Charlie Stross And The Future Of The Book

Charlie Stross And The Future Of The Book

I love this post by Charlie Stross about the future of books. Well, to be fair, I love most posts by Charlie Stross, but I love this one more than most. Take a moment to go read it. I don’t want to just quote the pertinent bits because they all seem pretty important to his central thesis.

A thesis which I think is too optimistic, and here’s why:

1. In the war between DRM/Malware and malware removal, the removal camp will always have the upper hand.

2. The price of a book has historically been determined by the cost of production of the physical artifact and the distribution thereof, not by the hours involved in creating it.

2a. The cost of production created such a barrier to entry that the number of publishers was limited. This allowed the publisher to license the book from the author and maintain a very effective monopoly on its contents. This also impacts the price of the book.

3. #2 is no longer true.

4. Attempts to maintain the monopoly on production and distribution through DRM and the DMCA are doomed to fail (see #1).

5. The means of consuming a DRM-protected digital book (or anything) are also the means of breaking the DRM. You must have a way to decrypt a file to be able to read or watch it. As long as this capability exists, it will be trivially difficult to strip DRM (and malware) off of any digital file.

6. It is trivially difficult not only to remove DRM, but to copy, distribute, and, for the consumer, find a copy of almost any digital work.

7. The pricing of digital books (and music and movies) does not yet reflect the reality of #6.

8. Because of #6 and #7, there is a thriving underground market, or really, exchange of digital materials.

9. Fortunately, most people would like to see authors compensated for their work. There is a price point at which people would be happy to pay to get legitimate copies of a work and compensate the creator rather than just find a pirated copy.

9a. The good news is that this price point is low, but high enough that the creator can make more money than under a traditional arrangement and the consumer will pay less than they would have. It’s the middle men who take it in the shorts.

9b. The bad news is that the more restricted you make the legitimate copy (DRM/malware etc.), the less attractive it is to the customer and the more likely it is that they will skip the legitimate copy and get a DRM-free pirated copy.

9c. It’ll still be difficult to make novel-writing pay.

10. None of this really matters, because…

Well, let’s hold off on the “because” for a moment. I want to elaborate on this list a little bit first. In a general sense, the state of play is that people hate DRM and they hate being gouged, but they will spend money to support an artist they like. This model is starting to work a little bit in the music industry. An artist who charges £10.00 for a physical compact disc is getting a tiny fraction of that. The majority of the money that the buyer pays is for the production, the distribution, and the retial profits.

This is true despite the fact that the buyer is frequently a fan who would really prefer that most of the money go to the artist. That’s the part that keeps the business viable. In this day and age, it’s possible to eliminate some of the middlemen. It is entirely possible for a popular artist to sell an entire album for £2.00, cover all their expenses, and still make more money per sale than the were under the old £10.00 model.

The trick is to find a viable price point that works for the artist and will encourage the fan that it’s better to pay that price than to seek out an illegal copy. This also means that it is counterproductive to encumber the legitimate copy with DRM. The DRM makes the legitimate copy less desirable versus the illegal copy. At best, this lowers the price that you can hope to charge for it. At worst, it’s a deal-breaker that sends the customer off to obtain the work from other sources.

It also means that the best option for the artist, or, in this specific instance, author, is to give the work away.

10. The book IS the payload in Stross’ example.

Once a static work is out in the digital wild, it is impossible to control the distribution of it. It’s gone. It’s over. There’s nothing you can do about it. This is true of any digital media. Payment for a static digital work is the equivalent of a tip jar. It’s entirely at the discretion of the consumer. You cannot enforce payment; you can only encourage it and make it as easy as possible.

At this point, you really have to consider your static work, your novel, your movie, your album an advertisement for the things that you can control. I know that this is not an easy or pleasant way for some artists to view their art. The art is the thing of value, and reducing the price to zero or some trivial amount is tough. But, in order to earn a living with your, it seems to me that the best thing to do is to try to make the money on things you can actually control.

In music, there are a lot of options. The artist can control payment for live performance, commerical use of their art, and for merchandise. Unlike a digital file, a t-shirt is still relatively difficult to reproduce flawlessly and live performance is wholly unique to the artist. It’s still expensive to make an album, but the cost has come down enough that an entry level artist can do it for a lot less than in days of yore.

The film industry has a tougher go of it. It is prohibatively expensive to make a feature film, but very easy to copy and distribute it. This industry is in for a shock that’s going to make life difficult for a lot of people. I don’t know how this one shakes out.

For writers, I think the problem is both easier and more difficult. The cost of entry into publishing is…well, it’s not terribly high, is it? If there’s one thing the internet is good for, it would have to be disemenating text. On the other hand, what means of monetization are available? Work-for-hire, of course, is out there. Real-time access to the writer, in the form of text or video chats, is probably an option. Commercial licensing of works for advertising and use in other media. Lectures, teaching, workshops, book signings and other merchandise?  Those may be options as well.

Let me digress into a perfect case study in “how not to do it.” The sports web site ESPN is one of those two-tiered services. Most of the content is free, but some of it sits behind a paywall. For reasons that I struggle to fathom, ESPN has chosen to put its static content (article, mostly) behind the paywall. On the other hand, live access to the columnist via chat is free. It’s hard for me to see how this makes any sense. The premium articles can be and are copied by the first person to access them and they’re posted all over the net within minutes. The live access, if it were behind the paywall, would be available to paying customers only. It would be impos…well, let’s not say impossible, let’s just say far more difficult to circumvent the paywall in this scenario.

Now, back to business. The important thing to consider is that the book, from a business standpoint, is the advertisement for these other things. It’s what builds the author’s (and oh how I cringe when I type this) “brand.” The book creates the names for the writer, but it’s hard to see how it will directcly provide the income stream.

Obviously, I’m talking about 2013, not 2033 like Stross is. I do think it’s reasonable to extrapolate from current trends. DRM will be easier to defeat, distribution will be easeier due to faster internet access, and the cost of entry for amateurs will continue to drop. If these things go the way I think they will (and there’s certainly no guarantee of that), the situations for writers and books is far from hopeless. Unless, that is, writers continue to try to do things the way they did in the 20th century.

P.S. I realize that I desperately need an editor. Passing muster with spell check is no substitute for human eyes and a disapproving stare.

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