The London Times reports a great deal of panic on the part of British writers as they contemplate the gradual demise of the longstanding business model associated with print books. E-books legitimate and illegitimate are apparently the main culprit, or at least the main cause of fear. Writers note that digital piracy is rampant, not unlike the problems that the artists associated with the music industry have been complaining about for several years.
Google is doing something that appears more legitimate since it’s pursued by a big company, but if the universal library is successful without any form of compensation for writers, it’s hard to see what incentive will continue to exist for compensating writers at all.
Of course, it’s hard to remember now, but the “professional” writer who makes his or her living by the word is a relatively new invention. Samuel Johnson was, perhaps, the first, and was a rarity then. Writers used to be people who did their work as moonlighting, or because they had the money and the time, or else as officials of the court. In a more ancient vein, poets were troubadours, making their money through performance rather than through commodities.
I wonder whether we are entering a period when the very idea of a professional writer is coming to an end. And I’m not sure whether to be sanguine about that or not. I’m not a member of the cult of the amateur, even though I value anyone writing whatever may be on their minds and imagination. Still, there’s something to be said about the tradition of craftsmanship, the guild of writers that, at its best, professionalization managed to maintain on some level. Of course, there’s always been a lot of crap out there, but I’m not certain that craftsmanship will maintain the same aura in digital forms.