SYNDICATED COLUMN: How to Save Books

Why E-Books Need Print to Thrive

Borders and Barnes & Noble killed independent bookstores. Amazon killed Borders. Now Barnes & Noble, which sells more than 20 percent of pulp-and-ink books in the U.S., is under siege.

If B&N collapses: the death of books.

Cultural apocalypse.

Neo-feudalism.

You may remember such classics as “How the Internet Slaughtered Newspapers” and “How Napster Decimated the Music Business.” It’s always the same story: Digitalization destroys profits.

Whether it’s newspapers, magazines, CDs or books (“pBooks,” they call them now), the electronic assault on tangible media follows a familiar pattern.

First: Pricing is set too low; margins get squeezed.

I pay $43 a month to get The New York Times delivered; new digital-only subscribers get the app for $5. In the book biz per-unit net to publishers is actually a few cents higher for e-books. But that margin is deceptive. “If e-book sales start to replace some hardcover sales, the publishers say, they will still have many of the fixed costs associated with print editions, like warehouse space, but they will be spread among fewer print copies,” notes the Times. E-books also eliminate paperback editions, a big second chance for publishers to break into the black.

Second: Piracy runs rampant.

Piracy of print media was virtually unheard of. But digitalization makes piracy tough for even the most honest consumer to resist. It’s easy and it’s fast. E-book knock-offs look and feel exactly the same as the real thing. As of the end of 2011 an estimated 20 percent of all e-books downloaded onto Kindles, Nooks and iPads were pirated. That’s a 20 percent pay cut to authors, agents and publishers—a number that will only go up.

And “legal piratization” is on the horizon. On February 6th a federal court in New York City ruled that ReDigi, an online marketplace for “pre-owned” MP3 files, can continue to operate pending the outcome of a lawsuit by Capitol Records. And public libraries are already “lending” e-books to multiple “borrowers” with the click of a mouse—the same process as buying them. But free.

Third: à la carte sales whittle down revenues.

Twenty years ago if you liked a song you heard on the radio you paid $14 for a CD that had 14 songs on it—13 of which might be filler. iTunes’ 99-cent songs brought back the single—but cheaper. (45s used to cost $3.) The result: the collapse of the music biz. According to Forrester Research, total U.S. music sales and licensing revenues fell from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2009—a decline of 57 percent in a decade. People still liked music. They just didn’t have to pay for it anymore.

There are already apps that sell e-books by the chapter. Some publishers give away free chapters as samples. Why should a college student assigned to read chapter two pay $40 for the whole thing? À la carte book sales will further depress profits.

Why should you care if traditional publishers go under? What about the democratizing effect of the Internet, which allows anyone—not just big-name authors hooked-up with fancy well-connected agents—to publish a book?

Granted, digitalization opens doors for writers who might never have been able to break through the “no unsolicited manuscripts” wall that surrounded old-media gatekeepers. Elitism was and remains a problem.

But there’s a bigger problem: removing the profit incentive from books means more titles about vampires and werewolves and fewer in the fields of history and sociology. Because lower profits make it tougher for publishers to invest in big time-intensive projects, it deprofessionalizes our highest form of popular culture. The historian Robert Caro began working on his brilliant five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in 1982. He expects to finish in 2015. Tiny digital royalties eaten away by piracy couldn’t have sustained Caro’s research for three years—much less 32.

“Inside [the Kindle’s] plastic case, other things lurk,” Sarah Lee writes in the UK Guardian. “Sci-fi and self-help. Even paranormal romance, where vampires seduce virgins and elves bonk trolls. The e-book world is driven by so-called genre fiction, categories such as horror or romance. It’s not future classics that push digital sales, but more downmarket fare. No cliché is left unturned, no adjective underplayed.”

Goodbye, Mr. Caro. Hello, 99-cent fan fiction.

You might not care. But you should.

Fourth but not last: the loss of a product’s brick-and-mortar distribution outlets reduces consumer consciousness of a product. In New York, where I live, all the music megastores—Tower, HMV and Virgin—are gone. So are most small record stores.

I used to spend at least one day a week hopping from one CD store to the next. I probably spent $50 to $100 a week on music. Now I spend the same amount in three months. I still love music. I just don’t think about it as often. iTunes is just a list of names and titles.

Now Barnes & Noble and what’s left of the independents are all that’s standing between an uncertain present and a disastrous—music-like—future.

“Sure, you can buy bestsellers at Walmart and potboilers at the supermarket. But in many locales, Barnes & Noble is the only retailer offering a wide selection of books,” notes The New York Times. A broad, deep book industry requires retailers willing to sell midlist titles and books that don’t do well—i.e., most of them.

Publishers say they want to save B&N, which is locked in an existential fight against Amazon. Things turned ugly after Amazon urged bookbuyers to visit stores in order to use their smartphones to scan barcodes of titles so they could buy them elsewhere—online, from Amazon, at a discount. B&N retaliated by banning books directly published by Amazon from its stores.

Amazon says it doesn’t want to drive B&N and other brick-and-mortar stores out of business. Their actions belie that. But if Amazon management were smart, they would subsidize stores like B&N. Remember what happened to the music biz when record stores disappeared—the overall music business cratered. All music sales, including those of iTunes, would be higher today if Tower et al. were still around.

Sadly, Amazon doesn’t seem smart. Like most American companies, it’s looting its own future in favor of short-term, quarterly lucre.

“Shopping on Amazon is a directed experience—it works best when you know what you’re looking for,” says Charlie Winton, CEO of Counterpoint Press. “But how does that help with, for instance, a first novel? When independent bookstores were in a healthier state, staff picks and hand selling could bring attention to great books people didn’t know they wanted. Now that’s much harder.”

And many of those bookstore “customers” would have eventually bought that book from Amazon.

E-books are here to stay. But there’s a way to save the overall book business for both print and electronic editions. The solution requires three parts.

Congress should join the other countries that have major book industries in passing a Fixed Book Price Agreement, in which booksellers and publishers agree on what price books may be sold nationally—i.e., no $25 books selling for $10 at Costco. In France and other nations studies have shown that FBPAs protect independent stores, increase the diversity and quality of titles sold, and support more authors.

Recognizing the unique cultural contribution of books as well as the threat to our national heritage posed by digitalization, Congress should exempt publishers from antitrust laws. This would allow publishers to collude to set prices and hold the line against predatory discounting.

Finally, publishers should flip the current arrangement, in which Amazon enjoys steeper discounts than brick-and-mortar stores. Even if Amazon gets charged a higher wholesale price they still have big advantages; many people don’t live near a store or are simply too lazy to visit one. And they carry everything.

It’s more than a question of preserving print as a fetish commodity. E-books won’t thrive if their print forebears vanish.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL

37 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: How to Save Books

  1. Yes, I’ve spent several weeks correcting you because I don’t want to face people who disagree.

    You’ve been flailing for quite some time now, but that takes the cake, I think.

    As usual, you miss the point entirely: I want to be given the OPTION of how I deal with people who disagree, not forced to endure their drunken beer breath in my face while they rant.

    The internet gives me the most options, so it is superior.

  2. Thank you, Whim, for proving my point.

    “Give me a forum to play pool where I can mute someone I find offensive and simply concetrate on the game- or if their behavior offens me too greatly, kick them from the game altogether. That power to determine how I experience something, rather than being forced to experience anything through the rudeness of others trumps real life each and every time.”

    That’s what you want. A world in which you don’t have to face the people who disagree. A world in which you always win because, when it gets too tough, you can always hit mute or delete.

    That isn’t reality, Whimsical. That’s the drug haze of a narcotic stupor. And you’re welcome to it. I concede all the points of this thread because, well, if I don’t, you’ll simply stomp off in a huff.

  3. @alex-

    You know what, I had a point by point response that completely rebutted everything you said, again, but this is starting to lose value as entertainment, so I’m going to edit it down.

    “We simply do not seem to be able to reach an agreement on this… I think you’re out of your mind to even begin to argue that people pay the creators of works.”

    And you’ve left me no choice but to view you as a Luddite kook with an irrational hatred of the internet that blinds you to realities. Like the fact that I have literally millions of man hours of experience with people paying creators of work- both my own and others(I make games as a hobby, and I price them fairly, and- shocker- I’m pirated a lot less than I would be if I allowed parasites and gatekeepers to lard up my prices), and that the entire internet is rife with examples of it.

    “Yes or No, is a business model based on everyone copying everything for free sustainable?”

    First off, fuck that lawyer shit. That “yes or no” bullshit is what they use when they know that a real answer will utterly demolish their argument, and we’re not in court, so I don’t play that way.

    Second of all add the fact that absolutely no one uses that as a business model and that’s not the way the internet works to the list of things your internet hatred blinds you to.

    “Yes. And isn’t it GREAT, just the absolute TINSEL ON THE FRICKIN’ TREE that although, in the past, he was able to pay his own way, he now has to hold fundraisers?”

    Or, maybe, had he asked his fans to support him from the beginning, he wouldn’t have been quite so devastated income-wise when he started being “censored”.

    I dont know if the base for political cartoons is wide enough to support Ted or not, but that’s a refelection of American society as a whole, not the Internet. And he’d do better to lose the attitude (The guy who draws “The Order of the Stick” has been doing so for quite some time; hardly a novice. And the simplistic art is a delibrate stylistic choice- he’s capable of producing far better artwork than Ted if he puts his mind to it) and lower his prices(I sell 1000 copies of a game at .99 cents and about 20 at $9.99)- but I like to think that he’ll do ok.

    Sartre once wrote “Hell is other people.” Speaking as someone who has every possible experience from movie-going, to browsing in bookstores, to using a library, to yes, playing pool, ruined by the boorish, disgusting, or simply downright rude and onoxious behavior of other people (and before you start “boorish” and “honorable” are not mutually exclusive terms) I could not agree more.

    Yes, the internet is FAR superior to being forced to endure other people’s rudness, loudness, their obnoxious, grating presence. Give me quiet, give me solitude, give me a space where I can hear myself think in order to appreciate art, or to shop for books without hearing what brand of tampons the disgustingly rude woman in the next aisle wants her teenage daughter to buy.

    Give me a forum to play pool where I can mute someone I find offensive and simply concetrate on the game- or if their behavior offens me too greatly, kick them from the game altogether. That power to determine how I experience something, rather than being forced to experience anything through the rudeness of others trumps real life each and every time.

  4. Whimsical,

    “Theft: the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it. Unless and until you can demonstrate what property is removed, and what property the owner is deprived of when copies are made (and prove intent as well), copyright infringement isn’t theft. never was, isn’t now, never will be. Which invalidates pretty much all the comparisons you made in your post.”

    Whim, you crouch behind a semantic quibble. The property removed is the copy of the creator’s work, which has value in that copies can be sold. When you take the copy without paying for it, you are committing a form of theft. Proof? If the thing had no value, why would you have taken the time to copy it, let alone watch it? So it has some value, which you refuse to pay. And even if you cut a check to the creator of that work, there’s often others involved. (E.g., did the singer use a sound studio? So there was a sound engineer? A receptionist? Someone who sweeps up so the place doesn’t burn to the ground from piles of debris?)

    The creator of the work owns the right to how his or her work may be copied. It’s called INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY. Royalties are paid on books. Why? Because the author controls the original work, which is a creation covered by copyright protection. That someone can copy it easily does not mean the author has no recourse. This is why J.K. Rowling wipes her ass with gold leaf instead of starving to death in a gutter.

    To your question, I don’t hate the Internet. I hate how it makes people greedy and foolish and simple. Follow it through to the logical conclusion, IT person called Whimsical. Yes or No, is a business model based on everyone copying everything for free sustainable? No ducking, no hedging, just a straightforward “Yes” or “No”. I “go off the rails” because people aren’t copying a thousand movies and songs to their hard drives for free because of some glorious workers’ revolution or innovation to remove the chains from humanity. They’re doing it because they want stuff for free.

    How long does it take you to write a computer program? A couple hours? A few days for a really complex one? And did you just emerge from the egg knowing how to do it? No. You spent a lot of time learning how to do it. And maybe some of that work you put out there for free. But there is a big, big, BIG difference between voluntarily putting a few things out for free, between watching as everything you put out there is taken and copied against your wishes (and I guarantee the three people who’ll send in some “contributions” will not be sending you enough money to continue to stay alive at your profession), and between having to sell your skillset for next to nothing because there’s so much for-free stuff out there that you cannot compete as a for-profit enterprise.

    That isn’t a case of “you need to adapt.” That’s a case of “you’re being held under the water, start fighting back.”

    “I find it highly ironic that above this column is a blurb showing off Ted’s new laptop. Which his fans paid for. And he’s almost certainly going to get the desktop as well.”

    Yes. And isn’t it GREAT, just the absolute TINSEL ON THE FRICKIN’ TREE that although, in the past, he was able to pay his own way, he now has to hold fundraisers? And if he doesn’t raise enough for the desktop? What then in Whim-world? “Well, Ted, you shoulda thought of this 20 years ago when you went into cartooning!”? And what of the talented cartoonists who have ALREADY dropped out because it simply became too overwhelming? Is that ironic, too? No. It’s proof of what I’m saying. We are losing a lot of great talent and a lot of experience.

    We simply do not seem to be able to reach an agreement on this. You think I hang around with people who aren’t good enough because they simply help themselves to copies, I think you’re out of your mind to even begin to argue that people pay the creators of works. But I know this: no one, not one single person, whose opinion I’ve ever valued, has ever attempted, even for a second, to argue that the loss of used-book stores was somehow a benefit to society or that what’s replacing them is better. What’s replaced them? Barnes and Noble and its miles of Chicken Soup for the Child’s Mom’s Soul That Needs to Lose 15 Pounds with Crystal Meditation? What’s replaced them is an empty dead thing. A corporate zombie. Or maybe the replacement to all those lovely, unique used-book stores is Project Gutenberg. Yep, nothing more enjoyable than surfing over to a website so I can download copies of a few thousand public-domain books. I used to go to the library for that, maybe see a few people. Not anymore. Now I can stay in my room, spine curving as I hunch over the terminal, click, click, clicking away rather than frittering away my time inefficiently at a distant building.

    And you call ME empty and joyless? If I though Project Gutenberg was superior to a book store — a real book store — I’d put both barrels of the shotgun against the roof of my mouth and wish for a four-barreled shotgun. I may have wasted my time with people and the world they live in, but in 40 years, when I’m on my death bed, I won’t be thinking, “I wish I’d spent less time with my friends and more time at a computer terminal, typing, downloading, and mousing.”

    My world might be dying, but it’s still worth fighting for, and it’s still better, even in its dying days, than the shell game people keep trying to sell me as an “improvement” that I’m simply too much of a Luddite to catch onto. A real game of pool, in a pool hall, is always going to be better than the online version. Solitaire, played with real cards, is always going to be more fun than something I can play on a screen with perfectly aligned rows and cutesy graphics. All the pornography that my friends tell me is available for free online (because God knows I don’t look at those sorts of things, except for research, lots and lots of research …) can’t match the delight of the morning after when you wake up next to a real-life human being, and not some avatar you did in SimWorld.

    Maya Angelou wrote that she wouldn’t take nothing for her journey now. I think a lot of people in the next few decades are going to face the very worst thing in the world: the realization that they pissed away a mighty nice section of their trip around the track on second-rate living: e-cards, facebook posts, and the like.

  5. @alex

    “Go on, what is the definition of theft?”

    I thought you’d never ask. From m-w.com:

    Theft: the felonious taking and removing of personal property with intent to deprive the rightful owner of it

    Unless and until you can demonstrate what property is removed, and what property the owner is deprived of when copies are made (and prove intent as well), copyright infringement isn’t theft. never was, isn’t now, never will be. Which invalidates pretty much all the comparisons you made in your post.

    “You can hem, haw, and speechify all you want, but every download of something that wasn’t yours to take for free is theft”.

    As I just demonstrated, it’s not.

    “When someone creates something and you help yourself to a copy, that’s theft.”

    Nope again. It’s being a dickhead if you don’t compensate the artist in some way, but it aint theft.

    “or put it in your pocket at the Barnes and Noble while saying that they charge too much”

    That’s actually theft cause you’re depriving someone of propetry. Unfortunately for your argument it’s a highly inaccurate analogy. A better analogy would be going into B&N and taking a picture of every page of a book with your cellphone. Which, as has been established, ain’t theft.

    “IIf you’re going to take things for free because you don’t want to pay for them, then just say so. Be a mensch about it. Don’t try to claim you’re taking some high ground. You aren’t.”

    If you’re going to advance an irrational agenda against the biggest achievement/advancement in human history, just say so. Be a mensch. Dont try to claim the moral high ground, especially by making phony comparisons that don’t hold up under scrutiny.

    Look, Alex, I’m trying really hard not to dismiss you as some sort of Luddite kook, because on a lot of other issues you seem intelligent and reasonable. But whenever the internet comes into it, you go off the rails. You obviously have no requirement to explain yourself, but I’d really like to know what did the Internet ever do to you, that you should hate it so?

    You’re way too smart to buy the studios BS claim that every pirated unit represents a lost sale. That holds as little water as the claim that most take without giving back in some way. If you got your fantasy and the Internet shut down, 99% of pirates would go without, and artists income would plummet.

    As specious said, those who use torrents spend more on music then those who buy CD’s. And they do so becasue they know their money is going DIRECTLY to the artist rather then to allow already obscenely overpaid parasites who had nothing to the process to buy mansions and yachts.

    “Whimsical’s argument about how people pay the originators of the work nonetheless flies in the face of every single thing I have seen.”

    And your claim that most people don’t flies in the face of everything I have seen. And its highly likely I’ve been doing this longer than you, and I guarantee you I put more man hours into computer/net related stuff than you do in a given year. Maybe you just need to start hanging out with a better class of people.

    “The guys in New York selling movie-cam copies of theatrical releases aren’t cutting checks to the writers, actors, directors, producers, and so forth. Nor are the college students sitting in dorms downloading into the wee hours of the morning.”

    Apples and oranges. There’s a huge difference between someone who sells other peoples work and someone who cuts out the gatekeepers and the overpaid CEO’s to give the artist what the work is worth.

    One is scum, the other is fighting a fucked up-legal system (you’re not seriously going to try and argue that copyright law in this country doesn’t need to be revamped from top to bottom, are youu?) to keep themselves from being screwed over so that already rich parasites can get richer.

    There is a long history of copyright infringement being used to free a system from parasites and gatekeepers. Look at the history of the motion picture industry. It was practically founded on copyright violation- the same violation those hypocrites now oppose.

    “The guys in New York selling movie-cam copies of theatrical releases aren’t cutting checks to the writers, actors, directors, producers, and so forth.”

    Here you’re right. Those guys are scum. But your internet hatred has completely blinded you to the fact that it’s just not the same thing as the quote below.

    ” Nor are the college students sitting in dorms downloading into the wee hours of the morning.”

    And I’ve got decades of experience and literally, millions of hours that say here, you’re wrong. Not to mention that it’s not even remotely close to the same thing.

    “Cui bono?”
    When the RIAA and the MPAA and the other gatekeeprs die, the answer to that is – everybody.

    “But don’t take my word for it. Hey, Ted, how’s the whole adapting thing working for you?”

    I find it highly ironic that above this column is a blurb showing off Ted’s new laptop. Which his fans paid for. And he’s almost certainly going to get the desktop as well.

    Given that, I’d say its going pretty well. Allow your fans to choose what the work is worth and how to support you, and you will ALWAYS be rewarded. Allow gatekeepers and other unnecessary parasites to lard up the price, and you wont be.

    “Sigh. We lose the record shops, the used book stores, everything that can’t “compete efficiently.””

    But what we gain more than compensates.

    “Eventually, we’re going to be a joyless, empty society filled with amateur efforts at writing, music, art, and all the other entertainments.”

    You may be empty and joyless. I eagerly await the explosion of talent that will come forth once the gatekeepers die. There are already amateurs out there better than most professionals. I can’t wait to find them- and the day I can cannot come soon enough.

  6. @Alex

    Thanks for not biting my head off for being pirate scum.

    While my habits may exist in a grey moral area, using a bittorrent to make unauthorized copies is illegal and punishable to such a deranged degree that drug possession laws stare uncomfortably at their feet. As we all know, chasing after the torrents — even the ones that preserve lost and obscure works by dead artists — is a contemporary legal shakedown racket worth much $$ to the RIAA.

    Let me redirect the discussion back to books: What piracy did to MP3 files, it can do to eBooks a thousand times faster. And people have a different relationship with books than music. I have a few books that I’ve read more than four times over my life. Most I’ve only read once. Recorded music can be enjoyed repetitively over decades, but books and movies are often consumed and discarded. Your personal experience may vary.

    A degraded audio copy of a recorded work may act as an advertisement for the physical object on a torrent. How do we apply this to eBooks? It sounds like there’s gonna be trouble.

    And back to music Alex — if I compare the sound of myself farting through a garden hose to the exhortations of American Idol…well, we all know which fruit is more musical. Let’s just say that in the days of Callas, Cline and Cass there was a shit-ton of gawdawful pop music on the radio. A lot of that crap had to fall by the wayside before we realized that Patsy Cline was someone to enjoy your whole life. Don’t dismiss the music of the present because Pop Music Sucks. Sturgeon’s Law is a cause for optimism: There is always a percentage of Not Crap floating around out there.

    You could make an equally strong case that recorded music has warped our collective ability to appreciate Real Music played by Real Humans in the same room with you. I blame Thomas Edison.

  7. Spacious,

    You bring up a good gray area. If you are genuinely just trying before buying and then deleting what you don’t want to pay for, a moral argument — and a convincing one — can be made. After all, test drives of cars are allowed. iTunes lets people try out short samples of the songs. I suspect your approach wouldn’t pass legal muster, but the law is rarely just the literal interpretation of the words on the page (if it were, we’d need zero lawyers, just some dictionaries). As to my music. I don’t listen to music much at all anymore. It stopped being good in the ’90s. An example: listen to Maria Callas, Mama Cass, or Patsy Cline. Okay. Now go and listen to those creatures who make it to the finals of American Idol. It is, with very few exceptions, the difference between a soup tureen and a teacup saucer. The Idolaters sing with no real depth. Their passion isn’t from singing for the sake of singing, it’s from singing as a route to achieve fame because nothing is more important than being famous.

  8. Respectfully @alex

    I may be totally alone in this, but I use Theft as a form of try-before-you-buy broadcasting. Most MP3s available from torrent sites and collector’s blogspots range around 192 kbps – which makes them the sonic equivalent of FM radio. I am stealing other people’s garbage.

    If I hear something I like, I always – always – purchase a legitimate copy from an actual record store. Sadly, this means that I often end up buying cheap used CDs which rape the artist legally. It’s just one of many ways in which a musician may be raped legally, usually while being held down by their label.

    Occasionally, the ill-gotten gains are rare and priced for collectors only. Then, the trashy MP3 is all I have. It’s often all the dead artist has either after having been savaged by their label.

    According to some statistics, which the music industry regards as heresy, I am NOT alone in this. People who use the torrents spend more money on music than people who don’t. I don’t know if that statistic is correct, nor can I be bothered to source it. I will tell you one statistic that’s correct: I spend more money on music than you do. Unless you own thousands of CDs, hundreds of records, have a small recording studio full of instruments and have spent thousands of dollars on music composition lessons and audio engineering trade school, I’m fairly sure I have spent more than you. Since I discovered the various repositories of musical knowledge deep in the internet, the expense has grown considerably. Torrents appear to be the most effective form of advertising I have ever encountered for anything.

    Sometimes I even wish all the books I have teetering about my apartment were on a hard drive somewhere.

  9. As for libraries, my local library network offers e-books though the Overdrive system. You rent them for 3 weeks (just like hard copy), and the library can only rent out the number of copies they have bought (my local branch has 6 e-copies of “Game of Thrones”, last I checked, I was 46th in line to rent it). On that front, e-books haven’t really changed anything.

    As for new models, check out what Bean Books is doing on the e-book front : http://www.baenebooks.com/
    They offer a good chunk of their catalog at decent prices (even kindle versions of books even amazon don’t have listed for kindle, mainly old Sci-Fi). They even offer free books, that section is run by Eric Flint, one of their authors. He set it up so that mainly first books of series are free, to hook new people into them. (He also has some interesting views on property, but I’ll let you look that up). But each author has to approve any free ebooks.

    I use Netflix, Redbox, and Spodify. I like to preview content before I shell out money for it. (I don’t use iTunes, I prefer to buy real CD’s with the booklet, I buy DVD’s of movies I really like for the extra content + commentary) Formula books and music were around long before the internet, they have been the backbone of the publishing/recording industry for decades.

  10. Turk/Whimsical:

    When someone takes the work of another individual without paying for it, it is theft. That isn’t my touchy-feely definition, a moralizing claim, or some sort of rallying cry for maintaining the brutally repressive system of greedy CEOs vs. virtuous, starving people who don’t want to pay for things, it’s simply axiomatic.

    Go on, what is the definition of theft? Theft is taking something, without the owner’s permission, consent or knowledge. You can hem, haw, and speechify all you want, but every download of something that wasn’t yours to take for free is theft, and theft, according to every version of the social contract that I am aware of, is considered wrong. It is considered wrong because it is not tenable; you cannot run a society on the notion that everyone is entitled to take everything they want by some fiat argument about what’s being taken not being good enough to pay for. And that’s what this discussion is about.

    When someone creates something and you help yourself to a copy, that’s theft. Whether you download it while saying it really isn’t worth paying for, or put it in your pocket at the Barnes and Noble while saying that they charge too much, you don’t get to go into court and say, “Your Honor, if it please the court, I didn’t steal that copy of Twilight. It’s simply that the producers of the movie and the vendors of it didn’t have enough savvy to adapt to the new business model.”

    If you’re going to take things for free because you don’t want to pay for them, then just say so. Be a mensch about it. Don’t try to claim you’re taking some high ground. You aren’t. This isn’t about stealing bread to feed your family. This is about people finding out that with a couple of clicks, they can amass an enormous collection of movies, music, books, etc. And then doing so. There is nothing “cui bono” about this. If it is, then the “cui” would be the people who are stealing the copies. Whimsical’s argument about how people pay the originators of the work nonetheless flies in the face of every single thing I have seen. The guys in New York selling movie-cam copies of theatrical releases aren’t cutting checks to the writers, actors, directors, producers, and so forth. Nor are the college students sitting in dorms downloading into the wee hours of the morning.

    But don’t take my word for it. Hey, Ted, how’s the whole adapting thing working for you?

    The argument about “adapt or die” is a risible bit of sleight-of-hand. By the terms of the model, one keeps adapting until one is starved out of the business. And at that point one is told that one simply wasn’t able to adapt sufficiently. There’s a real-estate con that follows that pattern. And the grifters who use it also argue that the marks shoulda known better.

    Sigh. We lose the record shops, the used book stores, everything that can’t “compete efficiently.” Eventually, we’re going to be a joyless, empty society filled with amateur efforts at writing, music, art, and all the other entertainments. It’s interesting to contemplate. As the middle class collapses, so do its values.

  11. Although I suppose I should’ve known better then to expect someone who apparently can’t comprehend the difference between “theft” and “copyright infringement” to comprehend subtlety

  12. @alex

    Strawman much? it is NOT Bit Torrent’s responsibility to link directly to an artists paypal. It is the responsibility of those who download, and most do. I stand by that.

    I can play the strawman game too! Let’s see you produce these mythical “artists and writers who used to be able to make a living off their craft and are now seeing their revenue streams dry up”. They don’t exist. The only people that are having trouble are the ones who haven’t modified their business model to deal with the Internet (those who have are just fine), and while sad, that is neither the internet’s fault nor its responsibility.

    And for the record, I provide IT services. So I’d wager my knowledge of the subject is greater than yours.

  13. “Theft” is a tricky word, Alex. If you let the law define it for you, you’ll always be the victim. That is, unless you’re a legislator, or among those with influence on the legislative process.

    If you’re fed up with the system and want to change all the laws / dispose of the current ones to suit you better, well then, I guess that makes you a different kind of thief, because right and wrong are so perfectly clear the way things stand now, correct?

    It’s easy enough to look at the law the way it is, observe another persons actions, and judge what they do as “right” or “wrong” in accordance to the law. If , however, you see the law not as an instrument to bring about justice, but as a tool to ensure that the powerful stay powerful and the weak stay weak, just how much credence should you put into its value assessments of what is right and wrong? Isn’t this dependent upon your own situation, and where you stand on the sliding “Qui Bono?” scale?

  14. Whimsical,

    I do not claim a “vast conspiratorial majority” of “greedy fuckheads.” I simply claim that almost everyone who downloads a free movie or a music track or a piece of writing off of BitTorrent or a similar site (henceforth: steals a copy), does so without paying for it in any way. I will prove that now.

    Will you please direct us all to the “Donate to the PayPal accounts of the people whose labor you just stole by downloading from this site” button on BitTorrent and the related sites?

    Furthermore, what exactly do you do for a living, Whimsical? I don’t mean that you have to provide a physical address or the exact company name, but I would really like to know what industry you work in because it is, apparently, completely divorced from any real-world economic concerns or constraints. Are you the Tooth Fairy? Santa? Hannukah Harry? Because you seem to simply not have to deal with money in the way the rest of us do. At your job, do you get a check every week? Or, some weeks, do you get a partial check and a note saying, “the other 40% of your pay this week has been donated to a cause you strongly support.”

    “Also,” you write, “on the pirate sites, it’s exceedingly difficult to find things that are offered directly by the artist to the public at a fair price.” And what’s fair? Free? A penny? A chicken dinner? Is “fair” enough to live on? I suspect it isn’t. I suspect “fair” is kind of like when a mugger takes your wallet at gunpoint, but hands you back your driver’s license and three dollars so that you can buy a subway fare back home.

    I stand by my assertion. The people who download pirated content off sites are thieves. They take, they do not pay, and they congratulate themselves and defend their behavior by claiming that what they do is some blow against greedy CEOs. It’s a bullshit argument, Whimsical. Pure, 100%, Olympic-Grade Bullshit. And you can shut me up in an instant. Just answer the first question. Where’s the button on BitTorrent that links to PayPal accounts etc. of the people whose work is being pirated? And the other sites that allow for peer-to-peer thievery? Where’s their buttons? And do they have some sort of annual report that lets the thieving community know how many billions of dollars they’ve put back in the pockets of starving artists by circumventing the greedy, greedy CEOs?

    Sell your fantasy of this being just about greedy CEOs to someone who’ll believe it. I don’t, and I bet none of the artists and writers who used to be able to make a living off their craft and are now seeing their revenue streams dry up believe it either.

  15. “First: Pricing is set too low; margins get squeezed.”

    “If e-book sales start to replace some hardcover sales, the publishers say, they will still have many of the fixed costs associated with print editions, like warehouse space, but they will be spread among fewer print copies,” notes the Times. E-books also eliminate paperback editions, a big second chance for publishers to break into the black.

    —This, to me, sounds like the publishing industry trying to have its cake and eat it too. They want fat profit margins, and the simple, selfish, short-sighted solution: e-publishing! We don’t need paper! We don’t need expensive printing, storage space, or shipping costs! We can cut out entire sectors of the economy, and the shared employment and prosperity it brings, charge slighty lower prices, and keep the profit ALL TO OURSELVES!!! Let’s just hope we can get Congress to do something about digital media piracy!

    ***

    “Second: Piracy runs rampant.”

    —“DOH!” says Penguin, Random House, et al, and “fuck ’em” say out-of-work Americans who can no longer find jobs at paper mills, trucking companies, warehouses, typesetters, etc.

    ***

    “Third: à la carte sales whittle down revenues.”

    — Okay…so why are the publishers agreeing to sell their product a la carte? I’d imagine it’s again short-term desire for quick profit: “If they won’t buy the WHOLE THING, let them buy it in PARTS!” I can imagine they’re saying. If the publishers are losing from this decision, I’m sure they’ll change their mind about this on their own.

    ***

    “But there’s a bigger problem: removing the profit incentive from books means more titles about vampires and werewolves and fewer in the fields of history and sociology. Because lower profits make it tougher for publishers to invest in big time-intensive projects, it deprofessionalizes our highest form of popular culture.”

    –Our highest form of popular culture is written work in the fields of sociology and history? *SNORE*

    I thought it was the original (pre Jar-Jar) “Star Wars” trilogy.

    Seriously, though, you’re blaming the publisher when the fault (?!) lies with the consumer. If we were all clamoring for our five volume brilliant (and destined to be EVEN BETTER when it’s actually finished and published in three years!) biographies of LBJ, Mr. Caro would be set for life. We aren’t, so he isn’t. He’ll have to take his meagre earnings, eat more canned beans, and begin his enthralling eight volume historical epic on the impact of the Cola Wars on American society and hope we all take a sudden interest in the subject.

  16. The internet is not going to kill music or movies or books, anymore than the library killed books, face it you can get almost any book in a library, and you could in theory copy every page and pay virtually nothing to have it, people don’t do that. There has long been a theory that “Piracy” through Kazaa, or whatever the latest theft devices are actually helps bands. Most people still want the actual CD of the bands they like, however, they might download a free version of a bands song to see if they actually like that band. Face it, you have always had the opportunity to steal media, so what has changed now?

  17. @alex_the_tired

    And, per your link, you should be able to see that the vast majority of those expenses do not apply to e-books, and thus they should be priced nowhere near as high as regular books. If the publishers want to keep publishing regular books to compete with lower cost e-books, they should be forced either to a) eat the costs or b) make it clear that it is a niche specialty and thus, priced accordingly.

    “Here’s my question: Out of all the people you know who’ve stolen things online by downloading at BitTorrent or copying CDs from friends, etc., etc. How many of them have ever sent checks for small amounts to the original artists? “Dear X, I recently copied this online. I figure that if I had paid retail for it, you would have made $3.13 from it. Enclosed, please find a check for that amount.””

    Most of them, quite frankly. Either through a donation to the artists paypal, or overpaying for some of their merchandise, or donating to a cause of theirs. There are always gonna be greedy fuckheads, but it’s a small minority, dude, not the vast conspiratorial majority you are claiming.

    Also, on the pirate sites, it’s exceedingly difficult to find things that are offered directly by the artist to the public at a fair price. And on the rare occasion one such example shows up, the comments are overwhelmingly negative, and the person who posted the link is usually shamed into taking it down.

    No, I stand by what I said. It’s about people not wanting to overpay for stuff(especially crappy stuff), especially not so some CEO who adds NOTHING to the process can give himself an obscene salary for his McMansion and yacht.

  18. Whimsical,

    Sorry, but my experience is that people who download for BitTorrent and the rest, and people who copy CDs from friends, aren’t doing it because “Gosh, the execs make so much money, and I don’t think they deserve it.” They steal the work for one of three reasons: “Why pay when I can get it for free?” or “Well, money’s a little tight this month.” or “Hey, everyone else is downloading it for free.”

    I wrote a lengthy rebuttal to your various points, but I’ll simplify it all down to one link and one question.

    Here’s the link. It breaks down the profit made by various groups associated with the production of a book, from manuscript to finished tome: http://journal.bookfinder.com/2009/03/breakdown-of-book-costs.html. Obviously, it isn’t an exhaustive exploration, but it points out some serious considerations you’ve simply blown right past.

    Here’s my question: Out of all the people you know who’ve stolen things online by downloading at BitTorrent or copying CDs from friends, etc., etc. How many of them have ever sent checks for small amounts to the original artists? “Dear X, I recently copied this online. I figure that if I had paid retail for it, you would have made $3.13 from it. Enclosed, please find a check for that amount.”

    That’s the point I’m trying to make, Whimsical. This isn’t about greedy execs. It’s about greedy people who want everything for free and excuse the behavior by claiming it’s a victimless crime, and then arguing that the industry needs to adapt or die.

  19. @alex_the_tired

    “When someone creates a piece of art, be it music, book, whatever, that person — or that person’s representative — has the right to set the price on it. The music execs decide that the CD will sell for $15.99. The book will be $18.99.”

    They also have the responsiblity to be fair and not lard up the price so that those who contribute absolutely nothing to the creative process can buy McMansions and yachts. If they paid more attention to their responsbilities, they wouldn’t have to worry so much about their rights.

    But leaving questions of right and wrong out of it, you’ve put your finger on why publishers and other gatekeepers are going to die (and that day cannot come soon enough)- as more and more artists realize that they can take their work directly to the public, price it fairly, and reap handsome rewards or they can allow middlemen to lard up the price and do poorly, they will choose the obvious common sense option. And gatekeepers will go the way of the dodo.

    Adapt or die. Whether its right or wrong is irrelevant. It’s what is.

    “None of this is about some blow for human freedom. This is about people being cheap bastards.”

    Completely false. Nobody objects to compensating artists a fair price for their work. They object to being ripped off, and they especially object to being ripped off so that parasites can have McMansions and yachts. And rightfully so.

  20. I think the issues are getting confused. Let me clarify something:

    When someone creates a piece of art, be it music, book, whatever, that person — or that person’s representative — has the right to set the price on it. The music execs decide that the CD will sell for $15.99. The book will be $18.99.

    If you don’t want to pay that much for it, you DO NOT SUDDENLY BECOME IMBUED WITH THE “RIGHT” TO TAKE A COPY FROM ONLINE FOR FREE AS SOME FORM OF POLITICAL PROTEST. If you don’t want to spend $70,000 on a Mercedes, you don’t get to take one from the dealership for free with the explanation that $70,000 isn’t fair. So your lack of money or willingness to spend $13 for a movie ticket does not justify buying a bootleg. Period.

    If the movie is crap, that’s what reviewers are for. Not sure if a book is to your liking? I have a trick for that. I go to the store, I open up the book, I start reading it. If I like what I read in the first few pages, I buy the damn thing. I don’t slip it under my coat and “casually” stroll toward the exit. Barnes and Noble used to have listening stations, so you could give a CD a try before buying.

    None of this is about some blow for human freedom. This is about people being cheap bastards.

  21. Ex-
    “Now, most eBooks are perhaps $1 less than the pBook. Publishers’ response? The real cost of creating books is not the materials nor distribution, it’s the creative and editing. Of course this is total bullshit, but the pricing stands. The costs are NOT coming down, because – by god – they simply won’t let the costs come down, statistics and facts be damned.”

    It’s a last ditch effort to save themselves, and it won’t work. As the internet allows more and more people to realize how unnecessary publishers are, they will have no choice but to allow prices to come down in order to compete with those who forgo the traditional publishing route.

    It’ll only work for a little while, though. The day the RIAA, the MPAA, and the publishing companies die will be a great day for art in America.

    “I agree with one thing: The quality of what’s available is going to shit. . . The “free” internet has given rise to real mediocrity (alex_the_tired is right about that), and pushed those who should be paid to the sidelines.”

    I disagree with this- proportionally, the percentage of quality stuff has stayed about the same. Theodore Sturgeon once wrote “95% of everything is crap”, and that is as true today as it was all those years ago.

    All the internet has done is open the pipeline wide, changing the flow of “everything” from a trickle to a flood.

    Ted-
    I’m going to try and find a graphic for you. It’s an illustrated history of the entertainment industry’s attempt to derail EVERY innovation that has come along with the claim that it will “destroy their business”. Everything from the record player to the blue ray player- they were against it.

    They have been consistently wrong for nearly 100 years, and you’re wrong now.

  22. Thus is born the “memory-hole”, and a frightening dystopia of Prole literature!

    Let’s pray the resurgent Occupy movement of this Spring and Summer boils over into La Revolucion!

    While I don’t agree with everything you wrote, I’ll say it does provide food for thought. My biggest concern with the rise of e-books (and decline of the neighborhood bookstore) is the accompanying loss of privacy that goes with it. It’s harder for the thought police to monitor what I read, and when, if I’m paying cash for it over the counter in some shop. If I buy it on Amazon, I’m marked for life…or so the frequent “Also recommended for you!” e-mails would have me believe.

    Embrace online piracy, Ted. “Occupy” serves a purpose (keeping the elite over-confident, complacent, distracted, and amused), but pirates and hackers are the ones scoring the real hits. If you have a NIMBY attitude toward La Revolucion, then it’s just going to keep trickling out the way it is, one postal nutcase-with-a-gun at a time.

  23. In regards to newspapers: I have fuck-all sympathy for newspapers and newsmagazines. They are primarily the reason this country is in the toilet that it is. Why should people pay for lies when they can read the truth on the internet for free?

    In regards to books: I’m with Ted on most of this, but I would add that copyright law is too strict in this country. Why should the works of an author who’s been dead for years not be in the public domain? I say hold file-sharing/torrent companies liable for copyright violations (which isn’t currently happening, for some reason), and allow dead-author books to be available for free.

    In regards to music and movies: Movies in New York City now cost up to $13 per person at the theater, and they are climbing in mid-sized cities. The movie industry should not be surprised when people start watching pirated versions online instead, or for five bucks on the street, when it charges that much to see a legitimately distributed film. The music industry shouldn’t be surprised that people turn elsewhere for their music when they churn out the crap they do as “popular music”.

    In regards to library e-books: The e-books from a library expire after a couple of weeks, about the same time as print books are supposed to be returned to the library. But I do prefer to get the print version, personally.

  24. For once, I agree with Wshimsical. Why isn’t it a surprise to me that Rall thinks the “solution” to this “problem” is for Congress to do something. As usual, be careful what you wish for, ’cause you might just get it. And if it comes from the government, you’ll get it hard and good.
    Utterly insane.

  25. exio, and guess what will happen when publishers start charging outrageous prices online, like the Music industry initially tried to do? They laughed in their face and went to piracy, and in the ultimate Irony the Music industry got upset that people got around their illegal monopoly by using their own illegal methods. It’s Ironic in the extreme that Ted attacks the wealthy, and attacks big business, and this shoves his nose up the ass of the Print Industry, which is just as much a monopoly as any other. Guess what, Newspapers, book publishers, they all fix their prices and make it so cheap alternatives do not exist through buyouts and compromising with each other. I have no sympathy for Ted and other writers who worked within the corrupt system and support it now. Guess what, when you manipulate the proper price through price rigging and monopoly, people don’t take your product seriously.

  26. Actually the Music industry isn’t dead, it adjusted and is still profitable. Before CD’s and Records most bands made money by actually working, you know out on the road playing live shows. Then CD’s came and killed real musicians and made it so fake musicians could make money from something a guy made in his bedroom. Musicians today don’t even actually play or sing a machine does it, their literal job is to stand around like the Muppets and move their lips. Music is dead because the music industry killed it not because of technology. The print industry is in decline not because of technology, but because there is a lot of garbage being sold at full price and there is no way to distinguish between garbage and the good stuff until you already paid, sort of like Music, you buy a 20 dollar CD to get one good song, or you pay 99 cents to get one good song, same with books, why pay large amounts of money for something you might not even want? Its absurd. Actually I have only paid for a handful of books over the years, mostly I just use the library, so I guess I am not the person Ted is worried about anyway.

  27. In the late 70s/early 80s, I grew up in a small town with big city tastes. I don’t know why, just born that way I guess. To learn about the obscure music and literature that I preferred, I had to hop in a car and drive 200 miles to buy magazines, books and records. Much of the time, I could only read ABOUT music that I couldn’t hear or books I couldn’t read. The obscurity in of itself was occasionally beguiling, but mostly it was a drag. I couldn’t browbeat hipsters with my obscure taste because there weren’t any.

    How did that mode of business serve the artists I preferred? Those artists wanted first to get paid and, barring that, they wanted their work to be known. In what way did this business model serve the publishers? If they were book publishers, they were barred by the expense of sending small press materials in small quantities. If they were music publishers, they were locked out of existence by the Mafia-run system of radio payola. Most of them could only whisper of the existence of their wares in erratically delivered magazines. I would say that the big winner in the old manner of distribution was the gasoline pump.

    I am no cheerleader for the internet, I don’t believe that information “wants” to be “free”, but the old packaging-fetishist model of delivering art and entertainment to the masses was wasteful, elitist, inefficient and caused more cultural ignorance and stupidity than 11 “Twilight” sequels. And the concern that Amazon is destroying literature is simply barring the door of Borders after all the copies of “The Black Stallion” have sold out.

    The idea that genre fiction, or even fan fiction, is somehow lesser in artistic worth than another Haruki Murakami novel is deeply offensive to me. I’ve been reading science fiction crapola all my life and I’ll meet your Don Delillo and raise with a Brian Aldiss. Imposing some sort of Art/Not Art tax on literature is a hideously stupid idea straight out of a Degenerate Art Exhibit. That’s right, I’m going Godwin here.

    Also, if iTunes destroyed the music industry why am I able to head down to my big city record store and buy cassettes, friggin’ cassettes fer chrissakes, of music by new artists? Yes, everything has changed. A big shakedown is coming to the book publishing business. Guess what? In the end, it will suck as hard to be an artist as it always has, maybe even worse. And art will flourish in a thousand corners it never reached before. Bum scene, dude.

  28. @Whimsical said: “Traditional media has been overpriced for YEARS. Price correction through digital distrubition is a trend that’s LONG overdue.”

    Although Whimsical makes some valid points, he proves again that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Look at Amazon today. The initial savings for almost all eBooks is nearly gone. That happened when Amazon stopped pricing and allowed publishers set their own prices. Now, most eBooks are perhaps $1 less than the pBook. Publishers’ response? The real cost of creating books is not the materials nor distribution, it’s the creative and editing. Of course this is total bullshit, but the pricing stands. The costs are NOT coming down, because – by god – they simply won’t let the costs come down, statistics and facts be damned. When some lame-brained editor knows it’s his job on the line, there’s a million justifications for pricing eBooks the same as pBooks.

    As for the rest, Ted – I know the web has been a tough ride for creative content people, but there’s nothing that can be done. Government protections will be reviled. It’s adapt or die. I agree with one thing: The quality of what’s available is going to shit. As Frank Zappa said, (paraphrasing) “Composers like to be paid for their work, and when they’re not paid they eat food that’s brown and lumpy, which causes a further decrease in their creative output.” Sadly, that’s where things are for the real creative types. The “free” internet has given rise to real mediocrity (alex_the_tired is right about that), and pushed those who should be paid to the sidelines. It’s a shitty deal, but I’m not sure what can be done about it. One hopes the cream will rise again, but it may not be the case. Time will tell.

  29. “Oh my, dramatic much? How about this: won’t somebody stand and do something to save the horse buggy industry?”

    Which were replaced by millions of gas guzzling, CO2 generating, pollution spewing cars. Big improvement that.

  30. Utterly ridiculous.

    Fix your broken business models instead of trying to break the most signficiant invention and advancement in human history.

    Traditional media has been overpriced for YEARS. Price correction through digital distrubition is a trend that’s LONG overdue.

    Yeah, it might mean that Will Smith makes $20,000 a movie rather than 20 million. Or Madonna makes $400 thousand a year instead of $400 million. Or a number of already ridiculously overpaid CEO’s will be thrown out on their fat asses. I am suprisingly ok with this.

    The internet makes it possible to pay people what their work is worth, not what some publishing CEO needs to buy a second yacht. Those artists who understand this will thrive in a new millenium. Artists and CEO’s who don’t- they deserve every bit of pain that’s coming to them.

    The Internet is here to stay, and frankly, is making it possible for the little guy to stand up for himself and stop being screwed, which is why it frightens traditional media purveyors so much.

    Adjust your expectations to fit that reality or get run over by the tide of history.

    Your call.

  31. If B&N collapses: the death of books.

    Oh my, dramatic much? How about this: won’t somebody stand and do something to save the horse buggy industry? Won’t somebody think of the blacksmith’s children??

  32. Ted, the Internet has completely removed copyright as an enforceable notion. I know lots of people who say they download things off of BitTorrent and similar sites, and it’s always the same response: “Yeah, I know I should pay, but …”

    We’re coming to the breaking point, Ted. Either the Internet goes or everything else does. Shouldn’t take much longer for the whole of culture to turn into a morass of mediocre nothingness.

  33. Interesting.

    One simple solution you skipped is to just tax the purely electronic stuff until it is price competitive with the traditional media. Indeed in a free market society that isn’t hell bent on destroying itself, taxes and related fees are supposed to be used to adjust the costs of things to bring them in line with their externalities, and to otherwise compensate for the gross failures of free markets thus allowing them to function closer to the glorious (but fraudulent) visions pedaled by propaganda institutes like the Cato and Mises institutes. For example if we added a tax onto coal power proportional to how much economic damage it does to other sectors (acid rain from coal burning causes logging industries and such to lose tens and hundreds of millions a year, as well as additional hundreds of millions of dollars in economic damage to tourism and worker health) coal actually ends up being more expensive then renewable sources. Imposing the missing externality costs via taxes helps level the playing field and actually makes the free market closer to being fair and significantly less cruel.

    Thus just tax the e-stuff in proportion to how much it damages traditional key economies (plus perhaps a bit extra of a cultural penality tax to penalize it for reducing us to reading crappy werewolf and vampire novels) and the whole situation should start to correct itself fairly quickly.

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