Sunday, June 07, 2015

Back Ups and Ownership

So I just wasted too much time trying to get my computer up and running again after my hard drive committed suicide, and it got me thinking.

I work on a HP Pavilion desktop PC running Windows 7. Many of my peers have switched to Macs, and while I understand the appeal I’ve also spent time in Apple stores at the genius bar lamenting iPhone issues. If you use electronics of any kind, there are eventually going to be issues. The key is to try to head off as many problems as possible, mitigate them as needed, and get things back to normal quickly.

Which brings us to back ups.

I'm a bit obsessive about back ups, dating to the time I used a Brother word processor with floppy disks and a power outage killed 3000 words.

Hopefully, you're part of some sort of cloud. My goto is Dropbox. I've got MS Word configured to automatically save a back up copy, and to save an AutoRecover every 5 minutes, directly into a Dropbox folder.

I also save different versions of the same manuscript. As I revise, I'll add 1.1, 1.2, etc, so even if I mess up in some gigantic way (like deleting the whole story and saving it) I've got earlier versions I can go back to.

But let me share how I screwed up. When my HDD began to fail and my files became corrupted, I restored my Dropbox files to my son's computer while I reinstalled Windows on a new drive. Besides writing, I have a lot of music and movies (about a terabyte's worth) and it took up all of my son's space. Since I'd only downloaded stuff to his system to make sure the restoration worked (I'd never done one before), when he asked me if he could delete the files, I told him sure.

Oops.

Since it was my Dropbox account on his computer, when he deleted the files, he deleted them from my Dropbox account as well as from his computer.

Dropbox has a feature where deleted files can be restored. But since I was restoring my files on one system while they were being deleted on another, I created a gigantic mess that required the fine folks at Dropbox Customer Service to roll back my entire account to several days earlier.

Even with a decent Internet connection, restoring a terabyte takes a long damn time.

But that got my brain working. I was able to give up CDs in favor of mp3s, forsaking  a hard copy for a bunch of ones and zeroes. But why do I need to keep those ones and zeroes on a personal hard drive? Isn't data fine in the cloud without having to be on my computer too? Why restore at all?

Streaming is becoming the norm. Subscription services, online storage, and the growing ability to access anything anywhere has really borked the concept of ownership.

Google Docs is a great example. I've used Google Docs on many occasions while collaborating; it makes it much easier to share a file than emailing back and forth, or even Dropbox. But why should it only be for collabs? Microsoft Word Online is exactly that. and it's free (though you can buy GBs of online data through OneDrive). Apple is now allowing users to store their music files in the cloud via iTunes Match and the iCloud. Amazon gives you unlimited cloud storage for sixty bucks a year.

We've come a long way since Netflix began shipping DVDs via snail mail in a paper sleeve.

The good news is, as writers, we create data and there is a much smaller risk of losing that data.

The bad news is, as writers, we create data, and the way people consume data is so radically different than it was just ten years ago that our future may be uncertain.

Don't get me wrong. Paper still sells. Ebooks still sell. Some people want a hard copy. Some people like owning an ebook collection. At this moment in time, sales (not rentals or subscriptions) are how most of us earn the majority of our cash. And the sales market will likely continue for many years.

But, as I've said before, the rules of supply and demand don't apply to digital media that can be copied and delivered for practically free. The artificial scarcity of storage space is quickly becoming obsolete. Why pay extra for more GBs on your phone? Your tablet? Your PS4? Streaming eliminates the need for it, and for ownership.

To put it in simpler terms; there is no need to own a book if you have access to that book whenever you want.

Say what you want about Kindle Unlimited, Amazon is simply giving readers what they want. This is where the market seems to be heading. No one owns, everyone rents.

So what does that mean for writers?

Right now, through KU and Scribd and Oyster, writers are lessors. We have the ability to lease our work exclusively, or non-exclusively, for a limited time. Publishers--once essential middlemen who connected us with readers via paper--are being replaced by companies who connect us with readers via ones and zeroes. It's still about distribution.

My sketchy history of technology doesn't reveal many examples where proprietary formats win. At least, not for very long. Distribution channels, even newly created ones, inspire competitive innovation.

I believe the advance of technology follows similar rules to natural selection, but it isn't survival of the fittest. It's more akin to Lamarck's soft inheritance; namely, tech evolves because it wants to. It doesn't accidentally improve due to random mutations which make some innovations likelier to succeed. Rather, technology has a will to power because it is fueled by humans with that will. Better, faster, bigger, more--it will inevitably happen. And that can't be contained or controlled by a single company, or even a handful of companies.

Ebooks managed escape velocity from the printing press. There is no going back.

As the technology of distribution inevitably evolves, so to will our ability to reach readers. As long as people want to read, there will be avenues for writers to connect with readers, and there will be ways to monetize these avenues. Maybe with subscriptions. Or advertising. Or taxpayer dollars. Or profit sharing. Or subsidiary rights. Or something that hasn't been thought of yet.

If you're dwelling on how to sell books, you're playing catch up. It isn't about selling. That's so 2014.

It's about monetizing the writer/reader connection.