“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”
― Douglas Adams
It would’ve been easy to indulge the instinct to roll my eyes at this laughable anachronism, shrug off the publisher’s voluntary self-deportation from relevance, and refuse to feature the book in righteous indignation. But given how much I want to support Thessaly and Jane’s wonderful work, how much I respect the remarkable roster of contributors, many of whom I know personally, and how much the project sings to my own bibliophile heart, that wouldn’t have been the answer. Instead, I choose to write about the book, but also refuse to perpetuate this hideous underbelly of the old-world publishing pantheon by virtue of tacit silence.
I respect both Sarah Weinman and Maria Popova greatly and follow them both religiously. Each represents the best of the new world of digital content and social media and both have unwittingly joined forces to illustrate the core foundational problem of this digital evolution which we have yet to adequately address - who controls the rights to reproduction and at what point do those rights shift ownership?
The book in question here is Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force’s My Ideal Bookshelf published by Little Brown. The book features Jane Mount’s beautiful paintings of the bookshelves of creators, writers, and artists selected by Thessaly La Force. Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings is a wonderful and influential blog and important discovery engine for cultural content. Ms Popova was somewhat upset that Little Brown did not make available for free more than three examples of the paintings which compose the majority of the book’s content. Any more would, according to Little Brown, constitute a subrights deal and be a serialization or reprint of the content. Maria Popova instead scanned pages from the book and called out Little Brown for their “voluntary self-deportation from relevance” and bemoaned the plight of “authors and artists caught in this toxic paradigm and its false choice between going with a big publisher and never reaching an audience”.
What Ms Popova neglected to mention was the other half of the creators plight - content vultures who abuse the right of fair use in order to siphon off value from the content and away from the creators. Ms Popova speaks of the author’s audience but how much of her post on My Ideal Bookshelf a review intended to call attention to the authors work and how much is intended to excerpt a portion of the work to share with her readers as editorial content as a magazine would? As a review it is quite adequate to show 3 examples in order to understand the general theme of the content. In fact the 15 examples of scanned pages she includes just seems excessive (and a bit vindictive and frankly highlights the redundancy of the work somehow devaluing it). 15 paintings are just about every painting in a 32 page signature. As an editor of a review of the book I would have cut two thirds of them as they add nothing to the piece other than space and distract from the text of the article.
As an editor for the book trade’s Publishers Marketplace and a book editor in her own right I can see Sarah Weinman’s problem with Maria Popova’s righteous indignation but this also highlights another issue that I believe needs to be addressed. People within the publishing community have a smug, dismissive attitude toward bloggers who write lengthy posts about the assumed cost of ebook creation or loads of charts on sales trends based on guesses derived from Amazon site ranking rather then actual sales numbers. Most people outside the trade do not understand how a book is made or distributed let alone the economics at play and the publishing community is not terribly keen on how advertising how antiquated and inefficient it still is so rather than take advantage of these conversation opportunities we tend to just point out the commentators lack of inside industry knowledge and move on smugly.
This does nothing but prolong the miscommunication and keeps us from addressing the real core issues that are impeding our transformation into and industry of true digital content creators. Rights are about power and control of content but they are also about definition and the definitions in most publishers dictionaries were written before email existed, let alone Facebook or Instagram. We need to have more open debate and discussion about rights and how in a digital world they impact reprint, reproduction, author royalties, translation, and promotion. Hell, we still do not even have a clear idea of the definition of ebook ownership as Random House has recently shown us. As publishers we feel we have the empirical right to the content we publish and should have complete and unquestioned control of that content and it’s distribution and dissemination. The problem is the digital world is very porous.
Unless we humble ourselves and admit that the very nature of sharing content in a digital world requires new definitions and new business models and that we as publishers no longer have full control of the distribution pipeline and that the pubic has all the same tools we do in order to make and create books, movies and music we run the risk of having other redefine them for us. As a society we have to include the reader and the sharer in the discussion and redefinition of what are the inherent and acceptable rights that govern content in a digital world. Rather than be dismissive we need to be inclusive and open a public dialog.
The most interesting thing to me about this entire spat about the rights to post images of paintings from this book is that the actual creator of said paintings seems to have not been consulted. Ms Popova feels Little Brown is making it too hard for her to promote their book and show enough content at a high enough quality as to allow her readers the feeling of actually reading the book. Little Brown feels that since they paid to create the book they should be compensated for any exploitation of that book and that bending the rules on a case by case basis based on the potential promotional value of the exposure is just too hard and complicated. To both the images in My Ideal Bookshelf are jpegs and PDFs and the argument is about the difficulty in the decision process and convenience of sharing those image files and those files inherent value.
Here is a video of Jane Mount showing just how much work goes into creating one of the paintings behind those jpegs. More than one hundred of those paintings comprise the book. The book retails for $15.61 on Amazon. I am pretty sure Jane Mount has an opinion on the value of those jpegs and just where the line of compensation and fair use should be drawn.
(Ed Fornieles, Adventureland, 2011)
Comics have had a very different path to digital transition with their distribution staying mainly as downloaded PDFs. Evolution has been slow, Kindle’s Panel View was a poorly executed attempt to create a vehicle for epub comics and Barnes & Noble stayed with the PDF based format. ComiXology currently owns the distribution market with a PDF based app with it’s strength coming more from being one of the first in market. Their success keeps the medium locked in a static PDF format. This is unfortunate because even more than books, comics can take advantage of HTML and break away from the frozen printed page layout of a print or PDF comic book.
Lets look at the two ways to deal with electronic comic books, first Digital Comics and then Web Comics. Here is a free Digital Comic distributed on the web based on a Stephen King short story using the traditional page layout and PDF format.
Next we have a true Web Comic designed from the beginning to be read on the web and take full advantage of the screen it is read on, pushing outside the boundaries of the panel and page, incorporating the readers actions and adding movement to the reveal of the story. This creates a heightened mood and tension to the narrative in a way static sequential panels cannot.
Aside from the obvious layout and reading experience there is another major difference as outlined by Warren Ellis:
There is no experience of broadcast in digital comics. Digital comics are, in fact, the closest digital emulation of the store experience: they’re flung up on a virtual shelf.
Webcomics are broadcast. From the moment they’re uploaded, they’re surrounded by an expanding sphere of URLs and shortcodes, of RTs and Likes and +1s, and are being opened on desktops and laptops and tablets and phones.
Ellis makes a lot of good points in his blog post from last October, The Boradcast of Comics. With book publishing starting to look more seriously at HTML readers and the advantages of a convergent web experience it is time for the Web Comic to get more attention.
The focus is off webcomics right now. People are looking at how to get into the digital comics services. And quite rightly: they offer the possibility of bypassing the zero-sum game of serialising new and original material into the direct sales comics store market, a market that’s frequently been quite adamant about how it doesn’t want to sell new and original material. If I had the ability to go into digital comics right now and attempt to access a paying audience for new work, I absolutely would…
But webcomics are where the reach is. Webcomics are not the inferior option just because there’s not a payment system in place. Webcomics, for some little time to come, are where you’re going to hear about new things first.
In the 12 months since Ellis’s post alternate payment options have become more accepted. Kickstarter, ‘pay what you can’, and subscription models are becoming increasingly viable options to direct download purchase. With the move to the cloud even the idea of the “product” not actually living on your device is becoming more common. Amazon’s recent purging of a users Kindle content just served to highlight that everything we read on a screen is licensed rather than owned making pay to access web comics more palatable to the consumer.
The possibility for Web Comics to be so much more than PDF based Digital Comics is very compelling. Linked-data, tagged and searchable text, SEO, and total integration with social media and community and audience building. But the most important advantage of Web Comics is unlike the insular, compartmentalized, single unit product of a Digital Comic - Web Comics are broadcast. They are an episodic streaming connection to an audience that can be experienced communally in ways not seen before. It is now even possible to watch the artist as he creates each panel live. Because the real difference is the distribution. Content on the Web is different. The Web is direct - creator/publisher to reader. The Web hates a middle man and closed, walled retailer environments are middle men. Those who think of their content in terms of broadcasting will have a leg up building an audience and creating traffic that can sustain incredibly successful direct to consumer transactions. You don’t need big numbers like you do with ad based models, you just need enough of a dedicated audience to fund the production. We’ve seen this on Kickstarter over and over. Gearbox is a multimedia Web Comic being built from a Kickstarter project funded by just 33 backers.