The traditional publishing industry's worst nightmare arrived in Toronto this week when science-fiction author Cory Doctorow addressed the TD National Reading Summit on the burning question of "How to Destroy the Book."
As one of the world's most successful bloggers, a writer who freely gives away his work as well as selling it - and not least, a genuine expert in the suddenly fraught world of international copyright - this Toronto-born phenom knows as much about wrecking traditional publishing as anyone alive.
I don't think people write 26,000-word license agreements in order to give you more rights. They only do it to take away your rights.
For serious students of the art, Doctorow is currently conducting an experiment in both giving away and selling his latest work of self-published fiction, Makers , in every way possible - and scrupulously documenting the financial results in a series of columns in Publishers Weekly .
The novel, about the struggles of technology hackers in a future economic upheaval, is being made available in a dizzying variety of forms - from downloads and "aps" to a deluxe limited edition of 250 copies made at a family-owned bindery near Doctorow's London home, priced at $250 a piece. But like Little Brother, Doctorow's bestselling young-adult novel of 2008, Makers will be free on his website to any reader with the hard-drive space to store it. Those who want a $15 paper copy will be able to order it from print-on-demand publisher lulu.com.
As a service to other writers, Doctorow said in an interview conducted while he stood on the platform between carriages of a speeding British train, he is experimenting in ways to "delaminate" the traditional publishing industry.
"Right now, we have this vision of the publisher as a monolithic service entity that proves everything from typesetting and printing to distribution to sales support, marketing and PR," he said. "But there's no reason it has to do all those things in one go."
Or even the basic ones - like providing its products to retail outlets.
There is no shortage of penniless evangelists preaching the same gospel today, but Doctorow, 38, is emphatically not one of them. Not only does he make a good living from his fiction, by selling it as well as giving it away, Doctorow admits, he is also the recipient of embarrassing riches due to his early involvement in the pioneering and still hugely successful tech blog BoingBoing , which he co-edits.
"It turns out it's very hard to tell a commissioned sales force just to bring in enough to cover the bills," the author notes, describing how an amusing toy became a gold mine when advertisers stampeded to get aboard. "I'm very fortunate that my writing career has taken off like a rocket as well, but either one of them could really support me. It's very nice."
But these are not the book-destroying feats Doctorow detailed at this week's conference in Toronto, which is devoted to the development of a national reading culture. The real wreckers, according to him, are the publishers and entertainment firms using digital technology to undermine the traditional rights of readers.
"What they're doing is throwing away copyright rules that describe what rights readers have to a book, and replacing them with these farcical end-user licence agreements that say you don't really own the book, you only license it," he said, noting that consumers who buy audio books from iTunes are required to agree to a 26,000-word licence agreement.
"I don't think people write 26,000-word licence agreements in order to give you more rights," he said. "They only do it to take away your rights."
As an example of that, Doctorow cites Amazon.com's decision to delete - unilaterally and by remote control - thousands of electronic copies of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four it had previously sold to users of its Kindle e-readers.
"They gave everybody back their copies and promised they would never do it again - unless they had a court order," Doctorow said. "I've worked as a bookseller, and no bookseller has ever had to make a promise at the cash register: 'Here's your books. I promise I won't come to your house and take them away again - unless I have a court order.'"
Traditional copyright law is like a tank mine, according to Doctorow, a fellow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights watchdog. It exists to regulate the activities of large commercial interests. "A civilian can't set it off by stepping on it." But new corporate models born of digital technology are changing that, so that penalties for comparatively petty violations - like sharing a book - are targeting individual readers. "They're redesigning tank mines to blow the legs off children."
The music industry has already shown how damaging such an approach can be, according to Doctorow. Owning, lending, inheriting, loving and even giving away books is "the life blood of publishing," he says. "If the publishing industry actually succeeds in convincing people not to own books, they'll cut their own throats."
On the other hand, he adds, they can save themselves by finding the cheapest ways possible of getting as many books permanently into the hands of as many readers as possible.
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