Re: Prelude to the Singularity

Date view Thread view Subject view Author view

Date: Fri Jul 28 2000 - 06:24:47 PDT

In a message dated 7/27/2000 7:18:38 PM, writes:

>Why isn't the publishing industry also under fire?

It is, it is--just not as noisily, perhaps because the intellectual property
thieves, who are mostly under 22, would rather steal music than books or
magazines. Stephen King's new book, companies like fatbrain, and the digital
delivery of magazine content are all grave threats to existing publishing
models. It's slower coming, but it's obvious and has been obvious for a long
time. In 1994, I delivered a speech at the Stanford publishing course that
said in part:

You can already go into a record store and have a cassette custom-made. IBM
and Blockbuster Video have the technology to enable you to have CDs made on
the spot, downloaded from a server somewhere. The only reason you can't do it
now, the CEO of a major record company told me, is that the people from IBM
were such hamfisted negotiators that they pissed the record companies off
when they tried to set it up. But it's coming--you'll walk into Tower
Records, ask for the new Pearl Jam CD, and the clerk will manufacture it for
you right there. ....

It's perfectly clear that this will happen with books. The basic technology
exists, and it won't take much more before there's a machine, maybe it looks
like a cross between a copier and a jukebox, where you can go, stick in a
credit card, and order a book. You'll go over to the coffee bar, and by the
time you and your cappuchino find a table, the clerk will come over and hand
you a perfectly decent-looking--maybe even a very good-looking--paperbound
copy of Smilla's Sense of Snow, still warm from the printer.

I mean--this is great! Right now, trade publishers have to deal with
something like a 35% return rate--It's a testament to how spectacular a
business publishing is that it has survived that, because it's a burden of
excess inventory and mismanagement that would destroy most businesses. Your
literary jukebox could wipe out that excess inventory. You'd only print what
you sold. Millions of dollars to the bottom line. Not only that, but there
would never be a reason for a book to go out of print. Even if you sold one
copy every five years--so what? There's no, or next to no, inventory cost.
And think of the promotional opportunities: I might download the first
chapter of a new novel for free with every book you order, as a way to
promote it. Or sell poems one at a time, the way Vachel Lindsay used to do in
central Illinois, going from door to door. As I said, this is great.

But wait a minute. What if I don't care if my copy of Smilla's Sense of Snow
has a pretty cover, and simply download it onto my Macintosh at home? I've
just cut the bookstore out of the value chain. Oh, I'd still go there for art
books and when I wanted to buy something to give as a present, but...

And what if, one day, some technologically alert writer gets to thinking.
Let's say he's a bearded fellow who lives up in Maine, writes horror novels,
cranks out two a year, and possesses what might be the best brand name this
side of CocaCola. Or a lawyer, lives in the South, writes legal thrillers,
wrote a book called The Firm--but these days a book by him would sell even if
he called it The Flaccid. And let's say he gets to asking the question that a
writer friend of mine asked me at dinner last Tuesday night: "What value does
my publisher add to my work?" Why get an advance and a royalty--even a fat
advance and royalty--when you can cut the publisher out of the loop and keep
his profits for yourself? Editing? I can hire a freelancer--probably the very
editor my publisher laid off. Copy editing? ditto. Art direction and jacket
design? Same thing. Printing--don't need it, or I can hire my own.
Distribution? I can get onto that jukebox directly, or through PubNet, or
through some kind of on-line payment system--the Finns and the Dutch already
have something very close to digital cash...

All these industries are under siege. It's just that the Napster/Gnutella
horde is more net-savvy, more connected, more eager, and less scrupulous
about taking other people's property without payment or permission. Companies
like mine DO have to change. When you look at the financial struggles of,
e.g., Salon, you (or I) have to worry about the viability of magazine
publishing on line. We at Time Inc haven't figured it out yet--and nor has
anyone else. We've--in books, music, and magazines-- wrapped ourselves in a
business model that won't survive in its present form. It would be wrong to
mistake that business model with Mom, apple pie, and creativity, despite
companies' protestations that they are one and the same. But it would be
equally wrong to deny writers, musicians, designers, software writers, and
others their moral and constitutional right to the protection of their
intellectual property. (Unless you [generic you] would like to leave the keys
in your car when you park it on the street. I promise I'll put it back after
I've run a few errands. )


Date view Thread view Subject view Author view

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Fri Jul 28 2000 - 06:28:45 PDT