We’ve known for some time that the monopoly of traditional publishers (on the production and distribution of books) has been blown away by digital technology. The power of self-appointed gatekeepers to determine what is, and what is not, read is still shredding in the gale, likewise the bloc of other intermediaries between author and reader: agents, printers, binders, distributors, and physical bookstores whether selling new or second-hand.
The removal of these intermediaries allows book-prices to decline, since fewer salaries and overheads need to be financed by readers. The high ebook price of J K Rowling’s new novel smacks of desperation as much as greed, and is being savagely punished on Amazon by one-star reviews based merely on price.
While that is unfair to the author and is in apparent contravention of Amazon’s own reviewing guidelines, the review pages are the only realistic platform where readers can express their disapproval. You might say to such readers: “If you don’t want to pay the price, don’t buy the book,” which would be fine were it not for (a) the level of hype that preceded the launch and (b) the loyalty and patience of the Harry Potter fans at whom the hype was largely aimed.
In the event, of course, a pirated ebook of The Casual Vacancy appeared on publication day. Who knows how many disgruntled readers have downloaded it, or what revenue Hachette has lost thereby? And who knows how many of those readers, thus educated in the ways of piracy, will continue to download unauthorized texts rather than pay for them?
If Rowling had priced her ebook at, say, $4.99 (after all, the print version runs to 500-odd pages) and published it herself, she would have satisfied her readership and made more money from it to boot. The novel would then have been judged exclusively on its literary quality.
The collapse of the old publishing model is simply part of a much larger picture. Like traditional publishing, politics and the law are in for a nasty shock. Have a look at this terrific presentation from Clay Shirky:
Gatekeepers of all kinds will lose their jobs. Take, for example, editors of newspapers. At the moment an editor decides which murders to cover. In Washington DC, the murders of African-Americans are low down the list of editorial priorities. A white, affluent reader is left with only a vague awareness that such murders are going on; but every murder is an affront to society, and every murder is important. The knowledge of, and concern about, all murders in Washington have now been democratized by Homicide Watch, a remarkable project to which I was alerted by Clay Shirky’s blog.
The Web is only just beginning to change our lives. At present our polity is infested with cynical, dysfunctional parasites whose decisions are at best questionable. The idea that we could be rid of them, that true democracy could replace elected dictatorship, is only in its infancy, but it is truly inspiring, a wonderful source of hope, the sovereign nourishment of the soul.
You see it manifested in the applause Clay Shirky gets after his talk: people of all shapes and sizes spontaneously rising to their feet.
Web 3.0? Bring it on!