Tuesday, April 16, 2013
In case you missed it last week, Authors Guild President Scott Turow took to the New York Times to shake his fist at the wind, lamenting "the slow death of the American author," which he attributed to, well, pretty much everything.
Techdirt published a very lengthy takedown that is worth reading in full (via agent Ted Weinstein), as did David Gaughran and Barry Eisler.
The article spares no bugaboo, but I want to focus briefly on some of Turow's points:
The Supreme Court devalued copyright by allowing the sale of cheap imported books
As Turow notes, used print book sales have always existed. It hasn't stopped the book business yet, and cheap used books are readily available for every book you could possibly want to buy.
How economically feasible is it to round up used books overseas and ship them across the ocean to dump them on the US market and hope to turn a profit? Is this really a significant problem?
Publishers aren't paying high enough e-book royalties
I actually agree with Turow on this one to a certain extent. Yes, publishers save some money without the infrastructure of print copies, but paper and shipping don't cost that much. The other costs that go into making a book, such as advances, editing, design, infrastructure, etc., still exist in an e-book world.
I don't like the 25% net industry standard royalty for e-book editions. Still, let's take a book where the hardcover is $25.00, the e-book starts at $12.99, the trade paperback is $14.99, and the mass market is $7.99. Here's how the royalties shake out:
Hardcover royalty (typically 10-15% retail): $2.50
E-book (typically 25% on publisher's share of 70% of list price): $2.27
Trade paperback (typically 7.5% retail): $1.12
Mass market (typically 8% retail): $0.63
So for a new e-book, the royalty is somewhere in between a hardcover and a trade paperback. Yes, the e-book royalty decreases with the price, but still. It's not ideal, but is that truly horrible?
Turow: "A search for “Scott Turow free e-books” brought up 10 pirate sites out of the first 10 results on Yahoo, 8 of 8 on Bing and 6 of 10 on Google, with paid ads decorating the margins of all three pages."
This sounds menacing, but as Techdirt pointed out, Turow's bigger problem may be that absolutely no one is actually searching for "Scott Turow free e-books."
Yes, e-book piracy is a problem, or at least a potential problem. But, as always, the music industry's experience is instructive. As iTunes, Pandora and Spotify have allowed consumers to consume music easily and legally: sales are on the rise and piracy is on the wane.
The solution to this is precisely what Turow would probably cite as a "problem:" Cheap e-books and e-book lending programs to discourage piracy. Such as...
Turow argues that libraries lending e-books is a potential danger
Some economic model absolutely needs to be worked out so that libraries won't simply function as a free end-around for traditional e-book sales, downloaded by users who don't even step foot in a library. And that seems to be happening.
Better yet, if publishers are really worried about lack of monetization for lending programs, why don't they start the Spotify of books?
Turow says the decreasing number of publishers in Russia means that "few Russians, let alone Westerners, can name a contemporary Russian author whose work regularly affects the national conversation."
I read a profile of Russian crime novelist and political opposition leader Boris Akunin in The New Yorker just last summer.
Zooming out a bit, I don't mean to be a pollyanna about the dangers facing authors and traditional publishers. We are absolutely in a time of transition, and there will be winners and losers.
My disappointment in the Op-Ed and Turow's seemingly rote hyperbolic response to everything Amazon does is that it fails to provide any realistic solutions to any of these supposed problems, let alone position the Author's Guild to be an advocate for authors in the new world of publishing that we are all living in, whether we want it or not.
The Author's Guild has a Back in Print program that aims to help authors get their print books back for sale with online booksellers. Where is the e-book program? Where are the social media and self-publishing tutorials and programs to help authors make a transition from a world where the midlist is disappearing to one where authors can still find their readers in new ways? (These all may exist - I couldn't find them on the Authors Guild site).
Better yet, why can't the Authors Guild use its clout to proactively work out deals with Amazon and other online booksellers to get better revenue splits for members who self-publish than they can achieve on their own?
The thing is, change is coming. I commend the Authors Guild for advocating for authors' rights, but not every single technological development and act by Amazon is necessarily a bad thing.
Instead of trying to fight the wind, the Authors Guild would serve authors better by building some windmills.
Art: Hl. Hieronymus als Kardinal by El Greco