Walking the plank one last time

A rough graph of how copyright and piracy affect supply and demand curves

Over at Slate, I’ve written a response to Matt Yglesias’s reply to my criticism of his ideas about piracy and copyright.

In the last paragraph of my new post, I qualify my assessment of piracy’s impact on copyright by wondering “if I’m drawing the graphs correctly.” Should anyone want to inspect those graphs, here are a couple! As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m no economist, so they could be riddled with errors. I didn’t draw the supply curve as a straight, upward-sloping line because I’ve always understood that in the book-publishing world, publishers are willing to sell books cheaper if they can sell more of them, and editors spend much time and energy trying to guess whether demand will be sufficient to justify a low price, or insufficient and require them to charge a high one. This may be an elementary error for all I know; if it is, please accept my apologies and straighten out my supply curve. If I’m right about the shape, though, it means that the surplus that a producer can rely on, even if he doesn’t have copyright protection, is just a tiny horizontal slice, lying like a pancreas under a liver, hard to see unless you click on the graph and view it full size. I drew the demand curve with a hump in it because it’s my impression that the audience for a given art work has a natural size, who won’t be deterred by a slight increase in price or much encouraged by a slight decrease. I could be wrong there, too, of course. The inset that I drew in the upper right corner, by the way, is intended to show how unimpeded piracy apportions the economic value of a work of art. As I write in my latest Slate piece, unimpeded piracy “cedes almost the whole triangle under the demand curve to consumers—transferring just a sliver along the bottom to the pirates themselves and leaving virtually nothing for legitimate publishers.”

I wondered about that claim after filing my article, and found myself doodling another graph yesterday afternoon to speculate more methodically about what happens when pirated work competes with copyrighted work. It seems to me that what you need to do is see where the demand curve meets the total supply curve, which is the sum of the legitimate supply curve and the pirate supply curve. Those curves have to be added along the axis of quantity, not price, so if nothing is impeding piracy, don’t bother going any further—the little inset that I drew in the graph above is fine. If piracy is “taxed,” however, by social disapproval, legal jeopardy, or some other inconvenience, the pirate supply curve gets shifted upward along the price axis, and when you add together a taxed pirate supply curve and a legitimate supply curve, you get something that looks a little like a sideways tuning-fork prong, in darkish pencil in the graph below. A tax on pirates makes it possible for legitimate publishers to stay in the marketplace. If the tax is high enough to raise the effective price of a pirated work above the copyrighted price, the legitimate publishers lose nothing, comparatively speaking. If the effective price doesn’t rise that far but does rise above the equilibrium price that would obtain in the absence of copyright and in the absence of piracy (a somewhat notional distinction, IMHO), producers can’t get as large a surplus as they would under copyright, but they can get something. If the tax doesn’t raise the effective price of a pirated work above the notional equilibrium, however, it looks as if producers get no surplus at all.

Advisory: These graphs should be accorded no authority other than as samples of what happens when a humanities-type person tries to puzzle out an economics problem.

A rough graph of copyrighted work competing against taxed pirated work

Glut and deflation

"We are undergoing what they call in California 'a paradigm shift,'" writes Nigel Burwood at Bookride, his brilliant blog about bookselling. "An older more bookish generation is dying off or downsizing," he explains. And as a result, booksellers like Burwood "are being offered far too many books."

I've been wondering about this. I'm a buyer of secondhand books rather than a seller, so I'm not as acutely aware of market vicissitudes, but there is an indicator that I've been curious about. At the used-book search site Abebooks.com, if you aren't ready to buy, you can "Save for later" the books you've found. Since my reach usually exceeds my financial grasp, and since searching for copies of books in and of itself satisfies a certain obsessive-compulsive craving, I often have dozens of books in my "Save for later" list. Over the years, I have learned that the list is not stable. From time to time, either I or Abebooks upgrades software and inadvertently deletes all the titles. Sometimes individual books vanish from the list without explanation, perhaps because a software cookie has expired, but if you notice that such a book is gone, you can easily search for it again. Even less distressingly, if a bookseller goes on vacation, his book remains in your "save for later" list but the price is replaced by the notation "Temporarily unavailable." It comes back of its own accord when the bookseller does.

Excruciatingly, however, the price next to a title in your "Save for later" list is sometimes replaced with the notation "Book sold!" That exclamation point always cuts like salt dashed into a wound. How long did the very good set of all eleven volumes of the Bodley Head Henry James in very good dust jackets remain in my "Save for later" list, priced at $150, without my finding the necessary funds and courage? I do not know, but I remember the day that the numerals disappeared, the title went from clickable blue to unclickable black, and I was forced to concede that "Book" had "sold!"

As recently as a few years ago, I felt such pangs more or less monthly. As much as the pangs pained me, I recognized them as a sign of general economic health and my own good judgment about prices. After all, I put a book in my "Save for later" list because I thought it was the cheapest available copy in good condition of an edition that I wanted. If anybody else wanted the same edition, the copy in my cart was exactly the one they would buy, if they had any sense.

The pangs became less frequent in 2008, with the advent of the Great Recession. Oddly, though, they didn't return with the so-called recovery. In fact, over the past year, almost no books in my cart have been sold out from under me—so few, in fact, that I erroneously concluded that Abebooks must have changed its methodology and must now be silently vanishing sold books from "Save for later" lists, perhaps on the advice of some marketing psychologist who had revealed to the site's managers how traumatic those words and that mark of punctuation were to fragile personalities like mine. But then, a month ago, I was once more stabbed in the heart: "Book sold!" It was a shock. Once I recovered from the particular loss, though, I became perplexed. So Abebooks hadn't changed its methods. That meant that only one book I wanted had been bought by someone else in the course of almost a year.

A number of explanations suggest themselves. First: perhaps there is no economic recovery, not really, at least not among people who buy the sort of books I like. Second: perhaps e-readers, by changing habits, have thinned the ranks of collectors and made physical books a drug on the market, as Burwood has suggested. Third: perhaps it's a sign of deflation. (Number three isn't so much an alternative to number two as an alternative way of thinking of it.) General deflation would be a worldwide economic nightmare, to the extent that I understand it, but it's possible that there might only be deflation in the market for used books. New booksellers, especially online,  constantly vary their prices, but used booksellers usually price their books just once. That practice works well in an era of mild inflation; the real cost of a book drops the longer it sits on the shelf, as a reasonable seller would want it to. But if, because of changing tastes or general economic malaise, the demand for used books is dropping, then most old prices are now too high, and as time goes by, the real value of these books to buyers will fall ever further below the price written on the front flyleaf. But few booksellers are likely to want to endure the tedium of repricing their whole stock.

Deflation would explain why I often nowadays buy books through another feature offered by Abebooks, the "Wants" list. If you enter search criteria for a "Want" and add it to your "Wants" list, Abebooks will email you any new books entered into its database that match. Often the newly added copies are priced substantially lower than the ones currently sitting around, perhaps on account of the factors sketched out above.

To look on the bright side, if the trend persists, I might someday be able to afford a library much ampler and substantial than I ever thought possible. (Where to put it is another question. And if the market for used books collapses altogether, of course, I won't be able to find the books that I will theoretically be able to afford.) Among the drawbacks of this state of affairs, however, is the sense of an era ending. One kind of book that I like to have is a reasonably attractive hardcover scholarly edition of a literary classic; recently, for example, I got a bargain on the second edition of Eugene Vinaver's three-volume Sir Thomas Malory. In that vein, when Jenny Davidson's blog Light Reading alerted me last week to a TLS review of a new edition of the poems of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, I devoured the review at once, because I don't have an edition of Rochester, and I've never been able to figure out which one to get, if I were to get one. Bad news: the new Wiley-Blackwell edition costs $99, but according to the TLS, the edition you probably want is Harold Love's 1999 Oxford English Texts edition, which costs $350 new, and only about a C-note less used. The price of scholarly hardcovers of classic literary texts has been rising for decades, and in many cases, they're now out of the reach of everyone except research libraries and a few of the academics who specialize in that specific author, if said academics are well funded. Indeed, when columnists at the Chronicle of Higher Education recently recommended that new graduate students "build a personal library," they weren't referring to the purchase of books at all. They were merely advising that grad students store in a software program the titles of articles and books they read, preferably along with a few keywords. (Happily, Penguin often republishes the texts I covet, but they're stripped of much of the scholarly apparatus, and a paperback isn't as durable, nor is it quite the same aesthetic object.)

Flotsam

As I was coasting down the Manhattan Bridge’s final slope into Chinatown this afternoon, I realized that the orange-line train to the left of my bike, descending the same slope, was tracking my speed exactly, and when I turned I saw the conductor grinning at me. He must have been waiting to see if I would notice. He waved, and I waved back with a wave that nearly knocked off my own bike cap, so when I recovered I waved again for good measure.

I’m trying to shift my attention, this week, from one project to another, and all I seem to be able to think of are disconnected anecdotes, some of which I have carried around for more than a year now. For instance, there’s the story of the local church book fair. Attending it a few years ago, I found a first edition in its dust jacket of a not terribly well-known novel from the 1930s, which, I knew from having looked the title up on Bookfinder not long before, some booksellers priced in the thousands of dollars. I bought it for two dollars! I was tiresome about it at dinner parties for months afterward, though of course the profit to be made remained theoretical, because I couldn’t bear to sell it, and it sits on a shelf a few yards from this keyboard as I type. (Moreover, as long perusal of the blog Bookride has taught me, books that are priced on the internet at ridiculous prices do not necessarily sell at such prices.) At next year’s church book fair, I was prepared to score triumph after triumph, but when I arrived, a few hours into its progress on a Saturday morning, I found it filled with college-age people carrying handheld scanners. They picked up book after book—bleeping their bar codes, checking prices on the internet, and plopping all titles worth more than a predetermined threshold into large boxes between their feet. Automated capitalism had destroyed another niche of humanism, I moaned to friends, making myself tiresome in a new way at that year’s dinner parties. A friend pointed out that it could be argued that the injustice was actually in the previous state of affairs, when card counters like me knew that particular 1930s novels harbored literary value, and that the internet-connected scanners merely evened the playing field. (They didn’t even it completely, of course, because 1930s first editions don’t have bar codes. They don’t even have ISBNs.) But it was strange to watch a technology that gave to people who didn’t even necessarily have the habit of reading books the ability to judge their value. At the time I had also been bewailing the disappearance at the local YMCA of the Plexiglas book holders for the elliptical trainers. One by one the book holders had cracked and been discarded, in a process as gradual and inexorable as the upgrading of the elliptical training machines themselves, which were alwyas replaced, when they broke down, by machines with pre-installed television monitors. In the end, every elliptical trainer in the gym had a television monitor, and there were no more Plexiglas book holders. Instead there was a thin ridge beneath each television screen, where it was possible to prop up a glossy magazine, if the magazine wasn’t perfect-bound. Without the restraining lip of something like a Plexiglas book holder, however, perfect-bound magazines and books tend to get jiggled shut by the vibrations of an elliptical trainer in use. I tried for a while artfully folding a towel over the corners of my books’ pages, to keep them open by weighing them down. But the towel had to be refolded every time I turned the page, and there was in addition the social pressure of being the only person in the gym to insist on reading a book when so many nice television screens had been made conveniently available. Somehow the two phenomena—the deployment of the handheld ISBN scanners and the vanishing of the Plexiglas book holders— seemed of a piece, at least in my mind, as if technology and the pursuit of economic efficiency were rationalizing the reading of books out of existence. Not long afterward, I quit the gym, because I was riding my bike all the time anyway.

At this year’s church book fair, which took place not too many weeks ago, there were fewer dealers with handheld scanners, and none of them seemed to have hired college students to help them for the day, as they had the year before. The books themselves seemed to be of lower quality; maybe the church had invited a bookseller to buy the better titles for a higher price beforehand. This time around, the economic metaphor, if there was one, seemed to be that in a recession people were pleased to have an opportunity to buy cheap things in large quantities—to fill a cloth shopping bag with books and pay no more than twenty dollars. I got half a dozen Classiques Garnier paperbacks from the 1950s, in yellow covers with sewn bindings and “vellum” paper—Stendhal, Rousseau, and Voltaire, perhaps someone’s college curriculum.

Reading for a living

Over at the Boston Globe‘s Brainiac blog, Christopher Shea relays the news that NPR has a new slideshow up about jobs that no longer exist, including copy boy, bowling pin setter, and lector, a person paid to read aloud to people rolling cigars by hand.

I knew I’d heard about this job before, though it took me a minute to remember that it was in James Weldon Johnson’s lovely 1912 novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man:

After I had been in the factory a little over a year, I was repaid for all the effort I had put forth to learn Spanish by being selected as “reader.” The “reader” is quite an institution in all cigar factories which employ Spanish-speaking workmen. He sits in the center of the large room in which the cigar makers work and reads to them for a certain number of hours each day all the important news from the papers and whatever else he may consider would be interesting. He often selects an exciting novel, and reads it in daily installments. He must, of course, have a good voice, but he must also have a reputation among the men for intelligence, for being well posted and having in his head a stock of varied information. He is generally the final authority on all arguments which arise; and, in a cigar factory, these arguments are many and frequent, ranging from discussions on the respective and relative merits of rival baseball clubs to the duration of the sun’s light and energy—cigar making is a trade in which talk does not interfere with work. My position as “reader” not only released me from the rather monotonous work of rolling cigars, and gave me something more in accord with my tastes, but also added considerably to my income. I was now earning about twenty-five dollars a week . . .

The narrator is even able to afford to hire a piano.

Update (March 24): Jenny D. just relayed to me the news that on Thursday, March 25, at 7pm, here in New York, the Americas Society is hosting a reading by Araceli Tinajero from her new book El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader. (Alas, I won’t be able to make it, because I’m chained to my laptop impersonating El Escritor until further notice.)

Further update (later on March 24): The topic reminds my friend Gabe of Felipe Jesus Consalvos, a cigar roller in the early twentieth century who incorporated cigar boxes into his outsider-art collages.

And still more: Irin Carmon tells me via Twitter that there’s also a 2007 short documentary film about cigar lectors, With a Stroke of the Chaveta.

Free piracy today only

With a brilliant sense of the à propos, the University of Chicago Press has emailed me to say that they're making Adrian Johns's history of intellectual piracy (mentioned in my post on Saturday night and reviewed by me in The National (Abu Dhabi) last week) available today only as a free e-book download. If it's still February 1 when you're reading this, you can get a free electronic copy of Adrian Johns's Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, by clicking here.

Update, Feb. 5: A reader alerts me that although Mr. Johns's Piracy is no longer available as a free e-book, his earlier work, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, also à propos, has been made available for free instead, at the same link. Not sure how long this will last, of course, . . .