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
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:
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.”
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?
- Search engines
- 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.
…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.