Long before the explosion of the internet and the crisis of large-scale copyright violations, writers were financially dependent on patrons as compared to readers. This is true even today, when most writers scrape a living through fellowships, grants and rarely, publishing advances. In his book ‘Swerve’ about the book culture in the renaissance, writer Stephen Greenblatt says, “Authors made nothing from the sale of their books; their profits derived from the wealthy patron to whom the work was dedicated. (The arrangement — which helps to account for the fulsome flattery of dedicatory epistles — seems odd to us, but it had an impressive stability, remaining in place until the invention of copyright in the 18th century.)”
Today, in a world with the internet and little regard for copyright, the game of publishing, whose benefits hasn’t trickled down to most writers, is in crisis. What does it mean for writers? What does it mean for publishing houses? Most of all, what does it mean for the future of reading?
The invention of copyright
The origin of copyright traces its roots back to Britain. In the 1700s, after the printing press originated, press owners monopolized and profited from books and their distribution. The author, who may have spent years on a work of art, lost out on all the profits. The British Statute of Anne (1709), says, “Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons, have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing… Books, and other Writings, without the Consent of the Authors… to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their Families...”
Many believe digital media to be the originator of recent copyright issues. However, it was the photocopy machine that actually kicked-off the crisis for wide-scale ‘permissionless’ reproduction of published material. Digital media merely took over what the photocopy machine started, and it took reproduction of copyrighted material to a whole new level. Another way in which digital media has contributed to the downslide in the publishing industry is through dissemination of anti-copyright messages. Supporters of the abolition of copyright say that copyright, which is often defended as beneficial to the artist and promoting art, benefits a few corporate publishing houses, more than it does anybody else.
On questioncopyright.org, a non-profit organization, which supports the growth of the debate surrounding copyright, and how it affects the artist, is the following interesting take on copyright, one that most anti-copyright artists would support: “…the Internet has given us a world without distribution costs, it no longer makes any sense to restrict sharing in order to pay for centralized distribution. Abandoning copyright is now not only possible, but desirable. Both artists and audiences would benefit, financially and aesthetically. In place of corporate gatekeepers determining what can and can’t be distributed, a much finer-grained filtering process would allow works to spread based on their merit alone.”
Not getting Kindled
With the digitizing of books, there is one less step for those who may want to take advantage of the wide distribution network of the internet. Printers used to get the lion’s share of a book’s profit in the past. They played the role of publishers, in a sense. However, they’re just a tool in today’s world. A part of the process, and little else. Similarly, with the widespread digitization of books and how easy it makes pirating them, the role of the publisher may change; becoming more fluid. They may have to take on new, less-important parts. “We must be aggregators of information, entertainers, agents and managers. At the end of the day, money has to change hands,” says publisher Judith Curr, speaking to Knowledge@Wharton
Last year, Kindle device sales, including all Kindle devices, ereaders and the Fire table, tripled in sales from 2010. Further, the Kindle has become a favorite gifting device. Like a book. Except that this book can hold thousands of books. Writer David Carnoy, who discovered, through google alerts, that his book was being ‘torrented’ was both dismayed and flattered. Because, he says, “someone had selected my book to strip free of its copy-protection (DRM) and include as part of a collection of “quality” e-books, many of which were from very good authors.”
What David Carnoy also highlights is the ‘cost’ of this trend to publishers, because of the ease with which e-books can be downloaded. A typical 1000-page e-book can be downloaded in 5 minutes.
“what’s shocking, and what the publishers should be most concerned about, is the fact that a library of 2,500 books can be downloaded in a matter of hours. e-books are small files and 2,500 of them can be packed into a single download (Torrent) that’s only about 3.4GB. If you set the average price per book at a measly $2, the worth of said download would be $5,000. Bring it up to $4 a book and you’re at $10,000. (In fact, publishers charges much more for some of these books).”
In the past holiday season, some estimates peg the sale of Kindle at 6 million. Almost rivaling that of the iPad. Now, Amazon is doing to publishing, what iTunes did to music. iTunes showed that if downloading was fast, safe and cheap, and somewhat hip – millions would go for it. Now, Kindle has an e-version of the lending library. Launched last November, it’s called the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which may make it increasingly affordable for owners to read more books at a cost that makes downloading seem like a hassle.
On the other hand, going digital has modest advantages for publishers, who can experiment with book formats to create buzz, for instance, integrate video into an e-book. They could create online communities willing to support and donate, or sell apps built around books, so sales are not solely dependent on books, and so on. However, the glory day for the publisher may be coming to an end. And how does the writer, benefit?
Making money as a writer was always hard and will probably continue to be so. Maybe, we’ll see the evolution of the patron model, where writers seek out donations online. Websites like kickstarter.com, allow artists to raise money by creating videos outlining the project. Writers may also get a higher share of revenue. A digital-only publisher, Odyssey Editions, which perhaps represents the future of publishing, offers more royalty to its writers.
To sum up the future of the publisher itself, is a wonderful quote from a story in the Guardian (UK), “The definition of “book publisher” is up for grabs, and those in the industry will have to be brave and imaginative, in double-quick time, to lay claim to this new definition. Others might find it easier to begin with a blank sheet.”