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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.