Project Gutenberg & the Value we put on Words


Most people know, or at least have heard, about Project Gutenberg. Its mission is simple – to encourage the creation and distribution of e-books.  Up until now it’s focused on amassing works, even minor ones, of major authors whose books are in the public domain – a vast array of classics now numbering more than forty thousand. What it wants is to provide as many e-books, in as many formats, to be read world-wide in as many languages as possible.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  At a time when the libraries are taking a flattening, certainly in the UK, here’s an online project appearing to achieve some of what libraries first set up to do – to spread public literacy [rather than stymie it], break down barriers that prevent people from reading, and develop an appreciation of our literary heritage. At least if one has access to a computer. 

Well, the reason I’ve chosen Project Gutenberg as my subject this month is because last year they launched a new e-book enterprise called the Authors Community Cloud Library and [typically] I’ve only just come across it and [even more typically] I’m not quite sure what I think about it, and I’ve always found that writing about a thing is as good a way of working that one out as anything else. 

The idea is that authors can now upload and distribute their self-published works through a self-publishing portal, and have it made available to Project Gutenberg’s vast worldwide readership. Project Gutenberg has had authors clamouring for this for years apparently.  There’s even  a social networking component to it all, allowing for all the stuff we’re now so familiar with - star ratings,  comments, reviews, feedback etc. 

All of this would have come sooner, but the sudden death of Project Gutenberg’s founder [and leading light in the Cloud Library’s development], Michael S Hart, meant that the launch didn’t happen until the 4th July last year – a great date if you happen to be American, or interested in the fact that what many consider to be the first ebook [the digitized Declaration of Independence] appeared on that date in 1971.

There’s something for everybody here.  Project Gutenberg is happy because its Cloud Library enables it to add a contemporary component to its digital canon. E-authors are happy because their books are being made available to a whole new reading public and they don’t even have to give up their rights. And readers are happy because perhaps one of the biggest barriers Project Gutenberg smashes through is that of cost.  

Aye, there’s the rub, as Shakespeare might have said - especially if you’re a living author seeking to keep it that way by earning a crust.

Maybe all those writers of classic literature who’ve been made available again by Gutenberg are cheering from their graves. But living authors? Self-published because the e-book market is an opportunity authors? Authors like me, say, still writing and trying to earn a living today – would I, seriously, want to be a part of this library?

This is a genuine question, not a rhetorical one. What do I think about books being for free?  Once my books are in the Cloud Library, readers can visit the site, search the archives and download those books AT NO COST.  Then again, on Amazon, readers can browse their free offers of the day [made available by e-authors who’ve signed up to Select] and download as many e-books as they want AT NO COST. 

NO COST is good, apparently.  Those of us authors who think otherwise have blinkered vision. NO COST has  a knock-on effect.  Giving away our books AT NO COST raises our profiles. Weird as it may sound it’ll actually sell our books.

Well, I haven’t seen much of that myself. On Amazon Select I’ve given away thousands of Midnight Blues and, apart from suggest I write the sort of books that have no worth, I don’t think it’s done anything for my profile.  It certainly hasn’t sold truck loads of books.

And if I don’t sell, why do I write? For those of you who think starving in a garret is part of the job, I’m not joking here. This is a serious and important question.  And equally important for those of us who are readers, what value do we put on the books we read?

I can only answer for myself.  I write to earn a living. I earn a living to write. I write because I have to; it sorts me out.  There’s no way I can separate these statements.  Writing stabilizes me.  Time and again it literally saves me.  And it sets me free. I write fiction because I see life in terms of story, and stories are what drive me.  I write non-fiction for much the same reason. There’s a story in everything, and I love finding the words that tell it – and the word ‘telling’ here is crucial.  Telling implies a recipient. These stories aren’t just for me.  They’re stories that need sharing, and I have faith to believe that, though I don’t always get things right, what I’m sharing is at least worth listening to.  

So if the answer to my first question is to tell, and to be listened to what’s the answer to the second question, the one about the value of books?  Well, if a writer’s worth listening to, they’re worth paying for.  It’s as simple as that.  The value I’d put on, say, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, would be equal to what I’d pay for a Picasso if I could afford to buy one.  I could hang them both up side by side in my very own gallery and they’d be each other’s equal.  And the same for other books too.  You must know what I mean. Those books that have moved you and changed your lives are of inestimable worth.  And, when you think of it like that, it’s not just the 99p end of the e-book market that’s a giveaway - even a hefty £25 hardback price is a good deal.

At least, that’s what I think.  What do you think?  And look out for my post next month when I examine the other side of this coin – if an author’s work is of value and should be paid for, is there ever a place for giving words away?




A Word in Praise of SoundCloud

This is not what I’m supposed to be doing this morning, but I just feel inspired to write it anyway.  Do you listen to Soundcloud?  If you don’t you should.  Certainly if you’re the sort of person who complains about X-Factor type music and the plastification of popular music since the likes of Simon Cowell got their hands on it.

Soundcloud is full of musicians of talent and passion playing their stuff not because they’re making vast amounts of money out of it, but because they love it, collaborating with each other, commenting and supporting each other and sharing new songs and old.  As I write this I’m listening to Anju, who’s voice is as good as any you’ll ever hear anywhere.  Before that I was listening to Idris Davies, who sings the blues like he was born to it, so intimately too, that he has you almost feeling you’re breathing the same breath.  Before that I listened to Telefan playing with Milana, whose soulful, gospel-inspired voice really dishes it out, Prawnsontoast [and what an original, interesting voice she’s got] and my home town’s own Chris Quinn, relatively new to Soundcloud, I notice, but great to hear him there, and sounding good too.

I can go onto Soundcloud, find my favourite singers and just leave it running.  Why would I want to listen to all that junk that comes up on some radio shows [BB SKone, if you're reading this, I don't mean you]? These are real musicians. I recommend Soundcloud to you.  


Idris Davies:


Chris Quinn:

Telefan with Milana:

PrawnsOnToast with Idris:



'Point de Vraic, Point de Hautgard'

‘No seaweed, no cornyard’ goes the old Guernsey proverb. And no research, no book, say I.   I’m currently working on a novel I’ve been planning for a while, which is based on the island of Guernsey where my mother was born. It would be impossible - if not amazingly unhelpful to the creative head of steam I'm trying to built up here - if I shared with  you what the book’s about. But there are so many fascinating snippets of information that are coming up that I thought I might share some of those.

Like vraic - or, to you and me, seaweed.  Until the eighteenth century, vraic harvesting was one of Guernsey’s major activities, apparently. Vraic collection was allowed during much of the year, but twice a year in particular, at the summer and winter harvests, men, women, children and their carts would pile down onto the beach to harvest the tide.

There were two types of vraic.  Probably it would all seem the same to us,  but there was a great difference apparently between the vraic scié collected by bill-hook and sickle off the rocks, and the vraic venant, thrown up onto the shore, sometimes after storms to a height of several feet. 

One vergée of land, comprising 7,640 square feet, would require the collection of two to three carts full of vraic scié and four to five of venant, it being a seaweed of  lesser quality. Some of the vraic scié would be burned first for fuel, and its ash spead over the land.  I'd be very interested to know what burned seaweed would smell like, and what it would have done to the cooking pot, but that practice had more or less died out by the eighteenth century [though might revive it for the book].

It’s hard now to imagine a land where the gathering of fertilizer wasn’t seen as a green option, but as one of life’s yearly necessities.  Apparently the value to the soil of vraic was considered so highly that provision was even made for those poor islanders who didn’t have access to horses and carts to be allowed onto the beach before the main harvests, so that they could take away on their back as much as they could carry. And when it came to the  main harvests themselves, people and carts would pack the beaches, working until dark, or in the water even until the tide came right up.

Well, there ends today’s miscellaneous fact.  You may not have guessed when you woke up this morning that you’d end up knowing about seaweed harvesting in the Channel Islands.  But now you do.  And as the next year goes by and my book proceeds, you may end up knowing a few more miscellaneous facts.