Author David Nicholls‘s keynote speech at the London Book Fair Digital Minds Conference appears to have been garnering quite a bit of ridicule, as well as attention, for his claim that showrooming is just a “genteel form of shoplifting.” And far be it from me to hold back. So here’s an equally infantile but just as provocative counter-claim: Publishers, and to a lesser extent bookshops, are in a conspiracy to systematically cheat their customers. How? By repackaging their own legitimate birthright and selling it back to them, at a level of profit dictated only by production costs and how much they can get away with.
To really, gratingly underline the point, let’s take a comparison with another freely available resource open to all and needed by all: Air. A shop sets up in town selling bottled air. A factory next door to it sets up in the business of air bottling. (Remember Nestlé, anyone?) The factory and shop both retail air at different price points, in different packages, and resolutely desist from reminding their clientele that air is not only free to all, but is theirs by right. They emphasize how beneficial and nice the packaging of their air bottles is, and how clean the air inside, to justify their markup. Meanwhile, the factory’s legal department is busy aggressively lobbying the government and international bodies to restrict the supply of air, and ensure that newer, fresher air is kept out of free circulation and only available through bottling. Now doesn’t that sound like cheating to you?
Yes, I’m talking about public domain material – available for free to all, as part of their intellectual birthright and cultural heritage. The great intellectual and literary classics of the past are rightly as free as air to all, because they are what makes us human. For a long while, publishers and booksellers had a lock on them because they had to be printed. Now they don’t. And yet not only do publishers and booksellers continue to sell these to us, but also Big Media copyright lobbyists are pushing to make further inroads into public domain for their own private profit, sequestering our birthright from us all.
And sure, maybe that is a dumb way to look at public domain – but it’s no dumber than to claim that showrooming is a genteel form of shoplifting. And incidentally, the Nielsen Book figures trumpeted by the UK publishing industry recently show that bookstores are actually pushing ahead as a source of ebook sales – with commensurate benefit for the publishers – while their own share of overall book purchases stays rock steady. Every retail business should get shoplifted this good.
(p.s. I just have to ask in passing: David Nicholls who? He may be a creditable writer, but he’s hardly the first name in UK literary talent that springs to mind. Actually, I hadn’t heard of him at all before his fatuous claim. Maybe the publishing industry wheeled him onstage at the LBF because he was the only card-carrying writer they could find to back their cause? And maybe he should look to his own instead.)