How writers and publishers get paid for producing books and articles is at the heart of most debates about intellectual property. I say “most debates” because some communities truly believe that words grow on trees and that if nobody could make a living writing and publishing, there would still be an infinite amount of good things to read. But for the rest of us, eBook publishing and various forms of online piracy have become an existential question, especially if we try looking five or ten years into the future.
A scientist cousin of mine suggests that all electronic books and documents should be distributed freely, but tagged with author’s name and a counter that tracks the amount of time each eBook is in use. This information would be tracked by an international database and used for apportioning payments to authors. Whether the payments come out of general government budgets, a tax on electronic device purchases or some other funding mechanism is largely a political debate which I’ll leave for another time. The first question that needs to be answered is the practicality of tracking eBook usage and paying authors a slice of a pie based on their popularity. For the sake of this argument, we need to assume that very few people will bother to defeat the usage tracking since there’s no financial savings involved for the individual.
One problem with such a system is that the same sort of people who currently make easy money by gaming the existing system will surely rush to game the new system. They could do this by publishing nonsensical books and artificially running up the usage counters through use of BotNets, prize hunting scams or other methods. Another problem is that books are not valued in the market by page count. The publisher of a definitive work on corporate governance which is updated every year may only expect to sell a thousand copies and therefore price them at $1,000 apiece. A mass market paperback expected to sell hundreds of thousands or millions of copies will be priced closer to $10. If some adjustment isn’t built into the system, the only books to get commercially published will be those for mass audiences. But if a sliding scale of value is introduced, that would just make it easier to game the system, since a relatively small network of humans could be organized to pretend to read a small number of high paying titles.
On the positive side, such a system would increase the value of word-of-mouth referrals and reduce the impact of traditional marketing. It would likely create a new class of self publishing authors whose works were deemed noncommercial by traditional publishers without even testing the market, as we are currently seeing with low priced Kindle books. It would potentially allow millions of authors who would have paid to get published an opportunity to actually get paid for publishing, even if the total amount is very small. And it would save society from the moral hazard of online piracy created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
I think that the greatest challenge for such a system, no matter the funding mechanism, would be the tendency of societies with unfunded liabilities for retirement, health care and education, to shrink the overall pool of money available for authors and publishers over time. Eliminating publishers, the middlemen of the intellectual property world, would help the money go farther. But in the end, I suspect that fewer authors would be able to make a living writing. This might be good for the overall economy as it would lead to increasing opportunities for consultants and various experts, let’s call them “talking books”, who would take the place of many knowledge based niche titles that are currently published. But it wouldn’t do much for authors like myself who make a living selling books rather than selling our time as consultants or public speakers.
Still, I give my cousin credit for thinking out of the box, and I want to believe that there’s some solution for our increasingly digital future that doesn’t rely on hiding beneath the blankets and hoping for the best.