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.