Zoinks! I was offline for much of Saturday, so it wasn’t until Sunday morning until I caught up on the Amazon – Macmillan feud: Amazon and Macmillan go to war: readers and writers are the civilian casualties. Amazon, in a disagreement with Macmillan over a change in pricing model (brought on primarily, IMO, by the sense of increased leverage that the release of the iPad has given Macmillan) has temporarily removed ALL Macmillan books, both printed and electronic, from the Amazon website. Panic ensues. *grin* (UPDATE: Amazon has already [as of Sunday night] acknowledged that they’ll have to capitulate to Macmillan’s new [and higher, in some cases] pricing model.)

It’s been REALLY interesting to watch the reactions, though. One of the main US science fiction publishers (Tor) is a Macmillan line…so they were affected. And a number of the bloggers that I read online are science fiction writers; many for Tor! So the comments have been flying fast and furious; some of the best at Charlie Stross’ blog. First, Charlie wrote up his own thoughts, which begat a giant, interesting thread of comments. Then he went and gathered up links to several other thoughtful responses (mostly authors, but also lawyers, editors, etc.). Great stuff.

I love most of these guys, but I do find it interesting to see them dealing with business model changes, technology shifts, digital rights management, etc. within their own industry, after having seen them discuss the issues from a safer, more objective vantage point for years with regard to music and movies. Not to suggest that these guys have never talked about how this will affect publishing; they have. But now…I think the enormity of the change is starting to sink in. Think about this passage from Cory Doctorow’s essay Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet in Content. (note: I wouldn’t say that Cory speaks for all authors here, but the point, to me, is clearly relevant)

Technology giveth and technology taketh away. Seventy years later, Napster showed us that, as William Gibson noted, “We may be at the end of the brief period during which it is possible to charge for recorded music.” Surely we’re at the end of the period where it’s possible to exclude those who don’t wish to pay. Every song released can be downloaded gratis from a peer-to-peer network (and will shortly get easier to download, as hard-drive price/performance curves take us to a place where all the music ever recorded will fit on a disposable pocket-drive that you can just walk over to a friend’s place and copy).

But have no fear: the Internet makes it possible for recording artists to reach a wider audience than ever dreamt of before. Your potential fans may be spread in a thin, even coat over the world, in a configuration that could never be cost-effective to reach with traditional marketing. But the Internet’s ability to lower the costs for artists to reach their audiences and for audiences to find artists suddenly renders possible more variety in music than ever before.

Those artists can use the Internet to bring people back to the live performances that characterized the heyday of Vaudeville. Use your recordings — which you can’t control — to drive admissions to your performances, which you can control. It’s a model that’s worked great for jam bands like the Grateful Dead and Phish. It’s also a model that won’t work for many of today’s artists; 70 years of evolutionary pressure has selected for artists who are more virtuoso than charismatic, artists optimized for recording-based income instead of performance-based income. “How dare you tell us that we are to be trained monkeys, capering on a stage for your amusement? We’re not charismatics, we’re white-collar workers. We commune with our muses behind closed doors and deliver up our work product when it’s done, through plastic, laser-etched discs. You have no right to demand that we convert to a live-performance economy.”

Technology giveth and technology taketh away. As bands on MySpace — who can fill houses and sell hundreds of thousands of discs without a record deal, by connecting individually with fans — have shown, there’s a new market aborning on the Internet for music, one with fewer gatekeepers to creativity than ever before.

Point that same argument at authors rather than musicians, and I see a lot of resonance. It seems to me I read a lot of statements from authors that want the status quo to remain in place; who want what technology giveth, but not what it taketh away. But honestly…I’d love to see some of them strike out with really wild ideas, things outside the status quo. Maybe Amazon’s new Terms and Conditions for ebooks; maybe Cory’s experiment With A Little Help...I don’t know. But I know that, for example, I’d much rather see Peter Watts get State of Grace published on Lulu, or in Amazon’s e-bookstore, than not at all!

And I don’t think all the criticism of Amazon is wrong, by any means. This is a complicated story. But times, they are a-changin’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.