Generation Y and the End of Paper
First of all I'd like to clear up the question: "The end of Books?" This is misleading as it seems purely technical – a question of the paper mill versus the hard drive. Of course the paper book will survive, you may say; it will reinvent itself as it did before. Haven't future projections been wrong in the past? Didn't they say Penguin paperbacks would destroy the print industry in 1939? That the printing press would overthrow Catholicism after 1440? That home videos would destroy cinema?
But let's leave the survival of the paper book alone, and ask the more important question: Will writers be able to make a living and continue writing in the digital era? And let's also leave alone the question: why should authors live by their work? Let's abandon the romantic myth that writers must survive in the garret, and look at the facts. Most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage: they include Dostoevksy, Dickens and Shakespeare. In the last 50 years the system of publishers' advances has supported writers such as Ian McEwan, Angela Carter, JM Coetzee, Joan Didion, Milan Kundera, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Norman Mailer, Philp Roth, Anita Shreve, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and John Fowles. Authors do not live on royalties alone. To ask whether International Man Booker prizewinner Philip Roth could have written 24 novels and the award-winning American trilogy without advances is like asking if Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel without the patronage of Pope Julius II. The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.
And this is what is happening now.
The Retreat of Advances
In reaction to the removal of their living wage, many writers have decided to abandon the mainstream entirely: they've come to believe that publishers and their distribution systems are out of date; that too many middle-men (distributors, booksellers) have been living off their work. When authors either self e-publish or do deals through agents that to go straight to digital they embrace a philosophy of the digital market called the long tail.
Living in the Long Tail
As more consumers come online and chose to select content for themselves, the long tail gets longer. It also starts to demolish the old mainstream system of pre-selection, mass marketing and limited shelf space for "bestsellers". Amazon is a successful long-tail industry: it has forced publishers into selling their books at 60% discount and driven bookshops out of business. As the long tail grows, the mainstream mass market shrinks and becomes more conservative. The long tail has created this effect in all of the other industries that have gone digital.
Myths of the Long Tail
The reason why a living wage for writers is essential is that every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases terminal, decrease in earnings for those who create "content". Writing has already begun its slide towards becoming something produced and consumed for free.
In the Free Revolution, why should anyone pay for content?
The following are facts about the financial downturn in the digital industries:
(1) Home videos
(4) Computer games
Staff photographers at newspapers have been laid off over the last five years. Picture desks now use amateur online photo archives instead of commissioning new images and get pictures for a fraction of previous costs or entirely for free.
In the 1980s, the price of a call to India from the UK was £2 a minute. Now, with fibre-optic cable, it is 4p. With Skype it's absolutely free. As concerns handsets, generally, within two years of manufacture a phone's price tends towards zero. New packages give free phones in return for small monthly payments. This impacts all other digital industries as new smart phones lower their costs on the promise of access to a world of increasingly free digital content.
The Free revolution - So who's selling what to whom?
While providers such as Yahoo and Google provide free content, at the same time, on every screen, they sell advertising space. The culture (books, films and music) that you find for free on the sites, is not the product, it has no monetary value. The real product Yahoo and Google are selling is something less tangible – it is you.
Your profile and that of millions of other consumers are being sold to advertisers. Your hits and clicks make them money.
These digital providers are not in any way concerned with or interested in content, or what used to be called "culture". To them culture is merely generic content; it is a free service that is provided in the selling of customers to advertisers. Ideally for service providers, the customers will even provide the culture themselves, for free. And this is what we do when we write blogs, or free ebooks or upload films of ourselves, at no cost.
Piracy and competitive discounting – the race to the bottom
It starts in this way: consumers download electronic copies of books that they already own for convenience sake (an activity that the New York times claims is ethical). This introduces people to ebook torrents. Then they start downloading classics: "Tolkien and CS Lewis are both dead, so why should I feel bad about pirating their books?" And since they have enough memory on their e-reader to store 3,500 books and the e-reader came with four preloaded free classics to start with, what difference will it make? Then, says Hon, "you'll have people downloading ebooks not available in their country yet. Then it'll be people downloading entire collections, just because it's quicker. Then they'll start wondering why they should buy any ebooks at all, when they cost so much."
In every digital industry the attempt to combat piracy has led to a massive reduction in cover price: the slippery slope towards free digital content.
Will digital books be any different from jpegs, quicktimes and mp3s? What makes them so, other than a desire by the currently dominant generation to preserve what they have known - a trend that will be outgrown when that generation passes?
The Long Term against the Long Tail
Is there an alternative to this catastrophe? If so, it cannot lie where Chris Anderson recommends, in having what he terms "freemium viewing" – locked or extra content for subscribers (a system devised for newspapers and computer games). What would this mean for the book? An extra chapter? An author's commentary? The final sentence if you pay more?
Can books be written in sweatshops?
Well, books might not be manufactured in China and Korea but the long tail is the sweatshop of the future, and it will contain millions of would-be-writers who will labour under the delusion that they can be successful in the way writers were before, in the age of the mainstream and the paper book.
There is no simple solution. All that is clear is that for authors and publishers to abandon each other only accelerates the race towards free content.
Authors must respect and demand the work of good editors and support the publishing industry, precisely by resisting the temptation to "go it alone" in the long tail. In return, publishing houses must take the risk on the long term; supporting writers over years and books, it is only then that books of the standard we have seen in the last half-century can continue to come into being.
If the connection between publishers and writers splits completely, if they fail to support and defend each other, then both will separately be subjected to the markets' demand for totally free content, and both shall have very short lives in the long tail. The writer will become an entrepreneur with a short shelf life, in a world without publishers or even shelves.
But ultimately, any strategy conceived now is just playing for time as the slide towards a totally free digital culture accelerates. How long have we got? A generation. After that, writers, like musicians, filmmakers, critics, porn stars, journalists and photographers, will have to find other ways of making a living in a short-term world that will not pay them for their labour.
The only solution ultimately is a political one. As we grow increasingly disillusioned with quick-fix consumerism, we may want to consider an option which exists in many non-digital industries: quite simply, demanding that writers get paid a living wage for their work. Do we respect the art and craft of writing enough to make such demands? If we do not, we will have returned to the garret, only this time, the writer will not be alone in his or her cold little room, and will be writing to and for a computer screen, trying to get hits on their site that will draw the attention of the new culture lords – the service providers and the advertisers.