Friday, April 19, 2002

After about 2000 years in which the medical profession didn't really achieve very much, it has over the last 50 years got to the point where it has started to do remarkable things, thanks largely to the pharmaceuticals industry. Disregarding the remarkable drug Losec (which makes it possible for me to still enjoy fine red wine despite having recently had an ulcer) I today read two important medical discussions on the web. Firstly, Natalie Angier and Atul Gawande's discussion of Botox in their Breakfast Table discussion in Slate: I had no idea that we had reached the extraordinarily moment in the history of technology when it was possible for Hollywood stars (and presumably other people as well) to avoid ever getting wrinkles. Secondly, Plastic pointed me to an article about the drug Provigil, which apparently makes it unnecessary to sleep. I suspect one test to determine whether you are a geek is which of these things you find more impressive. I don't know about you, but being able to live without sleep strikes me as being really cool. Imagine all the extra blogging I could do. And perhaps this is Andrew Sullivan's secret.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Okay, I perhaps overstated the differences between book and music markets. For one thing, there are very active collectible markets in both places. For the record, I am excluding these, and I am talking about people who buy books with the principal purpose of reading them, and people who buy records and CDs with the principle aim of listening to them. And I am possibly influenced by the fact that I have very esoteric tastes in books and not so esoteric tastes in music. I think the basic point holds, though. The number of books published is vastly more than the number of musical recordings produced. My behaviour is to some extent a consequence of the difference between the industries.
There is a very interesting article in Salon discussing the subject of user 'mods' in the PC video game world. The point is that game writers make it easy for users to redevelop games into new games, and a world has been created in which the line between writers, publishers and users has been blurred (with people constantly moving from one category to another). Lots of profitable revenue splitting models have sprung up to cope with this. I particularly like that fact that Counter Strike, the mod of the game Half-Life, has sold over a million shrink-wrapped copies, even though the same game can be legally downloaded over the net for free. I like a world in which everyone is free to make their own creative, derivative works. In the event that they make money from it, yes, the authors of the original works deserve to be compensated, but a world in which the use of creative works is tightly controlled is a very sterile one. The movie industry in particular likes to argue that they must have complete control over how their properties are used forever, otherwise there will be a terrible deluge of cheap copies of their work that will degrade the value of their work forever, and the only way to ensure derivative works of high quality is for them to retain complete control. Disregarding the fact that they often seem to think that parody and criticism (two long standing legal reasons for allowing fair use) are amongst the worst examples of things they must control, I think this argument that shows contempt for their own customers. It ignores the fact that properties controlled by big media conglomorates are generally the fusion of a myriad of sources in the first place, and ignores the fact that users are potentially interactive, creative individuals. The PC game industry is an impressive demonstration that users can often do weird and wonderful things if you let them. The barriers between creators and consumers is being blurred. I want this to happen everywhere, because the unleashed mass of creativity is potentially so exciting.

By the way, if you have ever walked into an internet cafe with lots of high bandwidth connections, heard lots of loud shooting noises, and observed that a section of the room is poorly lit and devoted to people playing a game that involves characters who look like terrorists or riot police running down dark coloured corridors and shooting one another, you have seen people playing counterstrike. (These sorts of cafes tend to be found in suburban shopping malls rather than tourist areas. To be familiar with them you have to either be a hard core gamer or the sort of person who explores suburban shopping malls in foreign countries. I am more the latter than so much the former).

Monday, April 15, 2002

There is a rather snarky attack on Harry Knowles and Ain't it Cool News by Stephen Metcalfe over in Slate. Basically, it acuses Harry and his minions of being obsessed with "generic" Hollywood movies, and being basically a generator of the sort of hype that causes people to overlook quality, and that the site has a "trivial, scoop-grubbing mentality".

Harry Knowles has his faults, and an overblown style may be one of them, but I don't think being obsessed with the trivial is one of them. Actually, what I find interesting about the site is that as a source of information on obscure, foreign, interesting, and esoteric movies, it has few rivals. In the world of film, there are mainstream Hollywood movies, then there are what might be referred to as "festival" films - films that might get shown at Cannes or Toronto or Sundance, and if they are any good might then get a release in (probably non-multiplex) cinemas. Between them, these films are what most mainstream critics will see, and most critics end of year best lists will feature films from these two categories. Then there is the pop cultural detritus of the rest of the world: gangster films from Hong Kong and greater China, Asian animation, weird post-communist stuff coming out of Eastern Europe, and lots more. Harry covers that stuff, and throws everything in together to get excited about. In doing so, he lacks the (sometimes odious) snobbery of a lot of the art film crowd, and he enlightens us about stuff we wouldn't see otherwise. Look at his list of the best movies of 2001. You find a few Hollywood movies, a lot more animated and foreign language films than on most lists (particularly foreign language genre movies), plus the odd eastern European science fiction film or the odd piece of Taiwanese glove puppetry. It's a much more interesting and eclectic list than from most of the film snobs.

Well, I see that Jeff Bezos is now defending the sale of used books. My experience of actual authors, as distinct from publishers and bureacrats, is that most like it when people produce old, dog eared, clearly purchased second hand copies of their books, because they mean that their books are being read. If books to read are available at cheaper prices, the market is expanded and people buy more books - it is that simple. Authors are generally book lovers themselves and know this.

It's interesting to compare the second hand book market with the second hand music market. Yes, it is possible to buy second hand records and compact discs, and yes you can save a little money by buying them. However, the market isn't anywhere near the size of the second hand book market. The reason for this is that music recordings, on the whole, do not go out of print with anything like the speed and frequency that books do. The total number of albums released by the major labels over the past couple of decades is in the tens of thousands. The total number of books released over the same period is in the millions. Your average record store can obtain any CD the vast majority of customers are going to reasonably want. Whatever the music was that my mother listened to in the sixties, if she wants to get a new copy on CD, she probably can. Except for a small number of classics, with books she probably can't. The big advantage of the second hand book market is that it provides more shelf space for books, and this drives the book market some more. CDs on the other hand don't need the extra shelf space, so it isn't really there.

Of course, the second hand book market is really a distraction. e-books and the like don't seem very successful so far, but imminent technological change still lurks, and isn't going away. Again compare with the music industry. Traditionally the music business has operated on an economy of scarcity: we charge a substantial amount of money for a physical product (an LP or CD). This economy was all based on the idea that distribution is hard, and that you can only store so much of it on the rack in your living room. What the internet did (with help from Napster) is change all that. Suddenly you have the ability to listen to almost any piece of music ever recorded whenever you like. This is a million times better than just having a few CDs. You hear a song you like on the radio and you find it catchy. However, you don't know what it is. However, you grab a few words of the lyrics, you do a quick search for those words in a lyric database, find out what the song is, and then you download and listen to all the other songs recorded by that artist, or by that songwriter. This is so much better than the traditional model that it is ridiculous. If you can persuade users to pay the same amount of money they pay for CDs and you have the same number of artists (and the same number of hangers on demanding their cut) as before, then nobody is any the worse off. (Of course, if you can eliminate the hangers on, then everyone who actually matters - ie the artists and their fans - can be much better off). It appears that the value of music has gone down - after all people are paying an average of a fraction of a cent per song they listen to, whereas they may have once been paying a couple of dollars, but consumption has risen so much it makes up for it. However, the value lies in the convenience. The value lies in the ability to search and listen to exactly what you want right now: not in the actual downloading of the music. This is quite convenient for artists, because searches can be relatively easily centralised, monitored, and royalties can be paid accordingly. Indexing and charging naturally go together. Monitoring and regulating large centralised indexes is much easier than monitoring downloading and copying.

However, this has not happened at all. The music companies were and are so attached to selling CDs for $15 that they missed the change in paradigm, and to them anything other than paying $2 a song is theft. Or perhaps they didn't, and they just realised that the new paradigm spelled the end for their monopoly on distribution. The internet has had three great killer applications. The first was e-mail. The second was Usenet newsgroups. The third was the World Wide Web. Napster should have been the fourth. Something like Napster again will be the fourth.

How does this all relate to books? Well, if I was given the ability to electronically search through every book in print in order to find what I wanted and then to download the books I wanted for a flat subscription fee or a small charge, then I would pay a decent sum for this. And I would download an awful lot of books. (It is hard to say how many of them I would read a significant portion of, but the key issue is that I would have a far better opportunity to choose the books that were of most interest to me). Again, the value is transferred from the individual books to the central database. Potentially, consumption is increased dramatically. The paradigm is shifted.

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