most important – it does not seek to compete with other groups doing the same thing, but to work with them, in the realisation that excitement about quality new writing is the most important thing to generate amongst the public.

  4. Hi Mike. It's about creating a cultural movement that stokes the public's imagination and gets them excited about literature.. Sure the curtaors in this model can BE writers – but when they ARE the same people as writers, we should recognise that those people are playng two different roles, and one of them is curatorial – the chutzpah-rich writer who spearheads a movement may actually be half-writer half-curator. Heck, mike, that may even include you 🙂

  5. “Bravo to Carina for taking the leap.”

    Yeah, but only after the model's been proven to work magnificently by Ellora's Cave and Samhain Publishing and Loose Id for, you know, the last few years.

    It's not that great a leap, no.

  6. >> 3) Gatekeeper is not a four-letter word.

    I have to admit, I've been known to call out gatekeepers as biatches. But in my own schizoid approach to publishing original content, I've seen a lot of suck writing out there. Can we really sit back and let the “marketplace” decide what's good enough to go viral? (Um, look what happened to shitmydadsays. Oh, wait, that was a PR stunt, you say? forget it then.)

    Our internet isn't as democratic as we think or want it to be, as you cogently state in >>1) Google makes everything discoverable and more difficult to find.

    So that means the loudest voices will be heard, even if their writing sucks? Well then there's no difference between that and going to mainstream publishers with your content, because they are the loudest ones, too.

    I think I'll buy into the curation school for a little while and see how my perspective changes, if at all. While I don't like the word curation, to Dan's point, collectives such as Year Zero may be the best shot for *good* authors to be heard because collectively we can be louder than individual suck writers.


  7. Conglomerate publishing is all about the blockbuster and maximizing profits, so high advances are definitely part of that game. When people talk about the “death of publishing”, what they're really referring to is that specific unsustainable business model.

  8. While a not new business model by any stretch, it IS a great leap for a traditional publisher to make. The general assumption seems to be that traditional publishers (aka old media) don't want to transform their business models, and there's rarely a recognition that it's just not as simple as clicking the “Print to Acrobat Distiller” button! (Yes, I'm being facetious. Well, a little…)

    Not to shift into sales/soapbox mode, but that's the reason Digital Book World exists. We've heard enough talk about the new technology; let's get to the strategies for implementing that technology that don't involve laying off half your workforce and ignoring the fact that 80-95% of your business is still in traditional formats and channels!

  9. “Wisdom of the crowds” is pretty much bullshit, and every tool that's claimed to level the playing field has either been gamed or corrupted, usually just trading one powerful gatekeeper for another.

    e.g.: Yahoo used to be King of the link economy (before it was even called that); then it was Google, and if you believe some people, now it's Twitter.

    Has the game really changed in any significant way over the past 20 years, though, or is it just the players?

  10. Right, there is no escaping curators because they grow like weeds in any environment. Which is why it is important to have people creating excitement about writing who are more interested in giving power to readers and writers than obtaining power for their own jollies. And if the internet and the masses are so wild and uncontrollable and powerful, then there aren't any curators (good or bad) who are going to get in the way.

  11. Right, there is no escaping curators because they grow like weeds in any environment. Which is why it is important to have people creating excitement about writing who are more interested in giving power to readers and writers than obtaining power for their own jollies. And if the internet and the masses are so wild and uncontrollable and powerful, then there aren't any curators (good or bad) who are going to get in the way.

  12. agree 100% Guy. This is one of the problems with beig a signed author. We need – as authors but in this context as we try to figure out what works in the new landscape – to have the freedom to fail and try again. And again.

  13. Yes, Moriah, that was my point. At the risk of patronising the mainstream, we can't expect them to be first to leap. And in a way it takes MORE guts to leap second when you're admitting yuo're on a bandwagon (but the other mainstreamers aren't doing it).

    You know, I'm sure, that I don't think traditional publishers are the future, but you've got to applaud them for trying to be – and maybe some will emerge in new forms as a result.

    None of which means I don't think a whole host of indies are doing it better and more excitingly.

  14. ” people creating excitement about writing who are more interested in giving power to readers and writers than obtaining power for their own jollies.” Lou, exactly! I wish we could all agree that we want readers to be excited about stories – ours or anyone else's. It's when people don't seem to endorse that but go on about abstractions you've got to wonder just who's in it for the glory – the derided “curators” or the writers.

    @Jenn – I know I use the word curator in a different sense from lots of people. I DO think it's a valid use of the word, but the reason I do it is because of when and where I grew up. In the 90s curators WERE gatekeepres, sure: but they were gatekeepers who let exciting new stuff in: no gatekeepers who kept it out! And the fact, whether we like that word or not, is that if Nick Serota hadn't pushed the Turner Prize like he did, people would never have asked each other at the bus stop whether an unmade bed could be art.

    What worries me sometimes when I read posts like Mike's – and I have a lot of time for Mike because his DIY attitude is exactly mine – is a lack of historical perspective – we HAVE been here before. It's just some pundits would rather pretend it's al knew (thanks to Guy for the reminder of this earlier).

    And Jenn, Guy's a smart cookie who's got me sussed – the point of my post wasn't to beg for gatekeepers to come in and police us. It was a call for we writers to get out and whip up a storm (but to recognise, in order to do the job more efficiently) that in doing so we're being curators. As an aside, it's so exciting to have so many people on board at Year zero with the energy and attitude you've got.

  15. Solid post. Thanks for putting all this in context.

    I'm gunshy about intersections where idealism meets savvy marketing, but on the face of it Carina Press is taking the right approach. I hope the economics allow them to follow through, and I hope the parent company doesn't bleed Carina dry if it starts to profit.

  16. Some good food for thought. I agree that we need to take the ripple effect into account here. Too many prognosticators see early steps as the final result, and forget how competitive the digital sphere is.

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