Five Things: June 8, 2023

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AI Is About to Turn Book Publishing Upside-Down | Thad McIlroy (not linked on purpose)

This isn’t about Formula One publishing. I’m going to be talking about ‘good enough’—about what people will accept, what they’ll buy, and what they’ll actually read.

This is the fundamental flaw in McIlroy’s purposefully provocative but predictably light on details manifesto that boldly claims, “the trade book publishing industry as we know it will soon be obsolete.”

First and foremost, trade publishing IS effectively Formula One — the highest class of international motorsports at which very few can compete because it takes literal hundreds of millions of dollars to run a team. It’s not necessarily the “best” motorsport, nor is it everyone’s favorite, but it’s the most popular. In trade publishing, that’s arguably the “Big 5” (and a small handful of others, like Scholastic), for whom the entire foundation that supports trade publishing is primarily designed to sustain — including the industry’s primary trade magazine, which disappointingly published this clickbait.

Second, the comparison to desktop publishing is potentially a solid one to build an interesting argument around, but not one that boldly declares “the trade book publishing industry as we know it will soon be obsolete,” because that’s not what happened at all. Desktop publishing definitely expanded the types of publishers who could be successful without Formula One budgets, but it was also a huge benefit to the largest publishers who would get even larger in the ensuing years.

Remember when ebooks were going to destroy the publishing industry, too?

Third, and most predictably, the lack of detail throughout means McIlroy’s essay is basically a Rorschach test that could have been written by ChatGPT itself. True Believers have wholeheartedly agreed with and shared it, few with any actual hands-on experience in the various areas of publishing he claims will be disrupted. Most of his claims are premised on the “good enough” metrics of self-publishing, which plays by different rules than “Formula One publishing.” They mostly represent incremental changes to existing processes that will benefit everyone in publishing — evolution, not revolution — but especially the Formula One publishers who will be able to afford to experiment with them in the short-term.

In the end, he shifts the goal posts away from his bold opening declaration, admitting his arguments are brief and superficial, positioning the whole essay as a speculative “What if?” exercise in provocative punditry that isn’t worth the clicks and shares it’s already received. He’s literally just sayin…, playing Devil’s advocate the way pundits with no skin in the game love to do.

Honestly, I’m mad at myself for falling for it but it’s gotten too much attention in various circles to resist, and I don’t like to criticize what I haven’t read, even when it’s something obvious like this. That’s why I’m not linking to it here, though, or anywhere else. YMMV.


The State Of Being A Published Writer In 2023 Is Really Weird, And A Little Worrisome | Chuck Wendig

What this should tell you is that publishers are starting to go “hmm” about artificial intelligence, under the auspices of how it could somehow enrich the authorial experience when, in reality, they and we all know that the only enrichment will be in the pockets of the already-rich. (Spoiler: I don’t mean the authors.) Some executive somewhere is trying to figure out how they pay authors less (and maybe their own staff) by “augmenting” the “content” with “artificial intelligence.”

This is a long and thoughtful post from Wendig, addressing a range of issues writers are facing these days. While similarly opinionated, it’s seasoned with the perspective of an experienced, successful author who doesn’t mince words, and carries more weight than the ramblings of an industry pundit’s “provocative” hot takes.

His take on AI shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s paid attention to technology over the past twenty years (or to my last issue), and he wisely uses one executive’s own words to get to the heart of what McIlroy dances around in his manifesto. AI’s impact on publishing will have nothing to do with its “intelligence,” and “good enough” is just executive-speak for “costs less in Excel.”

He also calls out misguided authors who view book bans as having any upside — usually for marketing and/or sales — and notes the insidious ways ignoring these challenges erodes the industry’s nascent and minimal efforts to increase diversity.


Why Are Schools in Maine Keeping Gender Queer on Shelves, Despite Challenges? A Case Study in What Makes a Difference | Kelly Jensen

The takeaway here is simple. Books don’t get banned when districts have a well-written policy, when they follow the policy, and when those who make the final decisions read the book.

Jensen continues to do amazing work at Book Riot covering the ongoing political attacks on libraries across the country. In this one, she digs into multiple challenges of Gender Queer in Maine, and the reason it’s usually ended up staying on library shelves there is surprisingly obvious: each library followed a clearly defined process to handle each challenge.

One of my favorite things we’ve done at the day job was putting together a resource and webinar for librarians to help them proactively deal with book challenges, and it was really depressing to learn that many librarians were engaging in soft censorship themselves, circumventing their own policies by avoiding certain categories of books (typically anything related to LGBTQ people and/or social justice) outright.

Ove the past year, it’s started to feel like working in (and/or for) libraries requires a conscious choice between putting your job on the line to protect intellectual freedom, or getting comfortable with nibbling at the edges of complicity as politicians steadily attempt to legislate them into irrelevance across the country. The former would feel a bit less precarious if you’re confident there’s a clear process in place to support you (as demonstrated in the Maine examples), and that those charged with managing that process will actually follow it rather than bowing down at the first sign of pressure.


The Internet Isn’t Meant To Be So Small | Kelsey McKinney

The reason the death of Google Reader matters, here, is that it marks a pivotal moment in the deliberate and engineered shrinking of the internet. When Google Reader died, article discovery shifted. People were no longer reading RSS feeds, finding new sites, following them, and being updated when those sites posted. Instead, they were scrolling on the endless feed of Twitter, and (at the time) Facebook, and they got whatever they got.

I still fondly remember the good old days of Google Reader, partly because it was such a useful tool for staying connected to a variety of interesting people, but mostly because it was from an era when engaging with interesting people on the internet was way more fun, useful, and serendipitous. McKinney looks back with clear eyes and then nails the main reasons for the various problems we’re dealing with today.

It’s been eight months since I bounced from Twitter, and other than Mastodon, I’ve had no interest in any of the other platforms that are attempting to replace it. Bluesky, in particular, sounds terrible. Two of the most consistent positives I keep seeing about it are the amount of shitposting there is, and how many Twitter “power users” are there — neither of which are things I miss about Twitter. Nevertheless, I think Dave Karpf makes a strong case for why Bluesky has a better chance of replacing Twitter than Mastodon, and I hope he’s right because I really don’t want Mastodon to evolve into a Twitter replacement.

Twitter’s downsides greatly outweighed its benefits for years, and many of those benefits were side effects whose importance has become even more exaggerated than memories of Google Reader. Let it die. The internet is still plenty big enough, it just requires us to do the work to make connections in places VCs aren’t taking an active interest in.


How to pitch your Substack to press | Substack

In this guide, we share ideas on how to pitch yourself and your work for media coverage. These tips are designed for writers who want to help new audiences discover their Substacks but aren’t sure where to start.

I’ve complained many times in the past about incredulous media coverage of Substack as an allegedly disruptive force in the publishing industry, and how every B-list author and journalist launching a newsletter was treated like a punch to the industry’s throat rather than just another blog with built-in email support. Credit where due, though, as Substack took full advantage of it and has done a brilliant job branding themselves on the backs of various writers who use their platform to create and manage newsletters.

I literally laughed out when they sent this nice little primer to help writers generate even more free PR for Substack, which is mentioned 36 times throughout, while newsletter is only mentioned 3 times. The pitching advice is solid, if relatively basic (and totally could have been written by ChatGPT), but if you’re out there promoting your Substack instead of yourself, your expertise, and your own goddamn website, maybe you deserve to be taken advantage of?

“It’s your f*&king newsletter, not a Substack!” he yells, pointlessly, at the clouds above. “No one says they have a WordPress, or a MailChimp.”

PS: I don’t have a MailChimp, but I do have a blog that’s powered by WordPress, and you should check it out now and then because it has 20 years’ worth of posts, including all of these newsletters!

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