Friday, 12 October 2007

Is the web making or breaking writers?

That’s a good question, but not one I came up with. It’s the cover line on a magazine for writers put out by the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society.

This is a great organisation. ALCS does the business by finding out who owes us cash. There are obscure sources of income such as royalties from photocopying, which were new to me. The Germans seem particularly assiduous in recording when they photocopy someone’s book. Why, I made £37 in the last quarter that way.

The ALCS magazine covers some good stuff too, but I was frustrated when I tried to find the piece that accompanied that coverline. I had to play hunt the article.

You get this too often with B2B titles, and occasionally with consumer ones. They put something on the cover with one line, then hide it by having an entirely different description of the piece on the contents list, and use yet another tack with the actual headline. Sainsbury’s Magazine used to be great at this, but then they spoilt the fun by putting a little asterisk in the contents against things they’d plugged on the cover.

Anyway, eventually I found what I concluded, by a process of elimination, was probably the article. It was a column headlined Reading versus Cyberspace.

Unfortunately, the column didn’t answer the question posed on the cover. Or not in the way that I had hoped.

I’d hoped to find an article that would look at whether writers benefited or suffered because of the web. Did people read more or less, did writers now get paid more or less, were they more or less likely to get published…that sort of thing.

Instead, the piece was about how distracting the web can be and how, if you are a writer, you need to get away for the weekend to somewhere without broadband and mobile phone signals to get any work done

An OK column, but not the one I wanted.

So let’s think about writers, journalists – and creative people generally – and ask whether the web is benefiting them.

Is the web making or breaking musicians, for example? A great deal of their work gets stolen, that’s for sure. The band Radiohead has made radioheadlines, and other sorts, by telling people to pay what they think the music is worth

Other bands give their music away and are convinced that musicians’ income in future will be from live performances and merchandising.

Is there any parallel here for writers and journalists?

Well, it doesn’t seem you can sell your content online, if you are a newspaper or magazine. The few newspapers that have tried it are thinking again and removing the barriers. So you need other revenue streams: e-commerce, charging for what is really valuable, or wrapping web access up in subscription charges for the print edition. Some B2B magazines seem to be making the latter work.

The question is: How are we writers going to get paid? We know we are going to be read - the rising popularity of websites is testament to that.

What I think we need is cyber fee collecting, a cyberspace ALCS that spiders the web, just like Google, matching content with its creator. Then, however the site makes money – through advertising, subscription or whatever - we the content creators don’t fill it for free.

The individual fees will be tiny, just like those for photocopying books. But they mount up – maybe to as much as £37.

I think it will work. If a site has an income, it can afford to pay the content provider a few pence. And, just like the newspaper column serialised around the world that picks up a relatively small sum from each paper that prints it, the sum total can be substantial.

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