Some weeks ago, I was wandering the stacks of the local Barnes & Noble, half-heartedly looking for a novel to replace the one I’d just finished, but mostly killing time en route to a nearby appointment. While I was considering whether I had time to duck into the luxurious public bathroom in the back by the café, I ran into the store manager. I recognized her from my book release days and so said hello.

She asked how I was and what I was working on. After I told her about FlipCollective and she pretended to care, she launched into an enthusiastic mini-presentation on the Barnes & Noble Nook–that company’s response to Amazon’s Kindle. She seemed surprised when my face soured.

I don’t like e-readers. I like my books to be lightweight, relatively cheap monuments to tree murder that I can toss onto the floor next to my bed when my eyes get heavy at night. I enjoy the sensation of turning the page, and when I want to go back to figure out which hippie is Marco (Drop City by TC Boyle), I don’t want to scroll through a menu to get there. And, truth be told, I kind of like having bookshelves weighted down with titles. I won’t read my books again, but it’s nice to see the ones I’ve gotten through. It’s like having a photo album of dead friends. I know I can’t see them anymore, but it’s nice to think about a time when I could.

Unfortunately, my distaste for what will likely be the future of reading is not going to stop the advance of e-readers. Nor will it keep me from using one someday. I once swore that Twitter was completely useless. Now I tweet when I have a satisfying toenail-clipping.
My worry, when I think about the prospect of an e-reader takeover, is piracy. Obviously, I don’t mean the Dread Pirate Roberts kind of piracy. Or the zany offshore Somali kind of piracy. Or even the sort of piracy that was turned back by the rolling logs and homemade coconut grenades employed by the Swiss Family Robinson.

No, I mean, of course, boring old intellectual property piracy.

When I left college, I was a music thief. I spent hours on Audiogalaxy, discovering music I never would have heard without the Internet – Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Charlatans, and The Jesus And Mary Chain, along with dozens of other artists, some of whom I can barely remember. Back then, music piracy was a (relatively) tedious and piecemeal process. Usually, I would find three or four songs from each artist and, if I liked them, would eventually buy the CD. (Many times, the CD would be of the used variety, which is another form of piracy, really, but one that I won’t address now, if only because I’m already sure this is going to be longer than originally intended.)

I thought my piracy was justified. There was no other way for me to hear the music I was finding. I was doing most of my burgling in Greece and I couldn’t exactly tune the radio in my Hyundai Accent to a bangin’ alternative station anytime I wanted. And if I liked what I heard, I usually bought the album, thus supporting the artist in question. (Or at least, supporting the used CD store that had been cagey enough to purchase Blur’s Parklife for $1.50 from some wife who was fed up with her husband’s CD collection – the one that had taken over what was going to be an office and had turned it into a monument to Britpop.)

But my purpose here is not to prove that I was “right” and that everyone else was “the problem”. I’m sure I made up for my relatively Samaritan approach to mp3s with other, less charitable acts. For example, I definitely took advantage of a Greek girl’s generosity and let her bake a cake for me, with no intention of ever making out with her. (The reciprocation she had in mind.)

We all know where the blatant theft of music has led. Music labels are dying and bands make little or no money from record sales. Many people say they’re glad. They shake their neural fists and raise their internal voices to say that labels are the enemy and the new setup saves people from having to buy the filler surrounding the songs they like. Of course, the people making such statements are the same who buy music by bands that actively pursue success based on their singles. Meaning they have terrible taste in music and so, don’t deserve to eat, let alone get a public forum for their complaints.

But the mentality has worked its way into society’s beliefs. People assume that, because artists were often getting screwed by their labels before, any system that de-screws those artists by removing the labels from the equation must be better. The problem with that theory is this: From a musician’s perspective, the one dollar per album profit that came because of a bad contract with Def Jam is way better than the zero dollar per album profit that comes because some 27-year old in Tucumcari downloaded the new Deer Tick for free.*

To this, some say, “Whatever, it doesn’t matter – the band can sell the music from its website. Like Radiohead. Or Pearl Jam. Or Nine Inch Nails.”

They’re right, as long as the band in question has already sold 750 billion records. Because, while record labels are sometimes inherently evil – preying on doped-up teenagers and coercing them into signing bad contracts – they are also very much responsible for promotion of those teenagers. And here’s the thing about artists: they’re often not so into, or understanding of, promotion.

Which is fine, if they don’t actually want to make money on their music. Many people would argue that musicians shouldn’t make money doing what they’re doing. Of course, those people usually have neither A) the ability to relate to humans with talent, or B) souls.

The result is a music industry dominated by a few huge acts that can support themselves by selling out arenas, with many, many tiny acts fighting it out for the crumbs. The middle class of bands gets squeezed out of the musical equation. Bands like The Charlatans and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – bands that would never sell out arenas, but that would likely be able to support themselves based on middling album sales and sporadic touring – are ground into dust. A dust made of leather, cocaine remnants, and Zyldjan cymbals, but a dust all the same.

Which is exactly where the book industry, and therefore, writers might go, thanks to e-readers. In this case, the dust will be made up of American Apparel T-shirts, Starbucks coffee cups, and Macbook shards. But when all the dust gets mixed together, it will look very similar.

For now, the Kindle is being hailed as the great democratizer. Down with the publishers!, say the masses. Death to distributors!, say the authors. And Amazon and Barnes & Noble will, I’m sure, assuage concerns of piracy by stating that their files will be protected. But, as anyone who’s ever met an Eastern European knows, no computer file is safe from being shared.

As someone staring into a future (and a present) that might hold the prospect of writing for money, this set of circumstances is as scary as the appearance of the two Bobs was for Tom Smykowski.

The reader might be tempted to say, “But, Paul, so what if you can’t make money writing? Do it as a hobby.” Despite being an asshole, the reader raises a semi-valid question. Do we, as “artists”, deserve remuneration for what we do? (I realize that calling this particular article “art” is a stretch not unlike calling a koala a bear.)

The answer is yes, as long as that reader wants to continue reading entertaining works. (Again, stretch in this case.) It takes time, energy, and most of all, editing, to make a piece of writing approach a state of readability. What you’re reading now is a good example. When I sent these words to Nils Parker, this article was nothing more than the transcription of a bout of animalistic sex between my next-door neighbor and his two nephews. Now, it’s an unparalleled masterpiece on the thrilling subject that is intellectual property.

If readers are content reading John Grisham and Sue Grafton, they have nothing to worry about. Because just like in music, the mega-successful (read: sellouts peddling drivel) will be fine. Sue Grafton could begin self-distributing today. If she were capable of the original thought necessary to take that step, that is. Grisham could set up a website and sell his books in electronic form for $3 and make more money than he does now.

But the kid in Peoria – the one who, as you read this, is slaving away over the Great American Novel – won’t be able to. Sure, he might be able to post his book online and gain a readership. He might even be able to reach critical mass via the Internet in the way that Katy Perry or the Arctic Monkeys “did”. Nevermind that those Myspace phenomena often had a small label or a PR apparatus already behind them.

For the most part, though, mid-level authors are bound to go the way of mid-level musicians: back to regular jobs. Because mid-level authors and mid-level musicians are people too. They need their luxuries. Like houses, beds, and enough leafy greens to avoid early-onset colon cancer.

When my friend at Barnes & Noble saw my face curl into a grimace when she asked me if I was excited about the B&N Nook, I didn’t have time to tell her everything I thought. Although I’m pretty sure I was able to work in a koala reference. I try to get a marsupial into all my conversations.

I was polite and said it would be “interesting to see what happens”. When I left, I kicked myself. Because I’m guessing that’s probably what musicians and labels said when kids started ripping CDs and putting them on the web. I should have raised my voice and screamed, “You’re leading us down a path to literature hell, you dumb whore.”** But I didn’t.

So demure. So placid. Maybe I’m an artist after all.

It’s possible that my fears are overblown. And whether these fears will apply to me as a writer remains to be seen. I could be struck dumb by Mackey Sasser-level writer’s block at any moment, or I might never find an audience for non-basketball-related works. Then, I won’t have to worry about the demise of the written word. At least not from a writer’s perspective.

I’d still have to worry about it from a reader’s perspective, however. To me, that ghoul is even more frightening. The crumbling of the mid-level musician has already left popular music with a few Haves and a bunch of Have-nots.

And as a reader, I’m afraid the Kindle, the Nook, or the i-whateverApplecreates will do the same to literature.

*Admittedly, there is some debate on this point. Some say that ownership of the original intellectual property is the ultimate goal and that, when artists have that ownership, they stand to profit in the long run, if what they’ve created is worthwhile. The logic flow is as follows: good music leads to discovery of that music by hyper-aware trendsetters (bloggers, DJs). Those tastemakers spread the word to their followers who – as superusers of the internet – will know how to find the music for free. Then, because those followers love (or “lurve”, in this case) the music so much, they will tell the rest of the world, who is not so internet-savvy and who will buy the music from legitimate sources, thus leading to more profit for smaller bands – bands that would have been squeezed by a label under the “old” system. I used to believe/hope this was the case. But after a year spent talking and interacting with musicians in my role as a music writer for ESPN.com, I can no longer believe, Virginia. The actual state of things is a Bitter Butter Battle between Internetters and Radio-ers. There are people who get their music – and the information about it – from the Internet, and there are people who get their music from the radio. There isn’t much crossover. So, those people who learn about the Dirty Projectors from Pitchfork then go and download that band’s album for free. They will proselytize about the Dirty Projectors to anyone who will listen, but those who will listen are likely just as internet-polished as they are, and so will download the album themselves. On the other rand, Radio-ers might hear of the Dirty Projectors from the proselytizer, but will remain frightened by music they don’t hear on the radio and so will stick to buying the latest from Lady Gaga or the Black-Eyed Peas. Which is really good for Gaga and Will.i.am: their revenue streams continue to explode, while the Dirty Projectors are left to hustle for their share of a $10 ticket at a dive bar in Lawrence, KS.

Of course, this is my opinion, based only on evidence I’ve gathered through talking to people. Statistics (usually used to back either side of the argument) are out there. I encourage people to examine all of them. But I also encourage people to engage in the use of logic. In this case, my logic-compass points to “the little guys are getting the shaft”. But I could be wrong.

**The woman in question is not dumb or a whore, at least to my knowledge. She’s actually quite nice.

Comments

comments

  1. Native Minnow
    Maybe I'm rationalizing, but I still subscribe to the theory that shared music can still be profitable for a band, so long as they put out a good product. A friend introduced me to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club via a burned CD. Since receiving that from her, I've purchased the rest of their albums, seen them play two shows (and am going to a third in Feb), and have convinced other friends to purchase CDs and concert tickets. I daresay they've made more off me than they lost by my receiving their first album for free. I've learned about other bands the same way, and purchased albums and concert tickets that I never would have purchased otherwise. That said, I do try to purchase new music from my favorite bands. I couldn't bear it if I had to rely on the radio to deliver my music, so I want new bands to succeed and try to do my part to support them financially.
  2. pshirley
    I think shared music can be profitable too, but only among a small minority. Your approach, NM, is similar to mine. But we're the exception, sadly. I gather that most people *want* to go the legitimate route but, in the end, are too tempted by free. Thanks for reading either way.
  3. M Shaffer
    Paul, whenever you couple a Princess Bride pic with a Mackey Sasser reference, you've got me hooked on whatever you're selling. I will never read anything again! (That was your thesis, right???)
  4. E. Ducote
    "this article was nothing more than the transcription of a bout of animalistic sex between my next-door neighbor and his two nephews." Now that's just disturbing! I have been reluctant to embrace the concept of e-books for the same reason I still have a shelf full of CDs and records... I enjoy the physical aspect of owning a piece of music or literature. Friends come over and check out the stack of CDs and see stuff they like, stuff they hate, mostly stuff they don't know they hate, but it's tangible nonetheless. If it was relegated to files on my hard drive, only a very few would ever know what my music looks like. The thought of piracy though... that's kinda scary. And you're right, if there's a way to steal these books, it will happen. I'm surprised there isn't some black market company paying Indonesian kids quarters per day to type out all these books and distribute them illegally already. Or is there? Keep up the good work, enjoying the site!
  5. M Shirley
    a counterpoint would be that everyone listens to music, not everyone reads books. im not exactly sure what that proves, maybe only that the book world has a change to deviate from the music world's path to destruction, but i think one difference is that old people are much more of a driving force in books. and old people dont know how to pirate anything. not yet anyway.
  6. pshirley
    Mick - I'll count that as a success. E - I agree w/ you about CDs; the problem is that it's so difficult to come by the decent ones in a store. As fewer people buy, fewer stores stock. Selection becomes a problem. Matt - True. I think physical copies might hold on for a long time b/c of the age of readers.
  7. Currently Untitled
    I can see e-readers going either direction - ruining the lives of us hard-working, starving writers that are not fortunate enough to have a literary agent or publisher or creating the ultimate vanity press (see: a publishing house you pay to have your work published) without the cost. Personally, I find e-readers troublesome. I like the smell, feel, and sound of a physical copy of a book, magazine, and/or newspaper when I'm reading. Similarly, as a writer, I write first drafts long-hand, make notes and then do my first edit as I type the second draft. In terms of intellectual property, I think the area has gotten to be more gray with the emergence of bloggers, social networking sites, and so on. People have been letting their intellectual property flap in the proverbial wind for quite a while. However, I think the difference lies in whether or not said flapping intellectual property is interesting or not, and to whom. If, say, Dave Eggers were to "publish" his next work in a blog, is that a more attractive work to steal and reproduce than a less famous/successful writer? Ultimately, I think the success or failure of e-readers will be determined by those who drive the writing market. And, not to be a Debbie Downer, but that could mean dark days ahead.
  8. Rob W.
    Paul - First off - love the site and enjoy your work. And, thank you for the multitude of new music you've turned me on to. Being married with kids, its not nearly as easy to find new music on my own anymore, so its nice to find someone with similar tastes to do the legwork for me. Anyhow, you touched on a point that I'd love for you to expand on: why is it that used CD stores aren't looked at as unfavorably as the Napsters of the world? They're both basically doing the same thing, yet I never hear about the RIAA shutting down any used CD stores, or fining the owners of these stores. Why do you think this is?
  9. pshirley
    Rob - I suspect that it's a drop in the bucket, so it's not worth their time. Thanks for the kind words..
  10. toddmon
    You foreshadow a world with no libraries for me not go to. I'm OK with that Paul, but where will the bums shower? I'm much too lazy to research the legalities of selling used music while just inspired enough to put on pants and go buy it. I believe it makes me more "green" and that recycle savy will eventually make the most beautiful girl in the world from the organic coffee shop down the street realize she loves me. I digress. Legally, reselling is not piracy, and occurs across many/all industries, even the art oriented ones. For example, did Picasso's estate get a check from Christie's the last time they auctioned one of his paintings? I'll venture a no. So I am curious as to how much market share used music stores possess? Perhaps a store owner views this site and can elaborate, or even a marketing person (or other function) from a label. Curiosity was sparked by Paul's statement that it's a drop in the bucket. I would think so too, but now I think about their storefronts. Certainly nothing flashy on the inside, but many of the used music stores I've frequented (limited mostly to the three places I've mostly lived) were in ideal locations. The "main street" for bars and restaurants in a San Diego beach neighborhood (at least three stores), "main streets" in Lincoln Park Chicago, and the "main street" in a Big Ten Uni town. All high rent district. They must be making some money right? By the way, really like the new site and everyone's writing.
  11. Jim Ryan
    Paul, I fear the e-readers and Kindles for the very reasons you just identified. While I personally still prefer the physical copy of a book, I fear I am also in the minority on this subject. A quick search of the internet just revealed used copies of your book selling for as low as $2.44 on websites like half.com and ebay. As an author, how does this make you feel? One could argue that, amongst other things, the internet (with its easy access to content many used to pay for) is already killing other forms of the written word (specifically newspapers). It seems like the rise of a device like the Kindle is almost an inevitability... as an author do you have (or have you heard of) other ways/ideas for a writer to take advantage of the internet while still turning that often elusive profit? Enjoying the site quite a bit, thanks!
  12. Clarence
    You ever notice that in futuristic movies, there is usually evidence of the past in a physical form (book, newspaper article, magazine)... No one thought that all these works would be converted to a digital format so that mostly all the knowledge and information should have been easily passed from generation to generation. The problem with that thinking is the thought then that someone would actually read that digital format.... it wouldn't be easy as going to a bookstore and perusing through the shelves to find something interesting by "accident". I unfortunately haven't bought any relevant CD in a long time as I do download mostly all i listen to or listen on internet radio.... I do shell out major bucks for concerts and think that future bands are going to need to shift to some form of making money through their own means rather than through the physical form of their music (concerts, clothing...) Major labels are going to have to become Major websites that peddle music and promotion to be able to sustain musical growth....Thanks Paul for your words. an avid reader.
  13. adelsig
    paul - started reading your stuff on page 2 on espn....really like your take on music. BUT.... quickly.....been musician for 20+ years, involved in music business for 10+ including stint as A&R man for major label (granted, 5 months but still)... if artists and bands think the death of major labels isn't a good thing, they're completely out of touch with current format and trends. you now have worldwide distribution and sales at a mere fraction of what it used to cost to get this. home recording, DAW's, and advertising/promoting can be done overnight on the web as opposed to years of advances, front-end positioning, sales, and margins or points taht used to be continually drawn off of artist's backs by big brother. who needs "management" or "A+R" reps anymore? why bother? the cash has always been made on tours. merchandise and concerts...those have always been the staples of the artist. for the cost of $30 a year, you get worldwide distribution on itunes for your music. what you sell is straight profit with minimal overhead. where's the problem? i would aboslutely LOVE to get into a greater debate on this, but i leave simply by pointing out the best article written ever about the music business: steve albini's rant on the music industry - the problem with music - http://www.negativland.com/albini.html
  14. TPus17
    Audiogalaxy... Wow! What a blast from the not-too-distant past. I understand all to well what hoarders feel as I filled hard drives with crap from audiogalaxy when I first discovered it. Most I never listened to, I just wanted to have in case I ever did listen. I get my music through the proper channels now (usually through reccomendations from you, Paul) but I still hoard and my collection has almost reached the 20,000 song mark. I know, I need help. Keep up the great writing. I love this site!
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