Sunday, January 31, 2010

Greed, Stupidity and Replication.

Medieval Printing Press - taken from - and replicated on your computer without permission.

I would like to pick up on the issues raised by Amanda, yesterday. We have raised these before on this blog and we will undoubtedly raise them again.

For most of the human experience one needed a bard to hear music or a story. Everything was created afresh because there was no way of replication. All this changed in the 15th Century with the invention of the printing press. The impact on human society was massive acceleration by orders of magnitude of any intellectual activity.

The Protestant reformation could not have happened without the replication of the bible. Science and art leapt forward. However, there were doormen. Replication required specialist skills, equipment and capital.

Fast forward to the 20th Century and we have new forms of replication for sound and vision. Some are transient, like the radio and television, but others are permanent, notably musical records. However, the same economic rules applied as for publishing. A lucrative industry grew up around the replication business.

Music is an interesting example because a massive industry grew up selling records. Note that they did not sell 'music' but replications of music and the major beneficiaries were suits rather than artists. Indeed, the music business damn near killed live music.

The first cloud on the suit's horizon came in the form of the cassette recorder. Anyone could make a replicate but it was a slow business and, in practice, easily controlled by the industry.

The digital world of the last two decades has changed everything. We thought of computers as symbolic logic processing machines when I started using them in the early 1970s. However, modern systems can just as easily be described as replication machines. They make replicates, quickly and cheaply. Replication is central to their very function. They can create infinite replications and distribute them anywhere.

The impact for the music industry has been devastating. How do you control the price of replicates when they can be produced in infinite numbers, free at the point of use, anywhere in the world? Well, you can't.

Lord Mandy of Rio, who actually runs Britain while Gordy sulks in his cage at No 10, has been persuaded by the industry to switch off the internet connections to those who download 'pirate' software. Well guess what? It turns out that the people who download 'pirate' software are the same people who are the customers who pay for music online. Duh! Well done the music industry!

All together guys, put the shotgun barrels in your mouth and pull the trigger. That'll show them that you are not to be trifled with.

None of this affects musicians all that much. The trend is to give away recorded music and then charge for live performances. Live music is back. It's the music industry that is in trouble.

The publishing industry has mostly adopted a firm policy of pretending nothing is happening, with the exception of some far sighted individuals like Jim Baen. This has worked up to a point because paperback books are cheap and convenient while reading fiction on an electronic machine has been an unpleasing experience. This is all set to change with the development of ebook readers.

The industry has no plan and no clue. Currently it is trying to pretend that an ebook is just a book in a different format. Hence, DRM, overpricing and the current skirmish between the suits at Amazon and Macmillan. That is a turf war between threatened clans over the last waterhole in a drought.

It is not clear how this is going to pan out. Ebook readers are still not as convenient as a paperback but they will only get better. There are still big differences between the publishing and music industry. For example, authors do not perform in the same way as musicians. However, one has to wonder how much of the infrastructure designed to convey a manuscript from an author to a buyer (the publisher, the distributor, the wholesaler, the bookshop) can survive when the consumer can click on a website and make a replicate on their computer that had a zero manufacturing cost?


Ori Pomerantz said...

Large corporations tend to promote people who are optimistic, which leads to the delusion that bad things (for the firm, not the world in general) are not happening. Technological change will let us increase margins, without adding competitors, etc.

We need more reality oriented management.

Amanda Green said...

John, great post. After reading the "open letter" from Macmillan in Publishers Lunch yesterday, I feel a bit like the gal being sold snake oil to by the traveling salesman in the Old West. Sure, I believe Macmillan is only acting in Amazon's best interests. Don't you?

These guys need to get a clue. E-books aren't going away. Our children's generation, and the generations that follow, are more comfortable on a computer than with pad and pen. They are used to reading, watching and playing on a computer. Their cell phones do more than my first three computers combined. The world is changing and the publishing industry has to adapt. In the meantime, as it continues to dig its heels in and grab at the door frame so it isn't forced into the next room, the ones really being hurt are the authors -- especially the mid-list authors and those trying to break into the field. And that, in turn, hurts the readers, the customers the publishing houses are supposed to be courting.

The OnyxHawke Agency said...

"Zero cost" is an over simplification, lower cost certainly otoh there's the marketing, often minimal, but still real that goes into traditional distribution that honestly takes a dedicated person or persons to do.

Amanda Green said...

O'Mike, you bring up an excellent point about the marketing and something I feel will fall by the wayside if the three or four month delay in e-book releases continues, much less the 7 month delay Macmillan wants. I think we can all agree that publishers aren't doing as much promotion for books as they used to do. I find it hard to believe they will do anything, or at least anything much, to promote an e-book release months after the hard cover release, especially since Macmillan doesn't really like e-books. Any thoughts, any one?

Ori Pomerantz said...

Amanda, how much marketing do publishers do now? It seems that for e-books almost all the marketing needs to be done by the author anyway. There is no electronic equivalent to the book store's endcap display.

sehlat said...

I would believe Macmillan's "start high and reduce the price over time" claim a LOT better if they weren't still insisting on charging $20 for the eBook SIX YEARS after the paperback is out for $8.

Amanda Green said...

Ori, that's my point exactly. Publishers aren't promoting books the way they used to and I don't see them doing anything to promote and e-book that comes out months after the hardcover edition.

John Lambshead said...

One of the results of the new interconnected world is that the public can do their own marketing. If something catches the public mood it can go global. That's why musicians give away music (and Jim gave away stories).

Amanda Green said...

For those who haven't seen it, Amazon has issued a statement concerning the situation. You can find it in the Kindle boards at or check out my post from yesterday. I've added an update with the Amazon announcement quoted. -- Amanda

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great post, John.


Big publishers do almost nothing to market the average book now. They might send out a few review copies and that is it.

The rest is up to the author to get a buzz going.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

As I would have found you said, if I had read on. Doh!

Sorry, Amanda.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


the entire plan is "NOOOO. Put genie back in bottle" I'm so tired of this playbook!

Anonymous said...

I hear you, Sarah -- and that playbook works just as well as "quick Thag, knock round edges off wheel before we get caught," or my old favorite: "Prometheus. Prometheus! You get your butt over here and you take that fire right back where you got it from, mister. PROMETHEUS! Dammit, he's not even listening..."

John Lambshead said...

I caught the family corgi once with his head inside an easter egg that he had swiped off the table - something he knew was verboten. He froze with his head in the bag. If he could not see me then I would not notice him - right.

Or to put it another way, there is no problem too big to ignore.

What amazes me is that these corporate management muppets pay themselves obscene salaries in reward for their genius decision making.........