The Business of Culture in Our Post-Industrial Times
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Media business models and intellectual property regimes are currently based on the economics of the mass-produced thing, originating with the book. The public allowed specialist companies to control the creative output for society because it required a great deal of capital to make the work available to the public. Copyright ensured that printer/publishers could obtain a return on their investment. As the book dematerializes into the browser, undermining the enforceability of copyright, and as 3D printing allows all manufacturing to become personal, what might the new business models for culture and creativity look like? I look both backwards to Kinko’s/laserprinter/Pagemaker zine culture and forward to 3D printing to try to ascertain some lessons.
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Much of what I'm going to say has in some ways been partially prefigured by various people who've spoken today already and yesterday. To some degree, I'm going to attempt to do an improvised verbal version of one of Bob's textbooks, in which I'm going to allude to a talk and say that five minutes of that talk is what I'm referring to and so I'm going to skip ahead.
To begin with, I'm going to allude to Cory's talk at the beginning of the day and say that I'm going to start my talk about post-industrial times by talking about pre-industrial times, but I'm not going to go quite as far back as Cory. I'm not going 2.7 millions years ago to when we first used a tool, but instead to the era of writing, but before it could be industrially mass-produced. So, that's an era when we have culture: the medieval period. We have words. We have multiple alphabets, and we have hoards of monks transcribing. We had a time when writers made a living simply by being able to read and write. It was, in many respects, the golden era for a writer as an economic entity, the one point in human history when writers were guaranteed an income. They were paid very well in fact by the standards of the time, but the role of the writer at that particular point was not to be a thought leader, not to be a conjurer of words or conjoiner of disparate ideas. The writer basically was a machine, a conduit through which the word of God or the word of the myths of their locality were preserved for posterity and, to a very limited degree, distributed, but mostly preserved. The writer, effectively, was the printing press, a trained scribal laborer, as one academic called them, a calligrapher.
So, the advent of the book in the form of bound, typeset pages was catastrophic. The writer was suddenly like John Henry faced with the machine for carving away at the coal face. The entire universe of writers of the time were effectively out of a job. They were unemployed. The demand for writers vanished, yet somehow the supply of writers did not decrease. So, it goes completely against the general microeconomic understanding of supply and demand. In fact, what happens is that the supply of writers seemed to increase. The writers or the scholars, the gadflies, the pamphleteers, the poets, all started gathering around the printing presses and treating the printing presses as effectively the sixteenth and seventeenth-century equivalent of the coffeehouses of London and Paris and Dresden and Venice of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Now, that particular increase in the supply of writers came in part because the book itself enabled greater literacy. So, the increase in the supply of things to read would tend to bring about an increase in the supply of people who wanted to write more of them, irrespective of whether there was larger demand for what that next generation of writers might be producing. And, there was, of course, as always happens when there is this increase in the supply of anything in our culture is, as Cory pointed out with Socrates/Plato, we announce that the world is coming to an end because everybody can now do something, and it's too easy, and they're going to lose discipline. The practical reaction in this particular time begins with censorship. The state, whether it is the Queen or the King in England, whether it is various Dukes and Bishops in the lands that became Germany, they basically imposed laws that said that you can only print if we say so. Now that initiated—this is a decree from the Star Chamber to thwart the great enormities and abuses of diverse contentious and disorderly persons professing the art or mystery of printing or selling of books. We needed to be in control of that.
Now, the interesting thing that happens is while this begins as a political act, it evolves into an economic act. Effectively, the printers that managed to get given the right by the King or Queen to print found themselves in competition with one another over what they would print, and we have here the beginnings of copyright. Now, the commercial equivalent, therefore, of censorship, when not orchestrated by the state, is a cartel. Basically, the printers formed informal cartels, where they all agreed with one another not to print one another's books, and therefore drive down the prices of books.This is something that existed not only in Europe in the sixteenth century but in the United States as recently as the mid-late nineteenth century. Because, copyright in the United States only protected American authors and didn't protect British authors, so for the printers to stop one another from being the ones who were doing Dickens, or being the ones that were doing Browning, or being the ones that were doing any of the other great selling British authors at the time, they basically formed cartels in which they punished one another for misbehavior. That punishment sometimes extending to the sort of things that we would associate with the mafia, but more generally things like industrial espionage. So, these cartels were quite efficient at imposing a form of informal copyright.
Why was copyright so important? It was important because these printers had to spend a lot of money setting up their devices to print. There were diminishing marginal costs to what they were doing, but the price remained the same. So, the more copies they could print at a given price, the more money they would make, but they had to put up a lot of up front money in order to get there. So, this kind of significant capital outlay effectively required that they would have control over the marketplace.
In the early 1700s, beginning in England with Parliament, a statute of Queen Anne entitled An Act for the Encouragement of Learning by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books and the Authors are Purchasers of Such Copies During the Times Therein Mentioned came into being. That was effectively Parliament saying, “If anyone is going to run cartels around here, it's going to be us.” So, that basically institutionalized legally the principal that for people to invest in the reproduction of books, to make that capital investment, they needed to have a guaranteed flow of income or a reasonably guaranteed flow of income from that capital expenditure. What it did not do, though, is ensure that there would be a demand for these books. It simply ensured that if there was demand, the printer was going to be the one getting it. What it did also not ensure, although it claimed to do so, was that there would be a supply of writers to write this stuff. As we've already seen from the first great depression for the world of writing, when writer's economic impetus is taken away, more of them seem to end up writing. That guarantee of economic payoff for a writer does not in fact constitute their primary motivation for writing, but it does constitute a printer's primary motivation for printing. That has extended into the present time into a publisher's primary motivation for publishing.
That was the kind of economic rationale for copyright, but copyright never took off, for example in Germany, until the nineteenth century. Now, part of that was because there was no Germany. Germany was 900 different principalities, bishoprics, duchies, provinces, and so most of them could only support one or two printers, so there weren't multiple groups of printers that required protection. What you had was what the economists would call a mercantilist or autarchic approach to publishing, which is basically pirate the hell out of everybody else's book because we don't want to be spending money importing books from the city twenty leagues away. We want you printing it all. So, there was not copyright.
What you instead had was not an economic motivation for copyright, but an aesthetic or philosophical motivation for copyright. You had the great aesthetic movement of German Romanticism. You had the invention of genius. The word genius once referred, not to an individual, but to a quality of a place or a quality of a time. What the German Romantic philosophers, Goethe being my— I know these slides have a History Channel quality to them, but we'll get along to the twenty-first century soon enough. What Goethe, Herder, and a variety of the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century German Romantic writers and philosophers did is come up with the idea that culture, that the great artistic artifacts, are not necessarily things that come from society, but they come from the individual act of imagination. So, they situated culture, not in society, but within the individual. Now, that was a polemic, and many of them actually were perfectly capable of recognizing that they stood on the shoulders of giants and that they were using words that came from their predecessors, ideas, narratives that came from their predecessors. But, for polemical purposes, because they were dealing with an absence of any economic rationale for copyright being deployed in Germany, they polemically used these strategies to try to slowly get copyright law established in Germany.
Now, what's the point of all of this, other than giving a history lesson and getting to show slides of Goethe at the Book in Browsers conference? The point of this is to suggest that these tools are contingent. They are historically specific, and they have to do with particular needs at particular times and that these things evolve. In other words, that copyright, in an era where ones does not need large amounts of capital in order to set up a book for reproduction and dissemination, that these things change, but it's also to suggest that these things have a certain longevity, cultural longevity. To use what is a component of copyright in Europe, although not in the United States, there is something called moral rights: the idea that a creator of something, of a poem or a book or a play, has a moral authority to forbid people from screwing with it, effectively, and that that authority can be traced back not to economic self-interest, but to some type of idea about how things ought to be in the world. These things are now coexisting in our time. The hassle, though, is that the particular bit of copyright and of the business model of printing and of publishing that has subsisted over the last hundreds of years is changing quite dramatically in our time, and that's, in this room, one of the most self-evident things one could possibly say.
Now, my bridge from my History Channel slides to plain text is coming up, is Aldus, the Venetian printer and also the name of the company that produced the PDF. That is a moment in our time when we start shifting of scarcity to abundance. We have obviously seen in the last two-thirds of a decade, let’s say, spectacular increases in abundance, in terms of the numbers of titles that we're creating: 32 million ISBNs last year. But, we had dramatic increases prior to the web as a viable medium for consuming documents, and that came from the PDF, where we had the number of titles produced by traditional American publishers increase ten-fold between 1990 and 1997. That we can attribute to advents in desktop publishing.
What we have learned from that is two things. One, that we started dealing with abundance already, so that, actually, the economics of publishing may be more robust to dealing with abundance than might be apparent from some of the behaviors of publishers over the last ten years. Nevertheless, we do find that there are crutches that we have had from the past upon which we are still reliant. The central bargain in copyright, as several people have argued, is that the public gives up a right that they can't exploit. I can't print a copy of a book that is a nice copy of a book for myself even if I got the PDF, so I give up my right to reproduce that in exchange for a publisher supplying me a very pleasurable reading experience. What we are now facing, as the last two days have shown, is that this is now a right that the public is being forced to give up. The public can now make copies of things that are as beautiful as anybody else can make, but copyright is forbidding us from doing so. So, we are beginning to face what I like to refer to as the “jury nullification point” in copyright, where we are starting to lose the consent of the governed, where the public has decided they are no longer going to participate in something that did once work and did produce spectacular growth in literacy and spectacular growth in people wanting to write stuff, but they are now slowly withdrawing consent. And, we can recognize this, whatever we might think ought to be the case around copyright, we have to acknowledge with laws that if we do not have the consent of the governed, we can't force it. We can't impose the death penalty for copyright infringement.
So what, therefore, may be the business models that will arise to replace copyright, and how can they address the other more emotional aesthetic or moral side of author's rights in a way that is satisfying? Here, we have a word that basically half of what I refer to by craft just to see what the Canadians had to say (John, I can pronounce your name but, Haig.) earlier, which is that this refers not only to the design aspect of things but also to all the artisanal aspects that have been a part of publishing and not just in terms of producing finished artifacts to look at, but also the halo effect or the aura, I'm using in the Walter Benjamin sense, of the services that go into the production of books. There, I'm referring to developmental editing. I'm referring to copyediting, to proofreading, to covers, package design, to the sequence of blurbs—the 25 word blurb, the 75 word blurb, the 200 word description, the 300 word description, the marketing bullet points, all the various marketing appurtenances that get attached to books to give them context. Then, on top of that, all the work that is being done and around annotation and social reading. All those activities are service activities that are monetizable, if you're looking at it from a publisher's standpoint, whether you're talking about fees for services and unbundling from the traditional publishing enterprise, those capacities for providing all these services. Or else, if you're a publisher that doesn't wish to be unbundled or doesn't wish to be deinstitutionalized, a greater awareness of the fact that what you are providing is a series of services, as opposed to a magical transformation of unpublished author into published author and the perceived aura that that person will subsequently have.
The series of traditions that have been discussed in fact not just by John and Haig but that were implied in Mandy Brown's presentation yesterday from Editorially, all that craft, experience, and tradition that we use in production.
A second area that I think we can look at is authenticity. Now, some authenticity can be derived from craft. The sense that there is a person, not just who wrote the book or persons who wrote the book, but that there are other people who have made it into a finer experience. The advocacy of a number of people over the last decade to get publishers to mention the editor on the copyright page, to mention who proofread the book, to give a sense that there is a team of people that participates in it, one which is relevant whether it is flowing through a regular publisher or not, that there is artisanal culture at work here, and that lends authenticity. But, authenticity can also refer to what Kickstarter has very well highlighted, which is that there is a relationship between writer and reader that can be productized in all kinds of different ways and that can involve signed posters, that can involve a Skype call with your reading group, that can involve them offering to come to a dinner party to cook for you, that can be a tour of the city in which a particular novel or nonfiction book may take place.
And lastly, pleasure, and, in pleasure, I mean I derived immense pleasure over the last couple of days from all the intuitions, innovations, and delightfulness and joyfulness of people describing all the different ways in which they are creating beautiful experiences in relation to books. Now, one of the ways in which that pleasure can transcend into the universe of business model is something that I would like to point to in terms of a particular business model that is widely discussed right now, which is the subscription model for books. The idea that an ideal mode for the dissemination and monetization of reading is the smorgasbord approach, the all you can eat book model. One of the things we have seen is that, if that were the case, then libraries would have put publishers out of business a long time ago. What is going to drive that kind of activity is not the mere availability of books, just as the mere availability of songs for free on torrent sites does not seem to anyway undermine Spotify's ability to generate money or Last.fm or Pandora. The power of any kind of subscription model in the world of books is going to adhere in the delight of the browsing and the discovery and the flow, to use the term that Safari is using within their own B to C subscription product. The ability to allow people to flow from one thing to another, to not have arbitrary barriers for readers to go from one experience to the next experience, that you could then put on Spotify and I can start reading, and Spotify is just going to be the radio of my life. Otherwise, I have to basically download a torrent and hope that the songs that I am going to listen to are songs that I want to listen to. That process of having a pleasurable experience, one that reflects in some ways the flow of my desires in any given day, is truly the point at which subscription models are going to work. So, the genius of them is going to be in the work that you guys are doing much more so than the world of biz dev.
So, thank you very much for your time. It's beautiful to be here in the late afternoon, looking at the beauty out here in the room, so thank you very much.