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Book Excerpt: An Audience Machine

An excerpt from Cory Doctorow's new book, "Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age."

Sunra Thompson/McSweeney's

Excerpted from “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age,” by Cory Doctorow.

Technological intermediaries like online stores and distributors have used digital locks to shift market power from creators to themselves. These intermediaries were able to lock in, and hence own, the audience for the work they have for sale.

But intermediaries aren’t one-dimensional villains. They act as gatekeepers, deciding whom to exclude and whom to admit, but they do so because they think they know what the audience wants.

It’s not surprising that creators have a love-hate relationship with intermediaries. If Blockbuster Video — once the largest chain of video-rental stores in the world — decided that your movie wasn’t up to snuff, or was too risqué for Middle America, your movie would, for all intents and purposes, die. On the other hand, if Blockbuster loved your movie, and featured it prominently in its marketing and in-store displays, if its clerks talked it up to everyone who came through the door, you’d have it made.

In some ways, digital-lock laws have reproduced that situation on the Internet. Once a market is established by a few digitally locked-in players, those intermediaries become increasingly powerful, and can flex their muscle to creators’ and investors’ detriment or benefit.

But the Internet has also weakened the power of intermediaries by increasing the number of ways that audiences can be united with creative works. When there’s only one cable operator in town, that cable operator can call all the shots; add a satellite provider, and creators may get a slightly better deal (though it’s amazing how quickly two competitors can independently arrive at near-identical abusive and non-negotiable terms).

It’s when you open the Internet to all the ways of connecting audiences to creators that things really start to change. Creators have never enjoyed a wider, more diverse, less united, and more pliable set of intermediaries than we have today. From YouTube to Twitter, Facebook to WordPress, Wikia to Tumblr and many, many (many, many, many, many) others, there have never been more ways for works and audiences to come together.

This is bad news if you’re a success from the pre-Internet era, with a business model married tightly to the intermediaries who serve your markets. You might know to the penny what it will cost you to put a movie into theatrical distribution, or get a book into the endcaps in every chain store in the country. You’re accustomed to being able to run a cost-benefit analysis: “A certain number of people will go to the movies every weekend. If I get one screen in every multiplex, I’ll sell at least x tickets, and make y dollars.”

In the age of disorganized and diverse intermediaries, you can still price out the endcaps, the payola for radio airplay, the theatrical distribution buyout. But you can’t know what it’s worth. There are lots of ways to buy books today that don’t involve endcaps (or stores!). There are lots of ways to see movies today that don’t involve cinemas or renting DVDs. You might still be able to guarantee that you’ll get the lion’s share of one channel or another, but you can’t predict how much of the market will use that channel on any given day. Which makes it damned hard to grow your multibillion-dollar media empire by three percent quarter-on-quarter and keep your stockholders happy.

But if you’re a creator who never got the time of day from one of the great imperial powers, this is your time. Where once you had no means of reaching an audience without the assistance of the industry-dominating megacompanies, now you have hundreds of ways to do it without them.

Of course, it bears repeating that reaching an audience isn’t the same as convincing them that you have anything they want to see.

And if they do want to see (or hear, or read, or play) what you’ve got, they may not be willing to part with money to do that. But:

  • No one can decide whether your stuff is worth money until they see it; and
  • they can’t see it until they know it exists.

Reaching audiences is a task of surpassing, almost mystical significance and difficulty. It’s the problem shared by street-corner preachers, Madison Avenue mad men, spammers, and artists. Anything that makes it cheaper to reach a new audience necessarily increases the overall audience you can reach. And every new audience increases the chance of finding one that’ll pay you.

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, journalist, and blogger, as well as the co-editor of Boing Boing and the author of young adult novels like “Homeland,” “Pirate Cinema” and “Little Brother,” and novels for adults including “Rapture of the Nerds” and “Makers.” The former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and cofounder of the U.K. Open Rights Group, he lives in London. Reach him @doctorow.

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