Saturday, July 23, 2011

Written Words in a Post-Scarcity Society

For all of human history, the written word has been controlled. Whether by political institutions, religious institutions, or publishing houses, there have always been gatekeepers standing between the writer and the reader determining what written works are worth disseminating. That's because, until recently, it cost time, effort, and raw materials to take a written work, reproduce it, and distribute it. From monks laboriously copying texts in monasteries to printing presses churning out new hardcovers, there has always been the necessity for an aggregation of capitol capable of taking risks in investing in a particular book. Readers have had to rely on the judgement of publishers to determine what is worthy to publish, what will sell, what is "good."

No more. While it still takes the usual amount of blood sweat and tears out of an author to write the book in the first place, the advent of digital distribution means that author can replicate his work a near infinite number of times for a cost approaching nil and disseminate it to an audience of millions. The publishing houses are terrified of this, of course, as it effectively destroys their very reason to exist. They continue to cling to existence, however, because this new model of digital distribution has two major problems of its own.

The first significant problem is that of too much choice. When anyone can publish anything, how do readers find the writers whose books they would enjoy amidst the sea of words? In this respect, publishers continue to have the advantage. They have large marketing departments dedicated to telling us which books we should buy. They have art departments that come up with eye-catching covers. They have distribution deals with bookstores that get their physical artifacts at eye level on a shelf. I suspect, however, that as systems such as the Amazon store and other websites get better at categorizing, reviewing, and organizing the vast number of choices available, connecting readers with writers will get easier. Also, so long as price points stay low, people may be willing to take a chance on an author they've never heard of. What's better, taking a chance with a $.99 book or a $25 hardcover?

That brings me to my second significant problem: money. A digital file can be copied infinitely, distributed practically for free, and there's not a lot that can be done about it once its been released into the wilds of the internet. How will authors get paid? The publishers have the advantage here, too, as they have well-established systems for paying their authors based on books sold. That model, though, it toppling rapidly. When an author can make MUCH more money selling a book for $.99 online than he would make per copy sold by a publisher for $8, the incentive to migrate to e-books becomes significant. An author makes a pittance on a paper book, but can make 90%-100% profit on the same book sold digitally, depending on if he's using an online distributor like the Amazon store. This, of course, relies on the willingness of e-book readers to pay anything at all. There are still some controls in place that encourage payment. The Kindle, for instance, is hardware that uses a proprietary format making it harder to copy a book willy-nilly. If Apple's iTunes store has taught us anything, people are willing to pay for something they could otherwise get for free if it's: 1) convenient, 2) cheap.

So as we enter this brave new world of limitless words, I encourage everyone to swim to their heart's content. You may find some terrible books. You may find many hidden gems by authors who may never have seen the light of day under the previous regime. Hopefully associations of authors such as Kindling Press will crop up to make choices easier in our post-scarcity reading lives.

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