Envisioning a Post-Bookselling World

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.

600,000 Characters in Search of an Audience

GalleyCat reports that 45,000 kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are signed up this year as participants in National Novel Writing Month. I’ve started several times over the past two weeks to write something about NaNoWriMo, but always stopped because A) there has been so much polemical discussion of NaNoWriMo in the blogosphere this month that there seems to be little more to add to the discussion, and B) I don’t really know what I think about NaNoWriMo. I find myself vacillating wildly between positive and negative responses. At this point, I would tentatively say that I think NaNoWriMo probably does have a positive effect at the level of individual participation (that it is a “good” experience for people to have), but that as a collective force and (nascent) institution it does indeed project some problematic and troubling values concerning the nature and function of art.

But rather than rehashing what some of those questionable values are — which has been done many times elsewhere, most especially in Laura Miller’s controversial piece — I want to look briefly at the question of audience, which GalleyCat’s statistic put me in mind of. Miller asked who’s going to read all these novels, and a lot of the negative response to her has replied “Who cares?” You write your novel for yourself, the argument goes, and participation in NaNoWriMo is essentially an exercise in self-esteem building and personal achievement. This, one could argue, makes the act of writing not about “art,” per se, but about accomplishment, which is similar to how the fad of marathon-running has made those events no so much about athleticism but about ticking off personal checkboxes. And, of course, whenever someone argues that whenever the seriousness of an endeavor has been diluted by the mass participation of “tourists,” cries of elitism are sure to follow (and I use the word “tourist” quite deliberately here — the problem is not amateurs vs. professionals; it’s people who take the art/sport/hobby seriously for its own sake vs. those who only want to fulfill short-term, personal goals, or those interested in advancing the state of the field [and, as it were, being resident in that field] vs. those who just want a diversion from the mainline of their lives [who want to visit, but aren’t really interested in risking or investing anything in it]).

All of this is merely a long-winded way of saying that if your answer to “Who’s going to read all this work” is “Who cares,” then that is, at heart, a denial of the communicative purpose of art (which is one of the troubling values associated with NaNoWriMo). But this, too, is not really what I want to talk about. I think it’s rather easy for many of us who think of ourselves as serious writers to slip into that “Who cares?” mindset just because getting an audience is so hard. The more you begin to feel like nobody out there wants to read your work, the more tempting it becomes to dismiss with a contemptuous wave of the hand the whole idea of seeking out an audience. If I can’t really see a “them” for me to write to (or for), then maybe I am better off thinking that I’m writing just for “me.” [A variant on this is the feeling that one is only writing for other writers, an attitude endemic to creative writing programs, and, indeed, to literary journals as well.]

I have a stock lament that I often wind up presenting to students in my fiction workshops (though it cannot be easily characterized as inspiring or empowering) that culminates in the complaint that the only venues for fiction (especially long-form fiction) are essentially national. Are you an amateur musician? You can play at an open mic night. You can play at large family gatherings. With even slightly above average talent, you could well play a paying gig somewhere locally. If you’re a visual artist, there are fairs and fleamarkets (if not galleries) where you can share your work with your community.

But local venues for writers are much harder to come by. Open mic nights can work for poets and perhaps writers of short shorts. You can circulate your work to your family and friends, but it is in the nature of reading that even this most intimate audience can feel awfully distant (as compared with the immediate reward of playing a few songs in the living room after Thanksgiving dinner). Really, if you want to be read, you have to be submitting to literary magazines and publishers who are mostly all drawing from a nationwide (if not global) pool of submitters and trying to reach a nationwide (if not global) pool of readers. That’s a very competitive field to wade into. Perhaps the only harder fields to break into are screen and television writing.

[An aside: there are certainly some niche genres that support primarily local or regional audiences, such as certain veins of historical fiction or mysteries (set in your hometown!), and I find writers and publishers who have tapped into that kind of audience rather fascinating.]

This seems a very dispiriting proposition. If you gave an otherwise disinterested person the choice of an art form to learn, there are so many more arts that offer the real possibility of modest but meaningful reward that it’s hard to picture that student selecting writing as the one to learn and practice. And thus my heart breaks a little bit to think of all those adolescent authors putting hours and hours into their NaNoWriMo manuscript, with no outlet for it other than a loving parent here and a generous teacher there.

But maybe I’m wrong. Outside of perhaps a handful of metropolitan environments, I do seriously doubt that local venues for nurturing local would-be novelists will ever be very significant (other than as quid pro quo workshops and writers’ groups — I’ll read your book if you read mine). However, the internet has given us a new version of the “local” scale. You may not be able to sell your novel out of the back of your car at a real world fleamarket (although some people do, or so I’ve heard), but you can post it for free or cheaply to any number of online publishing markets now. I know that fan fiction communities have been vibrant and supportive (and populated with ordinary readers, not just writers willing to read each other) for a couple of decades now. Perhaps other, less genre-bound online writing communities are just as engaged (though I haven’t encountered many).

So I turn the question(s) over to you: Who is your writing for? What venues do you have for your work besides the traditional, national markets? Is there a future in “local” writing, and what does “local” even mean in a digital world?

Medium and Message

Seance (via Wikimedia Commons)

Another interesting posting on e-books floated to the top of the Google News filter recently. Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald interviewed Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa concerning the future of literature in an age of e-books. After commenting on the portability benefits of e-books, Vargas Llosa sounds a cautionary note:

But, on the down side, “it could bring along an impoverishment of literary quality,” he said.

“There is always the risk that literature that is written for the screen will be more prone to triviality, banality, to a deterioration of intellectual activity.”

We hear a lot of such talk about “new media” these days, how e-books will change literature, how blogs are changing journalism.

But, really, why should the medium change the message? Why do so many seem so convinced that a writer producing a work that will be read on a screen write in a different way than a writer who expects to see his or her words on the printed page? No doubt there will be further experiments utilizing the unique properties of digital distribution to create more multimedia “hypertext” literature (are we even using that term anymore? The “hypertext” novel already seems passé, obsolete before it even got its natural platform). But lots of novels — most novels, even — will continue to be plain text. Why should the means of displaying that text seem so crucial?

Certainly, there is a McLuhanistic argument for how the specific qualities of a medium shape our perceptions of content, and there are perhaps compelling hypotheses for why digital consumption can somehow devalue the content (of course, similar arguments were made when the printing press replaced hand-crafted manuscripts, some of which would cast the modern binding-sniffing bibliophile as a downright philistine).

However, it seems to me that the more significant force affecting artistic quality is not the development of a new medium, but that of a new market. E-books appear to be opening up a new market for a kind of reading. Maybe that market wants more ephemeral and superficial content (and then again, maybe it doesn’t). But is this destructive of the market for quality? Vargas Llosa goes on in his remarks to compare e-books to television, saying:

“Television is, on one hand, an extraordinary source of information. But in general, the products created for television are very trivial, banal, compared to creative products that end up in books.”

Anyone who has been watching HBO’s original programming for the last decade (to name just one example) can dispute this statement. If much of what is produced for television is banal, is that a fault of the medium, or is it simply a response to the largest market? I think it’s been amply proven that there’s no limitation on aesthetic and intellectual quality to the television format. It just happens that television is also the principle vehicle for serving a mass audience that also wants its daily escapist fare.

Moreover, if you really crunch the numbers, I suspect the number of trivial and banal books published every year utterly dwarfs offerings of high-quality literature. Indeed, it may well be true that, per capita, television has a higher ratio of high-quality art to schlock than book publishing does. (Even if there are several hundred bad TV series for every The Wire, there have to be many thousands of bad books for every masterpiece.)

There might well be a digital market for banal content, for which many terabytes of bad writing will be produced. But it is not the digital screen that leads people to write badly.

The optimistic argument (often trotted out by new media revolutionaries) is that the opening up of any new market, even a market for crap, produces spill-over for older kinds of content. Buyers of e-books (like buyers of digital music) may not be more inclined to start buying more paper books or compact discs, but they are likely to buy books and recordings in their general sense. Quality will find its audience even across changes of media or distribution platform, and vice versa.