Nathan Bransford, Author


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Does the Authors Guild Serve the Interest of Writers?

Author David Gaughran, whom many of you may know from around these parts, had some harsh words recently for the Authors Guild, the advocacy group for published writers. Gaughran argued that the Authors Guild doesn't serve writers

Among the reasons he cites include the Guild's opposition to the DOJ's investigation of collusion among publishers and their fixation on Amazon as an enemy, including the Guild's naming of controversial self-publisher PublishAmerica as a victim of Amazon's actions. Separate but related, the DOJ actually cited Gaughran's letter about the collusion lawsuit in their public response. Mr. Gaughran? He's a smart dude.

So has the Authors Guild really become an organization that no longer speaks for writers? 

It seems to me that self-published authors naturally have some affinity for Amazon. They congregate in the Kindle forums, they appreciate Amazon as a self-publishing platform, and people who are pro e-book are naturally going to gravitate to the people who essentially created the modern e-book market. I understand that.

And like many of the self-published authors out there, I've found the Authors Guild's stridency toward Amazon to be a little harsh at times. Yes, there's a publishing ecosystem that many Authors Guild members may want to protect, but as Barry Eisler so eloquently pointed out, "It's pretty hard to see how someone could destroy bookselling by selling tons of books."

At the same time, I must confess to being a bit confused why self-published authors feel so strongly about the DOJ lawsuit and the Guild's opinion about it when it affects them... not that much? At all? (Here's some background on the lawsuit).

If anything, giving Amazon greater flexibility on pricing on traditionally published e-books (which the settlement will do) cuts into self-published authors' ability to use low prices as a marketing tool.

Do self-published authors really want the Authors Guild, which, again, only allows in traditionally published authors, to speak for them? Do self-published authors believe the Guild is actually undermining any of their interests?

Even if I don't always agree with the approach, there's a legitimate case to be made for a diverse, vibrant bookselling environment that fosters competition in the marketplace. The fate of brick and mortar bookstores doesn't matter much to the vast majority self-published authors, at least from a career perspective -- they're not selling there anyway -- but they do matter a great deal to published authors, and to the public at large.

I don't think people are wrong to fear the hegemony of one or two massive corporations and what that could do to authors' ability to profit from their work in the future.  I don't think it's wrong for an organization like the Guild to take a stand for competition in the marketplace. And I don't think that arguing for competition hurts self-published authors. There's no such thing as a benevolent monopoly.

But who really should be speaking for authors, especially at a time when authors both publish and self-publish? If not the Authors Guild, what should exist?






33 comments:

Matthew MacNish said...

I'm not sure there is an answer.

Jaimie said...

"But who really should be speaking for authors, especially at a time when authors both publish and self-publish?"

You, Nathan! You! Haha. (No but seriously.)

Thanks for all these informative posts. Keeps me up-to-date somewhat.

Sarah Nicolas said...

I think a lot of the issue lies in the assumption that what is good for one author is good for all of them. The Author's Guild is doing its best to represent the opinions of its (most vocal, at least) members. That's what a guild does; I don't think we can fault them for that.

Lillian Archer said...

Clearly, the need for adequate representation by all favors of authors necessary. I wonder if there will be a version of the Authors Guild for self-pubs by this time next year.

E.J. Wesley said...

I think it's fair to question Amazon AND the Author's Guild. Authors should understand that only they (the individual) will ever have 100% of their best interest in mind.

Which isn't to say these other entities are evil per say, so much as it indicates that this is a business. Business is competitive. Business breeds self-serving people and ideaologies. Business usually operates at the expense of something, or someone. We are in a business, or in the instance of true Indies, we are the business.

So, I'd recommend folks align themselves with the entities that serve them best. If that's Amazon, great. If that's the AG, great. If they can both work for you, then support them both.

Gehayi said...
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Gehayi said...
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Gehayi said...

I don't understand why the Authors Guild only permits print authors to join. It seems like snobbery--as if they're saying that only those who publish print books are legitimate authors. I love print books with a passion--but ebooks and their authors are part of the market now. It makes very little sense to refuse to represent certain authors because they publish in one format rather than another. It's impractical and it works counter to the interests of all authors, most of whom are trying to simul-publish print AND ebooks these days.

I'd like to think that next year there will be a version of the Authors Guild for ebook authors and e-publishers...but I doubt it.

Ted A. said...

I think the issue is developing a new criterion for being able to join the Guild.

I'm still learning about all this but you might like to see another viewpoint on the Author's guild.

The author of the blog post maintains the Author's Guild represents Big 6 Publishers interests much more than authors.

http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2012/03/barry-joe-scott-turow.html

ginnad said...

Well, it seems like you are assuming that a self-published author can't be a member of the Author's Guild.

While that's true for new authors who have never published traditionally, you are discounting the growing number of writers, often on the midlist, who are either self-publishing their backlist, or writing additional works exclusively for self-publishing.

They may still work with the trad publishers, either in the present or future. It's not so cleanly either/or.

I think that it's valid for Author's Guild members, no matter how they are currently publishing, to question where their dues are going. There is some valid concern that the AG seems to be speaking more for the big 6 than individual authors.

Nathan Bransford said...

Ted A.-

I don't agree that the Authors Guild represents the interests of publishers. There's some overlap to the extent that publishers' and published authors' interests align, but on other issues they are more than happy to take up sides against publishers.

The Guild has just taken the position that competition and the survival of brick and mortar bookstores and avoiding an Amazon monopoly are in the best interest of published authors. To that end, they agree with the approach publishers have taken, but that's only because they believe that's good for authors as well.

And ginnad, I thought I acknowledged that overlap at the end. I still maintain that I don't really see where the concerns diverge.

Linda Austin said...

I am an indie published author and find Amazon to be a snake in the grass. I saw how they tried to dominate Lulu and other subsidy publishers until they were taken to court and backed down. They bullied Goodreads who slapped them down. They now list Lightning Source books at 2-8 weeks availability which is a lie. I am disgusted with Amazon's ugly business tactics. Apparently Mr. Jeff doesn't have enough money yet.

The Authors Guild is pro big publishers because most of their authors still use them and they want their authors' books to be worth their hard work and all the professional work of top editors, and designers. They also like bookstores because that's where authors have their events. Amazon cares about money, not books, not authors. Successful indie publishing is much more work than going trade, and not every author can be Mr. Konrath (or wants to be).

Natalie said...

I'm a self-published writer, but I agree that ALL WRITERS should be in favor of a vibrant, diverse market place for our wares.
Amazon has done two things in the past couple of months that have impacted (I believe intentionally) self published authors. First, they modified their algorithm, decreasing (or possibly even eliminating) the "bump" that authors who participate in Kindle Select get from their free days (where you sell exclusively for a set period on Amazon but can offer up to 5 free days for your title). It used to be that the free downloads affected the ranking of the book when it went back to the paid side of things. This afforded writers (often) a significant bump in sales for a few days, or even a week or two.
This has all but disappeared. This has had a significant impact on self-pulished authors' sales and has taken away what was, for a brief time, a fabulous way to get your work discovered by new readers. Who knows if Amazon did this with an intention of dampening self-published sales, but it has had that effect.
Second, Amazon has gone on a campaign to purge reader reviews. It appears (though there is no data to back this up) that Amazon is clamping down on enforcement of their policies about reader reviews. I can't say if this has had any significant effect on traditionally published authors, but it HAS impacted self-published authors.
My point: Amazon is a large corporation. Amazon's job is to sell things. They will create policies and procedures - and take actions - that protect their own bottom line. They are no more friend - or foe - of the writer than a publishing house, or Barnes & Noble, or any other person or company engaged in the publishing industry.
It is unwise to put all your eggs in one basket. Watch out for yourselves and be flexible, ready to modify your strategy or course of action to protect your own bottom line. This is a business.
Whether the Guild is a true friend to writers or not, I cannot say. But any organization that purports to protect the rights of writers needs to ensure that they are not making an enemy out of the single largest source of sales, worldwide, for ALL writers. They should read the "Art of War". Friend your "enemy".

John M said...

Natalie-
I completed a free five day promotion on Amazon a few weeks ago and saw a big bump in sales. The big increase in sales didn't last as long as I wanted, but I am still very happy with the results. And to answer your question, Nathan, I think that in the end it will be readers that speak for self-published writers (and traditionally published, for that matter). Readers are the true "gatekeepers" and I, for one, am happy that Amazon has made it possible for me to connect with them.

Tom C. Cole said...

Well there is the Association of Independent Authors!

http://www.independent-authors.org

Tom C. Cole

Disclaimer: I'm the Chairman of the AiA's Honoring Excellence Committee.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, but how does supporting price collusion allow for MORE competition in the marketplace?

Please read bestselling author and former lawyer Courtney Milan on why price collusion is price collusion and all of the letters from the author' guild, various literary agencies, etc have no legal bearing:

http://www.courtneymilan.com/ramblings/2012/07/24/your-unspecial-antitrust-snowflake/

Anonymous said...


I don't understand why the Authors Guild only permits print authors to join. It seems like snobbery--as if they're saying that only those who publish print books are legitimate authors.


Take heart! Thing are changing! I attended RWA National this year and was so pleased that they are now allowing self-published authors into PAN (their sub-group for published authors). There is a minimum on how much $ you've made, and that minimum has been heatedly debated, but my ear to the ground said THING ARE CHANGING.

Anonymous said...

(and I spelled things are changing wrong twice. sigh)

Mira said...

Vital topic for discussion!

First, I want to add my kudos to David. His posts are thorough, intelligent, well-researched and articulate.

I think the point I most want to address is your question, Nathan, about why independent authors care about the DOJ suit and the Author Guild statements.

I think they care for a couple of reasons:

a. The alleged collusion and resulting agency model seriously hampered Amazon's growth. Like you said, many self-published authors have an affinity for Amazon.

b. Anything that happens in the publishing world affects all authors. Changes in one part of the market affect the rest of the market. Competition, pricing, avenues for publications, these are of direct interest for any author, no matter how they may have published.

c. As one commentor above pointed out, there is a fluidity between traditionally and independently published authors. Many fall in both camps, and many more are considering doing so, even if it's in the distant future. All of these have a stake in what the DOJ does.

d. In terms of the Author's Guild representing Independents, it does, by virtue of its name. In its letter to the DOJ, it did not include a footnote, stating that *these opinions do not represent those authors who did not publish traditionally. The on-line journals and articles and blogs, when they referred to the Author's Guild protesting the DOJ settlement, did not say, "oh, but they don't actually represent a huge segment of authors." Feeling as though you have been represented against your will to the public is very frustrating.

In terms of the Author's Guild letter, it's worth mentioning that the DOJ was extremely unimpressed. Their response re. Amazon having a potential monopoly was this:

"In the course of its investigation, the United States examined complaints about Amazon’s alleged predatory practices and found persuasive evidence lacking..."

The DOJ then went on to say:

"Even if there were evidence to substantiate claims of ‘monopolization’ or predatory pricing’ they would not be sufficient to justify self-help in the form of collusion.”

The DOJ also made a point to mention that they received letters from Author Guild members stating they did not agree with The Author Guild protest.

So, it's not only independents who are having difficulty with the Author's Guild supporting an illegal action to supposedly combat a monopoly that had not yet occurred....by raising prices for the consumer. Raising prices means less book sales, which hurt authors. The agency model meant authors made less money on each sale, which also hurt authors. So less money + less books sold. I would also argue that the Authors Guild, in defending a criminal action, hurt their own, and by association, all authors' crediblity.

If anyone is interested in reading the full DOJ statement, it's pretty interesting.

Here's the link:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/100822270/Response-of-Plaintiff-United-States-to-Public-Comments-on-the-Proposed-Final-Judgment

Mira said...

Oh, I'd like to add one quick point.

I'm all for a vital marketplace full of competition, but I'm not convinced that is what the Author's Guild is advocating.

I think they are advocating that things stay the same. Those in power remain in power, despite their lack of ability to compete, and Amazon loses power.

Anonymous said...

I'm traditionally published and eligible to join the Authors' Guild.

What are the possible benefits to me? I looked at their website. The opportunity to purchase a health insurance policy which looks pretty good for those who live in NYC, but for my region, is an overpriced high-deductible HMO.

That's all. Oh, and they'll review my contracts, but my agent already does that, and, to quote Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother, "I read a bit, myself."

Other than that, all I know about the Author's Guild is that until they stepped in and objected, we were all going to get a small check from Google. Instead we got nothing.

YMMV.

Angie said...

Indie pubbed writers aren't necessarily arguing only for their own narrow self-interest. Many are looking at the bigger picture and are arguing for the health of the system in general, and the good of the readers. Note that all writers are also readers.

Note also that the big publishers and Apple aren't the doughty heroes fighting for everyone's freedom against the evil Amazon Empire -- they're the evil Big Publishing Empire battling the new Amazon Empire, which has been cutting into their game recently. The large publishers have been throwing peanut shells to the vast majority of their writers for decades, and now they're trying to mess over readers too, by charging ridiculously high prices for e-books, and forcing everyone else to go along with that pricing. That's wrong, it's collusion, and it's illegal for a reason.

The laws against collusion exist to protect the consumers, not one or another group of vendors. "But Amazon is competing better than us!" isn't a valid exuse for breaking the law. Luckily the DOJ knows that, even if the Author's Guild doesn't.

Angie

Catherine Ryan Hyde said...

Good post, and thoughtful comments. I just want to add the following. Everybody always assumes that market dominance is a permanent thing. Even though it never was before. I became an author in the very early 90s. The exact things that are now being said about Amazon, almost word for word, were being screamed at the time...at Borders and Barnes & Noble. They were going to take over the world, kill diversity, dishonor literature, and make it impossible for authors to make a living. In the end, the business that best serves authors and readers will thrive (even if they haven't yet been innovated). And just shouting that the old ways were better, by those well-served by them, won't do much good for very long. One person's opinion.

Al Norman said...

This reminds me of the debate over who the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) really supported. Back when piracy was all the talk in the music business, the RIAA was big on claiming how the musicians were being cheated out of money by pirates. After all, saying that musicians were getting cheated sounded more sympathetic than saying a multibillion dollar company was hurting.

Then we come around to the last few years, when artists are beginning to exercise their termination clauses under the Copyright Act of 1976, whereby an artist can terminate the grant of copyright signed after 1978 once 35 years has passed--no matter what the contract said in terms of grant length. Certain forms of work were excluded from grant termination, but sound recording were not one of those exceptions.

The RIAA, who was happy to use the artists' plights for sympathy to gain support against piracy, successfully pushed for a change to the reversion clause, making sound recordings exempt from grant recapture, thus stripping artists from the ability to regain copyrights. Fortunately, many artists noticed and lobbied for the repeal of the article. They succeeded. The way I see it, the RIAA speaks for the record labels but will use the artists' plight when it benefits said labels.

My point is, I prefer to look at actions made before I pass judgment, rather than stare at the title of the group. Yes, the AG is good in going against Google. However, I also believe traditional publishing needs a good shake-up, which could benefit authors in the long run. The AG should take a wait and see approach, then make suggestions to its members on the most lucrative avenues of publication.

Peter Dudley said...

The vitriol and letter-writing is really about picking sides, either pro-Amazon or anti-Amazon. I've been watching this for some time, and I can't see any other fundamental reason coming through in people's comments or the letters to the DOJ.

Suddenly everyone who's ever touched a book has become an expert in anti-trust law and in the secret dealings of big companies. Really? I guess there's an element of trying to suss out what's really best for consumers, authors, publishers, bookstores, online retailers... but in the end there will be this System. And smart businesspeople will successfully exploit the System to their advantage. And I predict Amazon will be among the successful ones. And traditional publishers will be among the unsuccessful ones. Because they prefer to litigate instead of innovate.

I normally try to look "big picture" when I comment here and not get hung up in my own little selfish egotistical view of things. I'm going to break my own rule on this one.

I blogged my feelings on this very topic some time ago (not the AG angle, but the AG weighing in is apropos). It all makes me shake my head in sadness, really.

Fiona said...

Nicely written, Nathan. I have wondered the same things--about the Authors Guild and about why self-published authors are so worked up. Perhaps part of it is that there is no one to speak for them collectively? (At least not that I know of.)

Witness the immense amount of anger toward Sue Grafton for making some thoughtless comments that I think were actually aimed at vanity press authors. She doesn't seem to understand the ebook market at all, yet there's a pitchfork/torch mentality. I was wondering some authors/bloggers seemed to be taking the comments SO personally, but maybe it's the fact that they feel like no one is speaking for them? Not sure.

Alan Ryker said...

Is it possible to have a retail monopoly? Because, if Amazon started to screw the authors, wouldn't they, and then the customers go elsewhere? And if they started to screw the customers, wouldn't the sales dry up and the authors go elsewhere?

I think you have to control the product to have a monopoly.

London Crockett said...

Thanks Nathan,

I'm a fan of physical books and I love my Apple products, so I've worried about my own biases. However, whenever I've read the reaction of the gung-ho self-published community, I've cringed a bit at the lack of critical analysis. The Amazon love-fest forgets it was Apple's deals with the Big Six that changed Amazon's pricing model to the benefit of self-publishers (I believe Amazon used to offer 30% instead of 70% royalties).

At the same time, it's not clear that any of the major players have authors's interests in mind. I suspect authors will feel they're getting screwed no matter what the model is. Depending on how you value different aspects of the business flow-chart, they'll be right.

Claude Nougat said...

Very good question, Nathan and very interesting comments.The Authors Guild has certainly damaged its image in some quarters...And it should come as no surprise that Amazon caters to its bottom line, they all do, including traditional publishers. And so do authors!
I'm intrigues that there is an organization for independent authors: http://www.independent-authors.org and shall check it out!
Once again, thanks for an excellent post!

John Stanton said...

I feel like there are no 'good guys' in the whole DOJ / publisher fight. If the big six didn't do what they did years ago, the Kindle would control 95% of ebooks instead of 75%. At the same time, the big six seemed to demonstrate a text book example of price fixing (an industry breakfast meeting to fix their Amazon pricing issue?). The DOJ couldn't ignore it. However, the DOJ is involving itself in larger issues they don't see or understand and could create damage to the free market in ways they never imagined.

I have to comment about the Author's Guild. As a kid dreaming of being an author, it would have meant the ultimate level of success to be a member of the Guild. But now as I look at their membership requirements, everything I felt about them is gone and even if I qualified I wouldn't join. They do not represent 'writers'. They are a trade organization supporting writers who deal with publishers. There's not anything wrong with that but by no means do they represent the broad world of people called writers.

Mira said...

So, this is interesting!

Evidently in April, the Author's Guild opened its doors to independent authors, at least as non-voting members. They announced it at a meeting...I think.

Here's the Salon article that discusses it:

http://open.salon.com/blog/matt_paust/2012/04/27/authors_guild_opens_door_to_self-published_writers

And here's what they said:

"All of the rules aren't in place yet, but self-published authors who earn at least $500 in writing income in the 18 months prior to applying do qualify for associate membership," King said in a statement. He explained that associate members would receive all the benefits of regular members, except for voting in Guild elections.

King added, "Self-published authors will also be able to qualify for regular membership, but our board has to establish the income threshold for that category."

Anonymous said...

Self published authors need a guild.
Louise Sorensen
louise3anne twitter

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