Thursday, 18 September 2008

Print Publishing- alive? dead? Or merely misunderstood?

I started keeping tabs recently on the influx of stories in the international press about print  publishing, the digital revolution, e-books, ebook readers etc. However, despite being in the industry I quickly got fed up reading the whole print publishing is dead - oh, no, it's not debacle. The whole thing is like Christmas Panto come early - and I've never liked Panto.

Now, I've only read about thirty of these yes/no stories over the last week and I'm sure there have been many more, but as yet I haven't found one that really seems to grasp the issue. It's more like a bunch of nuns attempting to explain to each other what sex is actually like.

What I think people are missing is that e-books and e-readers aren't going to do one specific thing. Or in other words neither e-book or e-reader is a single one use product.

Let me explain.

If I'm going on holiday I'd be delighted to take the free e-reader on my Ipod touch and have twenty odd books on it. I don't mind the reader isn't perfect. I'm not looking for a book alternative I'm looking for a way of lugging an unfeasibly large amount of escapist fiction on holiday with me. I'll put up with the odd bit of flickering.

E-publishing can bring a huge amount of new writing to us cheaply and easily. Here, I'm more concerned that my e-publisher has taste and discretion. We're talking about loyalty to a new industry, where I can log on read a review and for a fraction of the cost download a writer I may well be thrilled to discover. I'm still not that fussy about how I read it.  It's the story that's important. Of course, I don't want to get a migraine doing it, but I may even be using my PC to read during my lunch hour and I may well decide to buy the POD if it's offered.

I'm a print publisher who wants to promote my books. I may well give them away free in a belief they encourage sales - and so far I believe, feel free to correct me, mainstream books that are released as e-books do hike sales. In this case I'm probably reaching those people not that into e-books (for whatever reason) who have a quick flick through and decide to buy the paper book.

I'm a print publisher who believes all books should be available as e-books at the same price. Ain't going to work. E-readers are coming on in leaps and bounds but the leisurely comfort of a paper book is still hard to beat. Yes, this may happen in the future, but the future's not here yet.

Huge reference books - not that much different to those DVD reference works, but easier to keep in your pocket. Main market liable to be academics and students - and maybe bird watchers as long as the e-reader is quiet enough.

By now you're hopefully getting the idea. The ebook and the e-reader will be many things to many people.  At the moment we have critics talking as if all e-books and e-book readers do the that same thing which is like saying all time telling devices are the same - when in reality we have church clocks, mantel piece clocks, wrist watches, bedside clocks, precision clocks - they all let us do the same thing, tell the time, but in many different ways and for many subtly different reasons. And you're certainly not going to buy a church clock as a bedside alarm in much the same way as you're not yet going to spend hundreds of pounds or dollars on an e-reader if you're only intending to use e-books to decide what you're going to buy in print.

I like the whole concept of e-books. I predict they will have a future, but it's an organically growing future and it is as much down to the social requirements as it is down to the evolution of tech.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Friday, 12 September 2008

Is it alright to frighten the children?

I grew up during the cold war and at some point when I was very young some idiot told me about the four minute warning. So on those nights when I awoke from a bad dream, and like many people struggled with those moments of 4am irrational fear, it was all compounded by the fear of incoming missiles. If during those nocturnal post dream moments I heard the sound of something in the sky I would watch the bright red lights of my bedside radio alarm count down four minutes until I was sure I was safe.

I used to think I was absolutely mad. Now I know creative, imaginative children with other things on their mind (like exams or bullying) are particularly sensitive to these kind of end of the world fears. And Wednesday's switch on of the little big bang machine had even the most dull and unimaginative child in my son's school playground asking their mum's if the world was going to end. 

But c'mon it was a great story. It made physics almost 'sexy' for a short period of time and after we'd spent so much money on the project (UK contribution around £500M) surely the press should play up the story a bit?

Well, no, I don't think so. And neither did one little girl in India, who was so scared she killed herself. The story I draw this from in the BBC counts numerous examples of children being afraid and parents, who have very little knowledge of physics having to counter alarmist fears raised by the press in general.

And besides the catastrophic fear was of the creation of run away black holes - there was no way on earth (or beyond it) for that matter that this could happen on Wednesday. This was only a test of beams running in a single direction. The actual high speed collisions will be happening next year after the machine is shut down for the winter for calibration. So, the press, always knew there was absolutely no danger of the world ending on Wednesday

But if I step away for a moment from my rant against irresponsible journalism, I want to raise the point that children's literature and children's movies are growing increasingly dark. There's a school of thought that says as long as there is a good outcome children will put up with a lot of darkness before they get to the light. And yes, story is about conflict, obstacles - and usually the killing off of parents, so publishers won't be seen to condone children doing dangerous things. (If they're orphans there's no one looking after them and they don't know any better. Honestly. If you don't believe me, do a mental check of modern children's lit and see how many popular, adventuring little heros or heroines actually have parents!)

I think in many ways it's true that children are resilient to darkness. They like to see the heros battle the odds. But we're going a little further than that. In the finale of last season's Dr Who (and yes, this show is supposedly suitable for children) a father tried to protect his family (mother and child) by ordering them back into their house away from the daleks. The daleks line up and burn the house out. Now, Dr Who has always been about death. There's often the implication that tons of families are dying off screen, but it's not focussed in on.

And that's the key in any story, whatever the medium, all children can adore a struggle until it comes too close to home. When they start to imagine that it could affect them in their world, when they over-identify, then that's when we're hitting too hard. 

Children can tell the difference between story and reality, but they can be overwhelmed by fictional misfortune and driven to total despair by irresponsible reporting. There are some lessons we want children to learn  (for example) about the evils of war and violence, but no one learns anything when they're being frightened witless. 

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Copyright - friend or foe

A lot of people don't understand copyright. A lot of people think it's outdated. A lot of people abuse it. But love it or hate it as an author you deal with the repercussions of copyright law on a daily basis. And as a consumer we all make choices all the time about how we respect (or don't respect) copyright.

As an author I hold copyright over my works. I've contracted to my publishers to allow them to produce my work for a set period and in return, because I hold the copyright, I'm paid royalties on every sale of my work. Royalties aren't a lot per copy, but they add up and they pay the bills - or more often than not, help pay the bills. Yes, some people do get advances. A few high fliers get a lot, but advances have to 'earn out' ie you don't get a further penny until you've sold enough in royalties to pay back your advance. It's also becoming increasingly common for mid-list and lower authors not to receive an advance, but to be on a royalty only contract. Most British authors earn less than £5,ooo per annum and therefore have a second job or three. But don't authors and artists deserve to be fully reimbursed for their creative contributions? 

In the news today are two big name cases, author JK Rowling and music publisher, Universal Music Publishing. Their two stories highlight major copyright issues.

J. K. Rowling has just won her case to prevent the publishing of  Steven Vander Ark's Harry Potter Lexicon. The Lexicon originally started life as a website for fans and was if not endorsed, at least 'supported' (in the words of the BBC) by Ms Rowling. However, when Mr Vander decided to turn this into a printed book and sell it Ms Rowling objected.

I have to go on record and say I absolutely support her action and applaud the judge who ruled in her favor. Her case was primarily upheld because the judge ruled 'Lexicon appropriates too much of Rowling's creative work for its purposes as a reference guide.' Ms Rowling said in a statement that she wasn't against works that explored her world per se, commenting that 'Many books have been published which offer original insights into the world of Harry Potter. The Lexicon just is not one of them.' She further added that Lexicon 'added virtually no original commentary of its own'. In other words, as a resource for fans she had no objection, but when someone decided to make money out of reprinting her ideas she objected.

Last year Stephanie Lenz uploaded a YouTube clip of her young son dancing to a song my Prince (Let's Go Crazy). Four months later it was removed after objections by Universal Music Publishing. Ms Lenz fought back, got her YouTube video reinstated and now it's had over 593,000 hits. However, the battle in court rages on. Ms Lenz's case is that she recorded her son to show his dancing to relatives and friends. And it has to be said that really you wouldn't chose to download this clip if you wanted to hear the music. Judge for yourself here. I'm not the biggest Prince fan, but if someone had told the background noise was whale music I wouldn't have argued.

The BBC website carries a long story about this and other recent copyright cases Universal Music Publishing has been involved with here. This includes Universal going after someone selling CDs on Ebay.

Before anyone raises the concept of Creative Commons in comments - yes, I do know what that is. And for those of you that don't know Creative Commons is a new idea for licensing creative work that allows you to reserve rights of your choice. Wikipedia entry here

But the issue remains folks that writers and artists of all variants make their living from their work. With the new advent of e-books a number of pirate sites have cropped up where people are reposting original work, so readers don't have to go to the publisher's website and pay. A number I've come across seem to think they're doing the authors a favour and count themselves as fans. Honestly, if you're depriving us of our income you're doing your best to (even unwittingly) drive your author out of business and back into taking that fourth job stacking supermarket shelves.

It's a hugely complicated issue not helped by the fact that some of the new online bookshop browsers - ooh, let's say like ones that let you look inside books or search for a particular topic - are effectively letting people download recipes, poems, short stories, technical and academic information for free. There are only going to be certain instances when you still want to buy the whole cow.

I've yet to come across a copyright law I thought was perfect - and there is no doubt that some people abuse copyright laws to a ridiculous extent. In general, authors at least, are happy to be quoted, tolerant or flattered by fanfiction (which at least involves significant imagination on the behalf of the fan fiction writer) and accept, even if they don't like it, that people will buy a book and share it around their friends. 

The stories I've quoted focus on people who have made an awful lot of money from their work. They are the exception. These cases are about the role of copyright for all authors and artists; the majority of whom earn a pretty meagre yearly income. Don't let the names and bright lights of these stars blind you to the real issue. Maybe there will come a day when authors and other artists are paid in a different way, but right now with the massive slices taken by publishers, music companies, etc the majority of authors and artists need their royalties to survive and continue to produce their work. 

Thursday, 4 September 2008

It's in the Stars

If you're been reading this blog for any length of time then you know how keen I am on the e-books event horizon.

Today the The New York Times carries the announcement of Constellation a new venture aimed at independent publishers by Perseus Books Group. Perseus, through Constellation, are offering to negotiate rates to give independents access to electronic readers, digital book search and POD at costs similar to those advantaged to the big boys. They already have Google, Amazon, Sony and Barnes and Noble (Search Inside) on board as willing to offer packages that the little people simply couldn't get on their own. 

And this is where I predict the heart of the electronic revolution will be. It's all about new writing. Yes, people may some day prefer to have their copy of Pride and Prejudice on their Ipod, but I don't think that day is here yet. (Mind you, not having to lug around War and Peace would have its advantages.) 

But no, with print publishing becoming ever more restricted - dare I say hidebound? - and with rising costs for both promotion and publication - the market for new, exciting, break through authors is going to move more and more into the electronic world.

The independents in question in this case may already be print publishers, but it will be in the electronic world they have the biggest opportunity to make a virtual splash.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Novels for the time impoverished?

Having fallen prey to the emergencies of real life, and in particular the demands of small people, this will undoubtedly be one of my shortest posts. Although in terms of fashionable brevity by the time you've read to this point it's overlong.

The solution to my current time shortage may be a new Japanese phenomenon keitai sohousetsus. ReadWriteWeb reports that mobile phone novels account for half of the top ten best selling novels in Japan in 2007. Many of the authors are Japanese school girls bashing out the next tiny bit of the story between classes. Western authors are now attempting to copy the idea using the ubiquitous twitter.  So far this hasn't been a resounding success. The market is open!