Saturday, 29 March 2008

The Penguin's Dilemma

I had a pleasant surprise this lunchtime: something shiny, yellow and American had found its way through the catflap.

Nope, the cat hadn't brought in a plastic replica of Woodstock (or, for that matter, something much much funnier that I apparently couldn't think of): it was actually The Pirate's Dilemma, a new book by journalist, consultant, entrepeneur, IT expert, etc. and so on, Matt Mason. And for the record, even though the cat is black and white it's not called Jess and has nothing to do with mail delivery. In other words, the book came in the mail.*

Anyway, getting a little closer to the point (honestly, there is one), if that name or book title sounds even slightly familiar to you, then chances are you probably checked out the We Tell Stories site when Fiona blogged about it earlier this week - Matt Mason, as it happens, has also written one of the stories for the aforementioned experiment. As far as I can tell, though, he doesn't seem to have any track record in fiction...

So what exactly is he doing on there? At least, that was what I found myself wondering.

Well, for one thing, Penguin will be publishing the UK edition of The Pirate's Dilemma this May; which would be the cynical - and not at all interesting - answer. Another answer would certainly be that Mason's a good writer. Having now read part of the book, I can attest to that - it might not be fiction, but he tells a good story. The other possible answer, though, and the one that interests me most, is: that We Tell Stories might itself be a tentative attempt by Penguin at answering the Pirate's Dilemma.

For anyone who hasn't already clicked on the links above, the very basic thrust of the book is this: piracy is simply another business model; thanks to the internet and digital technology, an increasingly persistent, relevant and influential one. One which innovates and points out inefficiencies in the market. One which leaves intellectual property holders with two options:

1). Sue the pirates. This is usually akin to fixing a sinking ship with sellotape - likely to, at best, temporarily lessen rather than fix the revenue leak; and, as piracy often exists to provide some kind of added value that the public appreciates, often not great for PR (e.g. Hasbro and Scrabulous).

2). Compete. Offer what the pirates offer, and more. Innovate, if that's what it takes.

This is not to say that Mason doesn't believe in intellectual property - he does, or I'd probably be linking to a free download; also, he addresses it in the comments at the end of this blogpost - and the book itself is much more than the above argument: it's a, so far, fascinating story of how punk/DIY/youth culture/remix culture/piracy has frequently changed the world, how it has subverted and then become the mainstream. Indeed, the book is called The Pirate's Dilemma, and not the more obvious title The Pirate Dilemma, because with so much of how we all live now having been influenced by piracy (in its many forms) there is, Mason says, a bit of the pirate in all of us. With technology increasingly allowing everyone (legitimate companies, illegal pirates, law-abiding citizens) to compete (and co-operate) in the same arena, the dilemma facing all of us is whether or not to embrace that pirate spirit.

While the film and music industries have been facing this dilemma for quite some time now - mostly by crying, whinging and stamping their feet, and occasionally by suing the very poor, the very dead, and the entirely innocent - because books have remained largely un-digitised, piracy has yet to cause publishers very many headaches at all.

Except, perhaps, in anticipation of the future: digitised books for the Kindle and the Sony Reader are gaining in popularity; novels on mobile phones are already popular in Japan (chances are, if someone brought novels to the iPhone, they'd soon take off in the West too); and advances in book scanning technology could eventually make direct conversion of physical books into digital versions quick, cheap and labour-free. Even print-on-demand technology could conceivably be used for piracy sooner or later.

Having had that luxury, then, of being able to stand back, watch, and one hopes learn from their sister industries' attempts to swim rather than sink in an ocean they now share with pirates, it will be interesting to see how the publishing industry evolves in response to increasing digitisation of its wares.

While HarperCollins and Random House are experimenting with, respectively, limited period offers of free downloadable books, and downloadable chunks for a small fee, and other publishers are utilising print-on-demand to extend the Long Tail of backlist titles, it seems to me that We Tell Stories might be another such look into things to come, or at least a sign that Penguin has been considering The Pirate's Dilemma as more than just something else to publish. And perhaps, too, it's the most interesting publishing foray into a market conditioned to expect free everything.

While Penguin is giving away stories, and even an Alternate Reality Game (ARG), for nothing; in compensation it's receiving from newspapers/magazines/blogs, for six or seven weeks, (virtual)reams of free publicity for: a) all of the Penguin authors involved, b) the 1300-strong library of Penguin Classics it's offering as a prize, and c) itself, as an innovative brand capable of embracing both the future and the past.

On this occasion, the novelty value of We Tell Stories has probably guaranteed it more publicity than future repetitions might get, but still, it's an interesting way the company might, on a more limited scale, be able to attract customers and generate sales in the future.

Chances are, though, that publicity wasn't the only revenue generator Penguin was looking at. We Tell Stories might have represented, too, not only an opportunity to test the public's potential interest in new forms of fiction, but also in the ARG dimension and the kind of viable sources of alternative revenue it might be possible for Penguin to piggyback onto free content in the future - if people do come to expect free stories, perhaps they might be willing to pay for something like an ARG that links into them?

But who knows what the future will bring? (Or by whom it will be delivered. Or through which kind of flaps).

Still, it's nice to see Penguin remixing the past and the present in an effort to find out. As for why Mason's involved; a former pirate DJ could come in handy for that kind of thing... His mash-up will appear on 15th April.

N.B. If We Tell Stories has given you a taste for "watching stories", as Fiona put it, you could do worse than taking a look around Locus Novus - this one in particular's just beautiful (and probably a nice contrast after all that talk about "revenue generators" and such).

*Yes, through the catflap. Since some landlord-hired loon decided a very much exposed to the elements frontdoor was the most sensible place in which to install something that might frequently blow open letting freezing cold air circulate near-constantly through the lower floor of the house that I increasingly grudgingly call home, the catflap seems to have become our postman's favoured point of delivery. Unlike my housemate's cat, though, at least he closes it after himself, (should anyone now have the image of a tiny cat-sized postman: glad to be of service).


Anonymous said...

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Tim Warren said...

Hmm, interesting...

Thanks for that.

Shame they don't show what a novel might be like to read on a mobile phone screen, or for that matter which mobiles are compatible. I suppose I do read e-mail and browse the odd site on my phone, but at the moment the small screen would put me off reading much more than that (which was why I mentioned the iPhone - a bigger screen, and you'd probably be able to turn pages with an almost natural flick of the finger).

Arthur said...

Very interesting. I've just returned form the International Publishers Association Congress in Seoul, at which there was much talk and concern about book piracy, and in my view not nearly enough recognition that, for a publisher, piracy of printed books are a big flashing sign saying 'Here's your next market!'

Ebooks are already hitting the iPhone -- though it's too early to see whether they'll become very popular. (Put "ebook on iphone" into YouTube for a few explanations form iPhone enthusiasts.

Tim Warren said...

Thanks, Arthur. Especially for the tip on the YouTube search - looks like there are already some pretty impressive iPhone/iPod Touch ebook apps out there.

As you might have guessed, what's going to happen in the publishing industry is one of the internet/tech things that's really interesting me at the moment. There seems to be such a lot of scope for innovation and experimentation in that area (for both publishers and authors), which is possibly only just starting to be truly explored, and, as you said, there's potentially a whole new market out there.

Certainly, I can understand why it all has publishers and authors a little worried... except, well, there's just so much more to get excited about: for authors, there could be all kinds of new outlets for their work and their creativity; for publishers, new, wider channels that aren't throttled by the buyers at Waterstones and Tesco; and for readers, books that take more risks, less homogenisation of choice, perhaps even new ways of reading. The publishers who embrace that, ultimately, will be the ones that thrive. Or that's what I think at least.

Actually, I might see if I can get around to writing something more on this kind of thing soon...