Five Things: March 30, 2023

Sign up to get this as an email newsletter via Substack: As in Guillotine | The Newsletter


How much money do we think Substack lost last year? | Elizabeth Lopatto

In lieu of a pitch deck, we have flattery. Writers are notoriously bad at math — and even more notoriously bad at managing their own money. Shit, if we were good at this kind of thing, we would be doing something lucrative, probably.

Let’s talk about Substack, the service behind the email version of this post as of last November, and a company I’ve been openly skeptical about for years. Remember when they were throwing cash at famous comics creators and getting incredulous press coverage about how they were going to disrupt the comics business? Or when any modestly notable writer or journalist starting a newsletter on Substack was treated like another shot across the bow of news, magazine, and/or book publishing?

VCs and lazy journalists love the new shiny, but as Lopatto unpacks, the former aren’t as excited about Substack anymore so they’re basically hitting up the latter to become investors and fund their next round of… growth? A year of stability? Next month’s payroll, maybe? It’s kind of unclear, really, and that’s probably not an accident.

Because I have a Substack newsletter, I got the investment pitch email, too, but because I’m also a marketer, it was really easy to read between the lines and not be fooled by the flattery and BHAG aspirations. Also, because I’m a marketer and a writer, I don’t have the money to take foolish risks like that anyway!

I’d bet $20 that there will be a follow-up soon, though, featuring some notable writers who’ve decided to invest, all offering variations on the core BHAG in an attempt to entice other suckers writers to join the platform “subscription network” and help build “a new economic engine for culture!”

Hard pass.


In a Swift Decision, Judge Eviscerates Internet Archive’s Scanning and Lending Program | Andrew Albanese

But after three years of litigation Koeltl easily found for the publishers, holding that the Internet Archive’s scanning and lending clearly constituted a prima facie case of copyright infringement and that the Internet Archive’s fair use defense failed on the facts and the law. All four factors of the fair use test, Koeltl ruled, strongly favored the publishers.

I’ve criticized publishing professionals (and professional pundits) often for their lack of understanding about how traditional libraries work. Now, in the wake of the Internet Archive shooting themselves in the foot back in 2020, we’re also seeing how many library advocates don’t understand how traditional publishing works.

Albanese is one of the few industry journalists I trust to have an informed, nuanced perspective on library issues, and his coverage of Koeltl’s quick decision is an insightful read.

Todd Carpenter has one of the more level-headed takes from a less neutral perspective, acknowledging some of the nuances involved (particularly that many libraries don’t support the IA’s actions) while focusing on the bigger picture.

Remember, there are no rules to punditry, which means there’s no shortage of uninformed and/or purposefully misleading hot takes floating around about libraries, publishing, and copyright right now. Whichever side you land on, if you’re truly serious about advocating for libraries and/or authors in good faith, please vet your sources before sharing links to hot takes, especially those weighing in on the legal aspects of copyright and library lending.


Maybe Publishers Should “Love” Libraries a Little Less? | Me

It’s truly amazing how publishers who routinely claim, “We love libraries!” every summer at ALA Annual — the conference many of them hope will replace their own failed Book Expo America — find it so much easier to fight those same libraries in court, on multiple fronts, rather than figuring out how to come to the table and negotiate in good faith with such a critical partner.

Speaking of pundits, I generally try to stay in my lane and only weigh in on things I have a reasonable understanding of and/or direct experience with. While I wholeheartedly believe the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library was a completely ill-conceived own goal that effectively forced publishers to sue them, I don’t pretend to understand, nor do I attempt to diminish, the complexities of copyright law.

That said, publishers are not the heroes of this story they want authors to believe them to be, and I lost my shit when I learned about the AAP’s latest gambit, spearheading a multi-industry drive-by on libraries called the Protect the Creative Economy Coalition. If I wasn’t already unemployable on the corporate side of the industry, this probably put the nail in my coffin and guarantees I’ll be running a GoFundMe before I turn 60!


It’s Not the Bike Lane’s Fault You’re a Bad Driver | Collin Woodard

I’m sorry to break it to anyone who has trouble keeping their car out of a bike lane (or off a concrete barrier), but it’s not the bike lane’s fault you’re a shitty driver. If you hit something stationary, that’s your fault. Pay attention to the fucking road while you’re driving. It’s not too much to ask when other people’s lives are literally at stake.

When we bought our 1965 Chevrolet Corvair back in late 2020, it took a little while to get used to driving it, especially switching between it and our daily driver, a Hyundai Tucson. Not because it was old, but because “safe driving” meant something completely different back in the 60s. Among other things, the Corvair only has lap belts in the front seats (still optional in 1965); it doesn’t have a passenger-side mirror, nor power brakes; and its 110HP engine isn’t going to speed me past or through any unexpected obstacles. In order to drive it safely, I had to become a safer, more attentive driver, which eventually made me a safer, more attentive driver in our Tucson, too.

I’m also a runner and occasional bike rider, and I grew up in NYC, so I’ve seen firsthand how dangerous inattentive drivers can be.

What’s arguably most interesting about Woodard’s righteous rant is that it was published at Jalopnik rather than Streetsblog USA, and he’s a staff writer there, not some rando posting an op-ed for angry clicks. Is the tide shifting a little bit in the war on cars?

PS: Somewhat related, I was delighted to hear Hyundai reaffirm their commitment to buttons over touchscreens in the name of safe driving. I stan zero car manufacturers, but I will absolutely mock Tesla’s ridiculously dangerous TV screens and every imitator that’s following them over the cliff.


Party Over Here: An Oral History of Kool Herc’s Historic Back-to-School Jam | Michael A. Gonzales

On August 11, 1973, forty-four years ago today, a 16-year-old Jamaican immigrant changed pop music forever. In the rec room in an unassuming middle-class apartment building at 1520 Sedgewick Avenue, Clive Campbell, later known as Kool Herc, invented hip hop at his little sister Cindy’s “back to school jam.”

I only recently realized Hip Hop was celebrating its 50th anniversary and it has thrown me for a loop! I grew up less than a mile east of Herc’s spot on Sedgewick, way too young to attend his parties while being fully immersed in the culture he inspired and having no idea how influential it would become all around the world. I probably take Hip Hop culture for granted in many ways because it’s just always been a part of my life, so this oral history was a fascinating flashback to a time I barely remember.

(And yes, that’s a Wayback Machine link, via the Internet Archive. Their aforementioned own goal aside, they do some very important work, too.)

Ironically, I remember being terribly annoyed by 50s nostalgia taking over the radio when I was a kid, so it’s been really weird seeing anniversary celebrations happening everywhere, including the Grammys. Nothing confirms you’ve officially gotten old when your childhood music becomes the new nostalgia!

Related, while driving around recently, I stumbled across 94.7 FM The Block, a station dedicated to throwback Hip Hop (and R&B), and it’s now the default whenever I’m driving the Tucson. (Sorry, WFMU; I still love you for streaming!) The Corvair still has its original AM radio, although a retro upgrade is one of several stalled projects I’m still not sure I’m actually capable of DIYing…

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