It’s been nine years since Metallica launched their crusade against Napster. Since then we’ve also seen the MPAA and RIAA shit their respective beds, Sony’s assault on consumers, the DeCSS controversy, and the rise and fall of DRM.
Through that time, I’ve been wondering when the same behavior would hit the publishing industry. The Google Book Search brouhaha came first, and it was subsequently settled. Now we have the Kindle 2 and the controversy over its text-to-speech capabilities. Neither of these have been as bloody as the music and movie entertainment battles, but they amount to the same thing: a given body fighting change they don’t understand.
And the worst part is they’ve been through this before. Why aren’t the industries learning from their mistakes? Why aren’t they partnering with digital innovators instead of trying to crush them?
It also bothers me that it’s never been proven that all this digital bootlegging has been detrimental to the industry (in fact at least one study shows file sharing does not affect music sales). They see X number of people downloaded an album/movie or may have read a book on Google, and they claim it’s Y lost dollars. Meanwhile, they have no idea how many of those people turned around and bought a copy of the real thing. They have no idea how many of them enjoyed the item and told all their friends about it, and how many of those friends turned around and bought copies.
The music and movie industries are coming around, finally doing away with DRM and coming to agreements with distributors and retailers to get their product out in such a way the consumer won’t get screwed. I shudder to think of how much money they wasted on lawsuits, studies, and encryption/restriction research that ultimately failed.
With luck the publishing industry will step up before it’s too late. Guys like Cory Doctorow give away their books in multiple electronic formats, yet still sell enough copies that Tor Books is wiling to publish his work in hardcover. That may not be a common situation, but it shows that it can be done without harming sales.
For my own work, I know for a fact Werewolves: Call of the Wild showed up on several torrent sites. Did that have a negative effect on my sales? I sincerely doubt it. I’m much more concerned about the number of people who told me they ordered copies but their comic shop never received them. That tells me if I want to be read, I can’t rely solely on the current distribution model.
Whether we’re talking books, movies, comics, or music, they’re all about one thing: grabbing ears and eyeballs. If you can get enough people to pay attention, you’re going to make a profit, regardless of how the product is getting to those ears and eyeballs and how much they’re paying for it. Theft, be it shoplifiting or digital distribution, comes with the territory. It’s a cost of doing business, and publishing has been lucky to get a free pass for this long.
Keep in mind, people are not afraid to pay for their entertainment. Take movie ticket prices, for example. I spent $27 for the Midget and I to see Monsters vs. Aliens: $9 for each ticket and the 3D glasses and another $9 for a medium popcorn and medium drink. People bitch about that, but you know what? The theater was packed, despite all the whining about the economy. Or consider the Kindle: it’s essentially a $359 bookshelf. If Kindle books average $6 a pop for titles available in mass market paperback for $8, you’d have to purchase 180 books to break even. Nevertheless, everyone I know who owns a Kindle raves about it to anyone who will listen.
Content creators who want to make a living on their properties need to concentrate on earning those eyeballs and eardrums. We need to market ourselves as best we can, and if our publishers are unwilling or unable to leverage new technologies to get our work out to our fans in every way possible, then we need to make sure our contracts allow us to do it ourselves.