Fahrenheit 404: Censorship?

While burning books have been a practice going as far back as 213 BC, it is not something that can be done with digitally published works. In that regard, platforms simply remove and ban content that violates community guidelines and ban individuals from posting. Nevertheless, in means of less drastic measures, many states and counties have leaned into banning books from the public education systems that cross their conservative views. Book banning, in this case, has risen in practice over the years. As of this year, there was even a book burning in Tennessee back in February where a pastor burned Harry Potter and Twilight books.

Banned and Censored

To combat this censorship, many digital media platforms like OverDrive and Scribd have taken measures to ensure these banned books are still available. For example, doing events like banned book week. However, as of this year, Hoopla and OverDrive have removed books centering around what can be construed as hateful content and misinformation. Hoopla CEO Jeff Jankowski states, “Due to the hateful nature of these specific titles, I have no regrets about having our team remove them from hoopla.” Then he says, “I must acknowledge that this situation highlights a complex issue that Libraries have always faced in curating their collections — avoiding a culture of censorship.”

OverDrive CEO Steve Potash has not made any comments.

The removal came about through librarian suggestions and assistance from the Library Freedom Project. The demand to remove books on behalf of librarians who found them offensive is a paradoxical and inconsistent practice in digital platforms designed to be unbiased in the variety of curated viewpoints held. This is why Scribd continuously has a wide range of voices as a digital library. Ryan Holiday, who partnered with Trip Adler, CEO of Scribd, to make banned books more available, even says:

“America has a lot of problems but people reading books is not one of them. I’m appalled by this campaign to ban or remove books from school libraries and as a bookseller, it’s my obligation to do something about it.”


It is also why the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) fights to defend the “freedom to speak, the freedom to publish, and the freedom to read, as promised by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.”

Radical Text

However, as of recent hate crimes like that of the shooting in Buffalo, New York, the shooter allegedly published a manifesto citing the “Great Replacement Theory” that was recently removed from online platforms. While it wasn’t published on any digital publishing platforms or libraries, a new law is emerging out of Texas that could later be used to affect digital American publishing platforms. The law is currently known as H.B. No. 20, it prevents censorship of Texans on prominent social media platforms in spite of the potential to incite violence through radical views.

The law would fall in line with the America Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, where the first three rights are:

I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

In the future, this could protect books like God is Bigger than Covid by Frances Deanes and A New Nobility of Blood and Soil by Richard Walther Darré. Books that were removed from Hoopla and OverDrive, world distributors of digital content for libraries and schools, due to the nature of their content.

Error Code 404

According to Rebecca Knuth, an author on book burnings and the destruction of libraries, books are targeted because they “are the embodiment of ideas and if you hold extreme beliefs, you cannot tolerate anything that contradicts those beliefs or is in competition with them.” While the books that are being censored aren’t being burned or banned from these platforms because of opposing ideas, they are being censored for promoting radical thought and presumably extremist actions like that of the shooter in Buffalo, N. Y. resulting in missing or deleted webpages—error code 404.

This could signify a new road for rules and regulations in screening works for digital library spaces and platforms in America and for what should be censored on public platforms, affecting all authors alike. Should public digital media platforms adhere to unbiased curated content like Scribd, and soon most major social media platforms, or should certain content be screened for and removed as OverDrive and Hoopla have done?

The Rise and Fall of Gawker

Once a flagship model on the internet, Gawker ignited debates about celebrities, challenged societal norms, and trailblazed what could be said in the new world of digital media. Founded in 2002 by Nick Denton and Elizabeth Spiers, Gawker envisioned a new frontier for fearless journalism. Their stylistic journalism forced them into bankruptcy in 2016 with the infamous Hulk Hogan case. Up until 2016, with its sister sites Deadspin, Jezebel, Gizmodo (io9), and Kotaku, Gawker had its tentacles wrapped around the digital publishing industry. Gawker’s advocacy for free speech over the internet and mischievous articles kept web surfers from being bored. The first amendment was often under fire as Gawker made its impact on American media through its reckless journalism.  

As Gawker looked to industrialize the online gossip industry, early articles such as “Gawker Stalker Maps and Emily Gould” (2006-08) and Alex Balk’s article “Accused of Antisemitism” (2007), gave good examples of their satirical editorials. “Gawkers vs. Sarah Palin” provided a controversial area for Gawkers leakage of Palin’s unreleased book excerpts. Backed by publisher HarperCollins, Palin sued Gawker for leaking her book without her permission. Gawker lost the case when a federal judge ordered them to take down the posts.

Gawker’s assessment of journalism, implored writers to be innovative and creative through the idea of the utopian impulse. As described by Adrian Chen, a former writer for Gawker, the utopian impulse demonstrated Gawkers eagerness for its authors to be free and innovative. Through Gawker’s content-management system, the publish button was only a click away from either the success of a writer or their self-implosion. While the platform encouraged their journalists to be free, their aspirations drove the company into the ground. Through battling people such as Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan, Gawker’s aspirations didn’t stand much of a chance.

Eccentric billionaire Peter Thiel, (cofounder of PayPal) became Gawker’s public enemy number one. Thiel was portrayed as being gay by Gawker’s articles which damaged Thiel’s character. Thiel and Gawker exchanged many punches through the years. The covert financer, made Gawker struggle at times with the number of lawsuits he imposed on Gawker for defamation. Thiel, in 2015, funded the popular Hulk Hogan case that involved the leakage of a sex tape causing questions about invasion of privacy and free speech. With financial backing from the billionaire, Hulk Hogan won his lawsuit against Gawker. Engulfed in $140 million dollars’ worth of damages the company posted for bankruptcy and was bought out.

Later through auction, Gawker was acquired by Univision Communications in 2016, for approximately $135 million. Fortunately, Gawkers sister companies remained unaffected. The articles of Jezebel, Gizmodo, Deadspin, and Kotaku don’t quite match Gawker’s intensity, but portrayed similar creative aspects. For example, Jezebel discusses celebrities, politics, and entertainment in a stylistic manner. Gizmodo has a sci-fi take on journalism and debates anything relating to tech or spaceflight. Deadspin deals a unique take on sports by providing topics such as “Drew Brees’ midlife crisis is right on time.” Providing unique articles about gaming and tech, Kotaku submerges its readers with creative articles such as “Genshin Impact Dev’s Rad AF ‘Urban RPG’ is Living in My Head Rent Free.”.

Gawker pushed the boundaries of free speech on the digital platform. In Nick Denton’s eyes, anything that was interesting validated an article. Denton illuminated his readers by pushing through articles no matter how controversial they were. He wanted everything to be a fair game in his empire.  Former Gawker editor Max Read categorized Gawkers life as “endlessly scrolling, eternally accessible record of prattle and wit and venom.” Built on young journalists who look to strike it big, Gawker feared no one and didn’t necessarily care if they hurt feelings. As Nick Denton stated in an interview with Joe Mullin of ArsTechnica, he would not change Gawker’s image one bit.

Recently Gawker has relaunched in 2021 with the Bustle Digital Group. Leah Finnegan, the new editor-in chief who originally worked for Gawker in their heyday envisions a fresh new start for the platform. Ms. Finnegan understands that the old platform got out of hand, and wants to get back to the funny bits. In an interview with NY Times Ben Smith, Ms. Finnegan stated that she wasn’t interested in ruining people’s lives, but would rather focus on satirical literary criticism. Through the creation of “Religious Guidelines”, authors now have much more direction when writing for Gawker.   

Gawker specialization in gossip, made it difficult to prosper when something was accidentally leaked. Nonetheless, the company helped popularize the early goings of the blogging scene. Under Leah Finnegan’s new management, a historic comeback attempt is looking promising. Even if the company looks at making fun of people, Ms. Finnegan intends on doing it in a professional manner.

Companies like Gawker forged a new industry and helped set the guidelines for freedom of speech on the internet. Through their satirical approach Gawker blazed a trail for companies such as BuzzFeed to take over the gossip market.  Gawker passed down a lot of qualities to the newly forming industry and created controversial journalism. With Ms. Finnegan’s advisement, Gawker looks at diversifying its platform to be more suitable for casual laughter from the audience instead of hurting people with defamation.  

Why are authors choosing Substack?

Have you ever had any interests in becoming an independent writer? Substack has become the premier advocate for independent writers. Founded by Chris Best in 2017, Substack captures an author’s dream of being independent by implementing very few restrictions. The online newsletters of Substack encourages readers to browse through author’s articles that includes topics such as culture, politics, and technology. Through Substack’s system, authors have the freedom to write as much as they desire or as little as they want. Substack at its core, makes life simpler for authors, because of the ability to work remotely. Not only is the ability to work remotely an advantage, authors are met with a WordPress like interface when they sign up with their email. Through the simplicity of the interface, writers are actively able to focus on their creativity and editorial skills. Working with this platform, authors often find themselves to be freer than working in the corporate publishing world. With no editors and time constraints outside of self-imposed ones, authors no longer need to look over their shoulders.

Why should an author choose Substack in the first place? With Substack, authors ultimately have the utmost capability in paving their legacy. Not only do authors have the control over their perception, they can choose their creativity level. One of the platform’s biggest selling points is their advocacy for authors to be free. While freedom is encouraged, guidelines have been put into place to prevent nude content, misinformation, hate speech and harassment posts from being uploaded. Outside of these few areas that are addressed in their guideline’s; writing content is mostly an open-game on Substack’s platform.

Substack isn’t just interested in newsletters, they have branched out to accommodate podcasts and various comic books. Media producers can easily find themselves at home with the vast selections of media content that the company offers. The addition of podcasts and comic books options entices authors to join the buttery smooth interface. The smooth interface also makes it easier for Substack to diversify their library. Through their interface, features such as leaderboards come into play to encourage authors and readers to stay active.

One of Substack’s most notable features is their leaderboard system that designates who the top writers are. The leaderboard challenges authors to get to the top slate if they choose by accommodating the authors with various perks from the company. Perks can potentially include more recognition or large financial contracts that are offered by Substack. The leaderboard also introduces a simplistic interface that not only show-cases an author’s work but also keeps the reader engaged by making new content easier to find. Substack believes that their leaderboard benefits both the reader and the author by implementing obtainable goals that can result in the success of the author. With the simplicity of the leaderboard, readers can easily find new content which keeps them motivated to come back.

Through the application of the leaderboard top notch writers can easily earn up to six figures from 4 the company. Substack doesn’t just give these types of figures to everybody however, authors need the experience and reputation to earn such figures. Danny Lavery a writer of Substack, shows us a great example of what the platform can offer to its top content creators. In 2021, Mr. Lavery signed a two-year contract with the company that was worth $430,000. From being a blog founder of The Toast, Substack has been able to take his writing career to the next level. Mr. Lavery’s audience includes 1,800 paying subscribers to a newsletter of his called the Shater Chatner.

The beauty of Substack is the financial freedom that it gives to its authors. Authors like Mr. Lavery, are able to choose whether they have an annual subscription for their newsletter. For example, Mr. Lavery sets his subscription rate at $50 a year. He also can choose to alter the subscription fee for his readers or not have one at all. While Mr. Lavery will make most of his $430,000 contract, fees are included so that Substack makes money off of his articles and subscriptions.

Dependent on how Substack’s contracts are written, the company may deduct anywhere from 10 to 15 percent off of the authors subscription income. From that point, credit card fees are taken into account when readers subscribe for the authors newsletter. After the credit card deduction fee and the subscription fee, authors are clear to harvest whatever the remaining income is. The key caveat for authors that are attached to Substack, is from having the ability to use paywall subscription at their leisure.

Since 2017, Substack has slowly grown into a prominent publishing enterprise. Though the COVID pandemic definitely helped bolster their popularity, Substack has equipped writers with a new foundation of freedom that very few publishing houses offer, especially corporate level companies. Substack’s insistence on the freedom of authors to be creative and the ability to adopt financial security entices authors to stay with their system. Authors who cherish the simplistic nature of working on their own have the capability of finding their niche with Substack. Most importantly as Substack exemplifies freedom, authors often have an opportunity to create their own media empire.

Success in Serialization

Digital publishing has re-envisioned many of today’s traditional publishing methods, like the serial novel. While serial fiction is a piece of literature released through installments like it is now. Historically, each installment contained its own story loosely connected to an overarching narrative and popularized by The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. Outside of Dicken’s writing style and themes, its popularity came from its accessibility. Besides being inexpensive like the traditional publishing texts, the modern serialized story is composed of episodes, or mini-chapters, that actively support a more significant narrative than individual shorts. Therefore, making it vastly different from its predecessor.

As digital publishing grows, many new outlets for serialized fiction develop, allowing more authors to thrive. The popularity of the modern serialized novel could arguably be traced back to websites like Wattpad, a highly interactive platform for digital publishing. Websites like these restructured how a community can create readership and reader retention, especially with the growth of the author’s note, and allow authors like Pepper Pace on Kindle Vella to become successful.

Kindle Vella

Kindle is not a new market in the field of digital publishing or self-publishing. However, Kindle Vella relatively is. While it did a soft launch in 2021, its official launch in 2022 was successful, albeit through marketing and a free set of tokens for new readers. Its success was thanks to the soft launch—ultimately benefiting many authors.

Reader Engagement

Kindle Vella is user-friendly and allows the reader to be as interactive as the author and platform allow. At the end of each episode, readers can like the episode, follow the story, or continue reading. Polls can even be done if the author wills it. Thus, building a community and allowing personability to negate pitfalls that can be faced in choosing to publish serialized novels, like upset readers from infrequent or inconsistent updates, grammatical errors, or what appears to be filler content that doesn’t move the story forward. Therefore, implying that reader engagement is the sole reason for success on Kindle Vella, as the top five promoted stories are stories that are “favorited” by the audience.

The Serialized Cost

As Kindle Vella is a self-publishing platform for serialized novels, authors have complete control over their success. No contracts hold the author to a particular word count, specific release dates, or approved plot arches. As a result, an author, in theory, can actively work on uncompleted stories like they could on platforms such as Wattpad or Inkitt. Except with compensation and, in turn, more options for revenue later as many outlets have strict guidelines for works that were previously available for free.

However, Kindle Vella charges approximately “one token per 100 words,” making word count crucial for pantsers—writers who don’t plot, plan, their novels—on the platform. Other platforms are successful due to regular updates and consistent costs per episode. Not ensuring these terms for readers can be highly detrimental for authors, even when delving into genres garnered towards adult audiences, making Pace’s success on Kindle Vella notable.

Pepper Pace and Audrey Carlan

Ever since the hard launch of Kindle Vella, the first and fifth place positions for the monthly top five favorited novels have stayed the same. Pace’s The Galatian Exchange has remained in fifth place for four consecutive months since January 2022. Her dedicated installment schedule and her personability through her reader engagement led her to this. The Marriage Auction by Audrey Carlan has remained in first thanks to Carlan’s pacing or, on Kindle Vella’s platform, low-cost installments.

While serialized stories are often accessible because they are generally affordable, Kindle Vella has made many readers feel as though they are being extorted by authors. This is one of the significant issues Pace has faced since the beginning, and it is most likely the reason she has not resin above fifth place. However, because of the platform’s emphasis on the author’s note and reader engagement, Pace has retained readership despite fluctuating prices due to word count. Since most users often don’t look for price explanations in publishing guidelines, as they are readers rather than publishers, Pace took it upon herself to explain. However, she only did so after much backlash in later chapters.

Alternatively, Carlan maintained her position arguably solely based on her accessibility. Though readers may complain about infrequent and short installments, Carlan seemingly follows a similar update schedule to Pace—updating twice about a week, negating such claims.

Knowing the main reasons why each author has achieved success, as well as what sets their levels of success apart, is key to understanding how to maintain success in self-publishing a serialized fiction in the digital age.

Should I write a Will? Well, now it just got easier!

Electronic wills (E-wills) are a good example of how more areas of digital media are being produced. Electronic wills provide a unique take on how wills are constructed.  E-wills are a new and improved way of making wills more accessible to the general public. Currently, only three states have passed the necessary laws to make E-wills available. These three states are Nevada, Indiana, and Arizona. Through using different interfaces, E-wills can offer a more imaginative approach when one decides to create a will. E-wills introduce more accessible functions to clients due to the ability of using a basic word document or even going more advanced and using an online template. With an E-will a lawyer’s presence isn’t always necessary compared to the physical copy. By providing clients with specific templates and accessible interfaces, E-wills change the landscape of remote legal work.

At their core, E-wills are essentially the same as a physical will. They need the testator (will maker) to sign the will and need at least two witnesses who do not benefit from the will to observe the signature. Similarly, to physical wills, E-Wills require a person to be over the age of 18 and require the signer to be sober at the time of the signing of the will. However, states may decide that different requirements are needed for E-wills to be filed properly.

Having passed the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) and the Uniform Electronic Wills Act (UEWA), Nevada, Arizona, and Indiana have energized the rise of this new will making format. UETA basically establishes the principle of legalizing electronic records and signatures. Through UETA, the Uniform Electronic Wills Act is legalized. In a simplistic manner, UEWA gives testators the capability of executing their wills legally. Both of these acts provide electronic accessibility to client’s who prefer their will to be digital. The UEWA Act essentially gives testators an ability to make probate courts give the electronic will a legal effect. Probate courts ultimately hold the jurisdiction over electronic wills.  

As many would imagine, the ability to go mobile creates an immediate advantage for those wanting to create an E-will. A popular use of E-wills can come in the format of estate planning. With the ease of convenience, E-wills provide estate planners with an exceptional ease of access to submit changes to their estate arrangements at their own time. The complexities of estate planning help E-wills become more popular because of the flexibility to work remotely and to ask for assistance when needed depending on the interface of the E-will. E-wills also make estate planning seem more user-friendly since a majority of people fear the estate planning process of their wills. This is why several companies such as Trust & Wills are becoming estate planning experts. They are able to provide assistance to E-will makers when needed and are able to introduce interactive formats.

Companies such as Trust & Wills, Tomorrow.me, and Notarize.com have increasingly become popular for E-will creation. Business owners are now looking at either integrating their businesses to offer E-will features or even completely abandon their previous company’s infrastructure in order to focus strictly on E-wills. Shaun Savage, owner of Trust & Wills, is a great example of this transitioning; he went from a movie streaming service called goShare, to a will service called Trust & Wills. Trust & Wills embellishes a new frontier to will making by providing interactive features to their clients.

Trust & Wills, displays a perfect example of how E-wills can make will making appealing. They give a time standard of approximately 10 minutes that is needed to make a will through their system. Trust & Wills also presents competitive prices for will making. This competitive pricing helps promote customizable wills, state specific wills, or wills relating specifically to couples. Trust & Wills opens up a new boundary for will designers. These interactive features that Trust & Wills gives to a client helps them add more value to their will. As noted by the Co-Founder of Trust & Wills, Mitch Mitchell, he expects that estate planning will only get easier from here. Mitch Mitchell stated this in an interview with Kirk Miller of InsideHook:

InsideHook: What was the genesis of Trust & Will?

Mitch Mitchell: The co-founders, who started Trust & Will in 2017, they were all in a transitional stage in life. They had assets, they had things to think about. And the idea was, why can you pretty much do anything online — mortgages, real estate, buying clothes — but not a will? Why isn’t this easier?

So, are you just online estate lawyers?

Mitch Mitchell: I was an estate planning attorney for a decade before joining. We have a small legal team, but we’re more of a software/tech company, not a law firm. What we do is narrowly tailored — right now, we have a will, trust and guardian product, and online there’s a guided interview to ask you what’s a good fit. We also offer access to lawyers; it’s an add-on benefit. We’re more like TurboTax for wills.

Why aren’t people just doing their wills online if it’s this simple (and cheaper)?

Mitch Mitchell: Coming from a private practice, I can say that a lot of people just don’t want to think about their own mortality at all. There are difficult questions you need to answer, especially if you have kids — who do you trust as a guardian if something goes wrong? It’s interesting, because the Covid pandemic did accelerate some of this thinking and encouraged people to not put it off. A stat we like to throw out is that 60% of Americans don’t have an estate plan — our idea is to make it easy for you.

Mitch Mitchell, interview by Kirk Miller, February 16, 2022 “Why you Should Get an E-Will, Even If You’re Young”

Notarize.com, Trust & Wills, and Tomorrow.me have grown from the grounds up amongst the electronic will emergence. Notarize.com has easily become the leading online notary in the digital industry. Instead of wandering into a designated notary facility, being able to notarize your electronic will to make it official, allows for simplicity. The convenience function of E-wills makes companies such as Notarize.com blossom in the digital industry. Notarize.com empowers stylus users by integrating their interface to support mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.

Tomorrow.me, originally founded by Dan Hanley, is another great example of how companies can create more exciting interfaces for their clients. Tomorrow.me hosted an intricate website that allowed a client to design your own will template. However, what’s important about Tomorrow.me is that they expanded the will making business and went mobile. Through their mobile application tablet and smartphone users were able to create their own wills with ease. Not only did Tomorrow.me present a great way for all users to create wills, but their mobile application also offered 24/7 customer support. You can find an example of Tomorrow.me’s mobile application here. Unfortunately, Tomorrow.me did get bought out by a life insurance company called Ethos planning in 2022. Tomorrow.me showed how accessible E-wills could be through establishing a mobile application and not just focusing on computer-based services.

E-wills, while still new, developed drastically over the last two years especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. E-wills are slowly becoming a household name and give enjoyment to those who want to make a will. While lawyers are often reluctant to accept them due to the challenges of embracing new technology and battling the old ages, E-wills will drastically sculpt a new legal practice. E-wills are not perfect by any means, especially when dealing with the potential likes of fraud or tampering. Clients are much less intimidated now from making wills because of the approachability of E-wills.