Publishing in the twilight of the printed word, cont'd

by John MacBeath Watkins

On Jan. 23, 2011, 241 people read "The Role-Playing Game," a poem I had written, on Scribd, a service which chose to feature it.

So, I thought, maybe it's not too bad a bit of writing.  A friend of mine has an open mic at her bookstore, Inner Chapters, maybe I should read some of my stuff there.

I find, however, that it is difficult for me to get up in front of a group and read.  And of course, almost no writers get paid to read.  Few enough get paid for works that are published in dead-tree form, so what happens when their work is available in electronic form?  Will it be subject to the sort of piracy that has taken so much of the money out of the music industry?  And if so, how do authors get paid?

Well, there's your problem.  Musicians who cannot make money anymore on recorded music can at least make money on performances. There was a time, a  century ago and more, when musicians always relied upon live performances for their income, and that time has come again.

But what is the fate of the writer?  Few have made much money on stage performances -- well, Twain did, and Vonnegut.  I'm sure some writers of business books have made a beautiful dollar that way. But for most authors, their income has come from the sale of a physical object, and to pirate it was a bit of a task -- one which much of the American publishing industry engaged in during the 19th century, but not something the individual could do just by wiggling their fingers over the keyboard for a couple of minutes.

As a bookseller, I've had people telling me for 15 years that e-books would put me out of business, but you know why that hasn't happened so far?  Publishers are aware of what has happened in the world of recorded music, and have no wish to follow that path.  Only now are they getting comfortable with the notion of the e-book, long after music in electronic form took off.

Writers, as emotional a breed as they may be, are not entirely irrational. Cyber-libertarians may say, "information wants to be free," but writers say, "we want to be paid!"

And how can they be paid? Musicians have relied on live performances for most of the millenia music has existed, but writing is a newer art, and has always been sold as an object.  The scroll, the book, however it has been packaged, the intellectual property of the written word has always been a tangible object to be possessed.  The Lollards, one of whom, according to Foxes' Book of Martyrs, traded a cart-load of hay for a few chapters of Paul's Epistles, knew what they were getting -- written words on paper, copied by a clever clarke. To copy the entire Bible was the work of ten months for an educated clarke. The Lollards sought pages of John Wycliffe's translation of the Vulgate Bible, and took those pages to abandoned places to read to each other, careful to conceal themselves from the prying eyes of the Church, aware that their neighbors might spy on them, and discovery could lead to death.

Would they be satisfied to say, as modern software licenses allege, that they had bought only a performance of the text, and could not sell it on?  I think not.

Whether from the sort of personal difficulties I experience, or the simple expectations of the buyer, the written word has always been an object to be possessed, not a performance to be (in my case) endured or (in most cases) enacted.  Is it now to be a cipher made of ones and zeros in the memory of a cheap computer? This is a major change in how we regard the written word.  The new world of publishing is an alien world without the comforting bulk of a novel to assure the reader they've paid for something of value.

A publisher has always been a marketing organization; few have owned a press, or a warehouse, or a distribution network.  Publishers are perhaps the most flexible part of the supply chain to the reader.

So is it the publisher we must rely upon for guidance through the fog of the future?

Perhaps.  We know the writer has not the alternative the musician has fallen back on.  As our notion of intellectual property changes, and the written word adapts, someone must reinvent publishing.

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