Monday, February 01, 2010
eBooks, Piracy, and Stockpiling
Caleb Crain’s excellent overview of what 2010 may have in store for book sales makes a very convincing case for the significance and likely effects of Amazon’s decision this week to use a “nuclear” option on a recalcitrant publisher, Macmillan. Amazon caved sometime after Crain had post, but his analysis of the move’s importance and the background for it is very much still worth reading.
Crain argues that what is being fought over between Amazon and Macmillan is not, in fact, profits or even profitability (he says the way this particular argument is playing out is in effect a contest “to see to see who can lose more money” per book) but simply over who is controlling the “intermediary steps somewhere between the creation of a book and the reading of it,” although I would change the phrasing to “whether publishing companies can retain control over those intermediary steps, which include negotiations over royalties, price points, and the strategy of whether and how to release eBooks alongside printed books.” Crain’s phrasing makes it sound like either side could potentially lose control, but that’s not entirely accurate—Amazon has a lot to win but not much to lose; publishers could lose a whole lot, but they have very little (if anything) more they can win by facing down Amazon’s demands—even retention of what control they have now does not exactly look like a prize the way things have been going. (Crain in a way acknowledges this earlier in the post.)
Crain also discusses Amazon’s strategy for the Kindle, and does so very insightfully:
When Amazon first introduced its Kindle reading device, the reception was tepid. But Amazon improved the device in later models, and thanks to its aggressive low pricing on e-books, it now reports that the Kindle and e-books are selling briskly. In other words, with the money that it has lost by discounting e-books, Amazon has bought market share for its e-book reader and for itself as an e-book retailer. To put it still another way, Amazon sped up the American public’s adoption of e-books by unilaterally lowering the American public’s idea of what the natural price of an e-book should be.
Essentially, Amazon’s decision to convince consumers that $9.95 is the right price for an eBook has backed Amazon into a corner, but it still has the publishers as a buffer between it and the wall. Any pressure from consumers on the price point, and it will be the publishers who get squeezed.
What also gets squeezed, or I should say what gets squeezed the most, is the ability of publishers to continue printing books on paper. As Crain says, “It may not be possible for a single company to publish e-books at that price and also retain the infrastructure necessary to publish ink-on-paper books.” I added the emphasis, but I think it’s pretty obvious that it has to be there: as I noted above, one of the forms of control at stake in this haggling over price points is the publisher’s ability to determine how or even whether to release eBook versions alongside the printed product. If Amazon is committed to wresting control over price points for eBooks, it’s also exerting indirect control over what the profit margins have to be for printed books to compensate for the losses incurred over eBooks. Being print-first (organizing one’s whole production chain from acquisition to fulfillment around the print copies of a book) may end up being a luxury no publisher can afford.
That’s the supply side, more or less. Being (at this point) completely unconnected to the supply side (knowing only a couple of people well who work in publishing and virtually no authors), I’m more interested in the demand side. Here are some thoughts:
One reason to oppose increased control for Amazon/increased pressure on printed books is a preference for (or fetishism of) the printed book. I find this less than convincing, especially when I begin thinking about the carbon footprint of my library (which isn’t often, but painful when it happens).
Fetishism and environmentalism aside, though, I would imagine that a reduction in the number of books being printed each year (especially since any reductions would likely come for older, modestly selling titles rather than for new titles) will mean that used book prices will go up. (If the only way you’re going to find a printed copy of, say, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress is in a used book store, don’t you think some used bookstores—especially the good ones—will know that?) That will be a bummer. (Okay, this is still kind of a supply issue rather than a demand issue.)
Somewhat relatedly, Crain brings up piracy, making the assumption that piracy will correlate positively with increased eBook prices: $15 books will be pirated more than $10 ones. I’m not so sure this is actually the way it works, but it’s really irrelevant if it’s the way that publishers and Amazon (and Apple and the rest) think it works, because the way they respond will, if music companies are any guide, be far more predicated on how they think piracy works and how much it’s hurting them than on how things actually function. If the perception is that piracy goes up with the price point, assuming that Amazon isn’t totally successful and fails to force everyone (all the publishers and Apple and Sony) to assent to a $9.95 price point, the incentive will be high for everyone to make sure that their product isn’t the one being pirated. This means DRM junk, much more proprietary file formats and more expensive proprietary hardware, and just many more headaches generally.
But I think it is important to be clear on what eBook piracy probably will look like, and while I had some thoughts about this beforehand, reading this interview with a “Book Pirate" essentially confirmed my speculations. Behaviorally, book pirates will proceed much like I did when I first got my Kindle: they will load their hard drives with free stuff. I found mine in the public domain, as many others seem to have, but the process is basically going to be the same.
The principal difference, it seems, between at least the public rhetoric of piracy and the actual habits of readers (or of music listeners or of film watchers—these activities are identical in this respect) is that the assumption in the first case is that books or music albums or films are acquired to be consumed, but the reality is that the majority of what is acquired is not truly consumed at all. Rather, it is stockpiled. The bookcase or stack of books with more unread than read titles on it is a familiar image to most readers, as is the CD rack stuffed mostly with albums you haven’t listened to in many years (if you ever did). Stockpiling is, consciously or not, the purpose of the vast majority of our acquisitions, whether that is buying new, buying used, receiving as a gift, borrowing from a library or friend, or downloading illegally. We acquire to store, not to use.
This is not an insignificant or idle distinction because it is stockpiling and not consumption that shapes the desires and habits of piracy. Piracy is, most simply and most frequently, accelerated stockpiling—not an attempt to avoid buying something we intend to consume (to read, watch, or listen to immediately or in the near future). As the book pirate says in the interview, “a download does not translate to a lost sale.” It may, but it often does not, and that is in large part, the media industry’s collective fault.
Mass culture hooked us on stockpiling: units cheap enough to buy without regard to need, constant advertising and prods to purchase for the sake of purchasing, a huge but barely differentiated menu of products—all these factors, the basic DNA of the culture industry in the classic sense, are now playing out under new circumstances as a desire to fill our hard drive with more music than we will ever listen to, television shows or films that we may never watch, and now with text files we’ll probably never read.
Jacques Attali’s bizarre little study Noise details some of the more abstract consequences of the economics of stockpiling (e.g.), but the concrete point that is somewhere in his analysis is that stockpiling is pleasurable in a way that even purchasing is not. The very process of searching for and acquiring difficult-to-find media—whether that is in the bowels of a used bookstore or on a bitTorrent site—is inherently pleasurable and does not diminish very much with repetition, or even with failure. You might always find it tomorrow, and if you find it today, there will be something else to find tomorrow.
Stockpiling, for better or worse, has been for some time now an independent source of pleasure, connected to but distinct from (or, one might say, in excess of) regular consumption. The convenience of downloading alongside or in conjunction with other forms of digital entertainment has only increased the pleasure of stockpiling as an activity. And the funny part of the logic here is that the efforts of companies to set obstacles toward downloading only makes the chase more interesting.
Before I start sounding like I’m advocating piracy, let me draw back and admit that I am not. I want to make a case, though, that the primary way we think about it—as a substitute for legal consumption—misses the point because what “legal consumption” consists of sorely needs to be re-theorized. We already stockpile ceaselessly, whether we’ve ever downloaded something illegally or not. It is a hugely significant aspect of the logic of consumerism, especially within the media and entertainment sector, and failing to differentiate it as an activity from other forms of consumption is a serious gap in our understanding of the dynamics of consumer and producer behavior.
Perhaps record and publishing companies do understand it; perhaps they realize that the behavior of their paying customers is largely about purchasing things that won’t be read, seen, or heard, or will only barely be sampled. But if they know that, then they have collectively done very little to amend their strategies to taking advantage of this hoarding, stockpiling instinct. Perhaps stockpiling is the bad conscience of the culture industry—the truth that most of it isn’t consumed in the strictest sense is the reality that most in the industry don’t want to face. Like many other things, I doubt it is a luxury many can continue to afford.
When you can hold the contents of the library of congress (Movies, audio, and text) on a single drive in your pocket, the concept of stockpiling media will be obsolete. It’s not a question of “will” this happen, but when.
Collectors that are nostalgic for objects will have continue to collect but for all practical purposes “generation screen” will not have the need to stockpile objects. It is a part of culture now to stockpile but i think that will change. My CD cases, cassettes, and records are all in the attic as well my Atari 2600 cartridges. I’m a bibliophile, but my shelves of books will be seen by generation screen as some sort of fetish as soon as e-readers become as cheap and ubiquitous as the iPod.
Why is this not stockpiling? At least in the terms I mean it, the actual spatial aspect of collecting physical objects has very little to do with the concept--it is more about the activities and behaviors associated with it--some of which are spatialized, but not all.
Andrew, I think because data does not have the same fetish quality. I “could” have a compressed world of data in my pocket. But if I could also access that data, streaming from someone else and you get defacto ownership. You don’t have to seek out rare media. If someone has it, sooner or later everyone can have it. For free.
For a writer, you could create super deluxe versions of your work. Really beautiful versions that appeal to some fans. But for the most part people will choose “free” because reading is an experience that takes place for the most part in the your Cartesian theater, not as a result of the material tactile feel of the page.
I agree people still like to have things, but I think those things will be ancillary to the text. I think what will happen is writers that do not want to self promote will have to be subsidized by micro grants or institutions. And movies will be beamed in by an encrypted signal via satellite and the thing you “stockpile” is the experience that you cannot own.
You make very good points, but I’m skeptical that the acquisitive nature will so lightly be thrown off. And I do think data has and will continue to have a fetish quality.
For instance, Pandora is probably a good example of the type of streaming experience which you’re saying will replace stockpiling. Yet I imagine a very large proportion of Pandora users do not have empty hard drives; many probably also have iPods which are about as classical a stockpile as you can find. Pandora is used for discovering new music or to expand temporarily the amount of music one has access to beyond what one “owns.” Neither function actually threatens the desire to own or to stockpile; they, in fact, are the ancillary functions, especially given that many people reportedly use Pandora to find new music to buy or to download.
It’s really only those types of media, I feel, for which we don’t already have a strong stockpiling habit—movies are the prime example—which can probably be truly shifted to a perfect on-demand distribution. We are used to renting movies or going to see them in theaters—we are used to not acquiring them but just experiencing them. I don’t see that being true for books or for music, and I think the acquisitive and hoarding patterns of behavior in which we are set will at least take a very long time to be erased--even if the technology is there to do it.
Andrew, I think you are on to something important about our acquisitive nature but things are changing slightly.
I think a lack of scarcity makes you less likely to stockpile. With media, for example I collected all DVDs from directors that I like. I bought “Synecdoche, New York” because I like Paul Thomas Andrerson movies. But after buying it and lending it to my friends that could endure that depressing movie, it kind of just sits there. It is also down the street in the library. I see it there all the time. If I saw it at the library first, I would not own it.
You are less likely to covet air and diamonds are just sparkly rubble if they are everyhwere.
But I would like to see what you think about the aquisitive nature and the difference between atoms and bits. See Chris Anderson’s article in Wired “Atoms are the new bits” http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/
My feeling is that data is increasingly seen as something akin to air or water. and to extrapolate further to bits, with molecular manufacturing things will be made (and copied) just as easy as on the internet. So the the value of acquiring things will be become less of a part of our cultural DNA. However, this is an interesting topic and I hope to hear more about it from you here at The Valve.