April 08, 2013

Happy Monday

From the New York Times: The Slow Death of the American Author
LAST month, the Supreme Court decided to allow the importation and resale of foreign editions of American works, which are often cheaper than domestic editions. Until now, courts have forbidden such activity as a violation of copyright...

This may sound like a minor problem; authors already contend with an enormous domestic market for secondhand books. But it is the latest example of how the global electronic marketplace is rapidly depleting authors’ income streams. It seems almost every player — publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates and even some scholars — is vying for position at authors’ expense.
Still, at least we have Amazon under control these days.
An even more nightmarish version of the same problem emerged last month with the news that Amazon had a patent to resell e-books. Such a scheme will likely be ruled illegal. But if it is not, sales of new e-books will nose-dive, because an e-book, unlike a paper book, suffers no wear with each reading. Why would anyone ever buy a new book again?

Consumers might save a dollar or two, but the big winner, as usual, would be Amazon. It would literally own the resale market and would shift enormous profits to itself from publishers as well as authors, who would lose the already meager share of the proceeds they receive on the sale of new e-books.
Greeeeaaaaaaaat. But... But... We still have each other, right, authors?
For many academics today, their own copyrights hold little financial value because scholarly publishing has grown so unprofitable. The copyrights of other authors, by contrast, often inhibit scholars who want to quote freely from those works or use portions in class. Thus, under the cri de coeur that “information wants to be free,” some professors and others are calling for copyright to be curtailed or even abandoned. High-minded slogans aside, these academics are simply promoting their own careers over the livelihoods of other writers.
Now look, I didn't get into the writing game thinking it would make me rich—except in my most bracingly self-delusional moments—but this is too much. If writers aren't even going to buy each others' books, we might as well give up now.

That might seem glib, but I really do believe it. I've had too many conversations with otherwise liberal, intellectual, ethical non-writers, who "love literature" but read exclusively from the library and share each other's New Yorker/New York Times e-subscriptions, that I've stopped expecting most people to pay for writing. I mean, why would you, right? HuffPo is free. The internet is free. Besides, anyone can sit down and string a few sentences together. Writing costs nothing to produce, so it should cost nothing to consume.

This is a silly argument, of course. First of all, writing on the internet is not free—it's more like Netflix. You pay your ISP fifty bucks a month and in return you get access to all the text you can find. If you instead took that fifty bucks a month and spent it on magazine subscriptions, you could probably still read the same amount of content per year, only you'd be guaranteed better quality and would and still have money left over. (Though you would, admittedly, miss out on a whole lot of funny tweets.)

It might seem naive to suggest that people give up their internet connections for print magazines, and I don't really think it's the solution. But I do think it's important to realize how successfully the ISPs have made consumers believe that content should be free, while delivery should cost. Maintaining the infrastructure of the web ain't cheap, of course, but that doesn't mean the providers should be the only ones getting rich—it's like a major coffee chain charging four bucks a coffee and paying farmers four cents a pound.

The other reason why it's silly to believe that writing should be free to consume is that it's manifestly not free to produce. You think those Macbooks on all those coffee shop tables are cheap? Hell, even the coffees cost four bucks! And that's assuming you can even afford to spend all day sitting in a coffee shop instead of holding down a day job to pay the rent that your writing won't. A good New Yorker profile can take weeks if not months if not years to produce from start to finish. Do you really believe Adam Gopnik could write 4,000 words about 3D speaker systems if someone wasn't paying?

Yeah, well: the sad thing is, most people do. They think Adam Gopnik and the rest of us should be happy to share our thoughts and words just for the glory. That's why they're on WordPress, after all. And if you've ever tried to convince a non-writer otherwise, well, you'll understand how hopeless and thankless and fruitless it is. Even people who read the New Yorker—online, using their friend's borrowed subscriber password—balk at the idea it should cost money.

All of which to say: knock it off, writers. Our copyright is all we have. Let's protect it.

And please, buy my book. I'll buy yours.

1 comment:

Papa' said...

Good piece.

I actually saw the NYT article (in translation) in Repubblica on Monday or Tuesday. Which says something about content wanting to be free, or globalisation, or something, I'm not sure what. I knew it sounded familiar when I started reading the excerpt you quote, but I couldn't figure out why at first because I don't see the NYT.

Good luck protecting copyright. It's definitely a tough problem. If guys like you don't do it, I don't know who's going to.

Post a Comment