No Call For It (or; Subscription publishing on the internet)

Two uncontroversial observations:

  • The web can connect people with similar interests from all over the world;
  • It is easier and cheaper than ever to produce professional-quality books, CDs and DVDs.

Imagine bringing these together so that products that are currently considered insufficiently commercial can be published, using the old-fashioned method of subscription.

Recent expeditions into the forum world have revealed a thriving subculture of enthusiasts (one of the few things the British still appear to produce in quantity and quality) who would like to see their favourite films and TV shows on DVD, but are in no position to do anything about it, except badger the suits and stiffs running the distribution companies, and reluctantly buy or swap a second- or third-hand copy on DVD. (As certain threads reveal, a lot of people have very strong views against what they see – with some legal justification – as a form of video piracy.)

Anyway, let’s say you are frustrated that no DVD distributor seems to be interested in bringing out Jerzy Skolimowski’s fine old film Deep End (starring John Moulder Brown, Jane Asher and Diana Dors) and that the versions available from the various cult suppliers in the States are a bit too ropey-looking, the DVD-R you’re watching it on having been created from a copy of a copy of a home video made from a rare showing of it on TV in the early 1980s. Or you’ve been firing off messages to both the BBC and BFI to find out how to get your hands on the former Christmas perennial Schalken the Painter (directed by that BBC Arts Department workhorse Leslie Megahey, starring Jeremy Clyde, Cheryl Kennedy and John Justin), without success. Or you want to get a copy of that strange TV movie with William Shatner and Richard Basehart about the plane that goes down in the desert, with all that baseball playing (which turns out to be called Soul Survivor, directed by Paul Stanley). Or you think that Tinto Brass’ two very odd, very political, counter-culture provocations from the late 60s, NEROSubianco and L’Urlo – both made in England, so belonging to that group of sixties films made by European directors which saw Britain, and especially London, in a new and interesting light: Blow Up, Repulsion, Cul de Sac, Deep End again… – would make a fascinating double bill. (As would the two films he made shortly afterwards with Franco Nero and the two Redgraves, Vanessa and Corin: Drop-Out and La Vacanza.) Or you wonder why, amongst all the rubbish out there, there’s no place for a boxed set of the seven magnificent westerns Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott in the 50s. Or… well, you see the point. We could go on for hours.

But then you discover that there’s a website – call it No Call For It’ (nocallforit.com) – that, once you have searched a database to discover whether the film has already been nominated, or indeed whether a DVD of it already exists – allows you to nominate Deep End or Schalken or anything else for publication. The film then goes up on the website – just like a commercial site, it can be browsed or searched for, and has a page that gives as much detail as the combined knowledge of the nominator and the website administrator can bring to it – and those who are interested in buying a copy pledge money towards it. The amount of money will be one suggested by the website, with the option of specifying a maximum which could be more or less than the suggested amount. Once a film receives a given number of pledges, the process of pricing begins: enquiries are made about who owns the rights, how to get hold of a good print, digitisation and production costs, etc, etc. The website keeps a tally of the total publication costs as compared to the number of pledgers and the suggested price: ie, if the publication costs are £8000 and 450 people have each pledged £16, another 50 people are required to pledge to get to the point when it can be considered in preparation. (Here comes the maths: 8000 – (16 x 450) = 8000 – 7200 = 800. 800 ÷ 16 = 50.) At this point, pledgers are asked whether they are still interested, and if they are, they are asked to subscribe. All being well, publication can then go ahead: a licence is sought from the copyright holders, the tracked-down print is acquired and digitised, the DVD is mastered and replicated. Hopefully this last stage can be kept relatively short.

The steps are therefore:

  • searching (dummy version)
  • nominating (dummy version)
  • pledging (dummy version)
  • pricing (dummy version)
  • tallying (dummy version)
  • preparation (dummy version)
  • preparation (dummy version)
  • publication (dummy version)

In a sense, of course, the item that goes through this process will not end up ‘published’, as it will not necessarily be available to the public, but only to the adhoc club created by the subscribers. The ‘publication’, however, will still need to be registered in various ways and have an ISBN (or CD/DVD equivalent).

As the examples above show, the idea came about when I was thinking of all those films I couldn’t get hold of, but obviously there are applications for books and music.

Actually, books are now so easy to produce – especially if you go abroad to have them printed – that the biggest question is whether there would be more demand for long out-of-print books that are ruinously expensive second-hand or for specifically-commissioned books created from scratch, author and all… Some book publishers – including one I have worked for – don’t exactly ask people to subscribe but instead do a bit of fishing in their catalogues, putting in mouth-watering synopses of ‘new’ books that haven’t been written or perhaps even commissioned, to see what sort of interest there is in it: if very few people bite, then the book will probably be left to disappear quietly.

As for CDs, two of the most important deciding factors in pursuing this were an old-fashioned subscription organised by the Alan Bush Music Trust in 2002–4 to raise money for a CD of Bush’s first two symphonies, and a very long-running thread in 2003 on one of the Jake Thackray groups (http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/jake_thackray/) about producing a CD or two of his songs. (As I recall, they finally produced a double CD from home recordings, having had all sorts of wrangles along the way with EMI – who own the rights – not long before Thackray’s death in late 2003.) I would imagine that the main musical demand would be for compilation CDs (of all kinds – theme tunes, Sinatra, folk music), though it’s possible that there are lost pop and jazz albums that have somehow passed by all those specialist labels out there. (On the subject of compilation CDs of specific singers and bands, people often complain that they are deliberately stuffed with third-rate filler material or miss at least one of the key songs. That makes good commercial sense, of course, but whether a compilation CD could be put together which only had really good stuff, and included all the best songs, is another matter. Apart from anything else, who would decide?)

Click here for the general production processes of DVDs, CD (to be written) and books (to be finished).

Pros

  • This would provide a way of getting hold of a legal, professional-quality publication, at a relatively reasonable price, of something that is otherwise impossible to get. Can’t say fairer than that.
  • Generally, licensing costs are dependent on the quantities involved, so the fact that a relatively small number of DVDs/CDs/books will be produced (a ‘limited edition’ of sorts) should mean that those costs are that much lower. (This may be offset by the potential need to be ‘worldwide’, however.)
  • The open nature of the process – where it is all shown on the website – should allow external suppliers of the digitisation and replication stages to bid competitively on the services and keep the costs down.

Cons

  • Excessively reliant on human goodwill. The large number of spanners that can be put in the works include:
    • The copyright holder(s) pulling a fast one and upping the price at the publication stage after one had been informally agreed at the pricing stage.
    • Flibbertigibbert pledgers going off the idea (not that they wouldn’t be within their rights to do so).
    • Merely malicious people who pledge with no intention of going any further.
    • Sincere pledgers might give up waiting if the tallying process goes on too long.
    • Because the process is open, commercial DVD producers would be in a position to see how popular the item is and to bring out their own version first. (This is no great loss, as at least the item would then be out there; of course, the administrator’s research work would be lost, unless it could be ‘sold’ to the interested DVD producer. It might even be worth having a ‘friendly’ DVD producer on hand, for when the demand is so great as to make that a properly commercial product seem viable.)
    • Conversely, this might interfere with the prepared production of a DVD by another producer – there needs to be some kind of inside information exchange with the industry. (One ought to say that, despite the howls of frustration one finds on specialist film forums, the UK is actually a pretty good place to find interesting DVDs: who would have guessed, for instance, that the new distribution company Second Run would be bringing out the films of the great, but barely known, Hungarian director Miklos Jancso?)
  • A pretty tall order for the website administrator, too: there’s not only the various complications of the website, but the research work is likely to be fairly arduous and potentially unremunerative.
  • Tracking down the copyright owners (for films in particular) might well be very difficult, especially for the sort of odd and obscure films that people are not going to find elsewhere.

Obvious ways of mitigating some of these problems would be to add a certain percentage to the threshold needed to enter the preparation stage, and to add a small administrative fee (expressed as a percentage of the total cost) to the costs. To take the figures above of a total cost of £8000 at £16 each: without these extras, only 500 subscribers would be required. If we assume that as many as 10% of the pledgers back out, and if we set the administrative fee at 2%, then the cost goes up to £8960 and the number required is 560. If fewer than 10% of the pledgers do back out, then the administrator can sell the extra on the open market. In fact, if this is to be regarded as a proper business – and why not? – then the amount added to the other costs would need to be a good deal higher: not 12%, but perhaps as much as a quarter or even a third. (The idea is to think in terms of x copies being produced, and 3x/4 or 2x/3 paying for that many. Not exactly an open process, though.)

Furthermore

Additional issues would include:

  • The question of nationalities – it seems unlikely that Britain could supply enough cult worshippers to raise the demand to a sufficient level, but of course a licence that is worldwide will be that much more expensive. It should certainly not be regarded as a purely English-language service (although I would imagine that catering to other countries would be ancillary).
  • The use of subtitles, commentaries and other ‘internal’ features.
  • The possibility of extra features (related short films, a film about the film, etc).