In the midst of the Olympiad, it is hard to remember that we should be celebrating two centuries since the birth of Charles Dickens in 1812. My private undertaking was to read Michael Slater’s literary biography of the great man (Yale, 2009), and I am now at the midpoint of its massive 650 pages of densely packed information. It is a fascinating but heavy tome, so when I fell asleep with it on my lap last evening, it is hardly surprizing that, in reverie, I encountered the great man himself and was able to pose one or two questions that have been troubling me. I found him alert, right up to date (though his use of slang owes more these days, he tells me, to TV soap operas than the streets of London’s East End) and full of his typical energy in tackling modern problems.
“Future of publishing, you say? Well, future of literature, and self -education is one thing, but if the future of publishing means the future prosperity of publishers, then I cannot link the two. My publishers were either printers or booksellers, and when they were not trying to make off with my livelihood they were trying to cheat each other. I never had a good one after Chapman and Hall, and even the best got greedy.”
“That’s why this technology stuff is so fascinating. Restores the balance. Now once again authors and readers are powerful and intermediaries are fighting for their lives – capital good stuff. If only I had been able to employ your tools. The eBook is brilliant for me – here was the method I needed to serialize my stuff properly. If I was doing it today, I would publish on Amazon or AppStore in 20 monthly parts for 99p per part, then collect the whole lot at the end into a single volume for £17.50. Then I would read each part myself on your splendid You Tube thingy, then do the album from that. Then the illustrated text – my dear Phiz could just about have managed animations – so in the final, de luxe, Christmas edition we could have text, animation and voice all integrated. And, of course, I would have been a natural as a film producer, so the ultimate collection, as well as my brilliant readings – almost killed me, dear boy, those did – would have film versions as well. All those price points, all those entry levels, all those royalty cheques! But, recall this: serialization is the secret to the build – and to building an audience which will discuss your work and constantly sell it to each other. We got over 70,000 on the Old Curiosity Shop serialization – my breakthrough to an audience that I could address time and again, and hold stable with my magazines, like Household Words (yes, we shall live in their mouths like Household Words – does no one perform Henry V these days?)”.
“So what is going wrong? Simply, dear boy, you have no genious! Everything is either controlled by publishers, who always want to hold onto the past and ride it into the future, or by distributors. They are the death of innovation – as soon as they have innovated they want to stop the business model merry-g0-round and milk the wooden animals on it. I want to see authors blazing this new trail. Cory Doctorow? Never heard of him. Was he one of those damn Yankees who were so rude to me in ’41? Go out and build audience in these digital networks, and then watch the world come to your door. Look at me! Don’t wait for publishers to move into the nineteenth century – that’s a joke, a jeu d’esprit, but you know what I mean. Before I came along there was no real serialization. Literature was a three decker novel. I changed all that. People demanding to read in railway trains changed all that. Now you have smartphones and people in subways. Its a challenge to genious and you are failing it. Fifty Shades? Yes, I was reading it aloud to poor Wilkie Collins only the other night. Boring, we thought. Unrelated to what goes on in your society.”
“What goes on in your society? My dear child, you try my patience since you have less natural intelligence than Jo the crossing sweeper. Only this morning I read in the dear old Manchester Guardian (and they said my Liberal Daily News would not last!) that a boy near London had spent a year living in a tent without an income because he “fell through the net” between different local government offices. 44% of my modern Londoners do not have English as a first language. Your care homes are a scandal of violence and bullying of subnormal young people and intimidation and neglect of the powerless elderly. And this is what a responsible, well-paid, allegedly trained “professional, caring” society does to them or allows others to do to them. Dotheboys Hall? You have so much more to write about than I did! And my government did the Great Exhibition and yours is doing the Olympics. Bread and circuses, dear boy”.
“Whats that? I’m a bit deaf on this side. Oh, you think people do not flock to Literature because they will get their intellectual property ripped off? (Interesting expression – mind if I make a note?). Look, this whole Copyright thing is a farce. Please, please start again somewhere else. Perhaps with an International Licensing Convention. Copyright is the shibboleth of those who own rights and not property. It was created in Queen Anne’s time to stop booksellers and printers from ripping each other off. In my time, the heinously criminal American publishers lobbied their government to maintain the fact that they had never signed the international copyright conventions. As a result I had a huge audience in the USA by 1841, but never had a penny in royalties from it. My solution? Do my public readings there – then they had to pay to get through the door to see me. But when I spoke in the USA about this I was always told, by those toads of journalists, that I “besmirched the face of literature by mentioning a pecuniary interest!” And I had similar problems with plays – as my serializations came to an end of story, plays would start appearing in the West End and Broadway using my characters – and second guessing the endings! So I used to alter the endings… until I got wise and did a play collaboration with one company. But now, dear boy, you need to wake up….”
And, just then, I did…