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The Death of Print, Generational Divides, and Why I’m Joining Writer’s Union of Canada

I went to quite a fascinating meeting last night, which I thought I’d share.

Sound poet and London institution, Penn Kemp, hosted a meeting of the The Writer’s Union of Canada (TWUC); about twenty writers attended.

Some were well known, such as Bonnie Burnard and Joan Barfoot, and most people in the room were members of TWUC. Some were journeymen like Mark Kearney (one of the Trivia Guys). Print prepares for the firing squad And some were writers like me, who are really just beginning their careers. It didn’t escape my attention that the youngest people in the room were not members, though that is to be expected, I suppose, because you must have a book published before you are eligible to join. (That said, most of the younger crowd had at least one published, so there must have been some other reason for our lack of membership.)

Ostensibly, the meeting was for members to have a chance to talk about the Google Book Settlement, but it was also a chance for the Chair of TWUC, a pleasant lady and an accomplished writer named Erna Paris, to make a short presentation about the activities of the union. Two things struck me about this remarkable and informative speech:

  1. Several times she mentioned how TWUC was just starting to get its head around this whole web-and-digital-media business;
  2. One of the main writer’s groups in Canada was JUST STARTING to get its head around this whole web-and-digital-media business.

Okay, actually four things struck me. TWUC is also doing some really important lobbying on behalf of writers on the copyright changes proposed by the Canadian government, and defending writers’ freedom of expression. Laudable work. The other main union activity is establishing programs to help older writers. This makes sense, as she mentioned that the membership of TWUC was aging. (Also valuable, necessary work.)

I didn’t hear anything about recruiting new scribblers. Or helping a younger generation of writers to get published so they would be eligible for membership, which would in turn drive up the union numbers and help support all the aging members and the nifty (necessary, good) programs for all the hackery in general, and the éminences grise in particular.

I was trying to make a good impression — which I realize I’m totally destroying now by writing this — so I didn’t say anything. This led us to the Google Book Agreement, and another astonishing discussion.

I don’t even pretend to understand all the complexities of this deal, but basically, here’s my take on it:

Google illegally scanned millions of books and posted them on the web (not in their entirety, but the are all searchable, ‘cause that’s the point.*)

Publishers and authors said, “hey”

Google gave a Jersey shrug and said: “what are you going to do?”

Publishers and authors said, “that was mean.”

Google said, “okay, tell you what. How about we give you some money for all this bootie? Here’s an agreement for you to sign.”

“And if we don’t?”

“Then you don’t get anything.”

Sound of grumbling, and (metaphorical, digital) pens scratching in their millions.

Aside: I don’t know, maybe I’m foolish, but I signed on as soon as I found out The Amadeus Net had been digitized. If nothing else, it makes the book more accessible, and there are at least links to where you can buy the book. For best-selling authors like Bonnie Burnard, I can see why I might not want to have my book up there. Of course, if you don’t sign on, what ARE you going to do? Sue Google on your own for its (admittedly flagrant, swash-buckling) breach of copyright?

This led to some reasonable questions, such as “what should I do?” and “what is this web thing I’m hearing all about?” Okay I’m making that last one up, but basically, this was the attitude expressed by many of the older folk in the room. Basically, this whole Internet thing is very inconvenient.

At this point, I felt it was my duty as a person who spends a lot of time thinking about the web (teaching, writing, playing) to mention that it might be a good idea for the union to do more than REACT to events. To plan ahead a little bit. I suggested that, perhaps (remember, I was trying to make a good impression), it would be a good idea for the union to form some partnerships with other writers groups and discuss how writers might be able to make a living after the book becomes a quaint artifact collected by tree-killing perverts. You know, get ahead of the curve a little bit.

This suggestion got sidetracked by a general grumbling about how the “free” culture of the Internet was such a problem, which is an argument I have some sympathy for – I would love to get paid for everything I write, but I don’t live in that world. I just missed it by a few years.

On the other hand, I get to do podcasts of my new novel, and get something as absurd and wacky as Marvellous Hairy in print, so I really can’t complain too much. But it would be nice to get paid for writing. Or at least make a living at it.

I’m pretty sure that it will be difficult to do it entirely on my own, though. So I’m going to join TWUC, and lower their average age by a hair’s breadth, in the hopes that I’ll be able to learn something from them about the business of writing, and at the same time, help other writers navigate the upheavals of the digital revolution.

Because I’m pretty sure about one thing: books may soon be eclipsed as the form of delivery, but people are still going to want stories – whether they’re in text, sound, pictures or beamed straight into our heads – and that’s still going to leave a place for the writers of the world.

So, the cheque is in the mail.

*assuming you don’t believe any of that nonsense about Google wanting to get a monopoly on all digital texts everywhere.

Thanks to Weevil for the photo. I added the text.

5 Comments

  1. “Because I’m pretty sure about one thing: books may soon be eclipsed as the form of delivery, but people are still going to want stories – whether they’re in text, sound, pictures or beamed straight into our heads – and that’s still going to leave a place for the writers of the world.”

    I agree completely, and this is what Michael Stackpole has been trying for the past year or so to educate writers about. I’m always kind of amazed at how far behind the curve a lot of writers still are. And publishers too. This Internet thing may be inconvenient, but it’s also rich in possibility if one is willing to get on the highway instead of complaining about all the dust. 🙂

  2. I’m not at all surprised by TWUC’s reaction to Google. I’ve been scratching my head over this whole issue for sometime, mostly in the realm of ‘what’s the big deal?’

    Google didn’t necessarily illegally scan millions of books, to my understanding. They scanned books that were in the public domain, for the most part, I believe. And if these texts, some of them venerable tomes, are in the public domain, that also means anyone has access to them.

    It must be remembered that at first the texts available at Google were there for anyone to read free of charge. That may have changed. I haven’t been there in some time.

    I also know Google opened its doors to publishers, allowing them to upload texts with limited previews, thereby creating a library of sorts, or a potential bookstore, where readers could go online and spend comfortable time scanning books they might consider purchasing, not much differently than spending time in said library or bookstore.

    For indie publishers like myself (Five Rivers), this offers a considerable boon, potentially gaining us access to millions of potential readers and buyers without having to spend millions in advertising dollars. To augment that potential Google then placed links to book retailers on each book’s page, allowing viewers to click through and purchase the book. I don’t see how that’s a bad thing. Google’s helping me to sell my books.

    Google also teamed, I believe, with the Guttenberg Project, an organization that believes it’s important to preserve for all time old and ancient texts so that information will never be lost again, in fact attempting to prevent another dark ages from occurring as did when the great library at Alexandria was burned by the invading Romans.

    Books are burning, at an alarming rate, quite literally because of acidic papers. Others are crumbling away simply because they are just very, very old and stored in conditions that aren’t sympathetic. Even if those books were stored in proper facilities, that would preclude the ability to actually access the information in those texts. Sort of defeats the entire purpose of the publication.

    What I think TWUC and others like them are mostly bleating about is greed. They perceive loss of income, when in fact statistics have proven that by offering people a taste, or even giving away copies of artistic work, your sales increase.

    So, yes, good for you Mark for deciding to work from the ‘inside’.

  3. I’ve joined TWUC a couple of times and then let it lapse. I found the fees high, although figured it was okay because I was helping to pay for some of their important lobbying. On the other hand one of the reading serieses that invited me for 2010 didn’t get the CC funding they asked for on my behalf, so I’ll be rejoining, as TWUC also provides reading fees. I’ll have to more than one reading at a series with sponsorship though, because the reader’s fee and the TWUC membership more or less cancel each other out.

    As to the internet, it’s been my mainstay for research since I moved to rural Ontario over twenty years ago. It’s where I research facts to include in both fiction and non-fiction, and where I research markets. Without it, I would’ve had to move back to a city, although even in those, most writers I know now do what I’m doing.

  4. I was consoled to hear Robert Silverberg at Worldcon describing the ups and downs he’d seen on a panel called “Second Time Around” … starting with the American News Company going out of business in 1959 or therabouts, and taking down the magazines that were his market with it … about writing those major literary SF novels in the late 60s and early 70s and having this comic book action movie called Star Wars come along and change the field again …

    I also have an anthology of Fin-de-Siecle women writers in which contains the sentence, “With changes in the economics of publishing in the 1890s, the traditional three-volume novel disappeared.”

    Plus ça change, eh?

    (Though Silverberg noted that in 1956 the writer might get $150 a story, which was the monthly rent of his 5 room apartment in Manhattan …)

  5. admin admin

    Very true Alison — thanks for dropping by so I could find your website. (It wasn’t on the SFC list.)

    Thanks also Sherry, Lorina and Ursula — insightful comments (as to be expected). I’m glad to hear I won’t be the only outlier in the union, Ursula.

    And Lorina, my first book is still commercially available, and neither I nor my publisher was contacted by Google about putting it up online. (And it’s actually possible to read the whole thing, if you don’t mind repeated searching.)

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