My last post discussed society and the future, and how they depend on agreement in order to progress and thrive. I’ve been thinking about this because so many of the individual functions of society depend on agreement; and among the most major of those functions is buying and selling.
The basis of the agreement is obvious: Exchanging of goods, services or monetary compensation is expected to be equal and fair on both sides. Sometimes the equality of the transaction is obvious, but oftimes that equality is complicated by intangibles, like the “expertise” of a producer or the complications in providing the service (a rush job, an unusual delivery, etc).
Sometimes those intangibles are deliberately hidden from the other party, to obscure the real value of the transaction. Sometimes the imbalance of the transaction was obvious, but one party was forced into accepting or participating in the unfair transaction out of necessity or duress. If such unfair transactions continued long enough or with enough unsatisfied participants, reparations would be demanded… sometimes with violent results… and often a new transaction relationship would evolve from that.
The relatively modern introduction of digital content represents the most recent disruption of the old paradigms in buying, selling and agreement. Like its most immediate predecessor, television and radio content, the new type of content, coupled with a new delivery system, created a disconnect in the ability to sell content on a 1-to-1 basis. And like over-the-air content, digital content needs to patch that disconnect in order to be profitable.
With television and radio, the earliest solution became selling to a third party, advertisers, in exchange for access to a supposedly captive audience through which to promote their products. Later, when content could be encrypted or placed inside encrypted delivery systems (like cable), it was possible to sell access to content either on a 1-to-1 basis or via access to channels carrying that content, and barriers were put in place to make circumvention of those systems generally too difficult to bother with.
But thus far, digital content has had limited success in the same channel- or encryption-based content restrictions. At heart has been the ease of replication: In most cases, any digital content that is made available to one party can then be duplicated and redistributed over the internet. And creating barriers to this unauthorized replication of content has proven largely unworkable or impossible.
As the digital revolution began, aspiring writers saw an opportunity to create novels that they would be able to distribute outside of the traditional bookstore and library systems, breaking through the glass ceiling of “established authors” created and maintained by an exclusive and walled-off industry. These independent authors set out crafting and distributing written products, with the hope that word would spread and result in a steady stream of product and income, making both parties happy in the new digital marketplace of buying and selling by agreement.
But to put it simply, that’s not how it worked out. The potential customers disagreed on the value of the digital products; using famously flawed logic, they compared digital novels to content like television shows that they claimed “cost nothing” (they refused to acknowledge that advertisers were paying for the content, since they disliked advertising disrupting their entertainment, and wished that they, too, would go away); just as flawed was the attempted connection between the content and its medium, suggesting that it was impossible to put a value on “electrons” and therefore should be considered free. And since it was easy enough to find content to download for free, customers never fully acknowledged the need to pay for digital content or its actual value as a product.
Interestingly, a new form of business sprang up around the digital content model, the digital distributor: Similar to cable companies, the DD presented themselves as content “aggregators” and allowed a customer to pay a subscription fee for access to any content in their system. Unfortunately, there was nothing linking the DD to the sources of their content, nor preventing them from obtaining whatever content they want; resulting in hordes of content redistributed to subscribers, but with no compensation going back to the content’s originators.
This left the independent content creator with no fair or reliable channels to sell their content, no support from the customer end of the market, and no way to improve the situation short of spending large sums on legal actuators and investigators in a futile attempt to control the digital distribution system… bring law to the lawless west.
Which, finally, exhaustingly, brings me to my situation.
I’ve known over the years that some of my books had ended up on the occasional illicit distribution channel—known as “pirating” my books. It’s been the way of the world with ebooks since their invention, and it was a regular source of irritation… that itch I couldn’t scratch. But when I recently discovered that essentially all of my novels existed on multiple illegal DD networks, with no way of removing them, nor suing for compensation for my distributed works, that itch graduated to a proverbial knife in my back. Worse, I discovered that many of the people who regularly encouraged me to write new material were frequenting those same networks, and encouraging others to use them… the equivalent of my own familiar, friendly customers holding the blades. And gleefully twisting.
So, what I have to show for over 20 years of work, trying to develop a supplementary income for my impending rerirememt years, is… knives in the back from the very customers who I thought were on my side. A total breakdown of the buyer-seller agreement: I have been turned into a sucker serving the tyrannical customer, a slave to the market massahs. You know what they say: Fool me once, shame on me; fool me 18 times…
In short (too late), I’ve been thoroughly pwned. And… well, you will hopefully not be too incredibly surprised to discover that I’m kinda tired of stepping, fetching and bleeding for other people’s gratification.
I’ve therefore finally declared an end to the whole 20-plus-year independent novelist for profit project. The long-institutionalized breakdown of the buyer-seller agreement over digital content has turned me, the content creator, into the victim of an unbalanced system, praying for a balance that will never come; and that’s a role I no longer intend to play. I have managed to learn a thing or two about writing over the years; maybe I can work out another type of writing that will pay off in the future. But it looks like novel writing, the format that I enjoyed so much as a reader and writer, won’t be it.
Since the point of my blog has been the promotion of the novels, I’m weighing my options here, too. I’ve never received significant approval or support over the opinions expressed in this blog, whether about science, science fiction or SF-related entertainment; so it’s not as if the blog represents a notable voice in public discourse, and it’s fair to say that it would not be missed. So I’ll be considering rebuilding, repurposing or shuttering it. My future, now lacking a retirement fallback, is now that much more uncertain; and that uncertainty will impact the interest and investment I have in the rest of society’s activities, and my desire to contribute to them through commentary and opinion.
But whatever. I’m making these decisions according to what works best for me, informed by my total failure and humiliation at the hands of a skewed market, and a lack of fairness between me—a guy who just wanted to make some money by entertaining people—and a public that only wanted to take my work without giving me due compensation for it. I will now go find something else to do… hopefully something that will provide a better experience than trying to win fair treatment from novel-stealers and back-stabbers over the internet.
One thing I think we can all agree on: I stand a better chance of fair treatment doing almost anything else.