Waiting for Turow

Waiting for Turow

Who are the power players in reading?

Clearly, there are the readers…you and me. We can greatly impact things, even if we don’t always do it consciously.

If we don’t buy a book, that influences what other books are published. It can decide the fate of editors and even publishers.

The publishers are another power force. While the decentralization of distribution is sending them scrambling, traditional publishing still has the biggest impact on what is available and what authors make the most money the most regularly.

The retailers also have power…at least, until and unless direct distribution from publishers (who may simply the author of the book) gains a lot more market share.

That brings us to the authors.

Those are the people who actually write the words we read.

Who speaks for them?

For traditional authors, the obvious answer is

The Authors Guild

an advocacy group that is just over a century old.

Who speaks for the Authors Guild?

Scott Turow, their President, is undeniably one of their spokespeople.

The best-selling author recently made quite a statement in The New York Times:

The Slow Death of the American Author

Cheerful, forward-looking title, right? ;)

Just what I would want to read from my leader…”We’re doooooomed!”

We can hold Turow responsible for the statements in this piece. Not only is Turow a writer, but a Harvard educated lawyer. This is not a spur-of-the-moment e-mail, or even a blog post like this (I try, and succeed, to average at least 1,000 words a day for you in this blog, in addition to a full-time job and other interests…that means I can’t always be as careful as I might be if I had a week to write something).

Assuming that Turow is saying exactly what is intended, there are some really quite odd suggestions in this article (which I highly recommend you read).

The opener talks about the Kirtsaeng case, in which the Supreme Court recently decided that even if a book was made outside of US jurisdiction, someone who bought that book could still resell it in the US without the copyright holders’ permission.

Turow, not unreasonably, suggests that the decision could mean that more books are sold used in the USA, which could reduce the royalties authors receive.

It’s easy to see scenarios where that isn’t true (if publishers raise the price of foreign editions to match that of USA editions, this resell model becomes much less likely). It’s also worth noting that this was done with textbooks…and I would venture to guess that many of the contributions to textbooks are done as works for hire, with the author being paid a lump sum rather than a royalty (although I don’t know for sure). The decision isn’t limited to textbooks, but they are high-ticket items. It would be much harder to make a profit by importing novels.

Raising the prices for overseas editions might even result in more money for authors.

However, one of the things that Turow says is that this is…

“…the latest example of how the global electronic marketplace is rapidly depleting authors’ income streams.”

Wait, what?

The student had friends and relatives outside of the country buy the paper textbooks, mail them to Kirtsaeng in the USA, and then sold them on eBay at a profit.

Physical books were snail mailed and resold.

Arguably, eBay is the global market mentioned, but all the electronic part of this happened here.

If eBay didn’t exist, Kirtsaeng could still have sold the physical books here.

It’s just an odd leap to go from what Kirtsaeng did to the “global electronic marketplace”.

Turow next lists groups of people who are “…vying for position at authors’ expense”.

Ready for the roster of evildoers?

  • Publishers
  • Search engines
  • Libraries
  • Pirates
  • Some scholars

Go back and look at the third one again.

Scott Turow, the President of the Authors Guild, is saying that libraries are hurting authors.

Libraries.

…where many people become readers, and which are an increasingly important source of discovery, with the loss of brick-and-mortar bookstore chains.

Whether libraries actually are a problem or not, is that really where you want to go in an op-ed?

And don’t get Scott Turow started on e-books! Whoops, too late! :)

The weird thing here is that Turow acts like independent publishing of e-books doesn’t exist. Traditional publishers are ripping off authors of e-books, Turow suggests…as if there is nowhere else to go.

Turow’s tirade goes on…go ahead and read it to see what else is making the future for authors so dark.

Let me say right now: things have never been better for authors in America than they are now.

Many people who want to write and be read now have the opportunity who didn’t have it ten years ago.

Many authors are making money (even if it’s not brand name author kind of money) on their writing.

Authors have more freedom, more choices, more opportunity.

Yes, it’s different for someone who is already established like Scott Turow, and used to things being done a certain way.

Those ways be changing, but that doesn’t mean authorship is dying.

I’ve got to quote one more short excerpt from the piece, for the sake of criticism:

“Authors practice one of the few professions directly protected in the Constitution, which instructs Congress “to promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The idea is that a diverse literary culture, created by authors whose livelihoods, and thus independence, can’t be threatened, is essential to democracy.”

Remember that Turow is a lawyer.

Was this really about a “diverse literary culture”, or about “Science and the useful Arts”? I don’t think the framers were looking to particularly protect fiction with this…I think they wanted people to take the risk to create something, such as a map, and be able to profit from it to encourage that risk-taking.

Regardless, if this really is about a “diverse literary culture”, e-books are really delivering on that! There are thousands more independent e-books published each month than traditionally published e-books…and by a much, much wider group of authors with different viewpoints.

The Authors Guild should be embracing these changes, trumpeting them…and looking to protect authors’ rights. They should be cutting edge and innovative, not backward-looking and stodgy, as even their name indicates…I mean, “Guild” sounds so much like the Middle Ages, right? It makes it sound like you are hanging out with blacksmiths are arrow fletchers, well, except that the former has an active and welcoming web presence. ;)

Lead, don’t impede.

Tell us about how authors make the world better, and what we as a society can do to help them do that.

We’d all get behind that.

Until then, there’s just this absurdist sort of comedy, and like Vladimir and Estragon, we are waiting for Turow…

What do you think? Is Turow right? If things do look that bad, what can authors and/or the Authors Guild do about it? Want to challenge my statement that things are better for authors now than they have been in the past? Feel free to let me and my readers know what you think by commenting on this post.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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15 Responses to “Waiting for Turow”

  1. Tuli Reno Says:

    I am not an author or a lawyer, just a reader. I agree with all the points you made here having already read his comments in the Times. He goes after libraries for heaven’s sake! And I have read elsewhere what he thinks of e-books.

    I hate to use the words stupid or ignorant because I doubt he is either but from my perspective, and I can only speak for me, I couldn’t figure out where he was coming from or where he was going with his comments. They were very confusing. What is it that he wants to accomplish? What would he have the reader do?

    As a reader I have purchased more books since the advent of e-readers than I ever did before. That’s the best I can do for the authors of America and Great Britain and Ireland and various South American countries, and probably Canada and I think maybe India and a few European countries.

    You know what would be fun? A debate between JA Konrath and Scott Turow whether authors are worse off and if e-books foretell the end of civilization as we know it. I’ll buy the popcorn.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tuli!

      The only thing that makes sense to me is that this is written for Turow’s “constituents”. It may make sense to paint the world as a terrible place, if you want people to think of your organization as something that can save them. I’m not sure that this was the right place to do that, though, since it will be widely read by readers, not just authors.

  2. Tuli Reno Says:

    Here’s a link to comments by Barry Eisler about Turow.

    Scott Turow And The Politics of Cowardice

    http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/

  3. Zebras Says:

    It sounds like he might personally be bitter that the e-book market is cutting into the profits that he and the elite few were making through traditional publishing. As others have stated, e-books have expanded my world. My reading selections are no longer limited to what publishers have decided in advance will sell a certain number of copies.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Zebras!

      I’m not sure it’s profits as much as prestige. P-books (paperbooks) aren’t necessarily becoming less profitable for authors (although if they were exclusively mass market paperback authors, not Turow’s case, there may be an impact). I think it may be more of both the prestige (anybody can be an author these days), and the increased competition which might impact future income.

  4. Lady Galaxy Says:

    He says about libraries lending e-books, “In this new reality, the only incentive to buy, rather than borrow, an e-book is the fact that the lent copy vanishes after a couple of weeks.” He is totally overlooking the possibility that the reader will like the book so much it will result in a sale! Back in the days when I could still read paper books, library loans led to many purchases. Now that I’ve recovered the ability to read thanks to the Kindle format, I have purchased 3 of the e-books I “borrowed” from the KOLL. I borrowed them first because I wasn’t sure I would like them. I ended up liking them so much that I wanted my own copies. I’ve just finished up reading the whole Harry Potter series, and I’d like to buy those as well, but I can’t seem to figure out how Pottermore works!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      Yes, that was particularly bizarre. Libraries have always been part of discovery (that’s how Overdrive promotes it). I have also bought a book I first read in the KOLL, and I wouldn’t have read it otherwise. My Significant Other discovered four authors (and that’s key) through public libraries. When you borrow one Scott Turow book from the public library (e-book or not), you may want to go on to buy the others. You also certainly might buy a book you borrowed for other people.

      What issues are you having with Pottermore? Here is a post where I went through the process…it might have changed, but my guess is that it is still right:

      http://ilmk.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/all-seven-harry-potter-books-can-now-be-purchased-for-the-kindle/

    • Tuli Reno Says:

      Please excuse this off topic. I found your comments about not being able to read very interesting. The same thing happened to me. I was allergic to the dust mites in the books, I was having attention deficit problems and couldn’t make it to the end of a page without my mind wandering, and the print was just too small for me as I aged. I’ve been an avid reader most of my life but for several years didn’t/couldn’t read. E-readers have changed everything for me. I liked the way you put it: “Now that I’ve recovered the ability to read thanks to the Kindle format…”

  5. Edward Boyhan Says:

    This post is a little like trailing some red meat under my nose :D . In my years on Wall St I frequently dealt with lawyers — there is something about their training that makes them see the world twisted 90 degrees from the rest of us — so I don’t find Mr. Turow’s “loonyness” all that surprising.

    On another level he’s defending all the established “old skool” authors, and their concerns with their perceived “evildoers” — the list of which hasn’t changed much for them in generations.. I think the author’s guild is increasingly going to be irrelevant as established authors die off. New authors will (IMO) increasingly turn to publishing models that dispense with traditional intermediaries like agents and publishers. In so doing the will have a closer more direct relationship with their customers (you and I :grin). This presents a problem for the tradpubs — where are all the new authors going to come from?

    As to copyright, I’m not a lawyer (thank God) and haven’t read the details in the constitution closely, but from an ethical and moral viewpoint it seems to me that copyright should exist as a mechanism to provide compensation for the work that authors do. Society also has an interest in seeing that creative works are widely distributed.

    IMV copyright.should only last for the lifetime of the author, and go into the public domain upon his/her death. Copyright should be structured so that authors are rewarded if they engage in practices that foster wide distribution, and should be penalized if they enter into arrangements (such as exclusive distribution/publishing deals). Of course none of this is anything like what we have today. Publishers are an anachronism ::-).

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      I think the “skew of the view” for lawyers comes in part from the law being decided on non-tangible elements. You can’t look at the physical, real world facts of a situation and know what a judge (or even more so, a jury) is going to decide. It’s much more about the ability of the lawyer to state a case…so the intangible becomes key.

      It was pretty clear to me that blocking text-to-speech could have been prohibited (or at least, removing the block could have been exempted from penalty) if a better case had been presented.

      In one case where I was on a jury, we started out 11 to 1 in one direction, but flipped to all twelve in favor of the one person’s position. Why? The one person argued, correctly, that the prosecution hadn’t proven their case (although they could have easily). We had to decide against what we thought was logically true to comply with the law. That doesn’t help lawyers value common sense. :)

      My problems with lifetime copyright are primarily two. One is that it seems reasonable to me to have the heirs be able to profit from the author’s work. We don’t say that you can’t leave shares in a company to your heirs, or that your house belongs to the people as soon as you die, and that’s the equivalent.

      The other, and more important thing to me, is that it is inherently ageist. A 90 year-old author is statistically much more likely to die in the next ten years than a twenty-one year old author. That means that the 21-year old can make a lot more money (and they can leave the money to heirs) than a 90 year old on a book. I’ve been pretty surprised that no one has challenged the copyright terms on that basis…

      For more on this, see my post

      Should copyright be permanent?

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