Tuesday, January 05, 2010

respect the work, respect the worker

The scrawl on the wall says what about the workers,
And the voice of the people says more salt please

-- Billy Bragg

A couple nights ago, I finished watching the fifth and final season of The Wire, HBO's addictive series that turns the many layers of inner-city Baltimore into a slick, Shakespearean drama about the crumbling of human civilization. Those familiar with the show will know the fifth season focuses on the media and its increasing impotence and complicity in the giant sinkhole of corruption destroying America's cities. The Wire’s fictional newspaper fiddles its stories while Baltimore burns.

David Simon, one of the show’s creators, has been vocal with his disgust for the current state of print journalism. In an interview with The Guardian, Simon scoffs at media owners who “showed ‘contempt for their product’ and are now reaping the whirlwind.” Professional journalism costs money, he argues, and the current business model of free internet content in a climate of falling advertising sales is creating a breeding ground for public corruption free from the traditional examination by media pros. "The internet does froth and commentary very well,” he says, “but you don't meet many internet reporters down at the courthouse."

Agree? Disagree? There’s no shortage of opinions on the topic of giving it away for free online. Will the demand for professional journalism, writing or publishing ever be completely displaced by the immediacy and “democracy” of blogging, citizen journalism, endless comment loops and all the other forms of digital delivery driving down the asking price for professionally produced content? Is there anything more valuable in the great babble of the democratic crowd than a voice of authority built on hard trench work?

The evolutionary struggles of newspapers, print publishers and writers to “deal with digital” can be painful to behold, but a hopeful emerging theme is the true value of professional creative work. Big news in the book trade, of course, is the rise of e-books and their sudden power to re-value old work. Big name authors Steven R. Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and William Styron (Sophie’s Choice) - or at least his heirs - have recently made waves in the industry by transferring e-book rights from their longtime print publishers to new, upstart e-book distribution companies offering larger percentages to the authors.

While this is arguably an advantageous time for writers and their heirs (who doesn’t appreciate larger percentages?), it’s important to understand the difference between the development and publication of an original work, and an e-book that often is a simple PDF of established work. Jonathan Galassi, president of the revered New York publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux knows a thing or two about the work that goes into original publication. In a recent commentary in the New York Times, he urges the vast population of free-loving internet consumers to understand and respect the true work that goes into original publication.

In this increasingly virtual age of open access and universal availability, it’s important for readers to keep in mind what it is that a publisher does for an author. A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work. An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created.

According to Galassi, professional book publishing (and writing) is hard, valuable work. According to David Simon, professional journalism is hard, valuable work. And of course, all professional creation is hard, valuable work – a fact the internet’s vaunted immediacy and availability can unfortunately overlook.

One of my many Twitter-friends is a professional photographer I deeply respect. Her work is raw, fearless, often hilarious, and more often painfully honest. Much of it involves self-portraiture, and all of it is available to be seen, for free, on her website. Importantly though, she also sells her work in limited edition prints and published collections she creates through a self-publishing site. I’m guessing she does quite well at this business – she’s “internet famous.” Though you can see her work online, it is not made available for re-use through a Creative Commons license. Since this artist intends to make money through her art, she reserves all rights with a traditional copyright declaration.

A couple weeks back this artist was passing a local print shop in her neighbourhood and saw one of her photographs in the window. It was being used by the print shop to advertise their services. It would be disturbing enough, I imagine, seeing your work being used without permission, but since her work is also her face, you can imagine her surprise. She went in, asked about the image and was told by the shop owner that he’d snatched the photo from the internet because he liked it and thought it would work well for his advertising purposes. When she pointed out that the work was hers, that it took time, professional skill, expertise and artistry to make it, and that generally she is paid for her professional work, the conversation turned much less friendly. Imagine, arguing with a stranger over the use of your own face. It was an unhappy enough experience, in fact, that this artist has asked me not to name her.

Why are we happy to allow the internet to respect the work but not the worker – all the workers?

I can’t think of a single instance in my career when the process of being edited and professionally published hasn’t improved what I’ve written. I like posting to a blog, but I try not to fool myself that what I write here is writing in the same sense that my novel (professionally edited – three times), my poetry (same), or my journalism (endlessly, painfully edited) is “writing.” I may use this free space to comment on and about the professional world I work in, but I make a distinction between the two spaces.

Oliver Burkeman and his team of Guardian editors worked hard to produce the David Simon interview. David Simon, his fellow writers, cast and crew worked hard to create The Wire. Jonathan Galassi worked hard to write his commentary on e-books, and works hard every day to publish some of the finest books in the English language. My photographer colleague works hard to produce her art, and her income. This hard work has value and that value must be respected.

Whatever the emerging digital business model for professional creation, shouldn’t it respect the value of all the work that goes into creation?

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Christine Peets said...

Well said, and well written John. I have a blog too, but like you, I know that it's not the same as my professionally edited work. An editor always makes it better, and I've been lucky to have good collaboration with many editors.
We may have to accept that our work may show up without permission, but we do not have to accept this without comment and trying to change this. We also need to make sure that we are not infringing on the rights of other artists when we quote them in our work. Your title is so correct, "respect the work, respect the worker." Well done.

Unknown said...

Galassi isn’t a creator; the other ones are.

John said...

joe clark,

I'm not sure how you make a distinction between Galassi's contribution to the professional creation under his publishing wing, and the contribution of the editors (who are also mentioned in the posting). I consider all of these creative workers to be partners in the finished creative product, worthy of continued value in the digital economy.

Obviously the ease and availability of self-publishing and production options is a challenge to much of that. Nevertheless, I continue to value that traditional work.