Saturday, March 26, 2011

Kicking and Screaming Into the Digital Age-Article

First, they came for the movies, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a filmmaker…

30 years ago, the movie industry was abuzz with the innovation of the VHS recorder. This invention made it possible for people around the world to see movies in the comfort of their own homes, tape television shows for later viewing, and allowed for the beginnings of a true independent movie scene. People in rural areas and in the great expanses of the Midwest that rarely got a chance to see movies first-run in their town could now buy or rent the tape, and many of the great filmmakers of today would’ve never been able to start cutting their teeth at so early an age without the companion VHS camera as well as allowing Joe American a far easier and cost-effective way of recording home movies. And I don’t need to tell you that without the VHS boom the adult film industry would be a much different thing today.

Of course, the consumer quickly realized the movies could be easily copied. Yes, it was a pain to hook up two VCR’s and dub from one to the other, and it took at least as long as the movie itself to make a single copy. The tapes were bulky and took up huge amounts of space, and their quality diminished over multiple viewings. But still, it was the start of real home entertainment. It was also the start of the entertainment industry’s long love/hate relationship with in-home technology. Who hasn’t scoffed at the various Interpol and FBI warnings still with us today about copying and displaying copyrighted material? Who among us, if it wasn’t actually us, didn’t have an uncle or a cousin that had whole walls devoted to copied VHS movies? Yes, there were a few arrests here and there, but those were mostly from the ones that tried to sell their bootlegs at flea markets and sidewalk blankets. Most movies that were copied came from the booming video rental business, and the big movie companies and distributors were somewhat mollified by considering the tapes were at least bought by the rental businesses in the first place.

Then, they came for the games, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a gamer…

When I was a youngster, I had and loved my little Commodore 64 PC (the 128 was for pretentious snobs). In the days before the big Nintendo 64 boom, my little Commodore was the premier game system. I also had a few buddies that had a few buddies that knew a few people (anybody remember the “Basement Boys”? If you do, then you’re an old fuck like me) that could get you any game you wanted. I had boxes and boxes filled with pirated games and really thought nothing of it. I played “Wasteland” with bunches of back-up floppy discs (kids, look that one up) so I always had ammo caches to run back to. I played “Pirates!” into the wee hours of the morning and lost myself in Skara Brae with just my warrior monk to face the hoards. Life was good, and though I didn’t realize it, I was part of the problem. Every pirated game I had was that much less going to the creators and companies that paid big money to produce and market them. Coupled with the ease of pirating these floppy-based products, it was no wonder when the Japanese cartridge-based evolution came to be that the game companies virtually abandoned the floppy market in favor of producing for the much harder to pirate game systems.

Then, they came for the music, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a musician

Many years ago, when Napster was still a borderline-illegal file sharing peer-to-peer network, the music industry freaked out. And rightly so. Music lovers said they were tired of having to purchase entire albums just to get the one song they liked. They were fed up with the rising costs of CDs and, at the time, cassette tapes. They were sick of hearing about the massive profits the big labels were making off a few cents worth of plastic and silicon. They wanted to be able to put together their own albums and create their own soundtracks and playlists. The MP3 was the answer to all their woes. Now, only one person need buy an album and download it into their computer. The rest would go to Napster, Kazaa or other similar sites and “share” with the rest. The argument; it wasn’t illegal since no money changed hands. It was just friends numbering in the millions “sharing” copyrighted material with other friends numbering in the millions.

Then the lawsuits and the arrests started. The FBI busted in on a few high-profile users with literally hundreds of thousands of songs stashed away on their hard drives. The industry scrambled to keep up with technology of their own, from greater copy-protection methods on their physical media and what would eventually become today’s DRM (digital rights management). Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica, became the most hated man among these file-share music fans because he was one of the earliest and loudest opponents of free music sharing. Imagine, the nerve of artists and labels actually wanting to make a profit from their work when the people wanted to pay only in the coin that any artist should value; attention. Eventually, the labels and independents alike learned they would have to play ball on the new digital field, reluctantly embracing the new technology themselves. Napster went legit and artists and labels formed unholy alliances with them as well as Kazaa, Amazon and even Wal Mart (yes, Wal Mart has a huge mp3 online operation) to distribute their music to the digital age. Individual songs, whole albums and literally millions of bits and bytes of content flooded the online market for pennies on the dollar. This was still good news for digital music fans, though they now grumbled about paying $.99 for a song, and it was “okay” news for labels and artists who were at least now getting something where before they got nothing. It has also allowed many lesser-known musicians to gain access to wider markets through the comparatively inexpensive uploading and transaction technologies.

But the revolution was not without its casualties. Concept albums are virtually impossible to sell now with the ala carte mp3 concept. What label or artist wants to put the effort into that kind of endeavor when the individual songs will be cherry-picked and the artist’s meaning will be completely lost? One of the joys of physical media was finding the “hidden track” or other bonus goody. That, too, is pretty much a moot point now as well. And though the technology has allowed lesser-known musicians wider distribution by self-publishing through their own sites or through sites specifically catering to “new music” fans, it means these acts will rarely get picked up by the larger labels and become true professional musicians able to quit their day jobs and focus on their art. We all know the concept of the “starving artist”, and we all know musicians that say the integrity of their music is the only thing that matters to them. We also know that, with limited exceptions, neither of those groups would turn down a big-label contract, either.

And then they came for the writers, and there was no one left to speak out for me…

Kindle, Nook, e-Reader… no matter the format, the digital book is here to stay. Just as musicians and labels were forced to accept the digital revolution, writers and publishers are now faced with changing or dying. Brick-and-mortar bookstores selling ink-and-paper books are closing faster than video rental stores. You can get any book you want shipped right to your door if you’re the type that needs to feel the pages between your fingers, and the rush is on to convert every book known to man to the digital formats.

But wait, you’re likely saying to yourself, don’t the benefits outweigh the losses? Digital books are far cheaper than their dead-tree counterparts, not to mention more eco-friendly. They’re more convenient to the reader, and literally hundreds of them can be stored in the physical space occupied by your average coffee table book, or less. People that normally couldn’t afford to buy more than a few books a month can now buy dozens for the same money, not to mention the very nature of e-publishing has allowed for an explosion of hungry writers no longer confined by the narrow guidelines of publishers and editors to get their work out there to the masses.

Yes, yes to all those things and likely more. However, there’s a downside to all this; a big downside.

First, writers and e-publishers are now facing the same threats to our intellectual properties and copyright ownership as the music industry faced. Unfortunately, the copy protection technology used for mp3 today doesn’t have as strong a counterpart for our text-based work. For an example, Tony Faville, author of “The Kings of the Dead”, discovered quite on accident that his entire novel was being shared via torrent. His novel has since been picked up by a traditional publishing company, making him a good example of both sides of the e-publishing coin. He put his book out as a self-published work and gained enough traction from his excellent reviews to get placement with a traditional publisher. However, had the torrent gone on longer and the book reached a saturation point for free there would’ve been no benefit for a regular publisher to pick up the work. Why would they go through the trouble and expense when there were so many freeloaders that now have no reason to buy the book?

Second, the publisher eliminates much of their upfront expenses of days gone by (i.e. advance printing in the hopes the physical books will sell, expensive transportation and distribution etc) and really only has to concern themselves with the occasional P.O.D. (print on demand) orders and promoting the product. Many publishers simply contract out their remaining duties to other companies (Lulu, Amazon etc) yet still take their 50-75% cut of the net profits for doing, essentially, nothing.

Third, a lot of exclusively e-publishers either charge for editing services or simply rely on the author to self-edit. In so doing, they are failing in one of their traditional capacities; that of working with their authors through the editing process to the benefit of both sides. The publisher has such a low level of capital risk with e-publishing they are now far more willing to just throw a bunch of shit against the wall and see what sticks. Editing and quality control often suffer since the publisher really has no monetary stake at risk. So what if a book they publish is actually pretty crappy and doesn’t sell? Aside from some bandwidth they have nothing invested in it. Even the advertising is virtually always done on the web through banner and link shares and the publisher’s website and Facebook, which as you know are either free or cost comparatively little.

I have read a few e-books that, while the stories were quite good, the hand of an experienced editor could’ve made them great. Part of the publishing experience, especially for an up-and-coming writer, is working with their editor. Many authors need the unbiased eyes of an editor, someone not so close to the work that they regard it as one of their children. Additionally, and I fully include myself in this, not every author is a scholar. My “toolbox” (as Stephen King calls it) is pretty-well tricked out and organized, if I do say so myself. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the dreaded adverb or grammatical mistake. With many e-publishers now unwilling to invest in editing services on the front end for their authors to fine-tune their works, some authors that truly deserve a shot at becoming professional writers can develop a bad reputation for sloppy work through their self-edited e-books. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, such as Jennifer Melzer’s (nee Hudock) fine author-edited “The Goblin Market”, but she has the rare double-threat of not only knowing how to create a story but also how to properly display it to the reader. But in many other cases I can see an author publishing through one of the start-up, self-edit or pay-edit e-publishers tarnishing their image before they even establish it through poor editing skills.

I’m not saying these things didn’t happen in the ink-and-paper days. There are still traditional publishers that charge reading fees, “office fees” and even editing fees. But these publishers still at some point have to make the financial investment to print and advertise the book and, in some cases, pay an advance to the author before book #1 gets sold. They aren’t going to spend the money upfront unless they’ve got a reasonable chance of selling the damn thing to the people. This creates a de facto quality control of sorts, separating the hobby writers from the real aspiring professionals. Now, I know what some of you are saying to this; the old way only means the same trite, overdone bullshit just keeps getting printed because they know it will sell. On that, you’d be right to a degree, but that mindset is often what made blockbusters. If your stuff was way different than the norm but a publisher thought it was good enough to risk putting it out, you knew you had something there.

And, finally, there’s the e-market itself. The explosion of self-published authors means a market flooded with all manner and level of literature. On the surface, we can say “good for them!” It’s now easier than ever for a writer to put their work out there and build a readership. The problem with it being so comparatively easy to do is that the market is overloaded. How does a self-published writer compete in this sudden mass market? Well, through their pricing of course. This is a boon to the e-book consumer as they can now load up their digital reader with dozens of books for anywhere from $.99 to $1.99 each. Yes, folks, that’s less than a dollar in many cases. Unless you already have a “name” or your book is through a traditional publisher that is offering your work in digital form, if you price your book at anything higher than that your sales will show it. Remember mp3’s from a few paragraphs ago? They typically sell for $.99, too. That’s a 3 minute song for the same price as a 50-80,000 word or higher novel or anthology. Without the editing and monetary risk safeguards of traditional publishing the market is flooded with the really good, the really bad and the really ugly, and the only way to compete is to rock-bottom the price. This is great for the hobby writer, but for the scribe that either is trying to or would like to make writing their career it just won’t cut it. A lot of professional writers are doing both traditional publishing and e-publishing at the same time. This can and does work well, but few of them got their break in traditional publishing from their self-publishing. Yes, I know, you can probably tick off two or three just while sitting there reading this, but compare this to the overall number of self-publishing writers and the number remains small.

I’m also not saying self-publishing is a bad thing in and of itself. I plan on dabbling in it myself in the near future. But I’ve also been through the publishing grinder and have a very healthy rejection folder that forced me to get better at the craft I love so. I had to improve or my work wouldn’t see the light past the editor’s desk lamp. Writers need to start small, and yes, a writer’s work needs to be judged by a critical and sometimes harsh eye. I worry that young and/or inexperienced writers that have real talent will completely forego the traditional experiences of working through the magazines, the small-press publications, hunting for representation and the many, many rejection letters that both thicken their hides and force them to get better. I worry they will elect the quick-and-easy self-publishing, self-edit route only to find their work doesn’t sell or worse some trolls tear them apart in some 140 character review or comment section, forever dampening their love of the art and destroying their confidence in a public forum instead of the constructive destruction offered up in relative privacy by the wielders of the red pencils. I also worry that the technology protecting our intellectual properties and copyrights just hasn’t kept up with the technology to distribute them, and there are few writers out there with the financial means to keep a lawyer on retainer for when they discover their work has been pirated or is washing down a torrent all through the world wide web.

Until the ability to protect ourselves catches up with our ability to distribute ourselves, self-publishing will be a dangerous game for any of us to play. I’m not saying “don’t do it”, I’m simply saying if you’re going to do it, do it well and do it carefully. The world has changed for us, both writers and readers alike. You readers out there need to do your part as well. Don’t support free torrents unless it’s specifically stated the author supports it as well. Don’t give your friends your log-in and password to your e-book accounts so they can read for free the books you’ve bought. Every time you do, you take food from the author’s mouth and reduce his ability, drive and confidence to create more art for your enjoyment. If you liked an e-book, take a moment and leave a comment or review about it. Those comments are often the only real advertising some up-and-coming writers can afford. Come on, he sold you the damn thing for less than $2 in most cases, the least you can do is leave a little feedback, right?

In closing this thing out, let me assure you I’m not some pro-corporate guy, nor am I some sort of snob elitist when it comes to scribbling. I’m just a guy struggling to get his words out there the same as a lot of other folks with as much or more talent than me. But I’ve also been playing this game long enough to maintain a healthy suspicion and skepticism of a barely-controlled distribution medium. I have had two different experiences with my writing, one in the digital arena and one with a shady ink-and-paper publisher, that have taught me hard lessons about signing away my babies. I won’t be fooled again, and as I navigate these new self-publishing waters I’ll be sure to pop back up here and give you updates as to my experiences in this new age. You may not like what I have to say, but you can be sure it will be the truth of things as I know it. So, until then, just write damn it.

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