An ex-student who’s now a good friend and a brilliant scholar tells me that he’s about to publish a volume based on his PhD dissertation. So far, so good. What truly scares the bejeesus out of my scholarly self is what he explains next.
It seems that his publishing house (a mid-range academic one) warned him that he needed to clear all copyright permissions with the literary authors he quoted. Yes, you heard well. He did so and found that most of the authors to whom he had devoted his dissertation granted immediate permission to reproduce their words in the book. One at least, however, forwarded my friend a message from his publishers demanding a fee of 70 pounds (plus VAT) for a three-year licence –if I remember this correctly this was for just three quotations. If the fee was not paid in full, the publishers threatened, then the quotations from their author’s texts should be blocked out in black in my friend’s book.
In a way this does not come as a surprise. Literary authors (or their agents and publishers) are finally beginning to realise that someone is making money out of studying their work. Surely, not we, academics, since I’m sure that only the likes of Harold Bloom must get royalties off their books (and possibly only for the edition of his famous Casebooks). I mean the academic publishing houses. The idea is quite simple to understand: if I write a brilliant novel and you write a brilliant dissertation about it, this is fine as long as you’re not commercializing your research. When you publish a book, however, you and your publisher stand to gain something and, so, I also want my slice of the cake. Yes, it’s called copyright.
If you do research on authors still living after 1943 you face, like my friend and myself, a very serious problem for, if authors wise up and we have to start coughing up money we don’t have, research on contemporary culture may simply grind to a halt. If even academic authors start asking for licences to quote from their works (why pay, say, Martin Amis and not Terry Eagleton?) then we’re done for. This is not only truly regrettable but a serious danger for the authors themselves who might think they don’t need us, academics, anyway, without realising that we’re their publishers for posterity.
So far we operate under a blanket unwritten licence which supposes that a) we quote within reasonable limits, b) we respect copyright, c) we don’t benefit (much) from our scholarly work. The problem is that this is a very tricky, ambiguous situation. I did write some time ago about author China Mieville’s proposal that the state should pay a salary to writers (of merit), a proposal that was howled down by British authors themselves as smacking of ugly Communism. Yet, we do use public money to pay Literature teachers on the grounds that we offer a public service. If you look at things from Mieville’s point of view, we are indeed sponging on the poor authors. It’s a scary thought, particularly as it has many unforeseen implications. If, say, a teach a seminar on, for example, Sarah Waters and I’m paid, is she entitled to part of my money? Or am I, on the contrary, a fabulously cheap way for her work to be publicised? (Authors: remember that each time we teach a book we sell many copies and you do get a share).
The key factor here, going back to my friend’s book, is the middleman –the publishing house. We already have the tools to circulate research for free by using websites, university repositories and research portals like Academia.edu or Research Gate. However, the accreditation and assessment systems in many nations –and our own various fetishisms– insist that the only serious publication is via the academic publishing houses and journals. I’m fully aware that, logically, the best of these guarantee a high standard of quality that self-publication cannot guarantee right now. Yet, the way things are going it’s already quite clear that, as it is happening in many other areas of knowledge, the era of publishing at cost zero in English Studies is coming to an end. Not only the authors but also academic publications (from journals to monographs) will soon require payment, and without a powerful university backing you, my friend, this money will have to come out of your pocket.
How this will further the gap between rich and poor academics is easy to foresee. How to resist this trend seems hardly in our hands right now. Unless… (here insert your own solution).
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