The Work


Brian O’Leary had a fantastic post yesterday about book piracy and the ongoing insistence that it’s a categorically bad thing. The fact is, no one has any idea whether or not it’s a bad thing because only one publishing company in the history of publishing or companies has ever agreed to empirically test that assertion.

One is not a statistical sample.

Brian’s post was based on coverage of a session at DBW last week. One of the comments to that coverage came from Marion Gropen, a consultant to authors looking to “profit from your publishing.” Gropen says,

And the discussion about whether or not it hurts sales is utterly not the point. You can’t take anything else I own even if you think it would be in my best interest. The issue is control, not results.

I think Gropen has hit upon something absolutely critical when she says, “The issue is control.”

Traditionally, modern publishing has been tightly controlled for most of its existence. Publishers contracted with authors (with the help of agents), packaged manuscripts into books, and distributed those books to many disparate retailers. Publishers rarely interacted with their ultimate audience – they were strictly B2B.

The web has disrupted this significantly. The means of production and distribution are now in the hands of…anybody who cares to learn how they work. Tim Berners-Lee, on the stand a year ago in a patent trial in Texas, had the following exchange with Jennifer Doan, an attorney representing defendants Yahoo and Amazon:

After describing how Berners-Lee worked at CERN in Switzerland back in the 1980s, Doan moved on to the web. When Berners-Lee invented the web, did he apply for a patent on it, Doan asked.

“No,” said Berners-Lee.

“Why not?” asked Doan.

“The internet was already around. I was taking hypertext, and it was around a long time too. I was taking stuff we knew how to do…. All I was doing was putting together bits that had been around for years in a particular combination to meet the needs that I have.”

Doan: “And who owns the web?”

Berners-Lee: “We do.”

We do. Just as Berners-Lee tweeted (on a Next cube, the machine on which he invented the Web) during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics, “This is for everyone.”

Which is an absolutely terrifying thought if you are a traditional publisher. If anyone can say anything about anything, everyone will. What’s “authoritative” or “curated” loses its place. And distribution of content can happen at ANY point in the publishing process – the bulk of illegal distribution to P2P sites seems to happen in the manuscript or production phase of publishing. In other words, the leak is coming from inside the house.

If traditional publishers can’t even control that much, they will never be able to control the larger issues of P2P sharing and even content creation. The web is, because of its textual nature, probably the single most disruptive force on traditional publishing. Already the voice of the critic has dissipated into the audience itself.

And the concept of “control” as we’ve always known it is shifting dramatically.

One thought on “Control

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