Monday, May 15, 2006


Get your red hots!

I just finished reading Kevin Kelly's cover story in the New York Times Magazine about the impending demise of the book. When the author identifies himself as a "senior maverick," I usually sigh and turn the page. Yet I'm sure that Kelly's essential argument is correct: digital media will eventually swamp ink-and-paper, and the book will become merely one more storage vehicle for any given text. People won't stop reading them, of course. They're too damn convenient. But the book as a sacred object--a receptacle of knowledge and experience--will go the way of the Great Auk. For a senior maverick like Kelly, this is a wonderful development. For me, it's a drag. I feel the same way Felton Jarvis did when he was told about the death of Elvis Presley: "It's like someone just came up and told me there aren't going to be any more cheeseburgers in the world."

That said, a couple of Kelly's points stuck in my craw. First: we are about to enter a second age of mechanical reproduction, in which the copies themselves are universally available and therefore worthless. "As copies have been dethroned," Kelly writes, "the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are." Oh, great. And what are writers supposed to do? Well, you can give away your work for nothing and peddle souvenirs, snacks, beverages, and t-shirts on the profitable periphery of literature. As Kelly puts it: authors and artists "can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions--in short, all the many values that cannot be copied." Please, let's think about this for a moment. What's happening is that the work of the imagination is being devalued: writing a novel is essentially on par with writing a rubber check. What's valuable is squeezing the ancillary rights out of your creation. I'm particularly excited about the scarcity of attention--just think, it was there all along and I never made a nickel from it!

Yes, I'm griping. You could even say I'm whining. But it's not just because Kelly is celebrating the slow death of my livelihood: it's because I still think of reading as an intensely personal activity, whereas for Kelly, it resembles a giant game of Twister:
When books are digitized, reading becomes a community activity. Bookmarks can be shared with fellow readers. Marginalia can be broadcast. Bibliographies swapped. You might get an alert that your friend Carl has annotated a favorite book of yours. A moment later, his links are yours. In a curious way, the universal library becomes one very, very, very large single text: the world's only book.
I don't want every book to vanish into the slurry of the universal library. I don't want Carl to annotate my favorite novels. And he'd better keep his hands off my scrimshaw collection, too.

Although writers have almost always come up on the short end of the stick where making money from their work is concerned. (Not all, but most.) Perhaps it is time to concede that serious writing is just not a wealth-making proposition.

But I agree that Kelly's proposal to focus instead on these ancillary endeavors is obnoxious and devalues the writer's craft.
Don't panic, Scrivener! That the profit model will definitely change for publishing is not necessarily proof that your caviar-gorging days are over! Popular music is a perfect analog: let the industry figure out how to milk the audience (and you know they will)...all YOU, the content provider, have to worry about is how to milk the industry. Will you sell your books like painters sell paintings, or like film directors sell their services, for large lump sums? Or will you sell subscriptions to your work to internet-culled mailing lists? The cheap perfection of copy technology (again, as in Pop) will affect the current points of distribution (book and record stores) more than it will effect the viable authors, don't you think? I'd be more worried that your gold-plated life of authorial excess (the blow! the virgins!) is threatened by...well, you know. As a growingly tasteless public expands, there won't be a demand for much of anything in the future beyond reality shows about the making of reality shows about the making of...
I'm sorry but I just don't understand what you're saying. Why is the writer to be worse off? The writer is the content provider. The medium surely isn't material in this equation. What exactly do you mean when you say 'copies lose value'? I absolutely cannot get mind poor mind around this concept. Please be so kind as to explain in detail. Thanks.
Books won't disappear, and in a way I don't think they'll be devalued - there's nothing like blowing the dust off a beautiful old book, or cracking the spine of a spanking new one. But I think they'll become rarer, more of a luxury, and therefore more expensive as the texts themselves become widely available. If I read a text online, I want to buy the book, to keep it and gloat over it, and scribble in the margins. It's not just about convenience (I hate reading online, I found the text of Emma a few weeks back, with mis-spellings in every sentence - extremely annoying!) Although I would argue that the most important thing is the text, the ideas. It seems to me that generally we value the physical object of the book over the text and ideas. Perhaps if there were sites where you could buy the texts, easily, authors could actually make more money.
I appreciate the comments, and would like briefly to respond. It's true that writing hasn't traditionally been the path to what I once heard Nick Lowe refer to as "elephant dollars." But if you believe Kelly's argument--and I think the core of it is sound--then the inifinite duplication offered by the Web and digital media will make it million times harder. Musicians have one great advantage over writers in this respect: they can still make a living off live performances. Unless you're some kind of bardic freak--and I really can't see myself leaning against the baronial fireplace in Donald Trump's apartment, reciting my latest novel--that route isn't open to writers. Now, let me reiterate: I don't believe the book will vanish any time soon, certainly not in my lifetime. It will, however, cease to be the primary medium, the Platonic form of the text. The real thing will be disembodied, digitized, and almost impossible to produce in a limited edition. And this will make me sad.
What if we launched an American Idol for book writers. Maybe call it American Idolatry just to be different. James, you've already got the music, so you can rock. Categories: best 2-minute who-dun-it; love poem; ranting liberal; ranting conservative. But who will play Paula Abdul?

...Or maybe I could just get a sponsorhip deal from Coca-Cola. Just put it on the cover - sponsored by ... Everyone else does it, why not me?

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