Uncle Orson's Writing Class
August 2, 2000
Is the ability to copy books digitally going to be the death of copyright,
as some are saying? Will ebooks replace print books?
I don't see it as a problem in publishing. People have been able to get
downloads of manuscripts or copy them in other ways for years. But even the
people who download them still want the book. There is no electronic reader that
is adequate and no model for electronic readers that does not have serious
conceptual flaws even if the technical ones are eventually solved. People will still
want to own the book. Maybe these are "famous last words," and you can't
underestimate the capacity of industries to destroy themselves -- for instance, by
prematurely stopping the publication of print books! <grin> But whereas cds were
instantly seen, correctly, as a vast improvement over vinyl, ebooks are much more
analogous to digital audio tape, which, having been crippled so it could not copy
cds, was, in effect, useless to the consumer, and therefore had no effect on regular
cassettes. Ebooks are in no way an improvement over print books, to the
consumer. And right now, the stupid way the industry is approaching them, they
aren't an improvement for the industry or the authors, either.
As for the issue of friends sharing with friends -- they do it already, with
printed books. It's called "lending." I have many, many people proudly tell me,
"That copy of Ender's Game has been read by fifteen people" or some other such
number. Some authors retort, "They should have bought their own," but I'm
perfectly happy. Every lent copy is a chance to have another reader eagerly
waiting to buy my latest book.
Remember that the same flap occurred over radio broadcasting of records.
"Why will they buy the record when they can hear the song on the radio for free?"
demanded the record industry as they tried to bar the playing of records on the
radio. The answer: In actual fact, radio play of records helped raise record sales
to fantastic high levels. There's every reason to think that easy digital access to
manuscripts would increase the sales of traditional books, as readers could try
before they buy.
Think of how many people buy videotapes and then don't watch them.
(Renting is different.) They buy them because they enjoyed the movie and want to
own it in their library. People do the same things with books. They buy a copy of
a book because, having read a friend's copy, they want that book in their library.
They don't necessarily reread it -- they just want to have it.
In short, I just don't think that publishing is going to be affected negatively
by digital copying. That's why I used to make my manuscripts available online
for free during the months between my writing the books and their publication.
There were sometimes hundreds of downloads -- but as far as we know, most or
all of the people who downloaded it went on to buy the book when it came out in
print -- and during the months when the book was only available online, those
who read those advance copies were helping sell the book when it did appear by
talking about it with their friends!
Yes. Interesting. Especially the bit about stimulating the
interest to buy. I hadn't thought of that. It's like the dude in the mall holding his
basket of buttery bits of monster pretzels. It all revolves around the fact that right
now there isn't any good substitute for a book -- readability, access, portability.
And it takes equipment and dough to make a cheap book and distribute it. It's
fairly difficult to enter this part of the industry. So that's the control point on this
supply chain. You're able to cash in because of that point.
I guess the problem, or perhaps the question is, will they come up with a good
electronic substitute for a book? Because when/if that happens novelists have no
control point. Not unless they create another one.
The truth is, there is no idea that really replaces a printed
book. No matter how they solve the screen problem, they can't get rid of the
transience problem -- electronic texts are erasable. When they disappear, they're
gone. When the technology changes, they're unreadable. In a power outage or
when the batteries die, you have no book. If you lose the reading machine, you
can't read any of your books, whereas if you lose one book, you still have the
others. These problems can't be "solved," they're intrinsic -- for precisely the
same reason that vinyl records could never be installed in cars the way radios
could. It's inherent in the technology.
As to authors getting paid, the real problem in the book distribution system
is not the lack of a choke point for paying authors -- in fact, right now the real
scandal is that online book distributors have the gall to offer authors royalties
down in the ten to fifteen percent range, or even fifty percent, when based on the
risk-and-expenses ratio, the authors should be getting more like 85% or 90%
royalties. It's a scam and a grab by publishers, and authors have got to put a stop
to it right now.
The real choke point even if we had an all electronic distribution system for
books is not based around encryption or other annoying nonsense, it's based
around selection and editing. There are hundreds of thousands of authors out there
with books and stories and poems to sell. How will readers possibly be able to sift
through this monstrous pile of (mostly) drivel in order to find the good stuff?
Editors are going to catch on that the public needs editors as much as it
needs writers, not so the editors can help the writers "fix" their books, but so that
the audience can rely upon the editors to help them find the good books! In a
world of ebooks, what we don't need are publishers (though in fact the
"publisher," instead of being the financial risk-taker involved in printing books,
would become the managerial leader of groups of editors, handling the finances,
etc.). And so the money will come, as it comes with magazines, not through
access to the text, but through access to the website.
My model for how this can and should work is:
Editors set up "bookshelves" or "booksites" where they provide exclusive
access to books (and poems and stories) they have selected and which they
guarantee will deliver a high standard of quality. They are able to compete with
print publication because they have enabled "microcharging" - the ability to
charge mere fractions of a dollar for particular downloads. Some of these editors
may also charge access fees -- monthly or per visit -- simply for access to the
site, but again, these will be microcharges -- less than a dollar per visit or only a
couple of bucks a month. Of the download charges, 90% goes to the author.
So if a booksite is the only place where you can download the latest
Grisham novel, you might pay, for this high-demand book, $2.00. Of this, $1.70
would go to Grisham. Since you pay for your own paper and laser toner to get a
printout, that's fair. And since the cost is so low, you feel no qualms about telling
your friends, "it's practically free, download it yourself!" The latest book by
Card, however, will cost only a buck, of which I get 85 cents. Fair, because
there's less demand. If I don't like it, I can go to a booksite where the editor plans
to charge $1.50 for my books. But it won't be price alone. In order to get my
books offered on a fantastically popular booksite like Beth Meacham's would be, I
have to let her keep 20% of the "cover price" instead of the 10% that less-popular
editors are able to charge - but we make up for that "loss" to me by raising my
cover price to John Grisham's $2.00, because Beth's customers are willing to pay
that much for books she has certified as excellent.
Poems can be accessed for a dime, short stories for a quarter. And so on.
Microcharges make the whole thing possible. And editorial judgment is what
makes the each booksite work.
The only reason this isn't happening right now is that there isn't enough
money in the web for firstrate editors to be willing to make the jump. Plus, I
suspect that a different kind of editor will need to evolve - an editor who is also a
powerful public persona. Just as Harlan Ellison's intros helped make his
Dangerous Visions anthologies so popular, we'll find that the editors who can
write provocative essays about the books and stories they publish and can become
celeb writers in their own right will succeed best in online bookshelves.
Heck, if I could handle the microcharges and had the time to read, I'd start
such a bookshop myself right now!
But in no sense is any of this likely to be a replacement for print books,
except when it comes to short stories and poems, which don't have a strong print
market right now. I can imagine the "bookshelf" concept thriving alongside a
continuing print-book industry -- but not until and unless authors are able to
detach the ebook rights from the print rights. As long as the print publishers
remain in control of erights, we will continue to get the stupid, encryption-based
schemes that are based more on fear than on understanding of how readers search
for and respond to stories. And ebooks will continue to be most useful in keeping
out-of-print and small-audience books available without the cost of printing.