I have recently come across Unbound. It’s an exciting shake-up of publishing where books are crowdfunded, then produced with that committed support. It recognises that the answers, or at least some of them, are in technology. As an advocate of digital, I have watched the publishing industry hamstrung by nostalgia which is obscuring an important debate about how to improve returns to creators.
Many in the book world still see support for digital as a betrayal of the experience of reading, or of the author. The book culture’s defence of the artefact rather than the artist is the change that needs to happen. If we want more returns to authors, to creators, we need a serious conversation about digital options, including different streaming models, preferably author-led.
In thinking about more equitable returns on writers’ labours, I looked at the music industry. The digital transition – by artists, listeners and music producers – happened in waves over a decade or more, long before books. And yes, it’s been hard. Returns for musicians have plummeted with album sales all but disappearing but there’s no going back. There’s been a niche return to vinyl and CD sales are still a chunk of the market but the retail ship has truly sailed.
And Bandcamp, established in 2007, grew out of frustration with the paucity of returns to artists. Its mission is to support the culture of music through a service that returns more than eighty percent of profit to artists, and where fans find new music directly in an online community.
Independent singer/songwriter Imogen Heap took technology to a new plane with myceliaformusic.org, an online commercial marketplace and network which uses encrypted blockchain technology to pay artists and the supporting creatives (cover art, licensing, instrument brands) directly. An individual ‘Creative Passport’ for music-makers tracks and pay for services rendered. She told Ellen Peirson-Hagger in New Statesmen in September 2020 that “Right now we are individual musicians with no union. If we can prove that by having your information organised and being able to connect to all the different services that you use in your own micro eco-system…we can shift it around.”
Heap told the Guardian that she wanted to close the ‘gap between fan and artist and the journey of their music’, saying in, ‘in the data-driven era, the movement of music, money and feedback should be frictionless. A total rethink is in order.’ That call hasn’t hit books hard yet. Authors are certainly not revolting against either their publishers or the third parties, still in lock step with traditional models.
Imogen Heap says that while she doesn’t have a perfect view of how the future of the music industry is going to look, she feels that the answer is in the technology. Authors have to grasp the technology and make it work for them. Similarly with books and writing. We need better, cleverer models which work with authors to distribute their work and allow for communities to share it.
Unbound is an step in that direction.