February 3rd, 2010 by Will Entrekin

The Real Digital Conflict

Crash-course preamble: before Apple announced the iPad, it spoke to many publishers about providing content for its new device, which it hoped could be used as an e-reader. Perhaps hoping that the iPad could somehow do for books what the iPod did for music, many publishers–including the six largest corporate publishers, who include companies like Harper Collins and Penguin–made arrangements to distribute content via the new device at a price point of $14.99, 30% of which Apple retained. This seemed a coup for publishers, and flush with excitement over the deal, Macmillan decided it was going to use its new leveraging power to re-negotiate terms with Amazon and its Kindle, where e-books tended to run $9.99 when published by the big six. Why, Macmillan figured, should it accept $9.99 when it could charge $14.99 (nevermind that $14.99 is, at this point, mythical, given that the iPad right now only exists on Steve Jobs desk. So far as I know, we can’t even pre-order it yet)?

Amazon held firm to its price, and then a couple of old white guys fought like only the knew how, by digging in their heels and refusing to budge. If John Sargent and Macmillan were going to refuse their pricing scheme, Jeff Bezos and Amazon decided, well, they no longer needed to sell Macmillan books. Which included a lot of imprints, like TOR, Forge, ROC, and myriad others.

And readers, who tend not to care so much who publishes their favorite authors so long as they can buy the books, got hurt. Collateral damage.

Writers? Hurt too. Because most authors have no control over those sorts of things. Certainly not over how much their books cost.

The resulting mess and its Twitstorm highlighted the bigger issue, which is digital distribution, pricing, and information. The appropriate cost of an e-book is endlessly debated because the market is still nascent and nothing has yet emerged as the “right” price point. When Apple’s iPod came out, it established price points: 99 cents per song, $9.99 for most albums, with some bargains thrown in.

Apple came late to the e-book party because Steve Jobs didn’t want to admit he was wrong when he declared “Nobody reads anymore” several years ago. Also because, of course, he wanted to get it perfectly right. That’s what Apple tends to aim for (whether the iPad manages the feat is still anyone’s guess. My thought is close, but not yet). Amazon got to set a price–$9.99–that was widely but not universally adopted. I didn’t hear much about publishers grumbling over the price; all I really heard then, mostly, was publishers hoping to be saved by the Kindle.

For my money, I think even $9.99 is too high. I tend to think e-books’ price should fall around the price we’ve always paid for mass market paperbacks: ~$7.99 or so. Over here, Jeff Vandermeer notes why he thinks the mass market paperback analogy doesn’t work, but I’m not convinced by his argument, if only for the fact that he bases his argument on the mass market paperback business model–i.e., that a book needs to sell a lot of hardcover copies to justify the bulk order of paperbacks–which for me doesn’t make sense because why are we talking about printing books?

I understand why the publishing industry feels the need to justify its own existence. I’m just not sure it can.

***

With the iPad and the Kindle, it’s obvious that there is a market for e-reading and digital content. We want devices on which we can read, and smartphones don’t quite fulfill our needs the way we want them to; the screens are too small, for one. The iPad strikes me as the better option if only because it’s not just for books; it’s for all digital content, regardless of the medium, which strikes me as necessary in our time of convergence.

(The problem there, of course, being so-called ‘vooks’ and the like. I’m not saying we’re never going to want books enhanced by other media. But so far, the implementation has felt like a gimmick at best, and, like the idea of a platform, leaves writers with the mistaken idea that first priority should be more than just a good book.)

The underlying issue becomes one of tension. I’ll leave this point to Stewart Brand who said, at a 1984 hacker convention:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Inherent in that dichotomy is every issue publishing, publishers, distributors, electronics manufacturers, writers, and, most of all, readers face: information is our most valuable commodity but yet in our culture wants to be free. Our culture is based on information–language, music, movies, books, etc.–so of course it wants all the information it can have, which makes that information priceless. If food, water, clothing, and shelter are basic human needs (and that’s what I learned they were when I was in school), information is a basic cultural need.

This basic conflict is the root cause of all the problems publishers are trying to sort out. Piracy, distribution, returns, marketing, promotion, editing, platform . . . it all comes down to the fact that publishers used to model itself as a gatekeeper but can no longer propose to filter the torrent: there’s too much of it, and it’s too strong.

It’s certainly the basis of most piracy: people want music, movies, and now books, but it’s worth remembering that pirating media is not always a matter of free. There are a lot of other factors involved, including convenience and ownership, for two. I’d rather download a DRM-free PDF of a novel than be locked into a publishing format and platform I can’t get out of; over the years, I’ve owned music players from Sony, Koss, Denon, Sansa, and now Apple–who’s to say I’ll stay there? I’ve owned DVD players manufactured by Toshiba, Samsung, Sony, and Panasonic; I never had to re-buy my DVD collection when I bought a new laptop with a new DVD drive.

Publishers, of course, don’t like DRM. They’re scared we’ll copy the files, that we’ll get together as a cohort of twenty or a hundred or a thousand readers, appoint one representative to purchase the DRM-free PDF, and then we’ll all just share it, instantaneously, without remuneration or compensation to the publisher. And it’s possible we would (though I feel unlikely). Which is why, when Macmillan (again?) discussed piracy at a recent conference called Digital Book World, its policy basically came down to fighting it at all costs.

***

Fighting it doesn’t make sense; it is going to occur whether we want it to or not, based solely on the fact that information is so inherently important to our culture. In a recent post over at The Nervous Breakdown’s Feed, Shya Scanlon discussed some issues concerning copyright, and in the comments noted:

I’ve gotta admit I find it somehow more acceptable to download (steal) music and/or movies that have already entered the popular lexicon. It’s like, if as a culture we’re going to go around quoting the Godfather all the damn time, references turning up in everything from advertisements to popular music, I shouldn’t have to pay to see what everyone’s talking about. If I’m going to be necessarily infected by a cultural meme, aren’t I owed the right to experience it firsthand?

Is this what Jeff Vandermeer meant when he titled his aforementioned post about paperbacks and e-book pricing “E-Books and Issues of Entitlement?” He notes:

It’s especially ironic given that the book industry is usually dealing in unit sales of an individual book of under 20,000 copies, whereas other forms of entertainment like movies and music are dealing in unit sales of over 100,000 copies. In other words, there’s not much room for price discounts.

Without acknowledging the vastly different business models of each other industry. Last I knew, movie studios and music labels didn’t accept return of unsold product. Also, it’s worth noting that in each instance, the more major retailers you can think of–including Best Buy and Walmart, for two–sell that product at a steep loss as a way to attract customers to buy bigger ticket items. He notes there’s not much room for price discounts, but I’m sure there he means discounts for readers, considering the steep discounts publishers offer retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders to stock their books. Well. Wait. I’m not sure of that, and wouldn’t presume to put words in his mouth. But that’s my educated guess, especially given the fact he’s making the case that readers shouldn’t expect any of the perks–including samples and discounts and return policies–publishers offer to retailers. Not that publishers don’t offer samples, mind you, but readers shouldn’t expect them, I’m guessing, because that’s what entitlement means, so far as I know.

Ditchwalk has posted a great response to the piracy issue, as well, with links to other participants in the debate. It makes the point that theft is theft and stealing is stealing but never addresses a pretty big point; namely, whether either is inherently wrong. He makes the point that sneaking into a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert is still taking part of a service for which one didn’t pay, but neglects to address whether it’s wrong. Twitter user and Dear Author contributor Jane L maintains that theft must require some deprivation; in other words, there must be something tangible, because one person has to use it such that another cannot.

That Ditchwalk post is mainly in response to Maria Schembari’s “A Gen Y Reaction to Macmillan’s Piracy Plan.” Which I think makes some good points, but that may be because I think I’m right there at the ass end of Gen X/beginning of Gen Y. That agreement comes down to her simple assessment:

I’m poor. I understand technology, and I guarantee I can find any book online, for free, in 10 minutes or less. You can delete and sue all you want, but at the end of the day the internet is a wide and limitless place, meaning it’s a waste of time, money and energy to fight it. Embrace the change and find another way to make money without a) annoying your audience, b) suing your audience, and c) losing your audience by wasting cash on completely ineffective “precautions”.

It seems that the people most outspoken about piracy–at least book piracy–are guys like Rupert Murdoch and John Sargent. Old white guys who control the entire company. Writers? Yes, some are worried, but how many writers get hurt by piracy, and how many get more hurt entering into bad contracts with their publishers? I’ve read people fear the loss of the possibility of writing full time, but that prompts to questions: who is able to, anyway (given the vast majority of publishing is of mid-list authors who maintain day jobs); and why would you want to? God, writing full time? And doing nothing else? I’d go nuts, I think. But then, I like teaching. I like interacting with others.

For example: why is this the publishers’ battle to fight? Why don’t writers have more of a stake? If paperback and hard cover rights are separated, why aren’t digital rights? Why do Harper Collins or Macmillan feel they own the digital rights to any given work solely because they bought the print rights? If Hollywood writers can strike against studios who are screwing them out of rights and better compensation, why mightn’t novelists do the same? (The SFWA should be more involved here, but they’re too busy enumerating all the possible problems with electronic publishing, rather than exploring how writers could, you know, maybe, use it.)

It’s a question I’m right now considering while querying a novel. I want a publisher to help bring it into print, and I know I need a publisher for retail distribution, because I want the novel to be available on bookshelves.

But digital? I don’t actually require a publisher to get on the iPad; not only does its iBooks store use the ePub format, but the device itself can display PDFs. Unprotected, DRM-free PDFs. I can make that myself. I can sell it myself, hosting it here, for readers to download. I don’t require a publisher to get on the Kindle, or to make an Android app for a book, or . . .

I think publishers are fighting so hard not for survival but for continued relevancy, and I think part of the reason for that is that the same conflict in cultural need for free but valuable information is at the heart of the conflict between publishers and writers, the latter of whom will probably, in years to come, no longer need the middle-man former without some major demonstration of why. Unfortunately, it’s also at the heart of the conflict that I’ve noted as the trouble with blogging, i.e., that same cultural need for information versus every creator’s need for compensation. Ideally, it could be a matter of either trusting that one is good enough compensation will ultimately occur so long as you work hard enough at it (not a good thing to trust, I don’t think) or the always-newly-popular exploring alternate revenue streams (like personalization and such), but that latter especially always struck me the same way vooks have: gimmickry.

I don’t think it is, though. I think there needs to come some resolution between culture and its creators. This may become more important as more of us realize we’re all creators at this point. Because valuable information may want to be free, but the process of coming to that information generally requires long and concerted, dedicated effort over a decent amount of time. On the other hand, it may also come as culture figures out its own way to compensate its creators. If Jurassic Park had no other lessons, it at least taught us that life finds a way, and chances are culture and information will, too. Chances are, in fact, that the solution is really something we haven’t even realized yet. That’s what will make it a solution.

Comments

4 Responses to “The Real Digital Conflict”
  1. Good piece. I think big publishing has made more than a few missteps in connecting with technology & the modern world – this Macmillan/Amazon thing being the latest example. Where we will eventually end up is an interesting question to ponder. But I do like the idea of being able to self-publish in some literary iTunes, without worrying you’re shafting your career by not signing with a major. I can’t imagine the financial returns would be any worse than being a midlist author in today’s market, but having real control over your product (because that’s what it is at the end of the day) is somewhat intoxicating.

    How about: small press for hard copies – companies that really care about your work – and self publisher online? It’s happening already, I’m sure.

  2. I’ve been thinking about the same things regarding e-books as an alternative distribution to print books. I’m hoping (since I’m light years away from actually finishing the 2nd draft of a book) that by the time the matter becomes pressing for me, e-books will be seen as a marketing device, not as a profit generator. (Or, alternatively, that the e-books will be distributed cheaply and have a much wider audience, considering that people will likely buy more books if they’re cheap.)

    Anyhow, I doubt that a sane publisher would hand over the rights to an electronic edition of the book to author so that author can beat them with under-pricing a book. After all, this didn’t happen even when e-books were practically nonexistent, no way it would happen now when they are gaining more and more weight. There’s a lot of money publisher invests into a book directly (editor, copy editor, designer and whatnot), plus a lot of overhead expenses (rent, electricity etc) that publishers have to cover from their income. They would need to charge the author for getting e-rights back which sounds sorta…weird. So I don’t think you can get one without the other, at least not on regular basis.

  3. Eoin: Your proposal of small press for hard copies with online digital distribution sounds about right. I get why corporate print publishers are good for getting into bookstores/retail distribution etc., but the whole digital thing confuses me in big ways. Which is why I want an agent. To help me sort it out.

    Ieva: I responded to your comment with another predicated on a faulty premise. I think your identifying e-books as a marketing device is sound. I at least think there should be longer excerpts available online. But the other post was wondering after those e-rights, and why their included with hardcover rights in the first place. But then again, publishers purchase overall rights, I realized, after further review, and paperback pubs have to buy those rights from the original publisher, who cuts the author in for a portion of the deal.

    I’m not sure that’s the best business model, though. I’m not sure I know an alternative, but something about strikes me it could work better in a lot of different ways.

  4. “at least think there should be longer excerpts available online.”
    100% agree to that.
    My experience–I don’t have an e-reader (they’re awfully hard to come by in Latvia so I’m waiting for them to come cheap and versatile bc I can’t afford to buy and resell five devices to choose one I’d love) so basically, if I love an author so much that I actually read the whole (pirated) book on screen I’m guaranteed to buy a paper copy either of that or another book by the same author, even if I have to hunt for the best shipping rates and wait for a month for the book to deliver. I’ve rarely (almost never) done it on the Amazon preview basis.

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