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Theatre Publishers Step Up to E-Reader Challenge

Kevin M. Mitchell • Plays & Playwriting • April 1, 2011

Play publishers are experimenting with different ways to get readers their plays.

Publishers measure concerns of piracy against increased access

It was always an inevitability,” declares Jason Aaron Goldberg, president of Original Works Publishing. “It was always something we knew we would do, but did not know how quickly we could do it or what the process would be.”

“It” is the movement of making plays available for e-reader devices like Kindle, Nook, etc. That reading on paperless devices is no mere fad is beyond dispute—but what does it mean for the play publishing world?

“This is obviously something not to be ignored,” says Ken Dingledine of Samuel French. He sites the latest news from Amazon: In 2010 they sold more e-books than hardcovers. “So it’s an area we’ve been looking at for some time now. But it’s been a process of due diligence and educating ourselves.”

Ralph Sevush, executive director of business and legal affairs of the Dramatists Guild, is also watching these developments closely. As the gatekeeper for creator’s rights, he says there are as many possibilities as issues—for example, do publishers automatically have the right to make an author’s work available electronically?

Jason Aaron Goldberg, president of Original Works Publishing

Jason Aaron Goldberg, president of Original Works Publishing

Easy Access
Original Works is a smaller, newer publisher and Goldberg says that that has made it easier for them to dive in. “Our catalog isn’t at the thousands-of-titles yet,” he says. They strive to keep the price of plays to $6.99 for a full length one, with one-acts costing a few dollars less. “Price was something we struggled with. We wanted the playwrights to get a few dollars and yet make it so it was an easy purchase.” It’s all about making these works more accessible. The thinking: the more accessible, the more produced. “I remember vividly being in college and not having access to new plays. I was unaware of a great deal of work going on except the few that really got a lot of attention.” Even a Sam Shepard work wasn’t always easy to find.

Once an artistic director or theatre committee decides on an Original Works play after reading it, it gets old school after that. “We negotiate each production based on how big the theatre is—most companies have a flat rate but we don’t think that’s fair if you’re a 30-seat theatre charging $10 admission.”

Dingledine agrees with the upside of the possibilities. “I see that we can fulfill that desire for that director who, at 2:00 a.m., is choosing plays to present to the play selection meeting the next day and he or she just heard of a great show and needs to read it.” While Samuel French certainly prides itself on fast customer service response time, there’s only one way to get a perusal copy into his or her hands at that point, and that’s electronically.

“Customers have an increasing ‘I want it now’ mentality and are getting used to getting what they want instantly, and we look forward to fulfilling that.”

Since Samuel French represents 3,800 titles by hundreds of authors, it’s not a task taken lightly. “It’s a new technology and we knew we’d need an initial phase of watching and learning and meshing new world technology with old school contract agreements with writers.” They have made it past that phase, though exactly when they will start to roll out plays that can be downloaded he’s not able to say. It will happen, though not all at once: “I can envision a launch of certain titles and then growing from there.”
Ultimately, “there has to be a natural evolution. You can’t just flip a switch.” He cites how much technology has affected the 157-year-old company just in the last decade as they moved from metal plate-to-paper publishing to digital printing. “Prior to 10 years ago, we had a lot of titles that never saw a computer before, quite frankly. But we’ve scanned or inputted them, creating .pdf files, so we’ve already laid the ground work for e-book conversion.”

When they do roll out titles, look for some newer titles to be at the leading edge, “but honestly we’ll want to make it a nice mix—not just brand new things but some tried and true as well … quite frankly it’ll be author-based in terms of what discussions and agreements can be reached.”

Ralph Sevush, executive director of business and legal affairs of the Dramatists Guild

Ralph Sevush, executive director of business and legal affairs of the Dramatists Guild

So with the rallying cry of “access, availability and affordability,” Original Works set out to make it so—but it was not an easy journey, especially addressing the big issue: piracy. They needed to develop a way so their plays could be read but not printed out or e-mailed. They did that plus made it possible that once purchased, one could share the work with a few others, but just for a few days. And then the file expires.

Some are still leery of the whole idea, however.

“I think writers are somewhat conservative about making their material available in an electronic format,” Sevush says. Playwrights make their money from licensing and none of these products have technologies that allow the ability to license anything. Then “there’s the piracy issue which is troubling to writers,” he points out. The guild has a committee to deal exclusively with piracy, though he says it focuses mostly on music. As for the “thieves,” more often then not its well-meaning but ignorant fans: “For plays and especially monologues, people who love the work will put it up on a website. They think they are just showing their appreciation of the work, but they are actually stealing from the very people they aspire to honor.”

The websites get reported to them and usually a letter explaining that what they are doing is illegal does the job. Otherwise, “we’re trying to come up with some ideas to bring to the public’s attention that this is a real problem and piracy can end up depriving the writers and composers of theatre of making a living.” Clearly e-publishing shouldn’t exacerbate that problem.

Dingledine’s experience is that playwrights understand the idea of e-publications. “It’s not a foreign or scary concept anymore. Certainly there needs to be protection in place, but we’re feeling confident that that can be done. They are excited about it because they are excited about anything that gets their work into more hands and if this medium will do it, then great. But how we translate the technology to our industry is key.”

As a newer publisher Original Works Publishing faced less hurdles in getting their scripts ready for e-publishing.

As a newer publisher Original Works Publishing faced less hurdles in getting their scripts ready for e-publishing.

Paperless Future
“‘Play publishing’ is really a misnomer because rarely are plays published for reading purposes,” Sevush says. There are library editions and then there are performance editions, which are licensed along with the right to perform the play. “One hundred years ago people read plays like they read novels, as literature, but today it’s a small market and one I don’t think a lot of playwrights spend time thinking about.”

“Over the past 10 years since forming this company, I’ve absolutely fell in love with the play reading experience again,” Goldberg says. “Plays have the lowest readership of any form of literature, three times less than poetry. So for now the general public doesn’t consider reading plays for fun—and I’m hoping we can change that a bit.”
Now the question comes up: will hard copies of plays be done away with completely? “No, at least not within the near future,” Goldberg says, adding with a laugh: “… whenever flying cars happen, then maybe!”

“The actor needs to hold the script, highlight lines and make notes on blocking,” Dingledine says. “Then again I have an associate who was reading his part on stage off his iPhone—so that day might be coming! I don’t see why it wouldn’t happen, but there would need to be new technology available that currently doesn’t exist. I see the educational market leading on that.”

So while there is understandably concern, Sevush is aware of the pitfalls of fighting it. “I remember reading about the musician’s unions going out on strike during the 1930s because piano players were losing their movie house jobs to ‘talkies,’” he points out. “You can’t hold back the ocean with a tea cup, and technology creates oceans … You have to adapt and be willing to ride the wave. So from a writer’s perspective, they ultimately won’t care as long as electronic versions have proper encoding and doesn’t become just a free copy that goes out into the world with no controls.”

Will it transform the art form?

“In a lot of ways, theatre is the most primitive of the arts—it hasn’t changed much since when a shaman stood in front of a fire in a cave and told the story of day’s great hunt,” Sevush says. “You can’t download a live performance. In some ways, its low-tech nature is what keeps it fresh. Being part of the audience is what theatre is and there is simply no electronic equivalent.”

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