Thursday, 4 March 2010

Good News from the Book Liberation Front – Michelle Lovric

I opted out of the Google Book Settlement for the same reason I became a vegetarian: not for my personal well-being, but because I couldn’t stomach the exploitation of innocent creatures.

Sometimes I worry that compassion fatigue has set in, now that everyone knows about the Google Settlement, by which the internet supremo (annual profits of $21.79 billion) seeks to ‘streamline’ the copyrights of authors (whose annual profits rarely trouble the tax man).

And if Google does get away with a ‘peaceful liberation’ of the frontiers of copyright, what next? History teaches us that appeasing Google will only inflate Google’s power. In a darkened future, Google might end up deciding which literature is fit to live – the criterion logically being whether its continued existence is profitable to Google – and which literature is to face … well, another fate.

But who cares?

After all, the only people who stand to be hurt are authors?

I believe not. Something that seems to be largely forgotten is that whatever is taken away from authors by Google might also be ‘liberated’ from publishers and booksellers. Google’s streamlined access to copyrighted works will inevitably – because of the complications and obscurities about what constitutes ‘an edition’ or 'an orphaned work' – include books in print, books that are in publishers’ warehouses and in bookshops.

What do we authors and publishers and booksellers have to help us in this situation? We don’t have might or much money, but we have wit. And creativity. Even if Google were to devour all our rights and spew them out digitally on flat screens – we still have a trump card, an option, a way forward.

This is for the publishers to make printed books that are indispensable to people’s happiness. Printed books can survive if we emphasise and reinforce the positive difference between on-your-screen and in-your-hand.

How to do this?

Not with price. Each printed book is a palatable pellet that distils years of work by many individuals: writer, illustrator, designer, editor, copyeditor, picture researcher, publisher, production team, printer, transporters, warehousers, sales reps and booksellers. All these people physically and mentally handle the printed book along its way. Therefore a printed book can never compete on cost against an automated free download, with the ‘sale’ supported by online advertising.

So the way forward – for those who want to preserve printed books – is to emphasise the value and desirability, rather than cheapening the price.

Beautifully produced books are easier for booksellers to hand-sell to three-dimensional human beings, many of whom, bless them, still love to feel a book in their hands, turn the pages, sniff the paper, and display them proudly on a shelf, curl up with them, take them to bed, even.

It really makes sense. Are books not the pathway to the imagination? Shouldn’t that pathway be a delight to go along? Shouldn’t it appeal to the senses? Shouldn’t it show, not tell, about the promise of pleasure inside the covers?

My background is in book packaging. I’ve spent most of my professional life designing and producing books. Lately, I’ve noticed with delight that fiction too is receiving a makeover in the hands of certain publishers. I’m lucky that my publishers, Orion and Bloomsbury, are thinking this way.

The cover of The Undrowned Child is printed on paper so soft that it seems to have been aged by floating the book down the Grand Canal for a couple of centuries before being hand-dried by blind nuns in the shade of an ancient convent. Orion didn’t work with the usual stock photo of Venice. They commissioned brand-new cover art in unmistakeable Venetian colours. They gold-embossed the lettering in a font that perfectly recreates the 1899 setting. The flaps are satisfyingly – no, wantonly – wide. The pages are a classy cream. The boards are 3mm thick.

Almost none of the above can be experienced on screen or as a download.

And that’s not all. Inside, Orion gave The Undrowned Child marbled endpapers. There are illustrated chapter-heads. They added the luxury of a specially drawn map, on which I worked with the artist for many weeks. There’s factual endmatter that could be material for a school project. Nearly all of these extra values are also embedded in the paperback.

And for my next novel for adults, The Book of Human Skin, Bloomsbury is black-dipping the fore-edges, a luxury in production terms. It’s a book about the nature of evil, something made strikingly apparent in design and production. The Book of Human Skin is set in Venice and Peru. So the main part of the cover simulates a Peruvian folk fabric in rich matt-laminated red. This fabric is ‘torn’ to reveal glimpses of flesh, selectively UV-glossed so it glistens in the light: an effect that perfectly expresses the many different fates of fragile human skin in this novel.

Such production values are coded messages to us authors, telling us that we are worth something to our publishers. More importantly, they make a difference in the bookshop, where an author’s commercial reputation stands or falls by the caring hand of the bookseller.

It is that crucial bit of difference that makes a bookshop delightfully different from the internet. There are book-loving people in bookshops, hand-selling books to other people.

Beautifully produced books are worth almost nothing to Google.

That pleasure is reserved for human beings.

Michelle Lovric's website

PS Apologies for the accidental premature posting yesterday, especially to those who were kind enough to leave comments that were lost when I deleted. Note: this post is slightly different from the draft.


Elen Caldecott said...

What a brilliant post. Made me want to go and caress endpapers and lick my bookshelf.

Maybe I should have dusted it first.

michelle lovric said...

Dear Elen, don't feed bad or think you are alone there. There was a 17th century Holy Anorexic called Veronica Giuliani who atoned for her sins by licking all the cobwebs out of her cell. She was also the kind of girl who wouldn't eat her soup unless there was cat vomit in it. (And yes, she's in The Book of Human Skin.

Jeff Cotton said...

I read recently that a novel makes on average £10,000 for its writer, for maybe two year's work (but maybe not 9-5 Mon-Fri!)

The threat of e-books is still low though, I think, especially as they cost as much as the real and strokeable and sniffable thing. What's my incentive?

Sarah Molloy said...

At last a passionate defence of the book in all its glory. And a ringing denunciation of Google's iniquitous behaviour which is a classic example of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
There's much that's potentially good about e-books - even if only the possibility of not having to go on holiday weighted down with suitcases full of books - but nothing compares with the beauty of a room full of books or the joy of curling up on a wet Saturday and losing yourself in the pages of a favourite novel.
Books can give us the ideas and the words to voice those ideas, but they remain silent in their own defence. So a much needed and welcomed post.

Nick Green said...

Michelle, it just goes to show that it takes all sorts - I, in contrast to Veronica Guiliani, will not eat my soup if there is cat vomit in it, but then perhaps I am just eccentric. Cobwebs are nice though.

michelle lovric said...

Cobwebs are of course cat candyfloss, Mr Catman. Rose la Touche regularly hoovers up all ours.

daniel said...

When The popular comment layout is common, so it is easily recognized scanning to post a comment. If the comment section is in a different format, then I am going to spend more time trying to decipher what everything means.

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Anonymous said...

很棒的分享~希望不會打擾您 ........................................

Stroppy Author said...

So, does Rose vomit cobwebs in the soup? Great post, Michelle. Again. Whatever I said yesterday - that again.

Tomjay said...
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