That the internet has had a profound effect on our world is so obvious that it barely needs stating. In terms of its ability to create long-term social change it’s on a par with the printing press, or indeed just about any major technological and scientific development you care to mention. But what effect will all of this have on the arts, and on literature specifically?
The internet has, possibly, changed the old buyer-seller dynamic forever, though the impact on certain industries has been greater than on others. Those selling straightforwardly physical objects, such as socks or furniture, have perhaps been less affected (such, at least, is my guess). Others, such as the music or film industries, have been deeply (some would say mortally) wounded by these developments. Piracy and file-sharing are rampant, with many consumers reluctant to pay for an album or film that they can get for free.
And, where the film and music industries now tread, there too the publishing industry may soon follow. As books have increasingly moved off paper and onto e-readers, so piracy has flourished. There are probably enough pirated eBooks on the internet to keep the most avid reader going for years. How does this, and will this, affect writers? Are we slowly moving into an era in which writers had better write for love, because money will not be forthcoming? (All of this feeds into some more general, if rather fanciful, speculation: what if the buyer-seller model imploded altogether? What would happen to art? Would it wither and die, or become ever more vigorous and interesting? But I digress…)
As regards pirated books specifically, I’m largely in agreement with Joe Konrath that piracy is only a major concern if we let it be. To my mind, there are basically two types of reader: one is willing to pay a fair price for a book, and the other isn’t. The first type will; the second type wouldn’t in any case, so little has been lost. That, at least, is how I see the situation at the moment. But as technology enables information and content to be shared ever more quickly and efficiently, and as piracy becomes ever more acceptable, might there come a day when paying an artist for his or her art seems as quaint and outmoded as the patronage system of old?
I recently came across this talk by musician Amanda Palmer, in which she turns the whole question of piracy on its head. It’s worth viewing, if you can spare the time. (The only really awkward moment comes when Palmer mentions that she set her crowd funding target at $100,000 and ended up with over $1 million, at which point the entire audience bursts into spontaneous applause. It’s as if, in their minds, everything she’s been saying up to that point has merely been a prelude to the announcement of this figure. Filthy lucre indeed!)
Palmer is interesting because, in a music industry that is reeling from the knock-on effects of the internet, she actually encourages people to share her music freely. She doesn’t demand money for her music, which is in line with the more traditional model; she asks for it. A few examples: she makes her album available to download on a “pay what you want” basis (“if you’re broke – take it,” she writes, winningly), and openly encourages people to share and copy it. She cuts costs during her tours by sleeping on people’s couches. People turning up at her live gigs are encouraged to donate money, but only if they want to – a little like a church collection, though I’m not sure whether Palmer would welcome the comparison. Her past job as a street artist may perhaps have had a hand in her outlook: everyone walking down a given street can stop to gawp at a living statue, or listen to the same group of buskers. It’s up to them to decide whether they’re sufficiently impressed to dig into their pockets and throw some money into the upturned hat.
Admittedly, Palmer is not to everyone’s taste, and has attracted adoration and opprobrium in roughly equal measure. Her fundraising practices wouldn’t work for everyone (in fact, they’d probably only work for a small minority of people), because she’s an unashamed extrovert. She’s not afraid to turn up at a complete stranger’s house and give a little impromptu concert. (The thought of me turning up on your doorstep strumming a ukulele is bearable only because you can be sure that it will never, ever happen.) She had a traditional record deal before she went her own way, which probably helped to win her the support she now enjoys. She’s married to Neil Gaiman, which probably doesn’t do any harm.
Still, Palmer offers an interesting example in these times, when many of the long-term repercussions of the internet are just beginning to make themselves felt. A traditional rock star – sweeping around behind the darkened windows of a limo, avoiding the very people who made her famous – Palmer is not. She encourages direct contact with fans, in large part through the social media that has been such a game-changer for all of us.
And all of this can, of course, be viewed in the context of publishing. Piracy isn’t going away; as technology develops, it will only become bigger and better. The moment a book is available in a digital format, and distributed as such, it’s easily pirated. Does Palmer, with her “ask rather than demand” philosophy, offer a way forward? Or will the traditional buying and selling channels always find a way to keep the upper hand?
This post is reblogged from Authors Electric.