October 30, 2014

Famous authors (except Martin Amis) promise immortality via charity auction

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Martin Amis has no room for your shoddy names. Image via Wikipedia.

Martin Amis has no room for your shoddy names. Image via Wikipedia.

“Crowd” is the prefix of the moment. Crowdfunding. Crowdsourcing. Crowdediting. Crowded House. Which is probably because it takes less time to say than “tragedy of the commons.” All of these buzzwords rely on the same process: mass enthusiasm, rather than institutional patronage, providing the platform for creative output. An offer of naming rights is a typical deal-sweetener when crowdfunding, but the charity Freedom From Torture knows that if you want to make real money this way, you have to start at the top.

As reported in the New York Times and elaborated on in The Guardian, FFT (which provides support and therapy to torture survivors) is holding an Immortality Auction, which sounds like a Philip K. Dick story but is in fact a reliable way of raising money for a worthy cause. Auction attendants bid for the chance to to name a character in a famous writer’s upcoming book. Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith and Will Self among others have already signed on, which is a pretty upscale roster. FFT’s previous Immortality Auctions have also been quite successful. Though I’m suspicious of Atwood, because the article states that she offers “the chance to appear in the novel she is currently working on, or to pop up in her retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.” The latter book is due in 2016, but if the winner picks the former book, how will they know if Atwood delivers?

FFT isn’t the only organization benefiting from unwritten characters or authorial intervention, and the Guardian includes a handy recent history of the others, along with this particular anecdote about the FFT’s success rate:

In 2000 the charity, then known as the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, raised £25,000 by auctioning off spots in books by high profile authors including participants of this year’s auction, Kathy Lette, Sebastian Faulks and Hanif Kureishi. That year, some authors refused to offer a character: crime writer and patron of the charity Ruth Rendell told organisers she “loathed” the idea of the auction but later donated £10,000; and other authors, including Martin Amis, declined to take part, saying names were too crucial to change in their novels.

Martin Amis, ever a class act. Maybe he’ll come around on this if other authors keep naming terrible characters after him.

This is, of course, an example of the power of traditional publishing, the author as celebrity extracting extra money from the promise of “immortality”, which will only ever amount to maybe a few mentions in the book’s reviews and a fun fact to be traded during editorial meetings. But what interests me is that one one side, we have this moneymaking strategum of letting a single, fairly inconsequential, element of a book be controlled by putting it on the market. On the other side, we have novels that are entirely crowdsourced, none of which you’ve heard of (yours too, James Patterson). A book that fractures the authorial voice that comprehensively could be a real gem, if you factor in a hell of a good editor. On the other hand, the royalty contracts (if they existed) would be a horrorshow. The only company that would actually sink resources into a legitimately marketable and readable crowdsourced novel would need enough cash to poach a good editor, a Big Data fetish, and very little regard for authorial compensation. Hmmmm.

Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.

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