Let’s start out with “Once upon a time”, let’s say back in the 1970s, so a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. In those long ago days, let’s talk about what constituted popular cultural media. In those days the media that I cared about took roughly three forms: Movies and Television, Music and Books. Let’s talk about how those things have changed in just a few short decades and think about what that means in the coming decades.
When I was a kid, if I wanted to read a book, I had one of three options. First was the library. That was my source of reading material and I was voracious. I would ride my bicycle to my local library, which was less than a mile away. I’d ride my bike and take back the 10 or so books I’d checked out the week before and grab as many as 10 more to read in the next week or two. It never occurred to me to wonder how the library got those books (taxes my parents and others paid), but the books were free to me. Later, I discovered a local used bookstore and I began to collect my own books and eventually had around 400 books, almost entirely Science Fiction and Fantasy. Later, once I started working, I could afford to buy new books when I wanted them. One book, one purchase. If I gave the book to someone, they could read it and I could not. The physical book existed effectively as a token to control how many copies existed and who could read it. If you had the book, you controlled the content. There was no feasible way to copy the content or distribute it, so publishers owned the only way for a book to proliferate out in to the wild.
Similarly, music was delivered, at least for me, from the radio. During that same dark period I watched the transition from Albums to 8-Track to cassette tapes to, eventually, CDs. All but the latter had no easy way to replicate the contents. With cassettes, there began to be some reasonably priced players that had 2 cassette players so you could record from one to the other, but the process wasn’t high fidelity so the copies were inferior in quality and that lack of quality coupled with the difficulty of copying from one to another largely limited the ability to copy the content. Again, the distributors, in this case the music labels, controlled duplication and access to the music.
Movies and Television were similar though with the advent of VCRs, suddenly we could tape content and watch it outside the time it was broadcast rather than only when it was on television. Copying was similarly difficult as you either needed two VCRs or a VCR with two cassettes to similarly go from tape to tape. You might score a bootleg copy of a movie, but the quality wasn’t great, but it was watchable.
Computers coupled with the Internet, of course, as with so many other things, changed everything. The advent of these technological advances destabilized so many things but one of the things they did very effectively was break the hold on the channels for those three types of media. Digital copies of Movies and Television, Books and Music all became possible because of the Personal Computer. Arguably, the Internet played a critical part as it opened a distribution channel that bypassed all the old ways of delivering and controlling content.
Once this shift began, those affected began to scramble to try and deal with these destabilizing changes. Old Media (Book Publishers, Music Labels, Studios) obviously had a vested interest because if they suddenly didn’t control the channels by which media was delivered, they had little or no value add. It suddenly meant that a content producer could reach a content consumer with very little standing in the way. Old Media, justifiably, was (and is) terrified of this idea and fights for its very life.
Let’s take just one of these Old Media stalwarts: Publishing. Obviously if there is a physical book to be printed, there’s no beating the economy of scale that Publishers working with Printers can bring to bear on the problem, right? Well, mostly, yes. Even now, there are print on demand services that can print a book at a cost that is not 10x the cost of a publisher/printer, but rather is in the 3-8x range depending on a large number of factors. And those costs will likely continue to fall as technology advances. But, if we set aside the need for a physical copy and embrace an eBook, then the need for a Printer just disappeared! Making a digital copy of an eBook is basically a free operation. Publishers will certainly argue that they provide other services like Editing, Proofreading, Distribution, an eCommerce site and Publicity. This is all true, but even those services can be found outside the Publishing world via alternatives. It certainly is the case that you get what you pay for, but they are available. The difference is, Publishers typically front the costs of those services and take them out of the money that might eventually filter down to the author. Increasingly, however, authors have begun to take on a larger role in the Publicity side by taking an increasing role in Social Media. The Young Adult author John Green is very active on social media via The NerdFighter community which he created with his brother Hank. This community serves several purposes and does many thing unrelated to his work as an author, but there is no small advantage gained by a built-in community that knows of your work. Others in Science Fiction and Fantasy like John Scalzi and Patrick Rothfuss have very strong online presences which increase audience awareness of what they are doing.
Speaking of John Scalzi, an accomplished author arguably at the top of the pile for Science Fiction, released some interesting data after his book Redshirts had been out for a while. At the time of the article (On his excellent Blog Whatever), he broke down the sales of his book. At that time he’d sold 21% via Audiobook, 32% as a Hardcover and a whopping 45% as an eBook. At the time of the article there wasn’t a soft cover, so no data there.
This was insightful to me on several fronts. First, a very successful (for genre) book may only sell 80k copies. Lower than I would have guessed. And eBooks took up almost half of the sales.
Scalzi observes that while eBooks are thought to be the future, physical books still play an import part in the mix and that makes sense. But I suspect that 32% number will only shrink over time.
He also argues that, for him, it’s still valuable for him to work with an established publisher as it gets his book in front of more eyes than he could do on his own. I might argue that an experiment with an eBook might show that for folks already at the top of the pyramid as he is, this is almost certainly less true than someone trying to break in to the field, but still a valid point.
Further, he does note that his gross from each of the three formats is roughly the same, which is interesting. I get inherently stuck on the idea that the share going to the creator should be the same for a physical book as for an eBook when you’ve just entirely cut out the portion attributable to creating the physical object. Sure, you still have to pay for the editor and proofreading and typesetting and whatever publicity the publisher chooses to spend on the author, but there’s no getting around the fact that the cost per unit for an eBook is dramatically lower than the cost per unit for a physical book.
But, the long and short of this for me is that Old Media, at least in the publishing world, is trying to adapt to changes in technology. Maybe it could faster, but it’s happening.
One of the things I haven’t touched on and exists, so far as I’m concerned, solely to perpetuate the lockdown that Old Media once held, is DRM or Digital Rights Management. The intent of DRM is to maintain the model of a single copy going out to one person and there not being an easy way for that person to then pass it along to another person. In this, at least, DRM is actually less effective than a printed book because I can give a printed book away but I cannot give away a DRM-protected eBook I’ve purchased. I also cannot resell it or trade it in to my local used book store or even give it away to Goodwill. In fact, should the store where I purchased that book go away, I may well lose access to the book that I paid for! Current technology attempts to enforce the model of a single eBook going to an individual, but as a result of the limitations of the technology, that individual possesses fewer rights to that eBook than they had to the equivalent physical book. This isn’t a tenable solution and it’s part of the reason why DRM is failing and it’s part of the reason why folks try to get around these kinds of protection.
As it turns out, Scalzi is an author who happens to support the removal of DRM from his books and some publishers (Tor, for example) have come down on the side of DRM-free eBooks.
Now, this does mean that someone who is internet savvy can probably go to a pirate torrent site and download a copy of the eBook the day it becomes available. On the face of it, that sounds like a horrible problem for everyone because that author gets nothing if someone downloads it for free, right?
Interestingly, there are authors who even disagree with that premise and put their personal livelihood on the line to test that theory.
Cory Doctorow is another genre author and he routinely puts up copies of the eBook versions of his book on his own website Craphound so if someone wants to download his latest book, they can do it at no cost as soon as it is released!
I admit, this seems like an extreme approach, but his argument seems to be that giving away an eBook version spreads awareness of his work and where people find value, they will find a way to pay for it, either by buying the hardback or by paying for the eBook via Kindle or the Apple iBooks store.
It seems pretty clear that there is no such thing as an unbreakable DRM, so the days of tying one copy of something down and making it impossible to duplicate are probably behind us. As soon as a new DRM solution comes out, it seems that a way around it exists within days. It’s a losing battle in the end.
I actually don’t have a problem with a system that tries to enforce the author of content getting paid for their work, be it a book or music or television or a movie. Turns out I have less sympathy for the large, faceless companies that make up Old Media – partly because they are increasingly unable to justify their share of the money made. For years they have cried about how pirating was going to kill them but the data simply doesn’t support it on any of those three fronts. Yes, some folks will pirate and take a free copy of something if they can avoid paying for it. That will always be true. But, I do believe that most folks who can, will pay a reasonable price for content, especially if they believe that a fair share of that money goes to the creator of that content.
When the Amazon Kindle store first became available, I was amazed to see that an eBook for a given book might cost more than a physical book. That was, to quote Vizzini, “Inconceivable!” Now, it seems the cost of an eBook is typically lower than the hardback. Curiously, the cost of an eBook is often still at least, if not more, than the cost of the paperback. Curious because, again, you have eliminated the cost of the equivalent of “printing”. One copy costs the same as a million copies. Yes, I understand there are additional steps for creating an eBook and providing it, but those costs must be dropping dramatically from just a few years ago. Any reasonable piece of publishing software nowadays supports creating a ePub format for eBooks.
It’s fascinating to sit astride this kind of cultural shift, to watch as entire billion dollar industries are rocked by technology freeing up the manufacture and distribution of media.
As it stands today, anyone can write and distribute and sell an eBook. The quality may not be up there, yet, with that of a similar book which utilized the resources of the publishers, but, as I said, the market for those is growing to meet the needs of these authors.
YouTube has opened up a nearly free channel for content providers to make whatever they want to and put it up and see if there is an audience for it. There is even a revenue model built in so they see a portion of the money that comes from the eyeballs on the site. There is no way that Networks are not aware of this and, in fact, several things have launched from YouTube or similar sites to be picked up by Networks, so it has become a viable way to be discovered.
Music, of course, has been going through a very similar transformation. Pirate sites exists, but so do many ways for artists to get their music out in front of audiences. Social media steps in to help spread word, serving much the same service as the publicity that record labels would pay for in the past. Sites like BandCampexist as both online music stores and as platforms for musicians to be found and heard, all without any interference (or, arguably, help) from the music labels. I heard an interview recently with a band and they argued that, for them, the album was not even about making money. It was about getting word out and building and audience for their concerts. This is a major shift from how things used to be where the concerts were used to sell the CD or album.
Coming back to DRM, specifically as it relates to music, I read just recently that a new study out of the University of Toronto showed that when labels dropped DRM, overall sales increased 10-30%. This isn’t the first time that the music labels have cried wolf with respect to DRM and pirating music, but it does seem to show that some 30 years in to this transition, they are certainly slow to adapt to the new landscape and slow to move from their list of objections.
I have no clue where things will settle but I do believe that creators will find models that allow them to create and be compensated reasonably for their work. I doubt that it will be via technological lockdowns or attempts to make it impossible to copy or distribute outside “acceptable” channels, but time will tell.
The same shift that’s happened across those media landscapes may well be coming in physical form in the coming decades in the form of 3D Printing and Scanning.
3D Printing in the home is becoming an increasing reality. Not in my home yet, but that’s because if I have the $500-$2500 to spend, it’s probably not going to be on that. Yet. Ask me next year. The quality of the prints are still in the early stages though the details they are capable of are becoming better all the time. The materials that can be used to print are limited today to low(-ish) cost nylons, but there are some other options coming. Before too long, I suspect that these printers will support a much wider variety of materials, colors, consistency, strength and resolution. Couple that with increasingly low cost 3D scanners and you can see a fairly short path to an in-home replicator capable of either duplicating something you have or printing up a new copy of something you want!
Interestingly, these new technologies are also under attack by agencies that want to implement DRM solutions. Apparently they didn’t get the memo from Old Media that DRM isn’t effective. And, as with any potentially destabilizing technology, there certainly are risks. With digital duplication of media, the risk is your teenager can find and keep a cache of porn on a USB stick that is 100x the size of anything my teenaged self could have imagined, let alone hid under his mattress. With 3D printing, there is the risk that someone can print a gun that doesn’t show up on radar. Today that risk isn’t large because it turns out a gun printed out of fairly soft nylon isn’t all that effective, but that will change as material choices increase. But, you don’t deal with a risk like that by outlawing the technology. That simply doesn’t work, as has been shown over and over again.
The 20th century was full of some of the most amazing shifts in technology and culture in our shared history. At the start of the century, in 1903, the Wright brothers launched their first flights. By the end of the century, the average person could travel the world for fun at a reasonable cost. If you look at how someone lived in 1900 versus how they lived in 2000, the list of differences and technologies that were introduced and adopted is mind-boggling.
If the first decade or so of the 21st century is any indication, we may have similarly dizzying advances ahead of us that will challenge us and amaze us. Now, if we can just manage to not screw up our planet so badly that it is unwilling to support us, it might be a great deal of fun to stick around and see as much of that change as I can! I don’t fear those changes, I embrace them, I grab them and jam them in to my brain as fast as I can and ask for more! More, Please!