Sunday, May 17, 2009

Racket Protection

I've been reading a number of really thought provoking posts recently, all about the issue of intellectual property, specifically the nature of information piracy. While I am firmly on the side of those advocating free and open standards, since obscurity, as Cory Doctorow is always quick to point out, is the writer's true enemy. And while this is true, it may not always be true, or at least that is the argument I've recently come across.

Peter Wayner's recent op-ed in the New York Times looks at the issue of piracy and its effect on the world of non-fiction publishing, specifically the world of academic or niche field related publishing. As Wayner says,

The kind of book I write, thick with equations that play to computer lovers, is also the first to be pirated. It’s a canary. O’Reilly Publishers, one of the top technical presses, reported that in 2008, the computer book market was the only segment to lose sales. According to the company, the category sold 8 percent fewer titles in 2008 than 2007.

It is an interesting argument, and pretty convincing in and of itself, but what Wayner does not mention is that until now, authors like him have essentially had a monopoly on a captive market. In fact, you can't even call it a market, because markets are open. In reality it's a racket.

Is there a truly legitimate reason that educational publishers will bring out a new edition of textbook every year or two years? Perhaps. But why is it that university courses usually specify the latest edition of a book where the content has never been significantly altered from edition to edition? University bookstores benefit. Educational publishers benefit. Textbook writers and contributors benefit. But do the students benefit?

Authors like Wayner have made their living depending on the fact that countless students often have no choice or option but to buy the latest shrink wrapped version of their latest epic tome. His readers, more often than not, did not shell out $50 or more per book because they wanted to, or were just dying to read the timeless jargon that only a Peter Wayner could so eloquently produce. No, they shelled out $50 per book because they were required to, and when a quick search for a used copy on Craigslist turned up empty, had to high-tail it on down to the university bookstore and pick up a shiny new copy.

I think the most telling statement Wayner makes, which entirely undercuts his argument, is the blase way he affirms the intrinsic value of his work. As Wayner says,

It’s hard to sue the students who read my books, even though I think the prices are a huge bargain. While $50 seems like a lot to pay for a book, the universities can charge up to $5,000 for a course that often touches upon half of the material in a book.

$50 seems like a lot to pay? While I think he's low-balling the amount most people pay for an average textbook ($150 was the median price in my day), even if every textbook were $50, what Wayner is saying is that his book is actually worth far more. For such a smart fellow, he sure seems oblivious to chasm sized holes in that logic.

Unlike an author, whose only expense is time, and coffee, universities have to pay for tenured faculty, utilities, administration, maintenance, and a whole host of other expenses. Running a university is an expensive proposition. Printing a few more copies of a book is not.

Even that aside, $50 is a sizable chunk of cash for most people. And saying that at $50 we're getting a smokin' deal? In miniature, it's the same attitude I encountered when reading CEO profiles where overpaid execs justified their insane salaries by claiming that they were somehow worth every penny, that they were worth whatever the market could bear, and even then they would be a smokin' deal.

I can only imagine how consumers would react to a fiction author jacking up the price of their books and then claiming that readers were actually getting a deal. Not only would there be a laugh riot, but the author in question would quickly learn an unforgettable lesson on how markets operate.

But for guys like Wayner, whose sinecure, so long unchallenged and secure, now stands under assault from the power of digital technologies, this lesson has not yet sunk in.

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