Why Writers Should Publish Their Work With Open Books

Written by admin on March 29th, 2011

Why should a writer make the conscious decision to publish his work with a publisher that intends to give that work away to the public free of charge?

For that matter, why should any publisher make the conscious decision to give away its product? Or its investment, even if that investment is primarily in time and/or labor?

To answer both questions, allow me to cite the current strike by the television and screenwriters’ union now underway in the United States. The reason that the writers and their support teams are striking is that they want to be paid for their work (they are asking for only a few cents per dollar made by studios and producers) as it becomes available on the Internet. They understand that within a very short time all content now available only on television will be predominantly available online, and they further realize that if they are not entitled to royalties from that medium, then they will be working for free.

The fact is that some television and screenwriters already have such clauses in their contracts, but it is also true that most have never collected a single penny of that money from the studios, so they too are supporting the striking writers.

Now, let’s suppose, for a moment, that the studios give in to the demands of the writers and agree to pay them a percentage of revenues derived from airing shows online. Will this solve the problem at hand? I maintain that it will not. Because what is to prevent someone from simply copying the material aired online and distributing it (either for a profit or free of charge) to anyone who wants to view it? The traditional answer to such a question is the enforcement of copyright law; but anyone who has even a modicum of experience on the broadband-delivered Internet understands that such laws are, by the nature of the medium itself, not enforceable. Even if a few of the pirates could be caught and brought to justice, and an example made of them, the vast majority of those engaging in distributing content illegally would escape detection. The reality is that it is simply impossible to police the entire worldwide web for piracy. And as more and more content is distributed freely to consumers, the financial value of that content must decline, until the monetary value is, in the end, zero.

So why not give away the content from day one? Why not scrap the old system of royalty payments for writers (and other artists) in favor of a system more appropriate to the evolving medium?

That is exactly the position of Open Books. It is also the position of The Real News. In fact, many forward-thinking organizations already understand that the way writers and artists are traditionally paid must change. The prolific and pedestrian nature of online productions (it is not overstating the issue to assert that many consumers have already abandoned their televisions, or the local book barn, or the cinema multiplex in favor of the Internet as their primary source of receiving media (and we are admittedly still in the very beginning stages of user-supplied content, which even such traditional networks as CNN already solicit and embrace), demand a radical re-thinking of business models that are now essentially outdated. Whether such content is news, or the latest political book, or a literary novel, or even the latest sit-com or satire, traditional sources of production will no longer maintain the exclusivity they have long enjoyed, and that’s good news for everybody except those traditional producers. Quantity will surely increase; quality will command a premium from consumers. Variety will thrive, even as price declines.

Now, back to the initial question posed by this article: Why should writers publish their work with a publisher that intends to give it away free to the public?

The answer is, if not obvious, certainly inescapable: a system such as the one employed by Open Books (or by The Real News, or even by the Public Broadcasting System in the U.S.) – which is to develop and maintain a network of voluntary contributors, or patrons – is not only inevitable, but desirable, because it encourages the reconstitution of quality content (and patrons will presumably demand quality – or at least value – in return for their contribution), and because the producer is no longer responsible or beholding to shareholders. Under such a business model, the content comes first; funding for that product is voluntary and comes after production, and even after distribution and consumption.

I think one can see why the growth of the Internet – especially now that it is supplied at more than a megabyte per second – is sounding the death bell for the royalty system of payment for content providers. Even as screenwriters strike for a miniscule portion of an ever-shrinking pie, many forward-thinking producers of content are already embracing new ideas and new models of compensation. Open Books, for example, is able to pay writers 25% of revenues derived from the publication of their work – three and a half times what they might earn from conventional royalties (not to mention distributing an additional 25% back into the arts community, as well as funding literacy programs). In addition, Open Books’ online publications are distributed immediately and instantly to a world wide audience at virtually no cost (in comparison with paper book publishers that must pay ever-increasing costs for materials and labor and transportation and damaged products and returns and recycling), and the potential readership is many times greater than it is with even the largest conventional book publishers. Not to mention that the possibility for publicity is also many times greater, and many times cheaper to initiate. The only catch is this: Will the consumer voluntarily support the publisher, the product, and the artist, or will he simply consume the product without paying anything? After all, there is nothing to stop him from doing so, just as there is nothing to stop pirates from appropriating content once it is available online.

We at Open Books believe that consumers are indeed willing to pay for what others make available, providing it supplies him with the type of content (and the quality) he wants. In fact, this system has been working for PBS (Public Broadcasting System) and for NPR (National Public Radio) in the US for years. The Real News (a new, viewer supported online news channel in Canada) is in the process of launching its effort to coincide with the 2008 presidential campaign in the USA. Here at Open Books – new to this model as we are – we have already received unsolicited donations from those who appreciate the books we have thus far published online and offered for free. And in fact, everyday we find new viewers visiting our web site that have arrived there by using keyword searches containing the words ‘free’ and ‘books’ and ‘online’. Even as we navigate such uncharted waters, we already understand that finding our audience is more a matter of ‘connecting the dots’ than anything else. We believe that the desire for quality content has never been greater, even if it remains for the time being underground.

We also believe that the medium itself has determined an inevitable new reality – in content, in presentation, in promotion, and most of all in payment to producers. We at Open Books invite all writers – previously published or not, unknown or famous – to consider publishing online and offering their work to the public free of charge. We believe that payment will not only be forthcoming, but that the level of quality will experience an unprecedented reconstitution. And that is indeed the best of all worlds!

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