Recap: Authors Alliance panel discussion at Harvard

Posted November 4, 2014

Last Thursday, Authors Alliance traveled to Harvard to present a panel discussion titled “Authorship in a Digital World: How to Make It Thrive.” The panel was co-sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Harvard Library Office for Scholarly Communication, and was composed of a mix of writers, publishers, scholars, and attorneys interacting in a way that moderator and Authors Alliance Advisory Board member Jonathan Zittrain likened to a conversation at dinner, but with the panelists “only at one side of the table and with no food.”

All told there were eight panelists, each with a different perspective on how the landscape for creating and disseminating one’s work is changing. They were:

  • Rachel Cohen, a Cambridge-based author and creative writing professor at Sarah Lawrence College;
  • Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian at Harvard University;
  • Ellen Faran, director of MIT Press;
  • Mark Fischer, a copyright lawyer at Duane Morris LLP;
  • Katie Hafner, a journalist, memoirist, and nonfiction writer;
  • Alison Mudditt, director of UC Press;
  • Sophia Roosth, a Harvard historian of science; and
  • Pamela Samuelson, Authors Alliance co-founder and law professor at U.C. Berkeley.

Before getting underway, Katie Hafner—a journalist, nonfiction writer, and a member of our Advisory Board—started things off by telling the story of her book A Romance on Three Legs, which had gone out of print. Its continued digital availability meant her publisher was under no obligation to return the rights, but Hafner felt strongly that being in print was important to reaching her readers. In her presentation, Hafner discussed how she managed to negotiate with her publisher to resolve the issue. Her experience is now being used to assist Authors Alliance’s current efforts to create a guide for authors interested in rights reversions.

Robert Darnton, also of our Advisory Board, picked up on the same theme of rights and availability, but with concern for books that, unlike Hafner’s, are no longer commercially viable. “Once the commercial life of your book is exhausted and it’s no longer selling, what else do you want?,” said Darnton. “You want readers. And that means you don’t want it to sit on a remote shelf in some library where a handful of people will read it, but put it online. We know that’s a great way to spread knowledge.” Complementing Hafner’s story, Darnton illustrated this point by explaining how he had worked with Harvard University Press to secure the right to make two of his earliest books available on an open access basis. Those titles will soon be made available under Creative Commons licenses through the efforts of Authors Alliance and allied organizations.

Also discussed were possibilities and difficulties involved with making book-length academic works open access from the very beginning. Sophia Roosth encapsulated the difficulties academic authors face in balancing their career goals with their dissemination goals. Wanting to publish her book on open access terms, she found her ability to find a press that would work with her was constrained by the fact that “there were seven academic presses that count for promotion.” Ellen Faran and Alison Mudditt, representatives from those kinds of academic presses confirmed the difficulties Roosth faced, but also highlighted opportunities for positive change like UC Press’ forthcoming open access monograph model. “The current model allows your book to sit in maybe three or four hundred libraries, who can still afford to buy it, versus an open access model that potentially puts it out there for anybody who’s interested in it,” UC Press’ Mudditt said.

By the end of the evening, the panel had discussed copyright reform, the HathiTrust litigation, Authors Alliance’s organizational goals, self publishing, and how technology might change the the nature of both reading and writing. The event is only the first in a series Authors Alliance plans to host in different cities and communities, with the next being a workshop in Berkeley sponsored by the Berkeley Center for New Media. For those of you we missed in Cambridge, follow our blog or our twitter account to catch us when we make it out to your city.