Online publishing feeds bewildered consumers a mass of mediocre content

...but there are flecks of gold there too.

Consumer campaigning group Which? recently published the results of a survey claiming around a fifth of consumers are regularly deceived into buying supermarket imitations of major food brands, as a result of clever mimicry in own-brand packaging design.

While I might venture to say there’s not too much difference between one tube of pressed oat lumps and another, when one is made by a supermarket chain and another by a multinational biscuit empire, the distinction between imitators and the imitated becomes much more pronounced when applied to visual and written media.

Back in 2005, a production company called The Asylum, which had been happily making low-budget, direct-to-video horror movies since 1997, did something extraordinarily clever.

It released a bargain basement adaptation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds in the same year as Spielberg’s no-holds-barred Tom Cruise adaptation of the same, and was rewarded with an immediate order of 100,000 copies by video rental chain Blockbusters.

The big win spurred a new business model for the Asylum, with the years to come seeing the release of films such as Paranormal Entity, Transmorphers, The Day the Earth Stopped, and Snakes on a Train – all bearing remarkably similar cover design to the films whose releases they shadowed.

The Asylum’s demographic was clear: tired parents in video rental stores, failing to remember the titles of big hits and picking boxes that, in a state of fatigue and unfamiliarity with pop culture, seemed identical to their recollection of movie posters.

Now of course, blockbuster has gone, and with it those late night box-browsers. But the model pioneered by The Asylum is far from obsolete: in fact, the purchasing environments fostered by online streaming services such as Lovefilm, Blinkbox and Netflix make it all the more lucrative.

Last night, my wife and I were browsing one of the above for a movie to watch, when we happened upon a movie called “Tooting Broadway”. The box design was slick, reminiscent of countless snarling Cockney stabathons, and it was only upon looking the film up on Wikipedia (where we were informed that the ending would “leave [us] in very surprisement”) that it became obvious it was a “let’s film my mates having a fight in a garage” type of affair.

Nevertheless, we only looked it up because, having ourselves lived in Tooting for years, the idea of someone using at as the titular manor for a gangster flick was faintly hilarious. But if we were living in Little Rock, Arkansas with little to no knowledge of South London geography, the film would have seemed as good a bet as Layer Cake or Snatch. And at £3.49 to buy, there would be very little reason to be discerning.

In the digital video shops we increasingly use as our sources of film entertainment, these movies are ranked alongside genuine big-budget efforts, with only a paragraph of description and a cover design (usually the most professional component of the whole project) to distinguish them from the real deal. In this sense, we have all become tired Blockbuster dads.

What’s more, book-buying has become a similar experience, through the advent of the Kindle and other e-readers.

The Kindle, to me, does to reading what electronic cigarettes attempt to do to smoking: provide a convenient technological replacement for a habit rooted in physicality. When I acquired mine, my reading habits changed dramatically, and with them the way I bought books. Rather than travelling into town and blundering round a shop or having to contest with delivery times – and thus my own attention span - online, I could simply select names from a list and have them appear in moments.

With the massive swell in self-publishing on the Kindle platform, these lists are getting very swollen indeed – and with the tiny price tags attached to the work of no-name authors, the temptation to play supermarket sweep when browsing can become irresistible.

I am an avid reader of science fiction, and I have recently developed a guilty pleasure whenever I run out of reading material: performing late-night trawls of the genre’s bestseller list on the Kindle store, and picking up six or seven extremely cheap books that seem to be being read and enjoyed by the masses, all by authors I have never heard of.

Most are mediocre – either bloated short stories that appear to have been proofread by drunks, or cliché-ridden hatchet jobs written in an attempt to jump on the rusty and creaking post-apocalyptic fiction bandwagon. But at 70p or £1.50 a pop, one can hardly feel cheated.

Besides, there are flecks of gold in there too. A case in point here is Hugh Howey’s Wool, a genuinely excellent survivors-in-a-bunker story I was reading on the way into work today, and which has gone from being a humble Kindle self-publish in 2011 to an international talking point with 20th Century Fox picking up film rights.

If the media I had access to was restricted to a pool of heavyweight titles approved by big studios and publishers, it’s very unlikely I would come across stories like this at all. And if the price of this occasional serendipity is a few pounds handed over to entrepreneurial hacks each month, then so be it. The more the merrier.

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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England is now a more expensive place to study than the US. Why?

Is a university education in this country really worth £44,000, and how does our system compare to higher education funding elsewhere?

England has long sneered at American universities and their exorbitant fees. It cannot do so any longer: England is now a more expensive country to study than the US, and is easily the most expensive of eight Anglophone countries – the four UK nations, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US – analysed in a new Sutton Trust report. English students graduating from last year left university with an average of £44,000 in debt £15,000 more than Americans studying at for-profit universities across the pond.

Why do English students have it so much worse than other students in the UK? There are two answers. The first is the government's decision in 2010 to shift much of the cost of university from the general taxpayer to the beneficiaries: the students themselves. The second answer is devolution. The devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have made political choices to differentiate themselves from Westminster by prioritising keeping fees down – even when, as in Scotland, the effect is to benefit middle-class students at the expense of disadvantaged ones. Students in Wales who study in England are eligible for generous grants, meaning they pay less than £4,000 a year rather than up to £9,000. Those studying in Northern Ireland have their fees capped at £3,925. 

Even England's £9,000 fees are puny set against those at elite American universities. In 2016/17 annual, tuition fees at Harvard are $59,550 and, when all else is accounted for, Harvard reckon each year costs students $88,600. But such exorbitant numbers are not the real story. About 60% of Harvard students receive the Harvard Scholarship: a microcosm of how US students benefit from a culture of graduates giving endowents to their old universities that is still lacking in England. Scholarships and bursaries at universities in the US are far more generous than in other countries. And those who go to public universities within their own state pay far less: those graduating after four years leave with an average debt of only US$27,100 [£19,100]. This is why the average debt of US graduates is now considerably less than in England. But those who berate that even America now has a more benign system for students than England should not be so hasty. The majority of US loans are not income contingent, meaning that low earners who are already struggling still have to pay.

Governments throughout the world are grappling with how to fund send an increasing proportion of students to university in an era of austerity. In the last two decades at least 14 countries in the OECD, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK, have implemented major reforms to fees, according to the Sutton Trust. In general these reforms have led to students paying a greater share of the cost of their tuition. 

So in a sense what has happened in England is merely an extreme example of an international trend. And the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, which have been hiked up twice since, has been managed better than most acknowledge: indeed, the proportion of disadvantaged students at university has actually risen by one-fifth since tuition fees rose to £9,000.

But, with the poorest students in England now graduating with £50,000 in debt, more students will be driven to ask whether a university education is really worth it. For a small but significant minority, it isn’t. A recent IFS report found that male graduates from 23 low performing institutions – though it sadly declined to name them - earn less, on average, than those who do not go to university, and end up with huge debt to boot.

No matter how expensive a university education has become, not having one is even more expensive. Throughout the world demand for university education continues to soar; in England the average graduate premium is £200,000 over a lifetime. Yet too many dunce universities are saddling students with debt without giving them anything in return.    

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.