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?