The Handmaid’s Tale: the future of television.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

In the first decade of the new millennium the music industry was destroyed, felled in a single strike by Napster. Suddenly, indeed overnight, every song that had ever been recorded was freely available over the internet.

Traditional media was a thing of the past, and any day now, television, newspapers, magazines and all of those other relics of the twentieth century would likewise be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Napster himself, Sean Parker.

But as we move into the third decade of the new century, newspapers and magazines are still around, TV is thriving and even the music industry is actually doing rather nicely, albeit in a diminished form.

There are two perspectives on the digital revolution. One says that the future is digital, and everything else is doomed to go the way of vinyl. The other slightly more nuanced view goes as follows; we all have a certain amount of money that we enjoy spending on stuff. All the digital revolution does is to change the way that we distribute whatever that sum is, by adding a new outlet to channel those funds into.

So if you had a certain amount of money that you looked forward to spending on cds in any given year, the fact that any album you might be interested in is now freely available on the internet will very probably mean that you now spend little or none of that cash on actual cds.

The handmaids.

You’ll still spend that money on the music industry though. It’ll just be on going to gigs, on downloads or on merchandise, say on a rare, deluxe cd boxset, or on a vinyl edition of an original recording.

Indeed, what all the research shows is that you’ll very probably spend more than you used to now, whether that be on music, film, television or publishing. As the internet creates further synergies for all of the other mediums, in much the same way that television, and then video and cable did for cinema, in the 50s, 70s and 80s. Having access, in other words, to all that free music just makes you want to spend even more of your money on music than you used to, before everything was available for free.

Amazon’s Seattle bookstore.

The same thing has happened in publishing. When ebooks began to take off about ten years ago, the death of the printed book was confidently predicted and was, more over, a matter of days and weeks.

But ten years on, ebooks have plateaued and been superseded by audio books. Neither of which, we now realise, are going to replace the printed word. Rather, ebooks and audio books are an added source of revenue for a rejuvenated publishing industry. And it’s not just the industry that’s bouncing back. Independent book stores are experiencing a mini renaissance as well. Indeed, the big bad wolf itself, Amazon, has started opening up its own bricks and mortar, actual physical books stores.

Most obviously of all, television is alive and well and booming. Which isn’t to say that the digital effect has been negligible. Far from it, digital has completely disrupted every conceivable corner of the media landscape. So that the way that we now watch, read and listen to films, television, music, the radio, books, newspapers and magazines has been completely transformed. It’s just that none of them are about to disappear any time soon.

Apple’s view of the future.

If you want to see what the future of television is, all you have to do is look at screen size. Mobiles want to be smart phones, smart phones want to be laptops, laptops want to be desktops, desktops want to be TVs and TVs want to be cinemascope. Everything is getting bigger, not smaller. And all content is following suit, and is trying perpetually to move in the same direction. How many TV stars do you know that dream of one day being on the internet?

Try watching the Handmaid’s Tale and see how you feel. Of course you could watch it on your laptop, or even on your mobile. But as you do so, you’ll have this increasing itch to see it on a proper screen and with a grown-up sound system. So you can really luxuriate in the tactile sound of an old fashioned fountain pen, as it scrawls and scrapes its italic script clumsily across the fibres of an actual piece of old fashioned paper. And you can pick

out with pleasing clarity the dusky book covers as the Commander runs his finger lovingly over their corners, as he appears from the depths of the shadows to gaze greedily on his mahogany bookcase.

Elizabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes square off.

And the people who make the best television, and the television being made at the moment is some of the best that’s ever been made, the Handmaid’s Tale being a case in point, feel exactly the same way about making their programmes as we do about watching them.

Nobody’s going to choose to watch something on a laptop if given the choice of seeing it on a 32 inch television. And no-one’s going to be satisfied with watching it on that 32 inch screen if offered the chance to see it on a 55 inch one. Television’s not dead. On the contrary, it’s getting bigger and bigger.

You can see the trailer of the Handmaid’s Tale here.

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Apple, Amazon, the Big 6 and the Future of Publishing.

In May, Apple and three of the Big Six lost the first round in what looks likely to be a long and costly fight (two of the other three had reluctantly settled and one, Random House isn’t involved). What’s at stake is, not to put too fine a point on it, the future of publishing. So here, very briefly, is the story so far.

When Amazon began selling ebooks through their Kindle in 2007, the price they charged for them was a lot less than for actual physical books. For one thing they didn’t cost as much to produce. But much more importantly, ebooks were a completely new idea, and people had to be encouraged into trying them out. So frequently, Amazon would sell their ebooks at a loss, for even less than they had purchased them from the publisher in the first place.

Culturally then, this discount selling was both welcome and necessary. Economically however, it meant that Amazon quickly established a stranglehold on a rapidly expanding market. Not only that, but the rise of ebooks threatened to render the traditional bookstore and indeed the conventional publishing world redundant.

Nobody wanted to let what had happened in music take place in publishing. So when Apple entered the ebook market with the iPad two years later (followed by Barnes & Nobles and their Nook), a new pricing system was put in place; the agency model.

Instead of publishers selling at a discount to retailers, who would then take their cut from the price they sold it on to the public for, publishers would set the price that the public would pay for a book, and the retailer (whether Amazon, Apple or whoever) would get a flat 30%. This is what Apple did in music.

But Apple would only agree to enter the market in the first place if a minimum of four of the big six (see image below) agreed to implement their new agency model. In the end, five of them did, and the sixth Random House joined in a year later.

So Amazon had no choice but to play along. But they were as the Americans say pissed. They made more money from the books that they sold now, but their share of the still growing ebook market had gone down from 90 to 60%. And culturally, they were being forced to sell books for more than they might have liked. Or to put in another way, they were being prevented from so dramatically undercutting their rivals.

So they went to the courts, and in May the US Department of Justice found in their favour. After all, as Ken Auletta says in his much more in-depth piece in the New Yorker here, the letter of the anti-trust legislation is crystal clear. Didn’t Apple say that they would only go ahead if they got agreement from at least four of the big six? And hadn’t the cost of books to the public gone up once their agency model had been put in place?

But wait a minute. The cost had gone up, but the publishers were now receiving less. So how can it be a cartel, if the people organizing it end up making less money? What’s more, Amazon was now getting more. And wasn’t the whole spirit of the anti-trust legislation designed to curb the likes of Amazon, and prevent them from putting the much smaller publishing companies out of business?

Of course Amazon could afford to sell its books at a loss. Books make up just a tiny fraction of what Amazon sells. But books is all the big six do.

All of this has been brilliantly charted by publishing (and now digital publishing) guru Mike Shatzkin, whose blog (here) is a must for anyone interested in the world of publishing. But what it all seems to boil down to is this:

The publishing world allows for a wide variety of books to be published by using the money it makes from the few books that sell hugely, to fund a plethora of books that might, but almost certainly won’t do anything like as well.

And the physical bookstore is the best and only place for some of those smaller titles to get noticed. And who knows, maybe even take off.

By siding with Amazon against them, the DoJ is seriously putting that whole eco system in grave danger. And there is a very real possibility that the only thing that will result is a significantly narrower choice of books to read from, with significantly fewer writers making a living from it.

And the question then is, if Amazon is the only player left standing once bookstores and the world of publishing have been dismantled, will they have any interest in trying to do anything about that? Or will they just be far too preoccupied in having to compete with rival monoliths Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook for an ever-narrowing choice of profitable content?

Oh, and for all of you who still think that e-readers are a fad, have a look at this one year old trying to operate a magazine, here.

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