Will piracy drive gifted writers out of lit? And what to do about biz models?

imageInternet book piracy will drive authors to stop writing, says a doomsday-tone headline over a story by London Times reporter Ben Hoyle. In fact, a new Swedish site called Student Bay has just started up to pirate expensive textbooks.

But Tracy Chevalier, chair of the U.K. Society of Authors, while concerned about piracy, thinks new, improved business models could be a salvation.

“In the 19th century and before,” the Times notes, a variety of models existed for paying authors, “including lump-sum agreements and profit-sharing.” And it says Chavalier “sees no reason why the book industry should not be equally innovative. She suggested four possible sources of income at an industry discussion on copyright law last week: the Government, business, rich patrons and the public. Government funding could take the form of an ‘academy’ of salaried writers.”

imagePerhaps Chevalier need to check out the evolving TeleRead concept of well-stocked national digital library systems with fair compensation for writers, publishers and other content creators. By itself TeleRead, which I proposed in the early ’90s, wouldn’t solve every problem. Different kinds of books thrive with different business models, example, and I’m more than a little leery of “salaried writers” churning out White House-blessed tomes telling why we should be in Iraq. Even so, TeleRead at least would send more money in the direction of publishing. Books are just a speck of the U.S. economy, suggesting that at some of the industry could be tax supported, given all the benefits derived and the new efficiencies of E. The same model could work in many other countries.

image One way or another, the industry in the States and elsewhere needs to show more vision, but in realistic ways. While, yes, some writers like Cory Doctorow can earn major money from speaking fees and the rest, I suspect they’re in the minority. How about, say, Theodore Dreisder—ugly and a rotten speaker, but also the author of Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy? For that matter, I suspect that F. Scott Fitzgerald, the ultimate glamour boy, would much rather have been writing than spending so much time speaking. Here’s to royalties, then, for people who like ’em. Most authors do.

Must-read: NonTeleRead links—except for the one to Tracy Chevalier’s bio—are via TeleBlog commenter Nate Anderson’s provocative piece in Ars Technica. A must-read, even if I don’t agree with everything there. I especially appreciated a little aside, Nate’s gripe that he’s “learned more than I wanted to know about literary agents, the big New York houses, the committees that evaluate any novel’s potential sales, and the dangers of being labeled a ‘male author’ in the minds of publishing execs.”

7 Comments on Will piracy drive gifted writers out of lit? And what to do about biz models?

  1. Even if we pretend for a moment that all modern novelists will down tools tomorrow — so what? There is already far more fiction available than any of us would be able to read in a dozen lifetimes. Most of it is forgotten and buried under an avalanche of new mediocrity. The current model treats books like loaves of bread which go stale when they’ve been out for too long. Stem the flow of modern angst and Da Vinci Code knock-offs, and maybe we will be able to rescue older books of genuine worth. The publishers won’t like it because it will remove their monopoly, but who cares?

    I can go to any CD shop and buy music that was a hit in 1972. When I can go to any bookshop and buy a book that was a best-seller in 1972, then there will be genuine freedom of choice. If modern novelists have to go on strike for that to happen, then bring it on!

  2. David, I think the key word in your post about business models is this one: business. There will always be a few who do art for art’s sake and don’t care about the money and produce great masterpieces. But there IS a lot of choice out there, and if writers want their work to stand out and they want to make money like a business, they have to treat what they do less like art and more like business :) If they don’t want to do speaking engagements, fine, start a blog, or on-line storefront, or newsletter or some other way to promote themselves. The idea that writers should only have to write is stupid, every ‘job’ in the world is multifaceted. I know a teacher who spent an hour one day washing out her recycle bin—just because she is a teacher and teaches does not mean her job does not have other components (such as maintenance of classroom items) that she must spend time on. Writing is the same—if one wants to just be a pure writer and ‘just write’ then that it is a legitimate choice, but then it is not ‘running a business’ and they should not complain about how much money they do or don’t make. If they do want money, they have to treat it like a business and promote it the same way every other business owner promotes their business. If it’s speaking engagements, great, but if that is not their thing, they need to find something else to do to get the equivalent results. And I say all of this as someone who has written professionally myself—I know what is involved :)

  3. Bob Martinengo // April 2, 2008 at 8:38 am //


    The Novelists Guild of America strike, now entering its fourth month, has had no impact on the nation at all, sources reported Tuesday.

    The strike, which scholars say could be the longest since 1951, when American novelists may or may not have voluntarily committed to a six-month work stoppage, has brought an immediate halt to all new novels, novellas, and novelettes from coast to coast, affecting no one. […]

  4. Most authors make little or no money. It might seem logical that they would keep writing, even if they knew they would make more money. But this argument is flawed. You see, some authors make a great deal of money. Writing a novel constitutes a lottery ticket. Every writer I know believes, in her heart of hearts, that her book is the one that will win the lottery, jump to the best-seller’s list, kick J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and John Grisham off the list, and make her a billionaire.

    Take away that hope and I think you will see a drop-off in novel-writing. Writing a novel is hard–real hard. It takes hundreds or thousands of hours. That time could be spent reading, playing video games, chatting up attractive members of the opposite sex. Authors have choices.

    What about the pure fame of ‘being read.’ Without a cash component, how will they even know they’re being read? There’s little joy in that.

    What about the eBooks sell paper books myth so piracy actually helps? If you buy this as a long term strategy, you’re essentially saying that eBooks are, and will always be, an inferior product. I don’t believe this and I think it’s true for an increasingly small percentage of the population.

    Sure there are different revenue models for authors. I share David’s horror of the White House (or any White House) picking authors to put on the payroll. Letting Bill Gates pick is only slightly more attractive. Letting readers vote by paying a buck or ten seems like a far more fair way.

    Rob Preece
    Publisher, http://www.BooksForABuck.com

  5. Jon, Ficbot, Bob and Rob: Thanks, all of you, for speaking out.

    J: I’m a big booster of public domain lit, and the most avid readers of the TeleBlog are an above-average bunch who look beyond the standard bookstore and library fare. You’d certainly fit that description. But the typical library-goer and librarian will want contemporary fiction and nonfiction. Meanwhile see my reply to Ficbot on the need to finance books despite those that come from pure inspiration.

    F: Some of the best Great Art is from writers who rely on advances from publishers.

    Sinclair Lewis, one of my favorites despite his stylistic flaws, spent months researching Main Street and Babbitt even though he came from the American Midwest, their setting. And Arrowsmith? Probably even more reliant on research. Lewis didn’t produce memorable fiction until he was a full-time novelist.

    What’s more, how about Dickens? Granted, he lectured, but could he have written as many novels if he constantly had to go out on speaking engagements?

    Simply put, there are different kinds of Great Art, and no small number of brilliant novels reflect not just the personal experiences of their authors but also major investments in research—made possible by financial cushions, whether supplied by publishers or patrons, institutional or human.

    Well, I don’t have to tell you that institutions come with prejudices against novels that challenge the administrators’ beliefs and personal interests. I know of someone in the library field, for example, who believes that fiction does not count nearly as much as nonfiction.

    So what about wealthy patrons, the human kind? Same set of problems. Art so often matters less than their prejudices and personal priorities. I think it’s telling that the wealthy love to give fortunes to their old schools while, typically, neglecting the poor.

    Now how about commercial best-sellers—not art but the kind of book so many millions appreciate? There is no substitute for research into the doings of the CIA or the Vatican or whatever the authors are writing about. Even CIA alumni may not know everything about The Company.

    Bob: As for the novelists’ strike, the Onion item was a hoot, and in fact Branko or someone else made sure we ran an item about it. I just wish fiction counted enough in America for the joke not to be so obvious.

    Rob: Yep, I’ve used the phrase “the Lottery Factor,” and you’re obviously of the same mind. The odds are against us, but as some lotto ads say, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

    Hey, everyone, keep commenting away. It’s great to have each other around to sharpen our respective arguments.


  6. Of course, I chimed in too at my blog. Warning: It got me mad enough to use FU, expanded.

    Writers Don’t Fear The Future: Publishers Do!

    Also of interest is something Warren Ellis revealed:


  7. Royalties, alas, do not pay writers to write. Royalties pay writers NOT to write. Case in point, J D Salinger.

    Cash-in-hand for manuscript-in-hand, on the other hand, is a model that pays writers to write. This is the model Dickens worked on. Yes, he did enjoy his later royalties, and complained bitterly at the primary English speaking ‘pirates’ of his day, the American publishing houses. But he earned his bread and fed his family on what the newspapers paid him for each day’s or week’s serial installment.

    I see this ‘pay as you write’ as the way forward for all artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers. I don’t know quite how it will work, but I do not doubt for a moment that, if it can work, it will foster more creativity and novels, short stories, and nonfiction, that we see today.

    Even if it does not work, a web-mosey over to lulu.com will demonstrate that writers will write enormous quantities, hogsheads’ worth, of prose, without any (realistic) hope at all of seeing a thin dime out of it. Thousands of them, judging by the other POD houses, will actually *pay* to write.

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