Updating Tao of News

This blog has not been active since 2012 for two reasons:

1)I was concentrating my efforts on my Northwest Coast Energy News site.
2)This blog was started when it looked as if there was a possible long term future for journalism and news coverage. As of February 22, 2016, with more closing of news organizations, continuing corporate mismanagement and seemingly never-ending layoffs, the future looks bleaker than ever.

I am currently working on a related book project and within the coming weeks, I will resume posting related information and reporting on this site tied to the to be announced book project.


A radical (interim) solution to save newspapers: fire all the columnists

I am going to make a radical suggestion that just might save the dying newspaper industry (for a while).

Fire all your columnists.

Newspapers should do the one thing they used to be good at–original reporting. Anybody can sit down and whip out an opinion piece and post it on the web (as I am doing now).

Fire all the columnists.

Use the money to hire a bunch of eager and smart young reporters from the tech generation. Given the bloated salaries of most ageing, out-of-touch columnists, the newspaper business could probably get three entry-level reporters for every fired columnist.  Instead of a stupid “last hired, first fired” policy, the young reporters could keep the industry on life support for a while longer until one of those young people come up with a solution that saves the industry from itself before it collapses entirely.

(One proviso here. There are a few, too few, writers labelled as columnists who actually go out and do frequent original reporting. I’d keep them and make them get out in the field even more than they do now, because they’re actually reporters. There are also innovative reporters/live tweeters/live bloggers like Andrew Carvin @acarvin  (personal website)   in the US and Kady O’Malley  (CBC Inside Politics blog) @kady in Canada. I’d keep them as well. I would not keep tweeters/columnists who just send out their opinions without any actual reporting).

Why fire the columnists?

One. The world wide web is full of opinionated bloggers and tweeters.

In terms of the opinion marketplace, opinion, especially ill-informed opinion, is at the market level of a t-shirt made in China and brought over to North America by the container load, dirt cheap and available in any colour you want. If opinionated columnists helped attract a newspaper audience in the 1980s, today a columnist is a penny a dozen (and we all know what’s happening to the penny).

On the other hand, a large segment of the population seems to be eager for real, on-the-scene, informed reporting. But since having columnists sit on their fat asses in offices, never going out, never even making a phone call or moving a mouse to check a fact, are, in budget terms, cheaper than actually sending reporters out in the field, newspapers are firing reporters and promoting columnists. It’s the same with political panels on television. The panels cost little, fill up air time and add almost nothing substantive to a news broadcast.


How many of today’s audience actually care about columnists? Last fall, I was teaching a continuing education class at a university on social media. There were about 30 students, ranging in age from 20 to 65. I mentioned the CBC and National Post’s Rex Murphy, (I know from my days producing The National’s website that Rex was quite popular then among the CBC audience). To my shock and surprise, blank stares. No one. No one in that class had ever heard of Rex Murphy, even though he hosts Cross Country Check Up, he once wrote a column for The Globe and Mail and now gives his opinion on CBC’s The National and in The National Post. An anomaly perhaps, an indication of the decline of the CBC, perhaps. But those students did talk about how they got news, yes news, from Twitter and Facebook and how links led them to the media that originated the story.

Two. The majority of columnists, left, right or middle, are completely out of touch with reality.

Most columnists today are ageing boomers, or members of Generation Gekko (the spoiled generation between the WWII Greatest Generation and the Boomers) and most haven’t had an original thought in at least a decade. Nothing proves that more, here in Canada, than the near unanimous condemnation of the student protests in Quebec by columnists in almost all the major media across this country. One has to wonder if these columnists talk to their kids (if they have kids). They rant about today’s generation of students as “spoiled brats.”

Compare that blanket condemnation with the intelligent discussions I have seen among several Facebook friends and their followers over the issues in Quebec. Even those who oppose the students stand on tuition fees and are disturbed by the marches disrupting their neighborhoods and businesses are more measured in the Facebook discussions I have seen than what you read in the columns or heard in the television news political panels.

Why read the pontification of a columnists, when you get a wider view of opinions and experiences from a thread on Facebook (where I should note, people use their real names and are known personally to at least some of the people taking part in the discussion)?

None of those columnists, when they were starting out, had to go through four or five unpaid internships to get their first paying job (and unpaid internships are not only standard practice in the media but in almost all industries that also pay their CEOs millions in salaries and bonuses). None of those columnists are burdened with life-long debt for getting a university or college education. The columnists seem to have forgotten the fear we all felt as kids at the prospect of nuclear annihilation over our heads when they dismiss as nonsense, the completely justified fears the current generation of young adults have about the future of a planet facing drastic climate change.

None of those columnists ever seem to bother to read the news wires available on their computers  (or even their reporting colleagues on their own newspaper). If they did, they would know that the discontent among the current student and young adult generation is worldwide. There have been student protests in Chile over high tuition and debt for the past two years. There have been student protests across Europe, even before the debt crisis. Then there’s the Arab Spring (conditions may be different but it’s the same generation) and yes, the London riots, even the Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver, the G20 disturbances in Toronto. I’ve seen tweets and Facebook postings that students in the UK are going to adopt the Quebec students’ red square symbol in their struggle with the government of David Cameron. If it happens that would show the power of social media and the networking power of the new generation.

To quote the old song from the 60s, which I am sure most of those columnists sang in their day, “something’s happening here” but unlike a few reporters, the columnists never bother find out, they just sit at their keyboards and create “sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Even in terms of a business model, if you’re running a newspapers and you want to attract a younger audience ( the younger audience is a mantra in television, even though the executives don’t really mean it) why have your newspaper columns shit (and I meant that) almost every day on your potential next generation of customers? Yes, most newspaper readers are older (but even those are giving up on newspapers) but why ignore a potential market of millions that could save your business? Perhaps because the newspapers executive are cut from the same obsolete cloth as their columnists

To expand on this, since I returned to my old home town of Kitimat, centre of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline controversy, my once high respect for the Ottawa press gallery is in free fall and now near zero. Most of the reporting on this British Columbia pipeline and tanker issue from Ottawa and Toronto, is only 20 per cent accurate, if that. (That is why I founded my own news site, Northwest Coast Energy News). Almost all of the columns on the Northern Gateway issue written east of the Rockies are so inaccurate that they are worthless.

In the old days, when Canadian newspapers actually did reporting from across the country, there would be someone out west to tell the Ottawa or Toronto columnists and their senior editors, hey this column is completely wrong. (There are only three national level reporters in Canada whose reporting can be trusted on the Northern Gateway, Mike De Souza at Postmedia, Jeffrey Jones at Reuters and Nathan Vanderklippe at The Globe and Mail and even they tend to write too much from an energy sector point-of-view. As for the energy columnists, their opinions are worth about as much as molecule of shale fracked natural gas)

The press gallery, especially the columnists, exist in an inside-the-Queensway bubble, listening to politicians, war room strategists, spin doctors and pollsters and have come to believe that is reality. It seems that to the Ottawa press gallery, the only thing that counts is electoral politics. Everything else is, to use the term from economics, a political “externality” and not worth reporting. Discontent across Canada and political turmoil around the world mean nothing, unless it can be factored in to whomever wins the next parliamentary, congressional or presidential election.

Three. Let them blog.

It is interesting that most of the columnists, many of them conservative, many hired in the 1980s, when newspapers decided that they only wanted to chase the well-heeled, upper middle class and upper class market that advertisers craved, worship the free market but are completely insulated from it, especially on newspapers that are loosing money (unlike the young people they scorn who are subject to the marketplace every day.)

So if these columnists are so in favour of the marketplace and if they are fired, as I suggest, then let them put their ideas out in the marketplace as a blog, and see if they can actually earn a decent living at it. Most won’t of course, but there are a few who do, like Andrew Sullivan. More power to those who do succeed, and perhaps a lesson for those who fail and who are currently condemning today’s students and young journalists for their struggles.

Four. The paywall issue.

Newspapers are rushing to create paywalls. Some reporters say paywalls are needed to produce good journalism.

Wrong. We’re getting into a chicken and egg argument here. Paywalls aren’t going to work and not because the internet has worked on free information since 1993. Paywalls won’t work for the simple reason that 80 per cent of newspapers today are not producing anything worth paying for whether it’s online or mobile; they’re not producing anything even worth paying for and picking up the dead tree printed edition. Many newspapers have already fired most of their reporters and photographers or those reporters and photographers have got fed up and quit or taken early or full retirement. Now the newspapers are going to put up a paywall, with even fewer staff doing the reporting and expect that public to pay for that diminished product?


With wire service reports available for free on sites that don’t have paywalls, why then fill up your news site or newspaper with wire reports that people can get elsewhere for nothing and then expect them to pay for it? As well as the wire services there are now the citizen newspapers, from paper.li. I subscribe to a half dozen daily feeds as a sort of wire service for Northwest Coast Energy News and often those compilations give me three or four sources on a new story, so if a story is behind a paywall, there are always alternatives. As well as my own original content, I use Storify to keep my readers up-to-date with issues I can’t cover myself. (Example here)


One has to ask “what are they thinking” in the media’s ego-driven, consultant-plagued corporate board rooms? (Consultant-plagued because all the media companies are repeating the same failed strategies over and over instead of trying something innovative). Why would anyone under the age of 35, in these days of austerity, whip out their credit card and pay to be told by a columnist who hasn’t picked up a phone to check a fact since they were first appointed around 1990 that these readers/viewers are spoiled brats and that their worries about the future are of no consequence.


As I said above, with so much opinion available for free on the web, why pay for the rants of the 95 per cent of columnists whose writing isn’t worth it and only serves to raise your blood pressure (no matter where you are on the political spectrum).

Hire the kids, lots of them

On the other hand for the same current limited budgets, if newspapers got rid of the columnists and hired a whole generation of new, young reporters, with guidance from some open minded senior editors (and checked by good copy editors—you really need to bring copy editors back, firing copy editors is another media corporate stupidity), that would bring “new blood” to use the cliche to the news web sites and news pages. We would see original reporting on issues that everyone, not just the younger generation, care about. A century ago, reporters started in the business right out of high school around 16 to 18 and the newspapers, of the day used their energy to create audience and profits. Even with today’s demand for higher education, a 25-year-old reporter has the energy and eagerness to shake things up. It is possible, perhaps, that they then could produce stories that would be worth paying for, whether by attracting advertisers or even making a news site so good that people might actually penetrate the paywall with their credit cards.


To use a term from one of my generation’s favourite TV shows, Star Trek, The Original Series, in 2012, a columnist on a newspaper is a Dunsel. (Dunsel is a term used by midshipmen in the 23rd century to describe a part which serves no useful purpose. From Memory Alpha, the Star Trek wiki. )

Getting rid of columnists is just an idea, one of many as the news media, an essential part of any free and democratic society, struggles to to survive and find a way to pay to produce its product.  There are many blogs and reports out there on the issue of media survival, too many to  link to. My idea of getting rid of columnists would just be one stopgap measure.

Unfortunately most media executives these days are also Dunsels, earning huge salaries, running around believing it’s still 1985 and rejecting any new ideas from no matter what source (except expensive reports from their consultants) and thus serving no useful purpose, so it is likely that the newspapers’ downward spiral will continue until nothing is left.


Related See Jeff Fraser’s piece If they build it, will they pay? on the Canadian Journalism Project site where he says the New York Times paywall is working, because the Times is emphasizing quality original reporting and most paywalled papers are not emphasizing quality reporting.

Bell Canada has killed my local bookstore

Independent bookstores across North America are in trouble. The business model is changing as more and more readers move to tablets and e-readers, with competition from video games and the lure of all that is available on the Internet.

When an independent bookstore finally finds that its business is no longer working, and it announces that it is shutting down, part of any community dies with that bookstore. The death of the local independent bookstore, general or specialized, mom and pop operation or bibliophile specialized, is always news.

My local bookstore in Kitimat is about to close.

It wasn’t the marketplace (as such).

It was murder. Murder most foul. It was killed by Bell Canada.

No, this wasn’t a case of Bell wanting to increase the number of downloads of e-books and magazines on smart phones and tablets. Bell is a big, dumb corporation and the left hand doesn’t talk the to right hand that way.

In Kitimat, the store is Bookmasters/The Source. Now you begin to understand. As well as the local book, magazine, toy and souvenir shop, the store is a Source franchise.

It’s not that this was an unsuccessful franchise. The Source (Bell) Electronics (the corporate entity) last week suddenly cancelled the franchise contracts of 10 small mom and pop, hybrid Source stores across northern British Columbia, putting 10 small businesses out in the cold, out of pure, stupid corporate greed. The Source (Bell) Electronics plans to replace the mom and pop stores with the kind of high pressure sales “full service” stores you see the major metropolitan areas.

So before going back to the issue of the bookstore, let’s look at the decision by Bell’s corporate headquarters and ask, does it even make business sense?

The question that you have to ask up here is: will there be enough business in the small communities of northern BC to sustain a full up The Source with its obnoxious high pressure sales people, most of whom actually know very little about electronics, other than what is some sales manual? Given the uncertain economic conditions here, I doubt very much if a corporate Source store will succeed in the long run. Interestingly The Source is still promoting hybrid stores under The Source Express franchise, so the question is why are they killing the stores in northern BC? Is there any solid business research behind this move? Or it is an ego-trip from corporate?

Source logo with daggerThere is already talk across northwestern British Columbia of a boycott of the new stores, in protest to this high handed corporate action.

A boycott might actually succeed. There is, of course, fierce competition in electronic retailing, both from national chains and from locally owned electronic stores. In northwestern BC, there is a decades long tradition of mail order, going to back to the time when there was little available at retail due to relative isolation and transportation problems. Now it is easy to order via Internet or on E-Bay. Almost everyone I know up here provides regular work for Canada Post and FedEx or UPS.

(An aside: When the old Radio Shack stores became The Source in Canada, the electronic parts and gadgets that were once carried by Radio Shack disappeared. When, as a TV news freelancer, I needed some gear, I was told by Bookmasters/The Source that they carried it when they were Radio Shack but it was no longer available via The Source. I bought the gear I needed on E-Bay from California)

Another reason that I am pissed off at this. It is going to cost me money. Bookmasters/The Source carries magazines not available on the racks of Overwaitea or Shoppers Drug Mart. With no bookstore in town, if I want those magazines, which are not available electronically, I am going to have drive 60 kilometres to the next nearest bookstore in Terrace once a month or pay postage fees which, for American magazines, are often higher than the subscription fees.

I found about the store closing on the weekend from a friend, I visited the store today (unfortunately all the bookshelves had already been sold).

Today, the more I think about it, even though it is an example from a small town, Bookmasters could actually be a viable business model to sustain independent bookstores, by combining paper books with electronics.

Yes, I frequently buy e-books from Amazon or Apple for my iPad. I see a review or a mention in a news story or on a website and I can download the book with a click.

When it comes to the simple joy of reading, the trouble with Amazon/Kindle or Apple is that often there is not enough information provided that let’s me decide to buy a book. That’s where browsing the bricks and mortar bookshelves comes in.

Take science fiction, unless I read a review in Analog (which will no longer be available in Kitimat after Bookmasters closes) I can’t tell from the one or two sentences on an e-book page whether or not this book is worth buying. Browsing the small science fiction section in Bookmasters let me look at the cover, look at the blurb at the back, perhaps the first few pages and then decide whether to buy and I often do buy.

The other point about a physical, bricks and mortar bookstore is serendipity. Amazon may have recommendations based on past purchases, but there is no way Amazon can tell that a book I see on a shelf in a store will grab my interest. I seldom leave a bookstore without some serendipitous purchase that would never appear on my Amazon profile.

The book business is increasingly moving toward the electronic. Some bookstores are already selling iPads and Kindles. At the same time, some publishers and business analysts are saying (hoping?) there will still be a demand for a physical book.

It seems to me that if we want the independent bookstore to survive as a viable business model, that there should be serious consideration of a hybrid store that sells both books and electronics. A store could sell either hard copy books or e-books through some sort of download station. That way the customer has a choice. That store could also a sell a selection of tablets and other e-devices, selected software and who knows what is around the corner.

Consider the camera store. In the past decade, the camera store has gone from selling film cameras, film and darkroom equipment (remember darkrooms and chemicals?) to what is essentially an electronics store, selling digital cameras (and camera accessories), software, tablets, memory cards and all kinds of accessories. The old film camera shops that refused to move to electronics are long gone. (But the surviving stores still sell used film cameras to enthusiasts)

Who knows what the future will bring in e-books? The explosion in tablets in the past few months is probably only a hint of things to come. Independent bookstores that stick with the old model will die. But, as I said, communities thrive on bookstores. Independent bookstores have to be on the front lines of e-innovations. Surviving independent bookstores should perhaps start looking to the camera retailer as a possible model for adapting to a fast changing future,  just like a camera store does today, selling “content” and “content delivery” in multiple forms, including the good, old-fashioned books first brought to us by Johannes Gutenberg..

So for now, the closing of Bookmasters/The Source in Kitimat will usher in another example of the current corporate monoculture. Bell#FAIL

But perhaps, the silver lining in this cloud (and it is overcast and snowing in Kitimat today) is that the hybrid electronic stores in the small markets of northern BC could be resurrected  across the world as way of saving the independent “content” store.




The road to serfdom: Use Apple software

Apple LogoAbout two weeks ago, with the usual great fanfare pioneered by the late Steve Jobs, Apple unveiled its Ibook 2 e-book software. The software has great promise, according to Apple, allowing the user to create the kind of e-book that authors have been waiting for, adding graphics, video, photo galleries, even 3-D.

The euphoria was short lived.  A tech blogger named Dave Wineman did what many people don’t do, read Apple’s End User Licence Agreement (EULA) and the alarm bells rang (if alarm bells can ring on Twitter). (I saw a tweet about Wineman’s initial post, retweeted it and posted it on Facebook)

Use Apple ibook software and create a work, and ask for money, and they own it and they own you.

For the past two weeks, the debate has raged, largely within the tech community and that’s the problem. While a couple of the tech writers may have written a tech book, it is absolutely clear that most of the people debating Apple’s move know absolutely nothing about the long struggle by creators to have some form of control over their work, to maintain the integrity of their work and not to get screwed.

The Apple ibook EULA is the road to serfdom for writers and if it succeeds, it is another blow against creative writing around the world.

After the initial post, more tech writers and bloggers took an even closer look at Apple’s EULA and it got worse.  Unlike conventional paper publishing, if Apple rejects and refuses to distribute the work, you can’t sell it elsewhere.

Here are the key clauses in the Apple Ibook 2 EULA.

B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:

(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

Then Apple adds

Apple will not be responsible for any costs, expenses, damages, losses (including
without limitation lost business opportunities or lost profits) or other liabilities you may incur as a result of your use of this Apple Software, including without limitation the fact that your Work may not be selected for distribution by Apple.

It quickly became apparent that Apple’s restriction also meant the author couldn’t sell the book (“the work”) as a printed book, without Apple’s permission and Apple presumably taking a cut.

Use Apple software and you become a serf, a serf to Apple, obliged, like the medieval peasant, to sell your product to your overlord, in this case, Apple.

Those blogs in the tech community that raised the alarm said that this could set an incredibly dangerous precedent, that a software company can use the licencing agreement to restrict or control what is created by that software or, like that medieval baron, take a cut of your production.

The Ed Bott report on ZDNet calls Apple’s latest attempt at controlling content  Apple’s mind-bogglingly greedy and evil license agreement

Bott asks:

Imagine if Microsoft said you had to pay them 30% of your speaking fees if you used a PowerPoint deck in a speech.

Bott also says that Apple software is an enhancement of the open source EPUB format.

 An Apple support document notes that “¦iBooks uses the ePub file format” and later refers to it as “the industry-leading ePub digital book file type.” But iBooks Author will not export its output to that industry-leading format.

Sascha Sagan is even more scathing with post on PCMag.com iBooks Author: You Work For Apple Now

With iBooks Author, Apple just made a hideous play to kill authors’ rights over their work…  it affects every single person who wants to use Apple’s new tool to get their word out. Like iBooks Author? Apple now owns you…

I’m feeling a personal terror here because I make my living as a writer. I’m writing this column now in Apple’s TextEdit. If Apple took the same approach to TextEdit as it does to iBooks, I wouldn’t be able to put my columns in PCMag’s Digital Edition (sold through Zinio). Apple would control how PCMag does its business.

My wife is an artist; she creates some of her work on a Mac. Could Apple then forbid her from selling it on Etsy or through an art gallery with a little-noticed clause in a licensing agreement? That’s what iBook Author heralds.

Up until now, Apple has kept creative tools divorced from the means of distribution… Apple has always made a distinction between enabling the creative process and selling the product of that process.

Apple’s iBooks Author erases that distinction. Apple owns the creative process of anyone who uses the tool.

One tech writer who comes to Apple’s defence is Paul Carr in his Pando Daily blog, seems to have a “get over it” attitude by saying Apple Restricting Sales Of Ebooks? Uh, Yeah, That’s What Apple Does by saying that the free Ibook 2 software is designed to attract a critical mass of new content into their iBooks store,” then Carr predicts “the company will probably relax their EULA restrictions, like they did with DRM in the iTunes store.”

Carr (and others) point out that there is a lot of e-book software out there and authors are “more than welcome to boycott Apple’s awesome new free software” but he adds: “But we won’t. We’ll pick Apple, and we’ll like it. Because this is Apple, and that’s what we do.”

Wineman has already responded to that in a follow up blog and says

If you don’t like it, don’t use it! Duh.
You’re missing the point. The issue is that this is a software EULA which for the first time attempts to restrict what I can do with the output of the app, rather than with the app itself. No consumer EULA I’ve ever seen goes this far. Would you be happy if Garage Band required you to sell your music through the iTunes Store, or if iPhoto had license terms that kept you from posting your own photos online? It’s a step backward for computing freedom and we should resist it.

One author, Holly Isle, has already started a protest by pulling her books from the Ibook store. In her blog The Apple iBooks Author Issue: Small things, and large principles

And the rule of software is this: Software does not get to dictate the use of output. Period. Software does not get to tell you WHERE you can sell what you’ve created, only that you have the right to sell it (in the cases where software requires a commercial license if you are producing for profit).

Software does not get to tell you, “If you create this work on our software and we don’t want to distribute it, we own the rights to the version our software created, and if you want another version, you will have to disassemble this one, and rebuild it from scratch on other software.”

A few days later, came the backlash from the Apple tech community. In the Apple blog Loop Insight, Jim Dalrymple asked what the fuss was about.

The fact is, none of it is true. I’m not sure if they just misunderstood or they jumped on a juicy headline, but here’s what the EULA is all about, as I understand it.

Apple is providing free tools for authors to create books. If you want to give away your book for free, you can do that. For example, if a teacher makes an iBook for students, they can give it to them at no cost and Apple doesn’t care.
If, however, you create an iBook using Apple’s tools and you want to sell it, then you have to use the iBookstore and give Apple its cut.
That sounds fair to me. Use Apple’s tools, sell your product, and give Apple the money it deserves for providing you with a way to make and sell a product.

He concluded with a complete and utter display of ignorance by saying:

The hubbub over the EULA seems like a whole lot of nothing to me, perpetuated by people that didn’t understand what they were reading.

That of course lead to a lively exchange in the comments section.

Actually it’s Dalrymple who doesn’t understand what he is talking about. Apple’s demand is unfair, unfairness that authors have been fighting for a century or more and, were, for a while, winning. Now the threat is back.

George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The problem with the tech writing/blogging world is that many believe in a continual reinvention of time, not exactly Groundhog Day but more like a Star Trek type temporal loop where everything begins again and again and again, but slightly different each time.

The techies, believing each new day is a new universe, don’t remember the past, and therefore are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

First, let’s take the argument that because a good portion of the population likes Apple products, authors will willingly give up their creative rights to this super-controlling mega-corporation. A mega-corporation that we now know from The New York Times produces those products in horrendous conditions in dark satanic mills in China.

NHLPA LogoI don’t want to use a stereotype but I have to wonder how many geek writers know anything about the history of professional sports. With Apple and the creative community, we’re getting into a similar situation that happened for generations in professional sports. Let’s take the oldest professional leagues: baseball and hockey. Young athletes wanted to play in the “major leagues.” The young athletes started in the minors, and to get into the minors they signed contracts that essentially made them into serfs, owned by the team and team owners. Even when they reached the major leagues, the original six in the NHL, for example, and became stars, they were still serfs. Many NHL stars (and some baseball stars) had to take off season jobs to make ends meet. They finally got so fed up they formed unions.

Now those players with the support of their unions get multimillion dollar contracts from the team owners. While a few say the athletes are overpaid, it’s a lot better situation than being underpaid serfs, owned by the team owners.

Authors have always been at odds with publishers over rights, over payments, over how a book is designed, published and sold. That will never change (unless publishers disappear altogether, which is possible).

For authors, unions are not a solution, especially in the United States, when court decisions in the 1930s, when creators were fighting the movie studios, ruled that to be unionized, creators must be employees. Laws in other countries are not as restrictive, but then Apple is in California, where those precedents were set.

The problem, ignored by the tech community, is how just how bad things are in publishing today, compared to say 25 and 60 years ago; how conditions for many authors have gotten worse through the years, problems that have little to do with the technical revolution of the past two decades.

An 1827 print of an author in a garrett, Death found an author writing his life, Designed & done on stone by E. Hull. via Wikipedia

For most of the nineteenth century and the first six decades of the twentieth century, there were hundreds of publishers, some small and some large, general and specialized, competing to sell books to the public and therefore competing for authors.

An author still had to have a good manuscript to sell to a publisher. If the publisher liked the manuscript, then the author had to make sure that the publishers’ boiler plate contract didn’t take that author to the cleaners. The publishers’ contract always tried to control as much of the rights as possible, and keep as much money from the author and in the publisher’s pocket as possible. There were always the young and naive authors, like eager jocks with an offer from the major leagues, willing to sell themselves to a serf contract just to be published. Hard lessons brought the rise of the literary agent as well as countless articles advising authors how to avoid being ripped off. It was all part of the game, tough contract negotiations are an accepted part of the free enterprise system.

Things began to change about a quarter century ago with the rise of the chain bookstore. The main problem for authors was that publishers no longer sold books to the public. They sold books to the chain bookstores. The chain bookstores tracked sales and decided, often on the performance of one single title, whether or not an author’s next book should be picked up. If a chain indicated that it wouldn’t pick up an author, that publisher wouldn’t look at that author. (Imagine that in sports, a pitcher has one bad inning, a goalie lets in a few too many balls or pucks  in one game, a quarterback has a bad day and throws interceptions and that’s it for their career)

Then came the corporate consolidation, hundreds of publishers shrank to a handful, all owned by large transnational media corporations. While the famous names of publishing houses remained, they were usually shells, each one a branch of one of the mega-corporations. That reduced the choice authors and their agents had in submitting manuscripts.

The combination of corporate consolidation and the chain bookstore raised the always difficult barrier to entry for new authors to almost insurmountable heights. In the long past, a publisher would take a risk on a new author as a long term investment, counting on the fact that a few of those authors would break through and repay that initial investment thousands of times over. And oh yes, those publishing houses were in business, so even the thousand of so copies printed of that new author’s book were designed so there was an easy break-even point.

All of that is long gone. No wonder kids want to get published for free these days, often it is the only choice they have.

The demands of the corporate bean counters at both the publishing house and the chain bookstore also meant the death of the “mid-list” book, the book from an experienced author which would usually makes the publishing house a small but healthy profit. The trouble was both the publishers and chain bookstores no longer wanted healthy profits, they only wanted hugely profitable mega best sellers.

With the rise of new technology, authors were faced with new problems. As first music and later video downloading hurt the bottom lines of the big media corporations, there was increased pressure for even more profitable best sellers from the hard copy product, books. More authors were dropped. Publishers put minimal efforts into books, especially minimal copy-editing and, of course, the public blamed the author, not the publisher, for all those typos.

By mid-decade after the millennium, new technology had begun to hit the book business. Independent bookstores were almost all gone. Now the chain bookstores and their overwhelming power is going. Publishers are left wondering what to do. Almost everyone now working in publishing have spent their entire careers in the business model of selling to the chains, not the public, They don’t know what to do as they face this brave new world and thus they go out of business.

By this time, most authors no longer care much about publishers. If publishers hadn’t been screwing all but their biggest best selling authors for more than a quarter of a century, the publishers might have had allies. They don’t.

Amazon brought the promise of e-books. E-books would liberate the author from the publishers. If publishers no longer did good overall editing, no longer did copy editing, no longer helped clear picture rights, no longer did even minimal publicity, and advances were dropping, why did an author need a publisher? Why not invest in the book yourself, pay for a copy editor, do the publicity, which the publisher left up to you anyway, take the complete risk in the marketplace and, if successful, reap all the profits (even when Amazon took its cut)?

I Books logo


It appears that the promise of e-books is not as great as authors hoped. The spectre of corporate control is once again haunting world of creative writing.

The tech writing community is failing to learn from history, long years of history. I wonder how many of the tech writers who ask what the fuss is about on the Apple EULA have ever read a boiler plate contract from a book publisher that comes close to asking for your first born?

It’s not just the EULA for the iBook software, that EULA is a precedent that leads to a road to author serfdom.

If Apple, which has the most attractive platform at the moment for selling e-books, gets away with that clause in the End User Licence Agreement, the idea will spread. Right now it applies to “free” software. How long before it applies to software you pay for, buried in a corporate EULA?

Right now Apple and Amazon take a cut of the book price. How long before they start demanding, just to get on the platform, as publishers used to do, a percentage of other rights?

The choice could soon be, work for free using free software (and somehow pay the rent, mortgage and grocery bills, an increasing problem anyway for creators that those well-paid tech writers always seem to say doesn’t matter ) or, if Apple succeeds, get your work on a platform that has the potential buyers, but at a likely increasing cost as years go by in terms of both income and rights.

That’s no different than the naive author who signed publishers’ boiler plate (or even worse work for hire) and then got nothing when the book became a hit movie.

That’s no different than a medieval serf forced to sell all their produce to their liege lord.

That’s no different than the farm kid who signed a serf contract so he could play in the NHL or the major baseball leagues.

That’s no different from the merchants in a neighbourhood paying a “percentage” to the local crime boss for “protection.”

The worst case scenario, and one probably no science fiction writer ever imagined, an author who creates a book has to pay a percentage to the software company and another percentage to every electronic platform, not only for book sales, but for every other rights sale.

It hasn’t happened yet, but history has shown time and time again that this is the kind of rights grab that corporations try for.

Tech writers and  tech bloggers get real. Learn from history, before you’re screwed as well.

That’s what the fuss is about.

(Disclosure I have an iMac and iPad, also three PCs and an Android phone).