The thing about fame

Scanning the publishing horizon for things to think about, I sometimes come across articles and posts that make me wish I’d written them myself. Not an exclusive list, but I really appreciate work by Mathew Ingram at GigaOm, Laura Owen at paidContent and Mike Masnick at Techdirt, along with posts by Clay Shirky, Dan Gillmor and my colleague and friend-in-editing, Hugh McGuire.

And then there’s Cory Doctorow.

Writing (as he does) about piracy, platform lock-in and the implications of laws like the DMCA and SOPA/PIPA, Doctorow connects the dots for anyone interested in how publishing does and might work. As an author, he can speak with a perspective that lends his words greater weight.

And boy, can he make an argument.

In a walk-up to his keynote at O’Reilly Media’s Author Revolution day, Doctorow posted an incredibly tight argument to explain “how writers lose when ‘piracy’ gets harder”. In it, he walks you from the reality of how writers are paid today through to the chilling effect of efforts to increase internet liability for anyone within throwing distance of online copyright infringement.

Go read his post. I’ll borrow from just his conclusion:

But here’s the thing about fame: although it’s hard to turn fame into money in the arts, it’s impossible to turn obscurity into money in the arts. It doesn’t matter how you plan on making your money — selling books or downloads, selling ads, getting sponsorship, getting crowdfunded, getting commissions, licensing to someone else who’s figured out how to make money — you won’t get the chance unless people have heard of your stuff.

When the entertainment titans of the last century struggle to lock down the Internet, they claim it’s to stop piracy and protect artists. But if they shut down the Internet and all the innovation and opportunity that comes with it, who will protect us from them?

Copyright was created as a limited monopoly granted by the legislature to encourage the creation and dissemination of knowledge. One measure of its success is the number of new works: too few, and there isn’t enough incentive.

In barely a generation, democratizing the tools we use to produce and distribute creative works has led to a 40-fold increase in the number of published books. Sure, the openness of the web has led to infringement, but (as Doctorow points out in one of several footnotes):

If you want to eat, you need to focus on how to get as much money as possible, not how to get paid by everyone who enjoys your books. If piracy creates more new sales (through publicity) than it costs (through substitution), then you’re ahead of the game.

[The link does not appear in Doctorow's footnote; it points to a post on revenue maximization that I wrote in December.]

Very few forums give adequate weight to the substance of Doctorow’s arguments. He makes publishers and probably a lot of authors uncomfortable. Credit O’Reilly for putting him front and center not just at its new Author Revolution event, but once again at its Tools of Change conference. The meeting continues to feature strong-minded authors like Margaret Atwood, Douglas Rushkoff and Cory Doctorow, none of whom is interested in making us feel comfortable.

Yeah, it’s the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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