Monday, October 17, 2011

Viva La Revolución?

Damn, people. The e-book revolution—particularly the indie-driven e-book revolution—has barely reached its second birthday, and already it has caused more tumult and controversy than most bachelor/ette parties and some political elections. The current go-round rests on an argument of economic inequality and class privilege: authors who publish electronically are hurting less monetarily blessed readers, because electronically published books are not available in secondhand bookstores. More and more libraries are carrying e-books, the argument goes, but they're still out of reach unless you're willing to plunk down a hundred bucks or more for a device on which to read them.

(Because it will never be said that I have been cursed with faulty memory when it comes to incidents that got my dander up, I will point out that one of the calling-bullshit rebuttals made during the piracy dust-up earlier this year went along the lines of, "You can afford an e-reader, but not the books to go on them?" The counterargument made by the pro-piracy contingent was "How dare you imply that economically underprivileged folks don't know what an e-reader is/can't access Internet cafes/spend all day swatting flies off of each other!*" I'll keep it short 'n sweet to avoid going off on a complete tangent, but my eyebrow is getting a pretty good workout right now.)

Actually, when it comes to indie authors (who are driving the bulk of the shift to electronic books), that's not the case. At all. The books written by indie authors would not have been in the library in the first place, because I have yet to hear of one single library that would shelve an indie book. Most indie authors wouldn't have a hope in hell of getting a traditional publishing contract that would then put their books in a library in physical format, sometimes due to quality issues but frequently due to traditional publishers' increasingly conservative stance on signing new authors or renewing the contracts of old ones. An argument which on its surface looks like, "Because e-books are not universally available, you should not publish them" (which I have deep-seated issues with both as someone who grew up dirt-poor and really loves books and thinks that a good story is one of the most powerful forces out there), is actually, "Because e-books are not universally available, you should not publish them, even though you could not have published in a universally available format, anyway." That's simply, to get all technical about it, pants-off crazy.

But let's issue benefit of doubt and go deeper. Many of the people turning towards indie publishing are authors who have been traditionally published in the past. Either they don't sell enough and aren't renewed (and thus we're back to "How dare you publish in this new method that's not available to me, even though you would not have been available to me in the old way, either!"), or they make far less per book sold and still struggle to make ends meet even if they manage to hold onto their contracts and scrabble up to midlist status. Fine. This at least manages to be an honest need vs. need conversation, rather than a bunch of smoke with a vague tinge of "When did you stop beating your wife?" (Contrarian that I am, anytime someone tries that argument strategy, I feel an urge to chirp right back, "Three weeks ago, we're going out tonight to celebrate!") However, my response to this is essentially the same that I put forth during the e-book piracy dust-up**: I will defend your right to read books and I will defend her right to read books, I will defend your right to receive health insurance and I will defend her right to receive health insurance, but I will not defend your right to read books against her right to receive health insurance.

So where do we go from here? Are we just supposed to say "Ha-ha, sucks to be you!" to anyone who wants to read books but can't or does not want to drop the coin for an e-reader? Considering that I plowed through one, sometimes two library books per day as an adolescent and was likely stopped from making the transition from the creepy kid to the violent kid more than once due to their influence, I don't want to see that happen. As the OWS protests have made abundantly clear, there is a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots within the United States. (And that doesn’t mean that other countries are doing so hot, either; unequal and unfair distribution of resources is a global crisis.) When budgets are strained, the arts feel the knife first. My library is offering an increasing percentage of their books in electronic format and has designed an app that lets library patrons download books onto their smartphones. This is probably going to be the future of e-books for folks who can't afford an e-reader, as smart phones are cheaper than e-readers, have a hell of a lot more bang for the buck (I don't have a land line, and neither does anyone else I know around my age; it just doesn’t make economic sense any longer), and are increasingly eligible for need-based discounted service. Even as I type this solution, I am aware of all of its flaws. Many people do not have the funds even for this service, and many libraries are facing grim futures because they are seeing their existing budgets slashed as it is, forget about getting the bump in funds needed to modernize their catalogues. Technological advancements that a few decades ago would have found themselves becoming cheaper as they made the shift from toy to necessity are instead growing more expensive rather than less, and I hate it. It's a symptom of a very deep sickness in the way that capitalism has come to work in the United States. I'm going to go after the powerful people who are actually responsible for the illness, though, rather than the authors who are reacting to the symptoms. To hammer home the point just a little bit harder, e-published authors are either 1) indies who would not have been able to aid accessibility to books even if they did obligingly agree not to exist, or 2) are working out of a traditional contract, make pennies on the dollar for their labor, and are in the weakest positions relative to the rest of the publishing industry. They simply present tempting targets because they're generally more accessible via internet contact and are eager to please in order to protect their reputations. Seeing the weakest person in any power structure and choosing to go after them on the basis of that is a lot of things, "lazy" being about the most flattering among them. Aim higher.

*That last example being a pretty direct quote.

**I really need to rewrite that essay to comb the f-bombs out of it and get it up here, it's not as if I'm putting any particular effort into hiding my fannish identity.

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