Friday, May 25, 2012

Bookstores: misplaced nostalgia?

I love bookstores, but the widespread feeling about how wonderful they are (or were) seems to me to be more myth than reality. There's a romantic image of bookstores as magical places where you can have a wonderful experience chatting with a bookstore owner who just happens to share all your preferences and knows the same subject areas as you, and can lay her hands instantly on the perfect book you were unknowingly searching for, guaranteed to please.

That just ain't so.

Most of the time, my local bookstores didn't actually stock the book I wanted: they'd have to order it, and it would take anything from a week to a few months. Very rarely did anyone actively recommend me a book: unless I was a regular, they'd usually sit there watching as I browsed, and then take my money in silence if I chose to buy something. If I asked for a book on a particular subject, they often didn't have a clue. That's not a complaint, just an observation: it's not really surprising when you're asking for something really specialist, say, a book on the political machinations in the Punjab leading up to the First Sikh War: they'll simply say, "we have a history section there, and a military section there, and maybe you could try the travel section under India." I don't expect them to know everything, but let's not pretend that bookstores were staffed by omniscient beings who could instantly refer you, with the unerring sense of Buffy's Giles, to the one book that you need, no matter how obscure the subject. If I could find a good specialist bookstore, then sure, they were often great, but that could involve travelling 200 miles and an entire day's journey, just to track down one book.

I'll miss bookstores for the smell, for the ambience, and for the pleasure of browsing through actual books, but not, I'm afraid, for the service they provide. Sadly, Amazon has them beat on that, and there's no point pretending otherwise. It was the same for record shops, and the same for video shops. Most of them were just racks of a small selection of product, staffed by people who didn't really know much about the sort of books, music or films that interested me, and which couldn't compete with online services for range of product, serendipitous discovery, qualified recommendations, speed of service, convenience, or price. It's sad to see bookstores closing, and the implications for the book trade and for readers are scary, but the truth is that in most cases, Amazon just do the job far, far better.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

No more freebies

Over the last few months, I've seen more and more creatives and freelancers posting about the rising tide of clients who expect them to work for next to nothing, or, more often, for free. It's the same regardless of the medium: writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians, graphic designers, Web builders, editors, body artists, dancers, tattooists, programmers... pretty much everyone.

Freelance writing jobs that used to pay $500 a few years ago now pay maybe $25 if I'm lucky. And what's worse, people think they're doing me a favor by offering me the job. "It's an opportunity to build your resume," they tell me. I've been writing for 25 years, I've got several books to my credit, hundreds of magazine articles, thousands of Web articles, and countless corporate documents. I think I'm past the "trying to get some experience" stage. I don't need to prove myself. I'm not a college kid, living at home, trying to earn some beer and gas money. I need to pay my bills and feed my family.

What's really worrying about this trend is that it's not confined to creatives. More and more businesses are relying on interns or unpaid workers. I've been invited to apply for unpaid jobs in retail, telesales, and even project management positions. I'm hearing the same from mechanics, builders, plumbers, and other tradesmen. People dangle the promise of paid work "later", "after training", or "when things pick up," but in practice that means after a few months, they dump you and replace you with the next sucker. There is no paying work. Never was. Never will be.

One business owner I briefly considered working with bragged to me about how he didn't pay any of his staff, and didn't intend to, as he could just use an endless pool of hopeful college kids. It wasn't that he couldn't afford to - the business was making a very healthy profit - he just didn't see any reason to pay people if he could get them for free. It rapidly became clear that he regarded me the same way: he'd get a few months' work from me and then get rid of me.

We're doing it to ourselves

Who's to blame? It's easy to blame it on the economy, or on unscrupulous bosses, but the unpalatable truth is that as long as we are willing participants in the unpaid labor scam, it's our own fault.

It's easy to feel forced into it by the threat that if you don't take the gig, someone else will. If you turn it down, you might be missing a golden opportunity. The client will tell you that you're competing with college kids who'll do the job for a couple of beers, so they have no reason to pay you more. They can go to ODesk and get people who'll work for a dollar an hour, so they tell you $10/day is "the going rate". Since you're a freelancer, you can't even get minimum wage. And so you swallow your pride, leave the financial issues for another day, and work for nothing. If it's costing you money to get to work, you're actually losing money.

But where does that leave you at the end of the month? You work every hour there is, you end up with a pittance, and you still can't pay your bills. You're stressed out, dispirited, and broke, and meanwhile your client is laughing at you for being such a jackass. He's got what he wanted, and you've got nothing.

Why this is not just bad, but really bad

This business model has two really dangerous effects.

First, it totally devalues what people do. Clients and employers are already starting to see no value in quality or experience. If they can persuade experienced people to give them quality work for nothing, then that just reinforces that view. I'm not a novice. I'm damn good at what I do, and I don't expect or deserve to be treated or paid as a novice. Why spend money getting a college education or developing skills if you're just going to end up in debt? Why bother trying to do your best work if it's not going to be appreciated? It's not like it's going to matter if you screw up and get fired.

And secondly, it screws up the entire economy. If there's an unending pool of unpaid workers, then who's going to be spending the money? To get out of recession, people need real jobs, not fake ones. They need to be able to make ends meet, pay off their debts, and start spending money. Unpaid workers can't pay rent, can't buy food, can't even put gas in the car or take a bus to work. Businesses can't survive when nobody has the money to buy from them.

It's a simple proposition. I work, and I get paid according to the value of my labor. That's not Marxism, that's market economics. If what I do is worth something to you, then you should pay what it's worth. A market distorted by free goods and services is fundamentally broken, as I've argued many times before. If you're working for free, you're basically screwing things up for everyone, not just yourself. The entire basis of "free" is "someone else pays for what I use", and that's not sustainable. Free or underpaid labor relies on someone else feeding, clothing, and housing your workforce. If you're not paying a living wage, you're basically stealing from them or from the taxpayers. In which case - well, FDR said it best.

Look at the book market. Authors had a hard enough time already, but now they have to compete with a glut of literally millions of people falling over themselves to give away their work or selling it for 99c in the hope of making it big. That's great for Amazon, who are making millions of dollars from all these unpaid writers. It's not so great for the writers, who can on average expect to make just $30 from a novel that took them a year to create. Readers don't want to pay $5 for a book when the market's flooded with free books, and established, quality authors are finding it harder and harder to make a living.

Enough is enough

Over the last year or so, I've done a lot of unpaid or stupidly cheap work. Despite the promises, none of it ever turned into paying work, and I've reached a point where I've decided that enough is enough.

I'm not working for free any more.


I don't object to quid pro quo. We're all broke, and I have no objection to doing something for someone in return for them doing something for me. I don't even mind helping out on occasion, especially if it's a project that I personally like and would actually enjoy, but as long as it's understood by all concerned that I'm volunteering or doing someone a favor. Let's not pretend it's work.

But if I'm not going to get paid a decent rate, or get something else back in return, I'll spend the time doing something I want to do. Maybe I'll read a book, watch a movie, go for a walk, or practice my violin. But I'm no longer going to donate my time and my skills to enriching someone else for no benefit.

Epilogue (the bit that comes after the end of the story)

Actually, I can envisage myself working for free. I'll work for free when I can live rent-free, when I can get free food, free electricity, free medical care, run my car for free, get free clothes, go on free holidays, and so on. Or when I'm so rich that I don't have to worry about affording the things I want and don't need an income any more.

I wonder which of those will happen first: the socialist utopia, or the capitalist success? 

No, I didn't think so.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Unrepresentative democracy

I've been watching recent elections with the bemused detachment of one who isn't allowed to vote in them.

Last week's local elections in Britain, for example, gave us the following results: Labour 38%, Tory 31%, LibDem 15%, others 15%. The  A month ago in Orlando, Mayor Buddy Dyer was returned with a huge 58% of the vote.

However, that really doesn't give a fair picture of how people feel. In the UK, turnout was just under 31%. In Orlando, turnout was a mere 15%. When you apply those numbers to the results, things look very different. In Britain, just 11.8% of the electorate supported Labour, 9.5% supported the Tories, and 4.6% supported the LibDems. In Orlando, Dyer's "landslide" victory was achieved with the support of just 8% of the electorate.

I'd like to see more media report on the results as a proportion of the electorate, rather than as a proportion of votes cast. Then we'd see just how little support our elected leaders actually have. I'd hope that would lead to two outcomes.

First, I'd like to see more people actually going to the polls. Voting matters. And with turnout this low, it doesn't take much to change the results. A few percent is all that's necessary to make a difference, not just between the top candidates, but between all the candidates. In Orlando, if just 6% of people - that's about one person from each street - had come out and voted for either the third or fourth place candidate, Dyer's "easy" victory wouldn't have happened. I'm not opposed to Dyer, but it's important to realize that he's in power because most people couldn't be bothered to express an opinion, not because most people support him, and how easily that could have gone the other way.

And second, I'd like to see politicians of all sides realize how much faith their people have lost in them. It sickens me to see these guys bragging about their victories when they should be ashamed of how much they have utterly failed to engage with the people they claim to represent. More to the point, trying to achieve anything is unrealistic when 90% of voters do not support whoever's in charge. If we're going to get out of this recession, we need leaders who can galvanize and inspire their communities. It's clear that none of the current lot can actually do that.

I know the counter-arguments well. There aren't any good candidates, so you're not going to vote for any of them. Well, that's part of the problem. You're not going to vote, so the candidates don't need to appeal to you. They really don't care if the majority of people hate them: they only care about winning a majority of the minority who can be bothered to express their opinion on polling day. By not voting, you've effectively told the candidates that your opinion doesn't matter and your vote doesn't count, and as long as you continue to do that, you'll get politicians who are happy to continue ignoring you and focus on the demands of the extremists.

So I reiterate: let's see election results as a proportion of the electorate, not just as a proportion of the votes case, then we can all see how easily a genuinely popular candidate could overturn the status quo.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

In praise of one-star reviews

When I started thinking about this post, I was planning to call it The Curse of the Five-Star Review, and then I read this excellent blog post, The Dark Side Of Free, by Russell Blake. He's talking about the problems of free e-books (a contentious subject I've talked about several times before), and latches onto an aspect I've never really considered. When you give your book away, you end up with lots of people saying they didn't like it. As a result, you get a pile of one-star reviews, which he and many of his respondents, think is very unfair. All those nice 5-star reviews and a 4.8 average suddenly collapses under the weight of feedback that isn't unadulterated praise.

Who are you trying to kid?

Let me be honest here. If I see a self-published book with nothing but 4- and 5-star ratings, what's my reaction? Do I think, "wow, this must be an utterly amazing book and I must read it at once?"

No, I don't.

I immediately assume it's rigged and all those reviews are probably from family and friends, or they're paid reviews, or they're reviews swapped with other authors. I simply do not believe for a minute that nobody has anything bad to say about a book and that it's absolutely perfect. My reaction isn't to buy the book - quite the opposite! I assume it's probably mediocre and not worth my time.

I would far rather see a spread of honest reviews, telling me what's good and bad about a book. Sure, some people won't like it. That's fine. Some people don't like War and Peace. Some people don't like the Da Vinci Code. Some people don't like Tom Clancy's Op-Center. That doesn't stop people reading them. Frankly, if you're not getting negative reviews, you should be surprised. Nobody is exempt from criticism, and if you're not getting them, then you're probably surrounded by yes-men.

From a 3-star review of War and Peace on Amazon:
It's... overwritten, wordy,redundant, repetitious, chronologically clumsy, and loaded with structural defects, writer's errors and digressions. Tolstoy himself called it "verbose", and said it had too much that was "superfluous". I agree with Tolstoy.

What do these ratings mean anyhow?

As far as I'm concerned, ratings aren't objective. They're subjective. They tell you what I thought of the book, and I like to use the whole scale. An average book gets a 3 - and remember that average doesn't mean it was bad. It meant that I liked it. Something I really liked gets a 4, and a 5-star rating is reserved for those very rare books that absolutely blow my mind. On the other end, a 2 was disappointing, and a 1 is something I just couldn't finish or is really badly written.

Sadly, many authors don't see it that way. One author to whom I gave a 4-star rating asked why I'd "knocked a star off", even though I'd praised the book and said how much I liked it. They seem to see a 5-star rating as the default, and anything less is a failure. That, to me, totally negates the point of the rating system - how can I, or a potential customer, distinguish between a good book, a really good book, and an exceptional book if they all get 5 stars?

A 4-star or 5-star rating should be something to covet, not something to expect, and I actually think it does authors a disservice if they're led to believe that everything they write is as good as - or better than - the very best literature humanity has produced. If your YA fantasy really deserves that 4.5 average, why isn't it outselling Harry Potter with its mere 4.3 average? Is your 4.8-rated thriller really better than the 4.6-rated Day of the Jackal? Is your 5-star erotic short story a classic to overshadow the 4-star Delta of Venus? If you really want to know, then give it to a thousand people and they'll tell you what they really think - and if you can maintain that high rating, then congratulations, you're officially one of the greats! But don't be surprised if most of them aren't as awestruck by your masterpiece as your first few fans.

Who are ratings for?

The thing is, ratings aren't just for your benefit. They're for mine. Amazon recommend me books according to what I like, so if I tell them I didn't like a book, they won't recommend me other books like it. That 1-star review doesn't necessarily mean "this is a bad book," it means "it wasn't to my taste."

They're for my friends too. If Dave sees me give a book a 1-star rating, he can legitimately conclude he won't like it either. If he sees me give it a 4 or 5, he's likely to give it a try.

Tailored ratings systems

What I'd really like to see is a more sophisticated system like Netflix which shows me both the average rating and an assessment of how it fits to my personal tastes. When I look at a movie on Netflix, it's not unusual for it to get a high average review but a low score for me - or vice versa. The latest teen comedy may score really highly with some people, but Netflix is smart enough to figure out that people who like the same movies as me don't think much of it, and it tells me I probably won't like it. On the other hand, most people don't like silent German movies, but it knows that I do, and gives me a rating based on that knowledge.

Netflix spent a fortune developing that algorithm and saw a huge increase in viewer satisfaction. If Amazon and the booksellers could do the same, I'm sure it would pay dividends in terms of sales.  Authors would benefit too: if you do a better job of targeting your book to readers, you'll get more satisfied readers.

It comes down to this. When I read the reviews of books, I want to know whether I will like it, taking into account my tastes. If I can be sure that a 4-star book is probably excellent, I'm more likely to buy it than if 4-stars is considered a low rating.

So I'm sorry, authors, but I'll keep on dishing out the 1s and 2s.