The Duplicating Library and Platform Capitalism

A previous post made a supply-side case for decommodifying e-books, distributing them not through bookstores or lending libraries but through duplicating libraries. There are no marginal costs incurred in copying and downloading an e-book, so there’s no reason to charge readers a fee. And there’s no reason for readers to borrow and return e-books to the library, since the virtual supply of free e-book copies is unlimited. Handling returns just incurs unnecessary bureaucracy and costs; let the downloaders keep their copies. From the supply side, e-books are already decommodified, at least in principle.

Demand-side analysis also supports the duplicating library idea. Hackers and pirates have pulled music, video, and text from behind the paywalls, effectively decommodifying content by reducing its cost to zero. Online platforms have turned piracy into a business model, operating already as free duplicating libraries for listeners, viewers, and readers. The platform economy is most fully realized in the music business, where listening to recordings has been reduced to traffic, fueling the online advertising and data analytics and fee-based user services by which the platforms make their money. Listeners provide free labor for the platform’s core business, but since they don’t have to pay directly for content they’re generally satisfied with the arrangement, and if they require an ad-free listening experience they can pay the platform a monthly fee for upgraded service.

The only ones who fare poorly under postcommodified platform capitalism are the musicians. Most never made much money in the old commodified record business, but now they make only a few cents per thousand streamed listens. With ready access to low-cost sophisticated technologies that turn their laptops into recording studios, musicians can cut their own records for a song, releasing them to a worldwide potential audience via the internet, further driving up supply and driving down prices. The platforms welcome the burgeoning supply of cheap music: more music, more traffic, more ad and data revenue.

The book business hasn’t gone as far along the track laid down by the music business — yet. But all of the components are in place: electronic product, platform distribution, writers’ ready access to low-cost self-publishing technology. On the music platforms the unit of distribution is the individual song, with the artist receiving a small payment each time someone listens to the song. As a consequence the traditional multi-song album has been rendered nearly obsolete. Short stories, the textual equivalent of songs, are already available for free from online literary magazines. Just as albums are assembled from smaller units — songs, movements — novels are divisible into chapters. Novels can be disaggregated into chapters by releasing them one at a time as serial installments, making the format more compatible with the small-unit distribution precedent. There are platforms where authors post free installments of ongoing longer works for free, with the platform making money by ads and data mining. Even more extreme textual disaggregation is possible in platform capitalism: I’ve visited a site where books are posted online and the authors are paid by the number of pages clicked.

It costs nothing to download an e-book on the net, but writing the book is labor-intensive. By decommodifying the sale of individual copies there is no mechanism for compensating authors for their creative labor. Per-copy royalties paid by commercial publishers only partially compensated most authors; now, in platform capitalism, even that meager compensation mechanism has been dismantled.

Socialism? The government could select good books, compensate the authors for them, then distribute them to any and all. In effect, the government would curate and disseminate a collection of culturally valuable texts, operating a national duplicating library paid for by taxes and made available to all citizens. Not every book that’s written would be included in the library’s holdings, because the acquisitions department would subject each submitted book to rigorous vetting. Books passing muster would be made freely available to readers, with no profits being siphoned off to corporate middlemen and investors.

Given the current political climate, what’s the likelihood of a new socialistic governmental intervention being launched in the USA in the near future?

But what about an anarchistic intervention?

Eliminate all of the middlemen: not just the capitalists but the government bureaucrats too. The true intermediary between the writer and the reader isn’t the agent, or the editor, or the publisher, or the bookstore. It isn’t the government. The intermediary between the writer and the reader is the book. Together, readers and writers would assemble the best collection of books possible, establishing the acquisition criteria and vetting the books through a systematic review process. Together, readers and writers would set up a widespread distributed network of collective local duplicating libraries. A member of each local library would purchase a single copy of each e-book that passes the vetting process, thereby adding that book to the library’s holdings. Then all of the local library’s members could download their own personal copies of e-books in the library’s holdings for free.

Would readers go for this scheme? The answer depends in part on the elasticity of demand for books. The duplicating library makes books available for no cost to everyone but the person who purchases a single copy of each book for the local collection. Would free access increase readership? Studies show that high-volume book readers tend to have more money than infrequent readers, so maybe they don’t care about having to pay the cover price for books they want to read and own. On the other hand, income is no predictor of how frequently people check books out from public libraries, which supports the logical expectation that readers would rather not pay for the books they want to read. Would low-income people start reading more books if the purchase price were lowered or even eliminated? Presenting yourself as a reader – name-dropping the latest lit fic, lining your shelves with ranks of hardbacks – might function as a marker of higher cultural status among the well-to-do. Would this status indicator be eliminated if even poor people can afford to have well-stocked personal libraries? Alternatively, is it conceivable that participating in a radical new model for selecting and distributing books – an anarchistic model that pushes back against the capitalist order, a model that regards books as cultural resources, a model in which readers take a more proactive role – would generate broad appeal across economic strata?

Expected demand drives the commercial publishing industry. A book of great merit but of limited popular appeal might never get past the manuscript stage, might never find its way from writer to readers. By transforming books from commodities into cultural resources, more space would open up on the virtual shelves for the excellent but commercially limited works of fiction, expanding the range of choices available to discerning readers frustrated by the dreadfully average selection offered them by the vendors of literary economism.

There’s the tragedy of the commons to be considered. A local public lending library need pay for only one copy of a book in order for all of its members to borrow it for free. For a local anarchist duplicating library to accumulate an acquisitions fund by charging annual dues to members seems onerous. Instead, just leave it to the individual library members to buy a copy of each vetted book on behalf of the collective. But who is going to be the one to ante up, rather than waiting for somebody else to pay? Maybe some sort of status marker goes with buying a book for the local library – being listed as a contributor on the library’s website, for example.

Including central and branch facilities, there are around 16 thousand public lending libraries in the US, or around one library per 20 thousand residents. Suppose each traditional public lending library had a shadow anarchist library that duplicated and distributed free e-copies of its holdings. A new novel passes through a central vetting process, being recommended for acquisition to all of the local anarchist libraries. In one of the libraries one person steps up as a contributor by buying one e-copy of the recommended book. Let’s say the purchase price is $10. For that $10 investment, 20 thousand local library members can download their own copies of the purchased book for free: that’s an average of 5 hundredths of a cent per copy. Why wouldn’t readers want to do this?

Would writers go for this collective anarchistic scheme? Authors of excellent but noncommercial books certainly would. They might not make much money, but if their books pass muster and make it onto the library’s curated master list they would stand a good chance of finding their intended readership, even if that readership isn’t widely represented among the general populace. The rest of the writers, the ones who write potentially popular books, would have to overcome their expectations of significantly outperforming the industry average financially – of making a living, maybe even a windfall, by climbing to the top of the charts. At the same time the readers are considering their opportunities. If just one reader anywhere in the US pays $10 for a single copy of an e-book vetted by the anarchist library, that opens the possibility of that reader turning pirate, offering free downloads of the book to everyone everywhere, regardless of whether their local libraries have bought their own copies of the book.

It’s hard to break habits formed by living inside of a commodity-driven capitalistic economy. Maybe, if readers and writers alike immerse themselves in an anarchistic alternative, the old habits will slough off, opening up some space and time for new habits to start taking shape.

On the other hand, maybe platform capitalism has built up too much momentum to be diverted onto an alternative economic track. Read any book I want for free, and all I have to do is put up with an ad every few pages? And the platform gets to use my click data for whatever purposes they have in mind? Sure, sign me up. You say the writers aren’t getting adequately compensated? Not my circus, not my monkey.

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.