Paul Graham has published an essay on his site (here) that was picked up by Cory Doctorow on boingboing.net. A colleague (Rebecca-Anne Do Rozario) thought I might be interested in it. She was right.
Publishers of all types, from news to music, are unhappy that consumers won't pay for content anymore. At least, that's how they see it. In fact consumers never really were paying for content, and publishers weren't really selling it either. If the content was what they were selling, why has the price of books or music or movies always depended mostly on the format? Why didn't better content cost more? […]
Almost every form of publishing has been organized as if the medium was what they were selling, and the content was irrelevant. Book publishers, for example, set prices based on the cost of producing and distributing books. They treat the words printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics.
Economically, the print media are in the business of marking up paper. We can all imagine an old-style editor getting a scoop and saying "this will sell a lot of papers!" Cross out that final S and you're describing their business model.
Graham's argument isn't exactly news to book historians. In 1932, W. W. Greg wrote: "what a bibliographer is concerned with is pieces of paper or parchment covered with certain written or printed signs. With these signs he is concerned merely as arbitrary marks; their meaning is no business of his." ("Bibliography—an Apologia," (W. W. Greg, “Bibliography—An Apologia.” The Library, 4th ser. 13 (1932): 113–43).
Those who believe that Greg is right can feel a bit like the the "flappers" of Laputa, who must constantly remind star-struck literary historians that the books that have captured their attention are, basically, unimportant. Eighteenth-century book history does not begin and end with Pope, Swift, Fielding, Sterne or Haywood and Burney, nor are the works of these authors particularly important. As I have said before, more "ordinary" books are almanacs, tables of interest and other practical books, then, perhaps, sermons etc. With such books, it is more obvious that "words [are] printed in the book the same way a textile manufacturer treats the patterns printed on its fabrics."
Graham continues: "Now that the medium is evaporating, publishers have nothing left to sell. Some seem to think they're going to sell content—that they were always in the content business, really. But they weren't, and it's unclear whether anyone could be." The remaining option is to focus on the physical object, printing "magazines" and books that are "made lush in a way that would be hard to match digitally" (coffee-table books, food-porn: books as prestige wallpaper).
Regarding authors, with the advent of digital books,
Whoever controls the device sets the terms. It's in their interest for content to be as cheap as possible, and since they own the channel, there's a lot they can do to drive prices down. Prices will fall even further once writers realize they don't need publishers. Getting a book printed and distributed is a daunting prospect for a writer, but most can upload a file.
This is put a little clumsily, and Cory Doctorow criticises this, but Graham's point seems to be, that, as the device-makers are likely to maintain a monopolistic control of the market for digital books, they will have the power to pay author's such small sums, that the authors would be better off not playing the game at all. And just as musicians "give music away and make money from concerts and t-shirts" and small academic journals are now publishing articles for free and "make money from one of a dozen permutations of advertising"; so authors may be better off publishing their works for free and trying to cash-in on their "books" in new ways.
Of course, what is left out of all of this is the second-hand and antiquarian market, where good books have always cost more; where literature is valued, where the market remains strong, and where the meaning of certain written or printed signs is the business of the bookseller."