The event at the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress was part of the “Copyright Matters” lecture series started by Pallante in 2011 as a community forum to discuss the practical implications of copyright law in the 21st century. On December 11, 2012, the lecture series turned to a celebration of sorts. The event began with a beautiful rendition of Happy Birthday to You, staff of the Library of Congress taking stage to lead the audience in this time-honored birthday tradition, singing to the Authors Guild. But as the excitement of 100 years turned into a poignant discussion of the state of the industry one has to wonder where the industry is headed and whether it will be possible for authors to actually put in the time and energy to create their works on a professional basis given the direction of the marketplace.
The first speaker at the event was world-renowned author Scott Turow, who also happens to be the President of the Author’s Guild. Turow began by speaking about a recent trip to Russia, where he explained that the authors in Russia are quite depressed because they face such long odds, not being privy to the Constitutional protections and rights that are given to U.S. authors, for example.
Russian authors also have a very difficult time getting their books published. There is only one publishing company, and even if a book gets published within days it is knocked-off, which makes it impossible for authors to actually reap the benefits of their hard work. Turow said he didn’t know whether to be upset or honored, but four of his own works have been knocked off in Russia. Of course, Turow has alternative markets for his works that authors in Russia do not.
When content creators are not afforded the ability to reap the rewards of their efforts they cannot engage in such efforts nearly as much. That is a truism that is unassailable by anyone willing to employ logic. If you cannot make money spending time writing, for example, then you have to spend time making the money you need to exist doing other things, which necessarily curtail the amount of creation one can do. While opponents of intellectual property rights will challenge that truth, it really winds up being a math problem that recognizes that there are only so many hours in a day. If we want content created rights must be respected. Relying on the benevolence of those who create in their spare time and give it away for free is a foolish exercise in my opinion. We simply cannot ever hope to achieve the same level of content creation. It is that simple.
“Obviously it is a much different universe today than when I published my first book – 1L,” Turow said. There were hardcover and paperback editions back then, but increasingly eBooks and online sales dominate the book market. Turow explained that the rise of bookstore chains and discounting, which took an enormous toll on independent bookstores, was unfortunate because independent bookstores is where most unknown authors get their start. He explained that in 1987 an independent bookstore helped promote his early books, which is how he managed to get started.
Concentration is not good for authors in many ways because it reduces competition, Turow explained. “Major publishers have all locked-arms on a new royalty rate for e-books, which is roughly half of what authors would receive on the traditional sale of books.” Indeed, Turow is on to something. It seems that the way that book publishers have seen fit to adapt to the new realities is to squeeze the content creators, which seems hardly likely to fulfill the Constitutional purpose of fostering more of these works.
Unfortunately it seems this type of downstream squeezing is the new normal. But how are we going to get authors to create the content that we want at the levels we want if they are not going to be able to enjoy the fruits of their endeavors? Again, if you are honest, realize there are only 24 hours in the day and are competent at basic math you have to appreciate that squeezing content creators is little different than stripping rights altogether. Squeezing the artists will mean less art. Sure, the top tier authors will be fine, but what about the far more numerous authors who make a living but will never enjoy mega-success?
Turrow explained that he doesn’t understand why those who believe in the free and open model want to take away from those authors who do not prefer to give their work away for free and who make a living writing. “There are those, especially in the academic community, who believe everything should be open access,” Turow explained. He would go on to say that he doesn’t begrudge anyone who freely chooses to give their work away, but asked why they seek to foreclose the for-fee model that so many authors rely upon. Indeed, that is something that I myself have never understood. Why does it always turn out that people who want different models seek to force others to adopt their model? This “my way or the highway” changing seems unjustified coercion. It is also contrary to the principles the founding fathers wrote into the U.S. Constitution.
On the panel that wrapped up the event Turow pointed out a stark reality. He said that those who are sounding the alarm on the plight of the author given the new reality of eBooks and wanton copyright infringement are not luddites. He said: “We are not against eBooks and we are not against Amazon.com.” Turow went on to explain that he thinks Amazon.com does a number of things very well, but that the reality of the marketplace for books is that frequent readers are the most educated members of society, but they are also the ones who are most likely to buy online. “I don’t have a problem with digitization of works as long as the authors are paid,” Turow said.
Turow also shared a conversation with his daughter, who told him “none of my friends think it will be possible to make a living as an author.” That would be truly unfortunate if the business models of today cause that to become some inevitable reality.
As I see it the problem is that eBooks dominate and one company dominates online sales of all kind, which puts downward pressure on content creators. It also makes it tougher for new authors to break through. Thus, the new reality of the publishing industry may well push us to a reality where writing is more of a hobby and less of a profession. That would be truly unfortunate.
The new reality is that content creators are getting squeezed all around. Increasingly many want things to be free and don’t care whether they copy a public domain work or whether it is something that is copyrighted. They don’t see it as wrong, but this makes it difficult to make a living for content creators. Truthfully, for some content creators it is darn near impossible. Yet everywhere you turn content creators are getting the short end of the stick. If it isn’t blatant and wanton copyright infringement online (which I have to deal with all the time), it is authors getting pennies on the dollar for eBooks or musicians who worked with Pandora to help the company get off the ground taken to Congress so the U.S. government can step in and take from creators for the benefit of the company they helped create. See Artists Oppose Internet Radio Fairness Act. Even the name of the bill supported by Pandora — the Internet Radio Fairness Act — is insulting and misleading.
If we want great volumes of high quality content then we need to make it economically feasible for content creators to make a living creating that content. The nay-sayers and open movement also need to get real and stop with the nonsense of pretending that most content creators are multi-millionaires who play to packed arenas and travel by private jet and limousine. With the growth of the Internet Age and advancement of so many wonderful technologies, cheaper cameras, usable and affordable video cameras and so many other gadgets virtually anyone can be a content creator.
The founding fathers wanted to reward those with the foresight and determination to create so that those who enjoy the creations can have maximal choice. It would be a shame if this 100th birthday celebration of the Authors Guild goes down as nothing more than a footnote.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I am an associate member of the Authors Guild. Presently to be a full member of the Authors Guild one must have sold a book for profit. I understand the Authors Guild will be revising membership guidelines soon to allow for membership by professional content creators who primarily write Internet Publications. Once membership guidelines are update I will proudly become a full member.