"The novel, as we know it, is about to change." Edward Ambergris beamed at the audience before him. They, for their part, squatted uncomfortably on their ricketty wooden chairs, glaring at him with narrowed, yellow eyes. Word had leaked out about what was to be proposed and the air in the lecture hall was thick with anger and dark mutterings.
Edward continued. "The traditional novel is a work of art, steel pages anchored to a granite spine, set in the most exquisite of locations, but consider the drawbacks-"
"There aren't any!" An unseen voice shouted from the audience.
Edward smiled weakly. "A novel is displayed in a single location. Anyone wishing to read it must travel there, and then pay a shilling to read the particular pages on display that day, all within their alloted time. It can take many years and a small fortune for an ordinary man or woman to read a single work."
"Art is nothing without suffering!" The same unseen voice. Then after a slight pause, "Their suffering, obviously, not our suffering."
"Ladies and gentlemen, please, open your minds to this possibility," Edward said. He held out a crude, rectangular lump, then the entire assembly gasped as he split it open to reveal the pages within. "See? Pages! Made from paper."
The unseen voice revealed itself. Marmaduke Cotterbum. "Paper is for wrapping gifts and wiping your arse, you little upstart. What relationship could it posibly have with the novelist's art?"
"With this," Edward said, waving his paper book, "every man, woman and child could have their own copy of a novel. Still for a shilling but their's to read wherever they choose, whenever they choose to read it."
"Ridiculous," Cotterbum said. "A novel is supposed to be read at a location of the author's choosing, allowing for climate, scenery and a myriad other details to aid and enhance the appreciation of the work."
"Especially if the land's to be had for cheap!" A different unseen voice shouted. Cotterbum, snorted, apparently unhappy to be on this particular side of anonymous barracking.
"But don't you want your work to be read?" Edward asked. "A printing press can produce, literally, hundreds of copies of your novel every day." He stepped to the floor and handed the book to Cotterbum. "Just imagine a copy in every hand."
Cotterbum tore the book in half and handed it back to Edward. "Only a fool would want something so intangible, you dolt." He narrowed his eyes. "You propose that these printing presses will mass produce my novel like pots and pans. So what's to stop anyone from copying it?"
"Ah!" Edward said, "it would only be legal for printers with an official license to copy the work, keeping track of how much is to be paid to the author. However, after a certain amount of time I imagine it would be in everyone's interest for the work to be freely available to anyone that wants a copy."
The room fell silent.
A wizened old man was helped to his feet with the assistance of those to either side. "Young man," he said, the words escaping as a loud world-weary sigh. "I rely upon the revenue from novels to put food on my table. Would you have me starve?"
Edward's collar was feeling particularly tight, so he hooked a finger into it to take a deep breath. "Of course not, mister... might I ask your name, sir?"
"Silas Humpwinkle," the old man said with all the expectation of a man who assumed he need say no more.
"Mister Humpwinkle, I'm sure the novel you wrote will-"
"Oh, I didn't write it," Silas interrupted. "My great grand-father wrote it, but I am now the sole beneficiary, and be assured, I have become mightily accustomed to the money that it brings me. It puts food on my table, sir!"
"And paid for an army of whores and cart loads of opium," a loud whisper chimed in from several rows back.
"Life has been most satisfactory," Silas said, his gummy mouth twisted in a leer. He thrust a crooked finger in Edward's general direction. "And how do you propose I make my living with no money coming in?"
Edward looked helpless. "Couldn't you write your own novel?"
The old man spluttered and clutched his chest. After swallowing a generous dollop of brandy from a proffered flask, he said, "That's your answer? That only a man who creates something should be expected to profit from it. Madness and idiocy. I have heard enough!"
Silas turned sharply to leave, but mis-judged the move and over-spun slightly so that he was facing his chair. He contemplated this for a while, obviously weighing up the wisdom of a counter-turn, but eventually began to shuffle sideways, bumping and stepping upon those still seated. Once he had made it to the aisle, all about the hall rose to leave, but in deference to the old man they let him lead them out, so that it was a very long time before they had all finally stormed off.
Edward looked forlornly at the torn pages of the book in his hands. "But it seemed such a good idea..."