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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-04-13 15:27
Subject: [publishing] Yet another dip into ebooks and licensing
Security: Public
Tags:ebooks, process, publishing, writing
A long post of my own in response to a very thoughtful comment from pnh 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 the_flea_king 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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User: ygolonac
Date: 2010-04-13 23:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"But writers as a class, meaning, content producers, still have a role"

No. If publishing companies can't produce an ebook for a reasonable amount of money, then they won't sell. Same thing for 'real books'. They have been going up in price constantly even though with all the computerization over the years it seems like the price should go down. But whenever somebody starts talking about how expensive books are all these industry types start in on how us poor readers just don't understand how expensive it is to create a book.

Which seems to me, as somebody that has been buying books for over 30 years and knows that buying a book used to be a smaller percentage of my income, it seems like somebody is just being greedy here.

But, assuming that somehow books have become so much more expensive to make, even when they are just electronic files that a kid can duplicate and distribute around the globe, for free, from his personal computer, if all the front end costs are so huge now that books have to be sold for that much, then eventually you authors will go the way of the stevedore. Sure, books will most likely always be sold, but it'll become more and more of a niche market. People will go elsewhere for their entertainment.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-13 23:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
then eventually you authors will go the way of the stevedore.

That might be my fate, personally, but if you want to read it, someone has to write it. So erm, no, in this we must disagree.
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User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2010-04-13 23:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Not getting deeply into this, but what about putting the two problems together? Copying and distribution are getting easier. That means in theory money can go straight from the reader to the writer. Wouldn't there be enough readers who are willing to pay you direct the same amount you would get as a royalty from your traditional publisher (or more, for a book of special interest)?

Yes, I know, copy-editing and all that. I love doing copy-editing myself. But I know when I'm becoming a dinosaur. Baen is getting MORE money for unedited pre-release ebooks than for the final product. People spend hours reading fanfic that desperately needs substantive editing, and don't seem to care. Editing is certainly desirable (to me) but apparently is not a bottleneck.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-13 23:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You may have your finger on it. I don't have a good answer here. Perhaps it's my own bias in play, but I really do rely on the editorial proxy. If it's not a bottleneck, and people really want to write for free, for the prestige of being read (ie, the fanfic model), then perhaps Tor and I are already stevedores on the container docks.
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A large duck
User: burger_eater
Date: 2010-04-13 23:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ultra-cheap e-books would be no problem if they could be sold in very large numbers. You could spread the front end costs across many small sales and turn a thin profit margin into a decent side business.

But people don't buy as many books as they do, say, songs. They'll spend $0.99 on a song because it takes 3 minutes or so to hear. Then they'll do the same for several hundred other songs.

But people don't consume hundreds of books a week. The biggest impediment to buying many books is time; readers don't consume books at the same rate as music or even movies, so it's harder to spread those initial costs across a great number of sales.
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The Empress of Ice Cream
User: icecreamempress
Date: 2010-04-13 23:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
There already are more books available for free than anyone could read in a lifetime.

But if someone wants to read your book, they need to pay for it. If they want a free book, they can read Dickens or Edgeworth or R. Austin Freeman or Ouida or whoever.

Saying 'But I want Jay Lake's book for free, because it "should" be free!' is just childish.
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User: horace_hamster
Date: 2010-04-14 00:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I agree with a lot of what you say.

The problem I have with the toaster analogy is that, while the cost of reproducing things continues to decrease, it's not zero for physical objects. It's probably never going to be as cheap to make your own Braun toaster as it is for Braun to make Braun toasters. Similarly, you rarely see pirated print books because the average Pirate Pete will end up spending more to xerox copies of Green at Kinkos than he would if he just bought copies from Borders.

The problem is digital. Music, books, videos -- digital versions can be reproduced at no cost. Copy a file and send it to a friend, and it costs you zero. It's a genie that's been let out of the bottle. But it can't be put back.

IMO, People aren't concerned about who is making a profit or whether the designer/author/producer is getting paid. They're concerned about their own spending. They will pay money for a toaster at the appliance shop because it would cost them fifty bucks to make the toaster at home themselves. They won't buy toasters for all their friends, though. People will pay money for a paperback at Borders because it would cost them four bucks to xerox the book themselves. They won't buy copies of the book for all their friends, though. And they don't expect their friends to toss free paperbacks or toasters their way. People don't want to pay money for an e-book or CD that they could copy for free or that their friend could copy and give them for free.

IMO it's all about perceived value and convenience. People perceive no difference in quality between a pirated e-book and a bought-from-the-bookstore e-book, whereas they do perceive (usually incorrectly) a difference between water from their tap and water in a bottle with a fancy label, and they buy endless amounts of the latter. Bottled water is often more convenient, though. So e-book sellers may have to step up their service and make it easier to buy the e-book than to get it from a torrent site.

Sorry - that was a lot of blather with no solutions and probably little value.
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User: lonfiction
Date: 2010-04-14 02:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've often said that what the concept of copyright is actually protecting is the right of the the producer to profit from his labor, or at least to make the decisions about who to sell his labor to, and how much. It's just the technological myopia of the earliest copyright advocates that's trained us to think that it only applies to making physical copies of some physical thing.

It's more profit-right than copyright that needs protecting, but even if the concept had been worded and expressed better, it would probably have ended up just as caught with its pants down when the digital age arrove.
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Patrick Nielsen Hayden
User: pnh
Date: 2010-04-14 02:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"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."

I literally could not read a single word of your post after this sentence. Maybe tomorrow.

If you don't think these people are "what matters" every bit as much as writers and editors matter, we have pretty much nothing to say to one another.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-14 02:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Again, we're talking past each other. I'm not dismissing stevedores, or labor. I'm quibbling with the analogy of where the service they performed stood in the value chain. Yes, people matter. You know I believe that with all my heart.
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User: keikaimalu
Date: 2010-04-14 03:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think the real problem is that people have become accustomed to finding everything for free on the Internet. I mean, sure, there are some subscription models, but I haven't seen them really take off. When I click a link that sends me to a site that tells me I can't look at that page because I don't have a subscription, I always just leave, because it annoys me. I'm not inclined to buy subscriptions.

I grew up in a generation that believed that you should pay for the product of someone else's hard work. I don't want to steal music; I *want* to pay for it, because artists' work is still work. (Also because I'm a writer and want to be paid for mine.)

But the generation coming up now is used to seeing a staggering amount of content for free on the Internet. Grammatical quality, of course, sucks, and sometimes accuracy too, but it's still free.

I think there was an opportunity way back at the introduction of the Internet to create a workable pay-for-product model, and it passed us by, partly because we didn't have the technology to make paying for online content easy and secure. While those mechanisms are now in place, public sentiment has calcified: If it's digital, if I can read it (or listen to it) on my computer, it should be free.

I do believe the genie is out of the bottle. I don't see people being willing to shell out cash for something that looks just like the words they can get to online that don't cost a cent, especially as my generation grays and, ultimately, fades away.

Maybe something like iTunes (iBooks?) would work, a couple of bucks per e-book, and hoping that volume makes up for slim profit margin. Or maybe fiction-writing will go the ad route: the more popular a writer is, the more an advertiser is willing to pay to place ads in their stories or sites.

Or, maybe, fiction will end up being effectively free. And the only people who write and publish it will be the ones who are willing to work without financial remuneration -- which, I suspect, would drastically reduce the quality and quantity of fine fiction.

This topic troubles me, because I can't see a clear way to a future that appeals to me. It's disheartening. But there's still hope that writers will somehow come up with a new model that provides some income. The future isn't written yet.
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User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2010-04-14 04:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"I think there was an opportunity way back at the introduction of the Internet to create a workable pay-for-product model, and it passed us by, partly because we didn't have the technology to make paying for online content easy and secure."

I'm not sure we've got the technology yet, to make it really convenient.
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User: martyn44
Date: 2010-04-14 06:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Re Jerry Oltion's observation, there is a scene in the film 'Face' in which Damon Albarn, playing a small time criminal, remarks that taking into account his criminal proceeds and time in jail, he would have been better off driving a cab.

Author as equivalent of small time criminal in some eyes? Or maybe big time rock star.
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The Elf ½: Fond of Books
User: elfwreck
Date: 2010-04-15 23:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Fond of Books
Ebooks don't eliminate the need for content producers the way containers eliminated the need for stevedores.

No, they don't. But they eliminate the need for several currently-paid positions in the print distribution chain: printers, boxers, shippers, warehouse managers & staff, inventory clerks, sales clerks, and probably a couple of other links I'm missing. And ebooks have no return rate to count against profits.

Cut out the share of pbook prices that goes to all of them, and leave just the author & publisher shares, and a small bit for webmasters, and the debates would pretty much evaporate. (And tell publishers to stop comparing ebook prices to new hardcover prices. Funny how the charts about price breakdowns never compare ebooks to paperbacks.)

People who aren't in fandom don't necessarily even register Tor or Macmillan.

That's likely to start changing; publishers will *need* to distinguish themselves to be competitive. Especially now that they're competing with e-publishers who are smaller and leaner and better able to respond directly to customer concerns & preferences.

Macmillan/Tor certainly makes more money on ebooks than Samhain Press--but do they make more per dollar invested? Are they likely to keep the customers they have, now that they've changed pricing methods? How does Tor stack up to Baen for ebook sales? I would really love to know what publishers tell themselves about why Baen's model won't work for them.

I'm watching all these debates & discussions avidly, because they're strongly relevant to my future reading habits. Already, I don't read print except for reference works and materials I'm required to read. If I really, really want to read a book that's not available as a DRM-free ebook, I'll buy it, chop the binding off, and scan it myself. (I grant this is a rare attitude towards ebooks. But it's growing, as imaging tech and OCR software improves.) It's rare that I bother; there's no shortage of non-DRM'd material I want to read. Much more than I can afford to pay for.

I don't buy DRM'd ebooks; I'm not willing to install special software that limits my reading to specific devices any more than I'm willing to buy books that only work under certain lighting conditions. (Anyone who thinks the DRM issue is unrelated to pricing issues hasn't been paying attention. Most people wouldn't complain about a $3 investment for something that only worked on devices with special software installed; they're complaining about paying the price of paper for something that's a lot more limited.)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-15 23:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Cut out the share of pbook prices that goes to all of them.

Just as a point of reference, that's only about 10% of the cover price. The rest is sunk costs for acquisition, editing, preproduction, marketing, etc. So it's not quite that simple or easy, unfortunately. (And no, ebooks aren't "free" from sunk costs any more than paperbacks are "free" because the hardback already exists.)
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