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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Under the Wire, An Excessively Lengthy Post

Before going on, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the fine folks at Engineers Without Borders are hosting a Fair Trade Frenzy on campus tomorrow [Thursday] from 10 til 4.

To celebrate the seventh anniversary of his blog, noted and respected fantasy author Neil Gaiman convinced his publisher HarperCollins to publish one of his novels online for free, allowing his readers to decide which one via online poll. The results came in and the winner was his breakthrough novel American Gods, which is also his heftiest work to date, probably not coincidentally.

This experiment has caused people to start examining the free model of business again, with outspoken voices coming out both for and against. Those against argue Gaiman is hurting bookstore owners who might barely be getting by as is, given the fact that so few people read for pleasure. Gaiman replies that's exactly why he initiated the experiment:
If readers find (for free -- in a library, or on-line, or by borrowing from a friend, or on a window-sill) an author they really like, and that author has a nice spanking new hardback coming out, they are quite likely to come in to your shop and buy the nice spanking new hardback. You want that to happen....

Remember: one in four adults read no books last year... Which means you need to find ways to get young readers to read books. And means that if someone likes American Gods and goes out and buys my entire backlist from you, that's more books than most Americans read in a year.
This is the new model that the web is delivering: instead of giving you something free that requires you buy something to use it [free phone with paid contract, free email with paid storage space], we now have free, period. Using the email example, Yahoo recently announced unlimited storage space for its web based Yahoo!Mail. For free. You may not enjoy the banner ads at the top of the page, but you'll endure them if it means the project stays gratis.

Look at this blog. We could keep this blog free, sign up for AdSense [which we won't] and make five bucks a month if we're lucky. Or we could put the content behind a pay wall and charge fifteen bucks a month for it, which no one would ever pay. This crap isn't worth fifteen bucks to anyone, but people will come if it's free. And we care more about building a readership. If one day this readership spikes to say, 25 000 hits a day, then we'll look at AdSense.

This is what people like Gaiman, and Trent Reznor, and Radiohead, and Jonathan Lethem, and Cory Doctorow understand, and the large entertainment industries don't. Last year Doug Morris, CEO of the Universal Music Group blamed file sharing for the crash of the music industry with the following analogy: "If you had Coca-Cola coming through the faucet in your kitchen, how much would you be willing to pay for Coca-Cola? There you go. That's what happened to the record business."

Bloggers across the web were quick to point out that what actually comes out of your kitchen faucet is water, the same sort of thing Dasani and Aquafina have been selling for years, and they seem to be doing all right. Clearly, if the entertainment industry can't make a profit in an economy where people can sell water for two dollars a bottle, they aren't trying hard enough.

As an aside, Gaiman's response quoted above also mentions his experiences with his local bookstore, a dusty, disorganized disaster of a business run by a surly old man more concerned with playing online chess than helping a customer find the book they were looking for in the endless piles. I know the experience [small, boutique type store on Ouellette, conjures images of desert sanctuaries, that one?] and you likely do as well.

Honest to God, I went into a popular indie bookstore on Queen Street, which to be fair does a lot of awesome community events and has many books on hand that I'd have to order in anywhere else, but most times when I go in the guy at the desk is wearing a monocle. A fucking monocle. And perhaps it's just me, but I am unfamiliar with any way to don a monocle and not appear like a self important prat looking down his nose at anyone foolish enough to speak to him, let alone ask for Eckhart Tolle.

Which reminds me, once again, of that great treatise The Rebel Sell, which argues that the reasons large, soulless corporations can so effectively smite the mom and pop stores, is that a lot of the time they unfortunately do a better job overall. And I mean, Indigo might be a giant soulless corporation, and you might think Heather Reisman is a shedevil, but the stores are well lit, and most of the time the employees are easily located, and are happy enough to help you find products, because our lowly retail wage demands it of us.

Charm will certainly always have its place, and those people who want charm will endure some inconvenience to support it. But sometimes, goddamn man, you just want to find what you want and get out.

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