By Douglas Preston
Reprinted from the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.Doug Preston was the keynote speaker at the inaugural New Mexico Writers Dinner at La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe on March 2nd. We reprint his remarks here with his permission and our thanks.
I have no doubt that almost all of you in this room struggle with a central question in your lives: Why is it so goddamned hard to make a living as a writer today?
A recent study by the Authors Guild showed that from 2009 to 2015, the average income of a full-time author decreased 30 percent, from $25,000 a year to $17,500 a year. For part-time authors, the average income decreased 38 percent, from $7,250 a year to $4,500. Full-time authors with more than 25 years of experience saw the greatest drop — a 67 percent decrease from $28,750 to $9,500.
The collapse of authors’ incomes is not a problem. It’s not even a crisis. It’s a catastrophe. And not just for us, but for our nation as a whole. Writing is the lifeblood of American culture, of democracy, and of freedom. It is under assault as never before in the history of the Republic.
As a nation, we’ve always been on high alert against censorship. When a book is banned from a school library, when a journalist is arrested covering a protest or sued for libel, we pay attention. These events make the newspapers.
But what about the even more serious problem — when an important book isn’t even written? Not written because the author couldn’t get a decent advance or was rejected — not because the idea was bad, but because the publisher was unable to take the financial risk.
Self-publishing is a fine thing, but it doesn’t work for most nonfiction writers and journalists, who need advances in order to do reporting and research. It also doesn’t work for many serious novelists, who need time, space, and quietude to write, which, if you’re struggling to earn a living waiting on tables, are often impossible to achieve.
When a writer can’t make a living and switches to working in another field, an entire lifetime of books is never written. They are, in a way, censored. Not by active censorship, but by the far more insidious thing I call the censorship of the marketplace.
I know that most of you in this room are smart enough that you could be making a lot more money doing something other than writing. The temptation is always there.
I say this: The grim economic reality of the writing marketplace and the inability of many writers to make a decent wage are a far greater threat to freedom of expression than active censorship by political and religious groups. And the censorship of the marketplace is only getting worse.
But this kind of censorship is invisible. How do you measure the value of something that might have existed but doesn’t? Will we ever see a headline in The New York Times like this?
Groundbreaking book by James McGrath Morris cannot be read because it wasn’t written.
Which brings us to the main question: Why are writers’ incomes dropping so precipitously?
I’ve been mulling this over for a while now. It seems like a complex economic problem on the surface, but it actually arises from a simple, appealing, and widespread idea. That is the concept you’ve all heard of: “information wants to be free.” This is not just an idea, but a movement. One of the founders of the movement, Richard Stallman, in 1990 explained what this phrase means: “I believe that all generally useful information should be free . . . the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one’s own uses. . . . When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.”
Information, that is, creative content (like the books we write) should be available to everyone either for free or at the lowest possible price, and should be freely copied and distributed to everyone. This view implies that there is something unseemly, and even unethical, for writers, artists, composers, musicians, moviemakers, and other creative people to want to make good money from their work. As a corollary, the movement encouraged piracy as a socially enlightened response to the greed of copyright owners, who were trying to make money from their intellectual property.
This brave new philosophy, which grew out of the scruffy hacktivist-cyberpunk-hipster coding community, has now fully entered our mainstream culture. And it has been marvelously and brilliantly exploited by gigantic digital corporations such as Amazon, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, and so forth. These companies are all in the business of providing creative content to their customers at no charge and making billions on the associated advertising.
The problem is perfectly illustrated by a story about a giant corporation whose motto is Don’t Be Evil.
In 2004, Google announced a wonderful new program: it was going to create a searchable database of every book in existence. It enlisted several great libraries, including Harvard’s, to provide it with books to scan. But there was a glitch. Four million of those books were still under copyright.
Let me just pause to dwell on that word. Copy-right. Right to copy. It was a right so important to our Founding Fathers, so central to their vision of the country they wished to build, that they enshrined it in Article 1 of the Constitution.
Google went ahead anyway, copying those four million books without getting permission from the copyright owners — that is, you and me. Google created a database, Google Books, that would generate billions of dollars from books we had written. Without paying us a thin dime.
How did Google justify this? The corporation argued that its copying was “fair use” because searches only turned up snippets of text. Even though it had copied the entire book, ignoring the very meaning of the word “copyright,” it wasn’t going to display all of it.
And Google further argued that what it was doing was so important to education and American culture that it constituted a so-called “transformative use” — that is, it had transformed our four million books into something else entirely, something so new and wonderful that Google should own it outright and we should cede all economic interest in the words that we ourselves had written.
The Authors Guild sued, arguing that, yes, this Google Books database was a fine idea, but that authors should get a piece of the action. It was only fair that we should share in the billions Google was going to make.
The Guild suggested that Google should set up something like ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] or BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc.], which collect money from radio stations to pay musicians whose music they broadcast. Google said it couldn’t do that because it would be too hard to keep track of all those authors and their books. This giant corporation was defended by many activists in the “information wants to be free” lobby, who deliberately mischaracterized the Guild’s objections by claiming the Guild’s members were a bunch of Luddites opposed to the creation of the Google Books database. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Guild was always in favor of Google Books, because its primary users would, in fact, be authors! All the Guild wanted was for authors to receive a share of the income.
To make a long story short, ten years and a million dollars later, the Authors Guild lost the case. Judge Denny Chin, then of the district court, ruled for Google. In his ruling, which was later upheld by the court of appeals, Chin wrote that he was persuaded by Google’s argument that its use of our copyrighted books was “transformative.”
What Chin wrote in his opinion is extremely revealing. “Words in books are being used in a way they have not been used before.” Let’s pause a moment to consider that phrase, words in books. These are, of course, our words, the words we so lovingly struggled and wrestled with. But Chin’s phrasing seems to remove the writer entirely from these disembodied “words in books,” as if these words were some sort of natural resource to be exploited, like a seam of coal or timber in a forest. Judge Chin added, “Even assuming Google’s principal motivation is profit, the fact is that Google Books serves several important educational purposes” — so important, and so transformative, that Google shouldn’t have to pay authors anything at all for the use of their work.
Here is proof that the “information wants to be free” philosophy has percolated so deeply into our culture that it has infected even our judiciary.
If the courts had found against Google, we authors — all of us — would now be receiving a yearly income from the Google Books database, just like composers and musicians do from ASCAP and BMI. Our economic situation might not be so dire. This “information wants to be free” philosophy is like Communism — appealing in the abstract, destructive in practice.
At the consumer level, the idea finds embodiment most clearly in the business practices of Amazon. Amazon has been a leader in the relentless deflation of the value of books.
A quick history: When Amazon launched itself as a bookseller, it wasn’t to sell books; its plan was to acquire customers in target demographics to sell them other stuff. So it sold — and continues to sell — books at a loss. Year in and year out. A customer acquisition strategy.
Bookstores couldn’t compete, because none of them could sell books at a loss forever. Almost half the independent bookstores in America went out of business.
And then Amazon introduced the e-book. It didn’t invent it, but it created an excellent and consumer-friendly platform with the Kindle. Publishers were all for it — until Amazon surprised and horrified them with the announcement that the price of new e-books henceforth would be $9.99.
That e-book price would compete with and devastate the hardcover market. It simply wasn’t possible for a publisher to make a profit on a $9.99 e-book. All this eventually climaxed in the Amazon-Hachette dispute of several years ago, in which Amazon demanded two things: (1) a much bigger cut from the sale of each book, and (2) for publishers to sell e-books at lower prices.
To pressure Hachette, Amazon slowed or stopped the sale of eight thousand titles by three thousand Hachette authors for seven months. I formed Authors United to push back, and we achieved a partial victory. But the long-term problem of price deflation in books hasn’t gone away and, in fact, has been getting worse.
Think how this devaluation has affected our own consumer mind-set. Not so long ago, when I went to a bookstore, I was satisfied to get a 10 percent discount off the retail price of a hardcover. Now, when I go into a bookstore and get only a 10 percent discount, I feel disgruntled. Cheated. I should have bought it on Amazon, damn it. Or at Walmart. Amazon and its ilk have trained me to think that a hardcover book is really worth only 15 bucks. And trained me to think that an e-book should cost less than a bad margarita at Chipotle. I’ve been turned into my own enemy!
Now, when the profit received by the publisher of a book is cut, and cut, and cut again, how does the publisher maintain its margins? It takes money out of the author’s income, of course!
Here is what publishers are, in fact, doing:
cutting advances across the board.
focusing more on bestselling authors and celebrity authors.
dropping many midlist authors.
rejecting many books they once would have published.
spending less on promoting midlist authors and putting their promotional dollars into sure-fire bestsellers.
publishing fewer risky books, books with minority voices, books that might be controversial, books that might not appeal to a wide audience.
no longer taking risks with experimental fiction.
no longer publishing many first novels, no matter how good they are.
no longer investing in authors’ careers; if your book doesn’t sell, you get dropped — no second chances.
All that is why it is so hard today to make a living as a writer.
This is not really the fault of publishers. It is absolutely the fault of the “information wants to be free” lobby, the giant digital corporations, the content aggregators, the Silicon Valley hacktivist pirates and their fellow travelers. It is the fault of Judge Denny Chin and the Department of Justice, which brought an antitrust suit against Apple and the Big Five publishers for colluding to stand up to Amazon’s price gouging. They all drank the Kool-Aid idea that information wants to be free, to hell with the people who actually create it.
Well, if information is free and authors can’t make a living writing books, they’ll make a living doing something else. This is the censorship of the marketplace in a nutshell.
Again, I have to emphasize that this crisis isn’t just terrible for writers, but terrible for America. Books not written mean ideas never expressed and voices never heard. This is a threat to the Republic.
It used to be that serious, educated, and reasonably talented people who wished to write could get published and, if they worked hard, make a living doing it. Not anymore. Here we have a room full of amazing talent, great ideas, wonderful stories, and beautiful poetry, written and yet to be written. And I bet that almost all of you are worried financially, and that many of you are forced to work in supporting jobs that cut into the time you would otherwise spend writing.
This is not right. We authors need to do something about this.
The problem is, writers are terrible at organizing. We’re loners. We live in our heads. We’re not joiners or rah-rah team players. We can’t stand meetings, and we don’t like group activities.
Which makes this dinner here in Santa Fe, where most of the working writers in the state of New Mexico have come together, all the more remarkable. I believe this event will be a watershed in New Mexico literary history. What a force we have right here in this room! We’re enormously powerful when we come together and speak as one voice. The writing life is threatened as never before, on so many levels — and please note, I haven’t even mentioned a certain name beginning with T.
We can no longer hole up in our writing lairs and hope things will get better.
So what should we do? Well, if you would kindly allow me a bit of shameless promotion here, I’d like to mention the Authors Guild. I’m on the board, and I just love this great organization. If you’re not a member of the Guild, you really should be. This is the oldest writing association in our country. The Guild has been fighting for over a hundred years, very effectively, to preserve writing as a livelihood, to protect copyright, and to defend authors against publishers, filmmakers, television producers, websites, and others who would rip them off.
The Guild lobbies in Washington and litigates for authors. Talk is cheap — everyone claims to support literary culture — but the Guild puts its money where its mouth is. The Guild sued Google and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court at a cost of a million dollars. Yes, it lost — but the battle had to be fought. And even in losing, the lawsuit strictly circumscribed what digital corporations could do under the copyright laws.
At nine thousand strong, including the country’s most influential writers and journalists, the Authors Guild has enormous power, but only if we authors join — and then pay attention, get involved, write letters, support the Guild’s efforts, and push back against the many forces eroding our livelihoods.
Thank you, all of you, and a very special thanks to the author James McGrath Morris for so brilliantly organizing this event.
Doug Preston is a journalist and the author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction, including the Wyman Ford series, and, in collaboration with Lincoln Child, the Agent Pendergast series. His nonfiction work includes Dinosaurs in the Attic: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History, and The Monster of Florence: A True Story. He is a member of the Authors Guild Council.