When I first conceived of the With a Little Help short story collection project, I thought it would take me about three months to get the sucker out the door. I was starting with stories that had already been published (and thus proofed and copyedited). I'd just need to get them typeset, get some cover art, and get a few friends to take a few hours to read them aloud, and I'd be ready to go. To be safe, I started work in July, thinking I'd have something in hand by November.
As with most entrepreneurial ventures, my estimate was naïvely, hopelessly optimistic. Here it is, mid-January, and I'm still at least a month away from having a physical object. The human brain's capacity for underestimating workload and complexity is probably a feature, not a bug: whether you're raising a kid or starting a company, chances are you erred on the side of optimism when you anticipated the work associated with either, and might have had second thoughts if only you'd known what was really involved.
Where have the delays arisen with this project? Mostly from my friends, as you might anticipate from a project built around getting volunteer time and donated stuff from my pals. I have a keen appreciation for how valuable time is to a freelancer, and how small favors, 10 minutes here, an hour there, can steal your whole income-earning day. And since being late on a promised favor for a friend is a guilty thing, many's the person who can't even answer e-mails about when the favor might materialize. The delicate business of friendship also makes it tricky to nudge one's chums too hard.
Here's the upshot: it has taken a lot longer for some of my pals to turn in their assignments than I'd hoped, though the majority of them came in on time. Luckily, one characteristic of the project is that its components are readily “parallelizable”—that is, they can be worked on at the same time, without one part depending on the next. So, for example, I was able to hand off paper ephemera to my scanning assistant, Isis Matrix, the daughter of a friend here in London who wanted to earn a few pounds on the side, working from home, as it arrived, without having to wait until it was all in hand. My sound editor, John Taylor Williams, who also edits my podcasts, has been able to edit the audio as it comes in, including my intros, though he tells me that he'll need a final pass before it all goes gold master to make sure the levels are set.
Even my cover designer, Pablo Defendini, has been able to do some roughs while we wait for the typeset interiors, though, again, the spine-size remains to be fixed. And, of course the cover-artists have been able to work independently. Back when I was planning this out, I briefly considered the possibility of having all the variant covers fit together in some kind of mosaic, but quickly discarded the idea on the grounds that the communications overhead between four or five artists would add a hundredfold complexity to their tasks.
All this has given me a very fine appreciation for what my publishers go through when I'm late on my own deadlines—though I like to think that my DIY production system has more flexibility than a big house's well-oiled, tightly bound machine, where each book has another waiting behind it. We'll see.
Meanwhile, with the New Year came a number of interesting columns on the future of publishing, especially regarding the pricing of hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-books. Since I'm going multiformat with this one, I thought I'd throw my two cents in on the question.
Vendors have always sought out ways to practice price discrimination—that is, charging each customer what she or he will pay, rather than pricing to some imaginary middle. Generally, the results have been pretty dismal for consumers. Think of how much of a pain in the ass it is to figure out how to book a plane ticket while getting the best price possible. That's because airlines do everything they can to obfuscate their pricing assumptions—i.e., assuming anyone who won't stay on a Saturday is traveling on a corporate expense account and can pay more—and it's probably not a coincidence that the most profitable airlines are those with relatively transparent pricing, such as Southwest. These companies haven't abandoned price discrimination—they'll still charge you more for a last-minute ticket, presumably on the assumption that someone who has to go tomorrow is willing to pay more than someone shopping for a flight next summer—but they've abandoned the coercive, confusing method of pricing the same service differently for different customers.
Any high-margin business has room for price discrimination. Publishers routinely practice price discrimination in the form of discounts. The general discount for bookstores is around 50% for hardcovers, though publishers sometimes may offer deeper discounts to big-box stores and other nontraditional retailers. That's because many people who buy a book at Urban Outfitters, for example, aren't likely to go into a bookstore any time soon, so you might as well get whatever you can out of them and hope that bookstore customers don't find out that they can get a better deal at UO.
One of the experimental elements of With a Little Help is a totally transparent, noncoercive form of price discrimination. By offering the same text in a variety of packages at price points ranging from $0 (the e-book, no donation) up to $10,000 (commission a story), with two clusters in the $10—$20 range and another up at $250 for the premium item, I'm able to hand the reader a menu of options and let the reader decide what kind of customer she or he is.
Marc Cuban's Magnolia Pictures is already doing this, throwing away the studios' traditional “windowing” model for new film releases (first cinema, then hotel rooms, then airlines, then DVD) by offering the same picture on the same day in every single form. Like Cuban, I'm betting that the new customers I pick up by making the pricing self-evident will exceed the sales I'd lose by, say, only releasing the free e-book after the paper book has been out for a year.
On the subject of coercion, there's a new DRM scheme on the block: Disney's leading an effort to create an “interoperable” DRM system called Keychest. Keychest is supposed to allow rightsholders to specify which devices they'll “trust” and which ones they won't instead of giving this power to a technology cartel, as is the norm with DRM systems like those used for DVDs, for example. This is meant to restore some sort of “balance” to DRM systems, by allowing copyright holders to fine-tune their offers.
I don't buy it. The fundamental flaw in Keychest is that it assumes that copyright includes the right to dictate how your creative works are consumed, and that copyright is best served when rights holders are given the power to approve some or all of the devices in the marketplace for use with their works, based on which features those devices have. Devices with features that rights holders don't like can simply be locked out.
Already, many TV and film companies have insisted that they should have the right to disable fast-forward and rewind on their videos, a claim echoed by the Directors Guild of America. But you've always been free to put any needle on your record player, and to hook its speaker outputs up to any tape-recorder. You've always had the right to bring your books and tapes with you while traveling around Europe—though DRM now often supports territorial restrictions that shut down media that's exported from its licensed territory. Since when do publishers or any rights holders have the right to tell you how or where you can read your books or play your media? This has no basis in law, or in norms. If you want to read the last page of an Agatha Christie novel first that's your business, not the publisher's.
Copyright doesn't afford a “right to control playback.” Once someone lawfully acquires a copyrighted work, it's up to that person how he or she experiences it, and with what technology. Rights holders who say otherwise are attempting nothing less than the abolition of traditional copyright and the creation of a new system that audiences rightly understand to be a stacked deck against them—and which they often can only opt out of by downloading pirate editions. Not because they are thieves, but because the only legitimate offering is a crummy deal.