Sunday, 5 April 2009

Leave my damn Weetabix alone

Over at Litopia, there's only really been one issue up for discussion around the water cooler these last couple of weeks - Scribd, the online social publishing site, where 'tens of millions of people share orginal writings and documents...'

That's one way of describing it. Scribd hit the headlines when it was raised on the Litopia After Dark podcast - the panellists wanted to know how the hell so many published works seemed to be available for free download from the site. JK Rowling and Wilbur Smith are just a couple of big names whose work is, or at least was, available up until recently.

The story was soon picked up by The Times, with The Bookseller, Sky News and a host of others hot on the trail.

Litopia After Dark host Peter Cox invited Scribd CEO Trip Adler on to the show last Friday to put Scribd's side of the argument. At first, it appeared Trip had agreed. Good move, I thought. This man knows the importance of PR and the need to meet a challenge head on. In the next breath, someone claiming to be from Scribd joined Litopia and insisted Trip had agreed to no such thing.

Litopia After Dark went ahead, with Peter ringing Trip's number and the panellists - and an army of Litopians hanging about in the chatroom - looking forward to getting the Scribd side of things straight from the horse's mouth.

Sadly, Trip didn't show.

Given the publicity this issue is continuing to generate, any organisation worth its salt should have had a PR action plan quickly drawn up and been ready to rock and roll.

When facing such a situation, the best response from an organisation - or an individual - is to hold your hands up and take it on the chin. Stand up and be counted. Say, yes, we realise we have an issue - whether we were aware of it or not - and we're doing X, Y and Z to deal with it.
Indeed, if the organisation feels there is no issue, and that it has done nothing wrong, then it should come out and say as much. If there's one thing that will piss off the media and the public alike, it's a 'no comment'.

As someone who's in the process of establishing a small publishing house, the Scribd situation - hell, any kind of download site where authors, and publishers, aren't seeing any reward for their work - makes me bloody angry.

There is, in my opinion, absolutely no excuse whatsoever. Scribd can argue that this wasn't what it set out to do. It can say that its purpose was to give unpublished, or self-published, writers a platform to have their work read, and hey, maybe picked up by someone. And that's all well and good and worthy.

But in just two years Scribd has become a victim of its own success. It cannot monitor the sheer number of documents being uploaded to the site. It responds to requests from publishers to remove certain documents when those publishers bring it to Scribd's attention. But what use is that? Unless a publisher is employing someone around the clock to constantly monitor these 'social publishing sites' - and I've heard of one that does - they will lose money even if they are on the ball and spot indiscretions quickly. A book doesn't have to be available for long for it to be downloaded any number of times.

What Scribd - and other similar sites - should be doing is reassuring the publishing industry. They should be bending over backwards to get this issue resolved. They should be facing up to their responsibilities and not ducking the issue.

If they do that, they might just retain a modicum of credibility and, hell, maybe even benefit from it. The ebook is not something that's going to disappear, regardless of what traditionalists like myself, who need to feel a book in their hands, might hope. They continue to chip away, increasing in popularity year on year, and as such I don't have a problem. If they are here to stay, then we must embrace them and learn to accept them as part of the normal publishing business.

But as a writer, and a publisher, I want to see my damn money coming in. End of story. I've put in the long hours, I want my reward. Regrettably, that train of rational thinking doesn't seem to cut any ice with the likes of Scribd. The onus is on writers, publishers and agents to make sure they don't have any choice but to listen.

And the onus is on us all as readers. For Christ's sake, don't download published books for free. You might as well come into my kitchen of a morning and steal the goddamn Weetabix from under my nose.

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