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What's New?
Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Digital Books
August 2, 2000


Question:

Is the ability to copy books digitally going to be the death of copyright, as some are saying? Will ebooks replace print books?

-- Anonymous

OSC Replies:

I don't see it as a problem in publishing. People have been able to get downloads of manuscripts or copy them in other ways for years. But even the people who download them still want the book. There is no electronic reader that is adequate and no model for electronic readers that does not have serious conceptual flaws even if the technical ones are eventually solved. People will still want to own the book. Maybe these are "famous last words," and you can't underestimate the capacity of industries to destroy themselves -- for instance, by prematurely stopping the publication of print books! <grin> But whereas cds were instantly seen, correctly, as a vast improvement over vinyl, ebooks are much more analogous to digital audio tape, which, having been crippled so it could not copy cds, was, in effect, useless to the consumer, and therefore had no effect on regular cassettes. Ebooks are in no way an improvement over print books, to the consumer. And right now, the stupid way the industry is approaching them, they aren't an improvement for the industry or the authors, either.

As for the issue of friends sharing with friends -- they do it already, with printed books. It's called "lending." I have many, many people proudly tell me, "That copy of Ender's Game has been read by fifteen people" or some other such number. Some authors retort, "They should have bought their own," but I'm perfectly happy. Every lent copy is a chance to have another reader eagerly waiting to buy my latest book.

Remember that the same flap occurred over radio broadcasting of records. "Why will they buy the record when they can hear the song on the radio for free?" demanded the record industry as they tried to bar the playing of records on the radio. The answer: In actual fact, radio play of records helped raise record sales to fantastic high levels. There's every reason to think that easy digital access to manuscripts would increase the sales of traditional books, as readers could try before they buy.

Think of how many people buy videotapes and then don't watch them. (Renting is different.) They buy them because they enjoyed the movie and want to own it in their library. People do the same things with books. They buy a copy of a book because, having read a friend's copy, they want that book in their library. They don't necessarily reread it -- they just want to have it.

In short, I just don't think that publishing is going to be affected negatively by digital copying. That's why I used to make my manuscripts available online for free during the months between my writing the books and their publication. There were sometimes hundreds of downloads -- but as far as we know, most or all of the people who downloaded it went on to buy the book when it came out in print -- and during the months when the book was only available online, those who read those advance copies were helping sell the book when it did appear by talking about it with their friends!

Follow-up Question:

Yes. Interesting. Especially the bit about stimulating the interest to buy. I hadn't thought of that. It's like the dude in the mall holding his basket of buttery bits of monster pretzels. It all revolves around the fact that right now there isn't any good substitute for a book -- readability, access, portability. And it takes equipment and dough to make a cheap book and distribute it. It's fairly difficult to enter this part of the industry. So that's the control point on this supply chain. You're able to cash in because of that point.

I guess the problem, or perhaps the question is, will they come up with a good electronic substitute for a book? Because when/if that happens novelists have no control point. Not unless they create another one.

Follow-up Answer:

The truth is, there is no idea that really replaces a printed book. No matter how they solve the screen problem, they can't get rid of the transience problem -- electronic texts are erasable. When they disappear, they're gone. When the technology changes, they're unreadable. In a power outage or when the batteries die, you have no book. If you lose the reading machine, you can't read any of your books, whereas if you lose one book, you still have the others. These problems can't be "solved," they're intrinsic -- for precisely the same reason that vinyl records could never be installed in cars the way radios could. It's inherent in the technology.

As to authors getting paid, the real problem in the book distribution system is not the lack of a choke point for paying authors -- in fact, right now the real scandal is that online book distributors have the gall to offer authors royalties down in the ten to fifteen percent range, or even fifty percent, when based on the risk-and-expenses ratio, the authors should be getting more like 85% or 90% royalties. It's a scam and a grab by publishers, and authors have got to put a stop to it right now.

The real choke point even if we had an all electronic distribution system for books is not based around encryption or other annoying nonsense, it's based around selection and editing. There are hundreds of thousands of authors out there with books and stories and poems to sell. How will readers possibly be able to sift through this monstrous pile of (mostly) drivel in order to find the good stuff?

Editors are going to catch on that the public needs editors as much as it needs writers, not so the editors can help the writers "fix" their books, but so that the audience can rely upon the editors to help them find the good books! In a world of ebooks, what we don't need are publishers (though in fact the "publisher," instead of being the financial risk-taker involved in printing books, would become the managerial leader of groups of editors, handling the finances, etc.). And so the money will come, as it comes with magazines, not through access to the text, but through access to the website.

My model for how this can and should work is:

Editors set up "bookshelves" or "booksites" where they provide exclusive access to books (and poems and stories) they have selected and which they guarantee will deliver a high standard of quality. They are able to compete with print publication because they have enabled "microcharging" - the ability to charge mere fractions of a dollar for particular downloads. Some of these editors may also charge access fees -- monthly or per visit -- simply for access to the site, but again, these will be microcharges -- less than a dollar per visit or only a couple of bucks a month. Of the download charges, 90% goes to the author.

So if a booksite is the only place where you can download the latest Grisham novel, you might pay, for this high-demand book, $2.00. Of this, $1.70 would go to Grisham. Since you pay for your own paper and laser toner to get a printout, that's fair. And since the cost is so low, you feel no qualms about telling your friends, "it's practically free, download it yourself!" The latest book by Card, however, will cost only a buck, of which I get 85 cents. Fair, because there's less demand. If I don't like it, I can go to a booksite where the editor plans to charge $1.50 for my books. But it won't be price alone. In order to get my books offered on a fantastically popular booksite like Beth Meacham's would be, I have to let her keep 20% of the "cover price" instead of the 10% that less-popular editors are able to charge - but we make up for that "loss" to me by raising my cover price to John Grisham's $2.00, because Beth's customers are willing to pay that much for books she has certified as excellent.

Poems can be accessed for a dime, short stories for a quarter. And so on. Microcharges make the whole thing possible. And editorial judgment is what makes the each booksite work.

The only reason this isn't happening right now is that there isn't enough money in the web for firstrate editors to be willing to make the jump. Plus, I suspect that a different kind of editor will need to evolve - an editor who is also a powerful public persona. Just as Harlan Ellison's intros helped make his Dangerous Visions anthologies so popular, we'll find that the editors who can write provocative essays about the books and stories they publish and can become celeb writers in their own right will succeed best in online bookshelves.

Heck, if I could handle the microcharges and had the time to read, I'd start such a bookshop myself right now!

But in no sense is any of this likely to be a replacement for print books, except when it comes to short stories and poems, which don't have a strong print market right now. I can imagine the "bookshelf" concept thriving alongside a continuing print-book industry -- but not until and unless authors are able to detach the ebook rights from the print rights. As long as the print publishers remain in control of erights, we will continue to get the stupid, encryption-based schemes that are based more on fear than on understanding of how readers search for and respond to stories. And ebooks will continue to be most useful in keeping out-of-print and small-audience books available without the cost of printing.


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