Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thoughts on Purchasing Magazines and Books

Issue by issue, Crossed Genres is disappearing. Disaster has not struck, but by contract, the publisher possesses the rights to the short stories for one calendar year, after which the rights revert to the authors. When my story "Stay" was published in Issue 12, Issue 1 was still available in the store, so I didn't quite realize the full ramifications of the contract. Issue 1 was removed from the Crossed Genres website and from all stores at the end of November. Issue 2 will be removed at the end of December, less than two weeks from now. In just ten months and a couple of weeks, Issue 12, with my story, will vanish from the world until I find some other avenue to get it republished.

The editors of the magazine were very good about publicizing the end of Issue 1 via their blog (and are now doing the same for Issue 2). Read it or buy it now, or lose your chance forever. So I bought a copy of Issue 1 in late November. Issue 1 is gone from the website and from all stores. You can't get it anymore. But I still have my print copy on my bookshelf. There is no way for any publisher or lawyer to revoke it. It is legally mine for as long as I choose to own it (barring theft, fire, or other unforeseen events, of course).

For my Christmas present to myself, I purchased Issues 2-13 in print. So when Issue 2 vanishes at the end of December, I won't have to worry about whether or not I've finished reading it. I have a print copy that will be mine forever. It will never expire. I won't have to worry about the rest of the issues disappearing month by month. I can read them at my leisure, even if they sit on my shelf for ten years before I get to them. (And I do have books that have been waiting ten or more years in my Garden of the Unread. I'm stockpiling for a snowy day, or retirement.)

This brings me to the idea of ownership versus access, a huge topic in the library world.

The University of Anywhere Library subscribes to Database ABC, which includes full-text access to 10,000 journals. It's great for the students who can do their research from home. The library serves them, even if they never once set foot inside the building.

The library's shelves are packed to bursting. There's no money for a building expansion, so something has to go, or they'll be forced to stack books on the floor. The librarians decide that since Database ABC has full-text access to 30 years of back issues, they can weed their print copies of any journals that are among the 10,000 included in the database. That frees up a lot of shelf space, and the students, preferring online access, haven't been using those paper copies anyway. For a while, everyone is happy.

But the library has budget cuts. The cost of serials goes up every year at a rate much, much higher than the rate of inflation, so even if the library has a static budget, that translates to real cuts in journal subscriptions. And Database ABC is expensive, and the price just went up another couple thousand dollars. After several years of static budgets alternating with cuts, the library has already cut everything nonessential, and they're now forced to take a long, hard, painful look at Database ABC, which is so very critical to the collection.

So the library drops their subscription to Database ABC and subscribes to a new service, Database GHI, which is significantly cheaper. Database GHI also has full-text access to 10,000 journals, but only 6,000 of those were included in Database ABC. So the library has gotten 4,000 new journals, but has lost 4,000 old ones. There is no access to back issues for the years they paid for. They're just gone.

Among those 4,000 lost are a couple hundred journals for which the library once had print subscriptions. If the library had kept their paper copies, they would still have access to the back issues, even though they canceled the subscription. But since the library tossed them to make space, they're just gone forever.

See the difference? You buy a print journal or book, and it's yours. You own it. You don't have to worry about licenses or contracts. You paid for the print copy, and you have the right to read it, loan it, give it away, sell it, or keep it until you die and designate its new owner in your will. That is ownership.

With electronic materials, what you're typically buying is access. You might have access for a set period of time, or you might have access for as long as you subscribe to the service. It all depends on the license agreement. You don't own anything. You can't loan it, give it away, sell it, or even keep it. If you cancel the service, your access vanishes.

And access is often proprietary. If you bought 100 books for your Amazon Kindle, and you want to switch over to a Barnes & Noble nook, do you think you can transfer those 100 books to your new device? If you're not sure, the answer is no. Will that change in the future? Maybe. Will it change in time for it to matter? Who knows?

Remember the brouhaha a while ago about George Orwell's works on the Amazon Kindle? There was a licensing issue, and Amazon deleted those editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm from the Kindles of everyone who had purchased them. The customers' money was refunded, but that wasn't the point.

If people had purchased print editions of Nineteen Eighty-Four, then no matter what licensing issue came up, neither Amazon nor the publisher would have had the right to go into people's homes and remove the physical books from the shelves.

There was a big outcry from the public, and Amazon basically said, "Sorry. Won't happen again." But there is really nothing to stop them from doing it again. There is actually nothing illegal about what they did. Since copyright law was involved, Amazon probably felt they not only had the right but also the obligation to delete those books from customers' Kindles.

And this is the main reason I prefer to buy print copies of things I want to keep.

Sometimes I'm fine with simple access. If I watch a video on YouTube, I don't necessarily want to own a DVD of it, and I wouldn't particularly care if the video were deleted the next day, never to be accessed by anyone again. Likewise when I read an article in the news or on someone's blog, I rarely have cause to refer back to it later. Access is enough, and if it goes away, I'm not troubled.

Generally, I don't care to own magazines. Crossed Genres is different because each issue is a collection of short stories, which in my mind are less ephemeral than most articles.

For books, when I borrow a book from a friend or a library, I return it when I'm done. I access it via a promise or a library card, but I don't own it. But if I really, really like the book, I'll go out and buy a copy to ensure that my access to it will never vanish when my friend moves away or when the library weeds it from their collection.

Some people say content is the only factor of importance, and the carrier (physical or electronic) is irrelevant. But I say that the carrier fundamentally transforms the way we relate to the content. I'm not saying one is superior to the other, but that they are different. You must think about this when you decide whether you want to own or simply access a particular book or magazine. Do you want to just read it once and be done with it, or do you want to ensure that you always have it whenever you want it? And if you want to loan it, you need to own it.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the ownership-versus-access question, but it's important to consider it as you make decisions about how you want your media, whether it be books, magazines, movies, or music.


Lisa Martincik said...

Nicely said, though I'd like to point out that some journals are now offering "perpetual access" to issues purchased. As long as the format is readable...

Anj said...

I'd forgotten about perpetual access. Too few vendors offer it, but it is a wonderful thing. I hope it becomes more common. Thanks for pointing that out.