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.

20 comments

  • I want my books to be real.

    I do not deny the convenience of digital formats, and the fact that my future is going to be tied up in them; I just can’t imagine being an author and not being to physically hand my book to someone.

    At the same time, I feel like this may help open the door for me to get published. I have gone back and forth on this so many times in my head, and changed opinions so many times, it makes me dizzy (or I was just spinning around again. WEE!).

    I just don’t want to see the people creating the content getting fucked over… and not simply because that is how I want to make money. People that come up with things that empower our imagination deserve the respect and wealth they receive from it – they made the world suck a little less.

  • Very thoughtful, level-headed post, Chuck.

    I think we’re in the midst of the transformation of the publishing industry that everyone knows needs to happen, and I love the apple-spill metaphor you used because it’s perfect. Some will see the spill as an opportunity, and some will simply stand there, mouth agape and get crushed; publishers, retailers and authors alike.

    2010 is going to be a tumultuous year, and I’m looking forward to it.

    • I don’t know that anybody has accused me of “thoughtful” and “level-headed,” Guy. We must now fight. En garde!

      Okay, no. What I mean to say is, “thank you.”
      :)

      2010 does promise to be a strange year across all platforms, I think.

      Articles like this (in which my writing partner and our film’s producer is featured, as full disclosure) are pretty great to see, though –

      http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/movies/31dargis.html

      – c.

  • The Finch Soundtrack’s pretty good, though it illustrated another interesting thing.

    I ended up buying the physical CD because, when you go to buy it as a download, it’s one of those “Pay whatever you think is reasonable” models (and my thinking was: ok, it’s an EP, not a full album. Five Bucks) except the fine print was “Pay whatever you think its worth, as long as whatever you think its worth is at least 8 dollars”. That actually bugged me enough that I’d rather pay MORE for the CD then support that kind of bullshit.

    The other interesting thing about the price of books is that there’s no meaningful book marketplace. Demand does not drive book price. Hell _cost_ barely drives book price. Book price is pretty much an arbitrary love it or lump it, and that’s fine, but it also means that it’s hard to use any kind of free market arguments on their behalf (which is just as well because if you do, you start looking at the dishonesty in the distribution model and other matters in the trade).

    Thing is, I’m really sympathetic towards the impact of the disruption. I have too many writer friends not to be. I understand if they want to write, not to also have to spend their time championing their work, but I am not sure how viable that is (at least until you have enough of a fanbase to do the championing for you). It’s unfair, and it makes me unhappy, but that’s an unfortunate result of the fact that it’s a job.

    -Rob D.

    • I definitely think that the days of being Only A Writer are long, long gone. It’s possible they were an illusion from the get-go, and I suspect that’s actually the case. I mean, even at its core, writing is not about writing; it’s about rewriting. But that remains locked to the act of “producing a creative product,” whereas now, the creative role of storyteller (across any platform) is the thing that demands you be a good marketer, a good businessperson, a good blogger, a good speaker, and so on and so forth. The best creators are going to be the ones who are capable of wearing many hats, even if their Primary And Most Exalted Hat is the one that signifies them as Author (or Painter or Filmmaker or what-have-you).

      – c.

      • Oh! And that soundtrack cost is wonky, then.

        That’s not a nice Trojan horse pricing scheme.

        I’ll still vote: Ambergris Map App? Baby want.

        – c.

  • Taking a cue from indie rpg publishing, I think offering a free digital copy with every paper one (maybe at a markup of say…2$) would help customers who aren’t currently interesting in digital books to actually try it.

  • Macmillan absolutely has the right to charge whatever they want. Macmillan, however, is a publisher. Amazon is the retailer. Macmillan’s customers- the people they are selling to- is retailers, not consumers. Macmillan’s insistence that it is entitled to set Amazon’s prices is flat-out wrong.

  • It’s interesting how, to Tobias Buckell, a retailer setting their own prices is price fixing, when the publishers dictating prices, which is in the real world what price fixing is, is not.

  • I think what is driving me insane is this horrible nerdragey need for one side to be right. We apparently can’t follow these thigns without cheering for one side or the other’s blood.

    It’s business. Business is dickish by its nature, but that’s no more true today than it was last week.

    -Rob D.

  • “I think what is driving me insane is this horrible nerdragey need for one side to be right.”

    This is becoming so common in just about everything these days. I can only guess its one of the byproducts of information overload, and it extends to about a million subjects. I really miss when both sides could be wrong and right at the same time.

  • I agree — this is a constantly evolving business model, and everyone involved is still learning what’s the sweet spot between profitability and customer access. There isn’t a “right” or a “wrong,” but there is a “right for the business” and “wrong for the business.”

  • o.o I used the word ‘kerfuffle’ completely independently of you on my blog. I didn’t read this until afterward, I swear. (It’s a great word, isn’t it?)

    Whether or not I agree with Macmillan’s choice of prices, I do think they have a right to decide how to price their products. And honestly, I can’t evaluate their pricing structure until I know more about the product—how they plan to license it (since these days not everyone seems to think you should be able to “buy” an e-book outright, or agree on what that would mean), what you get with it, when which prices would kick in, etc. But if I don’t like their prices, I have a perfect solution: I won’t buy their books! And if enough people agree that they’re overpriced, Macmillan will end up having to drop their prices in order to sell books.

    Someone in one of the many articles I read on this online yesterday opined that the problem with Amazon’s approach to all this is that they basically wanted the benefits of being both a wholesaler & a retailer, rolled into one. When they didn’t immediately get it, they took the petulant bully approach of saying, “if we can’t do it my way, I’m taking my ball and going home.” That hardly seems like a good solution, and it’s hard to read that as anything but Amazon trying to intimidate Macmillan into falling into line: “do what we want, exactly how we want, or we’ll cut you off.” Ugh. Sure, I want cheaper e-books, but I don’t think that’s how I want to get them.

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