Robin Writes A Book: Everything Old Is New Again

There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don’t know.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
US author & satirist (1842 – 1914)

This may just be the coolest thing I have come across today!
I love the draft premise for the text and enjoy that he references one of my favourite writers, Gabriel Zaid who wrote one of my favourite books So Many Books, which was published by one of my favourite publishers Sort of Books in pitching for your support. Genius!

Hold on a second though
Although this is a great story and one worth watching and following (speaking of which, CNet covers it well, here) the whole project raises a few big questions:

    1) What does this mean for Writers?
    2) What does this mean for Readers?
    3) What does this mean for Publisher?
    4) What does this mean for Booksellers?

1) Writers
If this proves anything it is that the publishing world has shifted. You can and will have the opportunity to connect with readers directly. it is a chance you MUST seize. You need to be taking specific actions to make sure that in a year, or two or three you too can connect like Robin has. In short you need to become strategic. ARE YOU READY FOR PRIMETIME?

2) Readers
Boy are you in for some fun! Writers and publishers are waking up to the fact that you have not one, but two valuable assets in your hands. The first is the one we have always seen and that is money. The second is attention and Robin has show yet another way in which capturing that can lead to money. You have a lot of power in this system, but as everyone knows, WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY. You may well be determining the future of our literary culture when you give something your attention. Remember that!

3) Publishers
What more can be said? Read my post from earlier this week and answer me this, with that much energy and verve, HOW COME ROBIN SLOAN IS NOT ALREADY UNDER CONTRACT?

4) Booksellers
Nothing in this is comforting for booksellers, except one thing, passion (and books, but that’s two things). People are passionate about books, they love them, reader or writers. They make videos about them and they convert people to them. If you could harness Robin Sloan and his ilk, bring their passion for the books you sell into your store somehow, you could provide a much more community-like atmosphere, perhaps even become the hub for book related discussion and debate, sell coffee, services and books, just as many independents and chains do now, and with passion win over customers, readers writers and publishers. I HAVE NO ADVICE OF A SOLID NATURE. I wish I did.

One final thought
Thinking this through, it is also a reversion to an older method of publishing one based on pre-subscribed patrons to finance a work. This model has merit in this age of confusion and broken systems! Good luck to Robin!

My brain is buzzing tonight, it really is!

Eoin Purcell

UPDATE: have now updated their terms and conditions and I believe that the terms i referenced in this post have been erased. I am happy to say that they have been much more specific in their language. The ownership clause now reads:

You own your User Content, not us. User Content is defined as text, pictures, video, sound and other files legally posted by you on the Site. You grant the Company and its affiliates a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free right to display your User Content (in whole or in part) on the Site or on site affiliates that bear the Writing4all name – Facebook, Twitter. You also grant each user of the Site the right to access, display, view, store and reproduce such your User Content for personal use. You represent and warrant to the Company that you have the right to grant the licenses stated above.

This is a huge improvement!

On the face of it, seems a nice idea, a place for Irish writers to share, collaborate and build community:

Welcome Guest! You’re viewing these pages as a guest. To be able to add or comment on works please join or login. is an online writing community and resource centre for Irish writers. Share your creative writing with others and get instant feedback and constructive criticism.

Our writing resources give you all the latest news on writing courses, writing groups, book launches and workshops in your area. Read the latest news in our blog or discuss books and the world of literature in our lively forums.

Free memberships are available to all and we welcome poetry, fiction, non-fiction and drama. Members can enter our regular poetry, fiction and non-fiction competitions and contests.

Sounds very nice and indeed, if that was it I would be fine with it. But it’s not it. When you read through the site terms and conditions you find this gem (emphasis mine):

You own your User Content, not us. You grant the Company and its affiliates a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, publicly perform and publicly display your User Content (in whole or in part) and/or to incorporate such your User Content in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed.

What this means is that if you upload writing to the site, Original Writing, the owner of and a self-publisher company I have discussed here before, can publish that work without any need to pay you a royalty or even consulting you as far as I can tell. Those are some pretty extravagant permissions!

Most other sites will specify these permissions for the extra content you provide but not the creative writing you upload. The basic problem is that the terms makes no allowances for separating the content that you create on the site and the creative work you upload TO the site. If they made this differentiation clearer and excluded the creative content from the terms above I believe the terms would be much fairer. If you doubt that, read the definition of user content:

You are solely responsible for any activity and content (including, without limitation, data, text, information, screen names, graphics, photos, profiles, audio and video clips, and links to third-party content) that is posted under your screen names (collectively, “User Content”).

It is possible of course that this isn’t intentional and that the terms are simply sloppily drafted but there is much to be wary of here. At the very least the terms as set out need revision and extra definition, not a situation you should allow your content to get trapped in.

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