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Creating a Renaissance for Authors in the Digital Age

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Authors are in crisis. The Digital Age, with the rise of eBooks, has expanded potential readership by a degree not seen since the mid-1800s (Collins). However, as readers shift from print to electronic books, piracy looms as an economic threat to authors as it has for musicians. This danger, combined with falling print book sales, exposes the precarious financial position of writers in the 21st century. Each eBook downloaded from the Pirate Bay illegally, each chain bookstore that liquidates its inventory for pennies on the dollar, damages the economic incentives for authors to keep writing (Petit). Some writers may choose to pursue careers other than “author” if they’re unlikely to achieve even modest financial success. The idea of “author” as an occupation, with writers having ownership of their work and entitled to compensation therefore, is a new one, but has become deep-rooted in our culture (Childers and Hentzi 23). Authors expect to be paid for their work just as carpenters do. As Booker Prize winner Graham Smith intimates in his interview with The Guardian newspaper’s Nick Collins, without a change in the business model of authorship, the future of literature is in serious jeopardy.
 
Some may question whether the pocketbooks of authors need saving. After all, they will argue, print is a dying medium and television, movies, and Internet media are the modern replacements. Instead of novels, writers should write screenplays; instead of short stories, YouTube shows; instead of poems, song lyrics. Why read American Psycho when Christian Bale was so good in the movie?1 What’s the point of reading anything Stephen King writes if it’ll end up a watered-down miniseries on NBC? Why bother flipping through a “Clifford” book with your kid when there’s an app for that?
 
First, without the work of Ellis, King, Bridwell, and scores of other authors, many of our contemporary movies, television shows, and Internet media would not exist. Hundreds of movies alone have been adapted from works of fiction, according to the Oxford County Library of Ontario, Canada. Entertainment without books to adapt looks like a 24/7 “Jersey Shore” channel: horrifying.
 
Second, authors play a special role in society, a role worthy of protection. As producers of fiction, authors have a responsibility to tell “the lie that tells the truth” (Childers and Hentzi 110). That is to say a book (print or electronic) is like a looking glass. Fiction, from tawdry romances to high-minded literature, is a commentary on society and culture. Without authors to hold up the mirror, we may forget what we look like, however ugly and beautiful we may be.
 
As the work of authors is important to society, and continued production of fiction depends on some degree of economic benefit to authors, what is to be done to keep authors writing? Maintaining the status quo is unlikely to succeed. The naysayers are right: print is dying. Readers are shifting to eBooks en masse, if Amazon’s sales figures can be believed (Collins). With more electronic books available, Digital Age piracy becomes a threat, and authors are already beginning to feel the same effects of piracy that have strangled the incomes of musicians2. Further, major publishers are all too willing to use the shift to eBooks as an excuse to pay lower royalties to authors (Collins). It’s obvious that an answer to the question of how to maintain financial support for writers must be found. While some have advocated for tougher penalties for copyright infringement and more robust digital rights management software to safeguard writer royalties, the best solution to the economic struggles of authors in the Digital Age is a return to the patronage system.
 
Patronage is “[t]he action of a patron in using money or influence to advance the interests of a person, cause, art, etc.” by the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition (“Patronage”). A patronage system, then, requires people (patrons) to advance the (financial) interests of persons (specifically, writers). During the Renaissance, wealthy individuals and families would patronize artists through commission of poetry, painting, and plays. One of the best-known examples of patronage in Renaissance Italy is that of the Medici family. The Medicis became a prominent and prosperous banking family, with strong ties to the Catholic church and politicians in Florence (Horth). They routinely bought and commissioned paintings and sculpture from the artistic luminaries of their time, including Filippo Brunelleschi, discoverer of perspective – the ability to give the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface3 (Horth). In fact, Medici patronage even brought a young Michelangelo into their home to live and work, and Leonardo Da Vinci counted the family among his patrons (Horth). With their sponsorship of artists such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Brunelleschi, the Medicis and their wealth could be seen as the driving force behind the Renaissance itself.
 
The benefits of patronage to the artist are obvious – financial support allowing them to pursue their art without the fetters of an unrelated day job. Shakespeare didn’t have to punch a clock at Ye Olde Walle-Marte; his full-time job was poet, playwright. In a letter to his patron, the Earl of Southampton, the Bard acknowledges his privilege (and accompanying responsibility): “…if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour” (Brown 28). Edgar Allen Poe also wrote to his benefactor, John P. Kennedy of Baltimore, to “express by letter what I have always found it impossible to express orally — my deep sense of gratitude for your frequent and effectual assistance and kindness. Through your influence Mr White has been induced to employ me in assisting him with the Editorial duties of his Magazine [the Southern Literary Messenger ]” (Poe). Poe and Shakespeare wrote correspondence to their backers in appreciation of the support that allowed them to create.
 
But why did the Earl of Southampton and John Kennedy of Baltimore – and other wealthy patrons, like the Medicis – sponsor writers, painters, and sculptors? A common misconception is that the Renaissance patron bought an artist wholesale and dictated themes, colors, imagery, etc. to the hired creator. Writing for Renaissance Quarterly, Gilbert Creighton confirms this type of dictatorial control was sought by some sponsors; more frequently, however, general themes were suggested by a work’s title, and patron influence on tone and content typically came at the artist’s request and was collaborative. Instead of buying an artist to pull on like a marionette, the majority of Renaissance patrons were looking for “enhancement of their honor and splendor,” leaving details of composition to the painter, sculptor, or writer (Gilbert 446). It was enough for the Medicis to say they sponsored Michelangelo’s creativity – they didn’t need to tell him what to create.
 
Patronage thrived in Renaissance Italy, and it lives on in Digital Age America. Numerous grants and endowments are available to authors. These bequests serve much the same function as the direct commissions in the Renaissance era: support of art for art’s sake. There is a significant obstacle to authors looking to earn a comfortable living from grants and endowments, however. In the current depressed economic climate, funds are drying up. The effects of the Great Recession are presented in stark bullet points in a report by the State of Connecticut’s Commission on Culture and Tourism:

  • Corporate contributors are eliminating gifts entirely
  • Foundations are cutting 50% – 100% from previous levels…
  • Sponsorships have been delayed or decreased
  • Secured funders are delaying payments…
  • Value of endowments reduced 30% or more (Connecticut)

While the facts presented by Connecticut’s Commission are obviously specific only to that state, there is little doubt similar effects are being felt across the country. So, at a time when patronage is of vital importance to struggling American authors, less money is available to support them. Writers cannot hope to earn enough money from grants and endowments alone to continue creating in the current economic climate.
 
Literary prizes present another form of contemporary patronage to authors. Like grants and endowments, prize money presents a difficulty to authors looking to earn a living from their work. Most literary prizes require a reading fee for an author’s work to be considered, presenting a catch-224 to struggling writers; they need the prize money to keep creating, but they need money to apply for the prize. Even the prestigious Pulitzer Prize requires a fee from applicants, according to the Prize’s official website. Obviously, literary prizes cannot be the primary source of income for new writers without a pool of funds to draw upon first.
 
If the patronage of grants, endowments, and prizes are failing to adequately support authors, how is the patronage system the best solution to the economic woes authors face? Just as the Digital Age has exacerbated the financial struggles of authors, it has also presented a novel method of patronage: crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is “a new form of commerce and patronage” as written by the popular website Kickstarter, one of the main crowdsourcing portals. Under the crowdsourcing model, the public-at-large is asked to support a project directly. A project might be anything from a new iPod dock to a feature-length film – or a book. Projects are presented through portals like Kickstarter, and typically feature videos and other “teasers” to educate potential backers and entice the pubic to support the proposed project. Project creators can set rewards for certain contribution levels which act as incentives to patronize the project5, though these are not required. Additionally, use of crowdsourcing tools like Kickstarter provides free publicity for a project (Kurutz). The success of a given project is decided democratically; good ideas (as defined by funding contributors – patrons) are funded, while bad ones are not.
 
The democratic nature of crowdsourcing overcomes one of the traditional arguments against patronage systems: that they favor the well-connected over the talented. Because which projects are ultimately provided funding is decided by the global online community, the success of a project is based on the strength of the idea behind it and how well it is presented, not on whom the project creator knows and how well they manipulate the bureaucracy of the endowing institution. Connections and influence may help an author gain exposure for their project, but exposure is not the same as money. If one is not interested in the premise of a novel, they’re not likely to give someone money to write it.
 
Of course, there is a legitimate complaint regarding patronage in that many talented writers may yet go undiscovered, unpublished. With a high degree of competition in a global online marketplace, there is no doubt some gifted and innovative authors will still see their manuscripts languishing in the bottom of a desk drawer (or, more likely, in their Google Docs account). Many authors find themselves in a similar position today. With a large volume of manuscripts incoming every day, many editors and literary agents6 cannot give each a thorough reading, and even when they can, publishing houses may be unwilling to risk financial losses on a book without significant market potential (Petit). A book that is well-written and interesting may not be published because the potential return on investment is too low for the publisher to make a healthy profit. Money, not talent, drives the book publishing world today. The possibility of undiscovered talent is no different than the status quo, and is no reason not to pursue a course likely to find more great fiction produced for readers around the world.
 
That the continuation of the status quo is not an acceptable response to the economic dilemma before writers has already been demonstrated, but some have called for continuation of the current publishing model with additional copy-protection and anti-piracy measures as a bulwark against the emerging digital threat to authors. Unfortunately, the promise of uncrackable eBooks is a lie. Cory Doctorow, a prominent technology blogger and science fiction author, points out this fundamental premise of computer science in a 2007 article for the U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper titled “DRM [Digital Rights Management] Vendors Are Pushing The Impossible.” In his article, Doctorow explains how emails and text messages can be securely transmitted with common encryption programs, but media are more difficult to protect because the consumer is the person the encryption is supposed to defeat. We, as consumers, must be entrusted with the decryption keys embedded in our DVD players and eReaders. Doctorow cites the example of “Muslix64,” a hacker who broke the Blu-Ray encryption system – without even being in the same room as a Blu-Ray player. Further, copy protection only has to be cracked once; as soon as the material is available on the Internet, anyone can get the unprotected version without having to do any cracking of their own. Doctorow concludes his article by asking “how long will paying customers stay when the companies they’re buying from treat them like attackers?”
 
Instead of treating readers like potential pirates as publishing houses have, Digital Age authors could instead turn to them as crowdsourcing patrons. Contributors to an author’s book project could, perhaps, be rewarded with special thanks in the front matter of the book at lower contribution levels, and with print copies of the book (signed, even) at higher levels. Piracy of the electronic version of a completed novel could be avoided by making the book free to download. Through another Digital Age marvel – self-publishing – authors maintain complete creative and financial control over their projects, so rewards for contribution, price points for finished products, and marketing budgets are entirely theirs to decide.
 
Decisions about how to combat the ills of the Digital Age are ultimately up to authors. These decisions are of grave import for society, as authors hold a special role as commentators on culture. Authors can decide to continue working within the existing publishing system, hoping for crackdowns on eBook pirates and the largess of major publishing houses. By choosing the status quo, authors are setting themselves up for failure. Publishers are using the eBook revolution as an excuse to pay smaller royalties. There will be no uncrackable encryption system to stop illegal copying of eBooks.
 
Authors can instead choose to pursue patronage. In a patronage system, authors ask their fans to support their work directly. Writers maintain creative control of their projects in such a system, and can work collaboratively – instead of confrontationally – with readers. No patronage will be forthcoming for authors lacking in sound ideas and writing ability, however, so talent and ability will still trump connections and influence in a crowdsourced patronage system.
 
Crowdsourced patronage has been adopted by other creative professionals, such as filmmakers, musicians, and designers. The lessons learned by these vanguards of crowdsourcing should be noted by authors looking to fund their book projects. While crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter allow an author to raise money to cover production costs of their books and provide instant exposure for the project, they do not provide technical or legal advice (Kurutz). Authors must carefully consider all the costs of their projects, from their time spent writing to shipping fees on incentive rewards. Also, authors will still need to educate themselves on copyright issues, production sourcing, taxes, etc. They must act more as entrepreneurs than entertainers, doing what they can themselves and hiring others to handle work they cannot.
 
Other professions could benefit from author crowdsourcing and self-publishing. By acting as creative entrepreneurs, authors will likely employ others throughout the process of bringing a book to market. No matter how talented the writer, for example, a book’s manuscript ought to be proofread by a professional copyeditor7. The fees for copyediting should be part of an author’s project funding total. Likewise, most authors will need the services of a competent graphic designer to create the book’s cover image. Children’s books may need an artist to illustrate the author’s vision. Additionally, prudent authors will find the services of a competent lawyer and tax advisor indispensable. Should an author find him- or herself unable or unwilling to navigate the crowdsourcing and social media jungles, marketing and public relations professionals could be employed to craft a campaign to increase a book’s or author’s exposure. All of the outsiders an author may need to employ will be paid by the crowd. The positive financial effects of patronage will radiate like mirrored sunbeams from the patron, to the author, then to other professionals – and on to society as a whole.
 
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