Why self-pub e-books are not like digital photography

I again found myself faced with the "Parable of the Professional Photographer" in the context of a discussion of the impact/future/durability of e-books and self-pub.

The Parable recounts the story of the appearance of digital cameras and its impact on professional photographers, and, in accordance with the prejudice or intended conclusion of the teller, shows how digital photography:

1. Is here to stay

and either:

2a. Will eventually be used by all professional photographers
2b. Will eventually be used by all except the best professional photographers
2c. Will be an important tool to professional photographers but never completely replace film
2d. Will differentiate between "art" photographers and mere "snapper for hire"
2e. Makes all forms of photography available to everyone, thereby putting all professional photographers out of business
2f. and so on.

People draw whatever conclusions they want from the Parable. But the main reason for trotting it out when discussing the new self-pub landscape is in order to say that e-Book self pub is not vanity pub as is here to stay.

But they are not analogous.

What we do is important. No matter how little you may think of your work, we are creators, teachers, curators, communicators and perpetuators* of culture.

Wedding photographers do not create culture, but they do perpetuate it.
Photojournalists often create culture, but also do a great deal to perpetuate it.
Art photographers are often trying to force culture to change, to give us new eyes, so that we think differently.
Photopornographers might be a special case...

We writers, do much the same thing. There are plenty of (excellent) writers who do exactly what wedding photographers do; they provide a demanded service within an established cultural framework that their customers do not want changed. Those who write non-fiction (whether factual books or journalism) are writing within an existing cultural context (which they therefore perpetuate) into which they want to introduce new information (and therefore drive the evolution of the culture). Those who write fiction with provocative content are trying to challenge culture, in the hope of bringing about change - even if only in very small ways.

Hang on? Wasn't I going to say why writers and photographers were not analogous? No, I wasn't going to say that at all. Writers and photographers are both artists. Always have been, always will be.

What has changed for photographers is that they have new tools with which to create their art. Some artists actively seek new tools. Some embrace new tools as best they can. Some (like my friend Gérard Larguier) have a feeling at the discovery of a new technology that their creative process had been waiting for it all along.

(Gérard combines collage, paints, papier-mâché with "photocopier abuse").

The arrival of digital photography means new processes for photographers, and possibly, therefore, entirely new types of image. And new ways of creating older types of image. It also means (for the professional) a very dramatic drop in the overhead. That might be where the confusion arises. It so happens, by chance, that the new technologies in photography add BOTH a change in the artists tools AND a change in the production costs. But in thinking about what this means to the artists, those two points should be kept apart. Because acceptance of the new technology is confused by the issue. Many artists are reluctant to change their tools. Very few artists are reluctant to decrease their costs. In photography, the technology can reduce the costs AND produce better results. A wedding photographer could take several thousand photos on the Big Day, and then select the best ones. Imagine the cost of doing that with film!

The arrival of digital distribution (for that is what e-book self pub is) DOES NOT AFFECT THE ART IN ANY WAY. These are not new tools for producing stories. You still produce stories the same way you always did, by narrating them. Even your keyboard, dictaphone, shorthand-typist, typewriter, biro, quil, wax-tablet, makes no difference whatsoever to what story you can produce.

This is where the analogy is broken. There is no "technology acceptance" issue for the writers, because the technology doesn't change the art. It is true that many readers have yet to accept this fact. The print and paper fetishists fear that the stories will be less good because the binding is plastic. This is obviously nonsense, so much so that it will fade away. It's been obvious to SF writers for over a century that eventually print and paper would be replaced. It's never been a sticking point for their readers.

The major "technology acceptance" issue is for the same people that we all know it has always been for: the middle men, who are now eliminated, unless (like some agents) they can find new value to add to the process of production and distribution. We may regret the effect that it has on some of the distributors. I feel a nostalgia for the bookshops where I spent so many hours of my youth. I had a particular affection for a little shop in the Oxford Covered Market, and another in Falmouth, Cornwall. But if high-street distribution is going to continue, then it has to evolve. (In-store POD is where I think they should all be going.)

Digital Distribution is not an established market. It's a new market, still in its very early stages. It has plenty more bubbles and crashes to go through, plenty more delusions and peaks, before it can even be said to have arrived.

Whenever something new comes a long we want to reassure ourselves, and others, that it is analogous to something that has gone before. If you want a good analogy, then look at the railways, and their effect on the distribution of farmed produce and (in particular) locally manufactured luxury or artisan goods. There was nothing digital in it. But there was a revolution in distribution that completely changed the economic landscape for producers. It also created new opportunities for unscrupulous middle men. So far, very few of those have found their way into what we do. But they will.

* I'm not sure if this is a word


Brian said...

As a photographer, I disagree with only one point, the drop in overhead (costs). Have you seen the price of a new Nikon D4? And they are replaced with newer, faster, cooler every two years that every photographer must have according to the ads.

Body = $8000
Lenses = $2000 each.


Unknown said...

I can't help being an editor:

Purchase of a camera is a capital investment, not overhead.

Point taken, however.