When I buy a book, I am effectively buying water (the content) and a bucket (the actual book, with all it entails). I am taught that most of the value is in the bucket, because that’s what pricing is keyed off of. Hard vs. Softcover establishes the price, not the quality of the content. I take no price guidance from things I might reasonably take as indicators of quality, like the author. So right off the bat, the bucket industry has trained me that the price of water is low, maybe even free. They don’t care though, because they make their money on buckets.
To muddle things further, I have been taught by living in a civilized society that it is entirely reasonable for me to drink the water for free as long as I don’t steal the bucket. That is, once I own a book, i can resell it or give it away. If I don’t own the book I can read it for free by borrowing it from a friend or from the library, or even just by having it read to me. Once again, I’m taught that the value is in the bucket.
Now, the bucket makers aren’t necessarily happy with this arrangement, but they’re kind of obliged to deal with it. Part of that is social pressure – this freedom is part of the culture of books, and fighting it makes you the bad guy – but another part of it is more cynical. See, every other non-consumable good in society is tied to these rules as well – you can gift and loan tools, jewelry, cars or anything else you can think of. To buck this trend, the bucket makers would have to say “Well, wait a minute, we’re different than these other goods. We have this great water which has value of a different kind” and that’s a problem, because so far the whole model is based on putting value on the buckets, not the water, so they don’t want to upset that cart.
This has worked well for a very long time, and people really love their buckets, but now some crazy guy has gone and invented plumbing. Suddenly I can get my water from the source, and that really screwss things up. The ways in which it messes things up are a whole other conversation, but here’s the bit that interests me.
What happens if, when I want to make a gift of a book, I don’t need to buy a new bucket?
See, I will never feel bad about libraries or gifting read books, at least under the current model, but I also feel it probably hurts creators more than anyone else. But the idea of “gifting” an electronic file really means “giving a duplicate” unless you want to do something particularly cumbersome with it. I can imagine a world where, in the absence of buckets, the cost of that is small enough to pay casually, and goes directly to the creator.
Sure, this upends a lot of assumption. If money goes to the creator directly, he then becomes the person who has to hire all the people who make a book possible rather than them hiring him. That’s a drastic change, so much so that it may seem impossible. But in my gut, I’m wondering if it’s the only possible outcome.
PS – So it’s clear, this is not a “Death to Publishers!” position, merely a “The roles of everyone involved in the book chain are potentially subject to drastic change over the next decade or three”
(This was originally a comment in a discussion of piracy on Chuck Wendig’s blog, but I wanted to pull it out and make it it’s own thing)