Piracy cutting into the comics industry, too

Paul Raven @ 18-10-2010

It’s not just regular book publishers who’re suffering from an increased demand for downloadable content; the comics industry is suffering too. I noticed some justifiably embittered tweets from UK comics writer Paul Cornell this Friday just gone:

Just saw download site with 2356 illegal downloads of Knight and Squire. You have no idea how angry that makes me. Bloody thieves. #

Just heard: average number of illegal [comics] downloads = *four times* legal sales. That’s why your favourite title got cancelled. No margin left. #

I’d be interested to know if the piracy of novels is happening on a similar scale to that – if anyone has a source of reliable stats and numbers, please pipe up! But I rather suspect comics is getting it far worse when considered as a percentage of total sales, and a number of possible reasons present themselves: the comics demographic is younger and more tech-savvy (and hence more used to the idea of there being a free version lurking somewhere in the pipework); scanning a comic is an easier and shorter process than OCRing a novel (and less susceptible to transcription issues); and comics (the print versions, at least) are ridiculously expensive, with limited availability of legit digital versions.

The latter issue is probably the big driver here; I don’t know much about comics industry pricing (and, again, would welcome input from anyone who does), but I sure know what stopped me from buying a few issues every month*. Whether the pricing is justified or not is an open question, but regardless of the reasons, it’s a lot of money for such a small (though beautifully-formed) nugget of art; however, I’m not sure that comics prices could be lowered radically enough to enable the big houses to carry on as they are. It’s a more plausible solution for the music industry (and is finally starting to be seen as such by people on the inside of the machine [via]), but comics aren’t so easily reproduced as infinite goods.

Or are they? Via MetaFilter, here’s an interview with Neil Gaiman where he discusses the experience of reading comics on ereaders, and the phase-change occurring in the comics landscape:

Perhaps I don’t have the allegiance to paper that I ought to because anybody who invests in The Absolute Sandman, all four volumes, is now carrying 40 pounds of paper and cardboard around with them. And they hurt and they complain, “Oh, I feel guilty.” And I look at it and go, you’re not getting anything that is quantitatively or qualitatively better than the experience you’d be getting on an iPad, where you can enlarge the pages, you can move it around, it’s following the eye, and you can flip the pages.

[…]

Everything about the web has been about leveling the playing field. Yeah, it’s why Scott [McCloud] was right in Reinventing Comics, and why it’s a terrible book. Because it’s a manifesto. It’s not a book. It’s a manifesto to something that doesn’t exist yet, and, furthermore, his solution is wrong, which is you can micro-monetize this stuff. But the basic gist of the manifesto is simply: The moment you’re on the web, you don’t have to publish the book, you don’t have to get the book into Barnes & Noble, you don’t have to pay for ink and paper and the office costs of somebody to promote it. And all of that is true. You are absolutely playing on a flat field with somebody who has millions of dollars of marketing behind them.

In other words, comics (and books, to a similar extent) are just hitting their iPods-and-Napster moment, where available technology is not only good enough to significantly enhance the reading experience over dead-tree, but also sufficiently ubiquitous to make controlling distribution very difficult. That level playing field isn’t here yet, but it’s coming… and the first phase is the erosion of the comparatively easy profits the publishing outfits were able to make beforehand, where a lack of knowledge (or perhaps just a resistance to trying new ideas?) means that those huge marketing budgets just don’t provide the leverage they used to.

Music is a little further ahead on this particular developmental curve, in that we can see new business models emerging at both the individual artist level and the record label level… though it’s interesting to note that organisational size seems to be inversely proportional to innovative agility and the willingness to embrace (or even just grudgingly accept) the fundamental change in the rules of engagement.

All of which isn’t to say that I’m sat here with a wry smirk and a hint of I-told-you-so in you eyes; I have many writer and artist friends (Cornell very much among them), and have no wish to see them unable to make a living from their art due to technological shifts. But all the best wishes in the world won’t change the observable fact that the economics of abundance are ripping their way into almost all of the arts… and economics isn’t noted as a phenomenon that cares about individuals. Perhaps even more so than prose fiction publishers, the comics industry needs to get to grips with digital content channels real fast if it wants to survive; you only need look at the current travails of Guy Hands and EMI to see what happens if you stand stoically on a slanting deck, stuffing wads of money and lawsuit paperwork into the hull breach while the band keeps playing “Nearer My God To Thee”.

[ * That said, I haven’t moved to downloading comics as an alternative to buying them, though I certainly have done with music; I rather suspect that if I’d been a comics freak from as early an age as I was a music freak, however, I’d be telling a different story. The underlying point: the people downloading your work don’t see it as stealing; they just see it as a way of getting more of the media they love for less financial outlay. And while there’s a logical case to be made that they are stealing, time and money spent chasing and enforcing that judgement is time and money that would be more effectively spent on looking for new ways to meet that demand. All King Canute got for his troubles were wet feet. ]


Cory Doctorow lays down his not-actually-a-manifesto

Paul Raven @ 06-10-2010

The more famous Cory Doctorow gets, the more people try to knock him down. I’m quite fond of him myself (he’s very charming in person, if somewhat perpetually part-distracted*), but while I’m not going to argue any sort of superhero status for the guy (I’ll leave that to Randall Munroe), when it comes to puncturing the poor arguments of his most vocal critics, he’s got undeniable flair. Witness his recent retort to an article that accused him and other net notables of profiteering from their “evangelism” of “free” business models for creatives, which also acts as a pretty good summary of the state of the artistic marketplace and the ongoing copyright wars. A few snippets:

What should other artists do? Well, I’m not really bothered. The sad truth is that almost everything almost every artist tries to earn money will fail. This has nothing to do with the internet, of course. Consider the remarkable statement from Alanis Morissette’s attorney at the Future of Music Conference: 97% of the artists signed to a major label before Napster earned $600 or less a year from it. And these were the lucky lotto winners, the tiny fraction of 1% who made it to a record deal. Almost every artist who sets out to earn a living from art won’t get there (for me, it took 19 years before I could afford to quit my day job), whether or not they give away their work, sign to a label, or stick it through every letterbox in Zone 1.

If you’re an artist and you’re interested in trying to give stuff away to sell more, I’ve got some advice for you, as I wrote here – I think it won’t hurt and it could help, especially if you’ve got some other way, like a label or a publisher, to get people to care about your stuff in the first place.

But I don’t care if you want to attempt to stop people from copying your work over the internet, or if you plan on building a business around this idea. I mean, it sounds daft to me, but I’ve been surprised before.

[…]

I understand perfectly well what you’re saying in your column: people who give away some of their creative output for free in order to earn a living are the exception. Most artists will fail at this. What’s more, their dirty secret is their sky-high appearance fees – they don’t really earn a creative living at all. But authors have been on the lecture circuit forever – Dickens used to pull down $100,000 for US lecture tours, a staggering sum at the time. This isn’t new – authors have lots to say, and many of us are secret extroverts, and quite enjoy the chance to step away from our desks to talk about the things we’re passionate about.

But you think that anyone who talks up their success at giving away some work to sell other work is peddling fake hope. There may be someone out there who does this, but it sure isn’t me. As I’ve told all of my writing students, counting on earning a living from your work, no matter how you promote it or release it, is a bad idea. All artists should have a fallback plan for feeding themselves and their families. This has nothing to do with the internet – it’s been true since the days of cave paintings.

I believe the appropriate phrase is “zing”.

[ * After appearing on a panel with Cory at Eastercon 2008, to which he managed to contribute more thoughts and ideas than the rest of us put together despite busily battering away at a netbook at the same time, a friend from the audience suggested a hypothetical version of posthuman bear-baiting: the game would simply involve installing Cory within a Faraday cage that blocked all wi-fi and phone signals, and then betting on how long it would be before he spontaneously combusted from sheer frustration… ]


The crap jobs of tomorrow

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2010

Via BoingBoing, the New York Times looks at a new breed of grim bottom-end employment in the digital age: Internet Content Reviewing. Main responsibilities include trawling through an endless river of text, images and video to ensure the removal of offensive content… and if you’ve more than a passing moment hanging out on the intertubes, you’ll have some idea of just how nasty some of that content might be.

With the rise of Web sites built around material submitted by users, screeners have never been in greater demand. Some Internet firms have tried to get by with software that scans photos for, say, a large area of flesh tones, but nothing is a substitute for a discerning human eye.

The surge in Internet screening services has brought a growing awareness that the jobs can have mental health consequences for the reviewers, some of whom are drawn to the low-paying work by the simple prospect of making money while looking at pornography.

[…]

David Graham, president of Telecommunications On Demand, the company near Orlando where Mr. Bess works, compared the reviewers to “combat veterans, completely desensitized to all kinds of imagery.” The company’s roughly 50 workers view a combined average of 20 million photos a week.

The compensation isn’t exactly awesome, either: wages peak out at US$12 per hour, and that’ll fall rapidly once someone gets a reliable outsource operation up and running. At least if you’re a sewer worker you can wash the stench off when you get home.

Leaving aside the extremity of the case in hand, though, it’s worth noting that this is essentially a gatekeeper/curation task – and we’ve already noted that curation is a growth industry thanks to the geometric expansion of content. Augmented reality will provide a whole new environment for this sort of work in the next few years… though I doubt the prospect of working outdoors will do much to ameliorate the essential unpleasantness and tedium of the task.

What other new (and shitty) jobs might our bright digital future provide?


Calling all coders: can you help free webzines make ebook versions?

Paul Raven @ 08-06-2010

K Tempest Bradford has identified a problem that many webzine editors have, but that most of them (myself included) have neither the time, money or 1337 code sk1llz0rz to solve alone: our readers would probably really appreciate downloadable ebook versions of our content, and an easy mechanism for delivery of such.

These are the core issues Tempest has identified thus far:

  1. Relatively easy eBook creation. Though programs like Calibre can create EPUB (and other eBook format) files, Tobias Buckell recently pointed out to me that this is not the optimal solution. He equated it to people using Microsoft Word to create web pages. Yes, the program can do it, but the code it generates is from hell. Not fit for anyone except really clueless newbies. We wouldn’t want that for these eBooks. So a primary aspect is to figure out who or what will generate clean code for EPUB.
  2. How many eBooks? Many online magazines do the monthly or semi-monthly thing, but for those that publish every week, do readers want an eBook for every story, or is one per month good?
  3. Free or Not Free? Many online magazines are free, which is a yay. Should their eBooks be free as well? I am personally in favor of charging a small amount for the files for the convenience of having the eBook format. The fiction will still be free on the website, of course. What are other people’s thoughts on this?
  4. Delivery System. Outfits like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony will deliver magazines to subscribers automatically, but only if you have a device that stays within their ecosystem. Like, if I subscribe to a magazine through B&N but use my Sony Reader to read it, it won’t show up each month on its own, I’d have to download then transfer it. Plus, I imagine that many online magazines would want to sell or make their eBook versions available through independent eBookstores or just from their site. I had an idea that I’d like to be able to embed and deliver eBooks with an RSS feed like you do with podcasts. That way, if you subscribe to the feed, you automatically get the file. It would be nice if this worked with paid eBook files as well. This is where the major coding work comes in. How do you set this kind of thing up? And would you need an accompanying program to then transfer the eBook to your eReader?
  5. Subscriptions or Individual Payments? Going along with the system I described above, will readers want to subscribe up front to many months worth of a magazine or would they be happier just paying per month?

If you’re involved in the clever coding side of things (professionally or otherwise), and/or you’re a regular reader of webzines who’d like to help them out, maybe you could drop a comment over at Tempest’s post so she can coordinate the expertise on offer?

As for here, I’d be interested to hear from the Futurismic regulars: would you be interested in a convenient monthly EPUB bundle of Futurismic content (say the fiction piece, all columns, and a selection of the more popular blog posts)? What device would you read it on? What channels do you use for getting content of this type already? Would you be willing to pay a small fee for that convenience and portability (not to mention a version of the site that would be ad-free)?


A dialogue with a book pirate

Paul Raven @ 26-03-2010

Nancy Kress was tipped off about a website offering unlicensed ebook versions of her novels, and decided to get in touch with the person in charge. It’s an interesting insight into the mindset of the ideologically-motivated (but nonetheless confused) content pirate:

… permit me to point out a fundamental error in your thinking:A text is not a physical object, so it cannot be stolen. Ownership of such an agglomeration of symbols (since ‘unity’ here is inapplicable) is an impossibility. The best you can do is _claim_ ownership – but anyone else can do that too. There is no legislation that can successfully govern the ether, thank heavens.I make my living, partly, as a librarian, but I don’t claim ownership of my catalogue. It is there – it exists, but it is not my property. If anything, it is everyone’s property – as are your texts.

Somehow the guy (I’m guessing it’s a guy, but I suppose it could be a a girl) has reinterpreted the economics of abundant digital goods via some sort of pseudo-mystical pantheistic gibberish, confusing the ownership of intangible goods with the right to be recognised as the creator of an original work (two very different things, in both philosophical and economic terms).

It’s almost as frustrating as hearing Creationists twisting the language of science to suit their own agenda… and just as corrosive to informed discussion of the real issues.


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