Like many authors and people interested in the future of books and publishing, I have been reading a lot of articles and blog posts about eBooks, piracy and such lately. I’m the sort who prefers good sturdy statistical facts and predictions grounded in reality by people familiar with the industry, over wishful thinking and doomsday predictions.
I think this post by Robert J. Sawyer hits the nail on the head, so to speak:
And particularly how he sums up:
Maybe we will all indeed still be smiling as writing sf shifts from a career to a hobby. Still, lengthy, ambitious, complex works — works that take years of full-time effort to produce such as, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, or, if I may be so bold, my own WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder — aren’t things that could have been produced in any kind of reasonable time by squeezing in an hour’s writing each day over one’s lunch break while working a nine-to-five job.
On the weekend I had an interesting conversation with a couple of old blokes at a party, one who proudly declared that he downloaded torrents of all the books he reads and never pays for them (Old Guy #1), the other who downloads most, but still buys his favourites because he loves the feel and smell of books (Old Guy #2).
As Paul pointed out later, how long would Old Guy #2 last if he did the same thing in restaurants, only paying for the meals he really liked? But what amused me most was that he went on to declare that publishing companies don’t support new writers (untrue, but I won’t go into that now). This from the person who only buys the best books, never considering that he may be supporting a lesser proportion of new writers – because writers get better with practise.
Old Guy #1 was more interesting in that his excuse for pirating books was that ‘publishing companies are exploiting us all – which is why books are so expensive’ (again, untrue and not where I want to go in this post). Even more interesting was that he gave no evidence of it, and dismissed everything thing he was told to the contrary. You can’t argue with people like Old Guy #1, but you can, if you’re evil like me, prod and study them for your own nefarious purposes. I know there are plenty of people like him out there. (Heck, I reckon there’s a little bit of a pirate in nearly everyone. While I don’t download anything – not even tv shows – I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the only way I’m going to get to see some tv shows not available here in Australia is if I borrow a downloaded copy from a friend, and then I’ll buy it if it’s ever made available on dvd.)
What I’d like to see, is for people to buy electronic books for a price that pays everyone involved a reasonable amount.
Like Old Guy #2, I like the physical experience of good old fashioned paper and glue books, but there has always been a guilt factor involved with issues around logging, toxic waste produced in making paper, carbon miles in transportation, and low-paid workers. Electronic books could be a solution. Not a perfect one – there are still those pesky devices with their ecological issues, and exploited workers. A change for the better would be great.
But I don’t see that happening. It’s too easy to pirate eBooks, too hard to stop it, and problems with availability in different regions will make it feel justified as it has with tv shows. What I think is this: people care as much about the makers of books as they do about the makers of clothing. Some people may care, perhaps a few act by buying ‘fair trade’ goods, but most won’t so long as they pay less – and feel justified in doing so. Clothing these days is cheap and doesn’t last long. I suspect books will go the same way – the quality will suffer.
Why do I believe this? Firstly, writing books takes a long time – it takes me about a year full-time to write one. Getting good at it takes even longer. In his book about success, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become truly good at something. That’s 3 hours a day, 333 days a year for ten years. (I chose a 3 hour writing day because most writers don’t make enough money to write full time.) Also consider that most writer’s careers start later in life, when they have families and house mortgages to support – and in the fantasy field they are often ‘new’ writers with great potential to be ‘great writers’. You get really good at writing a lot faster if you don’t have to write, as Robert says, ‘by squeezing in an hour’s writing each day over one’s lunch break while working a nine-to-five job’.
Secondly, in my experience, writers of good books are nearly always really smart, talented people. Smart enough to know when writing books has become too much of a bad deal to be worth doing as anything more than a hobby. Talented enough that they have other skills they can turn into careers – profitable careers. Basically, they’ll find something else to do.
Lastly, the above also applies to editors. IMHO, if you’ve ever pirated a book, you’ve lost any right to complain about typos and errors in them, in any format. Ever. Editors are the unsung heros of publishing.
If books do go the way of clothing, it could be that really good books will go the way of good quality clothing – produced by high end publishers and priced way out of the reach of the average reader. But that may be stretching the analogy too far.