A flag of convenience: turning pirates into customers

I’m thinking out loud here, so please do indulge me.

 

Adrian Faulkner tells a story on his excellent blog about a work colleague with a newly acquired e-reader, and his attitude to the cost of content for the device. In short, he thinks e-books are overpriced, and has taken to torrenting. Adrian recoils at this, and I agree. But at the same time…

I’m in the same position as his workmate John. I received a Kindle as a birthday gift, and love it to bits. But I was immediately struck by the disparity of pricing on the online store. Like most people with a new Kindle, I zealously hit the free or dirt cheap options, grabbing the complete works of Dostoyevsky and Dickens for less than I’d pay the lovelies at AMT Coffee for my morning cup of joe. But there were also Penguin editions of the same works that cost exactly the same as the paperback editions. There will, granted, be differences in translation, and of course e-books are liable to VAT, but apart from that I can’t see how that justifies a 700% difference in price point.

Modern authors also exhibit this disparity. Stephen King’s Under The Dome is a whopping £16.99 in the Kindle Store. You’ll pay half that for the paperback. I love Stephen King, but I’m caught in a bad place here. I don’t want to lug a breezeblock sized brick of paper around with me. That was a prime factor in buying an e-reader in the first place. At the same time, I’m buggered if I’m paying the thick end of £20 for it. Thus the dilemma that John has easily solved by merrily downloading his books for free. I don’t agree with what he’s doing, but I can kind of see his point. (In my case, I shall get the book out of the library, assuaging my conscience and supporting an essential public resource at the same time).

Part of the problem is the perception of worth. John thinks e-books are worth less than a hardback book. He sees craft and manufacturing cost in the heft and weight of a fat wodge of paper. He seems unaware of the fact that the paper is simply a carrier for the important stuff, the words on the page. But it’s not surprising he’s confused. There’s no consistency of pricing. A best selling CD, book, or DVD will cost you different amounts depending on where you buy it. And frequently when you buy it. Wait a few months after release, and a lot of titles suddenly have a huge discount applied, or turn up in twofer deals. Or sometimes free on the covers of newspapers.

Here’s a challenge. Given the choice between a vanilla DVD title in a cardboard sleeve with no extras for nothing, and a “normally” priced copy of the same thing with all the extras, I will lay money that the majority of people will plump for the freebie. I’m not talking your film buff or cineaste here. I’m talking about the man in the street. The sort of person that doesn’t want a director talking over the top of their Saturday night movie. The sort of person who doesn’t care about deleted scenes because if they were any good, they’d be in the film, wouldn’t they?

Of course, these films aren’t free. They’re promotional items, and you pay for the newspaper to get them. But they have the word FREE all over them. In the same way, musicians are now expected to put tracks online for free, again as promotion for full works. And here’s the problem. There’s already confusion over an object’s perceived worth. The idea of not paying anything for your entertainment has become an encouraged, acceptable option, regardless of the intention behind giving it away.

Neil Gaiman has extolled the virtues of this approach, citing the uptick in sales after doing just that for an audiobook of American Gods. Thriller writer Stephen Leather has done the same thing, putting his early work on the Kindle store for under a quid a shot. Again, this has been highly successful. But these are established artists, able to control the pricing structure of their material. If you’re a struggling author or film-maker, the appearance of your work on a torrent or Rapidshare feed chews up your revenue stream in a moment. If the film or book is all there is, if there’s no back catalogue for which you can use that free item as a loss leader, then the strategy seems to have failed.

That sounds incredibly negative, I know, and there’s no easy answer. Once people get used to the idea of free, then it’s really tough to change their minds. It’s easier than ever to get your work out to an audience, and much more difficult to get them to pay for it. It’s completely doable, of course – look at the success Amanda Palmer has had. She completely gets the vital role in keeping her audience sweet. She works incredibly hard at connecting and communicating with her fans.

There are ways of turning negatives into positives, too. Steve Lieber’s “Die Hard in a cave” comic Underground was merrily pirated by fans on 4Chan. Instead of complaining or issuing lawsuits, Leiber went on the site, and began chatting with the fans of his work, pointing out that the book was available as a print edition. Net result: a massive spike in sales. Similarly, fantasy author J.S. Chancellor asked people who had downloaded her work to leave reviews of it on Facebook and Amazon. It worked, and again, an uptick in sales was the result.

Self-pub and self-distribution is a tricky business to get right. It takes imagination, guile and a lot of effort to make a buck in this new marketplace, and the strategies that work for one artist are more than likely not going to work for another. Persuading your public that your work has value is more than half the battle, but if you can win that battle then good times approacheth. The Johns of this world can be talked into paying for their books and movies, if you talk to them in the right way.

(EDIT: to correct the schoolboy error JS Chancellor pointed out in the comments.)

I Run To Death, And Death Meets Me As Fast: X&HT Watched The Seventh Victim

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The crossing where the dark roads of horror and film noir meet is a place of fertile earth, where nightmares are easily grown. The ground, after all, is fertilised with a hefty dose of bone and blood. There are a ton of great films out there that take typically noir traits, and give them a shivery twist. Think of classics like Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs. David Fincher’s Se7en. Kolchak The Night Stalker. Hell, half the X-Files was horror noir. Think of a film where a hard-boiled tec takes on a case, only to find that he’s hunting down something with a little more of the night in it than he anticipated.

Back in the heydays of noir, the 1940’s, this crosspoint was wide and broad. Noir has always been black and white in both visual and moral terms, and like horror, is not overly concerned that good should always triumph over evil. Both genres cast a bleakly jaundiced eye over human relationships, and easily find and stress-test the weak points.

The 1943 film The Seventh Victim saw producer Val Lewton take the psychological horror that he had pioneered in the classic Cat People, and add a noirish feel. Deep shadows and slashes of light were already visual cues for hard-boiled film, and this was a look in which Lewton’s long-time cinematographer Nicolas Musuraka revelled. On The Seventh Victim, he and director Mark Robson went a step further, soaking every frame in pools of darkness.

The Seventh Victim begins as the sheltered world of our heroine, Mary, is quickly stripped away. She attends a boarding school, the fees paid by her only relative, her sister Jacqueline. Jacqueline has disappeared, and the funds have dried up. Offered the choice to stay in the school as unpaid help, Mary instead opts to travel to New York to find her sister.

Once in the Big Apple, the mystery only deepens. Jacqueline has given away the family business, and got into some very bad company. Mary is quickly snared in a web of lies and deceit, and the hunt for Jacqueline will lead her to question the motives of everyone who pledges to help her.

The Seventh Victim casts an eerie, uncomfortable spell right from the first frames. Mary is urged to leave the boarding school and not return by the headmistress’ assistant, who tells her that “you must have courage to really live in the world” – a creepy foreshadowing of future events. Jacqueline is described as a rare beauty by everyone she meets, a light in the dark city – and yet she is obsessed with death, and rents a room above the Dante Restaurant (a powerfully appropriate name) containing nothing but a noose and a chair.

The film contains sequences that are the match of The Cat People in terms of shadowy shocks. Mary and a private detective who has taken her case search the cosmetics factory that used to belong to Jacqueline, at night. The one room they haven’t entered is barred by a black rectangle of shadow at the end of a dark corridor. Both Mary and the detective recoil at the sight of it. They are right to do so. There is death in that room for one of them.

The final fifteen minutes, in which Jacqueline wanders the streets after being cursed by the Satanists who have swallowed her life and shattered her sanity, are as powerful as any horror of the era. Vulnerable and alone, Jacqueline is threatened by shadows that turn out to be harmless, only to have new real, threats loom out of the darkness. Trapped by her own crumbling will, Jacqueline’s escape route is clear to us all, yet still a punch in the gut when it happens. Mary starts to hope for the future, unaware that her sister has already closed the door firmly on it. It’s an astonishingly bleak ending.

Noir doesn’t often get this creepy, horror doesn’t often have this atmosphere. Fans of both genres should find much to admire in The Seventh Victim, even if it’s a little too cold-hearted to love.

Leading Man Clive put me up to this, but then he knows my proclivities better than most. It proudly appears under the banner of the annual Film Noir Preservation Blogathon, raising funds to get classic and wrongly forgotten movies back into shape so they can thrill and chill a brand new audience. Readership, I urge you to support this worthy cause, which as I’m sure you can imagine is pretty near to my heart.

You can donate using Paypal by simply clicking on the lovely lady under the lamp-post below. Be gentle though. She may look like a kitten, but this cat has claws.