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Saturday, 11 October 2014

THE TIRED IDEA OF DIGITAL PUBLISHING AS A GOLD RUSH: A REPORT FROM A FUGITIVE.

This blog post is on a long road, judging by the title alone. Where to begin? Define digital publishing. Then define gold rush. Sounds easy. (Mm.) Talk about the idea of linking the two, then mention the tiredness of same.
   There's a tired idea concerning the definition of a tired idea, but we'll leave that for another time.


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Digital publishing: the publication of work, factual or fictional, by electronic means - the material is readable on a variety of electrically-powered devices.

   Electronic books may be published via print simultaneously or at a later date. It's possible to regain rights to a paper product long-vanished from shelves, and resurrect work digitally.
   The publisher might be as huge as the largest conglomerate, or as small as one person. Height is not a factor.


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Gold rush: dream-based migration to fresh fields and pastures new.

   I must elaborate, lest I mislead readers into thinking I'm writing The Digital Devil's Dictionary.
   Gold, or silver, lead, take your pick and mine a bit...
   A commodity is discovered. (We may have problems with this word. Good.) Commodity. We'll go with gold, in this example. Toil is required to extract the material. Selling that stuff on at a profit, nugget by nugget, is the start of things.
   Expertise is required to get at the good stuff. Finding gold on the surface, via panning, is laborious. Your panner lacks the resources to set up a full-blown mine.
   The cry goes out. Money is lying around, waiting to be swept up. Gold for all. Hooray!
   I'll repeat myself.
   Toil is required to extract the material.
   People rush in from all over. Small concerns sell out to larger ones, and industry steps in. Individuals make fortunes, it's true. A gold rush is a complex thing.
   First, you have gold. Then there's a rush. After that, things are skewed.


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I had to stop and think about the awkwardness of using a gold rush to describe digital publishing. It was pointed out to me, on the streets of San Francisco, that many old ships went to landfill.

   Chunks of San Francisco teeter atop the bones of ancient hulks. How did that come about? Gold fever. Ships landed in the port and crews jumped ship to make easier fortunes. (Cough, splutter.)
   Many a time I found myself on a street named for John Sutter. His agricultural empire was doomed when an employee found gold at Sutter's Mill.
   James William Marshall was mentioned a few times when I wandered the bay. He found the gold. Sutter wasn't happy. Gold fever is a rancid phase, turning minds to thoughts of panning, nuggets, and wealth.
   Cynically, with a nod to Ambrose Bierce, the other phases of that game are just as rancid.
   Sutter and Marshall didn't gain from the gold rush of 1848. Who did? Hoteliers. Laundries. Tool manufacturers. Bawdy houses. Legal eagles specialising in mine litigation.
   A prospector's prospects weren't great.


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Detour. Just to show you more of the same. Howard Hughes was a wealthy fellow. He studied law. The man knew the value of a patent. He filed patents for a two-cone rotary drill bit.

   Then he leased the technology instead of selling outright. Hughes made a fortune out of the oil industry. Not by hunting for oil. And not by selling oil.
   Hughes came in and made money out of the tools used for the job. Technically, he made money out of patent law. When he died, his son inherited most of the family business. A tangled tale. That Howard Hughes became a billionaire. This is not his story.


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A commodity is discovered. The masses flock to the locale, to obtain that commodity through work. Prospectors hope to earn a fortune. The rush itself becomes as important as the gold.

   Why? Laundry. Law. Tools. All the extra things that go with the industry. The drill bit that digs for oil has a great value to it.
   Panning for gold?
   You'll want lanterns and picks and all sorts of things. Tents. Enter Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss. Strauss sold the canvas. Davis provided the rivets and orange thread.
   Their later work came out of the gold rush in the 1850s. The patent for a distinctive style of jeans went through in the 1870s when Davis filled a demand for railway workers.
   Gold led Strauss to California so he could sell goods to prospectors. Davis ended up there and tailored. Their business association, forged in the gold rush years, created Levi's.


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A gold rush goes through phases. Discovery of the gold. A cry in the night. Gold fever in all who hear the cry. True gold fever in those who heed the cry.

   Side-businesses spring up. Gold seams are mined and mined out. Other metals are mined thereafter: silver, lead, or whatever is geologically associated with the location.
   When truly mined out, what's left? Other industries may spring up down the decades. Hell, there's always tourism.
   Discovery of the Comstock Lode, bearing silver, came a decade after California's famous gold rush. Cue silver rush. Same story. The men who discovered the find didn't benefit from it.
   Ancient history? The Comstock Lode is still there. There are mining concerns. But it's the tourism that features heavily.
   Same story, I was saying. I meant something by that. Gold in California. Silver in Nevada. Rush. Fortune. Small business turns to big business. Travel is the ultimate winner. People in Levi's jeans take the tour.


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Digital publishing. You can pick and choose features of the gold rush and apply those to digital publishing. I see why people speak of a gold rush in publishing.

   It's the rush that's being talked of. The movement of writers who turn to self-publishing an electronic book on Amazon, or wherever. A surge of a shift in behaviour, not just a shift in behaviour itself.
   But it's not an electronic gold rush. For a number of reasons. Okay, there are people like Howard Hughes (Senior) and Jacob W. Davis and Levi Strauss who make money from side-businesses related to publishing electronically.
   I'll give that much.
   But gold is used very weakly in an attempt to describe a model that just isn't there with books. I see why people say authors turn to self-publishing in the hope that those writers strike gold.
   It's a catchy image forced on the digital world. A prospecting author doesn't have the wherewithal to set up as a major publisher, so the prospector turns to panning gold - self-publishing - in the hope of hitting a major seam. An audience.
   On a side-note, let us deal with that audience. Prospector discovers gold. Wants a team to help mine the seam. So he goes into a deal with big business and takes his cut.
   That's a self-published author gaining an audience and attracting the attention of a major publisher. Big business buys up the small profitable claims that could lead to bigger bucks.
   The big business that steps in cannot guarantee that outcome. If there is a gold rush in digital publishing, are loads of prospectors left by the wayside as big business comes in to do deals with the lucky few?
   Fuck off.
   I say that, as big business would have you believe it. The story of a self-published writer who makes it big and then signs a deal with an "authentic" publisher who is there to foster culture, and curate books, and promote talent...
   Just. Fuck off.
   Yes, that is the tone of my view. Damn if it ain't eloquent.
   If there's a gold rush, the big professionals are left to muscle in and take over. Right?
   Yes. But in digital publishing? Wrong. The model does not exist. It's the big publishers who are scrambling to deal with the digital world, even at this late stage.
   And the stage is late. They should have adapted more, and more swiftly. There's no gold rush here. No grabbing of land. But I have veered off, and not in enough depth to satisfy the roots of any point.
   My real problem with this whole thing is the product. A book is not a commodity. It is not universal in application. That's the main feature of a commodity.
   At this point you may wish to investigate the word fungible. You might hold to the fervent belief that a commodity is simply a thing. Something to trade. And you may say that every product is a commodity. We part company on that point.
   You are in the oil business, and produce barrels of oil. The customer wants oil. And the customer isn't in a position to reject the oil on the basis that the oil is cheese - that it's in the fiction category, instead of the biographical oil the customer was looking for.
   The commodity has universal use. Gold is gold is gold. The most money I saw in one place was on display in a case of coins. The Brasher Doubloon seemed lost...
   You can read about that in The High Window, by Raymond Chandler. The movie is called The Brasher Doubloon.
   That expensive coin seemed a little lost in the same space as a Double Eagle. No change from $8 million if you are thinking of buying.
   Look at that. Coins. The most money I've ever seen in one place.
   Then I went downstairs to the gold vault and stared at billions of dollars. Undercover Treasury Agents are easy to spot outside New York's Federal Reserve Bank. They are, quite simply, everyone on the street. Including dogs and one or two hydrants.


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Gold rush. The desirous end result of mining gold is gold. Just as the wished-for end result of drilling for oil is oil. Farming wheat most likely produces wheat. But writing, though it produces text, creates something that isn't a true commodity.

   You may argue, and argue successfully, that there are aspects of the e-book business which make writing seem like a commodity. Okay, argue about seeming. Is seeming reality? No. It merely seems so.
   At some basic level, you can say a fictional/non-fictional work provides a story. The story is the commodity. Only if you treat every story as being the same.
   So, again. No. Stories aren't the same. Some of them don't even have beginnings, middles, or endings. Many are middling. Not all.
   Processed gold sits in a vault. The purity is established. It matters not where the gold was mined. And it little matters where the gold is stored, bought, sold, or moved.
   No apologies to bankers for that last sentence.
   It's gold.
   Processed oil is stored, waiting to be used as fuel. It matters not where the ancient creatures settled in the mud. In the end, their remains were converted into oil. Fuel is a commodity.
   The reader of a book may turn his or her nose up at a western. Comedy. Horror. Tragedy. Romance. The book, fictional or non-fictional, isn't a commodity.
   Though aspects of a gold rush model are often applied to digital publishing, there is no gold rush in the world of creating books. Yes, people may offer services related to book production.
   Editing. Formatting. Cover design. Publicity. Legal advice. Let's throw in laundry and prostitution while we're here. Rent your drill bit from Howard Hughes. Buy a tent. Set up camp. Wear jeans.
   But rush for gold? You have to write the book. Skill? Useful. Determination? Also useful. Talent, whatever the hell that is? Let's not deny it could come in handy.
   You are creating a product, not a commodity. A peculiar product, that depends on taste. On liking, on leanings, on whims...
   And on the language used. The book is not as universal as is metal. Gold requires no translator. It's a commodity.
   Gold is gold is gold. We've given it a globally-accepted value. As far as a book goes, the sense of value is set up by the consumer. Was the book worth the time to read? And the financial cost, was that worth it?
   Oil is oil is oil. You can use oil as fuel.
   A book may serve to waste your time instead of serving to enrich it. It can't have universal gold-like interchangeability. And by hell, it shouldn't. Therein lies the fun.
   Sadly, a book can be used as fuel.
   Yes, you have to strike it lucky to find gold. But once you've found that fucker, it's GOLD.
   Hell, you can write a book. But there isn't a trading price for it on the Exchange. You can get nothing for it. But you'll always get something for gold.
   Oh, I hear you. Your story strikes it lucky and sells and THAT is the gold to you. But only to you. It isn't gold.


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Hell.
   I wasn't going to publish this rambling chat about the non-fungibility of books. Fungible things? What are those?
   They are interchangeable things, to the extent that the exchanged things are of equal value or use.
   Similar-sized paper books are fungible only when burnable. Not to go all Ray Bradbury on you. Doesn't mean burnable books qualify as a commodity.
   (Go and write your own sci-fi dystopia in which this is the case. I'll read Ray Bradbury while I wait for you.)
   There's no commodity worth talking about, when it comes to a so-called digital gold rush and e-books. Even though aspects of the business take on some of the symptoms of gold fever.
   I've made more money editing fiction than I've made writing it. In addition to panning for gold, I sold tents and picks and lanterns. See how easy it is to create this imagery? But I don't see that as participating in a gold rush.
   By all means, gauge and denigrate my views based on your opinion of a number reflecting my book sales. I'll be over here laughing at you, because, if you'd do that, you'd do it if I wore a purple suit.
   You want to hunt for gold? Yes, you might just find it lying around. Meanwhile, in the world of writing, you don't have a commodity.
   By the sweat of your brow, a novel is formed. Well done. It isn't gold. You may think it is. I should probably end on a witty punchline about iron pyrites. Google it.
   By using a very loose definition of commodity, you may say that a book as a product and as a thing is also a commodity. The word has moved on from earlier times and meanings.
   Raw mined materials turned to processed materials, and agricultural products, are commodities these days. Those potato mines are damned busy.
   To get through this blog post, I am saying all commodities are products - but not all products are commodities...I'm going to talk about the non-fungibility of books as a way of shooting down a tired idea of digital publishing as a gold rush, and I want the readers to get what I am saying when I use the word commodity.
   Now you may add that a digital gold rush exists in publishing. But to accept a book as a commodity is to walk down the path of accepting that a book is fungible - exchangeable, tome for tome.
   If you don't read Russian, is that Russian book of readable use to you? That exact tome? For the translated volume is a different book. It carries a different level of value and of use, at least, to me. Probably to you, too.
   Books are not fungible. Not a commodity in the sense applied here. There is no gold, and no gold rush, in digital publishing. As with any business, there are aspects of business that carry from one to another. But I'm just not keen on this gold rush cliché, hence the blog post.
   Also, there's the end. The seam is mined out. In digging for precious metal, that is the way of things. But with stories, different stories, non-fungible stories, fiction keeps on going - even over the same ground, in different ways.
   Prospectors sell out to larger concerns and the small operator vanishes. Not in digital publishing. It's the large business that is struggling to continue, in digital publishing. No gold rush here.
   There's only so much gold in them thar hills. But fiction's seam seems endless...
   The day that seam runs out, our species is gone.


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Did you get any of the rant splashed on your shoes? There's no commodity to mine. So what are you rushing to? Not gold. Our world is digital. Should there be special pleading for the world of writing?
   (All businesses have their own peculiar tax arrangements. Let's leave it at that.)
   Prospectors pan and sell out to mining conglomerates. Is this happening in publishing? No. Seams are tapped out, in the end. Is this happening in publishing? Only in the sense that all writers hang up their boots or die in them.


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Quite rightly, I am permitted to babble on my own blog. I suspect I just did.
   And so...
   I'm going to plug a story, right here, just at the end of the blog post. Why the hell not. This blog is called REPORT FROM A FUGITIVE.
   And so...
   I've released blog posts bundled with a novel. MIRA E. Aliens infiltrate our misbegotten world. It's a tribute to the stories of Zenna Henderson, trailing through the world-view of James Ellroy.
   Yes. I know.
   Anyway. On Amazon, this book has the longest piece of blurb of any of my works. With reason. I throw all the blog posts at the start of the book, so they feature in the LOOK INSIDE! section.
   To read the novel, you buy the book. Now to account for that structure, I dropped a large sample of the unseen book in the blurb. It was an experiment...
  Generally, I try to write product descriptions inside two to three hundred words. Get in, do the job, and roll back out.
   As the bundle means the book can't be a KDP Select release, with exclusivity, I am free to post lengthy extracts on my blog. HERE'S THE FIRST CHAPTER.
   Thanks for reading. Not just my stuff. Generally.



    







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