Maribou (maribou) wrote,
  • Mood: quixotic
  • Music: Suzanne Vega, "If I Were a Weapon"

if I were a robber baron, I tell you what I'd do

(caveats and context for this piece in comments below)

The scene: A posh office suite at the headquarters of the brand-new entity Harper & PenguinMifflin House; the year: 2015. A solid, competent-looking woman sits confidently behind a rather large desk, while a reedy and wild-eyed man delivers the following peroration:

Look, Bertie, I know and you know that this hegemonic model is not going to last forever. Unless we go the way of the Comcasts and Walt Disneys of the world, twisting the legal foundations of the country to protect our bottom line, we're headed straight for a crash into the rising wall of the Creative Commons revolution. I know you just wrenched all these different publishing houses out of that giant megacorp from hell because you were tired of being mangled by twenty different sharks above you on the org chart. I know that none of *them* understood that publishing isn't only about dollars and cents - that you have some deep feelings for your product and you don't think it's just another way to milk the suckers, or you'd have stuck to selling widgets like your daddy did - and if you listen to these DRM guys with their ever-increasing byzantine demands, you'll be buying a ticket straight back to Widgetville. We can do a lot better than that. An adversarial relationship with the people most inclined to love our product just isn't going to cut it anymore.

They have alternatives, you know. And we can't beat those alternatives unless we join them. The real bite out of the book market isn't piracy *or* the kind of casual sharing that's been around since the nineteenth century - it's freely given free stuff. These days, readers want to give their money to the creators they feel they *know* - whose personas they are in love with, whose art they respect, whose dreams they share, or whose jokes they find fucking hilarious. If they see us as their enemy in doing that, the leeches who siphon off money they'd rather spend somewhere else, they'll skip right to that ubiquitous "personal donation" button Legal could never manage to outlaw, the one that's on every website out there these days, and they'll bypass us entirely. Instead we need to position ourselves as co-conspirators. Content sharers. Individuals who love words every goddamn bit as much as they do and for whom money is a secondary or instrumental pleasure, the grease we need to keep the rollers whirring, not an end in itself. If we can win their hearts, make them feel about us like they feel about Aspidistra Flying or Jonny Swift, we'll be able to *give* things away - no strings - and then they'll come pay us for them later.

n the interim, while we stoke the fires of their passion and do the long hard slog of cleaning up the antagonistic mess all those huge corporations made of our PR, we need to *ditch* DRM, not refine it. And hell, while we're at it, sell books to libraries at a discount, not a premium, whether they're e- or not: win the hearts of the librarians and we'll win the hearts of readers. Put "personal donation" buttons on our imprint webpages and let people feel like they're part of our process, not the suckers we make bank on. It'll be so confusing to all those mindless megacorps that we'll be merger-proof. Yes, it's contrarian. Yes, it's a gamble. But you didn't get where you are by following the crowd. There's plenty of capital available to invest in this. And we both know our kids' trust funds are safe, right? What is there to lose but Jacob Marley's chains? Don't you remember those press conferences you gave when you were cutting us loose from ProctorWarnerSonyBoeing, the ones about "promoting the progress of science and useful arts" and the great history of the independent publishers? Didn't you *mean* them?

We can reposition ourselves to be something other than Just Another Faceless Corporation; we can make bank *and* have fun, and go home at the end of the night feeling like heroes, not hollow men. It can be the way we always dreamed it would be when we were kids together, Bertie. You don't have to play their fucking game.
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