Sunday, 3 February 2013

Project Gutenberg & The Value We Put On Words, by Pauline Fisk

Most people know, or at least have heard, about Project Gutenberg. Its mission is simple – to encourage the creation and distribution of e-books.  Up until now it’s focused on amassing works, even minor ones, of major authors whose books are in the public domain – a vast array of classics now numbering more than forty thousand. What it wants is to provide as many e-books, in as many formats, to be read world-wide in as many languages as possible.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  At a time when the libraries are taking a flattening, certainly in the UK, here’s an online project appearing to achieve some of what libraries first set up to do – to spread public literacy [rather than stymie it], break down barriers that prevent people from reading, and develop an appreciation of our literary heritage. At least if one has access to a computer. 

Well, the reason I’ve chosen Project Gutenberg as my subject this month is because last year they launched a new e-book enterprise called the Authors Community Cloud Library and [typically] I’ve only just come across it and [even more typically] I’m not quite sure what I think about it, and I’ve always found that writing about a thing is as good a way of working that one out as anything else. 
The idea is that authors can now upload and distribute their self-published works through a self-publishing portal, and have it made available to Project Gutenberg’s vast worldwide readership. Project Gutenberg has had authors clamouring for this for years apparently.  There’s even  a social networking component to it all, allowing for all the stuff we’re now so familiar with - star ratings,  comments, reviews, feedback etc. 
All of this would have come sooner, but the sudden death of Project Gutenberg’s founder [and leading light in the Cloud Library’s development], Michael S Hart, meant that the launch didn’t happen until the 4th July last year – a great date if you happen to be American, or interested in the fact that what many consider to be the first ebook [the digitized Declaration of Independence] appeared on that date in 1971.
There’s something for everybody here.  Project Gutenberg is happy because its Cloud Library enables it to add a contemporary component to its digital canon. E-authors are happy because their books are being made available to a whole new reading public and they don’t even have to give up their rights. And readers are happy because perhaps one of the biggest barriers Project Gutenberg smashes through is that of cost.  

Aye, there’s the rub, as Shakespeare might have said - especially if you’re a living author seeking to keep it that way by earning a crust. Maybe all those writers of classic literature who’ve been made available again by Gutenberg are cheering from their graves. But living authors? Self-published because the e-book market is an opportunity authors? Authors like me, say, still writing and trying to earn a living today – would I, seriously, want to be a part of this library?
This is a genuine question, not a rhetorical one. What do I think about books being for free?  Once my books are in the Cloud Library, readers can visit the site, search the archives and download those books AT NO COST.  Then again, on Amazon, readers can browse their free offers of the day [made available by e-authors who’ve signed up to Select] and download as many e-books as they want AT NO COST. 
NO COST is good, apparently.  Those of us authors who think otherwise have blinkered vision. NO COST has  a knock-on effect.  Giving away our books AT NO COST raises our profiles. Weird as it may sound it’ll actually sell our books.
Well, I haven’t seen much of that myself. On Amazon Select I’ve given away thousands of Midnight Blues and, apart from suggest I write the sort of books that have no worth, I don’t think it’s done anything for my profile.  It certainly hasn’t sold truck loads of books.
And if I don’t sell, why do I write? For those of you who think starving in a garret is part of the job, I’m not joking here. This is a serious and important question.  And equally important for those of us who are readers, what value do we put on the books we read?
I can only answer for myself.  I write to earn a living. I earn a living to write. I write because I have to; it sorts me out.  There’s no way I can separate these statements.  Writing stabilizes me.  Time and again it literally saves me.  And it sets me free. I write fiction because I see life in terms of story, and stories are what drive me.  I write non-fiction for much the same reason. There’s a story in everything, and I love finding the words that tell it – and the word ‘telling’ here is crucial.  Telling implies a recipient. These stories aren’t just for me.  They’re stories that need sharing, and I have faith to believe that, though I don’t always get things right, what I’m sharing is at least worth listening to.  
So if the answer to my first question is to tell, and to be listened to what’s the answer to the second question, the one about the value of books?  Well, if a writer’s worth listening to, they’re worth paying for.  It’s as simple as that.  The value I’d put on, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, would be equal to what I’d pay for a Picasso if I could afford to buy one.  I could hang them both up side by side in my very own gallery and they’d be each other’s equal.  And the same for other books too.  You must know what I mean. Those books that have moved you and changed your lives are of inestimable worth.  And, when you think of it like that, it’s not just the 99p end of the e-book market that’s a giveaway - even a hefty £25 hardback price is a good deal.
At least, that’s what I think.  What do you think?  And look out for my post next month when I examine the other side of this coin – if an author’s work is of value and should be paid for, is there ever a place for giving words away?


Anne Cassidy said...

Terrific post, Pauline. It raises many questions. I have no answers though.

Joan Lennon said...

I didn't know about this either. Surely at the least a system like PLR would be more fair?

Penny Dolan said...

A wise post, Pauline, and no I can't answer the questions either. There's faulty logic to the "everything must for be free" viewpoint.

Elen C said...

I was talking about this just last night with a friend. He had loaned me the first in a very long running comic series. I'd loved it. It cost £15 to buy both pb and ebook version. I'd been ordering the subsequent editions from the library, which took ages. An online library would have been an amazing option. But I worried about the comic producers making money. My suggestion was, as this is a very long running series, maybe the first one could be free, the next 3 at 50p, the next 3 at £3 until the most recent are £15. So, a long tail back catalogue makes money, but you preserve the spike in earnings from new launches. Doesn't have to just be for series, any new publication by a writer you love would be full-price for, say, 2 years.
Just an idea we batted around which the rugby was on...

Maxine Linnell said...

Yes, thanks for a thoughtful post, and a big question. Have people always thought it was easy to write a good book? Maybe it is for some, but for most people it's a long hard slog, often with the cost of doing some training involved, even if, as you say, writing holds us together. Would anyone think it was easy to paint a Goya, or make a David, or do brain surgery?

I think it's great that the classics are being made available freely. But I'm a bit dubious about any boost in profile or sales from giving away work for free - except for the very few. Giving away work for charity etc is a different matter.

It seems everyone wants to write, and so maybe the writing gets devalued. Many writers seem to have to spend so much of our time on 'writing-related activity' in order to live that there's not much time to write.

On the other hand...I'm just delighted every time I hear of someone I haven't met reading my books. I love that they're freely available in the library. I'm a huge library fan, and user.

Lots of think about...

Stroppy Author said...

All very pertinent, Pauline.

I have been using Project Gutenburg since the 1980s. Their aim is to make everything available in electronic format, rather than specifically as e-books (as the project long pre-dates e-books as we now think of them). In the days when I was doing serious literary scholarship, it was a godsend. For my PhD I had to read everything to find stuff, as the books weren't available in electronic format (too obscure for PG then). But last summer, working on Oliver Twist, it was brilliant to be able to find a remembered phrase, or all instances of a word, instantly.

As for the Cloud initiative, I think the clue is in what you say, Pauline - authors had been clamouring for it. Not readers. Authors who have failed to find a publisher and want a readership. Not the authors that the public is rushing to read.

Remember that this is no kind of a grab - no one's books will suddenly appear there if the author doesn't volunteer the books.

I agree that free books devalue our currency. I would not do a free promotion of Amazon - it sends all the wrong messages. Then again, I don't use free e-books either - even of out-of-copyright classics. I'd rather pay a small amount for one that is more likely to be competently put together. My time is too valuable to read free crap.

I agree that free e-books are a huge worry. But then again - I spend all day listening to radio 3, which is free music. If I want a special music-time, I'll go to a concert. If I really like something, I'll buy it so that I can listen to it when I want to. Free works alongside paid-for in lots of fields. Movies - I don't have to pay £11 to see a movie, I can wait for it to be on TV. But I often don't. We could all walk or hitchhike - but we don't, we pay for transport.

Some people will use free books because they are poor or because they are stingy. But how many books would they have bought anyway?

I agree with Elen that making older books in a series cheap or free to attract people to later, costlier books is the way to go.

Dan Holloway said...

I think what you say in your final paragraph is very important. Value is something very subjective, but something that is, contrary to scaremongering, important to fans everywhere. I also think you make an essential point that we are readers as much as writers, and I think (very much just my opinion) as writers our duty is very much towards current and future readers and our wider culture. My problem with steering clear of projects like this is that I think I'd want to remove any possible barrier to people reading anything - it is certainly true that not everyone can get to the internet by a long chalk, and that is a key thing we need to address, but widening access to as much of culture as we possibly can is, for me, a key social and political goal for our age. As long as we recognise that things like this are only part of it, along with access to the education that will help people read, access to the channels of distribution that will enable all social groups to read similar voices to their own, being relentless in the battle against censorship both direct and indirect, then I think it's a fabulous thing.
My personal preference at the moment would be for works to be downloadable for free with the opportunity for those who are able to pay to be able to contribute what they think the book is worth to them - not just at the point of download but after they've read the book, and for many years to come as books become more and more important to them. In the long term, we really need to have a full and frank conversation about how art is funded

Mary said...

thanks so much for your thoughtful commentary on this subject. As a writer who has worked many, many years on my craft, I hope that I have something to offer readers which is more valuable than some book that can be downloaded free from the internet.
Does having a lot of free reading material available free, reduce the demand for better writing? Like everything else, some people will demand high quality while others are satisfied with mediocre. I don't have any answers, but I wish i could make a living writing.

adele said...

I have no answers either and don't know anything about this but free books is something I find myself instinctively rebelling against. Why should books be singled out? WHY should the labour that goes into books be unpaid when the labour that goes into sewing a dress, making a meal or serving in a restaurant be rewarded? Something wrong there. I think music, art, ballet, painting etc should be paid for. And books too. I'm happy to pay for books I want to keep. Those who can't afford to should use the libraries much more than they do! FREE BOOKS. FREE TO ORDER. Brilliant.

If anyone can think of another way for writers to make some dosh, then maybe things would be different. But as I say, I have no answers.

adele said...

I have no answers either and don't know anything about this but free books is something I find myself instinctively rebelling against. Why should books be singled out? WHY should the labour that goes into books be unpaid when the labour that goes into sewing a dress, making a meal or serving in a restaurant be rewarded? Something wrong there. I think music, art, ballet, painting etc should be paid for. And books too. I'm happy to pay for books I want to keep. Those who can't afford to should use the libraries much more than they do! FREE BOOKS. FREE TO ORDER. Brilliant.

If anyone can think of another way for writers to make some dosh, then maybe things would be different. But as I say, I have no answers.

Pauline Fisk said...

Thank you everybody for your thoughtful replies. Interesting idea, Elen, though I have to say, after giving it much thought, that I’m completely with Adele on the subject of free services. Nobody would expect to be served for free in a restaurant or be given free frocks in H & M, and I can’t imagine it happening either. No sane company would see that as making good business sense. They may offer deals – but free? I don’t think so.

Mary, I definitely think there’s something in what you say about the ready availability of free material reducing the demand for better writing. I was thinking along similar lines this afternoon in my local Starbucks, watching people going in and out of Waterstones across the road. It seemed to me there was a link between valuing books more highly as readers and valuing them as writers too.

If books are being hoovered up by readers who acquire them in mass, either online for free or in endless three-for-two giveaway deals [how many of those third books do you ever read?] there’s a danger that writers will only write books fit for hoovering up. Not because those authors are lazy but because, slowly but surely, they – like everybody else – will forget quite how powerful and wonderful a book can be. There’ll be a cultural shift. Books as treasures won’t be expected and books as treasures won’t be what anybody gets – or, eventually [unfortunately] writes.

Dan, I’m interested in what you say about removing barriers. I too want the greatest number of people to read books, but I want them to value them too and sometimes, strangely, barriers can be an aid in that process rather than a hindrance. Not that I’d deliberately put up barriers between people and books, but my own experience was of growing up in a totally non-bookish family, seeing my school friends with books, not having any myself – and yet coming to love and value them more than almost anything else. As a child, the library was as close as I ever got to books, but it wasn’t until I went out to work [not university; I was the girl, my brother could be scrimped and saved to send, but not me] that I owned my own books. The result of this massive barrier in my life, I say to this day, wasn’t to disadvantage me but to give me a very special sense of the value of each and every book I acquired. When I finished reading my very own copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, I took it to bed with my and held it in my arms. I literally couldn’t bear to let it go. The world was a better place for such a book being in it – AND I OWNED IT.

We need to get back that sense of wonder. That sense that, yes, you could hang a book in a gallery alongside a great painting and they would be each other’s equal. Readers need to learn to respect books. By this, I don’t mean put more reviews on Amazon, or talk about books in more book clubs, but to respect the whole IDEA of a book – to see it [whether in paper form or on a reading device] as something really special, the equal of any other art or craft. And they need to learn to respect authors too. I’ve read some terrible things about authors in Amazon forums [‘why don’t they get back in their pens?’ was a typical example]. But perhaps if authors are giving away their books for free, and doing so in vast numbers, they’re bringing this on themselves.

Perhaps authors need to get back their sense of wonder too. But that’s another subject. I’ve already gone on long enough.

Dan Holloway said...

yes, I absolutely take your point - where I'm thinking of barriers getting in the way are with people who have no way of hoping to buy books, and no access to libraries for whatever reason. It's true that much of the globe also lacks the internet, but telling those with an hour a week's access to a communal internet in the barrios of Mexico City or the remote villages of the Congo that the knowledge (and associated power) contained in books is not for them seems to me to be very dangerous - I think many of us will always for the foreseeable future be in a privileged position in the debate in relation to them, and as such I would find it very hard to speak up in justification of denying them access.