IP Freely? • 7 April 2007 • The SnowBlog
This is interesting: John Lanchester writes in the Guardian Review about Intellectual Property (IP) and copyright. If you're planning to read this post you should probably read that article first so's you know what I'm talking about. John, if I may call him that, covers a lot of ground - some of it familiar to loyal SnowBlog readers - but towards the end he homes in on one of the questions that you may recall bothers me about publishing. Imagine a world in which the transformation of a manuscript into a book can largely be done with a single click of the mouse. And imagine a world in which electronic-reader-gizmos are cool/practical/cheap/good enough that plenty of people read their books electronically. What's to stop a novel costing a pound - all of which goes to the author - rather than eight or nine pounds - most of which gets shared out to various vested interests? What bothers me is that I can imagine such a world being better for authors, better for readers, but worse for publishers - and I hate the thought that our vested interests might one day cause us to stand in the way of what's best for those we like to claim we look out for: the readers and the authors. Wouldn't more books get read if they cost a pound? I know for a fact that more music would get listened to if albums cost a pound (and bands did their own mixing and mastering) because I'd buy a lot more music. Yes, there still needs to be a mechanism for filtering out the rubbish, but if you were going to design such a mechanism from the ground up, you wouldn't arrive at a modern publishing company. There are other, possibly better ways to filter for quality than the current noisy marketplace of publishers and retailers all yelling to be heard.
And, as the act of publishing becomes logistically easier to achieve, I worry that publishing could become primarily a toll-booth on the road from author to reader. Or viewed another way: instead of being the people who bring author and reader together, we could become chaperones who try to make sure that liaisons only occur under our watchful eye and in a manner that suits us. The easier it becomes for an author to reach her/his audience directly, the greater is the danger of publisher-as-duenna and the larger the toll-booth scenario looms.
John finishes off with a little communist-y nod towards the idea that 'labour' might deserve a bigger share of the profit-pie, and 'capital' a smaller one - not just in the creative arts, but in the wider world (I'm using Karl Marx's terms here, not John Lanchester's). I have to say that my lefty sensibilities lure me in that direction too, though whether fixed-rate 'royalties' are the way to achieve it, I couldn't say. But I'll admit it always bothers me that the ten thousand people who work for a big business have no control over the fruits of their labours, while someone who maybe stumped up some cash before they were born calls all the shots. It bothers me when record companies do better from a record than the artists and when publishers do better from a book than the author. Sure, sometimes publishers 'nurture' authors (whatever that's supposed to mean) and significantly edit their work for the better, but sometimes they don't. Often they don't. In fact you wouldn't have to look far to find authors who think that publishers do the opposite of nurturing. Besides, an author won't receive a bigger royalty cheque because their manuscript needed no editing. So when a book is sold and the money earned is being shared out, sometimes it's easy for publishers to justify their cut and sometimes it's not. A non-fiction book commissioned, designed and assembled by the publisher, particularly one with pictures and graphics, involves a lot of work for a publisher - work akin to authorship. Contrast that with a text-only title which isn't energetically promoted. Proof and typeset, design a cover, assign an ISBN, submit Onix details, etc; That might be a week of a publisher's time compared with a year of the author's to write it. The publisher carries the risk - but in a world of e-readers the risk could be minimal. The publisher filters out the dross - but in a world of dreadful celebrity bios or junky Christmas novelty titles, how perfect is that filter?
If you turn the model round and have the publisher offering 'publishing services' (including financing) to the author you'd end up with a very different allocation of profits. Publisher profit margins would drop (and in a world of e-readers, retailer margins would collapse). In a sense, all publishing would become vanity publishing. But vanity publishing is only vanity if people see a difference between a book and a manuscript. Vanity publishing is based on the idea that any work which appears as a finished and bound volume has made it through some sort of quality filter; it has somehow been approved - and by paying for publication the author somehow cheats the filter. But as the process of turning manuscript into paperback becomes easier and cheaper, doesn't the notion of imprimatur, the idea that a printed volume has someone been approved by critical professionals, doesn't that being to evaporate? At the very least, isn't there a smooth continuum between author-published POD titles and short-print-run publisher-funded works? And in a world of electronic books, might it not be impossible to tell which was which?
In my view, musicians and music-lovers would be better off without 90% of the music industry. Increasingly, it's just lawyers to enforce IP protection and promoters doing deals. On the other hand, I think we're a long way from being able to make movies without a movie industry. If a day comes when readers and authors will be better off without publishers, are we likely to get out of the way? Or will we 'lawyer up' and lobby for longer copyright terms and harsher penalties for anyone 'stealing' from 'us'?