Back in February, I was provoked by an article on Eric Hellman’s blog to write a post, Whither Publishers?, on the future of publishers in a digital world. Today, in a completely different move that is certainly not just a retread, I find myself provoked by a comment on Eric’s blog to write … another post on the future of publishers in a digital world.
What’s worse, it’s almost the same post. So try not to fall asleep.
In the comment in question, veblen wrote:
There always have been and always will be costs involved in protecting your property, and I don’t understand why so many people seem to believe that digital networks will lead to some kind of Utopian world in which all of these costs will go away.
As we all know, the fundamental difference between a physical book (or journal, article, sound recording, whatever) and an electronic one is that you can make infinite perfect copies of the latter at zero cost. Users would like to do that; publishers who have invested years and millions into physical-media business models based on scarcity would like to prevent them.
No solution is going to satisfy both.
The existence of back-channels such as The Pirate Bay makes me think that in the end, users are going to win this war. It’s so much easier to make and distribute 100 new copies than to stamp out 100 existing copies. I know this is not a popular message among publishers, but I suspect a lot of the argument against it doesn’t amount to much more than LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU.
(Note: I am not necessarily saying it’s good that publishers won’t be able to restrict free distribution of perfect copies of published material. I am just saying that it’s true.)
How can publishers remain in business when infinite perfect copies are free to make and distribute? When the question is couched in these terms, I think the answer is pretty obvious: they can make their money by charging for the actual services they provide, such as copy-editing, review, formatting, design and publicity, rather than by holding increasingly useless “rights”.
And this of course is exactly what open-access publishers like The Public Library of Science (or PLoS for short) do: they charge authors a fee to cover their costs in providing those services — services which authors are prepared to pay for as they do provide genuine value, increasing the quality of the final, published work.
That approach works in academia, because academic authors don’t expect to get paid for their writing. They live off grants, and writing papers (and paying to have them published) is a core part of what they do. Also, the grants provide the publishers’ fees, so when I blithely say that “authors are prepared to pay”, I don’t mean that the money comes out of their own pockets, I mean that the publication cost is part of what costs to do science.
This doesn’t translate into the rest of the writing world — fiction, for example — where the author expects to get paid.
What is the solution? I don’t know. But ignoring the problem, or pretending we can make it go away, isn’t going to help.
One possible solution that we ought to consider, if only to dismiss it, is this model: fiction authors pay publishers to perform publishing services such as editing, reviewing and design, just as academic authors pay PLoS to do this; and then the authors retain the rights to the resulting work, and make money selling copies of it. This won’t work for the obvious reason that individual authors are going to be even less able to prevent the proliferation of cheap perfect copies than publishers are.
So the more I think about it, the more I think there are only three possible outcomes:
- We don’t move to digital books, but stay with hardcopies which authors/publishers can control access to.
- Authors/publishers tie everything up with unbreakable DRM.
- Everyone relies on readers’ honesty and good nature.
#1 is not going to happen: anyone who’s spent time reading fiction on a Kindle isn’t going to want to go back. #2 doesn’t work: all DRM gets broken, usually quickly, and buyers rightly hate DRM anyway. That leaves #3.
And you know what? I actually don’t feel too bad about that. It feels somehow poetic to me that the outcome of a technological revolution should be that we’re all thrown back on something as un-tech as human nature. As two philosophers once said, “Be excellent to each other”. Or I could quote an earlier and greater philosopher, who said “do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law“. Here we are in the 21st century, and it’s as important as ever. Who knew?