Saturday, June 7, 2008

Creative Self-Promoting Nomads

Paul Krugman wrote recently in his Times column about the "Grateful Dead Economy" we're all heading toward.

In the era of cheap and easy digital copying, he says, it's going to become impossible to charge more than a nominal free for anything that can be digitized. In music this is already happening, but books loom on the horizon.

As we all know, The Dead allowed free copying for years, choosing to make their money by touring, performing, and selling stuff. It worked well.

Krugman says that's where we're all headed. As soon as we've all got our digital book readers, writers will have to write just to create buzz for other, lucrative activities, like "giving readings."

(The Amazon Kindle. Um, not a very attractive object, is it?)

He writes, "Books may end up serving mainly as promotional material for authors’ other activities, such as live readings with paid admission. Well, if it was good enough for Charles Dickens, I guess it’s good enough for me."

He may be right about the inevitability part. I mean, I'm all for easing copyright, and I think it's true that the crazed impulse to protect all works at all times is dumb. There's no question that some of the greatest things out there are mixtures of other things, and that trying to model intellectual property in the old "one work, one author, one owner" kind of way is no longer going to work.

But still, Krugman's column seems overly sanguine about the whole thing. I can see some immediate and appalling aspects to the future he is describing.

To make money from live performance requires an insane amount of traveling around. You're telling me anyone who wants to be a novelist or essay writer or scholar is going to have to get one of those tour buses and go from town to town?

A) An environmental disaster.

B) What about the children?

Also, I kind of doubt people are actually going to pony up cash in the necessary amounts to hear readings. I mean, I love novels probably more than anyone I know, and I read a ton, and I wouldn't pay anything to go hear a reading. Indeed, I wouldn't go to a reading if it was free.

I like to read. What do I care about the writer's voice, or presence, or whatever? I've been to one author appearance in my life, and it was Erica Jong, and as much as I love Fear of Flying, it was a total waste of time. The people in the audience asked moronic questions, and she tried to answer them, and she plugged her next book, and signed some copies, and we all left. I was like, "I wasted an afternoon for that?"

Of course, there's also the babe factor. If authors make money from readings, we all know who's going to survive: the tall, blond cleavage-y female writing a book about sex.

Is this really a future to accept with equanimity? No. We may have to accept it, but can't we go kicking and screaming instead?