Stealing Books

Side note: last post was number 3,500 here at Incertus. Holy hell we can jabber on about stuff.

Via The Rumpus, Margo Rabb has a funny piece in the NY Times about book theft. As anyone with a wry sense of humor might expect, the Bible is the most-stolen book around, even in Christian book stores (where it might be the only thing worth reading).

These paragraphs near the end got me thinking a little, though, in large part because my own book is being published (fingers crossed) in 2010, and though I doubt there's going to be much of an issue with digital piracy--I can only hope that I'm in demand enough that people would want to steal it--I am interested in using the web as a marketing tool for my work.

Many publishers and authors fear that piracy, and the general transition from print to digital media, will cause irreparable harm to the book industry, as it has in the music world. The writer Sherman Alexie, who has refused to make his fiction available in digital form, agrees. “The open source culture is coming for us,” he told me, “and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”

John Palfrey, a co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the author of “Born Digital,” is more optimistic. “The way young people enjoy music is very different from the way they enjoy books, and I don’t think that we’ll see the same pattern of piracy emerge that we’ve seen in the music industry — at least not in the near future,” he said.
There's little doubt in my mind that the transition will force the publishing industry to evolve, and that the companies which currently dominate the landscape will mostly fail to do so. The companies will survive in some form or another, but they'll be the IBM's of a generation ago--once-powerful, now an afterthought.

Palfrey is correct--for now--that the way young people (and middle-agers too, for the record) access music is different from the way they enjoy books, but that's going to change, and I think the switchover will come when e-book readers become textbooks for schoolchildren. Adult readers stick to books now because that's what we're comfortable with. Read the arguments against e-books and one place they always hit is the tactile sensation of turning pages, of the smell of the paper and ink, the must of age in the cover. You lose all that with an e-book, absolutely. But if you've never really had it? If your first book was a child-proof Kindle or Nook or Tablet? Then a paper book will be a curiosity, but it won't evoke the same emotional attachment it does for us.

And once that's the expected way of accessing books, then piracy will grow quickly. We have a generation of people who are adults now who may have never accessed music other than via a computer, and we're getting that way with movies. The DVD has a top end life span, I'd wager, of ten years, even with the introduction of HD versions. Streaming delivery is the model of the future. So why not with books?

That's why I'm interested in making my book available in digital format, even if I never sell a copy that way. I'd like it to be open-source, though my publisher will no doubt have objections to that--but whatever agreement we come to, I want it to be available on as many readers as possible (so no Amazon-proprietary format no matter what happens). For the current generation of young people, and the ones that follow them, if it's not online, it doesn't exist. Writers have to acknowledge that--Sherman Alexie is right when he says open-source is coming for all of us, and that we can't stop it. The question is how we engage with it.

One thing publishers need to do in order to survive this evolutionary moment is do a better job of selling the costs of publishing. The music industry failed badly in this respect because it allowed the frame of "a blank CD costs pennies; why does a music CD cost 17 bucks?" to become the focus of the debate. The fact that the record companies exploit new artists horribly and that they were raking in billions of dollars while churning out some of the least interesting music ever didn't help much, but where they really failed was in making the case that producing songs is expensive, even if you don't see it in the end product.

Publishers need to make the same case. Right now, the argument goes that a digital download costs next to nothing compared to a printed book--therefore, a digital download ought to cost next to nothing. And for some books, namely, those in the public domain, I agree completely. But making books--and I'm not taking about the physical making here; I'm talking about the writing and editing and formatting and selling of books--is expensive. But most readers don't get that, because the costs are hidden, and because they haven't actually tried to do it themselves, they have no idea how hard a job it is. I've never done a job as tedious as copy-editing, and I worked in a grocery warehouse pulling cases for 3 years.

Publishers have to pay people to do these jobs, and those of us in the industry would like to earn a living wage doing it. And in order to do that, publishers have to set a price point for electronic books that's higher than the average person might expect. Amazon hasn't helped matters with its Wal-Mart-esque bullying of publishers, but in the end, it's publishers who control the content, and right now, the market is malleable enough that they can still exert some control if they're willing to fight for it. And one of the ways they can do that is by making the case that there's value in the book itself, regardless of the format. Don't ask me how--I'm not a marketer. I don't even expect to make more than beer money off this book. But I know this is where we're heading, and if publishers want to thrive, they'll have to find a way to convince people to buy their books.

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