Torching for It
Murals are among some of the West’s most interesting public art.
This one is The Spirit of the Printed Word by Arthur Crisp, 1921. It’s in the reading room at the Canadian House of Commons. I came across it during our coverage at Publishing Perspectives of the Canadian Parliament’s hearings on the 2012 Copyright Modernization Act–which has led to terrible losses (some $50 million annually) for authors and their publishers.
Crisp’s Spirit shows us the allegorical figure lifting high her “torch of knowledge” and her mirror, which the curators’ commentary tells us “reflects the news of the world.”
No fool she, Spirit has engaged, as you can see, two small boys to do all the work. I readily join her in commending this labor approach to you. The guys appear to be slogging through the business of lugging stacks of paper and handling typesetting. These kids need Kindles.
There’s a deco-sleek pigeon gliding by near Spirit’s torch on the right, a bird said to represent the transmission of information. On the left, there’s a more fluttery dove, symbolizing good tidings.
Notice that a mural is work of aesthetic advocacy. And in his testimony to the Canadian parliament committee, John Degen, who heads the Writers’ Union, said that some Canadian authors have stopped writing because the copyright exceptions assigned to education have simply gutted their copyright-revenue earnings.
That’s a case in which trade- and textbook authors are watching their publishers get nothing for the use of their titles in close to 100 school districts and ministerial areas of Canada. It’s an obvious moment in which author advocacy is critical. Degen is up to the mark, too.
“Fully 80 percent of our licensing income has simply disappeared,” Degen told the legislators, “because schools now copy for free what they used to pay for. Each year in Canada more than 600 million pages of published work are copied for use in educational course packs, both print and digital, and the education sector is essentially claiming all of that work for free. The world’s authors are also watching this process with great interest and considerable anxiety.”
If anything, what the Canadian copyright crisis reminds us is how loosely an author corps is formed in a national setting, and how vulnerable it can be to unthinkable policy blunders like the Copyright Modernization Act of 2012.
And that gets us to our provocation today.
Who’s on Your Advocacy Mural?
In terms of industry players on the policy level, authors are the ones from whom we hear the least frequently. Publishers are better organized and in Canada were integral to the development of the copyright revenue agency that’s now under attack in that country. The publishers association’s folks speak eloquently to the issue, they’re terrific advocates, actually, for themselves and their authors.
But one of the defining factors in any picture of the publishing business has been that it’s an industry based on the voluntary submission of its fundamental product, the content, by people it does not know (until they turn up with a manuscript) and do not employ (until they get into a contractual arrangement). It’s a peculiar business model. I always like to compare it to the auto industry. Imagine those folks sitting around waiting for someone they’ve never heard of to turn up with their next bestselling car design.
What this does mean is that authors, at the broadest level, have trouble with organized advocacy because they’re all working as individual operatives out in the deep field, often far from the centers of publishing power. That, of course, is where organizations like the Authors Guild in the States and the Society of Authors in the UK come into play, both with rapidly growing and effective programs.
Yes, authors are also busy and most of them may well be happier working on the writing than the business of advocacy. But in a political dynamic as unstable as the American system is today, if a run were made at copyright regimes as has occurred in Canada, what kind of advocacy could you count on? Who would lobby for your interests?
Beyond the important services of a good literary agent–if you don’t have one, don’t stop until you get one–where’s your advocacy? I’m asking more than telling today.
Do you think that authors, as a class of the trade publishing workforce, need more advocacy for their interests and concerns? Are you a member of the Author’s Guild or Society of Authors? Do you know their projects? Do they fulfill your needs? What part of an author’s life and work needs more and better advocacy most?