Art as Traffic

The electronic book speeds the process of moving from manuscript to finished product while reducing the cost of duplication and distribution to zero. It’s possible to envision a future economy where readers download all the books they want for free. In today’s existing economy the only technological barriers to free downloads are artificial ones, strapped onto the e-books by their distributors in order to protect their merchandise. Suppose those artificial restrictions are lifted or, more likely, hacked, enabling free, immediate, on-demand, unlimited downloads of all e-books. Most authors already earn next to nothing, and yet the numbers of new books being published and self-published every year is increasing exponentially. Already there’s a wealth of free textual content out there on the internet. Let history take its course and the alternative free-book economy might emerge spontaneously. With even the remotest hope of making a buck having been extinguished, perhaps only those writers truly committed to literary excellence would persist. The alternative, of course, is at least as likely: the field of free e-books would be littered with compulsive crackpots and egotistical hobbyists whose quantity exceeds their quality, whose eagerness outstrips their self-critique.

In today’s economy books are commodities, bought by readers one at a time. The publishing industry limits the supply of books available to readers, both by selecting which books are to be published and by charging a per-book price to readers. Then comes the sales push. The book industry is largely supply-driven: first the book gets written, then it’s selected for publication, edited, formatted, printed, distributed, and sold. Only rarely is a book written in response to reader demand. Instead, readers shop. The books try to make themselves appealing to the casual shopper with eye-grabbing cover art, punchy back-cover blurbs from noted authors and critics, dramatic plot précises and alluring character sketches, highlights of the authors’ credentials and charismata. Then comes the rollout, with prominent positioning in bookstore displays, ads, author’s book tours, well-placed reviews – the industry devotes considerable effort to putting its selected offerings in front of potential buyers.

In our speculative future economy books are no longer commodities, their per-copy price having dropped to zero. Plenty of writers are still writing plenty of books, but with no money to be made there are no more publishing houses, no brick-and-mortar bookstores, no online booksellers. The new era of the free book eliminates the industry’s artificial restriction on the supply of books, but it also eliminates the industry’s artificial stimulation of buyer demand through marketing. A weird new ecology of motivations could emerge, where the reader’s freedom of choice is effectively neutered by a lack of desire to choose. Unlimited supply meets nonexistent demand. Writers, expecting a new wave of readership for their free books, find readership drying up. Without readers, the writers eventually stop writing – the glut of free books would take care of itself.

You get what you deserve, so if you don’t get paid then what you do is worthless. You get what you pay for, so if you don’t have to pay for something then it’s not worth having. Capitalism is the generator that keeps the cycle of supply and demand moving. If the capitalist engine is short-circuited, then society stagnates. People lose their desires and the energy for fulfilling them. If book money stops circulating then readers stop reading and writers stop writing.

I don’t really believe it. There’s enough intrinsic motivation to read and to write that new books would continue circulating even if the money doesn’t. I do, however, expect that the circuitry would be altered, perhaps profoundly, if books were no longer bought and sold as commodities [– if instead, for example, books were collectively curated and distributed as societal resources].

The only thing keeping me from reading any published e-book anytime I want for free is a technological barrier strapped onto the books by the corporate distributors. I wonder though whether I would want to download a free book that hadn’t been vetted by somebody, hadn’t been deemed worthy of publication and therefore worthy of exacting a price from readers. The same goes for library books: would I want to check out a book that neither the library nor a donor paid for? As reader I’m caught in a paradox: I want to read books for free, but I don’t want free books.

Commercially published music, commercially broadcast TV series, commercially released movies: I can get most of them for free anytime I want on the Internet. I acknowledge that the artists’ creative work is worthy of compensation; at the same time, I regard as excessive the markups charged to purchasers and subscribers, with most of the proceeds going to the middlemen. Again, a paradox: I might be ripping them off, but if I played by the rules they’d be ripping me off.

Over the past decade the music industry has been radically reshaped by free downloading. Musicians don’t sell many albums anymore; they don’t even sell singles. Instead they get paid a small percentage each time someone listens to or downloads their songs for free from an online platform. How does the platform make money if it’s giving the music away? It sells ads and user data. Do the musicians earn as much from downloads as they did from selling recordings? No. If you want to make money in the music business, you do it by performing live and by selling merchandise. The recordings — composed, scored, rehearsed, performed, edited, mixed, mastered, packaged — are what musicians value the most artistically, but recordings have the least monetary value. Recordings are the attention-grabbers, the free giveaways luring fans to concerts and clubs and merch outlets.

Eventually the book industry might undergo the same transformation: readers download books for free; platforms pay writers a percentage for each download; platforms make money from ads and data. I’ve seen such platforms; on one of them writers can make money via product placements in their stories; the more prominent the placement, the more the product figures in the story itself, the higher the potential return to the author. At the beginning one of my fictions a character orders a Bass Ale: maybe I should make inquiries. Authors will use their novels — imagined and crafted, polished and packaged — as free advertising for their new careers as touring public readers and online t-shirt salesmen and writers of embedded ad copy.

What you’ve got here is a paradox of capitalism: that which the creative artist and the audience value most highly, that which draws them together, offers the smallest financial return, dwindling to the vanishing point. The platforms that stage aesthetic encounters generate their return on investment from big data analytics and small custom-crafted ads and upsells to premium subscriber services, for which the artists and the fans and the algorithms provide free labor. Artistic creation and aesthetic enjoyment are valued economically as traffic.

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