‘Relentless Apocalypse?’ Manuscripts, Digital Books and Rights

Perhaps obliquely related to Merrilee’s recent posts and Ricky’s report, the current Harpers’ carries an article by Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Last Book Party: Publishing Drinks to a Life After Death.” That end-of-the-world book party was at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October.

The problem with publishing is the relentlessness of the apocalypse. Since the seventeenth century, catastrophe has desolated the book industry on a generational level: a censorious Catholic court, Jewish moneylenders, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Gregorian calendar (which led, in its maiden year, to a disastrous misscheduling of the Frankfurt Book Fair), the railroad, the post office.

Lewis-Kraus points out that once writers surrender their manuscripts, the “professionals” feel the “books are now, rightfully, theirs – theirs to talk about, theirs to own, and most importantly, theirs to sell…” This seems to me a seventeenth-century understanding of ‘copy’ embedded in the English origins of ‘copyright’ – manuscripts were owned by printers, not authors. This model for publishing ‘copy’ now apparently governs some digitization of unique materials.

Writers may not see it this way. At the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair’s opening press conference, Paul Coelho declared himself to be a “pirate of myself.” “He has set up a website, he explains, where you can download his books for free; he says that the goal for a writer is to get his books into the hands of as many readers as possible.” My personal goal as a librarian and archivist is to get my collections into the hands of as many people as possible.

Might Google and publishers be thinking the “books are now, rightfully, theirs…”? Michael Pietsch, publisher of Little Brown: “This is all about the commodification of books. It’s a writer’s version of hell.” If this is a writer’s version of hell, is it the library’s version of purgatory? At least the writers are ostensibly at the table.

Mostly, though, in his article Lewis-Kraus paints the Frankfurt Book Fair as if it were a party filmed by Altmann. It’s a fun read and most folks have to read it on paper. The link is here, but the OCLC Library doesn’t have a subscription, so I had to buy the magazine. Nice tactic, or are the publishers of Harpers’ shooting themselves in the foot?

I googled the Frankfurt Book Fair. They report results of their 2008 survey (over 1,000 industry professionals from over 30 countries responded), including this tidbit:

Who is really in charge? When asked who was driving the move towards digitisation in the book industry, only seven per cent felt that publishers were leading the way:
• 22 per cent said that consumers were pushing the move towards digitisation
• online retailers like Amazon (21 per cent), Google (20 per cent), and the telecommunications sector (13 per cent) were not far behind
• only two per cent felt that authors were driving this aspect of the industry – and governments lagged even further behind with only one per cent

Libraries aren’t on this list. The top two concerns the respondents reported would be discussed at the fair last fall were copyright (28 per cent) and digital rights management (22 per cent).