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Jun 27 2015

Publishing, Copyright, and the Economics of Abundance

If you love books you should read this long article on publishing by Richard Nash: ‘What is the Business of Literature’. In it, Nash postulates that publishing was the first industry in the world to confront the realities of post-scarcity economics, due to advances in printing presses lowering the cost of entry.

Nash says:

“Advances in printing itself (bigger, faster, more colors), along with allied manufacturing and advances in distribution (faster, higher, further), meant that books were able to penetrate deep into society, woven into the fabric of the everyday.”

The publishing industry responded with artificial scarcity. First by gentlemen’s agreements, then by Copyright law, they enabled themselves to continue printing books at a higher rate of return than would have otherwise been the case.

But, you say, Copyright law protects the author! Well, yes. But that wasn’t always the case. And the modern formalization of Copyright law still protects the publisher disproportionately. Why? Well since an author can not sell a book without access to a printing press and a distribution mechanism, the publisher retains the upper hand.

As Nash puts it:

“Copyright, though nominally instituted to encourage the creation of a work, has as its only logical purpose the encouragement of the reproduction of the work.”

You see, any system dependent on scarcity creates two classes of people: those who have something and others who want it. The class of those who have the thing naturally want to maximize the value they can extract from it.

Artificial scarcity is no different. It requires a class system and generates elites. In the end it consolidates power with the elites. In this case the elites are not the ones creating the thing in question! (The writers) Instead they are the ones standing between those who create and those who consume. (The publishers.) And they use the power of law to arbitrage that position.

They decide what is ‘literature’ and what is not. They decide what is ‘publishable’ and what is not. They are the ones controlling access to the reader, so the writer must apply to them for that access. Copyright, therefore, acts in the favor of the publisher even when it is bestowed upon the author!

All well and good, so long as the people making those choices truly are the elites. So long as their personal tastes allow them to honestly pick the best of those manuscripts arriving over the transom. In that case the reader benefits from the winnowing and the artificial scarcity it creates.

Fast-forward 200 years? You end up with publishing empires. Seven companies producing most published books. Outside there exists a rebel alliance of small publishers and indie publishers and self-publishers. But inside the accountants became increasingly more powerful than the editors. The winnowing became less about what is good and more about what is marketable.

These are not the same things.

And the rebel alliance? Well, it isn’t really allied. Instead it is a mixed bag of individuals and small companies each looking towards their own success and not to how they, as a group, can resist the empires.

But, you say, what about digital publishing? What about ebooks? What about the web? What about the Long Tail?

Well, what about them? Things have changed a little, but mostly in terms of which empire is controlling access to the reader. (A battle is still being waged on that front.) Even the explosion of blogs on the web petered out as blogs themselves became commercial enterprises.

It is apparent the economics of abundance tends to encourage the creation of artificial scarcity.

Think about that for a minute. Ever read Ian M. Banks ‘Culture’ novels? One of the features of The Culture is a post-scarcity economic structure. In many ways this economic structure is the final triumph of the proletariat, as no one controls access to anything. Even drugs can be produced by glands in each individual. Nothing is scarce.

So, ask your self this: Would The Culture allow Copyright? Or would allowing any kind of artificial scarcity collapse the system?

I suspect the latter. Yes, we are talking about an imaginary anarchist utopia. But the imperatives are such that it can only work if everything, except reputation, is free. Free as in liberty, not free as in beer. In the end it is about people making choices for themselves.

In Nash’s article, he comes to a similar conclusion:

“Richard Stallman has argued that the central bargain in copyright is that the public gives up a right they couldn’t actually use. Until recently, it was more expensive to make a copy of a book than it was to simply buy the book. So when society agreed to grant authors and publishers the monopoly, it was a good bargain. Now that the public can make copies of something, they are giving up a right they could in fact enjoy—or, rather, the public has proceeded to make copies anyway, regardless of the previous bargain, a kind of jury nullification. As with any law that loses the consent of the governed because it no longer reflects the logic of society, the law is not overturned, just ignored. It recedes into the past, like laws forbidding pigs to enter saloons or alcohol sold on Sundays or adultery or interracial marriage.”

Nash then goes on to discuss how new manufacturing technologies are tending the same way. This then leading to the entrenched empires fighting back with every tool at their disposal. (Mostly lawyers.) He even quotes Shirky’s Rule: “Institutions will try to preserve the problems to which they are a solution.”

Unfortunately Nash’s solution is essentially more of the same:

“Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian. The business of literature is blowing shit up.”

Why is that more of the same? Because he still assumes the reader needs an editor to decide what is good and what isn’t. So far as I can tell, providing a role for the acquiring editor means continuing to provide for some level of artificial scarcity.

I’m not sure where that goes, even if we ignore the question of how the author gets paid. Is it possible to redefine the role of the editor to not include the publishing step? (There are a lot of ‘lone gun’ editors and story fixers out there, so that might be a start.) And even if we do, shouldn’t there remain some kind of filtering mechanism to make it easier to separate the gold from the dross?

So there needs to be some kind of way for people with tastes similar to yours to recommend or simply rate things. Some way for the reader to easily find that other ten percent of Sturgeon’s Law.

Because the other thing that is abundant is opinions. And short of either a complete collapse of civilization or a crushing dictatorship sending little old ladies to jail for forwarding cat pictures, the economics of abundance will take precendence over the law of the land.