Funding Literature in a Digital Age (initial thoughts)

Eoin Purcell

Time to think
Maybe it’s because I have some time on my hands, or simply that with my head freed of some other obligations I have allowed some peripheral issues to sink in, I don’t know. In any case, today when the if:book report for the Arts Council of England: read:write. Digital Possibilities for Literature came across my desk (or rather through my e-mail) it sparked quiote a few thoughts.

Funding Literature
The first of those was that the report makes a very good case for the actual act of publishing becoming increasingly cheap and easy. Indeed, section 4.3 asks what must for the whole report be the critical question:

When new writing can be published for little or no cost online, when does it make sense to fund digital magazines? When much online culture is created by willing, unpaid volunteers, where is public subsidy appropriate and valuable?

They go on to suggest that:

in some cases it is appropriate to provide funding in order to encourage less technically confident communities to explore the medium; and there is an argument in favour of using funding to attract established print writers into the online space.
While it is debatable whether funding ezines always ensures better output, there is only so much that can be achieved technically with amateur skillsets and limited time. Funding interventions in the online magazine space could be oriented towards improving technical know-how and implementing robust infrastructures in publications, funded or unfunded, with an existing track record of “making it work” and delivering quality content using the free tools and DIY ethos of the Web. ACE could also provide expertise in generating income through the Web.

I’ve no huge issue with these ideas. Inf act I suspect that they are largely moot, even after a year. If you look a the work that large publishers are engaged in with the likes of and the ease with which a magazine can be published online, then funding infrastructure might well be pretty worthless, rather funding training for the services (free and paid) that enable writers to post their material for free would be more sensible. The key take away being: Don’t Reinvent The Wheel!*

Which brings me to the question of getting the word out abut online literature. Sure you can publish for free or the price of a beer, but how do you promote it? Nothing in the report really addresses that core need, looking at the web in a sense as one large marketing opportunity, but the truth is that it is one large wasteland for content that need good marketing, clever campaigns and link love to rise to the surface.

I need to read the report again but while I think it has quite nicely judged the possibilities, I suspect that many of these possibilities remain only remote opportunities (for more on that idea, this blog post is pretty good). There can be no simple hope that by removing the costs associated with the traditional print infrastructure we can equally escape the costs of marketing. Those costs will actually increase and become more relevant as a slew of content creates and added for free to the web overwhelms us.

It’s already happening!

* I’ve touched on this before!

Culture & New Media (with a side point on books)

Eoin Purcell

A fine conference (after a fine meal)
There was something great about The New Media. New Audience? Conference run by the Arts Council last week. For one thing it was great to see Charles Leadbeater and Andrew Keen spar (no matter how mildly they did so). We rarely see clashes on such opposed viewpoints and when it refers directly to your own industry it is particularly interesting.

Leadbeater is the optimist and Keen, the somewhat posed pessimist. I say posed because you get the sense that he is in fact a personally shy man who would rather not be gunning up opposition the way he is, except that it sells books & gets him speaking gigs.

Its all about marketing
Which brings me to the over riding message I got from this fine conference. The strongest sense was that most Irish Arts organizations see the best way forward with the web in using it as a marketing tool with an allied with an almost overwhelming lack of clarity on how to do that.

There was an avoidance, especially in my panel session, of any discussion of the web and new media as a way to collaborate or to generate new and different arts. I found this odd until I realised that the vast bulk of the attendees had little exposure to the web as anything more than the home of Google and free content.

And why should they have. The tools of interaction are hardly the most widely advertised. Blogs have a bad pr problem that is only slowly being addressed. People at the panel feared the loss of control when their content went online. They wondered how best to reach audiences across all platforms.

Where does this point us?
There is a real need not for high talk of collaboration and new media, but for solid and basic ways to interact with audiences and potential customers online. It seems after the conference that there is much work to be done and embedding the arts world in the online world in a real and meaningful way.

That is not to say that there are not individuals and organizations with an excellent grasp of how the web can be used and who are working on exciting projects that deliver real and interesting results, just that for the vast majority, the web is not a friendly place!

A very worthwhile conference nonetheless getting people, at the very least, focused on these issues. That can never hurt!

Copyright & Seminars

Eoin Purcell

Seminars & Such
Tuesday was a busy day for seminars. As I mentioned yesterday(, I attended a Blogging and the Arts session in the morning, in the evening in the comfortable surroundings of Buswell’s Hotel (not too far away from were this was happening) I attended the Copyright Association of Ireland’s(the link is to an introduction page) seminar on recent developments in case law.

It was one of those meetings that reminds you why you find a subject fascinating and yet also imposes upon you a great sense of relief that you chose not too pursue a career in it.

By far the most relevant to publishing was the idea of Public Lending Right a concept we have only just introduced in Ireland and which will be run by the Library Council.

The initial cost is estimated to be €600,000 with full year costs put at €1,100,000. The talk at the seminar was that this seemed a modest sum. To me it seemed rather a lot. I have to say that as a publisher I don’t quite grasp the reason why Authors are remunerated for the books in the Public Lending Library over and above their royalty. Surely if there is a fee due to anyone for lost revenue it is due to all and why the author in particular ought to benefit and not the publisher (who after all finances the entire process) or the retailer (who loses sales to libraries) is beyond me.

Droit de Suite
One other matter emerged to worry me. The topic of Artist resale right came up as last year Ireland introduced a rather weak scheme designed to ensure that artists saw some of the return from the appreciation in value of their work.

Frankly I am completely dumbfounded by any such system. The basic premise of this seems to be you sell a painting to some buyer when it is worth say €300. That seller after three decades (or whatever period of time) decides that he/she has enjoyed the piece but feels like selling it, capturing the increased value and buyer some other art. Despite the fact that they have bought the piece outright you are entitled to 15% royalty from the price he receives for selling it if the price is €3000 or more.

I simply can see no reasonable logic for this tax on investment in art. Especially as it enriches those late in their careers and disadvantages newcomers, surely it depresses new art if buyers know that their potential for profit is reduced when selling it in years to come.

Where I am with copyright
I am beginning to realize that I am relatively alone in the world of Publishing in having a profoundly negative view of copyright in general. For one thing I see the length of its duration as obscene. Why 70 years following the death of an author? The estate of the author is surely adequately rewarded after 20 years. After all the actual originator of the literature has no use of the money, he will not be incentivized to produced new work no matter how much his works earn in royalties. The true beneficiaries (or so it seems) are the publishers and the living relatives of the writer. Neither the consumer, nor other artists looking to mash up or utilize aspects of the work benefit.

See the innovation
What is more, I truly believe that the length of copyright limits innovation by publishers. The back list is an essential element of all publishers’ catalogues (At Random House US the New York Magazine tells us it accounts for some 80% of the profit) but look for instance at the recent innovations in the field of Classics. Unhindered by copyright concerns, dozens of versions and editions of classic titles abound.

From exceptional quality hardbacks through slimmed down and abridged versions, chicklit versions, comic versions, red, green, black editions. Penguin has excelled at using free content to sell slim editions and fine special editions. Even my former employer Nonsuch has shown itself adept at this game finding a nice niche in publishing books that although popular in their time, they have no slid somewhat down the scale and remain outside the accepted Cannon.

My point is simply this. Copyright has its value and the artist deserves his or her reward while alive. I see the logic of allowing an estate to collect for a short period of time after the authors death but I cannot see the rational behind a 70 year exclusion zone. To be frank I would much rather a copyright based simply on the date of publication for a set time (perhaps 50 years).

But that is the lifeblood of industry!
And so it is but do we really need to hold copyright for 70 years after an authors death? How limited are the books for which a publisher actually holds and exploits these deadlines? I suspect the number of titles and authors is exceptionally limited. In fact I must search for that data. Project anyone . . . .

Of to do some work on this

Blogging & the Arts in Ireland

Eoin Purcell

Great Morning
Literally out of a fascinating seminar on Blogging and the Arts facilitated by the excellent Annette Clancy and Conn Ó Muíneacháin. I was afraid that it might be a little too focused on the Arts a concept which worries me as a trade publisher but in fact it was enormously practical and based on building profile and engaging in the conversation. I was impressed and felt that we might even have spent a few hours on the ideas around the potential for creating and displaying art online.

There seemed a real hunger to make up for what Annette rightly called (and in my paraphrased way) a deficit in the engagement of the Irish Artistic community online. It got me thinking that one of the missing elements is a more active book blogging community and that perhaps I need to spend some more time on the blog building links and searching for Irish book bloggers. Which reminds me I did recently join the Irish LibraryThingers group (Site down temporarily but I'll update with the link) and ought to spend more time there.

Genuinely enthused

As an aside I thought I'd link to one of the best tools they used at the event which was this incredible video from Commoncraft RSS in Plain English. And BookTwo directed me an interesting place which I thought relevant too!