Saturday, August 15, 2009

Why e-books Scare The Hell Out Of Me

There’s an article in The Age today about the anticipated rise of the e-book. Although they admit there have been problems with products such as the kindle, those quoted generally think that electronic books will largely replace paper versions for new sales within three years.

There are some obvious benefits for society in this. All those saved trees for a start. What is more, by eliminating the cost of printing, e-books will slash costs. Falling costs are obviously good for society in general, but they’re even better for books, which provide a public good by raising education and promoting ideas. Lower costs, more reading, more reading, smarter society. Sounds great.

Except of course for the problems of royalty-free distribution. I use this term to avoid the emotion concerning the term “piracy”, which many argue is an inappropriate way to describe copyright violations.

The danger is that e-books will make it so easy for people to distribute copies of books without paying royalties to the author that it will become impossible for almost anyone to make a living from writing them. Or editing them for that matter. Of course, at the moment most writers don’t make enough to live on from writing, but they do make enough to provide some recompense for their time – to make it affordable to go part time, for example, or to take a year off work and living on a mix of ones savings and anticipated royalties.

If royalties drop close to zero, that won’t happen. New books will either be written in a tearing hurry, without proper editing, or they’ll be the preserve of the independently wealthy. A few academics may convince their universities to let them take the time to write, although the trend at the moment is in the opposite direction. Some people may be able to cobble something together out of work they have done for another purpose, such as a set of lectures prepared for university. However, quality novels, and books presenting genuinely new ideas may become an endangered species.

Optimists can point to the music industry against this theory. Peer-to-peer filesharing has slashed musicians’ income, and may have harmed the production of new music, but it hasn’t killed the field. However, musicians have two advantages over writers.

Firstly they have another major source in income in the form of live gigs. Spending months writing and recording music you’ll never get paid for can to some extent be seen as a loss-leader, or advertising, for gigs. This argument gets oversold a lot by those who don’t realise how expensive touring is, but it still has some merit. Despite the rise of spoken word performances and author lectures it doesn’t really apply to writers.

Moreover, it’s possible to sell individual songs for 99c each, at which price some people will choose them over a free version which is harder to find and carries a (small) risk of prosecution.

Most books can’t be broken up the way CDs can into individual saleable units. It’s true that most authors don’t get paid more than $2 a copy or so as it is, unless their product is a large textbook or glossy coffeetable material. However, if one allows for the cost of editing, marketing etc its unlikely to be practical to sell e-books for less than $5 at an absolute minimum, more likely $10. At that price it is all too tempting for people to buy one book every few years, and otherwise depend on filesharing.

Even if more books are read this way (and even more acquired because people obtain free copies they start and then abandon quickly) the royalties will quickly drop to a point where writing books is a totally unfinancial prospect.

The Buggy-Whip Factor

Now clearly I have a financial interest here. My standard of living is supplemented by income from a parent’s books. The royalties of that will dry up pretty soon anyway, but obviously it makes me identify with the producers rather than the consumers. What is more, I hope to have a book published soon. I’ve never expected it would make me rich, or even a living wage, but I do hope it will be a noticeable part of my annual budget for a while.

It’ll be out before e-books are really having an impact, but a future career looks pretty dicey.

Now when people connected to an industry in decline whinge or seek to see it protected they get compared to buggy-whip manufacturers. Lots of people lost their jobs when horses and carts were replaced by motorcars, but there were new jobs in the new industries and (other than the unforeseen climate change consequences) we were all better off. The government should provide support and retraining for those affected, but subsiding buggy-whips or banning cars to protect them, is a bad idea.

The difference here is that people didn’t want buggy-whips once cars came in. Books are different. People will still want to read them, will want people to write them. They just won’t want to be the ones who pay.

The writers and editors may be the first to suffer, but if the quantity and quality of books produced falls dramatically everyone else will lose as well.

I don’t have any suggestions on how to stop the tide. Legal restraints on kindle production aren’t realistic. But that doesn’t stop me worrying.

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