The other night at a dinner party, a museum professional was talking about how expensive and time consuming it is to both borrow artworks for exhibitions and to publish catalogues. Insurance, shipping, permission fees, not to mention reams of paperwork, make the whole process grueling, if not sometimes impossible. Since I have spent many frustrating hours working on permissions to reproduce artworks in over a dozen books from poetry anthologies to biographies of artists, his remarks resonated with me.
Recently I had to track down a photograph of an artist in his studio. There was a sculpture in the photo. Permission was needed for both the photo and the sculpture. The archives of the artist's work belong to a university. The photograph belongs to a foundation, which is represented by an artist’s rights organization. No one could find a transparency or a high definition image. But everyone wanted a fee. And the fee varied accoding to the print run of the book and the size of the image on the page. I finally tracked down the original photograph by writing to the photographer’s widow. Hundreds of dollars later and weeks of e mails back and forth, the transaction was finally completed. This is not an isolated incident. I call it the “scavenger hunt” aspect of writing non-fiction. One clue leads to another. The more trouble it is to ferret out source material, the more determined I am to find it.
In a non-fiction book that depends on photographs, quoted material, and artworks to help the reader understand and appreciate the subject matter, there always are considerable fees for the copyrighted material. No wonder some publishers of children’s books would prefer getting an illustrator to imitate the works of dead artists. Yet the children reading the book are seeing copies instead of the real thing.
Writing about living artists is much easier. Chuck Close, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Louise Bourgeois, to mention a few artists Sandra Jordan and I worked with, were unbelievably helpful about sending images without charging a fee. In fact I’ve been fortunate that all my publishers, Abrams, Random House, and Roaring Brook Press, have been generous with permission budgets. I’ve never had to scale back on reproducing artworks. But budget cuts in publishing, coupled with rising costs in permission fees, will force publishers and authors to face a difficult future.
In a recent article in the NYT, The End of History (Books), Marc Aronson, award-winning editor and author for adults and children, noted, “Unless we nonfiction writers are lucky and hit a public-domain mother lode, we have to pay for the right to use just about anything – from a single line of a song to any part of a poem; from the vast archives of the world’s art (now managed by gimlet-eyed venture capitalists) to the historical images that serve as profit centers for museums and academic libraries.”
Aronson is concerned that the removal of photos and even text from print books converted to e-books to avoid the expense of permission fees will result in dull and lackluster products. He has some suggestions, calling for a new model for permissions, which involves paying rights based on accounting of actual downloads, instead of upfront fees. In terms of print books, he suggests that perhaps the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers get together and create standard rates for quotes and images keyed to print runs and prices. If something isn’t done about expensive rights fees, he says, then “entirely new or the overly familiar” will be published and “History’s outsiders and untold stories will be left behind.” Apple’s IPad may never replace what I call “real books,” the ones with covers and pages we can lovingly touch, but all of us who write nonfiction need to work together to insure that artworks and quoted material do not disappear in the coming (already here?) digital age.