This Is Not the Death of the American Author

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.


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17 Responses to “This Is Not the Death of the American Author”

  1. This Is Not the Death of the American Author | The Passive Voice | Writers, Writing, Self-Publishing, Disruptive Innovation and the Universe Says:

    […] Link to the rest at The Willarium […]

  2. change it up editing Says:

    I read Turow’s article earlier today, and I was disappointed that he seemed to go off on tangents. While he brought up points that are definitely food for thought, his argument was unfocused. You’ve provided some valuable counterarguments here, and thanks for taking the time to do so.

  3. Bridget McKenna Says:

    Thank you. Good to hear a voice of reason answering Turow’s panicky pronouncements. I find it somewhat amusing he’s slamming publishers for elevated ebook prices after defending their right to collude to fix prices higher. He seems to love his bully pulpit and the sound of his own voice, but has very little to say that any 21st century writer needs to hear.

  4. Outside Link: This Is Not the Death of the American Author | The Willarium. | Bob R Bogle Says:

    […] This Is Not the Death of the American Author | The Willarium. […]

  5. George from Toronto Says:

    As my younger cousins say:

    “You sir– rule.”

  6. Meg Griswold Says:

    I agree on many levels with this. I am fighting a somewhat related battle in education with the belief that “e-books are killing learning and education.” I think that there are educators reacting in a similar way to Turow.

    • Will Kaufman Says:

      I do think highlighting and making margin notes are important…maybe I’m just being nostalgic. And, of course, I was lucky enough to have my own school books. Students who have to use school-owned books don’t have the luxury of marking them up. However, those students could use e-reader’s highlighting and annotation abilities without “damaging” the book.
      We just need to be supporting reading, and if e-readers help, we should embrace them.
      Also, props to you for being an educator!

      • Meg Griswold Says:

        Thanks! A common misconception is that you can’t highlight or make notes in an e-book. Not only can you, but you can tweet your notes and marks, follow the notes and marks of others and you can see all of your notes and marks on the Kindle for PC or Mac app. You can click a highlight or comment and go straight to that part of the text. Yes, it is different, but it is still possible.

  7. Dumitru Sandru Says:

    This is the Renaissance American Author, not the death.

  8. tierratemplada Says:

    I do agree with Turow regarding lending e-books at libraries. This is simply too convenient. At most, it should be possible to read e-books while physically _at_ the library (connected to the local Wi-Fi), not at home. Otherwise, why buy ebooks indeed.

    As for ebook reselling – this is a problematic topic. Although reselling does hurt the author(s), it is something that has been done for ages. If we deny this privilage to readers, they may stick to physical books. Especially when ebook prices remain the same, or even higher, than the traditional medium.

    Essentially, when I buy sth, I acquire its ownership and should be able to sell this ownership. The problem is – with physical items (books, games etc.) – used products are by definition inferior. With ebooks, this is not the case. So – why buy a “new” ebook, when you can buy an old one cheaper?

    One solution might be to impose a commission when reselling ebooks, of which part will go to the author/publisher. This is more or less what is happening in the games industry, too. Publishers are looking for ways to profit from resales, to the great outrage of customers.

    • Will Kaufman Says:

      I guess I think of ebooks as more a digital license, and there aren’t any other similar licenses that can be resold by private citizens. A digital product is inherently different from a book, with different advantages and limitations, and I see no reason to try and treat it in the same way as a book.
      Also, ebooks are often about six dollars less than the cover price of a book (never mind the Amazon paperback price, that’s a bit of a skewed number, and a different issue). I’ve worked in used book stores, and sold tons of books online, and getting six bucks for a used book is a lucky break. Heck, we’d have people bring in boxes of used books that we’d outright decline to buy and they’d just leave the boxes there with us.
      Publishing houses do need to be more transparent, and authors should get a bigger cut of ebook profits, and maybe if those things were true consumers could think of their purchases as investments in the authors and the work, rather than goods to be traded.

    • Meg Griswold Says:

      Currently, publishers set the number of times an e-book may be lent out by a library before the library must purchase a “new” e-book. Most publishers have calculated that after 26 lendings, a physical book must be replaced. So, a library may lend a book 26 times. Think of it like purchasing a license to the book. I think that that is an okay solution at present.

      • tierratemplada Says:

        Actually, didn’t realize that libraries need to re-buy the licenses. In that case, I can agree that it makes _some_ sense, even if it’s still roughly 26 sells less for the author/publisher.

  9. Book Bank Vol. 19: I’ll drink to that! | Anjali Enjeti Says:

    […] Another writer comes out against Scott Turrow’s op-ed piece from […]

  10. Lots of kerfluffle this month | How To Write Shop Says:

    […] * Oh, wait. No, we’re not dying a slow death! […]

  11. The Actual Death of the American Author: On the Granularity of Genre | The Willarium Says:

    […] few months back I responded to Scott Turow’s arguments about how copyright infringement and digital distribution would […]

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