14 June 2005

Backwards Indeed

There's an interesting article in yesterday's Guardian on how backward publishers are… that reflects some rather interesting backwardness on the part of the article's author. Three hundred years' worth.

Paul Carr remarks:

I've always had a romantic notion of setting up a book publishing house. The Da Vinci Code, The Little Book of Chavs, My Story (the Paul Gascoigne story) — I defy anyone to buy those great literary works and not immediately fall under publishing's spell. But wait. Because there's a depressing side to publishing. The horrible truth is that, with a few exceptions, publishers are some of the most backward people in the world. Backward in developing new ideas (more Da Vinci clones please!), backward in getting books quickly from manuscript to publication (unless they're about dead popes or people's princesses) and above all, backward in embracing new technology. And so it was last week that a group of German publishers got themselves in a bit of a tizz over Google Print.

"Don't Publish and Be Doomed" (13 June 2005) (fake paragraphing removed for clarity).1

He was doing fine until he got to the last paragraph. The problem is that he's musing on the GooglePrint issue as if the only people who might object to it are the publishers. That would be true if we were talking about the film industry (the production company owns the copyright), and perhaps the recording industry (in most cases, the recording company owns the copyright in the performances). But it's not true in publishing—because frequently, and perhaps even most of the time (depending upon how one draws the boundaries of the "publishing industry"), the publisher does not own the copyright, nor the right to approve this kind of scanning. This is precisely the problem that led to Rosetta Books: Random House did not have electronic book rights itself, and therefore could not have authorized Google to Googleprint works by William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut (had Googleprint been started in the late 1990s).

Why is this proof of "backwardness"? Because once upon a time, the publishers did, as a matter of law, own all of those rights. Before, that is, the Statute of Anne. Of 1710.

And another thought for Mr Carr: Just how much of that advertising revenue do you think is going to make its way into authors' pockets? Oh. That's right. You're not exactly a disinterested party here. You are a publisher yourself. <SARCASM> I bet you wish you were an American publisher so you could impose WFH contracts, too. </SARCASM>

  1. Paul Gascoigne, for you ignorant Yanks who don't know, was a star football (soccer) player in the late 1980s and early 1990s who drank and frittered (literally—in a sport that emphasizes fitness, he ate himself into a serious weight problem with a love of fried foods and beer) away Joe Montana-level talent. He's the gentleman on the right in this photograph (I was actually at that match, although I didn't see the incident).