29 August 2011

Three Free Books (and the economics of publishing)

All self-recommending; 
Lant Pritchett, The Rebirth of Education: From Universal Schooling to Universal Learning
Ernest Bazanye, The Ballad of Black Bosco
Julian Gough, Jude in London
What particularly caught my interest is Julian Gough's trust-based online publishing model. You get the book for free, and he asks for a tip once you've read it, if you enjoyed it. Now before you all say "that's what Radiohead did with In Rainbows," NO IT IS NOT. Radiohead asked for payment up front. Gough wants it after. That means all the risk is on him, not you. How on earth are you supposed to know how much you think the thing is worth before you've listened to it / read it?

Or in Gough's publisher's words:
we're aware of a bigger threat than piracy – oblivion. It is not easy, in this cash- and time-poor age, with free forms of entertainment abounding, to persuade people to spend money on an unknown book. Yes, a great book affords many hours of enjoyment and enrichment; indeed, adorns the shelves and the mind for a lifetime. Thus valued (i.e. using the crude calculus of 'hours of enjoyment and enrichment afforded'), a great book ought to cost far more than, say, a ticket to the cinema or the opera. But it doesn't, and among the reasons for this is the fact that a book – particularly a new, unproven book – comes with a grave risk: that, far from the hoped-for intellectual, moral, emotional and spiritual nourishment, it will bring nothing but asphyxiating boredom and hair-yanking irritation – with the pain only prolonged by that dreadful duty to finish felt by so many readers. And, of course, the worse a book is, the longer it takes to get through. What if you were unlucky enough to pick up an infinitely bad book? It would take all eternity to read it. Films and operas are different: the potential rewards may be less, but so are the risks. They're over in an hour or two, and even if they've bored or annoyed the pants off you, at least they've got you out of the house.
All of which is timely given a recent lecture by author Ewan Morrison lamenting that;
within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books. But more importantly, ebooks and e-publishing will mean the end of "the writer" as a profession. Ebooks, in the future, will be written by first-timers, by teams, by speciality subject enthusiasts and by those who were already established in the era of the paper book. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.
Now back to those three books. One of these authors is not like the others. He is an academic, with a salary from an institution for teaching, research and writing. His salary, and his ability to write books, does not rely directly upon those books making a profit.

Can we learn from academia and build new institutions to support artists in the new era of free online publishing?

I think that Morrison's diagnosis and analysis of the falling price of online content is correct, but I am far more optimistic that we can create new funding models to support music and literature. I hope I am right.


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