Saturday, January 24, 2009

How will piracy affect publishing?

I've reserved a review copy of the forthcoming Foxit eSlick, Foxit software's horribly-named e-book reader due out next month. It's not new technology, but at $229, this could be the first reader that lots of people actually buy. It also will read pdf's, unlike the abominably proprietary Kindle [note: I've been informed, in the comments, that there is indeed a way to read pdf's on the Kindle, sorry], which is what interests me about it, as I read a lot of manuscripts that are thrown out immediately afterward, and which I'm not interested in reading on a computer screen.

Now, I'm not terribly interested in one of those real-books-versus-e-books aesthetic debates. Yes, we all love the feel of a book in our hands, the discolored paper, the marginal notes blah blah blah blah. Doubtless there will be room in the world for both formats, and nobody alive today is likely to ever see book-lined rooms obliterated from existence. So chill.

But I am interested in the other possible consequences of this technology. So far, writers don't seem to have suffered much from the possibility of cracked copyrighted content, probably because they don't make much money to begin with, and mostly because not many people read literature in this format. But once the practice is widespread (as I've said before, I think it will be, once we have inexpensive readers that look half decent), piracy will probably be widespread as well, and literature might well go the way of music, with a vast percentage of people culturally acclimated to the idea that it is, in effect, free.

There are a few problems with this analogy, though. One is that musicians, at the dawn of file sharing, were already not making much money off of records. The money comes from touring. This trend has been hugely amplified in the wake of Napster, etc., and now many musicians and record companies have come around to also thinking that recorded music is basically free. The moral calculus involved in stealing music has changed, and most music acts don't even consider records a major source of revenue anymore. This doesn't make music piracy OK, of course, but it is now lower in the heirarchy of sins than, say software piracy. (For an interesting read on that subject, check out this Analog Industries post.)

This is bad news for writers, because we make no money from touring. Indeed, at least in the short run, publishers lose money on touring. For one thing, literary readings are generally free. Second, fans of writers don't really need to hear them read. If you love Bruce Springsteen, you are going to buy Springsteen tickets, because much of the pleasure in his music comes from the concept of its spontaneous creation; furthermore, when you go to a concert, you are hearing something unique, not just a rehashing of the record. In a concert, the music is being created now. But if you love, say, T. C. Boyle, you really don't necessarily want to hear him read. You might like to see what he's like in person, but ultimately, it's just going to be a guy reading out of a book, the same book you already read. Literature is cerebral, not physical and extemporaneous. The action all happens offstage; a book is merely its ultimate result. A reading is nice, but it isn't the act of creation. It's a shadow on the wall.

However, there's another problem with the e-book/mp3 analogy, and that is that literature is already free. Indeed, anyone in America can read any book he or she wants. All you have to do is go to your free public library, get a free library card, and check it out. You might have to pay fifty cents for an interlibrary loan. The main reason to buy a new book is that you want it now. (You might also suspect it will have lasting value, and you'll want to read it again.) But ultimately, very few writers make any money off of their books.

Now, I am talking here about Literature. The vast number of books that sell are not fiction or poetry--they're reference, cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, etc., and these books do make money. But for most of us, piracy is not very worrisome. Who the hell is going to steal my book? most literary writers would say, hardly anyone wants to read it to begin with.

This technology could be great for small-time writers who might want to sell novels, say, off their websites for five bucks, the way a lot of independent bands do with their records. But of course the public has to know, and care, that you exist to begin with. Bands achieve this by touring. And I bet a lot of writers would, too, if they could. Unless you're on the self-help lecture circuit, though, you really can't. Nobody will care, because like I said, it's not the physical presence of bands that pack clubs, it's the spontaneous creation of a work of art. And nobody ever danced to Jonathan Safran Foer.

Many of us who are into contemporary music could see the record industry crisis coming from a thousand miles away. Record execs blew it in slow motion, with their reluctance to embrace downloading and create subscription services. Instead they waited too long and tried to shove the genie back in the bottle with lawsuits and DRM. They were "right" to do those things, but it was never going to work.

I can't see the future of publishing, though. Maybe, ultimately, e-books will just not take off the way digital music has. Maybe digital will always be the ugly stepchild of print. In any event, here's my wild prediction: ten years from now, all the best literary writers will be at small presses, who will put out short-run print editions at a premium, while offering direct downloads at a heavily discounted price. And we will all go from not making much money to making almost no money, and we'll all sigh ruefully and accept it.

21 comments:

Matt Bell said...

Just as a heads up-- The Kindle reads PDFs as well (after a conversion that's done as easily as e-mailing the file to your own kindle). I read PDFs and DOC files of books and stories all the time on mine.

jrlennon said...

I'd read online that you have to pay to do that...and what you get back isn't a pdf, but a proprietary Kindle format. I don't have one, though, so I'm happy to stand corrected...

liliannattel said...

I make a living writing literary fiction, or have so far. Nobody knows what the next book brings. I know a lot of people who read literary fiction. Why short change ourselves? I've long thought that all the free stuff writers do, like those readings, undermine the value of what we do. Sure, the living I make isn't the same as Grisham's. But by the same token every computer designer isn't making what Bill Gates does either. The biggest problem is something you've identified. I don't think it's people reading books or even the format of books but the media coverage. It's letting people know that the books are out there. Maybe writers should tour in packs and bring lots of books to sell and sign. I've also wondered whether there couldn't be a United Artists of publishing. Remember that was started by a couple of movie stars who were getting screwed over. I'm not implying that publishers are screwing over writers. I actually think that the publishers and editors are doing their best and really love books. But they are part of huge corporate communications & entertainment organizations whose H.O.'s, which make policy and determine budgets, are at a distance from the people on the ground, creating and writing.

rmellis said...

Could anything be worse than the name "eSlick"? No, I don't think so.

My opinion: In the future, midlist literary writers won't make any money. Writers of bestsellers will (they might even make more, since less $$ will go into the paper and shipping and all that), and people who write series fiction, like mysteries and romances will continue to, as well. It's not that huge a tragedy -- not much literature is written purely for dough anymore, anyway.

The rock concert for writers is not the reading, but the writer's conference.

AER said...

I'm sure there's some sweeping generalizations in this comment, but in any case, what I always remember about the music piracy issue was that right before free music rapidly became available in unsanctioned ways online, CD prices were reaching upwards of a ridiculous $18-20 for a new release -- after well over a decade of the music industry assuring customers the initial $12-15 price of CDs would decrease in coming years.

Now, I'm not saying these obvious mark-ups were a valid reason for everyone to start "stealing" music online, but at the same time, people were fed up with ever-higher costs of CDs, and obviously most felt little to no guilt in getting free music online by this point. Eventually, of course, the industry powers-that-be realized this couldn't be stopped, came to their senses, and with a little help from the iPod, got people to start paying for music again -- at a reasonable price that is actually even decreasing further now at iTunes and other sites.

All of which is long way of saying, people on both sides of the equation started getting fed up, and after some growing pains, plenty of people are paying for music again.

With the advent of e-books and e-readers, I'd like to hope something similar could happen with books. I mean, maybe I'm missing something, but I just don't understand why I can buy a new-release DVD that has (obviously) audio and video elements and hours of supplemental material and usually lists for around $20-25 (and often much less) but a hardcover book -- pages filled with words bound together -- lists for $25-30?

I mean, maybe I'm missing something obvious, but how does that make sense? A recently developed piece of technology with several gigs of audio and video stored on one disc (and often two discs) costs less than the centuries-old practice of binding a few hundred pages together?

If the book industry wants to avoid a great deal of the pirating woes the music industry experienced, they could do a lot worse than start embracing digital media as a way to cut down apparently exorbitant production costs effectively before consumers themselves get so fed up they decide to cut the costs themselves, like they did with obviously over-priced music -- to the low, low, can't-be-beat price of free. The music industry of course was too slow to act, and unfortunately, given its even more entrenched ways, I'm guessing the book industry will only react more slowly...

jrlennon said...

I think those are all good comments, and I agree, the record industry created the problem by charging insane amounts of money for CD's. You're right, it doesn't make illegal downloading OK, but it's certainly part of what made downloading morally acceptable to most people. And yes, lots of people are paying for downloads at last, myself included (now that DRM is on its way out).

Books are indeed expensive, but it's a little different from CD's. Due to economies of scale, I suppose, it is far, far cheaper to manufacture a CD than it is a book. It's possible to get CD's made, with printed faces and 4-color paper sleeves, for well under a dollar apiece. Even cheaply made novels from print-on-demand services cost about ten times that amount, at the least. There's much more raw material in a book, and its creation is much more labor-intensive than a CD.

But this probably strengthens your argument that publishers should just skip the 10 years of hassle and move right into an inexpensive-download model, and I think you're right. I do think paper books must and will endure, but they are likely to be luxury items...and there has to be an e-book reader as pleasing to the eye and hands as the iPod is to the ear. (Please, audiophiles, I don't want to hear about the horrors of mp3's. They are good enough for most people.)

The eSlick probably won't be that device, but we'll have it eventually.

jrlennon said...

Also, Lillian, I'm with you up to a point, but nobody will pay to hear a midlist reader read from her book, ever. Literary fiction just does not, and will not, ever have the populist cultural cache, and emotional immediacy, of popular music. This isn't a bad thing, it's the nature of the beast. Indeed, it's part of what I love about the stuff.

Writers touring in packs is kind of a cool idea, though. Maybe we could do what they do in Iceland, and publish all novels at the same time of year. Then everyone could promote together.

AER said...

Yeah, I have no doubt good old fashioned books will endure just as they are, regardless of any increased popularity for e-books. For thirty years, people have speculated home video might make movie theaters obsolete, and obviously that hasn't come close to happening. It'll probably be more like email vs. postal mail as well -- sure, you can still always get out a sheet of nice paper and write or type a letter to a friend and drop in the mailbox, but a lot of the time it's simply easier and faster and simpler to do all that on a non-space-consuming email server. Same thing with buying/carrying/storing books.

I'm especially curious to see what digital storage/copies will do to the production costs of books associated with often-overestimated print-run and returns policies with sellers, since it seems those factors will be virtually non-existent with electronic books.

rmellis said...

I agree with AER. Hardcover books are WAY over-priced; it feels suicidal to me. If I were a publisher, I'd go with $10 paperbacks all the time.

jrlennon said...

I would LOVE it if my books were in mass market paper...

Andrew said...

I don't really not making much money off my books--I make enough from my day job--but I have to admit I find it a little irritating to think how much my publishers are making from my books, considering the relative effort put in by me and by them!

My technical books are in the $40-$60 range and people feel they are cheap, but given how little I make off them, I'd just as soon have them sell for $10 and get no royalties.

P.S. As a consumer of books, I love mass-market pocket paperbacks, but they pretty much stopped publishing these things about 20 years ago. Existing mass-market books--the Scott Turows, Stephen Kings, etc--are so fat that they don't fit in my pocket. Unlike my 40-year-old Updikes and Le Carres which are just so, so convenient to carry.

Zachary Cole said...

Wouldn't it be cheaper for publishers to produce smaller hardcovers? As a consumer, that's my favorite format. It's still overpriced, but at least they are a managable size, mixing the portability of a trade paperback w/ the sturdiness of a hardback. To be more exact, I'm talking about (looks at book shelf) hardbacks like Lethem's pre- "Motherless Brooklyn" titles.

I can't count how many times I've seen 00-page "normal" sized hardbacks that just seem like a waste of space.

And about paperbacks-- mass markets drive me nuts. For the most part, they're about as ready to read as motel Bibles (then again, I have the vision of someone three times my age.)

jrlennon said...

That's an interesting idea--the expense of printing books resulting in writers choosing to write shorter novels.

My forthcoming novel is my shortest, so don't ever say I never made sacrificies ;-)

jon said...

Given how difficult it is to get an agent to read a query letter, much less a manuscript, and the fact that even if you do manage to get an agent, and then a publisher, the money they will pay you compared to the labor, is a joke, more and more I think, 'Why bother?' Publication, in whatever form, has to do with finding an audience. Since going online I have more readers than I ever had circulating expensive manuscripts to friends and giving local readings. I mean, online, self-publication is cheap, and the distribution is wide, if paper thin. I've decided there's no point in trying for print publication anymore. If it happens, fine. At this point, I can't see anything that an editor or agent can offer me, especially since they don't seem to do much 'editing' anymore, and agent story recommendations seem to run along the lines of, 'it's page 72 and no one has had sex yet.' My audience is tiny, but it exists. And in less than a year, other free e-book websites have started to link to my website. That's farther than I got in 15 years of agent queries.

jrlennon said...

Nice work, jon. I sympathize, it's hard to find good agents and editors...

Someone You Went to High School With said...

I thank you for the heads-up on this. I've been wanting an eReader for quite some time, but nothing has ever quite hit the sweet spot between size/design/features/price. This looks good.

I would love to be able to subscribe to writers much the same way I subscribe to web cartioonists and some musicians. To pay the creator directly for his/her work, rather than have to go through a middleman, might ensure the creator actually gets something from me for the sweat of her/his brow. I read blogs like this so I can find authors who are new to me, whose ideas I could never find on my own living in a world with so much information so easily available. I can envision a network of clicks and links, where authors have websites where their works are downloadable after a Paypal donation, and buttons and ads lead to so many more authors.

No, nothing will ever replace the experience of leafing through a fresh tome, but maybe ebooks can make reading more of an instantaneous choice of entertainment.

But I'm only a reader, so what do I know?

Someone You Went to High School With, who happens to be Melody Fohr

jrlennon said...

MEL!!!!

Why weren't you at the reunion? I actually went for a change.

FWIW, I like where you're going with this, and I think what you describe will be much more common in the near future.

I still remember, with stunning clarity, the spectacle of you playing air piano on your desk to the Duran Duran songs in your head. Those were the days!

Aynthem said...

It wasn't good timing this year. My mother died at the end of June, and Dad came out to Pittsburgh to have Thanksgiving with us; his reservations were made long before I found out about the reunion.

I still have remarkably good interactions with the voices in my head. Many days, it's the best conversation I get. Some of your comments (and my life experience) about the quality of some of our educators leads me to believe I didn't miss much back then.

Mel (Did I ever tell you Moose propositioned me?)

jrlennon said...

Mel, I do believe you ought to email me. jrobertlennon at gmail, let's catch up...

Library Pitfall said...

Interlibrary loans in California public libraries are $5, not 50 cents - which makes me just want to buy the book on amazon.

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