Back in the garage

I have begun to see what I think is a promising trend in the publishing world that may just transform the industry for good.

Paul Hartzog‘s Many-to-Many post on publishing draws some interesting conclusions from the success of Charlie Stross’s Accelerando (nice one, Charlie). but makes me a bit nervous, partly because of the liberal use of excitable bolding.

What I am suggesting is happening is the reversal of traditional publishing, i.e. the transformation of the system in which authors create and distribute their work. In the old system, it is assumed that the publishing process acts as a quality control filter … but it ends up merely being a profit-capturing filter.
[…]
Conversely, in the new system, the works are made available, and it is up to the community-at-large to pass judgement on their quality. In the emerging system, authors create and distribute their work, and readers, individually and collectively, including fans as well as editors and peers, review, comment, rank, and tag, everything.

Setting aside the formatting – and the evangelistic tone, something which never fails to set my teeth on edge – this is all interesting stuff. My problem is that I’m not sure about the economics of it. It’s not so much that writers won’t write if they don’t get paid – writers will write, full stop – as that writers won’t eat if they don’t get paid: some money has to change hands some time. If the kind of development Paul is talking about takes hold, I can imagine a range of more-or-less unintended consequences, all with different overtones but few of them, to this jaundiced eye, particularly desirable:

  1. Mass amateurisation means that nobody pays for anything, which in turn means that nobody makes a living from writing; this is essentially the RIAA/BPI anti-filesharing nightmare scenario, transposed to literature
  2. Mass amateurisation doesn’t touch the Dan Brown/Katie Price market, but gains traction in specialist areas of literature to the point where nobody can make a living from writing unless they’re writing for the mass market; this is Charlie Gillett’s argument for keeping CDs expensive (and the line the BPI would use against filesharing if they had any sense)
  3. Downloads like Accelerando function essentially as tasters and people end up buying just as many actual books, if not more; this scenario will also be familiar from filesharing arguments, as it’s the line generally used to counter the previous two
  4. Mass amateur production becomes a new sphere of economic activity, linked in with and subordinate to the major mainstream operators: this is the MySpace scenario (at least, the MySpace makes money for Murdoch scenario)
  5. Mass amateur production becomes a new sphere of non-economic activity, with a few star authors subsidised by publishing companies for the sake of the cachet they bring: the open source scenario
  6. Mass amateur production becomes a new sphere of economic activity, existing on the margins and in the shadows, out of the reach of the major mainstream operators: the punk scenario (or, for older readers, the hippie scenario)

We can dismiss the first, RIAA-nightmare scenario. The third (‘tasters’) would be bearable, although it wouldn’t go halfway to justifying Paul’s argument. Most of the rest look pretty ghastly to me. Perhaps Paul is thinking in terms of the last scenario or something like it – but in that case I’d have to say that his optimism is just as misplaced, for different but related reasons, as the pessimism of the first scenario (although a new wave of garage literature would be a fine thing to see).

The trouble with making your own history is that you don’t do it in circumstances of your own choosing. The participatory buzz of Web 2.0 tends to eat away at the structural and procedural walls that stop people getting their hands on stuff – but that can just mean that only the strongest and highest walls are left standing. Besides, walls can be useful, particularly if you want to keep a roof over your head.

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