I don’t know how many of you saw Scott Turow’s “The Slow Death of the American Author” op-ed in a recent New York Times, but it’s certainly worth checking out. While I absolutely disagree with his sensational title as well as with the general tone of the article (which seems to suggest that the “American Author,” whoever and whatever that is, is “dying”), I do agree with some of his arguments regarding copyright issues.
In his op-ed, just to give you a summary, he begins by discussing the recent Supreme Court case that legalized “the importation and resale of foreign editions of American works, which are often cheaper than domestic editions” (Turow). Using this as a starting line, Turow then goes after a number of big-hitters including Google and Amazon and discusses how many of their practices are negatively impacting the publishing industry and writers’ abilities to capitalize upon their writing.
As a researcher, I truly do sympathize with Turow’s frustration over Google’s blatant skimping and teasing around copyright law by scanning thousands upon thousands of text materials online to create their Google Books library/database — but, then again, this tool was a large part of how I was able to conduct a great deal of the research for The Trickster in Ginsberg without going totally bankrupt on buying new books. But I do believe that Google should have to pay a fee of sorts to every copyright owner whose book/text material gets clicked on/viewed through Google Books. It’s only fair, in my mind, that these copyright owners get paid for their materials if those materials are bringing viewers/users (and thus more advertising) to Google. Rather than alienating itself from the producers of texts by digitally printing their materials without offering compensation, Google should instead factor a certain fee or royalty into their Google Books advertising and thus pass the costs along to their advertisers and a paycheck along to their content providers. This will not only endear them to writers and publishers but will also increase the ability of writers and researchers like me to actually consider buying many of the things that are advertised. This would thus benefit not only Google but, ultimately, its advertisers as well who will potentially reach a wider audience as Google expands its collections of searchable material.
Anyway, I still don’t see this as the death of writing or of authors. As a general rule, authors have always been paid poorly when they’re even paid at all. And I would say that a larger problem than our shifting copyright law is the shifting culture among many young or beginning writers to post their works online for free. I am not saying that everyone should write for money — I wouldn’t say that I write for money either, but for the joy, promise, and potential of the work. However, this doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve to be paid for its use once it’s published. After all, if this work is going to be put to use in a way that generates income for thousands of others (helping to keep the publishing industry going, for example, which would be nowhere without its authors), to entertain potential audiences, to educate potential audiences, etc., then it is a tool that these consumers should pay to have produced. To be frank, have pride in your work and your career — recognize that writing is legitimate work. What’s more, my writing is legitimate work. It would serve us writers well to remember that the work of other writers is also on the line here. And when the market is flooded with free materials, it becomes harder and harder for others to eventually get paid for the services and goods of writing. Many writers I’ve known over the years have held up the idea that writing is an isolationist’s work. However, it’s looking more and more like we may have to break out of such isolationist fantasies and see that there is a world for our writing beyond our desks — a world wherein the success and failure of our work impacts the success and failure of the work of others.
Authors and researchers need to learn to work within their markets, fight within their markets, earn within their markets, rather than undermine and work against those markets. Again, I’m not saying everyone should write for money, but I am saying that they shouldn’t simply give their work away — this, to my mind, does not serve the best interests of the author nor does it serve the best interests of the writing world. After all, it’s nice to be financially secure enough to be able to write in one’s spare time and then give said writing away online for free. However, this effectively bars others who are not financially secure enough to spend their free time doing something that has no hope of bringing in any financial support. This, in other words, is a terrific way for people with computers and the gifts of leisure time and disposable income to block out the voices of those who do not have such luxuries.
Ultimately, I feel like if we really wanted to hold Congress accountable for its job to promote the growth of writers and researchers, then we would. But the American people have already spoken, I feel, by pirating music, films, and books constantly; by supporting resale stores like HalfPrice Books; and by supporting monopoly groups like Amazon (many of which I do myself). And while I understand that there are choices and then there are “choices,” I really do think we have bigger things to worry about in this situation than what authors are going to get paid. After all, what about those Americans and those millions of non-Americans who still don’t have access to computers? Who still don’t have access to libraries or books or magazines?
I guess us writers will just have to do what we want people to pay us to do — Get Creative. 🙂
Turow, Scott. “The Slow Death of the American Author.” New York Times: The Opinion Pages. 7 April 2013. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/opinion/the-slow-death-of-the-american-author.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.