How, When, and Where Does Quality Rise to the Top? [Smart Set]

Smart Set

Welcome to the weekly The Smart Set, where I curate new smart reads about the publishing and media industry. I also point to issues and questions raised, and welcome you to respond or ask your own questions in the comments.

“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams


“To seek: to embrace the questions, be wary of answers.”

—Terry Tempest Williams

LadyBits’ First and Last Year on Medium by Arikia Millikan

Medium is a start-up founded by Ev Williams, the guy behind Twitter, among other things. Medium is kind of like a blogging platform crossed with a publisher. Their site is nice to look at, and it’s structured differently than most content-driven sites. (It doesn’t really have a homepage or typical HuffPo-Buzzfeed qualities.)

Millikan was one of the first invited to be an editor at Medium, and she’s now departing. Her report is worth reading in full, but these are the choice paragraphs:

It would be comforting to believe that we live in a world where quality content chosen by experienced editors and authored by talented people will get more clicks than celebrity gossip, fear-mongering headlines, and snake oil salesmen peddling the next generation of tech bubble pyramid schemes. But that’s almost never the case. …

We were reminded that this was all an experiment, and if we would just put in more work something would probably go viral to make up for the stuff that didn’t. But if I wanted to produce things that were likely to go viral, I would have applied for a job at BuzzFeed. I started to consider the incompatibilities between the publishing company I was building at LadyBits, and the runaway platform Medium was evolving into. 

Questions raised:

  • In book publishing specifically, I hear again and again that “Quality rises to the top.” I don’t think that’s true in book publishing, but let’s say it is. Is it true for online-driven content? And if not, what should online publishing business models look like?
  • How can a publishing business model can be successfully based on engagement (which Medium has turned toward—how long people stay at the site or keep reading?) rather than page views?

The Case Against Author Solutions, Part 1: The Numbers by David Gaughran

Gaughran has been an outspoken (and accurate) critic of Author Solutions (ASI) for a while now, and all of his posts covering ASI are worth reading. If you don’t know about ASI, they’re the largest provider of self-publishing services in the world, with many brand names (AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, Archway, Trafford, and others).

Crunching the numbers, Gaughran reports on how much he estimates ASI is earning by selling marketing packages that have terrible return on investment. I look forward to reading part 2. If you know anyone considering ASI as a service provider, make sure they read Gaughran’s posts before committing.

Questions raised:

  • The company is facing a class-action lawsuit as a result of its questionable business practices. One wonders how much that does or will affect its business and reputation.
  • Penguin Random House is now the owner of Author Solutions. One also wonders how concerned they are about the reputation or business practices of the company—and how they envision its future.

The Scariest Chart in Mary Meeker’s Slide Deck for Newspapers Has Gotten a Little Scarier by Johsua Benton

Every year, Meeker covers trends in Internet usage and growth. One of the slides that is always passed around is this one—showing the % of attention for each medium versus the % of ad spend it enjoys. Note the polar opposites: print & mobile.

Ad Spend Growth 2013

As usual, print is down in attention and ad dollars from prior years, though it seems to get more attention than it deserves. Also: no one has really figured out how to do effective mobile advertising.

Questions raised:

  • The biggest one: Who’s going to figure out how to monetize mobile through advertising?
  • Does print deserve the ad dollars it’s getting?
Posted in Smart Set.

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Jim Jackson

The relationship between ad costs and time spent with the medium is interesting, but to be useful we should compare ad costs to buyer purchasing response. We may spend lots more (relative) time on social media, for example, but most folks I know actively avoid the looking at the ads while using social media — whereas an attractive print ad (for those who read print) may gain more attention and as a result more sales. Don’t know, but that’s the point, isn’t it? ~ Jim


Jane, you write that The Smart Set is “a weekly series where I discuss some of the most interesting questions being raised by…” Where is your discussion? Yes, I saw your coverage of Arikia’s farewell to the Medium. I went on to read it in full. It’s an interesting bit of inside baseball. And the item about that the analytics that don’t play out is notable. And, Jim Jackson, I, for one, ignore ads in both print and digital. But, to my original point… Are you, Jane, supposed to be setting up the discussion by your comments in “The Smart… Read more »

Robin Mizell

I was similarly confused, jshear. It’s nice that you raised this question, because I simply was bouncing off this new column without trying to understand its purpose. Jane, I think what you’ve done is to expand the concept of one of your older columns, which was a periodic collection of links to the best online articles about the business of publishing. The Smart Set adds to the collection your questions, which seem designed to encourage discussion or comments, but as jshear points out, the questions are not a discussion in and of themselves. Adding to the confusion on my end… Read more »

Robin Mizell

For the sake of clarity in the ensuing discussions, as well as my convenience when scanning, I’d prefer to see the three articles with your relevant questions separated into three different posts. That’s just me, and I’m not a regular commenter. They might work better separately in a mobile format, too.


Thank goodness Robin is more clear than I am. Thanks, Robin. Here’s what happens to me Jane. Smart Set poses an important question… And I view it as a post, expecting to read a curated text about, Quality Rising to the Top, for example. If it’s the case that the texts you supply following the question, “Ladybits,” for instance, not all the articles seem germane. I get confused. I find the question — How Quality Rises?” gets in the way. Please, I’m just bloviating, but I’d feel more ground under my feet if I read the title “Smart Set,” and… Read more »

William Ash

Quality does not rise to the top, popularity does. Sometime what is popular is also very good, sometimes not. This is where publishing has a problem–it is always a judgement call, it is always subjective. And popularity is hard to frame–it is going to be short lived or delayed? Remember the Celestine Prophecy? The Christmas Carol is still in print. But the question is really about the state of economics. This is where short-term gains seems to be the model: also known as going viral. How long does talent take to foster? If skill is a driver to quality and… Read more »

William Ash

I am not sure publisher are “required” to foster talent. I am not even sure they ever did–it is probably one of those urban legends. I really think that is job if the writer, the artist. I don’t expect my first work to be a final point in my journey. I hope I keep improving. That takes time and without any outlet for work that can support the person, then it becomes harder. The system does not factor in the effort of talent or creation. Say I write a novel a year. How many need to be sold to put… Read more »


Once upon a time publishers cultivated talent and didn’t work on weekly sales velocity. I’ve been on a hobby horse lately about Andre Schiffrin, but he does make this very good point: “Many editors who have been around long enough to remember the time before conglomerates keenly regret the decimation of thoughtful publishing. People joining the [publishing] ranks today have no such comparative vantage point. To them, the present situation is normal, and that is in itself, a worrying development.”


Have you read Lewis Hyde, The Gift. It’s an oldie, but fits well with your comment.

Lexa Cain

That Author Solutions article was excellent – and nauseating at the same time. It’s like the Nigerian prince scam of publishing. :O

Greg Strandberg

When a girl starts at a new school she might feel the jitters. But if she falls in with the popular crowd right away then she’ll probably rise up in the social rankings quickly, and much faster than she normally would have otherwise.