Copies All

I was watching an episode of Antiques Roadshow a few days ago and an interesting phenomenon occurred to me.  The things that people bring to the Roadshow to be appraised are always objects.  Objects of one sort or another.  The Roadshow doesn’t value ideas.  Other than the philosophical implications of this concept, it means that books and other–to use the term du jour–intellectual property rarely appear on the show.  Occasionally a first edition of a popular book will come up, as will old collectibles from long past movies or TV shows, and I even saw someone get an appraisal on the shooting script of “Gone With The Wind,” but the ideas and concepts behind the books and movies never make an appearance.

Many of the objects that appear on the Roadshow are mass-produced, or at least produced in some quantity, such as a Rookwood vase or Tiffany lamp.  What distinguishes a valuable object from a run-of-the-mill thing is the quality the artist put into making it, hallmarks of both Rookwood and Tiffany.  Some things, though, are one of a kind, such as paintings and sculpture.  A painting by a well-known artist might be appraised in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Do you have an unknown Frederick Remington or Van Gogh in your basement or attic?

All of these are one-of-a-kind.  Not copies, though copies may be made.  (The copies are never worth anywhere nearly as much as the original.)  Writers, however, are prolific producers of copies.  When a writer pens a story, the manuscript itself is basically worthless.  It’s just for the publisher to use to produce the book.  It’s the story that matters, the story within, the intelligence and mentality that produced the story.  A first-edition of Moby-Dick might be worth a lot of money, but over the 100+ years since it was first published, millions of readers (myself included) have enjoyed the book for its story, not the design on the cover.  Where is the original manuscript of Moby-Dick, anyway?  Anybody know?

Not that this is something to worry about.  We writers deal in ideas, in stories that require a human mind and brain to become fulfilled.  We are producers of copies, not single masterpieces, though I certainly wouldn’t mind owning a previously unknown Grandma Moses or Norman Rockwell.  And the more copies we sell, the better.  Writers don’t generally value their manuscripts.  Those are working objects, not the final product.  The final book is a collaboration of the author and the publisher, who in turn gets help from editors and artists and printers to put out the book.  That’s a far cry from a starving artist toiling alone in an unheated basement battling tuberculosis and rats and running out of titanium white.

The digital revolution has just made the manuscript even less important.  I don’t currently have a printed copy of either of my two finished science-fiction novels, they’re on flash drives, a concept that Charles Dickens likely wouldn’t understand.  I can email the novels around much more easily than I could hard copies (how did paper get to be considered “hard?”).  I could, if I so chose, even have them published in electronic form without a printed manuscript at all.

It’s not the manuscript, it’s the idea behind the book that matters.

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