Friday, May 02, 2008

Literature for Free

I'm never immediately sure what position to take when there's an argument over making literature available for free. Jeanette Winterson, who begins her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit with a striking salute to mixed feelings, comes down with certainty against sites like Read It Swap It and Book Mooch, through which people swap books, paying for only the postage. 'Of course I want people to read my books,' she says, 'but I also want people to buy my books,' echoing Wendy Cope's complaint not so long ago that people were downloading her poems off the internet. If they want her poems, Cope said, then they should pay for them and buy her books.

Hm. I know where these authors are coming from. The notion that literature should be free is too worryingly close to the all-too pervasive assumption that authors shouldn't want to make a living out of what they do and should do it for love alone. As many have said before me, you wouldn't expect not to pay a doctor, would you, just because she's driven to do what she does? (And don't start telling me that doctors are useful and important to society and writers aren't, or I might come round and knock your philistine block off.) There is always the awful worry that such practices reinforce this assumption and thus endorse those who have the power to remunerate authors but far too often fail to do so (as happened recently in the Welsh National Library's digitization of journals).

It's interesting, though, that it's always those writers who are indeed making a living out of their writing who pop up to protest on these occasions: they are the ones who can afford to. It's not as if they are bravely speaking out for the rest of us, those of us who do not make a living out of our writing. Marketing budgets and decent advances are concentrated on the few to which these authors belong and publishers nurture their investments by nurturing those authors' careers, steering them into scarce review space and keeping their books in print. Those who don't belong to that happy band soon find their books out of print, and literature and music publishers (Winterson calls on the latter for comparison) hold inordinate powers of censorship over artists and authors, condemning many to oblivion. As publisher Philip Felstead tells the Guardian, schemes like these sites can combat that and 'disseminate around the world' books which may otherwise have disappeared for good: indeed, The Guardian tells us, the most popular book on Book Mooch is The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards (Penguin), a book which I at any rate hadn't previously heard of.

Apart from which, Book Mooch's founder John Buckman says, 'People who use the site become fans of books and end up buying more .' It's viral marketing, after all: maybe even Winterson and Cope have more to gain from these sites than to lose.
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