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.)


  1. Ah, another rant on the fantabous public domain. It’s almost like a street preacher pontificating on the glories of Jesus or Xenu.

    I have nothing against the public domain, but it’s nothing to get overly excited about. Just as long as can get my hands on a copy of Bleak House (or other works) am not going to piss and moan if I have to pay a few bucks or download for free. Either way works for me.

    What doesn’t work so well is how the public domain to going to save us. My life is fine without Jesus or Xenu. And I could get along sans public domain too.

    At best, the public domain is a nice convenience like finding a parking space close to the door of the resteraunt where you want to eat lunch. The time to piss and moan is when there are no resteraunts.

  2. For those who didn’t know, including me, showrooming is “the practice of visiting a store or stores in order to examine a product before buying it online at a lower price.” Calling that a “genteel form of shoplifting” is, as Paul points out, absurd.

    It’s also an illustration of just how unhinged our society has become. People leap into the role of victim, claim their rights are being violated, and demand that the government stomp on those who dare to disagree with them. In this case, if showrooming is shoplifting, then those who visit Sally’s Bookstore but buy from Amazon should be arrested.

    The current pizzas-for-homosexual-marriages fuss is another good illustration of that madness. It’s madness because for about a century and a half we’ve not treated the genuinely nasty critics of traditional marriage like we’re now suppose to be treating the far milder critics of homosexual marriage.

    At least since Victoria Woodhull in the 1870s, there have been radical feminists saying all sorts of nasty things about traditional marriage. Marriage as slavery. Marriage as rape. You’ve probably heard them. Last year I heard Gloria Steinman speak. So much of what she said was derogatory of men that at one point she felt compelled to point out that “all men aren’t rapists..” Yeah thanks, I thought, as one of the few guys there.

    Some, including Woodhull, even took on a eugenic twist, calling on the state to not only do away with marriage, but to regulate who could have have and rear children. The first feminist utopia, Gilman’s Herland, describes a world without men where women can nevertheless manage to have children by a mystical experience. But they can do that only if Overmothers give them permission. That’s getting rid of men and having the state dictate who has children, children that are then reared by the state. Very, very, very anti-heterosexual marriage and traditional families.

    Yet those who said all those nasty things about marriage weren’t sued. They didn’t have to cater those marriages they disliked. They didn’t have to attend them as photographers. There weren’t laws making it impossible to run any business that might put them in contact with traditional marriage ceremonies.

    No, people pitied them but left them to their views. In fact, Victoria Woodhull did quite well traveling and giving speeches about her ideas. When she settled down in NYC in an elegant home, she hobnobbed with the wealthy, including the Vanderbilts. And Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author of Herland, also did quite well as one of the first women sociologists.

    Not so today. Our society is becoming like nineteenth century Prussia, where only one POV is permitted and “everything that is not forbidden is required.”

    That is why shopping in a store but buying online must become almost a crime, and declining to take pictures at a wedding is to be treated as a crime.

    No, for all the chatter about tolerance, diversity and pluralism, we live in what is easily the most intolerant in our nation’s history. The so-called McCarthy era was sweetness and light in comparison to us.


    There is a historical parallel. I hate Nazism and loathe its leaders, but there is one historical event that almost made me feel sorry for propaganda minister Goebbels in his role of dictating what movies could and could not be made.

    One movie had apparently made fun of plumbers and a delegation of plumbers came to him insisting that not happen in the future. In the interest of social harmony, Goebbels apparently agreed.

    Given all the horrors of mid-1930s Germany, getting upset about a little humor struck me as odd. After all, those plumbers weren’t finding signs at the entrance of parks saying, “No Entry to Dogs, Jews and Plumbers.” They had it easy.

    Then I realized that another dynamic was at play. In a society with so much blatant bigotry, no one could rest easy. Every group had to fear that, it too would fall into a hated class. And to do that it had to shrilly play the victim and constantly demand its rights.

    And of course, the best of people, those too courteous to act that way suffered the most. That too sounds like today’s America.


    One final note. The real threat to writers, publishers and bookstores isn’t showboating or even Amazon’s half-market-rate royalties. It’s the relatively small numbers of people who read for pleasure or curiosity today. And the cause of that is mostly that there are so many other thinks to do.

    –Michael W. Perry

    If you’d like to know more about Victoria Woodhull, I published two collections of her speeches and writings, most of them long out of print. One only existed in a single copy, which Yale kindly loaned to me. The books are Free Lover and Lady Eugenist.

    Feminists should complain about how Woodhull has been slighted in histories of eugenics. She was zealously promoting the idea decades before men took up the cause. Rich women like her seem to have an extreme dislike for poor women with large families. I leave it to you to figure out why.

  3. I’m not certain I’m getting the point.

    Most of the public domain novels printed these days tend to be nice leather-bound editions suitable for the bookshelf or trades where the content has been gone over by a scholar with a handy article or two for the college reader. Both require more than minimal cost.

    If all you’re going for is cheap, that’s available, too, at Gutenberg as a free ebook.

    With the exception of the college student who has to buy a specific edition, no one is being forced to buy these books.

    Why is any of this related to anything?

  4. I’d add to Michael’s definition of “show rooming,” the annoying tendency of the jerks who do this to ask a store clerk to suggest books they’d like, then they’ll pull out their smart phone and buy it from Amazon right in front of the clerk who has spent fifteen minutes with them.

    It might not be shoplifting, but it’s a douchebag tactic that hurts the store bottom line in both time and money.

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