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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Special Welfare Programs for Authors?

I was going to mention Times of London article yesterday but my enthusiasm for the new baseball season got the best of me and I spent most of the evening watching baseball from several cities around the country. Direct TV has a free MLB preview this week and I have access to every game being played in the country during this preview. Luckily, I can't afford to the price to have this kind of access for the whole season, so my evening activity will soon return to normal.

The gist of the Times article is that pirated books on the internet, available for free download, are going to cause writers to put down their pens and keyboards forever, that they will prefer silence to poverty wages. Of course, writers will never do that, despite what Tracy Chevalier, author and chairperson for the U.K.'s Society of Authors wants us to believe. According to the article:
Book piracy on the internet will ultimately drive authors to stop writing unless radical methods are devised to compensate them for lost sales.

This is the bleak forecast of the Society of Authors, which represents more than 8,500 professional writers in the UK and believes that the havoc caused to the music business by illegal downloading is beginning to envelop the book trade.
There is so much wrong with this article that it's hard to know where to begin. True, the music industry is in somewhat of a chaotic state at the moment. But what would one expect when an industry blames its problems on its customers and begins to sue them for illegal downloads instead of using the new technology to push more product to those very customers. The general quality of today's record albums is worse than in decades past. The albums are often nothing but two hit songs surrounded by eight or ten "fillers" so that consumers can be forced to buy an entire album rather than the two songs they really want. The music industry no longer produces singles, preferring to push inferior albums instead. So consumers jumped on the new technology to find the songs they wanted, and only the songs they wanted. Who can blame them, really? When the labels didn't want to make the songs available legally, their customers found a way to get them any way they could. Finally, the labels have decided to sell single songs over the internet at reasonable prices and their customers are starting to come back to them...at least the ones who haven't been sued yet.

But three-minute recordings are not books.

So why does Chevalier want to see book publishers take a hard line approach similar to the one that almost killed off all the major record labels? Perhaps it's because she's a better writer than she is a businesswoman. Some authors are already beginning to embrace a new business model built around a willingness to give away free electronic copies of their books in the knowledge that the name recognition gained from doing so will ultimately result in the sale of more printed copies of their work than would have otherwise been the case. Books, after all, are entertainment and writers are part of the entertainment industry. Name recognition converts an author's name into a brand. Well known brands have the edge; they sell more than generic brands that no one recognizes or trusts for quality.

Chevalier, who sounds a lot like "Chicken Little" has come up with what I believe is a ludicrous solution to the problem, one that she recommends be put into place before all the writers disappear forever:
In the 19th century and before, other models of paying writers existed, including lump-sum agreements and profit-sharing. She sees no reason why the book industry should not be equally innovative. She suggested four possible sources of income at an industry discussion on copyright law last week: the Government, business, rich patrons and the public. Government funding could take the form of an “academy” of salaried writers.
Just what we need, work programs for writers similar to those used in the U.S. during the Great Depression and other sources of income that sound similarly close to being public welfare programs for authors.

Why not let the market figure this out for itself? Printed books are not going to be replaced by electronic copies. The hardware to comfortably read a whole book is just not there and it doesn't seem likely that such hardware will exist anytime soon, if ever.

Lighten up, Ms. Chevalier. The sky isn't really falling. I promise.

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