by J.D. Rhoades
Dear Readers, I know what all of you really wanted to see today was yet another post about e-books and piracy. You really wanted to see more fretting about whether we as writers are all doomed by this new technology to a life of penury, or even worse, having to go out and get what our loved ones often refer to as “real jobs.”
Well, I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll give you the post, but I can’t do the fretting.
See, the thing is, I don’t see the sky falling here.
The people prophesying “the end of the world as we know it”, as Tess somewhat ironically put it yesterday, make a couple of assumptions. First, that that e-books will become, not just a method of delivering stories, but the only one. The second is that piracy will drive out actual buying. Neither is necessarily the case.
Let’s address the first assumption. Go to any blog or website about books or literature where comments from readers are allowed (which is to say, most of them). Look for posts where someone brings up the topic of e-books. I guarantee you, within the first five comments, someone will assert that they prefer paper books. They like the feel, the look, even the smell of a paper book. Watch as more and more people chime in. These people are not going away. Here on Murderati, even the most enthusiastic e-book adopters aren’t giving up paper books. Think about the last new technology for delivering stories, namely the audiobook. Have people stopped buying paper books because they can listen to the same story on a CD or MP3? No. There may be less paper books sold, but I don’t see this venerable technology dying out any time soon.
Really, though, when we talk about ‘loving books,” is it really the physical object we’re in love with? If we held in our hands a beautifully bound volume on rich fancy paper, a volume whose very aroma took your mind back to the many happy hours you spent in the library when you were a kid…but the actual words in the volume were complete gibberish, would you really say “I love this book?” Doubtful, unless you have some sort of fetish, and if you do, well….bless your heart.
No, “I love books” is a misnomer. What we love are stories. And the e-book, like the audiobook, is just another delivery mechanism.
The question then becomes: in a world filled with pirates, how do we make a living telling stories? Well, we aren’t going to do it by sitting around crying about how hard everything’s going to be. Back when the Ice Age came aroiund, there were undoubtedly some cavemen who huddled around the fire that was getting increasingly hard to keep lit, complaining about the awful weather and how the damned sabretooths were making it impossible to make a living. There were others who wrapped themselves and their families up in the nearest handy mammoth pelts, sharpened their spears, and lit out for someplace where the hunting and gathering was better. You know, our ancestors.
Like those hardy and resourceful cavemen, there are writers who are managing quite well in this brave new world, and they’re doing it in ways you might not expect.
One of these is writer, blogger, and tech correspondent Cory Doctorow. If you haven’t read his book LITTLE BROTHER, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Doctorow has an interesting way of combating piracy of e-books: he gives them away for free. Not only that, he does it on the day the paper book is released. And, get this…he encourages readers to copy them into new formats and pass them along.
What is this guy, crazy? Isn’t this like resolving a standoff by having the cops shoot the hostages? Well, maybe. But maybe Doctorow’s crazy like a fox. He asserts that the free e-books help him sell paper books:
For me — for pretty much every writer — the big problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity…Of all the people who failed to buy this book today, the majority did so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free copy.
Further, on the subject of e-books vs. paper books, he makes this point:
…the more computer-literate you are, the less likely you are to be reading long-form works on those screens — that’s because computer-literate people do more things with their computers. We run IM and email and we use the browser in a million diverse ways. We have games running in the background, and endless opportunities to tinker with our music libraries. The more you do with your computer, the more likely it is that you’ll be interrupted after five to seven minutes to do something else. That makes the computer extremely poorly suited to reading long-form works off of, unless you have the iron self-discipline of a monk.
In other words, you may like reading on your iPhone, but a paper book doesn’t ring, and it doesn’t distract you with other stuff. The bottom line, for Doctorow:
Doctorow’s not alone in finding that a free e-book bumped sales of the paper book. Sci-fi writer Tobias Buckell noticed a significant sales bump for his book CRYSTAL RAIN after his publisher, Tor, released it as a free e-book. Sales of the sequel, RAGAMUFFIN, also increased. Buckell admits that, due to the myriad of factors affecting sales, he can’t say definitively that the free e-book ws the reason for the sales jump, but it’s worth noting that another Tor author, John Scalzi, saw a 20 pecent jump in sales of his book OLD MAN’S WAR after it was released as a free Tor download–and sales of the sequel jumped 30 percent.
Another experimenter is my good friend Joe Konrath. Joe uses free downloads to sell his paper books. But more and more recently, he’s been putting stuff up exclusively in e-format. And, he claims, he’s making money at it, even though he’s pricing his work at what a publisher would consider a scandalously low price, usually less than two bucks. So the pieces serve not only to promote the paper books, but become a profit center in themselves.
As for piracy, Konrath figures that same low price takes care of the problem all by itself:
The rules of supply and demand don’t work in a digital world, because the supply is unlimited. You don’t fight piracy with weapons. You fight piracy with cost and convenience…If there were a central hub, where you could easily search for ebooks and get them at a reasonable price, there would be no need to pirate books.
Apple, Konrath points out, finally figured out that 99 cent songs and no DRM is the way to go. But it took them way too long to get to that point, and as a result, we have a healthy, active piracy community.
Hopefully, the publishing industry won’t create the same public relations disaster as the music industry. As one tech website observed:
The challenge for publishing is to avoid being seen as greedy. In music, the debate quickly became characterised as The Man versus The Kids, where The Man was Bono, his celebrity mates and their filthy rich record companies…when [Bono] drew parallels between file sharing and illegal porn and accused ISPs of stealing all his money, the entire internet torrented U2 albums out of sheer spite. Probably.
It is, as I’ve observed, possible to be completely morally and legally in the right and still shoot yourself in the foot.
So, back to the question: how are we going to earn a living in this new world? We’re going to do it by seeing innovations in technology as opportunities for expansion rather than as threats. We’re going to do it by experimenting, by questioning assumptions, by keeping our eyes and ears open, watching what works and what doesn’t, and using those successes and failures as springboards for our own new ideas.
Some of these experiments will pan out and make someone a pile of money. Others will crater in a big way. And it’s impossible at this point to say which will be which. As another information guru I’ve quoted before once put it:
The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing.