Saturday, December 13, 2008

Should criminals profit through books?

Readers of this blog will have noticed in recent weeks a pattern has emerged, whereby I post very little for several days, and then when I get days off, post several times a day. I receive several email bulletins with news from around the book world, and read other sites such as The Bookseller on a regular basis, adding comments as I feel necessary, but save the blogging for when I have time to write much more in depth.

Today is one of those days - my first post was about the credit crunch which is affecting EUK and more specifically Bertrams, but my second post for today will detail the various stories that I have found particularly interesting, which have circulated around the book world this week.

Two have particularly caught my eye, the first of which comes from The Guardian. This concerns a Government decision to introduce legislation preventing criminals from profiting from the sale of their stories through books. This has caused a furor within the book world, where publishers pay handsomely for such rights, with many citing this as unworkable and an attack on free speech.

The plan, which is part of the Coroners and Justice Bill announced as part of the Queen's speech, is likely to involve the introduction of a UK-wide civil scheme for the recovery of profits from criminal memoirs. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice said it was too early to provide more details, but that the scheme would be unlikely to attempt to retrieve profits retrospectively. The scheme, which is designed to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes, would not include accounts of prison life such as written by Jeffrey Archer (politicians know how to look after its own), books about other people's crimes, or fictional accounts of crime.

On the surface this sounds all well and good, but (and there is always a but), as Peter Walsh, publisher at true crime specialist Milo Books said "practicality is a different argument from ethics." Walsh went on point out that writing about their experiences is for many criminals part of their rehabilitation, and can often lead to new and successful careers where they make a real contribution to society (which includes paying taxes). In some ways this is no worse than celebrities who write about their struggle with drink and drugs, as many argue that in both cases, these books glorify the writers previous activities and encourage those at the bottom of the pile, who look up to such individuals, to follow their example. I have heard some comment that the admission that one has such a problem seems to be worn as a badge of honour.

The second point that Simon Juden, Chief Executive of the Publishers Association pointed out is that much of the most potentially offensive stuff wouldn't come from people convicted of crimes. For example, Nelson Mandela couldn't publish stuff because he was convicted of a crime, but OJ Simpson could, because he wasn't (that has since changed). This scheme is therefore targetting the wrong people.

The second story which comes from Publishers Weekly, is that Amazon boss Jeff Bezoz has been voted as Publishers Person of the Year. My own views on his company are well known to anyone who has read this blog, but love him or loathe him, he is a force to reckoned with, and one that has changed the face of publishing in the 14 years since Amazon was launched.

Bezoz claims in an interview at the company's Seattle headquarters that those at his company see themselves as explorers. He goes on to say “It’s much more interesting looking at unexplored terrain” and, because of the Internet, “there is boundless unexplored terrain.” This makes him sound like a character from Star Trek, going where no man has gone before.

His strategies of allowing negative reviews and the sale of used and second hand books prompted strong criticism from the book world, yet you have to admire his vision. As he also points out "To succeed in new businesses you have to be willing to experiment and to accept possible failure."

That is the hard part, compared to that, starting a business is easy.

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