Dispatches | February 22, 2011

Sand Castle SkullThe Borders store closings have received a lot of press lately, with some correlating the decline of brick-and-mortar and pulp-and-ink Borders with the rise in e-book sales. And at the same time, David Carnoy, writing at CNET, talked about the problem of the rise of e-book piracy. If one is feeling apocalyptic, one might think this means that not only is the old bookselling model failing, but the new digital model may be threatened as well — which leaves us with the prospect of the DEATH OF COMMERCIAL PUBLISHING AS WE KNOW IT (Bum bum BUUUUMMMMM)!

There have been numerous claims about the effects of digital media piracy. Industry-sponsored studies (and normal intuition) suggest that pirated copies represent lost sales opportunities; others have argued that piracy works as free publicity that actually boosts sales. Rather than hashing out which of these positions is more persuasive or more progressive or what have you, let’s just try to imagine a world in which texts are freely available digitally, because the publishing industry has collapsed or consumers have fully embraced the “freemium” model and recoil in disgust at the idea of someone asking them to pay for content. What does the world suddenly look like for the prospective author?

Here are a handful of non-exclusive possibilities:

1.) Author as Performer

It’s commonly asserted (though I don’t know how true it really is) that musicians make their money in live performance, and that album sales primarily benefit the recording industry (which some pirates use as a kind of justification for piracy — “we’re only ripping off the evil corporations, not the artists”). The popularity of albums and singles (broadcast or sold or pirated) serves to drive up concert attendance and ticket prices. Which is all to say that in this conception, the musician’s real job is to perform live, and selling recordings is a secondary activity merely supportive of the first.

For authors today, live readings serve the reverse function — live readings (often given away for free) are used to drive book sales (and, I suspect, for many musicians this is also true). But in a world where people get your book for free, should the author start giving “concerts”?  I think this is an intriguing possibility, and the model certainly has ancient roots — the bards of oral tradition supported themselves through performance (though not via ticket-sales, per se). But these days, attendance is often sparse even at free readings. If you aren’t a David Sedaris, is there really an income stream in live readings? Do we have an audience that would sustain that? Maybe authors do what some actors on the convention circuit do, and start charging a fee for autographs and photos. Maybe authors could let fans pay to have conversations over coffee (author as geisha?). It seems unlikely, but it’s a scenario worth looking at, since it’s so often brought up in discussions of music piracy as a way of proving that the artists will do just fine. Writers are much more bound to the selling-individual-copies model than musicians may be.

2.) Ad-based support

Of course, the most well-established model for freely accessible media is ad-supported publication. Newspapers have been doing it for ages, webzines are doing it now, and independent arts podcasts have been sustaining themselves at least partly through selling ad slots. But ads are problematic for a lot of artists; ads distract from the content, and that rubs the art-for-arts-sake person the wrong way. We, as authors, don’t want to have to be competing with our ads — but income is directly proportionate to the prominence of the ads.

For artists working independently, it’s easier than ever before to get advertising. Google Adwords, to name just one service, has generated real, substantial income for some sites (high-traffic sites, of course). But you do have to cede a certain amount of control over your site when you adopt these kinds of services. And more than that, if you want to make those services really profitable, you find yourself more and more pressured into adopting certain kinds of layouts, certain kinds of search engine optimization practices, etc. This kind of pressure can also grate on a control-oriented artists.

And, finally, the ad-supported model is functioning now, but while consumers like free content, they don’t really like ads. Ad-blocking software is getting better and better, and for text-oriented sites (as opposed to audio-visual media with embedded ads), the threat to ad-based income is very real. Which may lead us to employing another form of advertising: product placement. Product placement is already occurring in some books, but it seems fairly clear that it’s unlikely to be a popular option for serious literary authors (and even if you could stomach product placement in a novel, would it work in a poem?).

3.) Centralized Patronage

Of course, the ancients (and some not-so-ancients) had product placement in their own way, except that the “product” promoted was the artist’s patron. You could write your own epic or allegory and have some of your expenses covered, so long as you included a nice, flattering encomium to your patron either at the beginning, the end, or both (with maybe a few complimentary asides tossed in throughout, as well). Maybe it’s time to return to the patronage model — you can release your new novel with a preface praising the beneficence of Bill Gates or John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur or…. oh, wait. So the patronage model is still intact, it’s just not quite as personal a relationship as before. And besides foundations and endowments, many literary authors have a university patron: as a faculty member, the university is basically supporting your literary production, even if the books are ultimately published commercially. I’ve actually been somewhat surprised that more faculty authors haven’t moved over to free release of their work (since the income from publication is frequently so minimal), though institutionally, the academy still is ill-prepared to recognize and evaluate digital self-publication. So academic creative writers are still shackled to commercial publication because that’s the kind of publication that counts on a C.V.

But setting aside the realities of institutional patronage, it might be interesting to try out the medieval model. Get your direct retainer from a local magnate, and agree to praise them in your work and show up and be artistically delightful at their dinner parties, etc.

4. Crowd-sourced Patronage

Falling somewhere in a Venn diagram intersection between ticket-sales and individual patronage we find the idea of crowd-sourced patronage. People are already using sites like Kickstarter to solicit donations to their creative projects — mostly film, music, and visual art, but there are novels there, too. This is the web’s democratic form of patronage (which in early days of actual Enlightenment democracy took the form of subscriptions). There is something deeply appealing about this model as a way to essentially be paid to produce work without necessarily selling the work. The question, of course, is how much work this model will actually support. To the degree that subscriptions are a version of this for short form work (supporting a publication venue rather than a specific artist), the remains a nervousness about how sustainable the subscription model is for digital publication. We basically return back to the root problem — as consumers feel more and more that they’re suckers to be paying for content that they could get free, you have to wonder how many people will continue to be willing to be the minority paying into the system when the majority are getting the end product for free. Maybe it remains rosy; after all, this kind of patronage does still create a potentially powerful sense of individual connection to the artist, much moreso than simply buying the product, so that kind of added value may make crowd-sourced sponsorship viable, so long as consumers want that connection to the art and artist.

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So, those are just a little sampling of what a bookselling-free future might hold. What are your thoughts/predictions? Could you go on tour with your work? Would you use product placement if it paid your bills? If you were super-wealthy, would you be interested in keeping writers on retainer?

P.S.: I’ve focused on the idea of a world in which texts are no longer commercial products on their own. A growing online faction goes a step further an envisions a post-copyright world, where besides the issue of selling one’s work, artists give up (or lose, depending on which side of the copyright revolution you’re on) control over their work. Once released, it becomes a public domain product that anyone can modify or rework or release, with perhaps only attribution to the original artist being required (and even then, perhaps more as a requirement of social etiquette rather than law). There was recently an interesting discussion of this on the podcast This Week In Law, with guest Nina Paley, the filmmaker behind the independently-released Sita Sings the Blues. On her website, Paley expresses the ideas behind this movement with this statement:

I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. Please distribute, copy, share, archive, and show Sita Sings the Blues. From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.

You don’t need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom.

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