Tuesday, May 19, 2009

There Be Pirates in This Net

There are two things that stand out about this article by Peter Wayner, "A Book Author Wonders How to Fight Piracy" from The New York Times: 1) It has pirates, and 2) It makes a victim of piracy look a bit like a self-righteous a-hole, apparently inadvertently.

The point of the article is that on-line piracy has now jumped medias and includes books on-line--specifically (Wayner's case) books about technology that caters to those who would theoretically be the first to jump onto the information piracy bandwagon because of their increased understanding of information access and use. The assumption is that it is only a matter of time before other genres are affected and sales plummet, ending life as we know it.

Those around Wayner take a decidedly humorous approach to the problem:

"Many of my friends from universities tend to take a vaguely Marxist approach to the piracy, perhaps because the bursar’s office shields them from the trauma of commerce. One person told me all of this theft was a compliment: I should enjoy the fact that my book was selected to be a part of the pirated file, 'Great Science Textbooks,' and indeed, some of my fellow victims are very famous."
To me, however, the part that stood out the most was this one: "I’m not going to write more books if the revenues will be wiped out by pirates. While authors like Cory Doctorow like to argue that the author’s real enemy is obscurity, there was no real uptick in the sales of my book when these pirated versions appeared." He sees no value in his books other than the income and therefore does not plan to write anymore if the problem persists.

First of all, we've heard this argument before, circa 1999 when Napster was big. The music industry didn't plummet to its death, so it may be a bit early to begin assuming the worst will happen. On the other hand, however, the publishing industry as a whole is undergoing a massive earthquake and it is unclear how the situation will be resolved, though doomsday proclamations abound.

Perhaps, however, this is merely a test of the idea of laissez faire and capitalism. If there is no economic incentive to produce a book, what will happen to writers? Maybe they will continue to write but will take advantage of the all-for-one-and-one-for-all nature of free publication on-line. It will be more difficult to gain attention, but the nightmare of publishing and marketing books conventionally will be a thing of the past. Maybe the cream will rise to the top and those who produce things genuinely worth reading will gain attention on-line despite the lack of economic impetus. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Or maybe it will be revealed that e-books are simply priced too high, a problem which the free market will rectify by lowering demand. The thing about online information is that the supply is endless, so the traditional free-trade ebb-and-flow no longer holds true. Rather than fighting the information revolution, writers will need to figure out how to harness it and profit from it through innovation, not fight it by refusing to take part in it.


Daniele said...

Call me old fashioned, but I like my books to be tangible. Something that I can touch and smell and underline (only rarely when I really really like a passage) and shove in my purse to read throughout the day as my schedule permits, mostly on the train. I, for one, would be very disappointed if the printed word were to be replaced by the virtual one. So the publishing houses can count on at least one loyal customer :)

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

Me too, actually. I haven't even considered jumping on the Kindle bandwagon, because reading a book on an electronic tablet holds very little appeal for me. I really think that there's a limited audience that reads, anyway, and most of us are committed to our paper books. (Although I've also heard the argument that books need to go electronic in order to be paperless and therefore "green.")

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