Writing in the Age of Piracy

I came across the following comment from a writer recently — which writer and where I found it I won’t tell you, for reasons that will become clear shortly. It regards the nature of humans, and the business of selling books, and of piracy:

“I think that the rise of mass-market print publishing created the opportunity for many writers to earn a marginal income from their writing, and that that paradigm is now doomed. I believe that 99% of the customers are cheapskates when no one is looking, for example, and so I believe we’re looking at a future where piracy will proliferate and where only a very few will make any sort of real money from writing fiction. I hope I’m wrong, but my goal for the moment is to try to preserve the old paradigm for as long as possible.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Let’s translate that metaphorically, shall we? Book publishing is a sinking ship. The former passengers on the ship have given in to their feral instincts and are dismantling the ship board by board. The remaining crew are being wedged further and further back into what little of the ship remains above the waterline. Eventually the whole ship will disappear beneath the waves and all the crew will drown. The thought of possibly jumping off the ship apparently doesn’t occur to the crew; rather, their ambition is simply to be the last person to drown.

Screw ‘em. Let them drown. Because here’s the thing about that “sinking ship:” Even if we grant it is sinking (which we should not), and that the passengers are scurvy pirates (which we ought not), this ship is sinking in about five feet of water and the shore is fifty yards away. And if you haven’t the wit to make it to shore, then by God, you deserve to die.

For now, let’s put aside the issue of whether publishing will survive as an industry. I think it will for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the people I’ve met in publishing are fairly adept capitalists who would prefer that their next gig does not involve asking people if they want fries with that. Nor do I think most people are thieving dickheads, despite the number of people recently trying to convince me otherwise. But for the sake of argument, let us posit the nuclear option: Rampant digital piracy has made it impossible to sell books. The entire publishing industry is out on the street. Editors are on the corners with signs that say “WILL EDIT YOUR ‘WILL WORK FOR FOOD’ SIGN FOR FOOD.” Art directors sit on crates drawing wee little dune buggy caricatures of passersby. Publishers have launched themselves from the windows of their corner offices to publish themselves on the pavement in splattery limited editions of one. And where are the writers? If they have any sense at all, they’re making a fair amount of money.

Listen to me now: Writers are not in the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to handle the output of writers and distribute it in an effective and hopefully profitable way; however it does not necessarily follow that writer’s only option is the publishing industry, especially not now. Congruent to this: Books aren’t the only option. I write books, but you know what? I’m not a book writer, any more than a musician is an LP musician or an MP3 musician. The book is the container. It’s not destiny.

And this is where the schism exists among writers: Those who get these concepts, and those who don’t. Those who don’t are dead meat anyway; let’s thank them for their service to letters and shed a tear as their corpses rot (and not just because of the smell). As for those of us still standing, let me introduce you to what could be your next business model.

Meet Penny Arcade. Many of you already know it, of course. For those of you who don’t, here’s the concept: Two guys write a thrice-weekly comic strip about video games — a strip which, as it happens, is usually damn funny (often even if you don’t like video games). How much money do these guys make off the strip itself? Not a dime, as far as I can tell. But the comic strip draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the site; the site sells advertising for a fair amount every week. They sell merchandise, from t-shirts to limited edition artwork (a recent artwork sale sold 500 art “cells” at $80 a pop in less than 12 hours: $40,000 gross for 12 hours isn’t bad). They have their own convention. They even have their own charity, Child’s Play, which in two years has raised half a million dollars in cash and goods for children’s hospitals across the country. And most importantly for the purposes of our discussion, this is their full time gig — it supports the two of them, their wives and families, and even a business manager to handle the stuff them creative types don’t want to both with.

Yeah, you say, but that’s a comic strip. I’m talking about writing, here. Well, listen up, funcakes: The point here is not the comic strip. The point here is what it’s used for: As the basis of several different revenue streams, all of which flow directly to the principals. What happens if the cartoon strip is pirated? Not much — it’s distributed for free, anyway. At the very worst, it becomes free advertising, bringing people around to the site. People visit the site; they enjoy it, they come back. That allows PA to sell advertising. Some become fans; this allows PA to sell merchandise. Some make it part of their lives; this allows PA to host a convention and fund a charity. What is at the heart of this business model is pirate-proof content: You can’t steal free content. And what Penny Arcade sells, it’s difficult to steal.

Can writers do the same thing? Well, in a universe where piracy kills the conventional publishing model, they damn well better get used to the idea, hadn’t they.

Personally, I find this formulation non-controversial because to very large extent it’s what I do now. I won’t get into how much of my writing income over the last four years comes directly and indirectly as a result of writing on this site, except to say it’s six figures and the leftmost number is not a “1,” and not nearly all of it comes from book sales. This is not bragging (or not only bragging, shall I say); the point to made here is that an ambitious writer can use a non-commercial presence to generate a non-trivial amount of income. In my case, the content here, like the content on Penny Arcade, is un-pirateable; I don’t charge anything for it, and I don’t care if you send it along to whomever you like. But it brings in thousands of people every day, some of whom would probably spend money on Scalzi merchandise. Like, say, a novel, however it is published.

Or not a novel, actually — why not a novella? The market for novellas is very small right about now, because most publishers don’t like them; they don’t fit into the mass-market publishing paradigm very well at all. But if I don’t have to worry about my publisher’s production albegra, maybe I could sell one. Or not sell it at all — maybe I’ll post it up on the site with its run subsidized by an advertiser. I have eight to ten thousand visitors on a daily basis; think there’s an advertiser out there who might be willing to shell out for 100,000 ad impressions over the run of the novella?

Point is, in a pirate age, I think I still stand a good chance of continuing to make a very good income from writing. Since I don’t think we’ll get to a pirate age, this is even better news for me, because I have the advantage of generating writer income the old-fashioned way as well as in this new way. Multiple revenue streams are a writer’s friend. Now, get this: I’m not particularly clever, and I’m awfully lazy. If I can do this, pretty much any writer can. Yes, it does take time and effort to generate a readership (seven years, in the case of the Whatever). Tell me how this is different from publishing today.

What if I’m wrong? Well, what if I am? It’s axiomatic that new formulations for generating writing income will arrive in our theoretical age of piracy; writers are creative people, and they also like to eat. I’m offering one potential business model here, mostly because I’m familiar with it and I know it works for me (and for Penny Arcade). If you don’t like it, make one of your own. Or, you know, drown. One less writer for me to worry about.

No, these new business models are not going to work for everyone. Guess what: The publishing model now doesn’t work for everyone, either. And guess what else: The group of Writers Making Money in the Pirate Age will not be the same as the group of Writers Making Money in the Age of Publishing. Why? Because some people can’t do it, and some people won’t do it. Furthermore, some people will make less money in this new age of piracy. But guess what again? Some people will make more, too. Will the per capita income be as great? Doubtful, since this pirate age model will encourage more people whose writing would have been laughed out the door in the publishing age to make a go at monetizing their work. But I don’t know how much time you need to spend worrying about the per capita income number. You have to worry about your income number.

Should you help other writers in this not entirely likely Age of Piracy? Absolutely: Karma is a good thing. Heck, you should help other writers today. But if all a writer can do is complain about how much better it was back then, and looks at his audience as if it would stab him and eat him the first chance it got, well, how much can you do? If someone demands that he is drowning in five feet of water, all you can do is tell him to stand up and point him in the direction of the shore. You can’t make him do either.

43 thoughts on “Writing in the Age of Piracy

  1. Will someone please explain to me how a book gets pirated? I’ve seen it done, but for the most part, the book has to be wildly popular – I mean HARRY POTTER wildly popular – before someone scans it into an RTF document.

    I’ve heard all the whining and sniping about the Amazon trick and you know what? Those people are massively stupid because the effort-reward ratio is not in the pirate’s favor.

    I can only shake my head in dismay as I watch writers follow the same mislaid path left by the recording industry, which could have owned the Napsterized download markets back in 1996 had they listened to the very artists they say are being ripped off. The technology – CD burners, high speed Internet, color laser printers – were all in place at the time for commercial use. Only now does the recording industry realize that it was the $20 CD’s full of crap filler tunes that cost them their business, not free MP3’s.

    Writers have even less reason to worry. As I said before, it’s not worth the effort to pirate a book, and not enough people do it to make a difference. Reading a book on Amazon? Well, before you turn your sites on those people, look at all those people sitting in the cafe at Borders and BN reading books then sticking them back on the shelf. Now how much of the reading public do you think they make up? If it’s more than a small fraction, remind me not to let you ride in my car.

    There’s nothing I can’t stand worse than dishonest paranoia.

    I for one won’t be shedding a tear as those corpses rot. I will be holding my nose as they’re already stinking up the joint.

    [Jim is not in a good mood about publishing this week.]

  2. If someone demands that he is drowning in five feet of water, all you can do is tell him to stand up and point him in the direction of the shore.

    or you could just shrug, turn away and chalk up that loss to natural selection, while merrily taking the leap into the electronic age. Adapt or fade away, but for fuck’s sake try not to let them take anyone down with them.

  3. “I believe that 99% of the customers are cheapskates when no one is looking.”

    If that was true and that was all there was to it, publishing would already be dead. Did you know it’s possible to go into a bookstore and read a whole book for free if you have enough time off in the middle of the day? Heck, some book stores even have comfy chairs. I’ve also heard of these place that you let read a book for free as long as you give it back in a few weeks.

    Yea, I’m being a smartass. There already exist many ways to get around buying books. Piracy just adds a few more options. Some people avail themselves of them, most people won’t.

    I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One is convenience and ability. Why go through effort to avoid buying when buying is so much easier? No worry about returning or where you can read. Electronic piracy also requires more knowledge and effort than most people are willing to deal with.

    The second big reason is people like owning stuff. They like big DVD collections even if most of the movies haven’t been watched in the last year. They like possessing a physical book. It’s a collecting thing, like you have a tiny bit of the artist’s soul. Plus you have a collection to show off and illustrate your tastes. An example of this is that many webcomics have decent sales of their print collections even though most or all of the content has already been online.

    Oh, and some people have morality issues about stealing so buy what they read.

    Without more knowledge of the quote, it looks like someone looking for an excuse for current or future failure.

  4. Count me among the proponents and non-dickheads. Not meant in a (strictly) braggadocious manner, I give you even more anecdotal evidence of your theory.

    I came to Whatever by way of Penny Arcade’s link from the Agent book cover (I was referred to PA by a friend). After being stunned by the literary quality of Agent, I copped myself a legal pre-existant hardcover copy. Months went by and I decided to take a look at the sample chapter of OMW. I don’t know why I thought the quality would have gone down, but after reading that chapter, I again procured myself a copy of that work. I guess, in a strictly verbal way, I can’t get enough Scalzi.

    Personally, I congradulate John on following the examples of capitalizing on the technological wave. Certain industries *cough*MPAA*cough fight the tide, but the most profitable among us know how to grock it. To quote one genius: “I just love it when a plan comes together.”

  5. And if you haven’t the wit to make it to shore, then by God, you deserve to die.

    Lines like that are what keep me coming back to this site.

  6. I thought I had better mention one of the most terrible threats to the economic foundations of publishing in our times: libraries. These dens of iniquity have aided me in my nefarious career of reading books without paying for them for many a year now. I would go so far as to say that they have been my main source of free reading matter for four decades. Maybe the publishing industry should lobby congress to have them shut down since they are obviously a channel that could be used to pirate books.

  7. I have a confession to make: I pirated a book. Two, actually. Over the course of two different days, I sat in a Barnes & Nobles and read Hush, by Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, a two-part graphic novel (or 10 volume comic series, collected into two volumes, whichever you prefer), and it was awesome. I don’t usually go in for super-hero comic books, but this had a fantastic story, great art, and great dialogue. If you’re a fan of Batman, in any incarnation, you should read this book.

    I feel a little guilty about this piracy, but the guilt is mitigated by two things:
    1. I tell everybody I know (and, according to John’s site stats, 10,000 random strangers) what a great book it is, and that they should go check it out.
    2. I’m probably going to go buy a copy here in the next few days, because it was that good, and I know I’m going to want to read it again, and it’s kind of frustrating to have to go to the bookstore everytime I want to revisit my favorite parts. And because it’s the right thing to do.

    Traditional doomsaying involves adaptations of the phrase: “The world is going to change, and we’re all going to die.” Anybody who tells you that, and believes it, is ignoring 10,000 years of human history, and the fact that, as a group, we’re pretty good at handling change. Sure things will change in relationship to the selling of words and ideas. Things have changed before – the fact that you’re not selling your words by travelling from city to city singing poems is one indicator of that. Things will change, people will adapt, and business people will find one more way to squeeze money out of us. God bless humanity.

    K

  8. Dear John,
    I can’t even remember how I found your blog, but it looked decent and I added you to my bloglines feed and you’ve been doing a fantastic job entertaining me ever since. (btw, what degree did your wife pursue? I mean her major?)
    My boyfriend writes children’s stories. We shopped them around, entered them in contested, sent them to publishers. Half the time we didn’t even get a rejection slip. Meanwhile, to feed ourselves, we have day jobs. I’m a flight attendant and he teaches golf.
    One day he said to me, “I know the secret of golf.” I told him he better write it down.
    I bought him a used apple iBook. He wrote it down.
    This time though, we decided to publish it ourselves. There are a lot of self-publishing presses/vanity press willing to use the old paradigm to rip off writers. We ended up at Lulu.com.
    We got friends and some of his students involved in the editing process, one of my art director friends made a cover, we used my boyfriend as the model for the pictures so we didn’t have to pay anyone.
    We have a book.
    Granted, it’s not the fiction that he and I love to write, but it’s a book and we made it ourselves and we are trying to create our own publishing model.
    We never worried about pirates.
    We even handed out copies off the laser printer to anyone who wanted to read it. All we wanted in return was to have the typos and funky sentences pointed out. So we’ve got about 80 copies floating around, being passed about to friends of friends of friends. Maybe no one will buy this book, but I’ll bet you that they buy the next one.
    Thank you for writing this entry.
    You fanned the fire under my ass.
    ~Amanda

    http://www.lulu.com/blacktailpress

    to see what we did.

  9. “(btw, what degree did your wife pursue? I mean her major?)”

    Business Management. Since her company way paying for her classes, and that’s one of the degrees that they’d pay for (and conveniently, the one I think she was interested in as it was).

  10. FWIW, I did see OMW at our local mega-bookstore this very eve.

    Someday I’ll even buy it and prolong this paradigm by any means necessary, or some such.

  11. It’s posts like this that keep me coming back, albeit in a lurking manner. It reminded me of an argument that I had recently with someone about the SF mags. They were taking the usual tack — bemoaning the aging, diminishing readerships, ragging on the usual suspects — the “them kids with them there video games and commercials and the music videos” argument, basically. And I kept trying to point out that times just change, and isn’t it weird that Science Fiction, which is all about change and the future and possibilities, has this old element desperately trying to hold on to a pre-WWII paradigm?

    And this isn’t dissing the mags. I love ‘em, and hope they continue in some fashion. But the modes of delivering short content seems to be changing. And that’s rather exciting in the right light…

  12. “Will someone please explain to me how a book gets pirated?”

    Its true that a book has to be reasonably popular before it gets pirated. But not all THAT popular. Pick a random book, not too popular, but by a popular author, and search kazaa, or some of the more elitist file sharing systems. You’ve got an even chance of finding it.

    In any case, the way books really get pirated is that soon, in the future, someone takes the idea of putting books onto a portable electronic medium, runs with it, and starts selling books in electronic format, copyable to that portable electronic medium. Then people hack the copy protection on that electronic format, and an underground distribution starts up.

    I don’t know whether that will “kill the book industry” or whatnot. Libraries seem not to have killed it, and they’re almost like piracy. But piracy is coming, you can be sure of that.

  13. “I don’t know whether that will “kill the book industry” or whatnot. Libraries seem not to have killed it, and they’re almost like piracy. But piracy is coming, you can be sure of that.”

    Goes back to my MP3 rant. Napster didn’t cause a severe slump in the music industry. $20 single disc CD’s did. How fast did people flock to iTunes and the resurrected Napster when they realized they could buy an album for half the price. Or just pay for what they want and skip the filler.

    If anything will kill the publishing industry, it will be the advent of the $40 hardcover. Which is not too far off.

  14. Well, John, I’ve got to hand it all to you (and your friends and fans). I’ve learnt far more about the business of writing sitting at your knee, than I could ever get out of published books. Way back when it was all a great mystery. Now there is hope, or at least a path to follow and experiment with.

    I think that the WHATEVER page is a glowing example of what an individual writer can accomplish moving under his own steam with current technology. You have the means to express yourself directly to your adoring fans…and I, for one, am grateful. Keep up the good work!

  15. “What is at the heart of this business model is pirate-proof content: You can’t steal free content. And what Penny Arcade sells, it’s difficult to steal.”

    I dunno. It wouldn’t be that hard to make and sell ‘pirate’ Penny Arcade merchandise. All it’d require is some Photoshop skillz and a CafePress store (though such a site might not stay up long).

    Worst case would be counterfeit limited-editions and such.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think many works of non-visual fiction lend themselves to this kind of merchandising, and writing with merchandising in mind just leads you to put ewoks in.

    The age-old merchandising approach has been the offering of signed items. Yet the ‘unattended store appearance’ is practically a cliche, having even appeared in Spinal Tap 20 years ago. (And, this suggests that ‘touring’ isn’t available as an alternate revenue source, as is always suggested for musicians. Given the age of many authors, frequent touring wouldn’t be advisable if it *were* a feasible revenue source.)

    It’s too bad role-playing games aren’t (AFAIK) as popular as they once were. That would be a good avenue for merchandising; some fiction doesn’t have merchandisable characters, but has a setting that would be marketable as an RPG supplement.

    For example, I’m not sure Iain Banks’ Culture novels would provide much material for image-based merchandising. (There being no recognizable images shared among readers, apart from ship names.) But it would make a pretty nice setting for an RPG.

  16. “I don’t think many works of non-visual fiction lend themselves to this kind of merchandising.”

    Dunno about that. Seems like a whole lot of works have a considerable amount of visual stuff spring up in their wake, although by and large it’s fantasy stuff that does this.

  17. This reminds me, believe it or not, of an article from an Uncle John’s book. It was a graduation speech by Steve Jobs, I think (or possibly some other high-ranking Apple-archon).

    He talked about how ice-cutters focused on developing new, improved methods of cutting ice, transporting ice, storing ice, and built better and better iceboxes, until that new-fangled refrigeration technology swept them away.

    Of course, that’s not entirely applicable. I think treeware books will always remain, simply because you can read them in the tub, and while eating, without risk of short-circuiting them or inadvertantly covering the screen beneath a daub of horseradish.

  18. soon, in the future, someone takes the idea of putting books onto a portable electronic medium, runs with it, and starts selling books in electronic format, copyable to that portable electronic medium

    What’s this ‘in the future’ stuff?

    You can fill up your PDA of choice with e-books that are cheaper than the dead tree variety. You can get free e-books for things out of copyright, and I’m sure (though I’ve never looked) that you can find pirated copies of any book you wish.

    Yet somehow, paperbacks still live in the age of the Treo. How’d that happen?

  19. “Listen to me now: Writers are not in the publishing industry. The publishing industry exists to handle the output of writers and distribute it in an effective and hopefully profitable way; however it does not necessarily follow that writer’s only option is the publishing industry, especially not now”

    Same thing with music. Everyone has fallen into this Hollywood trap where we think the ‘companies’ control our art. You don’t ‘get signed’. You simply sign.

    It’s expensive to contract a large company so when just starting out it’s important to always have the D.Y.I.(Do it yourself) attitude. Cheap but quality alternatives.
    One of the banes of that is allot of start ups use poor quality alternatives and that can hurt their career allot. Even if semi-successful or post-successful like Motley Crue. They’re playing arenas again on their own label as well as Iron Maiden. My Favs.

  20. Excellent, excellent piece, John. (Is it an article, or a column? I’m not sure.)

    I don’t think that anyone can predict where all this is going to wind up, but you have already adapted to the changes that have occurred to this point, and it is clear that you will continue to adapt. This, I think, means that you are smarter than I am, and that people in my position would do well to listen to what you say. I intend to.

  21. Funniest thing I hope never to see

    Editors are on the corners with signs that say “WILL EDIT YOUR ‘WILL WORK FOR FOOD’ SIGN FOR FOOD.” — John Scalzi (His sinking ship metaphor is a lot more biting than my coastal town metaphor, BTW.)…

  22. I dunno. It wouldn’t be that hard to make and sell ‘pirate’ Penny Arcade merchandise. All it’d require is some Photoshop skillz and a CafePress store (though such a site might not stay up long).

    Even if it does stay up, when you google for Penny Arcade merch, what are you going to hit first, the pirate site or the real site?

  23. Warning: Penny Arcade in-joke ahead.

    Besides, we all know what happens when The Merch is not satiated with enough purchases. I shudder to even contemplate the wrath of The Merch when knock-off items go up for grabs….

  24. Oh, for fuck’s sake.

    Publishers have launched themselves from the windows of their corner offices to publish themselves on the pavement in splattery limited editions of one.

    You have such a way with words, have you ever thought of becoming a professional writer?

    But seriously, piracy has existed in some form for centuries. And every time technology advances you hear from all the Chicken Littles about the sky falling. I’m sure if you were a 15th century scribe you weren’t too happy to see the printing press come along either.

    The process of creating, editing and publishing the written word will not be going away any time soon. What will no doubt change is the method of delivering that content.

    The easiest way to combat piracy is to make the work accessible for a price that the consumer will accept. It’s only when the consumer feels ripped off that they look for alternatives (and that is true no matter what the product is).

  25. David Moles writes: “Even if it does stay up, when you google for Penny Arcade merch, what are you going to hit first, the pirate site or the real site?”

    What if you use EBay? In that case, second-hand authentic merchandise will be mixed up with sketchy merchandise.

  26. My $0.02: I frequently impulse-buy books. I did so just the other day from Amazon.com: Charles Stross’s “Singularity Sky,” which was an Amazon.com suggestion on my home page. Then I bought Steven Gould’s sequel to “Jumper,” which has been recommended to me a couple of times; I enjoyed “Jumper” and happened to be at my computer when I thought about it, so why not?

    As others have said in this thread: It’s easier to buy books than go hunting around for questionable-quality bootlegs online. And that’s true even of music, where the bootlegs are more plentiful.

    As to the value of posting for free and blogging: I bought “Old Man’s War” based on the pimping you’ve given here, and on my years of enjoyment of this blog. I downloaded “Agent to the Stars” and liked it okay. I didn’t think it was great, but I liked it enough to keep reading to the end.

    Now, a critic might say that “Agent to the Stars” was a lost sale. And that’s true. I probably would have bought it if it was available in pb or inexpensive hardcover at some point.

    On the other hand, my reading and enjoying two books by an author seems to be some kind of threshold for me. John Scalzi is now on my short list of authors whose books I automatically buy, without thought. So the availability of free Scalzi has resulted in the Scalzi family getting more of my money than it would if the free Scalzi did not exist.

    I mean, if the blog did not exist, I almost certainly would not have read any Scalzi fiction. There’s just too much good fiction out there, and not enough time for me to ready any but a small fraction of it.

  27. I will admit to buying a pirated copy of several volumnes of manga…a 28 volume series, scanned in page by page, on one CD. Saved me lots of money.

  28. John, if I may be allowed to play in your sandbox again, underlying much of this is a misunderstanding of “real” and people seeking an external validation that is valueless anyhow. I’ll expand. Last week I had the decided pleasure of speaking to second graders about writing and being an author. One of the questions I recieved suprised me a bit (and made me feel like a velveteen rabbit). “When do you know you are real?” It took me a minute to understand what she meant and then a little longer to realize that there are adults wandering around with the same question. I sense that somewhere in the root of all this is the idea that you’re not a real writer until you sell X number of copies or make a certian amount of money or jump through any number of artificial, industry created burning hoops. I certianly don’t want to sound like a member of a feel-good arts and flowers poetry society for the affirmation of losers but no amount of sales makes you “real” and no lack of sales can take it away. The only thing killing the publishing industry today is the publishing industry itself. If it doesn’t adapt, we’ll move on past it, circumvent and invent where we need to, and the “real” writers will continue to find a way to ply our trade. I don’t want to clutter up your blog with a psycological(sp) breakdown of the various schools and types of authors and mindsets but I cannot escape the feeling that the piracy argument is a smokescreen for a deeper insecurity. Words are cheap (about 3 cents each) so I place this on the table for consideration. In the worst case senario, I’ve only wasted a bit of time. Aquaintance of dubious merit, MKeaton

  29. What I’d love to see — and haven’t, anywhere, yet — is a workable online library with a modest subscription fee, or even cheap-ish pay-as-you-go model. I’m presently stuck in a fairly small apartment, with extremely limited storage space. My wife and I own about twice as many books as we can presently store in the apartment, so I’ve got a sharp interest in being able to buy and read books without having to store the physical containers, not to mention the ability to take a bunch of them wherever I’m going. On top of that, I just don’t always have the time to run to the library or a bookstore. Life’s been busy of late, and if I have a spare thirty minutes, I’d rather spend it reading than travelling somewhere to buy books.

    Unfortunately for me, the e-publishing industry is still in a sorry state, with multiple, incompatible, sometimes rights-management-encrusted formats. I want to be able to pass my purchases between a PocketPC, a Palm, several desktops, and two laptops without having to worry about converting anything, transferring licenses, or any other headaches. This seems to remain a problem for Fictionwise, linked above by mythago. I don’t have to deal with this garbage when I read paper books, and I’m not going to make an exception for a new medium.

    (Aside: The formats really are a killer. Most common ebook formats seem to have some kind of crippling problem. I can only read Microsoft Reader ebooks on a PocketPC or a Windows PC, PDFs are slow to render even on fast hand-helds, and ebooks intended for Palm can only be read on one unless converted, which often they can’t be. (Palm is especially annoying, because a .PDB is really just a container for any of dozens of different internal formats, from plaintext to various protected types.) I can read RTF or HTML anywhere, but for some *cough* reason, those formats don’t seem to be popular choices for ebook distribution.)

    I’d love to see four things:

    * The ability to sample a couple chapters of a book before I purchase it. I can already do this in a bookstore or library, and I’m not going to give up the option because the container changed.

    * The ability to re-download already-purchased books wherever I am. I want as much convenience as I can get my hands on.

    * A usable “You might also be interested in” tool so I can find more stuff to read with minimal time wasted.

    * A large selection, with no mysterious gaps. This is another problem with existing services, like Fictionwise (not to pick on them exclusively, but they’re handy). I can buy the second and third Leary books by David Drake, but not the first, and the most recent one isn’t there, either. A lot of his stuff’s still in print and/or recently reprinted, but only a tiny handful of his books are available through FW. More examples: Orson Scott Card is almost nonexistent, and they’ve got nothing from Mr. Scalzi.

    Online distribution should be a natural for books. If nothing else, the storage and distribution costs per book — or even per author — are so small as to be almost nonexistent.

  30. Mitch: I appreciate the tip, but I’m afraid I don’t want to be tied to a proprietary format that could cause me problems down the road. The company could go out of business, or stop supporting a platform I use, or obsolete the current format, or– you get the idea. If I’m going to buy a book, I want a reasonable assurance that I can still read it in ten years. Or more than that, better yet.

    I’m just not willing to touch ebooks until they’re distributed in a completely open, widely-accepted format.

  31. Joshua, that’s a reasonable attitude.

    For that reason, I think of e-books today as disposable commodities. I just accept the fact that they might be GONE at some point. Or the virtual equivalent of gone–unreadable.

  32. Whomever the doomsayer was also missed a fundamental point – bibliophiles exist, and in large quantities.
    I am filled with a feeling of unease in a house with no books, or with a bookshelf filled with identically spined “classics” or encyclopedias bought only for show. Books tell you who the inhabitants of a house are. I’m not going to wear a t-shirt of book art in the same way I might wear a Calvin & Hobbes or Penny Arcade T-Shirt because the artists never replicate the visual image my own brain produces in reading: but a meaningful book will be displayed on my (overflowing) bookshelf.
    Where it will no doubt be eventually stolen by a friend.

  33. Whoever started the adage that writers need to generate income from their writing is obviously dead. Drawing from that correlation, it seems that writers who eat their writing tend not to be very healthy. When I buy books, I don’t go around it imagining myself to be feeding a starved drowning author.

  34. Whoever started the adage that writers need to generate income from their writing is obviously dead. Drawing from that correlation, it seems that writers who eat their writing tend not to be very healthy. When I buy books, I don’t go around it imagining myself to be feeding a starved drowning author.

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