Authors Guild board member T.J. Stiles sent a note to the San Francisco Writers Grotto yesterday about the Authors Alliance, which launches next week. We thought you should see it.

May 15 note from T.J. Stiles to the San Francisco Writers Grotto:

I would like to pass along a warning about a new group that is trying hard to attract members, calling itself the Authors Alliance. In a recent interview in Publishers Weekly, founder and executive director Pamela Samuelson presented the Authors Alliance essentially as a counterweight to the Authors Guild. As an Authors Guild board member you may consider me biased. I have read the Authors Alliance materials, am familiar with the work of its directors, and met with one of them and developed a pretty good picture of what it’s all about.

If any of you earn a living as a writer, or hope to, I strongly urge you not to join the Authors Alliance. If you think authors should be the ones to decide what is done with their books, then I strongly urge you not to join.

However, if you are an academic, or scorn the idea of making a living from writing as a quest for “fame and fortune,” the Authors Alliance may be the organization for you. If you think, in our digital age, that the biggest problem facing authors is how hard it is to give your work away for free, it’s for you. If you think you’ve got too much power over people who copy and distribute your work without your permission, by all means sign up. Even if you agree with one or two things advocated by the Authors Alliance, if you join you lend weight to its entire agenda.

To be clear, I firmly believe that authors should have the choice to give their work away. That’s the Authors Guild position, too. But no one should make that decision for you. I’m pro-choice.

A few key points:

It’s an astroturf organization. It was not organized by authors, nor is it governed by them. The four directors are Berkeley academics. The executive director and her right-hand-woman are law professors who have made many proposals to reduce copyright protections for authors and restrict remedies for infringement. (I take that wording from the writings of Prof. Samuelson.)

As Samuelson stated in Publishers Weekly, the organization is intended to represent the interests of authors who don’t write for a living—academics and hobbyists. See my comments below on the financial interests they represent, and how they are at odds with those of authors who write for a living.

It may be too early to identify official Authors Alliance positions, but its directors and advisory board members have pushed such ideas as

• allowing people to resell digital files the way they can resell used physical books. Of course, with current technology the original copy would still exist, so that the “resale” would be copying. In other words, anyone could become a publisher of your book, selling or giving it away as much as they want by claiming to simply be reselling. You would have to prove they were doing it more than once—have fun with that! (For you legal wonks, this is called the application of “first-sale doctrine” to digital media.)

• allowing libraries to digitally copy your books, even if you have an e-book edition for sale. No security measures would be required. You would have to hire a lawyer to sue a library if you could prove that the library had allowed its self-published digital version of your book to be stolen and released onto the Internet. As has already happened with the theft of scholarly journals. Even if you did sue, by the way, you couldn’t collect damages from public libraries or state universities, which enjoy sovereign immunity.

• allowing private for-profit corporations to copy your books in their entirety and selling advertising against searches of them, and otherwise making money from your work. They wouldn’t have to ask your permission or share any revenue with you. Samuelson said, on behalf of the Authors Alliance, that Google had the right to do so, which would mean any business corporation could monetize your work, if they know how to game it just right.

• allowing potentially unlimited copying for educational uses. For many of us, library and educational markets are huge parts of our income. Many books are created specifically for educational use. Expanding free copying raises potentially huge problems—including the possibility that anyone claiming to be an educator could copy your work wholesale and not pay.

• requiring proper attribution of others’ works. This reasonable-sounding proposal sounds all kinds of alarms. Who will judge our books? What will be the penalties?

I have no doubt that their theories are sincerely held. But they happen to align perfectly with their own financial and professional interests. As academics, they don’t care about the commercial market for books or writing. I would argue they’re actively hostile to it.

Not including the executive director, the lowest paid member of the four directors earned $196,000 in 2012; the highest paid earned $262,200. That doesn’t include benefits. Prof. Samuelson is independently wealthy. I’m happy for their success, and wish all professors were paid this well. But my point is that these academics are insulated from the commercial book market, except to engage in it as consumers. They don’t earn much from royalties, but in most cases their advancement is largely based on publishing low-print-run academic works. Their interests lie in getting your books at low cost to supply their own academic work, and in advancing their own careers and incomes by making their own work available for free. Salary information is available here: https://ucannualwage.

When it comes to issues that actually matter to authors, the Authors Guild already advocates and provides actual services. The Authors Alliance does not. The Authors Guild provides free contract review and much more. The Authors Alliance will provide one-size-fits-all “education” about how to get your rights back. Period.

Again, you may believe that authors are too powerful, and have too much control over what happens to their work. But please be warned that if you sign up, you are lending support to a very long agenda. The Authors Guild is actually run by authors, elected by the membership, with an annual meeting open to all. That ain’t true of the Authors Alliance.

The Authors Alliance will stress some issues that are of authentic interest to authors, such as making it easier to get your rights back when you’ve signed them away to a publisher. If that was all there was, fair enough. But it exists to make it appear that there is a grassroots authors’ organization in favor of loosening copyright protections and limiting remedies for copyright infringement. (Do we have any remedies, by the way? Take-down letters are about as powerful as wishing wells.) And it doesn’t offer any actual services.

The intellectual-property shop at Berkeley’s law school has a very aggressive and expansive agenda that was crafted without working authors in mind. They want you to join so they can say you are one of a large group that supports that entire agenda. Let the joiner beware.

T.J. Stiles
Authors Guild board member
Author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, and former Guggenheim fellow