Justin Timberlake has over 120 revenue streams—only one of them is selling recorded music.—Matt Mason (link)
Jackie Barbosa wrote an excellent blog post yesterday which kicked off a flurry of Tweets between us about piracy in the entertainment industry. Jackie is smart enough to get that the publishing industry's claim that ebook piracy is costing the publishing industry "as much as $3 billion" is a bunch of hooey. An illegal ebook download is not equal to a lost sale—readers simply downloaded the ebook. Who knows if they would have actually paid for that download if they had been offered no other choice?
While Jackie ultimately concludes that she doesn't get too concerned when she sees her ebooks on a torrent site, she lays a harsh judgment on ebook pirates:
...these people are thieves, plain and simple. And just like a thief won’t buy the diamond bracelet because he can’t knock over the jewelry store, the ebook pirate won’t go and buy a legitimate copy if she can’t get it for free.
I get where she's coming from. It can be frustrating when you put a lot of work into something, put it up online... and then watch it get taken out of your control and given to the world in perpetuity.
And that's exactly where I think Jackie is seeing everything from the wrong perspective. She's seeing the world through a pre-digital lens. In a digital world, things get copied and with P2P networks, nothing can be effectively done to stop it. You can commiserate about it, reproach, bemoan, and even try to legislate... but you cannot enforce laws against it. For every P2P network you shut down, two more rise in its place. It is a losing battle. Do you want to go the rest of your life living in resentment and bitterness? Or do you want to accept that the world is changing around you, that your presumptions about how things ought to be might have to change accordingly, and upgrade your business model to leverage the internet's unique properties of infinite distribution to work for you rather than against you?
Jackie and I had the following conversation over Twitter:
Ross: Piracy is a market force saying, "the price for content is too high." When the price comes down, pirates turn into consumers.
Jackie: So bank robbery says bank fees are too high? Sorry, no.
Ross: The difference is whether piracy adds value—robbing banks removes value, pirating books increases their popularity.
Jackie: I'm sure piracy does increase some book's popularity. But unless that popularity leads to more $ sales, it's not adding value. Even the music industry hasn't given up the notion of charging for music in favor of ONLY other revenue streams.
Ross: ...which begs the question, what are you really selling—books or stories?
Jackie: That's like asking whether you're selling music or songs, in my opinion. The "book" is just how the story is delivered. A novel cannot be delivered by a live reading via the author (or anyone else). At best, only PORTIONS can be delivered that way.
Jackie: What I'm asking is where the viable revenue streams are if not from sales of books themselves? Show me the money.
Jackie: Even in the industry you cite as "proof" sharing is good (music), publishers still put a PRICE on their product. Books are the same as movies: they're entertainment. But I don't see how that relates to the discussion (unrestricted sharing).
Jackie: If all books are free, where is the revenue stream? WHEN/HOW does the author/publisher get paid for creating the entertainment?
Jackie's asking some well-intentioned questions, but they're mostly the wrong ones. She's still focused on the selling of a tangible—her books—rather than the intangible—her stories. When Jackie finally gets that she is a storyteller and not a bookseller, she'll start to mold a more sustainable business model around that concept.
Her question, "WHEN/HOW does the author/publisher get paid for creating the entertainment?" is foremost on the minds of all producers in the entertainment industry. How is what we're doing sustainable? How do we make money at this? How do we survive and thrive?
Counter-intuitively, when content is allowed to be free in the digital realm, it seems to bolster sales. Why? That doesn't make sense, does it? Consider the story of Matt Mason who wanted to release his book online for free alongside the hard copy version, but Matt's publisher denied his request. When Matt saw his ebook was being pirated, he again approached his publisher and said, "Look, it's already out there. At least if we release our own ebook, we can control it a little more. Maybe we can even find out something about our readership." His publisher agreed and released the book as a free PDF. A while later, a music bigwig heard about Matt's book, went to Matt's site and downloaded the PDF... and he was so impressed with the ebook, he went down to a brick and mortar bookseller and not only bought a hard copy for himself, but for everyone he knew. Without the free ebook available, Matt would have missed out on those sales.
So the questions Jackie should be asking herself is, what is she actually providing her readership? Is it the book, or is it the story in the book? What are the infinite goods and scarce goods in her business, and how can she leverage those infinite goods (the ones that can be copied infinitely on the internet) to increase the value of her scarce goods (the ones that cannot be copied on the internet) so that revenue streams flow to her and/or her publisher? How can she employ generatives to her maximum possible advantage?
Perhaps the hardest question of all: if Jackie can't find a sustainable business model for being an author, what does she do next? This is an extremely volatile question which I hate asking because so few people are willing to examine with unflinching honesty whether their business as it currently exists deserves to survive. Nobody wants to hear their business is slowly dying, but history is littered with businesses who were too stubborn to accept the decline of consumer demand for tangibles that no longer met the market's needs:
- The need for personal transportation is perennial, but the method shifted from horses and carriages to automobiles.
- The need to watch audiovisual arts is perennial, but the method shifted from film to VHS to DVD to P2P & streaming.
- The need for listening to music is perennial, but the method shifted from live performance to records to eight track tapes to tape cassettes to CDs to MP3s.
- The need to share news is perennial, but the method shifted from town criers to the printing press to desktop publishing to the internet.
- The need to read stories is perennial, but the method shifted from illuminating manuscripts to book printing to ebooks.
If you had built your business on any of those shifting methods, and only provided a tangible product
The good news for Jackie is that authors are in the business with the lowest possible fixed costs of any entertainment sector—compared to movies which have to employ up to hundreds of people to create that first unit, authors are the definition of svelte: 1 person, 1 room, 1 laptop. It can't get much easier, or cheaper, than that.
So I do think a sustainable business model for authors in the digital age exists, although those models may be so radically different from the current model that authors may not feel like they are "purely" authors anymore. Authors like Jackie complain that their primary revenue stream is being "stolen" by pirates, but look at Justin Timberlake: the guy is a musician who has secured over a hundred revenue streams which do not involve selling recorded music. Instead of resting his entire livelihood on one revenue stream, Timberlake is almost certainly hoping his fans pirate his music because the increased exposure will only make his other 100+ revenue streams increase in value. Can authors do likewise? More to the point, can they afford to not do likewise?
I've already done the broad sketches for a filmmaking model. I'd like to flesh that out more before speculating on other models so I won't offer my thoughts (yet) on what new revenue streams for authors might be. Nevertheless, I'd like to see somebody take a stab at coming up with new models for authors because the digital age isn't going away—in fact, the next generation will likely make that logical leap which we, fettered to our pre-internet analog childhood, are unable to stomach: that file sharing is easy, unstoppable, and commonplace. As long as artists find ways to thrive in the digital age, will it really matter to their fans how immoral file sharing might be?