The Earthling

Tuesdays Without Morrie?

In my previous column, I imagined a world in which the Napster ethos had prevailed, and musicians, now lacking copyright protection, got no income from record sales. I envisioned them eking out a living in concert halls and clubs, playing to live, paying audiences that had been downloading their music gratis on the Web. I imagined rock stars making less money per capita than today’s stars, having less narcissism per capita, and snorting fewer boatloads of cocaine per capita. I contemplated this world, scratched my chin thoughtfully, and declared: “Sounds OK to me.”

Easy for me to say. I’m not a rock star. But what if, as some publishers fear, the economics of book publishing went the same route? What if everyone were downloading my books for free and reading them on handheld devices? How would I feel about that? And—leaving aside my own plight, since I don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world—would society as a whole suffer if authors weren’t compensated for their writings?

The question hinges partly on the validity of the John Perry Barlow/Esther Dyson model for success in a post-copyright world. In the Barlow/Dyson paradigm, you give away your easily replicable data—recorded songs, books, articles—for free, thus becoming well-known, then charge money for less replicable services, such as live, in-person appearances and online chats. This is the model I imagined rock stars employing. But will it work for authors?

It will definitely work for some authors. Take Esther Dyson, for example. She is a visionary digerati business guru. And if you write visionary digerati business guru books, rich people in lapels pay you large sums to come give talks about how to stay rich amid rapid technological change. For that matter, John Perry Barlow, though he’s never written a book, also sports the visionary digerati label. His futuristic musings in Wired and elsewhere have landed him more than a few speaking gigs.

In short, the Barlow/Dyson model works fine so long as you’re either Barlow or Dyson. But what if your writings are of no great relevance to Fortune 500 companies or venture capital firms? There’s still hope. There is one other genre whose readers will pay for in-person guidance from authors: self-help/inspirational.

That genre accounts for a large chunk of books published. In fact, lest self-help books dominate the New York Times best-seller list, the Times puts them in their own special list (“Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous”). And even after the openly inspirational books have thus been safely cordoned off, the nonfiction list is massively infiltrated by covertly inspirational books.

Consider this week’s top five nonfiction best sellers:

  1. The Day John Died, by Christopher Andersen (dramatic account of JFK Jr.’s demise)
  2. Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley and Ron Powers (inspiring book by son of soldier who helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima)
  3. Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom (inspiring book by guy who got back in touch with a college professor just in time)
  4. Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris (funny memoir by genuinely good writer)
  5. It’s Not About the Bike, by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins (inspiring book by cancer-surviving two-time Tour de France winner)

Books 2, 3, and 5 are sufficiently inspiring so that their authors could probably make a living on the lecture circuit. Of course, in two of those cases, the question arises as to how the ghostwriters—without whom the book would not exist in the first place—would make a living. Still, you get the general point: There are hordes of writers who, if they’re willing to swallow a pay cut, can scratch out a living. The key is to write books that either a) promise to boost people’s material well-being or b) promise, overtly or covertly, to boost their non-material well-being. Also, there are a few humor writers—David Sedaris is one—who could make ends meet as Spalding-Gray-type raconteurs or plain old standup comics.

That leaves the rest of us nonfiction authors unemployed. I suppose there’s a chance of our being saved by a tendency I noted in my previous column, in the context of music: The Internet, by so efficiently alerting fans to live appearances, makes it easier for people of modest appeal to make a living on the road. But for most of us, this growth in efficiency would have to be pretty spectacular to make book writing financially viable in a post-copyright world.

So if copyright protection truly does break down (a big if, as I noted in a), a lot of kinds of books that now get written may no longer get written. But would that really be such a bad thing? Granted, in the case of the three books I’ve written, it would be a tragedy the likes of which hasn’t visited this planet since the Black Death swept Europe. But what about other authors? If you peruse the Times best-seller list, hardcover and paperback, and exclude the kinds of books that could survive the end of copyright, it’s hard to find a book that seems vital to human well-being.

Imagine a world with no gripping accounts of people dying on Mount Everest, no partly imagined accounts of fishermen dying in epic storms, no books about Kennedys dying in plane crashes. Somehow we’d get by.

Bear in mind that most kinds of “serious nonfiction” books—history, art criticism, social commentary, public policy analysis, etc.—would still get written by professors and think tankers even if professional writers dropped out of the picture. And academia and industry would together ensure continued progress in science and technology.

Of course, the world might have to do without popular science books. But there presumably would still be pop-science journalism in advertising-supported periodicals (or on ad-supported Web sites). Similarly, the biggest public service journalists perform—keeping a critical eye on the workings of government, business, etc.—would still get done via periodicals. It wasn’t All the President’s Men that mattered, but rather the articles on which it was based.

The economics of book publishing is a fairly recent phenomenon—a mere blip in the history of humankind. There is nothing sacred about it. Though I’m not advocating the death of copyright protection, I’m pretty sure the world would survive it. And as for my own writing career: I have never been motivated by money anyway, so I am indifferent to the future of copyright. I’ll just keep chugging along on the draft of my fourth book, tentatively titled: How To Have Wealth, Happiness, and Buns of Steel Amid Rapid Technological Change.


Postscripts: My previous column, about musicians in a post-copyright world, drew one fuming response from a self-described “Indie” musician named Susan, who informed me that making ends meet by playing clubs is very, very hard. (A band “must tour constantly,” which means “forget having a normal relationship.”) I should stress that part of the scenario I sketched out was the end of the “winner take all” market. Thus, instead of 100 bands playing to 5,000 people in giant arenas and 10,000 bands playing to 80 people in small clubs, you’d have a few thousand bands drawing 200 to 1,000 fans in smallish auditoriums. At least, that’s the scenario.

In a footnote (a k a hotlink) to my previous column, I suggested that “as record companies start selling music over the Web routinely, there’s no way they can—with a straight face, at least—keep charging CD prices, since the marginal cost of each download will so obviously be close to zero.” Two follow-up points: First, my point isn’t just that the marginal costs will be lower than those for distributing music via CDs (though they assuredly will be, given the plummeting cost of server space and bandwidth), but also that the obviousness of the low marginal cost would make it hard for record companies to keep charging absurdly high prices without running into consumer resistance. In any event, my thesis ran into trouble immediately: Right after posting my piece, I read in the New York Times that record companies were finalizing plans to sell downloaded music and planned to charge CD prices. Oh, well … there’s still a chance that these prices will be driven down by a) consumers balking for the reasons I suggested and b) competition from good bands that give their music away, or sell it very cheaply, on the Web. In any event, through the magic of cyberpublishing, I am now amending that section of the footnote in keeping with recent developments, so that posterity will not doubt my prescience.