ArtZone Co-Op

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…the e-quitable distribution of e-books

Launch of Writer’s Guild Books Co-operative

The Launch Meeting of the Writers’ Guild Books Co-operative took place in central London on Tuesday 27 April 2010 at 11.00 a.m. and was followed by a celebratory drink or two and a ‘doorstep sandwich’ lunch. The ‘Co-op’ is the culmination of several meetings held during the past three years hosted by the Guild in recognition that self-publishing has become a respectable and attractive solution for many serious writers and is likely to grow as conventional publishing staggers from crisis to crisis and the world learns to love ebooks and print-on-demand.

Membership of the Co-operative is restricted to members of the Guild who have already self-published a book. In return for a joining fee and an annual subscription members of the Co-operative will be able to have their books posted on the Co-operative’s website, with the opportunity to include information about their books and their careers, and with links to their own websites.

The Guild is also investigating how the Co-op can offer authors a comprehensive ebook service by converting digital files, into ebook files suitable for the Kindle, Sony Reader, iPad, etc., and make them available for download directly from the site at prices fixed by the author. The obvious advantage to members of the Co-operative is that their books will stand among others, come to the attention of a far wider internet public, and be more easily available.

This initiative is a new application of the old principle that ‘In union there is strength’.

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain is a TUC affiliated trade union representing writers in TV, radio, theatre, books, poetry, film, online and video games. As a trade union for professional writers it has strict membership rules, specific definitions for members, and a “points system” of four categories of membership that validates professional quality and experience. Along with BECTU, Equity, Musicians Union and the NUJ the guild is also part of FEU, the Federation of Entertainment Unions.

Publishing - the future

Freedom of information and its dissemination is the heartbeat of the artist/author’s daily occupation. Of central importance to creative workers is having access to a rich well of information and the means to draw from it. This is the starting point where the skill of the artist/author determines the way material is shaped and how it connects into the world. It’s also the point at where “who’s in the queue” and “how big a bucket” decisions are taken and about what comes into being.

Creative production is a risky business. Anyone involved with the ‘creative industries’ knows that all decision-making is subjective… from the artist/author process of developing a piece of work to the mechanisms that determine what will happen to it. We all live in a world of made decisions - which (for the sake of consistency - or avoidance of chaos) - is the precedent for the next decision. If output is determined only by commercial criteria then the creative margins are narrowed and limited to the safe bet of the ‘tried and tested’. But the creative insists on being original - and this conflicts with ‘the order of things’ in our carefully managed world.

The universe has cracked the problem of making space for itself in being its own space. Artist/authors, being earthly beings, have always created their own space but it’s an earthly space of borders and controls, and their product is subject to decisions that are mostly beyond their control. Although such ‘professional’ judgements may often be highly regarded most are located in the grip which has determined the very stuff of our earthly experience. At every stage there are controls - self imposed, imagined, real, imposed.

But what if even slightly different decisions had been made? Would our ‘sensual’ experiences be radically different, would the world and its human occupants be unrecognisable? The familiar controls are said, of course, to be there for everyone’s security. But - it is tempting to find out - what if…? A question that drives the artist/author to leap in at the deep end, take control of production and its dispersal.

All this may be a bit of a ‘wander around the houses’ when reporting on the launch of the ‘Writers Guild Books Co-operative’, but it aims to put into context the task of artist/authors in finding a way around the established mechanisms that control what gets ‘publicly disseminated’. A mechanism that could shift huge controlling publishing monoliths, who arrogantly claim all the high-grounds in accuracy of their double wrapped information, could be the ‘world wide web’. The internet has opened up a ‘free public space’ and brought with it the ‘democratisation of everyone’s version of information’ - an enticing location for artist/authors.

The “Writer’s Guild Books Co-operative” was set up as a mechanism within the Writers Guild (the trade union for professional writers) to resolve the issue of authors getting their works published. A group of members of the Writers Guild pursued this idea for a number of years and “…recognising that self-publishing has become respectable and attractive to many serious writers, and is likely to grow as conventional publishing staggers from crisis to crisis and the world learns to love ebooks and print-on-demand’. Their decision to resolve issues of design production, publishing and distribution through functioning as a co-operative is important, not only to the Co-operative movement but also to the Trade Union movement.

Bernie Corbett, General Secretary of the Writers Guild, chaired the launch event, spoke of the Guild’s support of this fledgling initiative and introduced the three founding ‘directors’ of the new Co-op: Robert Adams (current chair of the Guild’s Books Committee), told a story of two long journeys: the three hour one from his home in Yorkshire to London and the three year one of establishing the ‘Writers Guild Co-op Ltd’; Robert Taylor, a solicitor and writer, spoke about the co-ops legal structuring and Nick Yapp, provided an historical context for the venture through his recent publication “The Write Stuff” - a history of the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain (1959 - 2009). After presenting the reasons for being, the aspirations for, and the nuts and bolts of running a co-op Guild members were invited to sign up to the new co-op.

The ‘Writer’s Co-operative’ is not just about online publishing - and it is definitely not about ‘vanity publishing’. It is a refreshing initiative that has evolved from committed professionals, all with track records in the writing industry, and about find a working solution to a professional problem. In a wider context it is about co-operativism strengthening its members interaction with society, promoting an equitable sharing of collective wealth, a collective interest, accessing expertise, encouraging social responsibility, maintaining professional integrity… and so on. It is good to see such a constructive relationship between Co-operatives and Trade unions evolving and this new co-ops location as a fledgling company within a Trade Union has opened up a new direction for trade unions.

Trade unionists have assisted worker buyouts of ‘private’ companies or the ‘co-operatisation’ of local authority services but at the Writers Guild we witnessed a Trade Union actively encouraging and supporting (administering and seed financing) their rank and file members to take control of their means of production and supporting the co-operative model to achieve this. This could not only be the best route for ’lone’ professionals in the ‘creative industries’ and those who fall into ‘freelance’ or ‘self employed’ categories but also for an increasing number of workers who can no longer rely on the misnomer of the ‘philanthropic capitalist industrialist’ - that is history…