Here’s how I watch TV (this all ties in to ebooks eventually). I subscribe to a number of shows on Hulu, and I’ve set up other shows in bittorrent RSS feeds (the ones that aren’t on Hulu). Every day, new episodes of the shows I like come to me somehow, and I watch them in order of how much I like them. If I run out of those and still want to soften my brain, as happens from time to time, I have a number of shows I’ll deign to watch episode by episode on Hulu, in order from bad to worst. And there are, of course, a great many that I’ll never watch, no matter how they’re broadcast.

There are only a rarefied few (House, The Office) that I will actually take the time and energy to hunt down showtimes for, find the right channel, get myself on the couch at the prescribed time, and actually watch the broadcast of, as we watched everything ten years ago.

This is how on-demand digital media changes media consumption: it allows each person to create their own meritocracy of content. They do not have to tune in at a certain time on a certain channel; they do not have to sit through some godawful tripe between Friends and Seinfeld.

The control of consumption is more and more in the hands of consumers these days, and much less in the hands of distributors, and it is this reversal, more than DRM or piracy, that is seismically shifting the media business models of the 20th century.

The ramifications of consumer control

On Slate right now, the TV club is engaged in a vigorous discussion of Friday Night Lights. The odd thing is that the current season of Friday Night Lights ended more than a month ago. They’re discussing current episodes of the show as they debut on Hulu.

This is a very contemporary way of discussing a complex TV show, almost like a book group. The members of the conversation can catch up at their leisure; they don’t all have to be free on Friday night every week anymore (or whenever it airs; I’m a fan, but I couldn’t tell you the network it’s on, let alone the night and time).

Distributor control of TV has been founded on brute force for most of TV’s existence. Fifteen years ago, you had to know when and where your favorite shows were on, or you simply couldn’t watch them. Now, thanks in part to online piracy, the major stations have started making their shows available on demand, over the internet, for free.

Eventually, this will drastically change the ways TV shows are created: Arrested Development is one of the most popular shows on Hulu, and it was canceled four years ago. In an age of on-demand watching and rewatching, a complex show like that has a much better chance of survival, not to mention prosperity. Soon, I imagine, there will be online TV stations, with no broadcasting overhead, which will have the leeway to produce more shows like The Wire, and fewer shows like Kath and Kim.

For now, at least, the changing nature of media means that the old media business models, founded significantly on tricking people into consuming bad media, are in the process of being radically upended.

All the ways they’ve tricked us

How many times have you gone to a movie and felt cheated, duped into paying $10 for a crappy 90 minutes that was cut to look great in the two-minute trailer? Fifteen years ago, how many times did you buy a crappy CD just to find that one catchy track that you heard on the radio?

This trickery comes into relief with entry-fee media like movies and records, but it still exists with TV and even books. I mentioned it briefly with that sacred 90s time slot between Friends and Seinfeld: stations would cram their crappy programming down our throats by sandwiching it between their good shows. They’d advertise mercilessly for the next show on, relying on inertia to keep you on the the couch.

That bludgeoning advertising is a self-perpetuating system; once you’re free of having to physically be in front of the TV at an appointed time, you don’t have to watch anything you don’t want to. Once you have an iPod, you don’t need to listen to the radio, so you don’t get a crappy single jammed down your throat, and even if you do, you can buy that single track as an mp3.

The same thing happens with books, though it’s a much subtler and more complex system. The bestseller list is full of writers whose fans know what they’re getting: John Grisham and Nora Roberts don’t survive by tricking their fans, they do it by delivering a consistent (and consistently mediocre) product.

However, bookstores are not repositories of literature, they’re engines of product-movement. Their goal is to sell you something, whether you’ll like it or not, whether it’s good or not, and regardless even of what “it” is, “it” is just a unit. With digital book distribution, as with all other digital distribution, that car-salesman routine is about to stop.

What all this has to do with ebooks

The revolution in books really started with Amazon. Amazon’s system of managing customer data, which creates recommendations based on what other customers bought and liked, shifted the directions of sales from “here’s what we want to sell you” to “here’s something you might want to buy.”

The advent of sites like Pitchfork helped in other media. Relatively unbiased third-party rating systems–that help people find media that they will like, instead of what someone’s pushing–democratize the entire distribution process, little by painful little.

With a democratized distribution process and the cost of production nosediving, big media conglomerates could become irrelevant to the process of media production and comsumption–at least, more irrelevant than they are now.

This will happen in ebooks, too, in fact it could happen even more easily than visual media, because there is effectively zero overhead cost, just whatever time and effort grassroots publishers can spare.

With a third-party system (be it a rating system or something else) in place that susses out the best efforts of grassroots epublishers and publicizes them, the next stage of literary culture stands a chance to be the aggregate of everyone’s personal meritocracy. Effectively, we could reinvent publishing as a consumer-controlled medium, a democracy of worth wherein the best of something (whether it’s a sci-fi thriller or a period-piece weeper) comes to the top.

The goal in that new system would be consumer-media harmony, not profiteering. Instead of a focus on the bottom line, publishers would focus on making great literature, and getting each consumer a book he or she will love. (The money, of course, would come.)

The role of DRM in maintaining the status quo

One major factor that hampers the shaking out of a literary meritocracy is DRM. Digital restriction measures encourage a culture of not-sharing, a culture of being trickable. If everyone has to buy their own copy of every book, or every movie, or every record, they will get stung, they will get weighed down by the vast amount of media that is not right for them (or, arguably, the vast amount of media that’s just bad).

Part of the democratization of media is the discovery of appropriate media by consumers, people finding books or TV shows or movies or records that they like. Distributors currently care more about their bottom line than their customers’ satisfaction, and DRM (not to mention restriction efforts like the Author Guild’s) is the manifestation of that priority structure.

Ironically, this hurts publishing’s bottom line. Currently, there’s no easy way to find new books that you love. I would conservatively estimate that I love one out of every ten or twenty books (by unfamiliar authors) that I read, and that’s with a lot of research and hassle in finding them.

If you have to pay for every single book you read, thanks to DRM and publishers’ ridiculous pricing structures, that means publishers want customers spending hundreds of dollars (and hundreds of subpar reading hours) per quality new reading experience.

So you have your stable of authors that you like (which you probably found for free, as Cory Doctorow relates), but finding new writers is a chore, and expensive to boot. Finding and enjoying new writers is, after all, what reading is about, right?

That, more than anything else, is what I blame for the decline of reading in modern society. It’s currently cost-prohibitive and time-intensive to find an enjoyable reading experience. There are too many bad books published by bottom-line-centered houses, and too many good books unpublished or unpublicized because of a fear that they won’t sell enough.

The idyllic future of epublishing

I’m certainly not saying that digital distribution will obsolesce advertising, or that only good books will be epublished. Nora Roberts need not fear for her job.

The democratized ebook meritocracy described above is an ideal, and possibly a pipe dream. However, it stands a better chance of happening with ebooks in the next 10 or 20 years, than at any other time in the history of publishing.

Instead of spending hundreds of hours reading bad books (all of them described as “hilarious” and “dazzling”), and hundreds of dollars buying them, imagine a literary culture that makes it easy to find books you’ll love, and cheap to buy them (plus, without DRM, you’ll actually own them).

Instead of a cost-prohibitive, time-intensive slog through drek, reading would be an incredibly cost-effective, intensely pleasurable activity. The search for new favorite authors would be expedited and facilitated, and the discovery of those new authors would enable good writers to be published with less hassle, less corporate capitomarketeering, less bookstore bottom-line assuagement, and more notoriety, freedom, and profit.

Of course, there’s no accounting for taste, and there’s no way such a system would be perfect, or close to it. You’d still read books you didn’t like, and there would still be plenty of bad writers out there. All I hope for, realistically, is that digital literary culture creates a better experience for readers and writers.

If I found one book I loved out of every 5 books by unfamiliar authors, that would be an enormous improvement. If one out of every 5 great new writers didn’t slip through the cracks, again, phenomenal.

This is not a guarantee, or an inevitability, but it is a possibility, and it should be the goal of digital publishing.