Geek News

It amazes me how the Internet turns the layman into an expert.

Online, people who know next to nothing about a subject feel free to spout their beliefs as if those beliefs were actually based on some kind of experience or expertise.

People who know nothing about how the music industry functions suddenly know exactly what music publishers should do to stay in business. People who’ve never published a book suddenly know better than publishers about how the digital world will affect the book industry.

I recently found an article on CNet, from November 2005, about the digitization of books. Part of the article discussed industry complaints about Google’s plan to scan books without permission from copyright holders. Of course everyone’s allowed to comment on everything these days, so following the article are various comments from people who know so much, so much, about things they know nothing about.

“I can go to the bookstore and read an entire book before leaving,” says bobbybrady, in a bizarre non sequitur. “These publishers are way too happy with DRM, much like the music industry.” He continues, “Well, it’s there (sic) loss … as authors that (sic) open their ‘work’ to the world will get more exposure.”

We’ve heard this story for a long time now, at least seven years, in relation to the music business. Certainly the industry made a lot of mistakes; one of them was demanding an unrealistic digital rights management, or DRM, model. (DRM is the system through which a publisher can restrict the ways in which a digital work is used.)

But I’m tired of hearing the refrain, generally from consumers rather than the publishers who understand the business, “If they’d just give it away they’ll make money!”

Of course there’s an element of truth here, and giving things away is often a good promotional tool. Give away A, and maybe they’ll buy B. Give away a song, and maybe they’ll buy the album. Give away the first few chapters, and maybe they’ll buy the book. But as a blanket statement – “Give it away, and you’ll make money,” or, “Open your work to the public” – it’s a simplistic, one-dimensional answer to a complex issue, rather like saying that all we have to do to solve the Iraq problem is pull out (or stay longer).

What annoys me most, though, is that these armchair business strategists can express such opinions in such a scathing way. Of course the problem should be handled in this way, isn’t it obvious?! Is the industry stupid?!

What’s especially galling is that after seven years of a vast, multibillion-dollar experiment – the conversion of music to a digital product – the armchair strategists continue to spout this one-dimensional garbage when it’s already been proven wrong.

Here’s what we know. CD sales have declined for seven years now – they dropped 16 percent just last year. That’s to be expected, as people move to downloads, but income from downloads nowhere near makes up for the financial losses due to declining CD sales. One huge problem is that people who download music often buy just the tracks they’ve heard on the radio, rather than entire albums (which is why Apple introduced their “Complete My Album” discount on iTunes as a way to push more album sales).

Music sales are in free fall, yet the amount of money being spent by consumers on feeding their ears may actually be increasing, thanks to the purchase of expensive MP3 players and increasing popularity of live gigs. Thus the music companies, and through them individual, small bands, are making less money, while the money that is being spent is being concentrated in a smaller number of hands – big bands doing mega tours, and MP3-player manufacturers such as Apple.

I don’t know what the answer is. I suspect that the music industry is simply going to have to live with a new reality, one in which it makes less money, and it’s going to get harder for small bands to make a living from selling their music. There’s actually a parallel that you’ve almost certainly never heard, by the way. During a two- or three-year period from around the end of 2000, the computer-book industry collapsed. Sales dropped around 60 percent, as people shifted to finding their technical information online for free. Today fewer computer books are published, fewer authors write them, and the ones who do make less money. The new reality.

So, please, enough of the self-righteous “leap into the chasm, and it will all be OK, and if you disagree you’re stupid” nonsense. There’s an old adage that should be taped to the monitor of every Internet-connected computer: “Think Before You Open Your Mouth.” Then, underneath, in smaller letters perhaps, “Maybe You Actually Don’t Know What You’re Talking About.”

Peter Kent is an e-commerce consultant in Denver. He can be reached at www.PeterKentConsulting.com or GeekNews@PeterKentConsulting.com.