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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Choosing to Suck

I'm much calmer in my old age, but sometimes I want to grab certain people by the lapels and scream, "Look, you dumb motherfucker."

In this case, I'd like to do that to Salman Rushdie, who's complaining about plans by the Justice Department to break up publishing cartels:
"Anyone who thinks that fair pricing that allows authors to make a living is a cabal or cartel system is deep in the grip of Napsterism."

He goes onto explain that the Napsterism, named after the free music website Napster, is the belief "that it's OK to acquire people's work for almost nothing."
You always hear about this "How can I make a living?" crap. Well, there's the way you chose --ripping people off, basically-- and the other way, which is convincing people to give you money.

I don't know if Rushdie has noticed lately, but nobody reads anymore. Newspapers are dying. Bookstores are closing up. Libraries are being closed. Literature? There's a literature scene, sure, a niche of booknerds geeking out over books. But in the larger culture? If it's not a movie, no one knows about it, and if they know about it, it's going to be made into a movie.

We're a visual and aural culture now, not really a literary one. Maybe you can go back, but I don't know. I think we're going to have to accept that the written word is NOT god. That all this stuff we type and print out and get people to read, in the end...it's just not worth very much money.

Not unless you option it by a studio or get picked for Oprah's book club.

It is okay to get people's work for almost nothing. Almost every book I've ever read has been picked up second-hand for almost nothing. Dime novels. Penny dreadfuls. Pulp fiction. Goddamn newspapers sold on street corners, a nickel. Seats were cheap at the Globe Theater when Hamlet debuted. Monks copying pages of the Bible by hand, every one of them vowing poverty. Bards and poets, passing down the legends by rote.

Do you think Homer got a residual every time someone recited The Odyssey?

As this whole debate goes on, copyrights and literature-as-commercial-product, I've become more and more annoyed at this idea that you deserve to make money from what you write simply by virtue of having written it. I've been writing this blog for years. Every word has been copyrighted. Haven't made a dime. If I tried to package it and sell it to someone, no one would buy it. My blog is literally worthless.

Here's how business works: You want my money? Convince me to give it to you. I like to buy books. Seriously. I rate it up there as one of the great joys of life. But I don't actually have an infinite amount of money to spend. So I must be cautious and careful in my choices. If I spend $10 on your book, not only can I not spend that on another book, but I can't spend that $10 on the light bill, snacks, or toothpaste.

So while I appreciate the need to make a living, maybe you might have to make it from someone else.

But wait, say you drop it down to $5, no...better yet, $1. I might be able to part with that.

What do you think ole Salman Rushdie is going to say? This is what he'd say: "Are you insane? If I charge a dollar for this book, I'll have to charge a dollar for every other book."

Yes, you can tell him. But you'll sell more books.

"I don't want to sell more books," Rushdie will say. "I want to make more per book."

Okay then. If that's the choice you want to make...

And that's the thing, I've come to realize. That it really comes down to choices. Publishers could accept that their bubble has popped. Like the housing market, there's been a drastic revision of value in what they're pumping out. They could accept less profit in exchange for higher sales.

But they don't want to. They want to stay on the gravy train as long as possible, with their cartels and their "fair pricing" and their "making a living" bullshit. (Salman Rushdie is wealthy. Google says he has a net worth of $15 million. If that's "making a living," I'm barely scraping by...)

I see this with the theater chains I work with. They're investing millions of dollars per theater converting them to digital projectors, and almost nothing on the people who run their operations. It's a choice, a business choice, and I think one of the reasons we've had this whole revision of value, this economic catastrophe, these last few years is that a lot of industries have been doing this, choosing to put out an inferior product because it's more profitable.

That's no way to run a culture.

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