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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

books for free

A dry day, writing-wise. I still felt my mind jumbled, affected by the outside world. I did my morning notes as usual, first thing (Rubicon, From Eden to Exile), but I became distracted after that by linking on to a talk on digital rights management (DRM) given by Cory Doctorow in 2004, mentioned in today's post by the Grumpy Old Bookman.

As a "content creator", I've been keeping an eye on the subject off and on over the past few years. Usually I'm among those alarmists who feel that the freewheeling digitization of all information--including the created works of artists--will lead to even lower incomes for writers. (How much am I making off this blog? Guess.) The ability to share files instantly all over the world certainly seems to raise the question: Why pay for it if you don't have to?

Why indeed.

I noticed that in Doctorow's talk, although one section of it was entitled "DRM Systems Are Bad for Artists", he doesn't say too much about exactly how the artist benefits from the mass dissemination of free files. He mentions only the "compulsory license": the copyright innovation that had users of someone's, say, song pay a fixed fee to the publisher every time they made a piano roll for a player piano. Doctorow says that this system of compulsory licensing was adapted for each new change in technology: to recording, radio, television, and so on. His main point is that you can't hope to win by simply trying to deny the technology--you need to go with it.

I'm all for that. But a business model is still needed. And even though Doctorow says, sweepingly, that "compulsory license created a world where a thousand times more money was made by a thousand times more creators who made a thousand times more music that reached a thousand times more people", I think about the publishing business in, say, ancient Rome. There, booksellers would copy and sell books (all done by hand on papyrus scrolls) written by others. Bestsellers could earn them a lot of money, none of which ever went to the writer. I keep this in mind when enthusiasts make claims that the digital world will provide endless new earning opportunities for creators.

To me it's an economic question: what has value? If I value something--such as a written work--that means by definition I'm willing to pay something for it, whatever form it takes. The principle of fair exchange requires that I pay something for it, so that the seller and I are exchanging something we perceive to be of equal value. For various reasons, usually promotional, some "sellers" give stuff away for free--but no one can make a living on that. Otherwise, taking something for free, that its owner doesn't want to give me, is theft.

In 2000, the early days of Napster, Kimmie and I got into file downloading one night. Our house was recovering from a flood (pipe-burst under upstairs bathroom; lower 2 floors completely soaked), so we had brought the PC up from my office into the living-room. We learned how to download the files, and soon were listening to tracks like "Itchycoo Park" and "You Showed Me" and "How Do You Do" and "Classical Gas" and "Build Me Up Buttercup". What fun! But I felt a bit bad. Here I was downloading and enjoying created content for free. It's not that I would have rushed out to buy a copy of "Itchycoo Park"--assuming I could find one--but nonetheless, I valued the listening experience, which means that had I been required to pay for it, I would have--if the price were right.

Personally, I feel that promiscuous file-sharing is wrong, if the creator of the content is trying to earn his or her living from it. How do those downloaders feel about working for free? At the end of 2 weeks of flipping burgers, your check reads $0. Thanks, friend--keep flippin'!

Evidently Tor and some other publishers are offering digital versions of their books for free (I was only able to find sample chapters on their website). The business model can only be greater awareness = greater sales of paper books. Maybe that's OK some of the time, but not, I think, as a general model for a profitable business.

The real crunch won't come until there is digital format as pleasant to read as a paper book. My favorite format has always been the mass-market paperback (just as my favorite pen has always been a plain transparent ballpoint--formerly Bic, now Staedtler). Hardbacks are too unwieldy, and even trade paperbacks can be bothersome to manipulate. But a good mass-market paperback, now there's a book.

With this and various other things tugging at my mind, I could not get down to writing. I listened to heavy machinery rumbling out on the boulevard, talked with Mom, did some errands, ran in the muggy heat, and came down here to write this post. Now: on to cup of tea #2, and some reading, at last. A book!

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