London, March 31: A trade union of more than 8,500 professional writers in the UK says that online book piracy may eventually drive authors to stop writing, unless needful measures are devised to compensate them for lost sales.
The Society of Authors strongly believes that illegal downloading, which has already affected the music business, has begun to affect the book trade too. Girl with a Pearl Earring's writer Tracy Chevalier, who chairs the London-based organisation, said that writers were deeply concerned over the failure of the publishing industry at adapting to the digital age. She bemoaned that the century-old model whereby authors were paid, i.e. a mixture of cash advances and royalties, was finished.
"It is a dam that's cracking. We are trying to plug the holes with legislation and litigation but we need to think radically. We have to evolve and create a very different pay system, possibly by making the content available free to all and finding a way to get paid separately. It's hitting hardest the writers who write books that you dip in and out of: poetry, cookbooks, travel guides, short stories - books where you don't have to read the whole thing," Times Online quoted her as saying.
"Although people still buy [books by] Nigella and Jamie Oliver and Delia it is because of their celebrity. Cookbook authors are really struggling. I do it myself - if I want a recipe I go online and get it for free.
"For a while it will be great for readers because they will pay less and less but in the long run it's going to ruin the information. People will stop writing. There's a lot of 'wait and see what the technology brings' but the trouble is if you wait and see too long then it's gone. That's what happened to the music industry," she added.
Others also agree that the internet is a double-edged sword - good for growing an author's audience, but disastrous at turning that readership into revenue.
Scott Pack, the commercial director of The Friday Project, which publishes books developed from material started online, said: "At the moment if you asked ten publishers what the future of publishing is you would get ten different answers."
"Tracy Chevalier is right, it is worrying. At the moment, though, even the most pessimistic commentators still think that printed books will be popular for ages," he added.