Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Google Settlement

All summer, while I was firstly immersed in the short stories I'm writing for a new collection and then up a mountain in Wales and away from all things literary, I'd have a knot in my stomach as it suddenly surfaced: before September I was supposed to make a decision about the Google digitization deal: whether to opt out. But opt out of what exactly? And what would be the implications of doing that, of losing the chance of having my out-of-print works aired once more? But would failing to do so mean that I'd be losing the copyright I now owned and giving it away to Google? There was something I was supposed to do to prevent this happening... For some reason I just wasn't clear: a quick read of the sheet of information I'd had from the Writers' Guild didn't really seem to give me an answer. What was going on? I'm accustomed to being able to skim such things and quickly grasp the gist, but this time I couldn't - and a quick look on the internet left me no wiser. Was I losing it? I'd have to put some decent time aside to investigate the matter. And then I didn't have the time... and now the moment for opting out has gone.

Well, now the US Justice Department has come out against the settlement as proposed, and Nick Harkaway articulates precisely on his blog why we should be relieved. As he says now on the Guardian books blog, there are good things about Google's library plan, but what was worrying was the method. Most importantly, as he says on his blog:
Google’s actions here are a massive rights grab, but more than that, the structure of the agreement is opt-out. If you don’t, you’re in. That’s a massive change. The default position of copyright has always been that if you don’t have active permission, you can’t use the material...

It’s true that copyright law is also a tool used by large companies to make large profits. It’s true that it is badly in need of reform. But short-circuiting the legislative process in a Class Action Settlement and creating an opt-out situation… that ain’t reform. That’s just kicking down the fences. It invites a situation where a powerful entity can flatten a small rightsholder

You come down from the mountain, and the law has changed on the plain...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Truth About Publishing

From the horse's mouth, ie Daniel Menaker, ex Random House Senior Vice President and Executive Editor-in-Chief.

Some choice bits (which I know other blogs have quoted ):
Genuine literary discernment is often a liability in editors. And it should be -- at least when it is unaccompanied by a broader, more popular sensibility it should be. When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public....

Financial success in front-list publishing is very often random, but the media conglomerates that run most publishing houses act as if it were not...

It's my strong impression that most of the really profitable books for most publishers still come from the mid-list -- "surprise" big hits with small or medium advances, such as that memoir by a self-described racial "mutt" of a junior senator from Chicago. Somehow, by luck or word of mouth, these books navigate around the rocks and reefs upon which most of their fleet -- even sturdy vessels -- founder. This is an old story but one that media giants have not yet heard, or at least not heeded, or so it seems. Because let's say you publish a flukey blockbuster about rhinoviruses in Renaissance Italy -- "The DaVinci Cold" -- one year: the corporation will see a spike in your profit and sort of autistically, or at least automatically, raise the profit goal for your division by some corporately predetermined amount for the following year. (The sequel to or second book after that blockbuster will usually command an advance so large as to dim a publisher's profit hopes for it.) This is close to clinically insane business behavior and breeds desperation rather than pride and confidence in the people who work for you. Cut it out, I say, or get out of the business!...

Many of the most important decisions made in publishing are made outside the author's and agent's specific knowledge. Let's say your house publishes a comparatively modest number of original hardcovers every year -- forty. Twelve on the etymologically amusing "spring" list -- January through April; twelve in the summer; sixteen in the economically more active fall. Well, meetings are held to determine which of those books your company is going to emphasize -- talk about most, spend the most money on, and so forth. These are the so-called lead titles for those seasons. Most of the time, the books for which the company has paid the highest advances will be the lead titles, regardless of their quality. In many cases, their quality is a cipher at this planning stage, because their manuscripts haven't been delivered or even written or even begun yet. But why should the literary quality of writing figure heavily into this prioritizing? It's not as if the millions of readers being prayed for are necessarily looking for challenging and truly enlightening reading experiences.
But read the whole thing if you haven't already. Thanks to my colleague Sam Thorp for nudging me about it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Copyright, Open Rights and the Future of Publishing

Interesting article by Electric Literature's Andy Hunter on new media and the future for publishing, especially in the light of Peter Mandelson's proposed crackdown on internet file sharing and the protest against it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Looking Back to Look Forward

Some of the comment about the Booker shortlist last week seems to me symptomatic of our current obsession with time, as discussed recently by David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times, and of the 'global' and linear way we think about it. We see the world in terms of 'past' and 'present', it seems, and this as a bad/good opposition. I suspect that 'Degrus' 's comment on Sarah Crown's Guardian books blog that the list of six 'historical' novels is 'depressingly backward-looking' represents a common train of thought. As David Ulin points out, there's an obsession with contemporaneity, with the now. I confess I haven't read a single book on this shortlist (!), so I'm writing theoretically, but I'd like to pose the question: what is wrong with 'looking back'? Or to put it more strongly, isn't it damn well urgently important to look back? I hate to be cliched, but sometimes cliches seem to get forgotten, and wasn't there something someone said about remembering the mistakes of the past in order not to make them again...?! In other words, the present and future lie in the past, and as 'Hedgiecc', another Guardian blog commenter pointed out, what is important in historical fiction is to 'make the themes of the work relevant to contemporary concerns'.

Edited in: I wrote the above before I looked at today's Observer. While one article there reported on the fact that history is in danger of disappearing as a subject from our schools, another by Tim Adams bemoans our heritage culture as a retreat from the present and its concerns. I can't disagree with this last, and while there seems a paradox, I think in fact it's just the other side of the coin of our simplistic 'global' thinking, the one which alternatively holds the past as 'good' and the present as 'bad' (or at least, as he says, too difficult for contemplation). Adams acknowledges the respectable tradition of mining the past for 'stories that will illuminate the present', but believes that the 'current appetite for historical fiction' seems different, a part of this retreat from 'the here and now'. Well, it's true that you can't legislate for what people seek in books, but (while, as I say, I haven't yet read the current Booker shortlist) this seems in itself a bit of blanket/'global' condemnation of the shortlisted books.