Today on his blog Robert J. Sawyer asks something very interesting about the Kindle 2’s ability to read books aloud: what’s going to happen to audiobook rights?
As Rob points out, Kindle 2’s ability to read any book aloud turns every book into a de facto audiobook…which probably isn’t a big deal for most Kindle users but is a very big deal for creative types who subsist on royalties from their work, including payments for subsidiary rights like audiobook versions. Amongst his other revenues for 2008, Rob points out in his post that he made five-figures just from audiobook rights, so you can see how this is a substantial amount of money.
Now, Rob’s career is (no pun intended) light-years ahead of mine but his kind of success is something I aspire to. But I’m forced to wonder (yet again) whether we’re coming to the end of the era when writers can earn a living from their writing and its royalties. That era really is a new and perhaps short-lived phenomenon, dating back (so far as I can tell) to around 1886, when the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works was signed.
Before that artists of all kinds had to rely on patronage of a royal court, an aristocrat, or some bored rich person with a lot of money and an interest in the arts. Once authors did start to be paid royalties by publishers the patchwork of copyright laws then in place meant that just because your book was published in one place it wasn’t protected everywhere.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Samuel Clemens for the novel I’m planning and this makes me think of him. Writing as Mark Twain, Clemens was one of most popular authors of his day, but he didn’t make his living primarily from his writing. Partly this was because he married rich, but he was terrible with money and burned through his wife’s inheritance rather quickly. And when he did publish articles they were either quickly picked up and reprinted in other newspapers without pay. Clemens hated Canadians because a publisher in Montreal would produce pirated copies of his latest book in Canada (then under British copyright law) and flood the US market (under American copyright law) with cheap copies and undercut Clemens’ legitimate sales. He rightly blamed the illegal Canadian edition for the poor sales (and poor profits) from the first edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He took to personally arranging simultaneous British editions of his future works so that his rights would be assured against pirates hiding in the far-flung corners of the Empire.
As Ron Powers relates in Mark Twain: A Life, his wonderful biography of Clemens:
“If I can make a living out of plays, I shall never write another book,” he advised Moncure Conway as Christmas  approached. He had convinced himself that copyright law would never protect him; and there was no point in emptying out his soul for the profit of Canadian thieves. (p. 397)
Twain did turn to the theater as a source of cash, but mostly he made his several fortunes (he kept squandering them) as a public speak and lecturer. Though he grew to hate the constant travel and time apart from his family, Twain nevertheless had to continue his speaking tours for decades simply to make a living. Indeed, the only way he could clear the debt from a series of disastrous business ventures was to spend 10 years in European exile living cheaply, and another year doing a round-the-world speaking tour.
But with the rise of digital and the easy replicability of everything–be it music or books–the ability to pirate copies or to use copies in way not originally covered by publishing and/or rights agreements is easy and widespread and likely to get worse. And so I wonder if we’re not moving backwards to a kind of digital wild frontier time in copyright like the one in which Clemens lived.
Will writers in the (not too distant) future get a flat fee or a flat royalty rate for any and all rights associated with their work? And given the theory of the long-tail, will those rights be signed away in perpetuity? Will we need to find rich patrons of the arts to fund us and our work again?
I’d better brush up on my public speaking…