For the longest time, spreading writing and music was a slow and expensive process. Writing had to be duplicated by clerks; music and other performance art had to be transmitted in person or in writing. Authors required generous patronage or considerable fame to enjoy widespread reproduction of their works, and usually derived no income from it. All that changed dramatically for writing in the early 15th century, with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press with movable types; and similarly for music in the early 20th century, with the invention of radio and sound recordings (first mechanical, later optical) that could be cheaply duplicated in a print-like process.
The publishing industry revolutionized content creation: now authors could become famous and wealthy through mass reproduction of their works. This was aided rather than hindered by the fact that only the marginal costs of reproduction had dropped. Setting up the process in the first place still required considerable capital. This limited the number of publishers competing for attention, kept them on the lookout for new talent, and ensured prices high enough to provide a decent income. Ideally, the best authors and works were selected from a broader pool than ever before, more authors than ever before could make a living off their works, and those works were spread more widely than ever before. Much of the current canon of Western culture was established and preserved by the publishing industry.
All this changed again with the Internet revolution. Not only was the marginal cost of content reproduction lowered even further, but the initial capital investment has completely disappeared, relative to what private individuals already own. The additional expense for installing a printing press in your house is huge; the additional expense for uploading e-books on your Internet connection is zero. Anyone can instantly spread any digital content worldwide, without requiring the services of a publisher. (Publisher control remains alive and well in capital-intensive productions such as movies, however.)
That sounds fantastic, and is usually presented as a great liberation. But there’s a downside: the traditional system of talent discovery and remuneration relied partly on the limitations of physical reproduction, and cannot survive without them. Free instant publishing has completely glutted the market with free products. Aside from outright piracy (Kent Anderson has much to say about that), many artists are willing to offer their work for free, and countless classics have fallen out of copyright. Ubiquitous free content erodes prices and profits, forcing publishers to cut costs and avoid risks. Without publisher funding, authors must fend for themselves. Indeed, a full reversal to the old patronage system may be underway. David Crotty quotes William Gibson on the music industry:
Prior to the technology of audio recording, there was relatively little one could do to make serious money with music. Musicians could perform for money, and the printing press had given rise to an industry in sheet music, but great fame, and wealth, tended to be a matter of patronage. The medium of the commercial audio recording changed that, and created an industry predicated on an inherent technological monopoly of the means of production. Ordinary citizens could neither make nor manufacture audio recordings. That monopoly has now ended. Some futurists, looking at the individual musician’s role in the realm of the digital, have suggested that we are in fact heading for a new version of the previous situation, one in which patronage (likely corporate and nonprofit) will eventually become a musician’s only potential ticket to relative fame and wealth. The window, then, in which one could become the Beatles, occupy that sort of market position, is seen to have been technologically determined. And technologically finite… It may well be that the digital will eventually negate the underlying business model of popular music entirely. If this happens, it will be a change which no one intended, and few anticipated, and not the result of any one emergent technology, but of a complex interaction among several.
And how does writing cope with the digital transition? Serving free content financed by advertising worked for a while, but that bubble has burst and online advertising revenues are now in free fall. Paywalls tend to work only for financial publications whose information is worth money to readers, and for a few giants like the New York Times whose digital subscriptions have now surpassed print subscriptions – but with considerably lower revenue: $220 instead of $730 per subscription and year. On the other end of the spectrum, things are getting desperate. The Washington Post pads its online presence with aggregation serfs, and Forbes publishes volunteer reader contributions, a model pioneered by the Huffington Post. It’s rather extreme to claim that there will be no more professional writers in the future, but consider these quotes near the end of the article:
Yet another pillar of the old regime crumbled last week when one of the world’s largest and most recognized book publishers, The Penguin Group, spent $116-million to acquire upstart vanity publisher Author Solutions Inc., an Indiana-based firm that earns most of its income not by selling books, but by charging amateur authors hefty fees to produce unsellable books.
As if to celebrate the transition, the stock price of Penguin’s parent company, Pearson plc, hit a 10-year high the morning of the announcement. Penguin CEO John Makinson said the company hopes to “explore opportunities that lie somewhere between self-publishing as presently defined and Penguin publishing as presently defined.”
So Penguin expects a goodly number of authors to pay their publisher, rather than the other way round. Another (unnamed) giant book publisher seems not so much cynical as outright clueless. When Penelope Trunk attempted to have her latest book published, her contacts had no idea how to effectively market books online – one suggested Usenet! – and profit margins were so low as to be nonexistent:
The most breathtaking example, I think, of how terrible margins are, is that if I sell my own book with a link to my publisher, I make a little less than $1 per book. If I sell Guy Kawasaki’s book on Amazon, I get a little more than $1 per book in their affiliate program. So it’s more profitable to me to use my blog to sell someone else’s book than to sell the book I published with a mainstream publisher.
Trunk moved on to digital self-publishing and is evidently quite successful – her post offers some tips on the subject. However, it’s worth remembering that a self-published artist is helpless against the whims of distribution platforms. Consider the case of Holly Lisle vs Apple iTunes. Her e-book about self-publishing quite naturally included links to Amazon, but Apple objected and demanded that she remove these links to a competing service. If you think that’s bad, think again: after Lisle had turned the links into plain text, Apple still rejected her book because even mentioning Amazon was unacceptable!
But, for writers, especially those involved in or considering self-publishing, I can no longer recommend Apple as a professional distributor. Requiring no links to a competing website was borderline… but I complied because I wanted to keep the courses available for students who could not get them any other way. Requiring the removal of actual lesson content, however, is unacceptable.
Unlike big publishers which represent a large chunk of total sales, most individual authors cannot fight big distributors such as Apple. When faced with unacceptable conditions, all they can do is leave and forfeit that market. Replacing the publisher oligopoly with a distributor oligopoly did not necessarily improve conditions for content creators.
2012-08-10: I avoided the question of copyright because I believe technical and economic conditions are far more important. Copyright is unnecessary when content reproduction has high barriers to entry, and unenforceable when those barriers are gone. Daniel Lemire discusses the uselessness of copyright in greater depth, and also provides examples of modern patronage systems in action.