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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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.