Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Future of Publishing Depends on a Model that Pays Writers

Jason Epstein, publisher and one of the founders of The New York Review of Books, is relatively optimistic about the future of writing. In a recent article in the the NYRB and in an earlier memoir about the publishing business, he holds out hope that new technologies will allow the same kind of adventuresome support for writing that he and his colleagues provided in the mid-20th century.

The conglomerization of publishing has meant the quest for block buster best-sellers to the deteriment of anything else, he argues. But digital publishing opens the door for new voices:

"The cost of entry for future publishers will be minimal, requiring only the upkeep of the editorial group and its immediate support services but without the expense of traditional distribution facilities and multilayered management. Small publishers already rely as needed upon such external services as business management, legal, accounting, design, copyediting, publicity...With the Espresso Book Machine, enterprising retail booksellers may become publishers themselves, like their eighteenth-century forebears. "

That's a very encouraging view, but there is a big proviso: how to pay the writers. Epstein writes: "Funding for authors’ advances may be provided by external investors hoping for a profit, as is done for films and plays...(Succesful) authors, with the help of agents and business managers, will become their own publishers, retaining all net proceeds from digital as well as traditional sales. "

The ability to make a living (however modest) is absolutely essential to have a thriving culture. Scott Turow, Phil Aiken and James Shapiro drove home that point in a very interesting reflection on the way that playwrights began to be paid in Elizabethan times. Writing in The New York Times, they recount how playgoers paid to enter theatres, and the proceeds were split among the playwrights and performers.

"Money changed everything. Almost overnight, a wave of brilliant dramatists emerged, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. These talents and many comparable and lesser lights had found the opportunity, the conditions and the money to pursue their craft.

"The stark findings of this experiment? As with much else, literary talent often remains undeveloped unless markets reward it."

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