18 April 2008
Free your mind
On writers, ‘digital rights management’, and the internet
(Update: Why write books at all when blogging is the thing? See this new post.)
No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money — Samuel Johnson
At the end of last year, I decided to give away my book, Trigger Happy, in DRM-free .pdf format. I called it “a kind of experiment”. Thirty thousand downloads later and counting, it’s time to collate the lab results.
Internet distribution is awesome, but you knew that already. More people got Trigger Happy from this website than ever bought a copy of the printed book. The interest shown in an eight-year-old book about videogames by people as far afield (from my point of view) as Brazil and Russia has been immensely gratifying. My book was converted to be readable on the Nintendo DS; and the Nebraska Library Commission made a spiral-bound printed copy for their collection. Links to the download attracted a lot of attention to this site, and in December there was even an article about the book published in the French newspaper Libération.
All of which is to say, it was a pretty good publicity stunt. It might have sold a few more hard copies; more importantly, it gives my future books a better chance of at least being picked up in a bookstore by people who downloaded this one.
Although I didn’t do it for the money, I was also, of course, interested in testing the idea of giving stuff away and allowing people freely to express their appreciation. So I put a PayPal button below the download. Is this, as some people say, an exciting new internet-age business model for writers and other creative types?
Er, not really. The proportion of people who left a tip after downloading Trigger Happy was 1 in 1,750, or 0.057%. I am of course very grateful to each of them, though I was particularly amused by several who left $0.01, which seems a lot of clicks to expend when you could just write “Fuck you” in the comments.1
Clearly this is not any kind of business plan. Still, some people insist that all creative work ought to be given away like this. Several idealistic types in the comments here welcomed my giveaway as reflecting the true spirit of the free dissemination of knowledge. Although I quite admire this sentiment as a utopian principle, I have some problems with it in the real world. Because, you see, this is what I do for a living.
Although I dislike the word “professional”, hostage in this day and age to multifarious abuses, I am a professional writer, in the sense that writing, and only writing, is what puts a roof over my head and food in my mouth.2 As one commenter here suggested, maybe it’s the term “copyright” itself that rubs people the wrong way: perhaps reactions would be different were it changed to “righttoeat”.
If the breathless advocates of “the free distribution of ideas” are serious, they need either a) to come up with a realistic proposal as to how I am to keep feeding myself while giving the fruits of my labours away for free; or b) come out and say honestly that they don’t think any such thing as a “professional writer” ought to exist, and that I should just get a job like anyone else.3 In a way, I’d respect people who came out and said the second thing. What I don’t respect is people who can’t see that those are the choices.
There does exist a proposal that purports to be of type a). I’ll call it, for short, “the Slashdot argument”. It says that books, music, films, software and so on ought to be freely distributed to anyone who wants them, simply because they can be freely distributed. What is the writer or musician to do, though, if she can’t earn money from her art? Simple, says the Slashdotter: earn your money playing live (if you’re one of those musicians who plays live),4 or selling T-shirts or merchandise, or providing some other kind of “value-added” service. Many such arguments seem to me to be simple greed disguised in high-falutin’ idealism about how “information wants to be free”. Perhaps it’s not empty pedantry to point out that “information” doesn’t want anything in and for itself. The information in which humans traffic is created by humans. And most information-creating humans need to earn dollars or yuan to survive.
In any case, I think the Slashdot argument can actually be disposed of rapidly with one rhetorical question, as follows.
Oh Mr Freetard, you work as a programmer, do you? How interesting. So do you perform all your corporate programming duties for free, and earn your keep by selling personally branded mousemats on the side?
Didn’t think so.
Perhaps I could have tried distributing Trigger Happy the Radiohead way, making sure you had to pay a minimum to get the goods. Would I still have attracted 30,000 readers like that? I doubt it. The sublime In Rainbows seems to have been a nice little earner for Radiohead, but that’s because they’re Radiohead — and they became Radiohead through the nasty old music-industry business model. So did Nine Inch Nails, whose recent internet release of (the excellent) Ghosts was very clever — the first nine songs of a triple album for free in compressed mp3; the whole thing in a lossless format for $5. But if there’s been a comparable success by a band that hasn’t already gained its cultural capital and name-recognition through the evils of copyright and corporate promotion, I’d like to know about it.5
But this brings up a lucky difference (for me) between music and books. Music distributed over the internet is indistinguishable from music distributed in shops. Writing distributed over the internet is not the same as writing you buy in shops. Yet. There’s still all that business of the physicality of the book as object. Reading books on an electronic device is still less pleasant, for most people, than reading them on paper. And that’s why giving away electronic copies à la Cory Doctorow is still an excellent idea in publicity terms. (It’s analogous to the way writing direct to the internet for free gets some people nice book-of-the-blog deals, from which they expect to profit.)
The other alternative, of course, is to bypass traditional publishing channels completely. Instead of aiming for physical book distribution as the prize, some people despair of it altogether, and just post short stories and even whole novels straight to the internet, claiming again that this is a revolutionary new model that will kill the “old” system. I can’t have a very constructive opinion on this phenomenon, because (and please forgive me) I’ve never seen any of this stuff that was actually any good.6 It’s an iron law: take away the filters of commissioning and editing, and the proportion of crap rises dramatically. That’s not to say that there can’t be any good material distributed this way; just that if it exists, it will be terribly hard to find.
To come back to the relationship between traditionally published books and their electronic counterparts: the happy truth is that right now, electronic downloads don’t cannibalize printed sales; if anything, they encourage them. In fact, I would gladly give away my newer book, Unspeak, in the same format right now, except that I am contractually obliged to wait until next year to do so. (I intend to argue for those rights from day one in any future publishing contract.)
But if the day comes when most reading is done on electronic devices, the equation will alter drastically. Giving away your work in the same format in which you hope to sell it is a dangerous game, if that’s how you hope to make a living. And if books in the future are distributed mainly in DRM-free electronic editions, then writers won’t even have a choice. The version of digital rights management on Amazon’s Kindle, where your “books” are forever locked to that device and its successors, and you can’t even lend a book to a friend, is stupidly restrictive. But is a free-for-all the best alternative? A lot of people paid for the Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails albums even though it was also rapidly possible to download pirated versions for free. But perhaps that was because they were already Radiohead and NIN fans. Will as many people choose to pay for something they don’t have to pay for, when it’s a question of taking a punt on a new artist?
A reasonable outcome, perhaps, would be something like an iTunes for books, where people choose to buy (DRM-free or at least DRM-lite) copies because it’s still easier for most folk than hunting down a torrent. That way writers would still see some kind of modest revenue from their efforts. Otherwise, if people can’t earn money from writing books, then books will only be written by the rich, and by people in their spare time.
Luckily, as it happens, a lot of brilliant books throughout history have been written by rich people, and also by people cramming in the work around normal, non-writing jobs (banking, life insurance, power-station security guard).7 So literature itself is probably not doomed, even if the “professional writer”, sat there in her dressing gown with a pot of tea and a window open on Facebook, is increasingly nervous at what the future might have in store.
- To be fair, paying the one cent does have a satirical purpose, to shame my money-grubbing behaviour; by comparison, writing “Fuck you” in the comments would be a little crude. ↩
- An academic on a comfortable university salary, on the other hand, has a different relationship with publishing, and might well want to give away his books gratis. ↩
- My main gig is actually reviewing for the Guardian, but that’s “professional writing” too. ↩
- There have been experiments in “writing live”, in which writers are put on display in glass boxes while composing texts, but this hasn’t really taken off as a mainstream spectacle, for understandable reasons: the act of writing is terribly boring to look at. ↩
- No, really, I would: tell me in comments if there is such a story. ↩
- I trust readers will point me towards some that is, in comments. ↩
- Faulkner had the pleasant option of actually writing As I Lay Dying during work hours, but the point stands. ↩