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The Sky is Falling

By Carol Ekarius

The year was 1440. In Strasbourg Germany a young printer, Johannes Gutenberg, demonstrated an invention he’d crafted from a screw press, similar to the ones used to press grapes for wine, and moveable metal type. The printing press was born: it changed history. Until that juncture, bookshad to be hand scribed, or “printed” by carving a wooden block for each page. The blocks, cumbersome as they were, produced few pages before the carved type began to fail, or the ink began to smudge. Books were thus a precious commodity, the chattel of aristocrats and churches.

With Gutenberg’s invention, printing exploded. Pages could suddenly be printed in mass. By the early 1500s, news sheets, the predecessor of the modern newspapers, were printed in most European cities, and books became widely available to merchants and workers, the everyday people most of us descended from. Gutenberg’s invention also helped launch the Enlightenment and provided a vehicle for the development of our own democracy. Everyone owes thanks to Gutenberg, even if they haven’t a clue of who he was, but none owes more thanks to an obscure German printer than those of us who work as writers. His device paved the way for us to follow our muses.

Today’s inventions, the digital miracles — computers, the Internet, Web 2.0 — are changing the written word yet again, in magnitude similar to the invention of the printing press. The good news is: media is changing, democratizing.

That’s also the bad news. It is now much harder for anyone to make a living by writing. This is the talk of all the writer’s lists I subscribe to. Staff writers and journalists at newspapers and traditional media are being shown the door in droves. Freelancers are finding it harder and harder to find gigs, and when they do, the terms become more abysmal by the day. Book advances are absurdly large for a small cadre of celebrity writers, and dropping abysmally for the rest of books purchased by major publishers. Contracts are becoming draconian: Writers are expected to indemnify publishers against not only their errors, but also those of the publisher. Copyright is being eroded in real time. These days I feel akin to Chicken Little. THE SKY IS FALLING. WE ARE AN ENDANGERED SPECIES. THE END IS NEAR.

I know in my own writing and work, I use the Internet constantly, and benefit from the existence of so many voices and sources. I’m glad it has paved the way for everyman to follow his or her muse, but for creators of well researched, well written, original content, we have to figure out some way for it to pay. Chris Anderson, editor of Wired, and author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price, can talk about how giving content away is a great business model, but unfortunately that model is leading us to an abundance of dreck. The Internet is largely an echo chamber of misinformation… mistakes, missed facts, outright lies, all perpetrated as truth and fact. And much of the better content is plagiarized unapologetically and with no compunction by aggregators who make the revenue that is available, while the originating producers get nothing for their efforts.

We the people need real media. We need real writers to pursue original stories. And damn it, we all need to pay for that. Our society depends on it.

But you know, it is the need for such value-added content that offers me some optimism and hope about the future for working writers. In my most sanguine moments, I do believe that the Free concept will reach its limits. People will recognize the value that writers (and musicians, artists, inventors, and other originators of content) bring to their lives. New models will arise. New markets will be established. We the providers of content will be appreciated and recompensed for the work we do.

In the meantime, we creators need to stick together. We need to fight for fair contracts. We need to fight for copyright. We need to actually read the Google settlement, and consider its impacts not only on our own pocketbooks in the short run, but also its impacts on the future of copyright and the value of our efforts in the long run. We also need to buy a newspaper, a magazine, a book. Buy a bunch! We need to talk to everyone we know about the reasons for supporting not-Free models. We need to tell our kids and their kids why they should pay for their music downloads. We need to come out of our holes, and engage with each other, and with the consumers who think that Free is good. If we don’t, we may just find that Chicken Little was right.


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