concept to publication

Month: January 2008

A tiny annoyance

I sometimes visit a popular literary blog where the posts alternate between rambling discourses and cryptic links. I generally prefer the links, except that the author uses the service known as tinyurl for many of them.

Tinyurl was originally intended as a way of doing things like shortening links in e-mails, since some people can’t deal with links that run over lines. It has a few other legitmate uses, such as shortening urls for use in print or in presentations. But there is no excuse for using it in this kind of situation.

There are two main reasons not to use tinyurl unless you really have to:

  • First, it is fundamentally a bad idea to disguise links from visitors. When you hover your mouse over a tinyurl link it tells you nothing about the destination. It could lead to a site you’ve already visited, a spam site, or one containing malicious code. Most often, it just results in a waste of time.
    (Tinyurl does offer a preview function, but many people don’t know about it, and it gets into the issue of cookies management.)
  • Second, tinyurl undermines the basic architecture of the web by funneling links through a single destination, creating a greater likelihood of failure and the potential for abuse.

Maybe on twitter there is a need for these short urls. In general, however, I don’t know why a webmaster would want to remove meaningful content and replace it with emptiness.

Independent book publishing, part 2

rupert murdoch (news corp.) on the cover of time (time-warner)It’s time to get back to the discussion of the dilemma of independent book publishing, following holidays that were more disruptive than I anticipated.

This project began when I discovered that the large changes in the publishing industry over recent decades were not necessarily known even by some who were generally knowledgeable about books.

A caveat before we go on: I’m a guy who likes to make and sell books and knows how to do the various aspects of this. But I’m neither a historian of publishing nor an industry journalist, exactly – I don’t even subscribe to Publishers Weekly anymore. So I can make mistakes. What I would like to establish, however, are the large trends. If I get some particulars wrong, well, as the Chinese literati used to write on their paintings, “Please correct me.”

Last time we saw the storied presses with the country’s longest and most distinguished publishing traditions gobbled up by a handful of giant international corporations. (Thanks to several people who added helpful comments qualifying and fleshing out my account.) Now we have reached the point where a few corporations control most of the country’s book publishing.

In 2003 Publishers Weekly wrote that the five large New York publishers (Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Time-Warner) accounted for 45% of the market’s sales. But these publishers are only parts of the larger entities, which often own many publishing companies. In 1999 Andre Schiffrin wrote that the top 20 publishers accounted for 93% of all sales, and in 2000 he said that 80 percent of book sales are controlled by five corporations: Bertlesman, News Corp, Time-Warner, Disney, and Viacom/CBS.

Today we’ll take a look at these corporations and quickly survey what other sorts of things they own in addition to book publishing companies. In what follows, I use the word “own” for convenience; often control is shared in complicated ways, and “has a major stake in” would be more correct.

  • Bertelsmann owns Random House, Knopf, Vintage, Modern Library, Bantam Doubleday Dell, and Delacorte. It is the biggest television broadcaster in Europe and the largest film producer in Asia. It owns several daily newspapers. It owns a number of radio stations. It owns about 80 magazines.
  • Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. owns Harper Collins and Zondervan, the largest Bible imprint, as well as Fox television, the National Geographic Channel, the Golf Channel, the TV Guide preview channel, and more. With Time-Warner it owns the Book-of-the-Month Club. It recently added the Wall Street Journal to its stable of major newspapers around the world. It owns the Fox movie company, and more
  • Time-Warner owns Warner Books, Little, Brown, and Time-Life. With News Corp it owns the Book-of-the-Month Club. It owns Warner Brothers. It owns more than 64 magazines, such as Time. It owns AOL, CompuServe, Netscape, and things like WinAmp. It owns HBO, Cinemax, Comedy Central (with Viacom), Court TV, TBS, TNT, CNN, and much more
  • Disney owns Hyperion, Miramax, and ESPN Books. It owns Disney Pictures, Touchstone, and more. It owns some 50 radio stations, and the ABC and ESPN radio networks. It owns several magazines such as US Weekly and Discover.
  • Viacom owns Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, Scribner, The Free Press (some irony there), and more. It owns Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, MTV Films, and Blockbuster. It owns CBS UPN, MTV, Showtime, Comedy Central (with Time-Warner), the Sundance Channel, etc. It owns about 40 television stations. It owns several magazines. It owns exclusive advertising rights on buses, subways, trains, kiosks, and billboards in 90 U.S. cities, and more around the world.

Those are just some highlights. A full list would be too exhausting to produce, and — like the crew who paint the Bay Bridge by starting over at the other end each time they finish — by the time you had reached the end of the list properties would have been exchanged and new ones brought into the fold.

Next time we will consider some of the implications of the broad reach of these corporations.


Shown: Rupert Murdoch (News Corp.) on the cover of Time magazine (Time-Warner).


More posts in this series: part one | part three


Friday Roundup / Duly Quoted

If Folly link with Elegance no man knows which is which ….
– William Butler Yeats

Duly quoted

  • “I think the pleasure of completed work is what makes blogging so popular. You have to believe most bloggers have few if any actual readers. The writers are in it for other reasons. Blogging is like work, but without coworkers thwarting you at every turn. All you get is the pleasure of a completed task.” — Scott Adams

Google dangers and opportunities

google in 2084

A few months ago, scholars from the University of Graz in Austria released a 187-page pdf document, entitled Report on dangers and opportunities posed by large search engines, particularly Google. (The file is large, so I recommend downloading and opening it from your hard disk rather than trying to access it through a browser.) The authors’ goal is to examine the implications of “the monopolistic behaviour of Google.” They assert that “Google’s open aim is to know everything there is to know on Earth. It cannot be tolerated that a private company has that much power: it can extort, control, and dominate the world at will.”

While the writing is a bit clunky, the report is interesting not only for its content but as an expression of a concern that seems stronger in Europe than in the U.S. Following is the report’s overview of its contents:

1. To concentrate on Google as virtual monopoly, and Google’s reported support of Wikipedia. To find experimental evidence of this support or show that the reports are not more than rumours.
2. To address the copy-past syndrome with socio-cultural consequences associated with it.
3. To deal with plagiarism and IPR violations as two intertwined topics: how they affect various players (teachers and pupils in school; academia; corporations; governmental studies, etc.). To establish that not enough is done concerning these issues, partially due to just plain ignorance. We will propose some ways to alleviate the problem.
4. To discuss the usual tools to fight plagiarism and their shortcomings.
5. To propose ways to overcome most of above problems according to proposals by Maurer/Zaka. To examples [sic], but to make it clear that do this more seriously [sic] a pilot project is necessary beyond this particular study.
6. To briefly analyze various views of plagiarism as it is quite different in different fields (journalism, engineering, architecture, painting, …) and to present a concept that avoids plagiarism from the very beginning.
7. To point out the many other dangers of Google or Google-like undertakings: opportunistic ranking, analysis of data as window into commercial future.
8. To outline the need of new international laws.
9. To mention the feeble European attempts to fight Google, despite Google’s growing power.
10. To argue that there is no way to catch up with Google in a frontal attack.
11. To argue that fighting large search engines and plagiarism slice-by-slice by using dedicated servers combined by one hub could eventually decrease the importance of other global search engines.
12. To argue that global search engines are an area that cannot be left to the free market, but require some government control or at least non-profit institutions. We will mention other areas where similar if not as glaring phenomena are visible.
13. We will mention in passing the potential role of virtual worlds, such as the currently overhyped system “second life”.
14. To elaborate and try out a model for knowledge workers that does not require special search engines, with a description of a simple demonstrator.
15. To propose concrete actions and to describe an Austrian effort that could, with moderate support, minimize the role of Google for Austria.

Among the authors’ claims are that Google is “massively invading privacy,” that its SERPS (search results) are corrupted by its ad system (favoring advertizers) and that this is a necessary result of its for-profit structure, that the internet itself is becoming skewed to a slanted “Google-Wikipedia version of reality,” that by acquiring extensive privileged information Google is positioned to play stock markets with what amounts to insider information and massively affect world economic structures, that commercial considerations cause Google to condone plagiarism, and more.

While particular charges may be debated, the idea of so much of the world’s information being held by a single company should give anyone pause. Should search be government-controlled or regulated on a nonprofit basis as the authors’ suggest? Wouldn’t such information in the hands of government be at least as troubling as the present arrangement? Or is Google such a power now that it is already in effect a kind of virtual world government of sorts, operating at the bequest of its shareholders? Can massive knowledge be regulated without compounding its potential exploitation?


Image: Vision of Google in 2084, New York Times, 10 October 2005, reprinted in the report cited above.

Happy Public Domain Day

Midnight at the end of December 31 marked the passing of countless works into public domain. Copyright laws vary by country around the world. Most countries observe passage into public domain at death of the creator plus fifty years. In other words, the works of authors and artists who died in or before 1957 are now in the public domain. Some of the artists in this category include

  • Miguel Covarrubias
  • Diego Rivera
  • Constantin Brancusi
  • Gabriela Mistral
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Alfred Döblin
  • Malcolm Lowry

So as long as you distribute only in life+50 countries you are free to publish these works as you wish.

Another group of countries — about half as many, including much of Europe — observe the life + 70 years definition of public domain. A few of the creators who died in 1937 are

  • George Gershwin
  • Jean de Brunhoff (“Babar”)
  • Amelia Earhart (probably)
  • J.M. Barrie
  • Horacio Quiroga
  • Edith Wharton

Thanks to the power of Disney, however, in the U.S. works published after 1923 will most likely be bound by copyright virtually forever (via the “Steamboat Willie Rule”), until our legislators develop spines. (When will that happen?)

I wish someone would ask a question about intellectual property rights in one of the presidential “debates,” instead of rehashing the same tired seven or eight issues.


Off the grid

Sorry to have had a lull in posting just when things were getting interesting. I thought I would have occasional access to the internet over the holidays, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. I will take a few days to regroup, and return with my usual daily posts no later than Monday, Jan. 7.


photo by Anne Christensen

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