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Cinemas. Remember them? Dark places smelling faintly of popcorn and assorted confectionary, where people traditionally gathered to watch movies together on large screens? If you were lucky enough to catch Greta Gerwig’s recent dazzling version of the classic Little Women before such venues were shuttered, you’ll doubtless remember the scene towards the end of the film where the life of the writer Louisa May Alcott merges with the life of the character she created, Jo March.
Why did the scene where Jo is negotiating a deal for her first novel with the New York publisher, Mr Dashwood, where she insists on keeping hold of her copyright and holds out for a larger share of the royalties, seem so redolent of the zeitgeist in 21st century publishing? It isn’t just about a woman’s bid for a greater financial share of the pie or creative independence in a male dominated world (indeed, in the film she is asked by Dashwood to have her central character marry at the end of the book). It also throws a spotlight on the issue of ownership and copyright. Or, seen from the other end of the telescope, what must a publisher do to illustrate their value if they are going to acquire and exploit the rights to an author’s work rather than have them remain with the creator?
This has been thrown into even greater relief these days with writers expected not just to deliver their manuscripts and be directed to speak at a launch event, but to commit to constant marketing and PR and engaging with their readers in a way that would have been utterly alien to Louisa May Alcott in mid-19th century America.
‘What must a publisher do to illustrate their value if they are going to acquire and exploit the rights to an author’s work rather than have them remain with the creator?’
Writers care about their rights. Publishers must never forget that they need to be transparent and communicative about all aspects of the process of taking a book to market. Not least to demonstrate how much value their expertise and experience adds via a myriad of people and processes.
As John Howkins, author of Invisible Work wrote recently, there is a danger of a ‘wisdom not expressed’ in publishing, wherein authors and their books are limited by publishers’ decision not to share the knowledge of highly experienced professionals. Howkins continued, saying ‘as an author, I would relish such input from the time I start to think about a book to when it gets published’.
‘In the current climate, where meetings are conducted via zoom and publishers have left their offices, authors are working more independently than before, and could potentially lose trust in the traditional model as they shoulder more of the weight of the publishing process.’
If publishers do not prioritise the sharing and transparency of knowledge more and more authors will choose to take a chance and go their own way, preferring to collaborate with project managed freelance teams for a greater percentage share and ownership, even if they potentially miss out on the scalability of the traditional publisher sales and distribution machine.
In the current climate, where meetings are conducted via zoom and publishers have left their offices, authors are working more independently than before, and could potentially lose trust in the traditional model as they shoulder more of the weight of the publishing process. The question is, will this shift in emphasis ultimately make publishers more transparent and communicative when the dust settles or not.