Disagreeing with Turow on the ‘Slow Death’ of Authors

Scott Turow, president of the Author’s Guild, has an op-ed at the New York Times bemoaning the “Slow Death of the American Author.” The issues he raises sound scary enough: resale of foreign editions of books, resale of ebooks, ebook piracy. Any of those could be bad for writers and publishers, and all of them together with a culture of free information on the Internet seem as if they’re a perfect storm that could reduce publishing to ashes. But really now: the death of authors?

I’m reminded of what Clay Shirky wrote about the newspaper business in 2009. “‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.”

Many found what Shirky wrote in 2009 frightening, and indeed we still haven’t figured out what will work. But it’s not like nobody is publishing newspapers, or news-like web publications. The world is lousy with them. Shirky wasn’t saying we were all doomed, just that the future has yet to be written, but it’s not going to look like the past.

Is book publishing broken? No, not yet. Whatever happens, I doubt there will be less books in the world. Almost 350,000 books were published in the US in 2011, an increase of 20,000 titles from the year before. Many of them were self-published; many e-books. The barriers of entry to publishing keep dropping lower and lower. But it’s very possible it may not be easy to make a comfortable living being a writer (was it ever, other than a for lucky few, though?).

In the New York Times piece, Turow writes: “Now many public libraries want to lend e-books, not simply to patrons who come in to download, but to anybody with a reading device, a library card and an Internet connection.” I’m not sure what we’re supposed to get from this, but imagine he’d written ‘books’ instead of ‘ebooks’ there. I fail to see how being able to borrow a book from home rather than from inside the library is such a bad thing.

And really, picking on libraries? Anyone who’s checked out an ebook online from their library knows there are many hurdles and complexities; enough that going to buy the book from Amazon is a welcome lesson in instant gratification.

This is the point where I think I get it – what bugged me about this op-ed. If Turow is irked by libraries making it possible to borrow e-books, is he just as antideluvian about everything else he’s worried about? From the people I know in writing and in publishing, I know there’s fear and confusion. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen. But I’m not sure what Turow thinks we should do about it, other than cling to the copyright rules that haven’t prevented the issues he’s worried about.

He finishes up: “Soviet-style repression is not necessary to diminish authors’ output and influence. Just devalue their copyrights.”

So it’s output and influence that depend on copyright? I’m not so sure. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that in every industry so far where artificial barriers of scarcity are imposed on things the Internet makes easier (copying, sharing music, etc), the barriers don’t hold for long. I still hope to publish my novels and make some money for the time and effort I’ve put into them. But who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll see a million books published in the US in a decade, almost all of them self-published e-books. It will be a different world, but I sincerely doubt authors will stop writing, or being read. I won’t. It just might be harder to become a Scott Turow. And maybe that’s not so bad.

Update: I’m not the only one (far from it) rubbed the wrong way by this. And I’m certainly not the most articulate or knowledgeable – TechDirt has a great, comprehensive piece on this, calling Turow “an absolute disaster as the Luddite-driven head of the Authors’ Guild,” and pointing out the myriad ways in which he’s wrong. Good stuff.