The digital revolution is impoverishing writers (Scottland)

goodlife guide

By Michael Elcock


Cailean Gallagher’s article (20 April) about Alasdair Gray, socialism and public libraries was an interesting one. I want to comment on the libraries’ component of it because that is changing, and very, very quickly.

Our libraries contain books that have been written by writers, and those writers give their permission for libraries to lend their books, free of charge, to their members. This system is known as Public Lending Right (PLR), and the writers are paid a very small amount in compensation for allowing their work to be loaned in this way. I don’t know what the average payment is to writers in the UK, but it is a small amount, and it is under serious attack from the UK government.

Libraries all over the world are rapidly increasing their digital collections, and most libraries will have tens of thousands of eBooks. Some libraries in the United States have actually dispensed with ‘paper’ books, and have replaced their stacks with computer terminals. (Don’t ask what will happen when the power ultimately goes out…)
Most libraries in the UK contain digital collections, and the books in them are emphatically not limited to the books that adorn the library’s shelves. The digital books that libraries purchase for their ‘virtual’ stacks are put together in batches of several thousand eBooks at a time by what the trade calls ‘aggregators’. These aggregators sell electronic books to libraries all over the world for lots of money. Very, very little (none in many cases) of that money goes to the writers – without whom the aggregators would have nothing to sell.

The aggregators sell books to libraries on either a ‘single user’ or a ‘multiple user’ basis. The libraries pay more for the latter. The ‘multiple user’ sale means that the library essentially purchases a book – say, Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ – that it can lend out to thousands (or millions) of library members at once; on the same day, in the same moment. With digital books, the technology exists to enable libraries to do this. Now add in to this the fact that most libraries allow their members to ‘borrow’ an electronic book without even going in to the library to sign it out. You can do it from home.

Most of these aggregators are multinational companies, for there are staggering amounts of money to be made in this burgeoning industry – usually supported by the public purse. A good proportion of them are American companies, and the books they sell often have American spellings (which some might see as a threat to the integrity of ‘proper’ English…). eBooks are not considered under the meagre compensation for writers that exists under Public Lending Right. So you can probably see where all this is – very quietly – going.
a) If you only need to join a library in order to read a book whenever you want to – and you don’t even have to go to the bother of taking the bus there; you only need to make a couple of clicks on your computer – then why buy a book?
b) If a writer can’t make a living because her/his books are available free in electronic form from libraries then why would writers continue to make their books available to libraries?
c) Several UK libraries have been found to have ‘members’ (who are borrowing eBooks) with addresses in places like Shanghai and Singapore and Taiwan. When times are tough and it is advantageous for the library to have strong membership numbers in order to get its annual operating grant from the local council – well, who is checking the membership list anyway?
d) With eBooks you don’t need lots of libraries. Ultimately you only need one. (Google perhaps?) Besides, the real estate industry can find a much better use for those valuable downtown spaces that the libraries inhabit.
e) When there is only one, global library, how long will we be able to borrow books without paying for the privilege?
f) And I haven’t even touched on the subject of the DRM protocols – the security systems that are used by the libraries to prevent copying, but are relatively easy to circumvent.

This is a complex conundrum, wrapped up with big business interests that need to show profits to shareholders. But it has enormous ramifcations for the kind of society that we aspire to. At the root of it we have three conflicting ‘philosophies’ (if you like). On the one hand we have the writers, who are the creators of the wealth that the multi-national aggregators are enjoying in far, far greater measure than those who produce the intellectual ‘product’.

On another hand, you have the librarians, whose mission – and it often is a mission – is to deliver the fruits of intellectual endeavour to the masses; the ideas, the imagination, the magic, and the education that is wrought by the writers. Many librarians (and they will no doubt disagree with me) do not see that this ‘mission’ is being increasingly fulfilled in this electronic age on the financial backs of the writers.

Then you have the aggregators – companies like Overdrive, MyiLibrary, Dawson, EBL and EBSCO, aided and abetted by other massive companies like Adobe Systems – who, under the guise of doing good works, have been raking in a hell of a lot of money and returning very little of it to the intellectual wellsprings from which it all emanates. There are many other examples. And then there are the shareholders.

So yes, public libraries may have been a Whig idea and a socialist ideal, but in the modern industrial, and post-industrial, era they have been backed by the very rich; by supporters of universities for the wealthy, by endowments from mega corporations, and by producers of big steel like Andrew Carnegie. But Carnegie will soon be spinning in his grave if the increasingly unfair digital practices of the libraries continue, because writers will eventually take back their gifts.

In the meantime, unless they are true philanthropists, tell your sons and daughters not to become writers until this is all sorted out. It will take years, if it happens at all.

PS The eBook market is rapidly approaching 40% of all book sales in North America. It is well on the way there in the UK as well – and, if the writers and their associations are smart, it is ultimately going to put them in the driver’s seat. They need to wake up first though.

Michael Elcock was born in Forres and grew up in Edinburgh and West Africa. He emigrated to Canada when he was 21. He was athletic director
at the University of Victoria for 10 years, and then CEO of Tourism
Victoria for five

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