Technology Giveth, Technology Taketh Away

The people at Locus magazine gave Cory Doctorow a regular column. No surprise, then, to find that he’s used the first one to throw a firecracker into the punchbowl. Doctorow is loved and loathed in equal parts, it would seem, and his controversial outspoken attitudes to copyright issues are no small part of this. As an former employee of the Electronic Freedom Front, it is no surprise that he’s an advocate of ‘setting information free’. It is important to note here that he has walked the walk as well as talking the talk – every one of his stories and novels have been released under Creative Commons licenses, and as he points out in the column it’s not done his sales (or his public profile) any harm at all.

The title of his column-essay (‘Science Fiction Is The Only Literature People Care About Enough To Steal On The Internet‘) was carefully written to snare the reader with a genre interest. And snare them it has. This weekend will doubtless see a slew of posts from writers, fans, pundits, copyleft afficionados and anyone else who happens to have stumbled by (including yours truly, of course) – because what he is discussing is a ‘unclothed emperor’ issue, ie the more relevence it has to someone, the less willing they are to address the issue from both sides of the argument. This is to be expected, of course – someone who makes a living out of a business model is always going to get fidgety when some upstart comes along and says that the model is dying, and that they’ll have to start doing things differently.

But is he right? I’ve hung out my colours in support of free content a few times before here at VCTB, but obviously my opinions don’t hold much weight – I am, after all, a writer of very little stature, and certainly not a published one. In other words, I have nothing to lose. But as a lifelong consumer of content, I can see exactly what Doctorow is saying.

The larger part of the column talks about the way technology has changed the landscape of the music industry over the years – first Marconi’s radio killed off the Vaudeville performers and cleared the decks for musicians to make a living through selling recordings rather than playing live, and now the internet is threatening to dismantle the ‘star system’ through mashups, intellectual property plundering and new models of distribution and communication being put directly into the hands of content creators. The space between these two changes is one populated by the music industry – people who make a lot of money from creative work without really being very creative themselves. As far as music is concerned, the middle-men’s days seem to be numbered.

Book publishing is obviously not quite the same kettle of fish – although one could compare the airport-bestseller lists to the pop-music top twenties, in that these titles probably wouldn’t have such a huge impact if their publishers didn’t have the clout to push them into the public eye: in special themed displays in bookshops, special deals on Amazon, talk-show appearances and so on. Exposure breeds success, for sure. But the internet is, as mentioned before, a way for a nobody with desirable content to get themselves heard of. That’s not to say there aren’t massively over-hyped bits of content on the web, as there certainly are (Snakes on a Plane, anyone?). But stuff that has a genuine appeal but little financial backing can also spread virally through the rhizomatic structures of chatrooms, bulletin boards and social networking sites. ‘If you build it, they will come,’ you could say.

Science fiction (as well as fantasy, horror and the other subcultural genres of literature) doesn’t function in quite the same way as the mainstream of book business, however. It has a long history of communication between fans and writers, for a start, and this is what Doctorow is really evangelising for here. Making content freely available to download is not the whole story (although it is a significant part of it).

At this point, I would argue that there is a flaw in the reasoning behind the essay title, which I’m sure Doctorow was aware of when he wrote it – I would argue that the reasons SF novels turn up in ‘misappropriated’ forms on the internet more often than other novels (ie crime, ‘literary’ or block-buster-bestseller titles) are that:

  1. they don’t get printed in such huge runs, and hence economies of scale keep them near RRP, unlike, say, Dan Brown’s work, which can be sold for a few pounds/dollars a time because the print run size has made it a logistically and economicly viable proposition;
  2. and, more importantly, the internet and SF are both bastions of geekdom. In other words, there are probably a higher percentage of SF readers online than romance readers, say – romance readers don’t tend to be ‘early adopters’ like SF fans are. Hence, there’s bound to be a disproportionate amount of pirated SF works floating around in a sea that is sailed by a demographic that contains a lot of SF readers.

Now, piracy is a crime. I’m not going to try to claim that it isn’t, or indeed that it shouldn’t be. But taking a logical look at the situation, how much longer will it be possible to prevent it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply accept that the times are changing, and look at ways to go with the flow and still make a living? To re-air my favourite analogy here, simply digging your heels in and saying “that’s just not the way it works” is to behave like the horse-drawn buggy manufacturers who lobbied governments to ban Henry Ford’s Model T. Yes, it spelled the end of their business model, and hence their potential financial ruin. But that’s what technology does; as Doctorow says, “it giveth, it taketh away”.

I wouldn’t claim to have all the answers – I don’t know how it will be possible to make money from writing stories in an always-on world of ubiquitous computing and information flow. (I do have some ideas, though, which I am trying to kick into shape and make into an essay of my own.) But I am certain that there will be a way – and I am also certain that it would be a far better move for writers (and, by extension, their readers too) to move ahead and find those methods for themselves, rather than wait for the floundering publishers to either work out a new way to milk the creatives or be snapped up by some hungry new business model with an eye for profit.

At this point it is worth mentioning that SF publishers aren’t quite the media monoliths that the mainstream outlets are; they are often run by fans or writers themselves, and are fueled by a love for the genre more than profit in most cases. I’m certainly not advocating we burn down their offices and hound them into blind alleys – without them, the genre I love would not exist. But that means I’d like them to be the first to see the truth – doing the ostrich isn’t going to make the future go away. The small presses still exist in SF in a way that few other genres can support (except arguably poetry and some of the other subculture niches), and this is an indicator of the diversity of interests in its readers. This can be tapped into; the ‘long tail’ needn’t have a nasty sting in it, as long as the inevitable is accepted.

I still think it will be a long time before print dies off completely – figures show that there are more books purchased every year, even now in the ‘internet age’, and I for one much prefer to read from a book than from a screen, not to mention the pleasure I take in books as cultural artefacts. Eventually, though, the shoe will drop. When that happens, the ones who survive the change will be the ones who were out in front, adapting before circumstances forced the issue: the ones who gave stuff away for free, and hence sold more units (like Doctorow, Stross, and Baen Publishing); the ones who gave their fans more than just a great book every year or so, but who gave them conversation, insights into the creative process, a window on the ideas and images that were turned into the book; the ones who became more than just a name and a masthead photo, but became someone that the reader considers to be almost a friend.

After all, if your friend had written a book, or made an album, and they asked if you wanted to buy a copy, you’d find it hard to say no, wouldn’t you? Especially if you already had a sample of their output, and knew it to be to your taste. SF is a literature that is reknowned for its enthusiastic embrace of the future – the issues raised by Doctorow are going to put that to the test.

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