Best of luck to Rick Rubin

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

The cover of the New York Times Magazine last weekend looked like it was selling a feature story about a religious guru, with a photo of a large, bearded man sitting crosslegged in a field, wrapped in a white blanket. And there’s no question that Rick Rubin — the music producer who was the subject of the cover story — is seen as a guru by many in the industry.

02rubin1901.jpgRubin’s abilities have helped to create acts such as The Beastie Boys, and rescued fading stars such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond from oblivion. But can he save the entire industry? That’s the subject of the NYT piece, which goes into some detail about how iTunes and file-sharing have eviscerated the business, and how young music lovers pay little or no attention to the radio or buying CDs any more.

In fact, hiring a guy like Rubin — who refuses to attend meetings or have an office at Sony’s Columbia Records despite now being co-chief executive, and who wears cargo pants and a T-shirt instead of a suit — should be evidence enough that executives in the industry are scared out of their wits. And it’s clear that one of the things Rubin wants to focus on is the music, which would be a refreshing change.

As media mogul David Geffen puts it in the story:

“The music business, as a whole, has lost its faith in content… only 10 years ago, companies wanted to make records, presumably good records, and see if they sold. But panic has set in, and now it’s no longer about making music, it’s all about how to sell music.”

A couple of the other prescriptions for success that Rubin throws out in the piece, however, raise some fairly major question marks, and the first of those is the idea that the online music business has to adopt a subscription model in order to have any hope of staying alive.

The only problem with that idea is that no one has had any real success with the subscription approach, despite repeated attempts. Services such as Rhapsody, the new Napster and Yahoo Radio are still around and have users, but they are hardly growing. The bulk of music listeners simply don’t seem to be interested in subscribing to a kind of virtual radio station online, although some continue to support the idea.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs — who knows a thing or two about music online — has repeatedly said that he has no interest in offering a subscription service. “Never say never, but customers don’t seem to be interested in it,” Jobs told Reuters in an interview after Apple reported blow-out quarterly results. “The subscription model has failed so far.”

And Jobs is far from the only person who is skeptical of the subscription approach.

It’s true that part of the reason a subscription model hasn’t worked is that the record companies and other players — rights holders such as publishing companies and performance rights groups — haven’t been able to get their act together, and have spent most of their time coming up with new ways to screw people through DRM.

Unfortunately, there’s no sign that any of that is going to change anytime soon, with or without Rick Rubin.

Google Reader search — it’s about time

Finally. Google has decided to add search functions to my favourite RSS reader, Google Reader. Until now, the inability to search through my 400 or so feeds was a gaping hole in the usability of Google’s RSS reader — but not enough of a hole to get me to switch.

It made me wonder when Google added features such as the ability to see your RSS reading trends (whose feeds you read most, share most, star most, etc.) but didn’t add a search function. Didn’t Google use to be a search company? But I still liked Google Reader enough that I have kept using it, even though I used to be a die-hard Netvibes.com fan.

As Ionut Alex. Chitu mentions, there are some quibbles with the search function in Reader, but it is still definitely a must-have. And before you mention it, yes I have tried Bloglines.com, and used to use it regularly but moved on — I like the redesign, but I think it’s too little too late.

Musical interlude: Seasick Steve

This has nothing really to do with Web 2.0, or social media — other than it’s a YouTube clip, I suppose. I just came across it somewhere in my feed reader and thought it was fascinating, since I am a big fan of blues guitar played the old-fashioned way. And this is about as old-fashioned as it gets.

It’s a video clip of someone named Seasick Steve, who (according to his Wikipedia page) is a Mississippi-born former hobo and railroad-hopper who plays a three-stringed guitar called the Three-Stringed Trance Wonder and accompanies himself on the Mississippi Drum Machine — a wooden box with a piece of carpet on top. Enjoy.

If you’re reading this via RSS, you can click here. YouTube also has some clips of Steve playing the one-string Diddley Bow.

David Weinberger eviscerates Andrew Keen

He does it in a nice way, of course — and, more than that, a thoughtful and erudite way — but David Weinberger’s summary of Andrew “the Internet is killing culture” Keen’s arguments (such as they are) nevertheless dismantles and mulches the prominent pundit’s points perfectly.

To his credit, Weinberger — author of Everything Is Miscellaneous — doesn’t just bash Keen and his idiotic meanderings outright. Instead, he carefully lays out what he believes is the best possible interpretation of Keen’s arguments, and then painstakingly dismantles that. In one of the best parts, he says:

“I think that’s one reason so many of us find Keen’s book frustrating. It’s like reading an argument against democracy that keeps pointing at how many people there are and how much they disagree with one another.

That’s not an argument against democracy. That’s the problem democracy was invented to solve. Likewise, the Web was invented to solve the problem of scale.”

It’s a long post, but worth the read. For some additional points, check out the full text of a “Reply All” debate between Keen and Weinberger that ran in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. As some of you long-time blog readers may know, I am not exactly a fan of Mr. Keen’s. And it seems that Tom “plasticbag” Coates has some issues with him as well, as he articulates in this recent post.

Facebook search: What’s the big deal?

There’s a large brouhaha (or perhaps it’s a kerfuffle) brewing in the blogosphere over the fact that Facebook has opened up its network to search bots from Google and others, something that was blocked by default in the past. This has caused a furore over the loss of privacy as those listings get indexed and start appearing in Web searches.

privacy.jpgI have to confess that I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. First of all, you can change your privacy settings so that you aren’t indexed. And secondly, even if you are indexed, all a search will turn up is a box with your name and profile picture in it — big whoop. If you’re hiding from America’s Most Wanted, or a jealous ex, that might be a concern. But if that’s the case, why are you putting that stuff on Facebook in the first place? And even if you do, you can choose not to have it displayed in a search.

As my friend Steve O’Hear points out on his ZDNet blog, this change could actually make it easier for you to choose what people see when they search for you in Google. That should be a good thing rather than a bad thing. Scott Karp over at Publishing 2.0 isn’t so sure. And he might be right that it has little utility for personal or business users. But it’s still just a picture and a name.

I know that privacy is a huge hot-button issue, but really. Let’s try and get worried about something serious maybe — like Google indexing all of your voice conversations on the new Google Phone.

Is Apple’s inflexibility its Achilles heel?

Another twist in the NBC-Apple saga: after dumping iTunes as a distribution method for its TV shows, the peacock network has cozied up to Amazon and its Unbox service instead. It appears that Amazon — whose movie-distribution unit likely has one-millionth the market share that Apple’s does — gave NBC more flexible pricing terms than Apple was willing to.

achilles.jpgIn particular, NBC gets the ability to offer a series of shows as a bundle, which is the kind of “if you want the good stuff, you’ll have to take some of our other crap as well” deal cable subscribers have grown accustomed to. Apple has said that NBC wanted to boost the price of its shows almost four-fold, but from the sounds of it, Apple didn’t want to offer the kind of bundling NBC wanted either.

Apple has routinely resisted the pleas of both record companies and TV networks when it comes to variable pricing. As far as Steve is concerned, it’s one price or nothing, and Apple has argued that this protects the buyer by making things simple and keeping prices low. And as the dominant provider, the company has been able to maintain that position and have companies bow to its wishes. So far.

But would variable pricing be such a bad thing? Why shouldn’t users be able to pay less for the crappy stuff and more for the really in-demand content? That’s how other markets — markets that aren’t effectively controlled by one provider — usually work. Why is Apple so opposed to differential pricing? I must admit I don’t really know. But NBC’s move is evidence that content owners will go elsewhere if they can’t get the flexibility they want.

Bring back the “Star Wars Kid”

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

I know I’m a little late to the party with this one, but I continue to be fascinated by the response to the by-now legendary video clip featuring Miss Teen USA contestant Caitlin Upton — which I have helpfully embedded here, for those of you who might (like me) have been spelunking in Romania or working on the space station last week, and therefore missed the global furore caused by her comments.

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Just to recap, Caitlin was asked why a quarter of Americans can’t find the U.S. on a map, and gave such a startlingly incomprehensible answer (even for a beauty pageant) that it has to be seen to be believed. Not surprisingly, the clip made it to YouTube in the blink of an eye, and became the latest viral sensation. At last count, the video of a confused Miss South Carolina had been viewed more than 12 million times.

Interestingly enough, however, Caitlin (or her agent and/or parents) didn’t shy away from the publicity. Not only did she show up on The Today Show — where she explained that she was flustered and didn’t hear the answer properly, and then gave a somewhat better answer — but she also took part in several other events that made light of her blooper, including a geographical pop quiz put on by People magazine on its website.

As marketing consultant Bruce Clay notes on his blog, instead of hiding or trying to avoid the consequences of her blunder, Caitlin effectively took advantage of the same forces that made that blunder so notorious, in what he describes as a textbook example of “reputation management,” Internet-style.

CNN’s Jeanne Moos notes in her video on the Miss South Carolina phenomenon that in the new YouTube era, no one is safe from an embarrassing video clip, and mentions the “Star Wars Kid” — Montreal high-school student Ghyslain Raza, who videotaped himself pretending to be a Jedi knight, only to have the clip uploaded to the Internet by fellow students, much to his embarrassment. He later sued and reached a settlement, and hasn’t been heard from since.

Caitlin, meanwhile, has gotten at least as much positive mileage out of her televised confusion as she has negative coverage — much like the “Tron guy,” a sci-fi enthusiast who was much ridiculed for posting photos of a rather unflattering Tron costume he made. The Tron guy (also known as Jay Maynard) turned his humiliation into multiple radio and TV appearances, and was asked to appear at a number of sci-fi conferences and fan events.

Obviously, it’s a lot easier for an adult — or someone with PR management professionals on their side — to handle unwanted Internet attention than it was for 15-year-old Ghyslain Raza. But Jay Maynard and others have shown that there is a flipside to Internet embarrassment. Can anyone remember the name of the Miss Teen USA winner? Unlikely.

Can authors use Facebook to reach readers?

(This is a story I wrote for the Globe that ran in the Review section of Tuesday’s newspaper. I’m posting it here for anyone who might be interested but doesn’t read the newspaper).

Necessity is the mother of invention, the old saying goes. But boredom and the desire to experiment are powerful forces too, says Canadian author Michael Winter. That’s how he came up with the idea to “serialize” his latest novel on Facebook, the hot social-networking site.

“I look at the whole book-publishing and promotion-of-books process as pretty boring,” the British-born author says with a laugh from his home in Newfoundland. “And I’m always game to do anything different to promote the book.”

Over drinks one night, Winter and Penguin Canada publicist Stephen Myers came up with the idea of using Facebook to create an online community around Winter’s new novel, The Architects Are Here. For the past several weeks, the author has been posting a short synopsis of each chapter every few days on his Facebook page and will continue doing so until the book is officially published later this week.

In addition to the synopsis, Winter has also been posting his thoughts and commentary about how the chapter developed, including debates he had with himself over how to handle a particular situation, or the local landmarks and people that became part of the novel.

“At first it was just going to be an excerpt from each chapter, but I thought that was just as boring as doing a reading,” says Winter. “So I thought what I could do was talk about where I was when I wrote a certain passage … and kind of annotate the book in a way.”

Winter is just one of a growing number of authors who are trying to drag the book into the 21st century by using the Internet to supplement the traditional process of writing, publishing and distribution, and by using blogs and other Web tools to build relationships with readers.

While Winter’s group isn’t likely to set any world records for Facebook membership, he has about 230 “friends,” many of whom return for each chapter and post their own comments about the events in the book, or the process of writing it. Some are clearly would-be authors.

This two-way connection isn’t something that novelists often get, Winter says, and it is nice to have. “There are so few readers in the end for a Canadian literary novel,” he says, that the chance to connect with some of them online is a treat.

Myers and Penguin Canada have also been involved in other publicity stunts involving young Canadian authors, including a boxing match last year with Craig Davidson, author of The Fighter, and a drinking game to help promote Noel Boivin’s and Christopher Lombardo’s The Man Who Scared a Shark to Death and Other True Tales of Drunken Debauchery.

But Myers says the Facebook idea is more than just a stunt. Looking at the readers who have come together around Winter’s book, he says, “I see community there. I see 200 or however many have signed up for it, and I see them on there discussing each of his posts as they come out.”

Winter is not the only author using Facebook to promote or serialize a novel. Halifax author Dr. Brad Kelln – a forensic psychologist who has published two thrillers – has been posting chapters of a new book as he writes them, and has even been using the names of group members from Facebook in the novel.

Another recent experiment with online interactive fiction – something authors have been experimenting with since the early days of the computer – comes from Canadian author Josh Martin, whose latest project is called Plot Party. Readers suggest different outcomes for each chapter and then vote on which they prefer. Martin is also planning something called Pocket-Change Parade to coincide with World Literacy Day this Saturday.

One recent attempt at online interactive fiction didn’t come to a happy end, however. In February, Penguin USA launched a fiction-writing project called A Million Penguins, loosely based on the concept of Wikipedia, the encyclopedia written and edited by users. But the project shut down a month later and was widely viewed as a failure.

According to Penguin, about 1,500 people contributed to the writing and editing of A Million Penguins, making it what Penguin’s CEO reportedly called “not the most-read, but possibly the most-written novel in history.”

On the Penguin blog, one executive at the publishing house summed it up in this way: “So what of the experiment – can a collective really write a novel? I guess the answer has to be a qualified maybe.”

Meanwhile, some authors have even taken to publishing their entire works online, although that is still relatively rare.

The most recent high-profile example is Austrian writer and 2004 Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek, who is posting chapters of her new novel as she writes them, on her website, for free.

Jelinek isn’t interested in publicity. Described in a recent Associated Press news story as a recluse who rarely ventures outside her house, she has apparently chosen to publish her book online because she wants to avoid the usual book-launch interviews and readings.

The new novel will not be protected by any digital-rights management or copy protection. Jelinek says “anyone who wants to can download it,” and calls publishing on the Internet “wonderfully democratic.”

Other authors have experimented with online sales of books in various forms. Technology publisher O’Reilly sells “e-books” as PDF files, and so have marketing guru Seth Godin, Toronto-born science-fiction author Cory Doctorow, and digital-rights advocate Lawrence Lessig.

Fittingly enough, an early employee at Facebook — engineer Karel Baloun — has written an e-book called Inside Facebook that can be downloaded from his website as a PDF file. Readers can choose to pay $9, $12 or $18, and the author says he has sold more than 700 copies.

Stephen King wrote and published parts of a book called The Plant online in 2000, allowing readers to download each chapter and pay $1 for it using the honour system. Although a majority of people paid, by the sixth instalment interest had waned and King shelved the idea.

Another recent trend is the blog that becomes a book. There is even a prize for the best “blook,” called the Lulu Blooker Prize. The winner this year was Colby Buzzell, whose blog about his time fighting in Iraq became the book My War: Killing Time in Iraq, published by Berkeley/Penguin.

One of the most famous blog-book deals came in 2004, when the author of the pseudonymous Washington sex blog Washingtonienne, Jessica Cutler, got a reported $300,000 book offer from Hyperion.

Blogger Zoe Margolis recently became a sensation in Britain writing the pseudonymous blog Girl With a One-Track Mind, and won a lucrative book deal, and so did Salaam Pax, the pseudonym of a Baghdad resident who became famous for blogging during the invasion of Iraq.

Other recent blog book deals include one for the website Hot Chicks With Douchebags, and one for the creator of Petite Anglaise, who was fired from her job in France when her employer found out she was writing a blog. And Anya Peters, a homeless woman who wrote a blog about living in her car, was signed to a book deal last year by HarperCollins.

Bloggers who want to become published authors don’t have to wait for a book deal, however: software from a San Francisco-based company called Blurb will download the contents of your blog and format it for publication, and then print glossy hardcover copies for you for prices ranging from $30 to $80 (U.S.) each, depending on the number of pages.

Journalism as a process, not an end

Came across an interesting post by Dale Dougherty of MAKE magazine on the O’Reilly blog, in which he writes about how a blog post on the premature burning of the Burning Man was reported by Scott Beale of Laughing Squid on his blog. Dale details how Scott repeatedly updated his post, until it became much like an evolving news story.

More than one person has made the point that hardly anyone cares about whether some wooden structure in the desert built by a bunch of aging hippies was torched a few days early or not, and that is probably true. But Dale’s point is not the nature of the story itself, it’s the process that Scott used — frequent updates, complete with photos.

This isn’t really all that new. Wire services like Reuters and Bloomberg do this sort of thing all day long, filing updates to stories as new information comes in, correcting mistakes, etc. In most cases, newspaper journalists take all of this stuff and blend it into a story that gets published the next morning. But with the Web, there’s no need to pick an arbitrary moment in time and “publish” a supposedly comprehensive story — the story evolves over time.

We can see this kind of thing on some newspaper websites, including the Globe’s, when there is a breaking story — although too often we resort to the traditional story format. Other examples include the entries at Engadget and other blogs when they “live-blog” an event, and the entries at Wikipedia on breaking events, such as the recent highway collapse.

That, to my mind, is effectively real-time journalism, and newspapers should be doing more of it.

Google and the wires torpedo newspapers

A fascinating announcement from Google about an arrangement with four of the world’s major wire services that will see their content featured more prominently on Google News. As far as I can tell, this deal has one major loser: namely, the thousands of newspapers that use content from those services, and are now going to see that traffic disappear.

225626046_a2bf5db0dc_m.jpgAs I understand it, the arrangement between Google and Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, the British Press Association and Canadian Press will see the content from those wire services appear on Google News with the logo of the wire service prominently displayed, and Google has agreed to give the wires’ version of a story prominence over the thousands of versions of that story that appear on the websites of the various newspapers that are members of AP, AFP, etc.

This is potentially explosive, I think. Whenever I search for a news story in Google News, I get hundreds of identical versions of that story from newspapers that picked it up from Associated Press — and I may even click through to the first newspaper that has a copy. But if I can see the story from the wire service itself, before it was edited or shortened or changed, I would probably prefer that. The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss has more here.

And while a Google spokesman said the changes “will have little impact on news organizations that receive traffic directly from Google News,” a Reuters story on the deal noted that:

“Because of Google’s campaign to simultaneously reduce duplicate articles, the original wire service article is likely to be featured in Google News instead of versions of the same article from newspaper customers, sapping ad revenue to those newspapers.”

In a sense, the deal with Google News puts wire services such as Reuters and AP into competition with the newspapers that are its members and customers — and will only increase the pressure on newspapers (and there are a lot of them) that continue to rely on wire copy to fill both their virtual and their real pages. And this new development is particularly interesting given Google’s recent plan to allow newsmakers to comment on Google News stories.

Further reading:

Dan Gillmor’s thoughts are here. Steven Hodson has some reaction at WinExtra and James Robertson thinks that the newspaper business has to go back to the future. Elsewhere, Tony Hung at Deep Jive Interests says this puts the lie to Google’s repeated protests that it doesn’t compete with newspapers, Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land puts the announcement into context, and my friend Scott Karp provides some perspective at Publishing 2.0. Steve Boriss also has a post at The Future of News.

And a commenter on Lost Remote’s post sums it up thus:

“Damn. I pay a ton of money for AP rights every year, and while it’s primary for the audience hitting our home page, I see a huge number of hits to that content from google news users. Guess I can kiss those eyeballs goodbye.”

Indeed. Although William Hartnett of the Palm Beach Post notes that those eyeballs aren’t really worth much anyway.