Brave New (Writing) World: Surfing and Musing

Over on Charlie Stross’s blog, guest poster Milena Popova explains the economics underlying the problems posed by easy online access to content. Her conclusion?

Content is a public good.

She explains this in detail, providing an overview of basic economics in terms anyone can understand (I recommend reading it), but the gist of her argument is that content isn’t “rival” — my reading a story online doesn’t keep you from reading it — and modern technology makes it very difficult to put up barriers to keep people from getting it without paying for it. She goes on to explain that this doesn’t mean people should rip off the creators of the content:

Here’s what this doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean content is free …, or cheap to make (though it can be), or that content creators should not get rewarded for their efforts.

… It means that old business models based on content being a club good simply don’t work. It means we have to rethink our relationship with content — as creators, as distributors and as consumers.

Her take is optimistic, not pessimistic; she thinks we can develop new models that will make it possible for artists to get paid for creating. But it’s likely to be a messy system, given her take on the economics:

It’ll be a bit like public services: some people pay their taxes, some people find all the loopholes, some people claim more benefits than they’re allowed. It’s not always 100% fair, but in the grand scheme of things, it works.

Over on The New Yorker, Ken Auletta has a piece about publishers seeing the iPad as their salvation in the world of digital books. (Read it soon: The New Yorker’s model for providing free digital content is to put something up for free for a short time.) Reading it in light of Popova’s ideas, I’m not sure the big publishers are seeing the big economic picture, but certainly the competition with the Kindle posed by the iPad and the iBooks store does change the dynamic.

There were a couple of other things that caught my eye in the Auletta piece. First, there was this observation about the problem with publishing:

Tim O’Reilly, the founder and C.E.O. of O’Reilly Media, which publishes about two hundred e-books per year, thinks that the old publishers’ model is fundamentally flawed. “They think their customer is the bookstore,” he says. “Publishers never built the infrastructure to respond to customers.”

If he’s right, that says to me that even if the iPad gives publishers more choices than simply having Amazon and the Kindle, they’re still missing the point. Later on, he mentions a slightly different, but related, point of view:

Publishers maintain that digital companies don’t understand the creative process of books. A major publisher said of Amazon, “They don’t know how authors think. It’s not in their DNA.” Neither Amazon, Apple, nor Google has experience in recruiting, nurturing, editing, and marketing writers.

Of course, Amazon, Apple, and Google are all in different businesses, so it doesn’t quite seem reasonable to lump them together. But it’s certainly true that they aren’t set up to do the kind of creative shepherding of books good publishers have always done.

It occurs to me that there’s room for a new kind of publisher, one that understands both authors and readers and can work well with the digital giants.

Then there was a piece in The New York Times a couple of weeks ago, by Marc Aronson, who writes and edits illustrated nonfiction, on the problems copyright law poses for obtaining rights to images and quotations necessary for his books and how the advent of e-books could make the logistics and the cost even worse. He advocates a new system of payments based on number of times a book is downloaded, along with a set scale for charging for pictures based on how important the image is to the text.

Finally, the Times also had a recent piece about musicians who use sites like Kickstarter to raise funds for their projects. Kickstarter is one of several online projects that helps creative types — and it sounds like writers and (ahem) writer’s cooperatives could be included — raise funds for various projects from their fans.

The rub seems to be that this kind of fan financing only works for relatively small projects. As author (and business prof) Randall Stross points out:

Support that is enough for full-time pursuit of music is still nowhere in sight. Gas money for Austin may turn out to be about good as it gets.

All this reading leaves me more confused than ever about where the writing world is going. But at least a lot of smart people are thinking about it. And having someone give you gas money beats paying for it out of pocket. As Joe Ely sings in “Drivin’ to the Poorhouse in a Limosine”:

Diggin' through the bottles and magazines
Hope I got some money for some gasoline ...


Nancy Jane’s novella, Changeling, is now being serialized on Book View Cafe. You can start at Chapter 1 here; a new chapter will be posted every Sunday. An e-book edition of the whole book will soon be available for a modest price.

And you can still find 51 flash fictions and a few other stories on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf.


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