Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Scott Turow and the (Supposed) Decline of the American Author

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


Anonymous said...

My issue with the Turow piece is simple and it is in the title.

It may be the decline of the American author as we know him/her. However, it is the emergence of the new American author yet to come.

Stephen Parrish said...

Great post. I live in Europe, where quiet a few used (American) books pass through my hands, individually and by the box. Used books here are in the hands of individuals, online retailers who sell them individually, and, occasionally, small sidewalk shops. They go, on average, for about a buck apiece---before shipping. Even supposing it's possible to profit from an alleged American demand by shipping used books in quantity, such books would have to be amassed, via mail, from the individuals selling them.

The idea that used books overseas can dent American book sales is fantasy.

Jon Renaut said...

"Devalue" is one of the worst words in the English language. You can't "devalue" something without breaking it. You can lower the price someone is willing to pay for it, but that is a very different thing than what Turow and others who use it in this context are falsely implying.

When they say "you are devaluing books", they are implying that you have taken away some part of the book that gave it value, like if you tore out pages 237 through 252. THAT is devaluing a book.

What Amazon etc are doing is lowering the price people are willing to pay, which is what happens in any competitive market. Books aren't just competing with other books. They're competing with all the other million things that people do with their time. It's insane to think that, with so many things in our lives, the price we are willing to pay for a book will remain constant.

It's similar to saying "I'm sorry that you were offended" vs "I'm sorry I did something offensive". You are admitting that the result is the same - you were offended, or the price of books is dropping - but the way you frame the responsibility and the cause is very different.

In Turow's case, and in apologizing that you were offended, the cause and responsibility is simply false.

Doug said...

A quickie review of Turow's comments suggested that he wasn't so concerned that American authors were disappearing, but that they weren't getting paid enough (in his opinion).

Few artists of any kind get paid enough to make a living at their art. Some exceptional people in the entertainment industry do make enough to make a living, but are they producing art?

The number of fiction writers able to quit their day jobs in the past has been quite low. The writers who make the transition to being fully supported by income from their novels are the super-stars.

With more and more people able to publish fiction, it's going to be harder and harder to make it to full-time status. Maybe that shouldn't be the goal. Maybe we should just try to write something good.

Matthew MacNish said...

Should've known you'd read the Techdirt article.

Karen Cantwell said...

I think it was irresponsible for the president of the Author's Guild to make a public proclamation that the future of "The American Writer" is full of doom and gloom. Shame on him.

Jillian said...

America was founded by a group of rebels who challenged the big authority and came out on top. American history is full of people who challenged cultural and societal norms in order to improve our nation. It's also full of technological upgrades that society inevitably protested. There will always be change and there will always be people protesting that change. We're not seeing a "decline of the American Author," but rather a redefinition of the American Author. When record players became antiques we weren't seeing "the decline of the American musician," we were simply seeing a shift in technology.

Stephsco said...

Great thoughts, especially with the breakdown of royalties.

And I like the first commenter's words about how Turow doesn't acknowledge the NEW American author.

I am also wary of rants that cry the world is ending and offer no potential solutions. To me, he is part of the problem.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

Wasn't it The Author's Guild that signed the settlement deal with Google Books? Why is Amazon the devil and yet somehow it's okay to get in bed with Google?

Anonymous said...

There's also one thing that is not mentioned...anywhere as far as I know.

The fact remains that authors who are already published with publishers and have a readership can now self-publish e-books and price them lower in order to keep up with competition and garner more sales. It's a basic business strategy in a competitive market. And unfortunately publishers really can't price books that low and still make a profit. Readers care about price. The lower the price the more inclined they are to buy, especially impulse purchases. By cutting out the middle man...the publisher...authors can now do this and still make more money. Of course if they aren't established this takes time. But that basically goes for newly published authors with publishers, too. I know for a fact that in genre fiction there was once a waiting list to get into anthologies with small presses that paid flat rates. Now that authors have discovered self e-publishing, the same small presses are almost begging for authors to submit.

Mira said...

Nathan, maybe there is something I'm not understanding here.

Because it seems like you are arguing against raising royalty rates for authors, something that even Turow, who is obviously in deep with Big Publishing, doesn't argue.

You compare the terribly low hardcover and paperback rates with e-book rates and conclude that e-books are adequate because they sit between them?

At a time when Amazon pays rates of up to 70%?

If I'm understanding correctly, you want libraries to pay more. You think that Amazon and other retailers should be pressured to offer higher rates to self-publishers (higher than 70%?).

So basically, you are advocating that the writer get the same, while the retailer and libaries pay more, but taking a stance that Big Publishing pays enough?

I feel like I must be confused. Why would you - an author - be arguing for low royalty rates for authors? In other words, for yourself and for every other author, you think 25% isn't horrible, but Amazon should be pressured to make their 70% higher?

This is pretty confusing to me, Nathan. Perhaps you're not aware of just how rich the Big Publishing Houses are. They earn billions of dollars annually.

And, btw, my understanding is the BPH royalty rate in reality amounts to 17.5%, not 25%. Perhaps I'm wrong about that, but I think that's how it works out.

I guess I'm confused as to where you are coming from here.

Nathan Bransford said...


That's not what I'm saying. I'm not saying authors should be paid less, just that it's not an egregious royalty rate. Yeah, you can get 70% from Amazon. You also aren't getting your book made and promoted by them.

Publishing is an extremely low margin business. It's barely profitable, flukes like Random House's year notwithstanding.

And best of all, authors do have a choice. What will change publisher royalties isn't complaining about the in the NY Times. If enough authors decide they'll take the self-publishing deal or if the Authors Guild creates a viable alternative... THAT will change things.

Mira said...

Nathan -

I agree that Publishers are not going to change because Turow wrote a letter. But he could garner some support from that letter which could lead to more pressure from the author's guild as a community. If the author's guild took a strong stance on that - it would be a very good thing.

Frankly, that was the only part of Turow's letter that I thought was...potentially beneficial.

To your other point, actually, Amazon does contribute quite abit to the self-publisher, in terms of help with formatting, etc. Did you know Amazon is about to offer self-publishers a selection of covers? And of course, there are the forums. As for promotion, Amazon is completely and utterly relentless in its promotion attempts. All authors benefit from that, although, of course, books that sell well benefit more from that promotion, but that is true of the BPH as well. Frankly, I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me the promotion that Amazon does far exceeds anything the BPH's offer authors for e-books, unless you are a huge name.

As for the low profit margin, I'm sorry, but I'm going to contradict you. I just point blank don't believe it. All the Publishing companies are owned by multi-billion dollar conglomerates. The houses themselves make billions annually. E-book sales are through the roof. The idea the the BPH are poor is a myth - they are quite wealthy.

But the bottom-line is, I don't care, and I'm not sure why you do either.

Authors don't need to be co-dependent here. This is business. The finances of the BPH are the BPH problem, not the author's problem. This is a business relationship, and the author should not even remotely care about the finances of the BPH. If a Publishing House can't pay the author a decent e-book percentage, without managing their other costs, like high-end Manhattan rent, or expensive lunch meetings, then they deserve to go out of business.

Bottom line, the author deserves decent compensation. Period.

And I believe authors need to collectively and individually start to bring pressure to bear on this. I believe that very strongly.

Shane Worth said...

Jon Renaut you have your finger on the right issue. When they say "you are devaluing books", they are implying that you have taken away some part of the book that gave it value, like if you tore out pages 237 through 252. THAT is devaluing a book.
So true....

Peter Dudley said...

I'm with both Jon and Doug on this.

I don't know. So much of what I've seen from Turow and others seems to be, "Why can't we just go back to how it was? We understood that, and we liked that."

That attitude has never, as far as I know, actually resulted in change unhappening.

wordwan said...

Actually, something just occured to me. The Author's Guild is handing the problem OFF to Amazon.

Which is pretty typical of this kind of group. They have a hierarchical process: coupla big guns at the top; the rest 'support' the big guns and are just supposed to accept that reality.

They aren't gonna 'do' anything, because they still 'live' inside that kind of structure.

Thing is: Amazon seems a tad 'hierarchical' too. That 'process' needs to be dispensed with.


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