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Into the digital age

30 January 2006

Digital rights and Internet developments look like being the hot issue of this year as they were in 2005. Representatives of UK publishers, the Society of Authors and authors' agents have been meeting to try to thrash out a common approach to the question. This move is in marked contrast to what has happened in the US, where authors' organisations and agents have blocked publishers moving forward on this issue. There's little doubt though that the development of digital rights is a global issue and hugely important to all writers. Encouraging publishers to get to grips with it may represent the best way forward.

UK agents are acknowledging that publishers are now planning to digitise material and that, if they are to do so, it is reasonable that they should control digital rights.

Anthony Beevor, former chair of the Society of Authors, said: 'Publishers are going to need to make considerable investments in downloading facilities and for changes which cannot be foreseen but which will be hugely complicated in contractual terms.'

Why are the UK bodies taking this view? It's possible that the individuals involved in the UK organisations have more radical views about technological developments and how these will affect the book world. Richard Charkin, current chair of the Publishers' Association, said in his blog that publishing would have to speed up to meet the challenges of the future: 'We're going to have to change our perceptions of time and timeliness if we are to succeed in helping our authors reach out to readers electronically as well as in print - and the authors will need to work with us to achieve this.'

The issues surrounding digitisation are immensely complicated and the developments are happening very quickly, as the various conflicts of last year showed. But authors' need both to protect and to exploit their copyrights mean that it is in their interest that publishers should face up to the digital future. For their part, if publishers are to retain their role, they need to seize the initiative. And whatever authors feel about individual publishers, it is much better for them if they do so and develop a new way to market books in the digital age, rather than ceding the territory to the Internet giants, who have a very different agenda. This is not because of any lingering sentimental view about the need to bolster publishers' role, but because in this area the interests of authors and publishers are closely aligned.

Richard Charkin's blog