It’s been a while since I posted here. Since I last posted I became perilously close to being employed in the DFW area, so I was kinda hoping I could post and say that I was now no longer searching for work (almost before I started). Alas, it was not to be, so that ad banner up there will remain in effect until further notice. Oh well.
I’ve mentioned before about how my Wife and both like to read – her very much more so. A week and a half ago saw the release of Crossroads of Twilight, the 10th book in the Wheel of Time series, so she’s been literally reading every available minute. I marvel at her ability to be able to read and watch television at the same time. She even put away the first thirty pages in her car when she first got the book (though she wasn’t driving at the same time). I, however, can’t put away books for crap. I mean, I can when I really want to but even then I pale in my ability to take in the printed word. There’s simply too many games to play, shows to watch, and programs to write for me to have enough time. Plus recently I’ve been stressing out a little over the aforementioned near-miss job and plus I’m still getting over an illness.
One of the things I think my Wife could do very well if she wanted to would be to write these kinds of books she likes to read (mostly Fantasy/Sci-Fi). I mean she puts away tons of them (literally) and someone has to write them. Plus it’s not like you have to write Huck Finn every time – few Sci-Fi novels have any sort of deep meaning, they’re just fun to read. But the few times I’ve suggested the idea to her she’s told me she’s not really interested in it. It would take away from her reading time (and any other free time she has), and she says while she reads a tons, she doesn’t really know how to write. I see her point, sometimes a hobby is just a hobby – if you tried to do it for a living you’d hate it. Give someone a car and tell them they can drive it every day and they’ll love it – tell them they have to drive it every day and it turns into a job they may learn to hate.
Plus, she says, it’s really me who needs to try writing. My natural response was that I prefer to write “nonimportant” things, like on this Blog. Of course, sometimes what I write on here is in fact a small novel anyway so perhaps I’m halfway there. Who knows I may try someday, but from what I hear I shouldn’t expect to get rich off of it. Case in point – Stephen King, easily one of the most successful authors of all time, has made between $120 and $140 million in the course of the last thirty years (when he started writing). By way of comparison, Mariah Carey got signed to a $100 million contract for five albums alone a few years back. Then they threw about $30 million at her to be let out of the other $70 million. The only way the J.K. Rowlings of the world (Harry Potter) is if they branch out into other venues (and preferrably into things that can be sold en masse to children).
Of course if you became an author and made, say, $100K a year off of your work, you’re hardly a pauper. Most people who work 9-5 jobs can’t pull off that kind of dough. That’s one of the things that’s bugged me about Stephen King’s work – many times one of the characters in his novels is a writer like him. It makes sense – write what you know. But its harder to relate to someone who doesn’t have to wake up at 6 AM to get to their job at 8 AM. Of course its easier to find the fucked up demon living in your house when you don’t spend nine hours a day at work.
So one of the things I discovered on the web was a book called Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi. It’s a “shareware book”. He wrote it about five or six years ago and tried to get it published. And failed to do so. Now I haven’t read it yet but it looks like Sci-Fi Humor, something along the lines of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was itself along the lines of Dr. Who meets Monty Python. His claim is that if you read it and decide you like it, send him a dollar. Seems simple enough. Given that he still hasn’t gotten it published and is in fact working in a different sector (consulting) it makes for a nice idea but one that didn’t work out for him as his line of work.
In his blurb about his experiences trying to get published in Sci-Fi (and I think he’s referring to Sci-Fi as “involving aliens or space or the future” – no dragons or medieval elements and nothing that could “really” happen) he came to the conclusion that to get published these days you have to either have already been published (so the longtime authors are safe), write military science fiction (think Starship Troopers) or have a tie-in (like all the Star Trek or Star Wars novels). It’s not exactly an encouraging situation, and if Douglas Adams were to try and sell Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy today, he’d be laughed off of town. And worse yet, people probably wouldn’t buy it if he did publish it.
And then along came a recent new author, Cory Doctrow. The first thing I read by this guy was 0wnz0red, a short story he published on Salon.com and I really liked it. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m programming-oriented (just like the story and its characters), so I don’t know if everyone else will like or follow it, but there it is. He recently published a second short story, Liberation spectrum, which I haven’t read yet but is getting high marks as well. Also it appears that he has won a Hugo award (prestigious Sci-Fi award) for best new science fiction writer.
So now he’s finished his first “dead tree” book, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I’d tell you the plot summary but it’s too weird. I also haven’t read it yet, save for the first few pages, but it’s not the most accessible thing I’ve come across. Still, it looks quite interesting. But not nearly as interesting as the publishing schema he’s employing.
If you go to the aforementioned link, you dan download his new book. The entire thing. It’s starting to show up in stores now and you can buy it on Amazon.com and everything but he’s making it available for download for free. Why? Mainly because it’s the cheapest, easiest way to get noticed (witness how even I’m writing about it). The basic theory being that the number of people who will download it, read it (or part of it) and then decide it would make a nice addition to their bookshelf might outnumber the number of people who would go buy it blindly out of a bookstore. Sure there might be some people who would ordinarily have bought it but instead decide to download and read it for free, but the theory maintains that number would not only be small, but it would be outweighed the number of people who would buy it because of this method.
To this end, Doctrow instructs his readers that if they like the book and would like to send across some financial support, they would do him much better to buy the book in stores than to send him some money. This I find interesting. Basically, his publisher is TOR and TOR is, from what I can tell, one of the big wigs in Sci-Fi/Fantasy publishing (these guys are the ones making a killing off of the Wheel of Time franchise). However, TOR also allowed for this experiment. Doctrow says that if you want to support him but don’t care about owning the book then buy it and donate it to a library or something.
This would be like a major record label allowing a new band to put out their album in MP3 format to see if it will sell more CD’s. I have always heard that every time you buy a CD for $17-19, the artist gets maybe $2-3 off of the sale. Artists don’t get rich off of album sales. Jennifer Lopez reportedly made $37 million in 2002, but that was more a function of selling perfume, calendars, concert tickets and movie tickets than CD’s. Of course an artist like Jennifer Lopez can also negotiate better recording contracts. But the main reason The Rolling Stones have made $1.5 Billion since 1989 has been through $75 concert tickets.
This is not unprecedented, but it is unique in some ways. Bruce Eckel is the author of a popular series of programming books called the Thinking In… series. The most popular of which are the two Thinking in C++ books and Thinking in Java. He has the complete books and source code available for download in PDF form on his website, and the FAQ as to why is a fascinating read. Most of the reasons he cites are more prone to technical writing, for example he tends to target College Professors who will instruct their students to go to the local print shop and print the book out (usually costing just a few bucks) and then when the dead-tree edition comes out the professors are not likely to change (though this really wasn’t the case when I was in College). Also, he tends to get a lot better feedback when the book is out in the wild as opposed to when he only runs it past a proofreader and then the errors are committed to paper. However, since his books tend to be hundreds and hundreds of pages, it makes a lot more sense to buy a copy than to print all that out somewhere, punch holes in it and find a gigantic binder.
Then there was Stephen King’s take on this. He started a story back in the eary 1980’s called The Plant and on a lark decided he’d finish it and publish it online. He gave parts one and two away and charged for part three. He made it downloadable on his website with the caveat that if you liked it you had to pay him a dollar. If 75% of the people who downloaded it paid up then he’d continue. He would do this for eight parts and then everything after that would be free. Lots of pundits were wathing this experiment closely. If it worked it may have spelt the doom for publishing. Then again success may have meant nothing – Stephen King is pretty much the superstar of publishing, so for him to be successful is less significant. But if it failed then these same pundits would prophesize doom for the e-book industry.
The result was decidedly a punt. Indeed 75% or more of the people who downloaded parts three and four paid for it – some went so far as to pay extra to cover the moochers. However, King changed his mind several times about the strategy of his plan, and sales started to drift off a bit. About 54% paid for part five, something King attributed to the possibility that a lot of people figured the story was never going to be finished (since he was hinting that he owed his publisher a “real novel”) and they might as well freeload while they can. Finally, King decided to finish off the sixth part and call that “part one”. The story was never finished but it was a good stopping point. Apparently King is known to get to a point in a work where he doesn’t like it, so he “shelves it”. Later (sometimes years later) he comes back to it, decides at what point it went bad, pitches from that point to the end, and tries again. Some of his best novels happened this way, and some things he wrote never left the shelf. King decided The Plant went that way and so he decided to shelve it. Of course in this case everyone got to see and read his progress so far. Later he stated that The Plant is something he’ll probably never get back to and with his imminent retirement, will in all likelihood never be finished.
But where Doctrow differes from Scalzi is that Down and Out is not a book trying to be published, it’s a book that is being published. I’m sure that they’d never publish a book that they know will sell this way – too many people would download it and not buy it. But Doctrow’s a virtual unknown. Yet news about his works gets posted to Slashdot, where all the happy geeks go, so they’ll all download his book (and convert it into every form known to man) and he might even sell more this way. I’ve read that only 10% of fiction books go on to be profitable, and only 10% of those go on to sell a million copies or more. In this climate I guess I can understand why publishers tend to only go with known names – and what better way to get known than to wiggle your way in through previously unused channels.
So while we’re on the topic of books, how come is it that no one complains about the price of books? The tenth Wheel of Time book, Crossroads of Twilight carries a retail price of $29.99. That’s more than a DVD or a CD. Granted, we got it day one from Hasting’s where new hardcover books are 50% off, but if you go somewhere that does no discounts it’s 30 bones. Of course, the book is some 700 pages long, and not 700 children’s pages – every leaf in there has tons of lines on it. My Wife puts books away like popcorn and this one had her going for two weeks. Plus its not like these books come out all that often – it’s been at least two and a half years since book nine, which was two years since book eight. If your favorite rap group came out with a new CD every three months of marginally new material (like Insane Clown Posse does) you’d start to loathe them for trying to hose you.
Another reason I guess we don’t complain about the price of books is the lack of alternatives. CD’s lend themselves to piracy since their technology allows for things like MP3 – DVD has the same problem. Sure, someone could scan every page of a new book and maybe even OCR it, but why bother? Plus books, like the Movie-to-DVD process, have a second chance venue – wait for the paperback version. The paperback is usually no more than $7. If you think $19 is too much for an album you can’t really wait for it to go down in price – on the contrary, Appetite for Destruction is more expensive now than ever before. But books have a second chance to come down in price. For that matter, some chains – if they order too many copies of a hardcover book, will eventually sell off copies of that hardcover dirt cheap. The local Hasting’s here is literally swamped with titles like this.
There are two record stores in the mall here, and they sell DVD’s full price. Period. When a $29.99 DVD comes out, Wal-Mart will have it for $19.99, Target and Best Buy will have it for $21.99, Hastings for $24.99 (which is fine since they don’t care about selling DVD’s – mostly renting them), but the places in the mall here will have it for $29.99. The one practical upshot of this is that it’s possible to find DVD’s that are either gone everywhere else or long out of print – the Snow White DVD has been out of print for over a year now but there’s still copies at the mall. The record stores must not care (or their corporate parent doesn’t care, whatever) since music is their business.
But music is doubly screwed since music never goes down in price – it’s only gone up so far. But when a DVD is really old at any normal store iit gets marked down. For entertainment software (video games) there’s even a designated path to the “cheap bin”. The only cheap bins I’ve ever seen in music are for the albums that are out of print and unpopular – they’ll still charge whatever the full price for the fourth Led Zeppelin album twenty years from now on whatever people listen to music on. Of course, this is if the notion of physical music persists, which it may not. Supposedly record company executives were bracing for the death of the traditional music industry twenty years ago, but then the Compact Disc came out and suddenly everyone not only was willing to fork over more money for something that, in the long run, would be cheaper to produce, but they were willing to re-buy all their old albums on CD as well. Of course today people don’t want to buy CD’s and now we have the unveiling of Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio which while they’re bound to keep enthusaists happy, they probably won’t win over the consumers who don’t want to be treated like scumbags just because they’re liking MP3’s more.
But then again I could be wrong. We are after all a very possession-oriented society. Tons of people downloaded Attack of the Clones over the Internet – but I don’t think many of them watched a camcorder captured version of the movie in lieu of the real thing. Most people still went to see it in the theater. And then when it came out on DVD most people bought it as well, despite having it on pirated camcorer VCD. In fact, I don’t know anyone who downloads movies instead of going to go see them in a theater or getting them on DVD. Even though people can download DivX versions of movies and an increasing number of people can make DVD copies of movies they rent, why are DVD sales still rising? For one thing, DVD has so much value added content that it’s worth it to get them. A DivX rip doesn’t have 5.1 surround sound and few people can watch them on their TV’s anyway. Plus people are still enamoured with the physical qualities of DVD – it looks good to have a shelf full of them, and the packaging is neat. A CD, however, doesn’t add that much. You can download the MP3’s of an album and make a CD and still have basically the same experience. All you’re paying for with a store bought CD is the liner notes and cover art. Perhaps people will think this way of DVD but not now.
But let’s say that they make CD’s where you can’t rip them. So there’s no more MP3. What will the music industry become? Will it go back to its former glory? I say no – it will go to where the book publishing industry is right now. One of these days the RIAA may have its way – no more P2P, no more MP3, but then they’ll sit back and wonder what happened. If you like a book you pay $30 for it. If you can wait you go $7 for the paperback. If you don’t want to do that you borrow a friend’s copy or you go to the library. But no one really puts that much thought into whether they’re doing their part to keep the publishing industry alive – they just do what they want. The music industry has the same thing – but people’s wants have changed, both as a result of MP3 and because they think differently of how they spend their money. No amount of legislation or lawsuits will ever change that.
But anyway, I really had no idea that this rant would go on this long, or that it would turn into another bit on MP3 and piracy. In any event, I’m definitely going to try out Doctrow’s book and buy it if I like it (and probably only then after I get moved and settled – could be a while). And I may try writing (fiction), preferrably before this “put it out for free on the web” thing becomes a cliche. But one thing’s for sure – DVD is it for me. If in twenty years they come out with a better format that’s not reverse compatible I’ll pass. DVD’s the last video format I’m fooling with, and I think with rare exception, CD is the last format I’m fooling with, too.