Information provenance; author focused publishing; RuPaul’s bookstore: Newsletter 6 March 2024

Newsletter 34: Who tells the truth, authors back a new publishing model, Spotify’s audiobook subscription, plus three people to follow, three books to read, and chance to meet other authors in Northern Cal.

Says who?

Trump advisor Steve Bannon once described his communications strategy this way: “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”

It’s pretty clear that lies, fakes, and deceptive information are on the rise. Social media makes it easy for attractive, but false, information to spread. The intention of Bannon’s strategy was to pump so many lies, false statistics, and fake videos into the world that people would give up on the idea of truth and just start to accept whatever aligned with their own world view, rejecting everything else.

The shit-spreading strategy has now gotten a lot easier. There is no better tool for creating realistic-seeming fakery than generative artificial intelligence. In the recent New Hampshire presidential primary, faked robocalls that sounded like Joe Biden attempted to persuade people not to vote. Manipulating video and audio — or synthesizing them altogether — to create plausible “deepfakes” is well within current AI capabilities.

You could throw up your hands and give up on truth (and in doing so, allow the Bannons of the world to win). Or you could run down and vet every fact and video that you see, which would probably take up your ever waking hour.

The best remaining strategy is to delegate your trust in information to media. Then the information you consume will come along with a provenance you can see, and hopefully, trust.

It’s regrettable that the economics of media are shriveling at this moment, because the commitment of journalists to truth is about the only thing we have going for us in a world flooded with fakery.

If a fact, quote, or statistic appears in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe or a similar publication, you can have some confidence that the fact has been verified. The same is true of wire services like AP and Reuters and the news gathering operations of the major network news carriers and the larger cable news networks (the reporting portions, not the endlessly nattering partisan talking heads).

Such publications make errors. But they apply far more resources to finding truth than any of us have available.

Even so, deciding on truth based on who says something, not what they say, is only a start. We, the consumers of news, must be more active. Here are five principles worth adopting for every reader:

  1. Pay. Subscribe. Contribute. The more news sources that remain viable, the better off we are. Paying for news is now part of every citizen’s duty — because without multiple sources of journalistic truth, we’re sunk.
  2. Distinguish news from opinion. Every news source has opinion pages. And cable news is mostly opinions. Opinion journalism is useful, but it will always present only one side of the picture.
  3. Consume diverse sources. I read both the Journal and the Times, because I don’t want to limit my perspective. I watch CNN and Fox News. And I consume respectable foreign sources like The Guardian. The more diverse your sources, the likelier you are to get a deeper understanding of the facts you consume.
  4. Challenge yourself. If you read something that you fervently want to be true — especially on social media — suspect it. And if you read something you’d rather weren’t true, open your mind to it. I’ve seen multiple people cancelling their New York Times subscriptions based on its recent polls showing Donald Trump leading. Polls are certainly flawed, but that doesn’t mean the Times is making up what it found. If you cancel publications that disagree with your preferred version of the truth, you’ll be left with a bland and one-sided news diet.
  5. Be a source worth believing. Many of my readers are influencers. If you have this ambition, truth should be your central value. I know which authors and speakers I trust — and which I don’t. News organizations can survive the occasional mistake. But those who aspire to be thought leaders can’t.

News for writers and others who think

A new publishing house, Author’s Equity, plans to focus on cutting authors in on more of the profit (gift link). Offering a zero advance and a higher share of profits isn’t completely new — I’ve seen similar offers from traditional publishers. But keep an eye on this. I’d expect to see this model spread to occupy a niche between the traditional advance/royalties model and the pay-to-publish/higher-share-of-revenues hybrid model.

Spotify is launching a $9.99 subscription tier solely for audiobooks. Look for Amazon’s Audible to fight back. Their future competitive battles may center around audiobook exclusives.

What really happened behind the scenes when the much denigrated Tom Cotton editorial appeared in — and then was retracted from — the New York Times? The editor behind the process reveals his side of the story.

Drag queen RuPaul is starting a bookstore that claims to be as inclusive as possible. As you might expect, it’s got plenty of LGBTQ+ books that right-wing library stalkers are trying to ban. But it’s got hard-right books to offend the wokest readers as well.

Three people to follow

Ben Putano, leading coach to entrepreneur authors.

Heidi Shey, super-savvy risk analyst.

Catherine Altman Morgan, top thinker on making work a better place.

Three books to read

Think Remarkable: 9 Paths to Transform Your Life and Make a Difference by Guy Kawasaki with Madisun Nuismer (Wiley, 2024). How to be a better person and do what matters, with tips from people like Steve Wozniak and Jane Goodall.

Red Team Blues: A Martin Hench Novel by Cory Doctorow (Tor, 2023). A crypto shenanigans forensic detective thriller (is that a thing?)

A Grammar of Typography: Classical Design in the Digital Age by Mark Argetsinger (David R. Godine, 2020). A classical book design bible.

Meet me in the San Francisco Bay Area April 24

Join my nonfiction author meetup, 6:30pm, April 25, at Il Fornaio restaurant, Burlingame. RSVP required. Click here to sign up.

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