Traditionally, books have been physical, tangible objects. This has given them a certain scarcity based on the size of the print run and their popularity. It is the reason first editions of famous and popular books are expensive. But not so much any more. Welcome to the 21st century. Novels, short stories and reference works are now available in electronic format. Since it is trivial to reproduce an e-book as often as you’d like with absolute precision, is there any value derived from scarcity? No. So what can be done?
Pay for Performance.
In the music world, the idea of selling recording is an entirely modern idea. Do you think Mozart went to Abbey Road studios and knocked out a couple of symphonies for sale at HMV? Or do you think the troubadours and entertainers of the middle ages went to their local radio station for an interview to announce the launch of their new chart topping album? I can guarantee the cavemen who banged two rocks together (the first rock music) had no thought of going double platinum. So along comes recordings and in particular radio and television and suddenly music is something that gets recorded and sold as physical stock. Scarcity drove price because making accurate and convenient recordings was beyond the ability of most people. So if you wanted the music you had to go to the shop and buy it. With the introduction of music compression, the internet and broadband, music is no longer scarce. So how to artists make money? The same way they always have: they perform. That’s all well and good for musicians, but what about authors?
Digital Rights Management
Some bright spark, looking at all the trees and wondering where the forest is, decided that to fix the problem of the lack of scarcity they needed to cripple their product. Could you imagine if, when you bought your car, your DNA was sampled so that only you could drive it and you could never trade it or lend it to anyone without first going back to the dealer to get the DNA sample changed? What if you bought a book where all the pages went blank if anyone looked over your shoulder? It would make it necessary for people to buy their own copy of the book or their own car, but who is it supposed to inconvenience? Copy protection hampers the legitimate purchaser. End of story. Why do you want to alienate your customers? They paid for the work. Surely you want to make life difficult for the people who are no paying? So Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a good way to stick it to your paying audience because I assure you the pirates step around it once then copy the work many times and are not once disadvantaged. So much so there are people who buy the original and then only use a pirated version of the books or software.
What can an author do?
I think the only way forward is to assume that once produced, the value of possessing your work rapidly approaches zero. Musicians can demand money for their performance because if you want to see the Rolling Stones live, you can really only see The Rolling Stones live. You can’t get a copy. An author needs to sell a service that is more attractive or that can’t be copied in the same way a tribute band can’t command the same money as the original. Enter the concept of BaaS, books as a service. Amazon is heading that way with kindle for example. If you read one book a week and you only buy the $1 top 50 books then how is that different from paying $4 / month as a subscription and getting one book a week? But you need to add more to it than that because anyone can offer your work as content on a subscription service. You have to make people want to use your subscription. An interactive community is the next piece you could add, author’s insights and commentary and fan fic sandbox could be in it too. Can one author demand enough interest to go it alone? Some can but most can’t. Have you ever seen a flyer for a local live venue where four or five bands are all listed as playing for just one low price? So what if a bunch of ten science fiction authors, each with their own flavour, got together to offer the service? Could the promise of short stories, opinion pieces, novels and serials from ten half decent story tellers convince you to part with a couple of dollars a month? A place where you could discuss the stories, predict future technologies, talk with other fans about what might be coming next and where amateur film makers could create short sci-fi films would surely be worth that.
Would it be easy?
Of course not. Ask any author published or unpublished if it is or has ever been easy. Think about your own job. I would say almost no one sits back for an hour every other day answers a couple of emails and earns a stack of cash. Money = effort. That effort can be in the form of manual labour or in the form of risk taking or whatever, but it is never easy. If you are thinking that you can make a living in writing by writing a novel and having it be a best seller with a movie and TV show franchise you probably also buy lottery tickets as a form of retirement planning.
I think that next week I’ll write about something closer to my own profession: software. Companion applications they are called and they are gaining in popularity but what are they?