Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Race to the Bottom

I've had a few people forward me the article written by Ewan Morrison for the Guardian, Are Books Dead, And Can Authors Survive?

I mostly agree with Morrison's prediction for the end of paper (something I've been predicting for a while now--print will become a niche market) and the end of publishers (which I've also been blogging about for years.)

But then Morrison takes a giant leap and says that authors will also go extinct. He ends it with:

But ultimately, any strategy conceived now is just playing for time as the slide towards a totally free digital culture accelerates. How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.

And then:

I ask you to vote that the end of "the book" as written by professional writers, is imminent.

Well, you can go ahead and ask. But you're wrong, Ewan.

One of Morrison's problems is being unable to differentiate between the organizations that support artists, and the artists themselves. He uses a lot of examples, and on the surface his arguments seem solid, but they topple easily once counter-examples and some basic logic is applied.

So go read the article, then come back here and I'll attack it, point by point. I'll put his points in italics.

Most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage.

That's because publishers, who controlled distribution, decided who would be published and who wouldn't, and paid those writers advances. Though "living wage" is incorrect, as the majority of professional writers also need day jobs, now and throughout history.

But the end of paper books and publishers does not presume writers will no longer be paid. The model is changing, but writers will still be paid in the new model. More of them than ever before.

The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.

Wrong. There can be many different types of economic frameworks that support writers. Publishers, the state, ereader manufacturers, and ultimately the readers themselves. I can take away publishers, and even heavyweights like Amazon, and still get paid.

But Amazon isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

Without advances from publishers, authors depend upon future sales; they sink themselves into debt on the chance of a future hit.

I didn't get a single advance for any of my self-pubbed ebooks. Yet I'm getting rich. The investment to self pub an ebook is minimal, and since most writers already have other jobs, their livelihood isn't dependent on immediate success. If anything, the legacy publishing industry has taught writers how to live frugally, waiting for long periods of time before (hopefully) getting paid.

I know plenty of writers. Plenty comment here on my blog. Have any of you sunk yourselves into debt on the chance of a future self-pubbed hit?

When authors either self e-publish or do deals through agents that to go straight to digital they embrace a philosophy of the digital market called the long tail.

This is a big jump in logic without any proof at all to back it up.

While Amazon may profit from the long tail, that isn't how I'm earning my money. I'm selling a shitload of ebooks. So are many others.

While there are no doubt some authors selling very few copies, Morrison incorrectly assumes that all authors will make very little money. Like any industry, some will make a lot, some will make a little.

But unlike other industries, Ebooks are forever. That's a long time to find an audience. What sells 5 copies in one month may sell 5000 the next. After the initial investment (the writing, the uploading) an ebook will continue to earn money.

Morrison presumably got paid for his article. One lump fee, and that's it.

When I publish an ebook, someday my grandchildren will be making money from it. That's the kind of long tail that applies here. Not one company making a lot of money off microsales. But one IP selling for a hundred years.

I've mentioned before that this is not a zero sum game, and books don't compete with each other. People who buy ereaders read (and buy) more books than print readers. This industry is growing, and will soon be global, allowing for more writers to get a piece of the pie.

The reason why a living wage for writers is essential is that every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases terminal, decrease in earnings for those who create "content".

Disregarding his flat-out wrong assumption that most artists earn living wages in the first place, the digital revolution has no doubt hurt industries unprepared for it. That can be proven. It is also proven that those prepared for it (Apple, Microsoft) have found the profits that the old guard lost.

But has digital really hurt artists? Morrison points to other industries. Let's see if he makes any sense.

First of all, I'm not going to comment when Morrison brings up the piracy meme, which he does many times, except to say that:


Repeating the fairy-tale that piracy hurts writers is lazy researching.

So let's look at other industries through Morrison's monocular.

Home video - Sites like Netflix and LoveFilm have thousands of films available to watch entirely for free or with subscriber packages for a few pounds a month.

Hollywood is doing fine. So is Netflix. And these exist because movies exist. Movies made by artists. So, obviously, somewhere down the line the artist is getting paid.

Though DVD and Blu-Ray sales are supposedly falling, streaming and downloading are rising, and enough people pay for them to support artists making new movies.

YouTube has become a cash cow for popular artists. I watch a video, or a coming attraction, then go buy the song or the movie. I do this all the time. So do millions of others.

Music - The total income of the industry dropped by 25% between 1999 and 2008 and is expected to fall by 75% by 2013.

That stat tells me the record companies are hurting. And it serves them right, for forcing $17 CDs on us when we only wanted one song. Maybe Sony and Columbia should have embraced mp3s rather than fought Napster, and they'd be profitable like the iTunes store.

But are artists being hurt? Is the musician without an RCA album deal better off now that digital has exploded, or not? Are big name artists being hurt because they are selling fewer CDs?

I'd like to see evidence showing me the artist is being harmed by digital. All I see is record companies bemoaning their loss of control.

By the way, the statement: "I had a way to make money, now that way is gone, therefore I can never make money again" is such a stupid thing to say that I won't even bother refuting it. Yet it is one of Morrison's main arguments.

Porn - One top porn star, Savannah Stern, has cited that, on par with most of her colleagues, her earnings fell in 2010, from $150K a year to $50K.

No doubt the Internet has changed porn. But there is more porn than ever, and someone is making money on it or it wouldn't exist. While Ms. Stern may not be starring in those big productions anymore, I'm sure a woman with her considerable talents can find a way to exploit them on the world wide web. There are plenty of popular pay sites, and Savannah could also do her own live webcams. I also hear the Mustang Ranch is hiring.

The point is, she can still get paid for having sex, even though DVD sales are dropping, and her job is still a lot cooler than mine.

Computer games.

More piracy bitching. Look, I know pirates steal games. I've done it myself. But last I heard, the videogame industry was making more money than Hollywood. There are more opportunities than ever before. Farmville and Angry Birds, anyone?

Just like porn, or writing, video game artists aren't entitled to earn a living at their craft. Talent and hard work does not mean the world owes you. You have to keep at it until you get lucky.

Newspapers - As newspapers lay off staff to cut costs, they confront the fact that newspaper readership is tied to an ageing demographic.

I've been comparing the publishing industry to the newspaper industry for years. They both rely too much on selling paper, and they're paying for it.

While the Internet is replacing print, it still needs writers. If you're an old-school reporter who got laid off, here's an idea: Write a book. You know you always wanted to. And don't bother with all that finding a publisher BS. I've heard that self-pubbing is a viable option...

Photographers - Picture desks now use amateur online photo archives instead of commissioning new images and get pictures for a fraction of previous costs or entirely for free.

Wow. With that many people going to online photo archives, maybe photographers should start putting their works up for sale on online photo archives?

Like an ebook, a jpg is forever. One pic could sell hundreds of times (and some do, as I spy the same images used over and over on ebook covers.)


Thanks for bringing this up, Ewan. I thought I was the only one weeping for all of the unemployed telecommunications artists.

Oh, wait. There aren't any artists in telecommunications.

Hmm. So why did you...?

Got it. You were trying to say that new tech makes things cheaper.

I agree 100%. I can't wait for a $49 Kindle. It'll help me get even richer.

The Internet - Many of the largest growth industries in the last decade provide an entirely free service to the consumer: Google, Yahoo, YouTube.

These are all uber-rich companies, making money via advertising. They also require user-aggregated content, i.e. artists, in order to exist.

And I'm pretty sure that many artists use Google, Yahoo, and YouTube to find fans who then go on to buy their art.

I'm also sure that there will one day be ads in ebooks.

These digital providers are not in any way concerned with or interested in content, or what used to be called "culture". To them culture is merely generic content; it is a free service that is provided in the selling of customers to advertisers. Ideally for service providers, the customers will even provide the culture themselves, for free. And this is what we do when we write blogs, or free ebooks or upload films of ourselves, at no cost.

And yet, with all of this free content available, I'm still selling hundreds of ebooks a day.

Here's the problem with the crux of Morrison's argument. Already, in the world, on the Internet, there is enough free media to take a man from cradle to grave. We can watch non-stop free movies and videos, listen to non-stop free music, play non-stop free videogames, and NEVER run out of free content for our entire lives.

And yet movies, TV, videogames, music, along with books and porn, continue to make billions of dollars worldwide. Even though all this free stuff already exists.

While the future will no doubt offer more free content, the whole "race to the bottom" is fear-mongering BS.

Newsflash: We're already at the bottom. And artists are still making money.

Reread that, over and over, until the piracy meme and the "race to the bottom" meme stop getting hashed out over and over by those who refuse to listen to logic or think things through.

All that is clear is that for authors and publishers to abandon each other only accelerates the race towards free content.

No, Ewan, that's not clear at all. By abandoning publishers, many authors are reaching more fans and making more money than ever before. Many authors are getting readers for the very first time, because they were excluded from the legacy industry. The pie is getting bigger, soon to be worldwide, and we can all get a slice.

I like free content. Some of my writing is available for free, by my choice. I'm also widely pirated in both ebook and audio.

Free exists right now, and it hasn't hurt me, or the artists who are working to understand this digital revolution rather than fear it.

As we grow increasingly disillusioned with quick-fix consumerism, we may want to consider an option which exists in many non-digital industries: quite simply, demanding that writers get paid a living wage for their work.

What does this even fucking mean? Do I write my state senator? Do I get an online petition going? Do I contact every person who ever sent me fanmail and demand more money from them?

I think not. Instead, I'll just keep writing ebooks, selling them for cheap, and getting rich.

I ask you to leave this place troubled, and to ask yourself and as many others as you can, what you can do if you truly value the work of the people formerly known as writers.

Joe sez: Here's what you troubled souls can do. Download my ebook, SERIAL, for free. Like half a million other people have.

Then leave a comment on my blog, which is free, and gets tens of thousands of hits a day.

And while you do that, I'm going to go buy a new car. For cash.