I was staggered to learn at the weekend that if you're prepared to dig around a little, it is now possible to download Shroom illegally for free. Once I'd got over my disbelief that someone could be arsed to digitise a whole book I found I had two conflicting reactions.
On the one hand I was pretty outraged. The book, which took me two years to write, has just crept into profit, and however delightful it is to receive an annual royalty cheque my yearly earnings don't come close to covering a week's rent. It hasn't made me rich in other words, and like most artists, poets and musicians I know, this last year has been pretty tough. I'm not starving in a garret but let's just say I've never worked so hard for so little money. Living hand to mouth, every penny counts, so you can understand why I might feel a bit peeved.
On the other hand, another, possibly wiser, part of me took it as a strange compliment that someone thinks my book so valuable that they wanted to make it freely available. I never bought that guff about 'home taping killing music' and I actively encourage people to share Telling the Bees albums, so why should a book be any different? Like most authors I wasn't motivated to write by money: I wanted people to read what I'd written. In which case the more people that read Shroom the better, however the manuscript falls into their hands.
Whatever my reaction, we are moving towards an internet-based world in which there is an increasing expectation that information, texts, images, films etc will all be freely available. I fully expect that in my lifetime we'll reach a point where you can read or download every book that's ever been published. However utopian and egalitarian such a move might first appear, it will be the small artists who suffer most. If books continue to be physically published at all (and let's face it the industry is in something of a freefall), then they will be increasingly selected by market appeal rather than merit. The benefits of a world in which all information is freely available may very well be offset by the fact that much of that information will not be worth having.