Alicia Wise

Alicia Wise
Chief Executive, Publishers Licensing Society,
London, England

Tottered on: 9 March 2006
Temperature: 51 F
Ceiling: Overcast
Ground: muddy for squelching
Wind: S at 6 mph


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TT with HD: Alicia Wise


HD: Shall we climb aboard?

AW: Okay.

HD: Now one thing I'll have to point out, it's part of the design, is no handles.

AW: Right, so it can't be too vigorous, the teeter tottering.

HD: Right. So we don't have to do extreme teeter tottering or anything.

AW: Oh, it can be gentle. Okay, that's alright then! But you need to get your feet off the ground, too! I need to sit back further, don't I? Better leverage.

HD: You can grip the sides of the board if you feel like you're starting to lose your balance.

AW: Right.

HD: The fact that there's no handles in intentional, because in order to balance out people of different weights they need to be able to slide back and forth. Or you have to be clever enough to design a mechanism in the middle that will slide the whole board. And I figured, the easier design is no handles. And it has a certain elegance to it.

AW: It does. Very streamlined and modern. And you don't want to have to go back and get a PhD in physics in order to design your teeter totter.

HD: Exactly.

AW: Very good.

HD: Before we climbed on, you said it was a real treat for you to be in Ann Arbor?

AW: Absolutely.

HD: Is it your first time to be here?

AW: Ever. I was in Michigan once before I think. I lived in Chicago as a little girl. And I think we drove to a cheese factory somewhere in Michigan for the day, maybe it was Wisconsin, oh dear ... ! And I threw up in a car park and was ill.

HD: Well, that's a pleasant memory.

AW: It's the only thing I remember about the state, but maybe it wasn't Michigan. It's nice to be here as an adult.

HD: So what did you know about Ann Arbor that made you excited about coming here?

AW: A great university. I was an archaeologist. So the department here is world renowned. And I would have loved to have studied here. It's just a treat to get to see it.

HD: Instead of coming here, you studied ...

AW: ... at North Carolina. Chapel Hill. I think the weather is a little bit better down there. Would you debate that?

HD: I'll concede that point. Did you become a basketball fan at all?

AW: I did. Yeah, the Tar Heels rock!

HD: So you went to school in North Carolina, you spent some time in Chicago, but I was hoping that I could count you as the very first international guest. Because you're working in London, England. Is it fair you count you as an international guest?

AW: Sort of. But I think I might be on the teeter totter under false pretenses, then. Because I was born in Plant City, Florida, lived there for three weeks. My dad was in the Navy, so we lived all over the States when I was growing up.

HD: The US Navy?

AW: Yes. I moved to England ten years ago and I now have dual citizenship, I can show you my passport, if you need proof?

HD: No, you don't have to document it for me.

AW: But born and bred American, and adopted British citizenship.

HD: Was that hard, getting the dual citizenship?

AW: I had to marry an English guy, that helped. But he's very cute, so it wasn't onerous. And then I had to do a lot of paperwork for a few years and then the last step, you go before a barrister, which is a very posh lawyer with a fancy white wig, and everything ...

HD: ... actually had the white wig?!

AW: Yeah. And I had to swear fealty and loyalty to the Queen and all of her descendents for all time. Something that I don't think any right-thinking British person would probably do, but there you go, I've done it ...

HD: So swearing loyalty to the Queen was the crucial thing? You didn't have to sort of bone up on British history?

AW: No, they changed the rules since I did it, and just within the last year. I think you have to pass an English test, you have to know a little bit about history, ... , you have to know the national anthem. I think they picked all of that up from America, actually. It was considered very radical at the time.

HD: So the reason you're in town, ... you're not just on a tourist holiday ... , you were invited to participate in this symposium that the University of Michigan is putting on about digitization projects. From your job title and who you work for, ... you're the Chief Executive Officer of the Publishers Licensing Society ... , I would guess you're meant to represent the anti-Google camp in some respects?

AW: The anti-Google camp! No, Google's a good partner to many publishers who are signing direct agreements with Google to digitize books or at to least include the full text of books and journals in the Google search index.

HD: So this is their opt-in program as opposed to their opt-out program ...

AW: ... well, you've done your homework haven't you?

HD: Actually I have to thank a guy named Peter Suber [www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/fosblog.html], who ...

AW: ... okay ...

HD: ... do you know him?

AW: Yeah!

HD: So I emailed him and told him that I had a guest from the publishing industry coming to teeter totter. And he supplied me with a list of questions that really proved valuable to me, mostly because I didn't know what the questions meant. So they provided a nice framework for my background reading. I wound up doing a bit of research into this whole opt-in versus opt-out stuff. It seems to me that it boils down to really just that. The opt-in program, I can't figure how anybody could possibly object to it, but the opt-out deal, where Google is just ... I guess their message to publishers is, We're gonna do this, but if you don't want us to, then let us know and we'll respect your request.

AW: That's right. And the opt-out program is quite outrageous actually. And I think it's probably illegal. But it's going through the courts right now. I'm not a lawyer, so I couldn't say for sure. But the much more constructive approach they're taking is to try to negotiate with publishers to get the inclusion of materials. I think publishers, and Google, and librarians, and normal people can all sign up to the vision that Google is articulating. It's an exciting one. And that's that all information that's available, that's ever been created in all of human history, should be available to each of us online. That's actually what publishers are about: getting information out to people. There are perhaps some differences of opinion about how much of it should be free, and how to pay for the costs of digitization, who keeps control of the public files ...

HD: So you see at least the opt-in program as representing a benefit and a financial boon to authors and publishers alike?

AW: Absolutely. I think that's right. And there are lots of things. Google often shares a share of advertising revenues with the rights holders when they opt in. And they can help people discover works that they probably never knew existed or had ever been published ... and that drives traffic and sales, theoretically.

HD: ... it seems actually odd to me that Google would share ad revenue with authors. I mean if you think about the analogy to a newspaper, or not just a general newspaper, but a book review periodical. I can't imagine that the New York Times Book Review would contemplate sharing ad revenue with publishers [of books reviewd in the Book Review]. Maybe they do, and I just don't know it. But that would strike me as bizarre for them to do so and even more bizarre for publishers to say, We demand a piece of that pie!

AW: I guess Google is a little bit different in that it's less like a newspaper publisher and more like a book shop window, maybe. It's a window onto the world of information. And you might expect a bookstore with products on display to have a commercial relationship with the creators and the owners of those products. So I guess that's the model.

HD: How many times do you suppose you're going to hear the phrase, 'social good' at this symposium?

AW: It's in three of my slides!

HD: Is it really?!

AW: Yeah, yeah! And I don't know if this will surprise people, but publishers are actually waking up to social good. In fact, I don't know if this is true in the States, but in Europe, at least, it's increasingly a feature of good governance of corporations that you shouldn't just be about making money for your shareholders, but you should also be mindful about your impact on the world around you. About the environment and also about social responsibility. In publishing we think in terms of people who can't afford access to information can still get it when they need it ... As a good example of [awareness of environmental impact] is Blackwell's, which is a big publisher, there was a press release just today, is the first one to demonstrate that's it's gone carbon neutral, which I think is just fabulous.

HD: ... ... I think Blackwell's was part of the background material I looked at when I was preparing to talk to you in the context of ... they've posted 5000 or 6000 titles with Google, I assume as a part of the opt-in program. I guess in the slag heap that they have of all these books, some of these books are having the best year they've ever had in the last decade as far as sales. So I guess early indicators are that this actually will work to increase sales and profits for publishers?

AW: Hopefully. I've seen some counter data. And I don't really know the right answer for Blackwell's or other publishers. But some publishers have said that they've been surprised that it's not driven more sales, quite frankly. Including their works in the Google Print Program. And there's some concern that ... either it's still difficult for folks to find their way from the Google index to a place where they can actually purchase the work, or the pricing is not right for them, or that no one understands the relationship between discovery online, and actual purchase and use of the material.

HD: I suppose Google's response would be something along the lines of, Well, it's millions of books and it's hard to get it perfect, but those are technical details and we're very good technically and we'll get it worked out eventually, don't you worry.

AW: That's fine. As long as you've got an agreement with the publisher to do so. Just going ahead and deciding to digitize works for which they don't have an agreement, and which are still in copyright, I think that's really dodgy. They've crossed the line, there.

HD: So one analogy I read is that it's like breaking into someone's house and saying, But it's okay, because I cleaned your kitchen for you!

AW: That's exactly right!

HD: I wonder what you'd think of this analogy, as far as recruiting guests for the teeter totter. If I just went out on the street and grabbed people, and stuffed them into the trunk of my car, and drove them here, and parked them on the end of the teeter totter and said, If you don't want to go on a teeter totter ride, I'm not going to make you, you can opt out, but it'll be good for you, I promise.

AW: Excellent! That's exactly how it feels.

HD: Because just thinking about the point at which they can opt out, it's harmless. But the part of the story where I grabbed them and stuffed them in the trunk of my car, that's kidnapping. Just for the record, I didn't grab you off the street and throw you in the trunk of my car and drive you here ...

AW: No, there's been no coercion! For the record, I'm not being coerced while I'm making that statement in any way shape or form, it's all fine. But the kidnapping thing is just spot on. Because essentially Google has made agreements with five major world libraries, including the University of Michigan Library, to digitize everything on their shelves, whether it's in copyright or not. So they're essentially kidnapping the in-copyright material. And they're being very cagey about what they're going to do with it, actually. As possession is nine-tenths of the law, that's got publishers understandably a bit nervy and authors as well.

HD: And they're certainly not offering to take the books on a teeter totter ride.

AW: No. Have you invited them to?

HD: The books?

AW: No, Google, as a corporation, here?

HD: You know, I don't have enough heft to balance them out. Something may be in the works, we'll see. You have slides that have the phrase 'social good' in them?

AW: Actually, it's 'social responsibility' I think.

HD: I was focussed specifically on the term 'social good' because in the world of local blogs, people invent various drinking games based on public meetings. There's one ... on our City Council, people often make reference to 'the neighborhoods' either in defense of or to criticize various proposals, ... so people have proposed a drinking game keyed to drinking whenever neighborhoods come up, ... So I think if you want to get blitzed really fast at this symposium, then you drink every time someone utters the phrase, 'social good'. If someone said, 'social responsibility' it wouldn't count. It'd have to be 'social good'.

AW: Okay?!

HD: So where I was going with this was: slides. You said you were going to have slides, but you're going to be on a panel discussion. So how is that going to work? You get some time to hold forth uninterrupted?

AW: We get 15 minutes each to pontificate. And then there's questions. It's kind of hard to know, though, where to go into the whole discussion in 15 minutes. Because you could talk about copyright, you could talk about contracts, you could talk about the sort of tensions that exist between publishers and librarian, you could talk about Google and their competitors, like Yahoo or Microsoft. So I'm kind of wallowing around at the minute.

HD: So you've got a bunch of slides and you haven't distilled them into the ones you're going to use?

AW: I've got six. And after this [teeter tottering] I'm going to go and finalize them, because I have to submit them by lunchtime.

HD: These are PowerPoint slides or old fashioned slides?

AW: Oh no, not old fashioned slides. I actually can't remember the last time I used those, ... the 1990's?

HD: I think it would be fun to have all the presentations for this symposium run off of an overhead projector just to tweak things along ironic lines.

AW: That would be good since we're talking with great authority and dignity about online information, and how it is a social good and a necessity ...

HD: ... yeah, and if you had people drawing with colored pens on acetate film that would be entertaining to me.

AW: That would be fun. One of the best talks I've ever gone to was, I think, at the London Book Fair. I think they had a characaturist in the corner. And as speakers gave their presentations, this guy was drawing these very amusing piss-takes of them and their personalities.

HD: Piss-takes?

AW: Taking the piss out of them. Mocking them. It was great. It put them off their stride, which is always a good thing with speakers. Very amusing for the audience.

HD: You mentioned the London Book Fair. That just wrapped up this year?

AW: It was on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday this last week.

HD: How much of your life did that take over?

AW: All of it for three days. And quite a bit for the few weeks before with the arrangements.

HD: I have no concept of what that might be like. Was there a booth? Like a huge cavernous hall, where there's little tiny booths, where you set up and hope that people will come and chat with you about whatever you have to chat about?

AW: Pretty much. It's a huge cavernous hall and publishers can rent space there to set up their little booths. And they're grouped into 'communities'. It tells you a lot about the niche, the type of publisher, what the community is like. So all of the trade press were at one end of the hall. That's paperback novels and Harlequin romances and things. They had tall walls and flashy graphics and author signings. David Hasselhoff was there. Gave us a moment of glamour. Down toward the other end were all the academic publishers. They had really open booths, comfy chairs, they'd give you free coffee ....

HD: ... David Hasselhoff was there?

AW: Yeah, but I didn't see him.

HD: Did he sing?

AW: I think he published a biography. So he was there doing signings.

HD: Speaking of signing, I read in the New York Times about a mechanical device that would automatically sign books that was demonstrated at the London Book Fair. Did you see the demonstration?

AW: I didn't. But that sounds great, though.

HD: Did you go to the talk by the guy from Google, John Needham?

AW: No. Been there. Done it. Seen it.

HD: So you weren't expecting him to say anything new?

AW: No. But I spoke in that room just before he did, ... I think it was the same room. We were coming out, and we'd been doing this really worthy presentation about how to make more books accessible to blind people: there were ten people in the audience. And we come out and the entire hallway is wall-to-wall with a sea of seething publishers wanting to get a piece of Google action. Never mind!

HD: Yeah, the New York Times reported it was standing room only. I guess people were hovering around the doorway hoping people would leave a little early so they could sneak in for the last bit. So tell me about this project for the blind.

AW: It's really cool actually. It's in partnership with the Royal National Institute for the Blind, who have got a campaign called the Right to Read. And they're helping raise awareness in Britain right now that only about five percent of books that are published are ever made accessible in ways that blind, vision-impaired or dyslexic readers can access. So they're trying to work with the industry and with authors. The way it would work is this. When a book is created, even if it is only published in print, it's of course created in digital form: Word files, or Quark files or PDF's or whatever. So the idea is the publisher will give the electronic files to the Royal National Institute for the Blind before publication. The RNIB will be a trusted partner. They'll reformat those files and then make the versions that are needed in the blind community accessible on the same day that the print is published. They'll reformat them into audio books, into large print formats, into Braille, and there's also a format called DAISY, which is an electronic version, where you hear it and while you're reading along on the screen, the text that's being read is highlighted. It's a really cool and important project. I'm really excited about it.

HD: And what is the role of the Publishers Licensing Society in this?

AW: We've essentially given the RNIB a license so that it could have access to all the published work without having to negotiate copyright on a case-by-case basis.

HD: So you're extending a license on behalf of all the ... is it 'clients' or 'members'?

AW: We call them 'mandators', but that's just jargon.

HD: They're publishers.

AW: Yes. There are about 8000 publishers in the UK and it's really difficult to expect RNIB to go and talk to each of them individually. So we're trying to be a one-stop shop for license.

HD: So you represent all 8000, or just some fraction?

AW: No, we work with all of them. And the types of publishers are quite exciting as well. We have some corporations, big publishers. But lots of little ones, too. Some of those are not-for-profit organizations, voluntary sector ... Like the British Heart Association would be one of our member publishers. Other charities. So any organization that exists can be a publisher.

HD: Getting back to the symposium panel that you're going to be a part of. Do you know these characters you're going to be on the panel with? Because in addition to your allotted 15 minutes, aren't you going to have to talk to these other people?

AW: I know some of them. But I don't actually know what any of them are going to say. Like I was telling you earlier the moderator's attempts to organize us have, despite quite good efforts on his part, failed.

HD: So he wanted you to have a conference call where you kind of coordinated, You're going to cover this, I'm going to talk about that. So that you could get a feel for what kind of axes people were bringing to be ground?

AW: He's encouraged us all to be very positive. Which is a good thing. I don't think there'll be any fisticuffs, no blood on the floor. But surfacing three sentences about the take we were going to give, I think he would have appreciated. But I haven't got a clue [what the others are going to say]. We'll pick it up as we go.

HD: For me as an audience member, ... I'll be sitting at home trying to get the webcast to work ..., but for me I would like to get the feeling like it wasn't rehearsed. I want to see the rough edges. I want to hear people say, Uh, I have no idea what you're talking about, could you say that again? Because I think that makes it a more entertaining event. What I'm about is not necessarily learning and information. I want to be entertained, fundamentally. This symposium is just one of many entertainment options available in Ann Arbor.

AW: It's performance art for you, is it?!

HD: So do they have anything lined up for you entertainment-wise at the symposium? Or have they just left you to your own devices?

AW: We've got a sophisticated sort of cocktail reception at the home of Beth Fitzimmons [Chair of the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science] and then there's a speaker's dinner at a really fancy restaurant that I can't remember the name of.

HD: Is it downtown?

AW: Yeah, it starts with a G ...

HD: Gratzi?

AW: Uhmmm. Gandy?

HD: Oh, the Gandy Dancer.

AW: That's it. What does that mean?

HD: A gandy dancer is, or was, something that works something like a teeter totter actually. One of those old railcars, one guy on one side and one on the other? And to make it go, they work this two-sided lever up and down, you've seen these things, right?

AW: Yeah, yeah!

HD: That, I think, is a gandy dancer. And the reason the restaurant has that name is that it's located in the old train station down under the Broad Street Bridge, which is, I have to say, a really impressive bridge, newly constructed ... ... ... ...

AW: I'll look out for that! Thank you for the tip! The other entertaining thing was getting to come and ride the teeter totter with you. I've been looking forward to it. It's superb.

HD: Are you having a good time so far?

AW: Yeah!

HD: I don't really want to push our luck because it's supposed to rain, so what I'll suggest is that I snap your photo and we'll call it a ride?

AW: Excellent.