What’s Bad for Writers Is Not Good for Readers

What's Bad for Writers Is Not Good for ReadersExcuse me, I may get a bit ranty.

Yesterday Boingboing posted a blog by Kevin Kelly arguing that e-books are going to need to drop drastically in price:

I am having trouble convincing myself why digital books will not cost 99 cents within 5 years. All books, on average. Just as the price of music does not in general change on the length or quality.

Why $.99? Because that is the price “of music” online and presumably so cheap that readers won’t bother stealing the work through other methods. Kelly tries to make this idea sound less grim by noting that $1 may be what an author gets in royalty payments on a paperback book (although that ignores Amazon’s 65% cut) but he ultimately concludes with:

I am not saying this is good news for authors. 99 cents is not. It is good news for READERS.

To get one thing out of the way, it is not true that the price of music does not change on length. An album (which seems more analogous to a short story collection or a novel than a song) costs more than a single song. But what I really dislike is the concluding canard that I always hear: Things will be awful for writers, but great for readers! Awful for journalists, but great for news lovers! Bad for musicians, but great for listeners!

What's Bad for Writers Is Not Good for ReadersWhat is bad for artists is not good for people who enjoy art. That’s not how it works. If artists are not able to gain income from their art, that means the quality of art produced drops. At best, artists have less and less time to do their art, as they must make more and more of their income elsewhere to eat and survive. At worst, they simply do something else.

“Ah! But don’t most artists have a problem living off their art? Don’t most writers already have to teach to survive?” This argument isn’t good either. It may be true than author who gets 20,000 dollar advance on his novel and another author who gets 2,000 are both failing to make a living wage off of their work, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a drastic difference between the two situations. If a band can go on tour and make a few thousand dollars, that isn’t much. But it will allow them to go on tour more often than a band that loses a few thousand every tour. These things have direct effects.

I know that it is now considered gauche for artists and progressive types to talk about money, despite the fact that concern over the exploitation of labor used to be the driving force of leftist thought, but I am not talking about people getting rich. I am talking about a very practical question of how one’s time can be spent.

(Side note: while I’m ranting, let me say that in these discussions many writers show an almost unfathomable naivety in regards to corporations like Amazon and Apple. Recently Amazon lowered its cut of e-books so authors could get 70% of sales in a certain price range. Since then, I’ve seen countless article’s about how amazing this deal is and how this model is the future. Let’s get something clear: Amazon is making a business decision to lure writers into this model so that e-book prices drop and they can sell more Kindles. As soon as it is a smart business move to raise their cut on books back to the old levels, they will do so. Just as Apple suddenly changed its rules to the detriment of their customers and content providers. This is not to say that traditional publishers are saints or haven’t messed things up in many ways, of course.)

When the new media types drone on with their borrowed corporate lingo about “new paradigms” and “outside of the box thinking” and how things are sure to work out, I always think of one thing: journalism. I’ll allow David Simon, former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and creator of The Wire, explain things:


Is journalism completely dead? No, but it is in a drastically worse state and, I would argue, this has made things tangibly worse for our culture.

(Side note: Chris Hedges has a great article on how regressive Huffington Post is, despite how it claims to be “liberal”, and how sad it is that unpaid workers writing celebrity gossip and un-researched commentary alongside reprinted AP stories is the new paradigm of “journalism.” Read it.)

Part of what saddens me in this debate is that I remember, at the turn of the millennium, how hopeful everyone was that the internet’s freedom would allow artists and creators to get out from the yoke of corporate distributors, labels, and publishers. Things seemed ripe for artists to gain a higher percentage of the money their products made.

What's Bad for Writers Is Not Good for ReadersNow it seems more likely that even larger and grosser global corporations will solidify control of content at the expense of creators, and that most people want to give as little money as possible to artists so that they have more money to spend on the electronic products they use to consume the artist’s work. It is not uncommon to hear someone ask, “Why should I pay so much for an e-book? I already spent a bunch of money on the Kindle!” But shouldn’t that be like asking why you should pay so much for a hardcover book when you already spent 200 dollars on the Ikea bookshelf?

What is the point in complaining about this if it is simply the way things are? Well, what else are blogs for? Plus, I suppose that I don’t believe that there is no human agency involved here, that were are merely at the sway of the invisible hand of the market. When we say that a 100,000 word novel that took years to write is worth the same price as a single song, we as a culture are making a value judgement. It is possible for us to make a different judgement. And truth be told I don’t think things are as dire for fiction writing as they are for journalism. I don’t think $.99 will be the norm for full books and there are some reasons to hope that writers may fare better in the digital transition that musicians have.

Still, I hope that readers (and film lovers and music buffs) realize that what is good for the artist is good for them, and they should be siding with artists over the corporations at every turn.

Lincoln Michel keeps a personal blog at lincolnmichel.com and tweets @TheLincoln. His work appears or is forthcoming in Tin House, Oxford American, The Believer, NOON, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is ...read more


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