Jay Lake: Writer

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[publishing] Yet another dip into ebooks and licensing

A long post of my own in response to a very thoughtful comment from here on my ebook post this morning

I sympathize with your annoyance with the more cranky of the e-book aficionados. We’ve run afoul of some of them ourselves.

Yes, I did battle on the Kindle forums for a while. That was rough sledding.

But I counsel you to think long and hard before embracing the notion that books are fundamentally “licenses.” Think about the kind of society we’ll have if nobody actually owns their books.

I may need to choose my words more carefully. Or rethink, yes. Because I do believe that when you buy a book, you own it. DRM causes more problems than it solves from that point of view. But you own the book in the same sense that you own a DVD, or a print of a piece of art. You own the delivery medium, that instance of the channel as it were, but you don’t own the rights to reproduce or distribute it further. That’s what I mean when I say “license”.

This is just as equally true of, for example, owning a Braun toaster. You own that instance of the toaster, and (unlike DRM ebooks) it can’t be legally taken away from you except under rare circumstances, but you don’t own the right to build more Braun toasters. So again, in a sense it’s a license rather than unrestricted ownership. It’s just that very few of us have the capability to reproduce Braun toasters, while anyone who can handle an ebook in the first place has the theoretical capability to reproduce it, and there aren’t too many more steps between owning a print book and reproducing it. That’s a technical limitation, though, more than a philosophical limitation, and with the rise of small scale fabbing and 3D printers, there may well be pirate toasters in a few years.

As someone else pointed out, when Stewart Brand said “information wants to be free,” he wasn’t saying “information ought to be free.” He was pointing out that the cost of replicating information is dropping constantly. This is the same point Cory makes: absent the collapse of civilization, it is never going to get harder to make copies of stuff, only easier.

Agreed and understood. As above, re the Braun toaster.

If we conflate the demanding whiners with the people who are trying to get us to notice the locomotive bearing down on us, we make it less and less likely that we’ll actually get off the tracks in time.

Also agreed. I’m not trying to whine, nor to poke whiners beyond some basic grumbling about civility and assumed motives. I’m trying to understand it. My own position has moved a lot in the past two or three years, and definitely still developing. But the “license” concept is an attempt to address the core value here, which is not the delivery mechanism, but the contents thereof. I’m just not smart enough (yet? ever?) to figure out either how to frame it or how it might be addressed.

It is going to get easier and easier, never harder, to make copies of things. Effective DRM is a technical mirage. What are we going to do about it?

Again, the core value problem applies here. What are people buying/downloading? A delivery format? A story? A fusion of the two and more? For that matter, what value in a perfect copy? It’s the origination of the story that has value, not the reproduction. If, as suggests by way of a thought experiment, we had a state-sponsored arts system and the compensation of content producers were handled outside the commercial processes of licensing and reproduction, this whole debate would have a very different tone.

Sure, lots of whining ninnies with king-sized senses of entitlement say foolish things. But refuting them does nothing to change the material reality we’re up against.

Fair enough.

Nor does asserting the fact that writers ought to be decently compensated. Of course writers ought to be decently compensated. So should janitors, waitresses, and hospital orderlies. Often they’re not. It’s a problem.

Frankly, we’re not decently compensated now. This is not a complaint (nor a jab at your employer and my publisher), just an observation. Jerry Oltion once told me he calculated his lifetime hours against his lifetime earnings, and decided he’d have made more money pulling shifts over McDonald’s over the years. I suspect my own curve is not much better, and won’t be unless I manage to jump much higher up the list some day in terms of my sales numbers.

But there’s a wide gap between “decently compensated” and “uncompensated”. The entitled ninnies seem to view authors as fungible commodities, but as discussed, we can set that aside. By the same token, this isn’t my primary income. I’m more concerned with how we make this work over the long run than I am with maximizing my compensation. Which is to say, I’m more concerned with maximizing my readership while preserving some level of compensation. Because yes, like janitors, waitresses and hospital orderlies, this is work.

A lot of people’s lives were wrecked when containerized shipping eliminated, in just a few years, the need for armies of stevedores and other dock workers. [snip]

I take your point, though there are better analogies. Ebooks don’t eliminate the need for content producers the way containers eliminated the need for stevedores.

Writers are lovely people, but nothing in the rules of the universe exempts them from being similarly flicked aside by the invisible hand.

And here is our first significant point of disagreement. Without writers, or some close equivalent, where does content come from? Individual writers can be flicked aside by the invisible hand — entire genres have been flicked aside. But writers as a class, meaning, content producers, still have a role. And I don’t see the invisible hand eliminating that, any more than I see the invisible hand eliminating iron mines, whatever we choose to do with the iron. Or the stories.

This kind of change isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a thing.

As above, I think you’re a little wrong-tracked here. Stevedores were a value-add in the shipping chain, a delivery format, if you will. The product in the containers (or crates) is what matters. And yes, buggy whips gave way to automobiles, but people continue to require transportation. Ice cutters lost out to mechanical refrigeration, but people still need cold. Likewise story content.

[lifted from another comment by you in the same thread:] The real challenge is the competition from ubiquitous free reading matter of all sorts. If we want to survive doing the kind of work we love, we had better stop standing around telling one another how our status as brilliant Creators of Original Material means that everyone should keep giving us money just because we’re brilliant Creators of Original Material and besides authoring is hard.

That may be what I said, but it’s not the point I’m trying to argue. Mea culpa. The point I’m reaching for is that the original material will be created somewhere. Maybe the flaw in my thinking is believing that it has value, as opposed to randomly available ubiquitous free reading matter of all sorts. To me, this is where the editorial proxy comes into play. Speaking loosely, that editorial proxy is how the reading matter gets filtered and selected for value. But it’s that very same editorial proxy that’s being undermined at least as much or more as the auctorial role. Disintermediation has been grinding publishing down for years, as I see it. And there’s a lot of readers, as well as quite a few writers, who seem to like it that way,

Asserting that our work is too valuable and that people ought to pay us better will do exactly as much good as dock workers asserting that the world should just forget about that containerized-shipping idea.

In this, we agree.

You can sneer at the people trying things like selling t-shirts or e-books of their backlist, but at least they’re trying something.

As previously stated, it’s not my intent to sneer at that. I happen to be competent in both domains myself. But, per my belief that content has value, I place a much higher value on the content I create than on the processes of t-shirt design or format conversion as executed by me. That’s a personal choice, not intended to be a comment on the pursuits of others. But those pursuits do strike me as a distraction from what I do best, and what most other writers do best.

PS: As a point of heuristics, I find it useful, whenever I find myself claiming that I’m “caught in the middle,” to stop and ask myself whether this is actually the case. All too frequently assertions that one is “in the middle” merely reflect the limitations of one’s individual perspective, in which we naturally think of ourselves as being at the center of all things. In fact if writers are “caught” anywhere in this rolling complex of change and argument about change, they’re “caught” in one of the many edges of the problem. Claiming to be “caught in the middle” is really a kind of self-valorization and doesn’t make us or anyone else any smarter about what’s actually going on.

An excellent point, and one I need to think on further. What I had in mind when I said that was the relationship between the author, the publisher and the reader. If one is invested in the current trade model, as both you and I are, then from my point of view as the author, I have almost zero control over marketing, pricing or distribution, except in the sense that I can choose to withdraw my content from my publisher and do something (or nothing) else with it. So when people argue with me about ebook pricing or availability on my titles, all I can do in the current moment, under my current contracts, is point to Tor and say, “Well, talk to them.”

And you’re right, that’s not the middle, that’s an edge condition. At the same time, my name is on the book. My brand. People who aren’t in fandom don’t necessarily even register Tor or Macmillan. So readers hold authors responsible for publisher marketing and pricing decisions. Hence the one-star review problems on Amazon, for example, where readers who haven’t even touched the book are punishing authors for things the authors have no direct and little indirect control over. That puts the author back in the middle between the publisher and the reader, but without the ability to effect change at either end of the transaction.

My point on this is not to launch into a jeremiad or to self-valorize. It’s to say that within the trade publishing model, my choice as low midlist author is essentially binary. I can participate, or I can not participate. I have precious little power to directly influence the terms of the transaction between the publisher and the consumer, nor the packaging and pricing of my books. To get back to my original point, I control the content, but not the delivery channel, or the licensing mechanisms surrounding that delivery channel.

And ultimately that’s what we’re arguing about, collectively. How to manage the delivery channels. As you say, content will come from somewhere, whether or not it’s me personally.

More to think on, more to think on.

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