Oh, woe be unto us, for the American author is an untenable and dying breed. The world conspires against the American author, actively seeking to destroy this noble breed!
The American literary arts are certainly in trouble, but what’s happening in publishing now is no more the death of the American author than the era of Napster was the death of the American musician. What we’re seeing is the culling of the archaic, corporate monsters, bent on preserving The Way of Doing Things that made them rich, but that simply does not work in the changing landscape. What we saw then with music, as now with books, was an explosion of smaller labels doing things differently and finding a multiplicity of ways to flourish.
The most recent luminary to mistakenly bemoan the passing of the author is Scott Turow, author of assorted legal thrillers, all around good-guy lawyer, and president of the Author’s Guild. Here’s his article, give it a read. Good, now take a deep breath, because he’s sort of wrong about a lot of things. I’ll offer dissenting opinions, in order.
First, the importation of books from overseas. The case he’s referring to dealt with textbooks, not the fiction/nonfiction/memoir milieu of the “American author” Turow’s worried about (not that it doesn’t apply to their books, too, but…). While this is a huge problem for companies that distribute textbooks, it’s much less of one for the majority of authors. Just ask any first-time author about their international sales; most don’t even manage to sell international rights, which means no international editions to import. I’m sure Turow’s books are sold internationally, but he still doesn’t write textbooks. Advanced textbooks are generally sold in English in foreign countries, because English is the language of math and science. This is not true for fiction, which is generally translated for foreign markets. Are you going to buy a slightly cheaper version of a legal thriller in Turkish or Mandarin? I thought not. So calm down.
Next Turow gnashes his teeth at those infamous pirates, and at the cruel internet corporations who prop them up with their damnable search engines. First, the way Turow writes creates a space to infer that it would be nice if Google were held accountable for its search results. THAT WOULD BE FUCKING TERRIBLE. That gets into the internet censorship debate, and that’s a whole other can of worms that I’m not going to approach because it’s too fucking stupid to even look at sideways. You can’t control the internet, attempting to do so would be detrimental to the development of the human species, and let’s never talk about it again.
But what about the pirates? Well, the simple answer is this: many people understand that spending their money on art (games, movies, music, and books) that they enjoy is a way of supporting those artists and is an investment in those artists. These are the people who pour millions into Kickstarter campaigns, or pay five or ten dollars for a “pay what you want” album. They want to pay for art because they understand that it takes time and effort for the artist to create. Now, just a few paragraphs before attacking pirates, Turow goes after the publishers for not offering writers a sufficient cut of the profits from their work. If the prevailing atmosphere is one of “all the money goes to the damn corporations,” those very important artistic investors are less likely to see their money as an valuable contribution to the artist. Enter the small press, which operates in a very transparent manner, and which values the writer above its bottom line. The small press that can, not coincidentally, successfully fund itself through Kickstarter.
You’ll never get rid of pirates, they’re a part of life, and DRM and censorship will only ever be self-defeating. The trick is to make people feel like their time and money are valuable, valued, and important. They’ll pay you if they love you, they’ll pirate if they feel undervalued or unwanted.
Also, the professors Turow attacks for wanting information to be free aren’t talking about art-books, about novels and plays and the like. They’re talking about government-funded scientific research which is then published under a copyright that makes it unavailable to the same taxpayers whose money paid for it. They don’t want to erode the copyright claims of the world’s Scott Turows, so leave them the fuck out of this.
As far as re-selling e-books and remote e-book library lending go, I’m on Turow’s side. These products are cheaper because they don’t require the same investment in their physical instantiation, but to me that means ownership goes one way. The purchase of a game on Steam or a book on your Kindle or an album from iTunes, that gets you a license to use that item on any device you own for your own consumption (or within fair-use doctrine), at a lower cost than a more limited physical item, is an investment you don’t get to undo. That’s an opinion, but I think a fair one.
Look, Turow is very concerned about the erosion of the value of an artist’s copyright, and that’s a valid concern. But the biggest problem for the value of that copyright is it’s initial devaluation by the mainstream publishing houses. The big four (is it three yet? I think it might be three) do not treat authors (who are not bestsellers) particularly well, and are completely opaque about their practices. Authors have to fight tooth and nail to even get accurate sales numbers for their own books. The overwhelming corporate concern with the bottom line, the saber-rattling over piracy, and the very public battles over pricing and ownership are all huge turn-offs for the investor-consumer. In attempting to protect their particular Way of Doing Things, publishing houses are devaluing the American author’s work and ownership of that work. They will either have to change or they will collapse, but the American author isn’t going anywhere. Like the American musician and the American game designer, the American author will find other ways to flourish.
Yeah, it’s going to suck for a while, and a lot of people with expectations base on the old system are going to be very disappointed, but it’s a change, it’s not The End. No, if you want to talk about pernicious threats to literature, start with the publishing industry…well, and our failing education system, but that’s a whole other article.