Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The technology of reading: a long view (ii)

My second eureka insight arising from Casson's Libraries in the Ancient World centres around the question of "who makes money from books?". Whilst we are accustomed to the norm that (some) authors, (most) publishers and (most) booksellers are able to make money out of words, it's salutary to note that this was certainly not the case in the ancient world. In all of the ancient societies reading and writing were high status activities, and anyone who was anyone sought to write down and disseminate their works. If we stop to think, we know this: after all the writings of Julius Caesar are still taught in those (largely private) schools that still have Latin and other ancient languages on the curriculum. And just as publishing one's thoughts was an indication of power, insight and status - so was ownership of and access to texts. It's interesting that one of the love gifts from Antony to Cleopatra (possibly the world's first celebrity couple) was a library; the 200,000 volume collection in the library at Pergamum to be precise. Casson comments that this could have been a shrewd cost-control measure on Mark Antony's part - the funds required to maintain such a resource were enormous. Nonetheless it's hard to imagine such a gift exchanging hands between twenty-first century A-listers as a token of esteem and devotion (although it's a fair bet that a few iPads have).

It seems the only people in the ancient world who made money from texts were booksellers and librarians. Authors received not a penny for their efforts (their rewards were indirect, on the way up the intellectual, social and political ladder). Most authors completed a master copy and employed scribes (usually slaves) to make a limited number of presentation copies which were then bestowed upon those individuals the author held in high regard (or wanted to ingratiate themselves with). Thereafter the text was considered to be in the public domain and anyone could make a copy. Indeed the earliest booksellers ran scriptoria - copy shops using human labour in place of any form of mechanised duplication. By the last century B.C. it was possible to buy most of the acknowledged "classics" from Rome's booksellers. Even if Cicero bemoaned in a letter to his brother that "For books in Latin I don't know where to go; the copies sold are so full of errors." Q.A. issues have obviously beset our industry from the outset.

Librarianship gradually became an valued occupation, sometimes carried out by highly educated slaves who were often manumitted for long and devoted service, and also by freemen. Indeed in Rome stewardship of the city's libraries became one of the recognised stepping stones on the fast-track civil service ladder to high office. So those who curated texts and those who organised the reproduction of texts were the only people who actually made a living from them. There were no agents brokering deals - and the author and the publisher were one and the same (unpaid) person.

In the West, the invention of the printing press in 1440 was what made publishing as a financial enterprise viable - and for centuries thereafter the printer and the publisher were one and the same (and sometimes even printer, publisher and author). Sir Walter Scott was one of the first writers to pen his way out of bankruptcy, and he is amongst those authors who had a financial involvement with his printing company. Even in the twentieth century, authors and Bloomsbury Group luminaries Virginia and Leonard Woolf established The Hogarth Press which (ironically given the current e-royalty furore) was eventually subsumed into Random House upon the purchase of Chatto and Windus in 1987.

All of which takes us full circle. No-one in our industry has an automatic right to make a living out of what we do. It is not enshrined in law (state or economic) that authors, agents, publishers or booksellers can and shall make a living and run economically viable businesses. We can only do so if we know exactly who values what we have and what we do; if we know how much they are prepared to pay, and this price is one that covers the costs of our activities. As Brian O'Leary (content work flow guru and founder of Magellan Media Partners) observed in a blog post today - what we really learn from the conflict between The Wylie Agency and The Random House Group is about the supply chain - and the fact that Amazon is entirely customer focused (which might explain the phenomenon a marketing director I know calls "the Circle of Hell known as Vendor Central"). Amazon understand that in a consumer society, serving the customer is where there's money to be made. Like those first bookshop owners in ancient Rome.

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