Brain Dump: The e-Book Kerfuffle
I had a lovely little review for Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch planned (short review: love!), but now I can’t get a bunch of questions and thoughts out of my head about this whole Amazon Macmillan iPad Kindle Apple Crapsplosion. These thoughts are wildly unformed; they are amoebic, just blobs of gel ill-contained in a quivering skin. Certainly I’ve taken to this blog on a wing and a prayer before, diving in with little to no idea of what I’m actually saying until I said it, so why bail on a good thing? I dare not switch horses in mid-stream.
Let’s just wade into the froth, see if I can’t get a little on me.
This Is Why Digital Books Freak Me Out
I don’t like that books are a battleground for the “future” of publishing. It puts the consumer in the cross-hairs. It kneecaps the authors. The “e-book” becomes a resource that can be given or that can be taken away. I think the fact that Amazon’s own delivery service is called Whispernet is fitting — and further, is terrifying. (“Whisper” is an insubstantial thing, a thing you may not even make out if you don’t listen carefully, a voice that in a hard wind might be stolen from your ears entirely. I do not want to think of robust books and authorial voices as things delivered to me via pinched and ephemeral whisper, because a whisper is so easily lost or misunderstood.)
It’s funny. Books are one area where I’m almost stubbornly old-fashioned. I really, really like having books. Hard, physical copies. I feel like one of those old music store has-beens, hanging around the counter, mumbling about the loss of the record, man, but see, the thing about books is that they’ve lived within their own technology for… mmm, well, forever. Even down to scroll and parchment, we’re talking words etched on paper. A physical thing. Very few other forms of information and entertainment have been married to a single technology for so long: music, games, movies, television, they’ve all jumped forms a number of times. Film, tape, disc, digital, cartridge, whatever. Books, though, have long been ink and pages.
Listen, I get it: the e-book represents a powerful future, especially for the author. The author has never had the kind of distribution available that the Internet can afford: it’s like living on a swiftly-moving river, a river on which your audience lives, and all you need to do is drop your paper boat in its waters and watch it reach all the people you need to reach.
But it’s stuff like this kerfuffle that puts that in danger.
Unless — unless — it simply serves to destabilize the model so much that, its foundation shaken and crumbling, the power only shifts further away from the two Godzilla-sized creatures wrestling in the town square.
If that’s true, though, that period of destablization (and we may be entering it now) is going to be pretty fucked up for authors and readers.
This Only Strengthens Piracy
The longer Mommy and Daddy can’t agree, and the louder their argument becomes, the more the child in the middle grows resentful. And then he starts stealing from Mommy’s liquor cabinet and grabbing Daddy’s porno mags (hah, like anybody reads porno mags anymore, it’s all e-porn!) and he hijacks the family sedan and drives it into the pool.
What I’m saying is, the lack of consensus and the clamp-down by certain parties (Amazon in particular) only makes the pirate’s case easier. Were I to be hungry for a digital copy of a book right now that suddenly Amazon is declining to sell me, I might say, “Eff that ess, compadre,” and hop onto a torrent site to just take it for myself. I don’t mean that I’d literally do that — we’re talking hypotheticals, here — but that’s what someone’s going to think. The pirates win. They drink more e-grog. They buckle more i-swashes.
In piracy, the consumer wins, but everyone else loses.
I do think that future models need to figure pirates into the equation rather than ignoring them. At present, authors have products (books) that represent the sole source of monetization. You write a book, you get paid for the book, huzzah. Some alternate (and goodly-sized) streams of money can come in (film rights, f’rex), but those still only come around the book itself.
Authors are best-suited by imagining ways to monetize their products outside the sale of the book, though. If I’m a fan of the work, I’m willing to pay for cool content surrounding that work. To go back to by aborted review, Finch is such a great world, and I’m such a fan, that I’d buy anything. I’ll likely go ahead and buy the soundtrack. Were there cool toys or art displays, I’d buy them. I’d buy a goddamn t-shirt. In part because I want to put food in the author’s mouth. In part because I just want a goddamn fungal noir t-shirt. (Edit: I’d also buy a Finch app. Seriously. Imagine the app that gives me a map of the city, and allows me to zoom in almost like Google Maps and even get a dozen “street view” glimpses of Ambergris. How bloody awesome would that be?)
Pirates have been shown that they’re not averse to paying for content — they’re just averse to paying for invisible, intangible content. They’ll buy t-shirts and posters and other physical goods, but they won’t pay for a lick of content that comes in through their computer.
The Price Is The Price
I think that companies like Macmillan should be free to charge what they want to charge for a book. They should be able to sell it for ten cents or a hundred dollars. That’s how our economy works, yeah?
The consumer will determine whether the price is fair or not. And competition can help to nibble away at those costs. At least, ideally. Monopolization weakens the choice of the consumer and eradicates competition. You look at CDs — they were too expensive for a really long time. Christ, $16.99 for a CD was a nut-punch price, and it really only started coming down with the advent of big box stores and, further, MP3s. There, technology helped to drive that, serving as a kind of “stalking horse” competition (the medium competing against itself).
I will say that the justification to charge $15 for an e-book is a little eyebrow-raising — if I can buy a paperback for somewhere between $8 and $12, I’m surprised that I should be expected to pay more for something that is as tangible as a whisper.
Though, I’ll add: I’ll pay full price for a physical copy of the book if it comes with a digital copy, as well. That intrigues me. As much as I do love the physical nature of books, I will say that carrying a bunch on the plane with me was way too heavy, way too back-breaking. I mean, I did it anyway, because I’m kind of a shitbrain.
What’s Really Sad…
…is that books have long been part of a communal, love-based culture. Trading books is not only okay, it’s encouraged. Libraries were born to share the wealth of knowledge for free, without burden. There exists an art to books, to the typography, to the paper used, to the cover art. Book clubs gather around this little seed of information and entertainment and pluck it apart and see how it might grow. Taking books out of the physical realm and, what’s more upsetting, putting them on a battlefield whose stakes and outcome is based purely on cash money steals some of that protected magic.
I know, that’s some hippy-dippy shit, and I don’t mean to suggest that writing and getting paid aren’t in the same ballpark. They are, and should be. But that’s not what’s happening. This isn’t about the writer’s share. Nobody’s fighting for that. And hey, sure I think the publishers and the merchants deserve their cut. Capitalism works when it works, but it works best when someone is paying attention to it and can intervene. I feel like it’s become this bloated beast, a giant Katamari ball tumbling over everything and vacuuming it up into its cubby-holes and crevasses.
The Value Of Information
In the end, the value of information is changing. I feel like the applecart is really turning over here, and if you’re a creator of any type, you’d better start envisioning ways to take advantage of the apple-spill rather than be crushed beneath it. How do we survive in a time when the value of information is uncertain, when it is the rope in a tug-of-war held in hands that are not our own? How do we add value, how do we bring new skills to our process, how do we offer new shape to our creations? Because that’s what we’re going to need to do. Writers can’t just be writers. Filmmakers can’t just be filmmakers. If there’s one thing that I feel fights like Amazon v. Macmillan expose, it’s that. It kicks over the log and shows us the squirming truth, and much as we may not like the truth, it’s laid bare, and it’s crawling up your leg.
My humble (and ill-formed, and often confusing) opinion, mind.