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Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Talking about the publishing industry in the digital age

Books have been around since the Renaissance and depend on technologies and processes and business models like any other product, but since the 1990s so-called traditional business models have been put under stress by the internet because books are easy to digitise. Publishing as an industry also includes journalism, an innovation of the Renaissance, again, that catered to increased demand from a newly-literate population for information from overseas. But again digitisation has put stress on this sector of the publishing industry mainly due to poor decisions by managers during the period when the internet was becoming ubiquitous. Not only is digitised text easy to steal (or "pirate"), but it is also cheap to produce, and so new media outfits area appearing at a remarkable rate, flooding the web with pages of content and lowering the rate that can be charged for display advertising. Media companies have therefore started to put up paywalls, forcing readers to pay for the content they consume but this measure - long delayed due to negative feedback from the readership - has yet to prove itself as a sustainable way of funding journalism. Book publishers, for their part, are starting to offer digitised books that can be read on dedicated devices and sold on websites.

In this context it is troubling to observe the activities of people who want to weaken copyright laws, "free up" information and make it more easily accessible online, and even promote theft ("piracy") of content by means of mainstream institutions such as popular legislatures. A touchstone in this debate was the death by suicide of Aaron Swartz last year. A young digital native with radical ideas about how government should be conducted in the digital age, Swartz was charged with stealing academic papers from a university server with the intent of making them publicly available free of charge. The FBI brought charges and Swartz buckled, under the pressure of the writ combined with a pre-existing mental condition.

Many of the people who admired Swartz and who cleave to his memory are employed in the IT industry, and specifically in writing software. Because of this proximity to copyright laws such people are aware of their own responses to the status quo, and are sensitive to proposed changes that would buttress the laws of copyright. People who use digital devices every day also want to have the freedom to buy a publication once and use the same file on multiple devices. So copyright issues are very personal for many people and naturally they have views on them. Even though creative writing and journalism - unlike software - doesn't do anything such people feel an affinity by association with the concept of the "work", which is the thing that is copyrighted. (Ideas cannot be copyrighted, although they can be patented, which is a separate issue I will not deal with here.)

Software developers and those like them are also critical thinkers used to working out problems for themselves and no province of human endeavour is barred to their inquiries, certainly not the laws of copyright. But they approach problems from a certain perspective consonant with their way of seeing the world. I was asked recently about Creative Commons licenses as a way of controlling rights on my blog and I had a look at the six alternatives but saw no benefit in them. Because I publish mere flat pages filled with text, and because I want to charge people to read the text, the imperatives expressed withing the CC definitions - things such as workflows, information handling, secondary alteration etc - felt merely irrelevant as far as the type of content I produce goes. When I read them I felt as though they were enabling tools for a foreign way of using information, and had little to do with reading and a lot to do with reuse and repackaging. But this is the kind of locus within which IT professional approach online content. It just is not for me.

Thinking critically, IT people zoom in on certain aspects of the publishing industry and focus there their attention. Looking for weak spots in the edifice, they concentrate their efforts on such concepts as that a copyright on a work is a "monopoly", and leverage the negative implications of the word in an effort to attack the whole institution of production, marketing and distribution, and inheritance. For these people, a necessary evil such as a monopoly should only be tolerated for as long as is absolutely necessary, and then the content should revert to become public property. For a creative writer this is ridiculous, as if once you died anyone was entitled to come along to your house and start removing bricks because you, personally, were not able to benefit from them. They ignore the fact of legitimate heirs. For my part, copyright should endure in the work in perpetuity, enabling the establishment of wealthy dynasties and cashed-up publishing houses that would be better able to subsidise less commercially-oriented literature. To IT people such a suggestion represents a kind of moral corruption.

A monopoly can be bad, they say, because an heir might prevent publication for a frivolous or idiosyncratic reason, thus depriving the population of access to a valuable work. For me, this is immaterial. The enticement to publish will eventually prevail because people are normally motivated by self-interest; at some point in time the next heir will buckle and allow publication because they need more cash. But an IT person will find such a compromise intolerable while a creative writer will merely shrug and say that you should read a different book. A monopoly on a single publication is not the same thing as a monopoly on all imports of essential stuff like grain or fuel. people do not starve to death if you stop them reading Joyce.

Cross-subsidisation also presents problems for tech people. A publisher who receives a large percentage of its income from a small list of strongly-selling books, who then uses profits thus obtained in order to publish a more difficult book at a loss, is offensive to the IT person. For them, each book must stand or fall on its own merits, but for a creative writer this proposal is a nonsense, and goes against centuries of business practice that has successfully produced some of the most accomplished literature we know today. Much of it lost money when first published.

There are many things IT people object to by exercising their intellects in creative ways to try to solve problems associated with this large and long-establish - and inherently valuable - industry. I haven't even started talking about the media industry but there we see jobs lost every week and financial stresses not experienced in 100 years. For a journalist, the industry is essential to the maintenance of democracy. For the IT person it's just about a broken business model. But as in the case of book publishing there are not new ideas being offered as to how to sustain the industry but, rather, methods devised to enable the kinds of "justice" they treasure in their hearts. It might be to support Aaron Schwartz's attack on the business model of academic publishers. It might be to improve the ability of downstream creatives to reuse and mash-up the content made by a single creative individual.

The thing I want to note is that priorities are different depending on which person you talk to. And although the object is the same - changing the publishing business - the end result is likely to be different if you work inside the journalism industry, for example, compared to whether you are simply trying to improve access to the product for the reader. What one group of people want, the other rejects. The way I see it publishers need IT people to help them build sustainable businesses in the digital age. What I see, however, is an ancient castle under siege by the barbarians, a rerun of what probably took place before Constantinople fell to the blonde-haired warriors from the north. From my point of view the aim should be to maintain diversity in publishing and to enable quality reporting in journalism. There are good reasons for these goals, very good reasons indeed.

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