The puzzling resistance to the obvious

It’s been said before, and will again; people fear change.  This is true.

What doesn’t make sense to me is why.  I don’t think, regardless how much wisdom I manage to scrape off the floor and pick out of the trash, I’ll ever get it.

When it comes to industries, and employees in those industries, I especially don’t get it.  I fully accept that the larger an organization is, the harder it is to turn.  Like the Titanic, a lot of mass takes a lot of rudder time to get turned.  But surely by now we’ve got enough examples of what happens when the turn isn’t made in time.  Surely people have seen what happens when the ship crashes into the iceberg.

But I guess not.  The toddler-style tantrums and foot stomping and insistence on things being the way they want them to be – as opposed to how they are – continue.

The 80s saw the movie industry pitch a fit and throw up road blocks over VCRs.  Lawsuits were filed, manufacturers of the technology were threatened, politicians were induced to passing regulations, and still moves-on-tape became a thing.  Normal consumers came around, and grokked the joy of building content collections, of going to the video store and coming home with tapes to watch in the comforts of their own homes, all the things we now take for granted when we think of the ‘home video’ market.  Oddly enough, the massive high prices of video tapes (VHS movies used to start at $80+ for one title; because the studios wanted to make damned sure hardly anyone bought the tapes) then became a separate fight when the video store industry that had sprung up objected to that price being lowered to where consumers could afford the tapes.  The rental stores wanted to keep their effective monopoly over the market.  So even that change was delayed for a time.  The whole mess from start to finish was just solid opposition.

Oddly enough, even then we had pieces of that battle that stretched on.  Notice how the video stores supplied movies, and that was it?  No tv shows, no other video content; just Hollywood movies?  The industry was convinced, absolutely convinced, there was no market for shows in a purchasable form.  Plus there was a lot of screaming from the television industry as it put up massive resistance to anything that would threaten their ad sales for Must-See-TV.  When DVDs started becoming a known thing in the late 90s, some of the studios began to tap their libraries of shows and trying them out on the new format.  Oddly enough, consumers love to put their favorite shows on their shelves, to have and watch whenever they want.  The industry was shocked, shocked I tell you, that there was a market for season sets of House or ER or Cheers or M.A.S.H.  After they got done writing face saving speeches to cover their asses, they began money grabbing by releasing everything they could get duplicated and in the direction of a buyer.

As the 80s began to bump up against the 90s, the music industry had a boom when CD caused everyone to rebuy (again) their favorite albums.  This had happened several times already in the prior thirty years or so.  45s and LPs gave way (partially) to 8-track tapes.  Then the 8-track was replaced by cassettes.  Finally CDs showed up, and more or less knocked the other formats right into obsolescence instantly.  And the industry didn’t mind because they continued to see their customers paying (again) for the same existing content.

But then the next step from a digital physical format happened when digital went pure digital; in the form of MP3s.  Everyone should remember what happened then, I hope.  I’m not sure anymore that people do remember since I see so much evidence that people don’t pay attention to anything except the five minutes on either side of the present moment, but surely we all remember and are witnessing the rise of the RIAA and the massive fights initiated by that organization.  The late 90s was an era where a 40 or 50 gig hard drive was both expensive and huge, by the standards of the day.  Most people were lucky to be puttering along with maybe 5 or 10 gigs.  Flash memory storage was in even worse shape; digital music players, when they began to appear, were lucky to hold a few hours of tunes in their storage (usually less than 60 or 70 songs).  So MP3 was a big step, because it brutally crunched the size of the files down.

That change made them easy to store, to carry, to transmit.  And the industry went ballistic.  Musicians began suing their fans.  The industry followed as well.  Politicians were again receiving enticements to do as the industry bid them.  Technology companies were threatened and begged and even occasionally paid to not go gung ho into the new market segment.  But the march of progress kept happening, and here we are; people don’t have to pick and choose what music they bring with them.  It’s just all there, in their pocket, in their phone, on their tablet.  Most people don’t even carry a dedicated player anymore.  And some don’t even bother to actually bring the music; they just tap into cloud streaming services that feed it to them at the touch of a button.  And guess what; the same industry that fought against MP3s, and has now embraced them, now fights against the streaming services.  And in another fifteen years streaming will be as normal as the other seventeen thousand things the industry fought against, and three more new things will be in their crosshairs for reasons just as stupid and comical.

Current content fights in Audio and Visual sectors are centering around streaming in various forms.  Movie theaters are threatening studios who talk about releasing new films over VOD.  The theaters could be working on finding a way to stay relevant, but instead they’re just digging their heels in and throwing up any roadblock they can think of to keep the future from happening.  Which is a shame, because I can think of all sorts of crap theaters could do to stay relevant.  What if I don’t want to go all the way down to the stadium or amphitheater to see a game or concert?  For whatever reason, pick one.  Say I want to watch it on a huge screen with great sound, and I don’t want to have to make a 30 or 45 minute drive, stand for five hours, and do it all ass-to-elbow with a huge crowd of other people?  Theaters would be perfect.  Same thing for event shows, like the Superbowl or playoff games or season finales or Must-See-TV moments.  There’s certainly a market for the product theaters offer – big screens, excellent sound, a great viewing experience – if they’d only get it out of their heads that they’re ‘just’ movie theaters.

And, bringing it back to books, we’re seeing it here.  Comments keep leaking from various Trad-side sources that either outright say or suggest they’re purposefully attempting to delay the adoption of ebooks.  They haven’t managed to construct, even a little, any legislative obstacles; so they’ve resorted to pricing the new format high enough that they think it’ll drive people back to the precious paper.

Except it’s not.  It’s just pissing customers off.  Anyone who takes even ten or fifteen minutes and clicks around the net to look at forums and comment threads and other places where the subject of high ebook prices has come up will see it.  Customers know they’re being soaked, and they hate it.  They’re not shifting their purchases back to paper; they’re moving them completely away from trad entirely.  People talk about how they’re turning to libraries and used book listings.  And piracy.  Big shock.  Remember how sad I am?  We saw the rise of music piracy because consumers couldn’t get mp3s any other way, and because CDs were going for very high prices (it was common for an album of 10 to 14 songs to cost over $20).  And most of those songs weren’t music the consumers wanted.  They wanted the hot song, the one on the radio, that they and their friends liked.  The one the artist and label had spent all the time working on before crapping out the other 9 or 13 or whatever.

Now, to be fair; some artists did pour heart and soul into the full album.  But any music fan will tell you most music from the 90s onward tended to only have a few ‘good’ songs on the albums, whatever the artist was trying for.  And music consumers not only hated the high prices of the CDs, but they hated having to pay for all the other songs they weren’t interested in.  And, as more and more of them came to figure out how awesome mp3s were for taking music places the tunes hadn’t previously been able to go, they hated the CDs for one more reason.  For all the reasons music is easily pirated (and movies took longer to become a hot battlefront in the download wars), books are the same.  In fact, most book files are much smaller than even a single highly compressed song is.  Pirating a book takes seconds, not minutes and certainly not hours.  A lot of alienated customers are turning straight to the underbelly of the net to get the books they want but aren’t going to pay $14.99 for.

Trad publishers are determined to repeat the same fight.  The same one we’ve seen over and over and over; they want to have it again. And as bad as that is, they’ve befuddled and bamboozled some authors into actually taking their side.  I’m seeing authors that – when contemplating releasing a digital product – decide against it because it’ll “upset” a trad source.  Because it’ll “affect the relationship.”  Further, I’m even running into people in the industry that should be on the side of authors who constantly worry over whether or not they’re going “too far” into digital and will be “burning trad bridges”.  I’m even finding people who worry about whether or not releasing a digital product will “create too much work” for them and those assisting or working for them when that product does what it’s intended to do and actually finds a market, when it generates sales that have to be accounted for.  Unbelievable.

It makes me sad.  It’s confusing, it makes no sense, it’s pointless, and it just wastes time.

Henry Rollins once said that he wished you could sue people for time.  It’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard; because time is the thing you can’t get back.  When you’re little, everything takes forever and a day.  Literally.  Next week might as well be next year.  Next year is an eternity.  Then you grow up and suddenly you’re so busy you often stop paying attention to the pages of the calendar as they turn past.  Then one day you look up and you’re old.  Then suddenly it’s not “what will I do” but “how long do I have left.”  It happens to us all.  “Oh, it’s just ten years, and then things will change.”  Fuck that; ten years is a long time.  That’s an eighth of the average person’s life.  It’s a sixth of most people’s adult lives.  “Just” ten years?  “Be patient, it’s only ten years?”  Jesus, you’re kidding, right?

How much better would everything be, not just content industries or technology or whatever, how much better would all of it be if people stopped screwing around and just went with the change.  “Oh I don’t understand that.”  Okay, so it gets explained to you.  Here are the advantages, the reasons for why this is the new thing.  “No, I’m still stupid, and I like the old way, so fuck that and fuck you.  Further, fuck you twice for even daring to tell me how this new thing will be better.”

Yes I could’ve chosen more polite language, but that’s what people are saying when they dig in their heels.  That’s exactly what they’re saying when they do these things, these elaborate and orchestrated chains-of-events that will waste five and ten and twenty years without altering the final outcome.  They’re costing us the one thing that’s irreplaceable; time.  The industry says “we feel physical books are precious and special objects that customers should be proud to own.”  Consumers say “we love the convenience of digital books.”  The industry shakes their heads and starts pulling levers, punching buttons, and making deals that do everything but make digital more available.  How is that not a fuck you to consumers?  How is it not a fuck you to authors?  Tell me.  Tell me how that doesn’t qualify as a big fat middle finger?

That’s why it makes me sad.  I learned a long time ago that politics and religion are pointless ‘discussions’ because people don’t discuss.  They tell you what they think, and if you don’t agree they get mad and usually start yelling.  At a minimum.  So I don’t talk either one.  Even though a lot of the topics in those areas do affect me; I just can’t go through my life constantly being yelled and screamed at because I refuse to change my position to match someone else’s; someone who’s usually wrong to boot.  It’s draining.  But my business is embroiled in something just as virulent as a political or religious debate; because so many industry people – even creators – are pissed and yelling at anyone who doesn’t agree with them about how awesome paper is.  Those of us who are embracing digital, who are producing digital, get called names.  People shake their heads at us.  We get shunned and shut out of the broader market.  Insiders make lists with our names on them and pass them around.

We can ignore the debate, for the same reasons we wouldn’t argue healthcare or spirituality or taxes; or we can accept that it is ugly but necessary that we have to get involved in an unpleasant war because it affects our bottom lines.

And it really sucks.  So much time is being wasted.  So much consumer-covered ground is being scorched.  So many fans are being driven away.  Wouldn’t it just be better if everyone just accepted that digital books are a thing and moved forward reacting to the market, instead of trying to futilely dictate to it?  A lot of old guard people on the old side are bound and determined to spend billions of dollars and many many years delaying the change.  They think they’re “fighting the good fight”, but as we’ve seen all the other times this same fight has already played out in other parts of the content industry, they’re just sticks in the mud who don’t get it.  The progress will win out, and they’ll be proven wrong, but before then they’re going to wage war because . . . I don’t know.  They just are.

Stop wasting time.  Stop wasting everyone’s time.  Seize the moment.  Digital doesn’t mean physical vanishes; but it does mean you shouldn’t be hostile to digital.   You have to go with what the market dictates.  Put your products out there, and let consumers decide.  If they want to buy digital, they will.  If they want to buy physical, they will.  But let it be their choice, not yours that you insist they agree to.

There are music fans to this day that only buy records, actual vinyl records.  There are movie people who won’t watch DVDs because they truly to feel film and tape are better.  Yes, I said tape; Quentin Tarantino actually prefers VHS to any other format.  Okay, fine.  Weird, but whatever.  If someone wants to be part of a niche market, that’s their choice.  And it’s fine; if they want to roll old school, and that option still exists, go for it.  But when people want to dictate that the niche be dominant, when they act to sabotage the front runner preference in favor of their little holdout, that’s when they’ve gone too far.  Christopher Nolan is on record as hating digital movies, he adores and worships photo-chemical film.  But he doesn’t go too far and insist his movies only be available on film.  He won’t watch them on DVD or VOD or anywhere except on a big screen with a 70mm print; but that’s his choice.  The rest of us who don’t share his position are ‘allowed’ to choose our format.  It would obviously be silly if he were able to insist everyone else had to agree with him, yet that’s what keeps happening over and over in these fights.  It’s what’s happening now with ebooks.

Too many people are going far too far.  Stop it.  Just fucking stop it.