People sometimes tell me I’m too hard on the Authors Guild and
that I should cut
them some slack. And I’d like to. I really would. But it would help if the
organization would try to meet me half way, or even a quarter way, instead of
continuing to pump out the kind of incoherent bullshit I’m going to examine in this
Okay, the latest. Apparently the Authors Guild has done a
study in which it concludes that “the majority of authors would be living below the Federal
Poverty Level if they relied solely on income from their writing...not only are many authors
earning little, they are, since 2009, also earning less.”
Now I’m no statistician (though I doubt I’m any more
statistically challenged than anyone at the Authors Guild), and regardless picking
apart the report’s basis isn’t what primarily interests me today. But I do have
to note one thing just as an aside. Which is: it’s fascinating that the Authors
Guild could rely on respondents only from its own membership—89% of whom are
over 50, 64% of whom have never even experimented with self-publishing, and
only 4% of whom have eschewed legacy publishing entirely—and then use these
responses to draw conclusions about what’s going on for all authors.
You don’t need to be an expert in self-selection bias and non-probability sampling to understand that the AG’s
stunt would be a devastating methodological flaw in any study (as it is
regarding reports of Association of American Publisher earnings—don’t miss the latest must-read AuthorEarnings report). But given that the most innovative
and entrepreneurial writers in publishing today look at the Authors Guild as at
best a punch line, the error is a showstopper. If the report demonstrates
anything at all, it’s that a declining poverty-line subsistence correlates with membership in the Authors Guild.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement, and maybe
this is why the organization is eager to treat its respondents as somehow
representative of authors generally, including authors who would laugh at the
notion that they should join. Or maybe the conflation is just an unconscious attitude,
a kind of “l’état, c’est moi” reflex. Either way, what the Authors Guild has done here is the
equivalent of polling a group of grandparents, then using their responses to
conclude something like, “No one at all can figure out how to use a remote
All this is bad enough, obviously, but things actually go
downhill from there. Here’s how executive director Mary Rasenberger explains the bad news:
Citing a swirl of factors,
from online piracy to publisher consolidation to the rise of Amazon (and the
shuttering of brick and mortar bookstores), Rasenberger said the takeaway from
the survey is that authors should be receiving higher royalties from
publishers. “Authors need to be cut in more equitably on the profits their
publishers see, or we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built
This isn’t an argument, or anything else that might be potentially useful. It’s
gibberish, the flotsam and jetsam of a self-interested ideology dedicated to a
conclusion and free of supporting facts. To see why, let’s just assume that the kind of author
impoverishment the AG claims to have uncovered really does exist, and examine the
causes the AG alleges and the solutions it suggests.
Piracy is impoverishing
is such a persistent piece of foolishness that Joe Konrath and I have it cued
up as one of our ongoing Zombie Meme posts (I wish we’d written the piracy post already because then I could link to it to save time, which is half the point
of the Zombie Meme series). If Rasenberger has some evidence that piracy is
harming authors, she should share it because simply repeating something again
and again isn’t ordinarily by itself enough to make it so. As it stands,
there’s no logical or empirical reason to believe piracy harms
authors. And if you think I cherry-picked that link by searching for “piracy
doesn’t harm authors,” I urge you to do your own search for “piracy harms
authors,” which will be at least equally revealing.
Publisher consolidation is
impoverishing authors. While I doubt publisher consolidation is much good for authors
(which is why I’ve wondered aloud from time to time why this organization
calling itself the Authors Guild has never done anything worthwhile about it), I also think that if
Rasenberger has reason to believe publisher consolidation is actually
impoverishing authors, she could at least share her evidence. Is consolidation
correlated with fewer books being purchased, fewer authors being published, or
something along those lines? If so, Rasenberger might have something worthwhile
to say. As it stands, the claim is pretty feeble.
Amazon is impoverishing
the previous claim was merely feeble, this one is actually insane. As a
bookstore, Amazon sells more books than anyone. As a publisher, it pays higher
royalties than anyone. So Rasenberger would have you believe that selling more books and paying higher
royalties is impoverishing authors. Does she therefore believe that authors
would be better off if Amazon sold fewer of their books and paid them lower
royalties? I guess she must.
argument this backward should function as a straight-up disqualification of
anyone trying to make it. Instead, it’s reported with uncritical reverence in Publishers Weekly, which apparently is
more interested in providing PR and stenographic services to groups like the AG
than it is in performing actual journalism. Seriously: read the article, and ask yourself whether
even one thing about it would be different if it appeared as a direct press
release on the AG’s own website. My guess is, the bargained-for consideration
in an exchange like this goes like, “As long as we get a sneak peek, AG, we’ll
publish anything you want to say without any pushback, critical commentary, or
anything else that might be confused with actual journalism.”
fear not, PW; in pretending to do journalism while instead performing PR and
propaganda, you are of course in excellent company.
The shuttering of brick-and-mortar
bookstores is impoverishing authors. Well, now I’m really confused…a minute ago, authors were
being impoverished by the rise of a bookstore; now they’re impoverished when
bookstores close? It’s almost as though the impoverishment is caused by
everything, no matter what!
fact, new indie bookstores are opening all the time, so the notion that on
balance bookstores have been shuttering since Borders went bankrupt nearly five
years ago is factually inaccurate. If Rasenberger has information about, say,
Barnes & Noble reducing the amount of shelf space devoted to books, that
might be a meaningful data point. Or again, even more useful would be
information on the numbers of books being purchased generally, given that how many books are being purchased would
seem a more meaningful metric with regard to alleged author impoverishment than
where books are being purchased. And
how big is the size of the book market generally? Maybe the pie is growing, but
the top one percent of that market is making less, leading the one percent to
feel they’re being impoverished (hint: there’s a lot of support for this notion). But something like that would require actual data and modicum of thought, which is why we’re repeatedly subjected instead to
tired, internally contradictory bromides in these AG pronouncements.
Now let’s examine
the proposed solution to the causes of all this author impoverishment: “Authors need to be cut in
more equitably on the profits their publishers see, or we’ll stop seeing the
quality of work the industry was built on.”
Wait, I thought the rise of Amazon—the publisher that pays higher royalties than any other—was impoverishing authors. How is that possible, if the solution to author impoverishment is higher publisher royalties? It’s all just so confusing…!
But okay, no doubt
it’s an outrage that legacy publishers are making more and more and sharing with authors less and less—which again makes all the
more remarkable the AG’s failure to do anything about it beyond than the odd supplicatory blog post. But what does any of that
have to do with piracy and all the rest? It’s like Rasenberger is throwing up a
bunch of distracting chaff instead of saying what’s simply and glaringly
obvious: if legacy authors are being
impoverished, it’s because their publishers are keeping an ever-larger share of
the profits. It has nothing to do with piracy, or consolidation, or with
some bookstores rising and others opening and closing. Legacy publishers make
too much and share too little.
It’s hard to
understand why Rasenberger seems so intent on nonsense that obscures this
obvious truth. My guess is that if the Authors Guild spoke a little more
plainly, more people might wonder why the organization does virtually nothing to address the actual problem the
organization itself has identified.
By the way, I
confess I especially loved that bit of “we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built on”
drama, as though only impoverished legacy authors write quality books (readers, apparently, disagree, which I can imagine might sting a bit among a certain
class of writers). Do you hear that, ungrateful society? Après moi, le déluge!
Just to forestall
any distracting silliness in the comments: I’m not arguing that the Authors Guild
does absolutely nothing for authors (the truth is a bit more nuanced than that). But what mysterious force is
preventing the AG from doing anything meaningful about what the organization itself
claims is the cure for author impoverishment? Here, an easy idea for you, AG: contact
the Justice Department. And no, not with a plea to help authors by dismantling
the bookstore that sells more books than any other and the publisher that pays
authors higher royalties than any other—Authors United has already cornered
the market on that insanity, with your help. But rather, say, with an argument that
the whole legacy industry is built on illegal tying
and needs to be dismantled:
Tying…is the practice of selling one product or service as a
mandatory addition to the purchase of a different product or service. In legal
terms, a tying sale makes the sale of one good [say, paper distribution] to the
de facto customer [here, the author] conditional on the purchase of a second
distinctive good [here, all the other publishing services that would otherwise
be available elsewhere, such as editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover
design, marketing, PR, and advertising]…
Some kinds of tying, especially by contract, have
historically been regarded as anti-competitive practices. The basic idea is
that consumers are harmed by being forced to buy an undesired good (the tied
good) in order to purchase a good they actually want (the tying good), and so
would prefer that the goods be sold separately. The company doing this bundling
may have a significantly large market share so that it may impose the tie on
consumers, despite the forces of market competition. The tie may also harm
other companies in the market for the tied good, or who sell only single components.
One effect of tying can be that low quality products achieve
a higher market share than would otherwise be the case [which might explain why
legacy publishers notoriously suck at, for example, cover design]...
Tying may also be used with or in place of patents or
copyrights to help protect entry into a market, discouraging innovation [which might
explain why legacy publishers are well known for innovating…nothing].
Tying is often used when the supplier makes one product that
is critical to many customers [again, think paper distribution]. By threatening
to withhold that key product unless others are also purchased, the supplier can
increase sales of less necessary products.
In the United States, most states have laws against tying,
which are enforced by state governments. In addition, the U.S. Department of
Justice enforces federal laws against tying through its Antitrust Division
[good news, Authors Guild—a lever by which you can pressure legacy publishers
into sharing a bit more of the wealth!].
publishers of tying is a significantly more coherent argument than accusing
Amazon of being a monopoly. And the “Amazon is a monopoly” gambit is just a ploy anyway. As Lee
Child of Authors United has acknowledged:
I don’t expect anything substantive [to
come from Authors United’s letter to the Justice Department accusing Amazon of
running an illegal monopoly], but books are generally seen as vaguely
important, so the initial think-of-the-children rhetoric might get attention,
and then maybe there might be a back-channel whisper…
organizations can use a ploy as weak as “Amazon is a monopoly” to try to
pressure Amazon into the behavior they want, what’s keeping them from using an
actual legal argument to the same end with regard to legacy publishers? Only
psychological thralldom, I would argue. And certainly an appeal to the DOJ
about legacy tying would be more effective than the “pretty please” blog posts and
interviews which, when it comes to the legacy industry, the AG pretends are its
One other bit
of fascinating bullshit from this Publishers Weekly/Authors Guild joint press
Noting that both “copyright
law and policy” need to be “tailored to put authors’ concerns at the
forefront,” Rasenberger said the Guild hopes the survey will allow it to “more
effectively advocate for working authors.”
does copyright have to do with the author impoverishment the AG alleges? Copyright
term has long since metastasized to mean functionally forever, which might be
good for authors (if less so for society)—except that publishers routine
require authors to assign by contract their rights for the entire length of
those “forever” terms. Rasenberger’s copyright!
argument is therefore at best a non sequitur. Worse, it’s a dodge, intended to
obscure the Authors Guild’s obligation (at least judging from the
organization’s mission statement) to actually do something beyond the odd blog post
about those legacy publisher “forever” terms. What is she proposing, that
someone lobby Congress to amend copyright law and policy (whatever she means by
drawing that distinction) to make copyright even more favorable for authors?
Even if such a chimerical approach (akin to a politician claiming to support
some constitutional amendment, knowing it’ll never happen) might accomplish anything,
it would have zero impact on the real problem—which is, again, that whatever rights
authors have in their works, legacy publishers gobble up everything anyway via
lockstep draconian contractual requirements.
fascinating. The Authors Guild knows what’s the real problem—it’s just that the
organization is unwilling to actually do anything about it. When pressed, its
spokespeople resort to what’s familiar and comfortable—piracy is bad, Amazon is bad, copyright isn’t working—no matter how
irrelevant or untrue these beliefs are repeatedly proven to be. It reminds me
of recent establishment media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s huge
Labour win in Britain—perseverating that Corbyn is “radical” and “divisive”
even as he wins unprecedented majorities and brings to Labour tens of thousands
of new members. How do they know someone who just won Labour’s leadership by a
landslide and is swelling the party’s rank-and-file membership in the process is radical and divisive?
They just do! Who are you going to believe—that comforting feeling, or that annoying combination of facts and logic?
argued before that an Authors Guild worthy of the name would display a little less dedication to the interests of legacy
and a little more to, you know, authors. But maybe there’s a separate problem.
Maybe the organization really does want to help authors. Maybe it even knows
how it could do so and is just too fearful. In other words, maybe what the AG
lacks isn’t brains; it’s balls. Whether it’ll ever grow a pair remains to be
seen, but I wouldn’t bother with these posts if I didn’t live in hope.
Update: Nate Hoffelder at the Digital Reader has a great analysis of what the AG numbers really mean. Among other things: “Far from showing the demise of the American author, this survey actually shows that the youngest authors are better off than they were before…”
The Authors Guild. Even worse than you thought.