From the President
BY SCOTT TUROW
Adapted from a speech presented at an Authors Guild centenary event held on December 11, 2012, at the Library of Congress in Washington.
I recently visited Russia, where I spoke at the American Center in Moscow. I had been expecting to see evidence of a vibrant rebirth in Russian literature following the long period of Soviet repression—the era of the samizdat, when novels were traded among readers in secret. Yet, in the nation of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, my highly literate audience could not name a contemporary Russian novelist. The writers I met in Russia were more discouraged about their positions than any I have met in the world—more so than even the Chinese, who live in a world where paper publication is a rarity and authors are compensated for the number of hits to their online books.
The reasons are clear: extraordinary concentration in the Russian publishing industry and rampant book piracy. Writers—an independent literary class, beholden to no one but readers—pose a significant threat to a government that crushes any organized opposition. As a result, there is currently one publisher in Russia; the authors I met believe it is owned by a pal of Vladimir Putin. What’s more, any book or author that attracts more than minimal attention is quickly pirated. There is virtually no system to police this; publishers are toothless.
One imagines we could never face such problems in the United States, where copyright is explicitly protected by the Constitution. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution directs Congress to make laws “[t]o promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their Writings and Discoveries.” These words represent a policy decision whose wisdom is confirmed by looking at what is happening in a place like Russia. The premise is that a diverse literary culture, in which authors are an independent class whose autonomy can’t be threatened, is good for our democracy. Dismissing authors as an interest group that is interested only in maintaining book prices—as some government officials recently did—flies in the face of a constitutional promise that authors should have exactly that right.
But authors’ rights are threatened not only by those who want to pretend that that the Constitution doesn’t say what it does, but from a broad and diverse array of forces, most of them arising from the growth of a digital universe that pits traditional allies against each other. We are all scrambling to find a secure position.
None of these problems are especially threatening to best-selling authors. Writers who are well known and established in the market are going to come out the strongest; some may end up in a better position than before. The model that some would like to see become universal—that of the author as entrepreneur, publishing without a publisher, works well for authors who can bankroll their own editing and marketing. It does not work for first time authors inexperienced in the ways of online marketing, nor for less successful writers who support themselves by writing. The Guild’s concern in confronting all of these challenges is not to shore up the position of those who are already doing well, but to maintain the diverse literary culture that the Constitution envisioned, in which new voices and new ideas have a chance to emerge.
“The writers I met in Russia were more discouraged about their positions than any I have met in the world…The reasons are clear: extraordinary concentration in the Russian publishing industry and rampant book piracy.”
- Scott Turow
When I published my first book, One L, 35 years ago this year, it was in the context of a simpler world, where publishers sold hardcover and then paperback editions of works at a set price. In the years since, the publishing and bookselling ecosystems have undergone radical changes.
The rise of bookstore chains and book discounting, and of online sales of physical books, have all made the road harder for independent stores—which are, generally speaking, the proving ground where new authors have traditionally emerged and where new voices have long had the best chance of breaking through.
And of course we now have e-books, which have removed all barriers to buying books, and displaced publishers as exclusive gatekeepers for what the public gets to read. Say what you might about 50 Shades of Grey, it is an example of readers finding what they want, despite publishers’ initial lack of interest in providing it. E-books are here to stay. In some important ways, they make the business of publishing far more economic: no costs for paper, printing, warehousing, or shipping. But the new e-universe has delivered new challenges.
Between e-books and online sales, Amazon now dominates bookselling in this country. Its increasing economic clout is demolishing independent bookstores and threatens to obliterate the publishing model we’ve known for close to two centuries, replacing it with a do-it-yourself system, in which each author is obliged to play editor, marketer, and entrepreneur. Seeing the future, our largest publishers have begun to take steps to level the playing field by consolidating imprints and forming ever-larger corporate entities. Such concentration will not end well for authors.
New technology often brings conflict over copyright issues, but there is more money at stake than ever before. Google and others have made free use of copyrighted works under the increasingly expansive rubric of fair use—a use in which the corporate entity makes a profit while authors make nothing. These commercial interests have found some allies among copyright professors, under the banner of making works more broadly accessible. It goes without saying that every author should have the right to make her or his work available on an open or free basis. It is less obvious why anyone should think they have the right to override the copyright of other authors who choose not to.
Finally there is what I regard as the greatest threat of all—piracy. In a society where access to the Internet is approaching the universal, piracy of copyrighted works is rampant and will soon approach the Russian situation, unless strong action is taken to prevent it. The safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act have broken the long tradition of the common law that says that someone who aids and abets wrongdoing shares responsibility for it. Today you can, as I did this morning, google “Scott Turow novel pirated copy” and get a result from Pirate Bay offering a full collection of my novels. The notion that a publicly traded company feels no compunction about aiding simple theft, and hauls in advertising revenue as it does so, is beyond galling; it represents a complete collapse of an ethical business culture.
There will always be books, authors, and readers. There will always be libraries. But whether we continue to fulfill the Constitution’s mandate to promote progress by allowing the literary arts to flourish is far less clear.