In The Observer magazine last weekend Robert McCrum wrote a piece about the struggling mid-list author. He focused on adult authors, but the changes in publishing he describes, and in particular the sudden loss of funding and drop in advances, affects children’s authors just as badly.
Many of the comments in the online discussion that his piece has so far generated fail to grapple with his central observation:
To writers of my generation, who grew up in the age of Penguin books, vinyl records and the BBC, it’s as if a cultural ecology has been wiped out. For as long as most of us can remember, every would-be writer knew the landscape of the printed word. This Georgian square was home to publishing grandees (now retired). On that high street were the booksellers (now out of business). In those twisting back streets, you could expect to find literary agents working the margins with the injured innocence of pickpockets at a synod. It was a mutually dependent ecosystem.
Publishers were toffs, booksellers trade and printers the artisan champions of liberty. Like the class system, we thought, nothing would change. The most urgent deadline was lunch. How wrong we were. The years 2007-2010 are pivotal: first, as Thomson has described, came the credit crunch. And it occurred at the very moment that the IT revolution was wrecking the livelihoods of those creative classes – film-makers, musicians and writers of all sorts – who had previously lived on their copyrights.
Roughly speaking, until 2000, if you wrote a story, made a film or recorded a song, and people paid to buy it, in the form of a book, a DVD or a CD, you received a measurable reward for your creativity. Customers paid because they were happy to honour your creative copyright. When the internet began in the 1990s, many utopian dreams of creating an open society, where information would be free for all, sprang into prominence. Wikipedia, for instance, is the child of such dreams. Today, Wikipedia is appealing to its users for subscriptions.
Among many champions of the open (and free) society, Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future?, celebrated the idea of knowledge without frontiers from the comfortable security of a university post. The reckoning has been slow in coming, but now there are some crucial indicators of a change of heart. Lanier, for example, acknowledges that, in his excitement at the birth of the worldwide web, he forgot about the creative classes. He concedes that he has watched a generation of his friends – film-makers, writers, musicians – become professionally annihilated by the loss of creative copyright.
Copyright is the bone-marrow of the western intellectual tradition. Until the book world, like the music world, can reconcile the extraordinary opportunities provided by the web with the need for a well-regulated copyright system, artists of all kinds will struggle.
What do YOU think? IS copyright the issue?