Thoughts before breakfast
Neil Gaiman has compared unlicensed sharing of ebooks to passing a friend a book you really liked–which is historically one of the cornerstones of discovery for authors. I’d like to believe it’s true, that it’s merely an updated, more efficient way of sharing.
But there’s a nasty little voice in my head that says that argument is functionally the same as the one equating an AR-15 with a musket.
Whatever side of either debate one comes down on, I think we have to admit there are instances where a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. If I can share a book with 100,000 people by clicking a button, we’re talking about both a scale of potential discovery–and a scale of potential revenue–that changes the rules. What’s unclear is who benefits.
Some people want to reward the producers of superior content, either because they “get” the idea that it’s how you encourage the producers to keep producing, or because that’s just their ethical universe. Other people, not so much. The notion that many people value things according to how much they pay for them has not suddenly become a myth. Anything that’s free is going to be treated as disposable by a chunk of the population.
But even e-recidivists can contribute to a work’s success: if someone who won’t pay for squat shares content with those 100,000 aforementioned people, some of them are going to be in the “I’ll pay for what I like” camp. Et voila, discovery.
What we need to come up with is a measure of how well various forms of distribution get stories into the hands of people who will pay for them. Selling a physical object has a very high efficiency rate, but can have lower volumes. Electronic distribution, especially with unauthorized sharing, has a much lower efficiency rate, but can have much higher volumes.
Note the weasel words. As I said, we need to study how well each works…and acknowledge that one size may not fit all. It would not surprise me if the results were notably different for, say, SFF and romance, or fiction as a whole and self-help non-fiction.
In the absence of such information, I have to interpret any claim of inherent superiority for any model as being born from ideological roots, not economic. I don’t belittle or begrudge that: sometimes you simply have to do what you think is right. For my part, I’d like a better idea of likely outcomes before I storm some ramparts or other, banner in hand.