The future of books

The strike by the Writers Guild of America offers a glimpse into the future of intellectual property and how people get paid for cranial creativity. At the moment, 20 per cent of all U.S. homes have TiVo, which means TV programs can be downloaded and watched whenever the viewer chooses – without having to bother with the commercials. A recent New York Times article flat-out declared this means the end of television and drew a parallel to how vaudeville performers must have felt when talking movies arrived. If there are no eyeballs watching soap ads, why should Dove bother spending the money?

If that revenue dries up, the writers worry, how ever will they make money from digital distribution, downloading, filesharing, etc. of their work? The same sea change has hurt recording artists and record labels because most under-30s steal music so there is no revenue to share. CD sales are down one-third since 2000. If it can happen to television and music, it can also happen to books and their authors.

The first book I wrote in 1983, The Moneyspinners, fetched a retail price of $26.95. The Icarus Factor, published in 2004, cost $37.95. (I’m using the Bronfman book as the comparison, not the more recent Fantasy in Florence, which is smaller and costs less.)

Even if a book is discounted by the retailer my 15 per cent royalty remains measured from the list price. So over two decades, my per book royalty rose from $4 to $5.70, a 42.5 per cent increase that has not kept pace with inflation. Still, I don’t complain, because digital copies are not available for the taking. No one has been ripping books; e-book machines have not yet become popular.

This will not continue. There will come a time, likely within five years, that demand will grow for digital versions. No matter if my contract includes payments from e-books, who’s going to collect my royalties from the book brigands?

When that day comes, the published book as we now know it – with good cover design, a spine that cracks with joy when first opened, pages with vellum heft – will be available only in small-run artisan-style printings. Publishing, already a tough business in which to make money, will become even more difficult. Authors will join bootblacks as an endangered species. Maybe it’s just my own self-interest, but I’d like to think the world can do without another foolish reality show but would be the worse off if the next crop of young writers goes unpaid for producing the twenty-first century equivalents of To the Lighthouse, The Great Gatsby or Fifth Business.

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