Boyd Tonkin: How to inscribe a future for words
The week in books
Friday 01 October 2010
On Sunday afternoon, I stood face-to-page over – arguably – the most beautiful book in the world. No agent negotiated an advance prior to its publication. No publisher fixed a royalty rate for the scribes and illustrators who created it. No retailer chose to sell it at a knock-down discount. Indeed, before the advent of high-quality photo reproduction, it only existed in the singular. The art of the monks of Iona and Meath who fashioned the Book of Kells – now in the library of Trinity College, Dublin – stands as awe-inspiring proof that the making of books can thrive far from any marketplace. Now, 1200 years later, the distant heirs to those monastic masters look with dread into a future in which many works might again slip away from the paid-for domain of contracts and commodities. It's a frightening time for an industry that – to quote another Dublin treasure – often seems to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Next week, the Frankfurt Book Fair will bring together the world's publishers not only for another week of schmoozing and boozing, but for anguished debates about the prospects for their trade. All know too well that the explosion of low-cost – even almost-free – digital publication threatens to cast many of tomorrow's makers of books into the non-monetary realm. They will survive, if they do, in places as remote from the idea of generous renumeration as the scriptoria of the early-medieval Celtic lands.
Amazon, especially, has encouraged readers to think that electronic books should come as (almost) gratis giveaways to partner its kit. Belatedly, some major publishers have begun to wake up and resist. Hachette, the largest UK group, will now only supply e-books on "agency terms" – ie, it sets the price, not the digital retailer. The irony howls to high heaven. In effect, the same conglomerates that in the 1990s conspired to destroy price control on books in the UK – in order to put a squeeze on smaller rivals – will now endeavour to revive it in the face of ruthless undercutting by the giants of online distribution. So fickle Fortune's wheel turns, as those monkish scribes would say.
No one yet knows how much terrain this rearguard action can claw back. Apple, for its part, shows signs of co-operating on price maintenance with those publishers who have joined its electronic bookstore. Nonetheless, the writing on the screen looks plain enough.
Sooner or later, several sorts of books – in particular, those of high literary merit – will slide even further into the ragged margins of the cash economy. To ensure their flourishing, we will need virtual abbeys: hi-tech equivalents of the places that gave a home to the nameless virtuosi of Kells, Iona or Lindisfarne. Who will shelter, and support, the creators of beautiful – and challenging - books over the next decades?
A revised international copyright regime must serve for the foundations of any new settlement. Models of the "creative commons" – as developed by the Harvard cyber-philosopher Lawrence Lessig – may help build a bridge between the piratical anarchy of "free" content online, and the legalistic fortress of "digital rights management". Many writers might well choose to move, on a sliding scale, between non-profit and commercial works.
Universities, and other public bodies, could make it part of their mission not merely to publish the fruits of research in traditional formats but to create enclaves – digital, printed or both – where literature can take new forms and touch new readers. And writers tend to underestimate their own power to co-operate on sites that might combine paid-for downloads with free spaces to experiment. Why do authors, those wizards of imagination, find it so hard to grasp that they might soon opt for forms of direct distribution that let them sidestep the agent, the publisher and the retailer as well?
Those corporate publishers that manage to survive the digital hurricane might also wish to grow the bankable stars of tomorrow via investment in some literary R&D – even with bursaries and apprenticeships for newcomers. Unthinkable? Well, no rational being would have dreamed up the yearly scrum of pitch and hype that Frankfurt hosts next week.
Finally, in a better world than this, Google, Amazon and Apple would divert a tiny portion of the profits they make from the writing of yesterday and today into a trust to nurture the writing of tomorrow. Some hope. As any Meath monk could have told us, the gates of paradise swung shut long ago.
Autumn leaves on TV screens
While terrestrial TV remains pretty much a dead zone for new literature, books on screen do survive elsewhere. Razia Iqbal (right) has begun a second series of author interviews for the BBC News Channel. Talking Books hosts Michael Morpurgo this weekend (2230 on Saturdays and Sundays), with Jonathan Franzen and Salman Rushdie to follow next. On Sky Arts, The Book Show – presented by Mariella Frostrup - will return on 14 October, with Sebastian Faulks, Susan Hill and James Ellroy at the Cheltenham festival. But BBCs One and Two do next to nothing for millions of readers in return for our licence fee - a long-running disgrace. Jeremy Hunt, please note.
Sugar rush: Gordon, you're hired
Just as the victory of not-red-at-all Ed tilts the battle for Labour's soul away decisively from the Blairites, a heavyweight bruiser steps up to aim some haymakers at the foes of Gordon Brown. It would be otiose to say that Alan Sugar, in his new memoir What You See Is What You Get, doesn't pull his punches. When Brown nationalises Northern Rock, "some thickos in the media" dare to oppose it. Even "Joe Public" fails to see that only Gordon's "swift action" had saved the banks. Himself recruited as a government "enterprise tsar", Srralan (sorry, Lord Sugar) enjoys cosy chats at No 10 with "Gordon and Shriti" (adviser-turned-minister Baroness Vadera). They confirm his view of the former PM as "one of the most sincere and well-meaning people I've met... a serious thinker, not an actor" (Miaow, Tony). In 600-plus often viciously barbed pages, almost no one outside the Sugar family wins that kind of endorsement. Why bother with a new series of The Apprentice? We know who Srralan wants to hire.
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